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New jobs bring hope in Mexico's poorest state

Chiapas Governor Salazar's biggest challenge is wooing skeptical indigenous farmers and guerrillas.

In place of black ski masks and army fatigues, the newest "revolutionaries" in Chiapas don suit and tie. In lieu of guns and machetes, they carry Palm Pilots, cellphones, and laptop computers.

The man leading the charge is neither gun-wielding indigenous guerrilla nor disaffected farmer. He is Gov. Pablo Salazar Mendiguchía, whose rainbow coalition of parties is giving many in this backward state new hope.

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In Chiapas, where more than half the population lives in grinding poverty, and where some rebel Indian communities refuse any contact with government authorities, Salazar admits that comprehensive change may be a long time coming. But after one year in office, and a broad plan to improve everything from healthcare and roads to government transparency and the economy, a handful of communities are already reaping benefits of Salazar's vision.

Francisco Estrada Santiago lives in Cintalapa, a poor community west of here, where most people used to grow corn for a living or scrounge day-labor jobs in plantations, earning $16 a month. But now, he and 300 others have jobs in the new Millennium Youth Factory, a model program aimed at capturing some of the benefits of free trade. They now make $200 a month sewing jeans for export to Wal-Mart.

"It's a miracle, this factory," Mr. Estrada raves, as he checks stitched denims on the quality-control line. "Before, I was lucky to find day jobs twice a week. Now, I am working here with two cousins, and it has completely changed our family lifestyle."

A recent survey found that per capita spending in Cintalapa had shot up more than 15 percent since the factory opened its doors earlier this year, boosting income for small restaurants and shops that dot the town's main street.

Other deals will create 7,000 factory jobs statewide, the largest one-year increase in more than a decade. "One of our most important strategies is to generate ways to employ people in these small communities," says Antonio D'Amiano Gregonis, economic development director.

Key to creating jobs is improving roads and infrastructure, says Salazar, enabling export goods to flow, and thus bringing in private investment. The state has procured millions of dollars in federal funding to build or improve key roadways, expand airports, and grow the Pacific coast shipping anchorage at Puerto Madero.

A temperate, humid climate that spans vast tracts of land is ideal for growing coffee, nuts, and fruits, though post-revolution land reform divided much of the land into family-owned plots too small to be profitable. So Salazar's development team wants to build joint factories in growing regions so that farms producing coffee, mangos, and cashews can process, package, and share the cost of shipping the goods. Food giants like Sarah Lee have signed up as buyers.

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Other pilot programs are putting computers in rural schools, teaching children in their native Indian tongues, and offering scholarships for the next generation of lawyers, environmentalists, and doctors.

It remains to be seen how many disaffected rural communities will opt to engage with the Salazar government. Many, like the Zapatistas, are fighting for autonomy. Earlier governments also promised them change, but few indigenous communities trust a government that has done little to alleviate poverty and inflicted often-violent persecution.

The antiglobalization Zapatistas, for example, sealed themselves off from the outside world after rejecting a peace process initiated by President Vicente Fox last year. They have typically spurned efforts at economic development, calling Mexico's export industry a symbol of modern slavery to rich nations. Salazar says he wants to find "a new way to relate to these communities."

But some Indians say they still haven't heard enough of a change in the political rhetoric.

"I think Salazar's heart is in the right place," says one Zapatista, who refused to give her name. "But we still have a sense that they are treating us like kids who can't decide for ourselves what kind of life we will have."

Even if the "autonomous" communities agree to work with Salazar, it also remains to be seen if private investors will risk working with them. "It is one thing to get plaudits on his peace line, and another thing to get the money," says Federico Estévez, an analyst at the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico. "Investors don't put money where their goodwill is."

If Salazar can pull off even a small measure of economic success, observers say, it will seem like a revolution has occurred in backward Chiapas.


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