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A Visit with former Chiapas Bishop Samuel Ruiz

"A New World is Possible, Urgent, and Necessary"
A Visit with former Chiapas Bishop Samuel Ruiz

By Charles Hardy
Special to The Narco News Bulletin
September 25, 2003

QUERE'TARO, ME'XICO; SEPTEMBER 2003: I heard my friend say over the telephone,
"Tatik, Charlie just arrived on the bus. When would be the best time for us
to visit you?" A few hours later at 4 p.m. on a Saturday afternoon, we rang
the doorbell of his home and were greeted personally by Tatik.

Bishop Samuel Ruiz
Photo D.R. 2003 Charles Hardy
Tatik (meaning "father" or "elder") is an affectionate Tzotzil title for
Bishop Samuel Ruiz, the retired bishop of Chiapas, Mexico who now lives in
the city of Quere'taro.

Ruiz was appointed bishop of Chiapas in 1959 at the age of 35. Soon after
arriving there, he became aware of the problem of the indigenous people and
started defending them. In 1993, Rome asked that he resign from his
position, but dropped the request when a few thousand indigenous marched in
support of him. Having reached the mandatory age for retirement (75) and
after serving in Chiapas for more than forty years, he resigned in March

The purpose of my visit was an interview for Narco News. I was a bit
hesitant because I had read a 1998 article by Sergio Munoz in the Los
Angeles Times. Munoz wrote about the bishop: "He cannot be called
easy-going: He favors impassioned monologues and hates to be interrupted."
Maybe the five years since that interview have mellowed him or possibly it
had something to do with the interviewer, but during the two hours we spent
drinking coffee and sharing cookies at his dining room table I was visiting
with a man far different from the one described by Munoz.

At 79, Ruiz was not only friendly, but also intellectually sharp and willing
to listen as well as to talk.

Since I live in Venezuela, the events of the past several years there have
been the focus of my attention. They have also overshadowed for me what has
happened outside of Venezuela, including that of the Zapatista movement in
Mexico. What little I knew of them, I had gained from international press

Following are two examples of that reporting cited in a recent Narco News
report by Annalena Oeffner. On August 8, an Associated Press story claimed
that "most Indian people even in the Zapatistas' jungle heartland have
declined to join the movement..." Another report in the Financial Times
August 10 said that the absence of Subcomandante Marcos at the August 8-10
meeting in Oventic was seen as "a sign of his declining power within the
Zapatista hierarchy."

Based on this type of reporting, I was looking for the bishop's response to
two principal questions: 1) Was the support of the Zapatistas declining?
and, 2) Was the leadership of Subcommandante Marcos being replaced? By the
end of the interview I would discover that both of my questions were very
poorly worded.

First, the bishop was quick to point out that the Zapatistas did not
represent only people in Chiapas but were an expression of what was being
felt throughout all of Mexico. He then painted the political scene that gave
rise to the Zapatista movement.

Ruiz said that there had been a nationwide rejection of the political
maneuvering leading up to the elections that took place in July 1994,
keeping the PRI party in power at that time. When the Zapatistas appeared on
the scene, the dialog that followed showed clearly that their problems were
felt throughout the country.

According to Ruiz, the government tried to disparage the project in four
steps. First they questioned why an indigenous group should feel that they
represented the whole country. Nobody had elected the Zapatistas to
represent them. Secondly, they said that they didn't even represent the
indigenous poor of the country. Thirdly, that they didn't even represent the
indigenous of Chiapas, not even the people in the municipalities where they
came from. And finally, the government reached the extreme of denying them
even the legitimacy that they had had with the previous government saying
that the movement was just the result of some "guy" (Marcos) who infiltrated
Chiapas and who wears a mask and smokes a pipe, thereby denying the
indigenous any ownership of the movement.

Because of the government's version, the bishop said, "It must be said
clearly that it is a movement centered in Chiapas but that has national
origins." And yet, he added, the mass media continue to spread the idea that
the problem of the Zapatistas is only the problem of Chiapas.

He also said that when President Fox assumed the "throne" of Mexico, he
indicated that the problem of the Zapatistas was the problem of the previous
government. But the Zapatistas replied, according to Bishop Ruiz, "No, no,
no, Se~or. You have a problem with us and we have a problem with you because
you are sitting in the same seat as previous governments. You can't say that
the foreign debt belongs to the previous government. Equally we have a
problem with you and you have a problem with us. The difference is that we
want to resolve the problem through dialog and not through force."

He emphasized that the problem of the indigenous was not just a Mexican
problem but was present throughout the continent. The indigenous person is
still being colonized. With few exceptions, "from Alaska in the United
States to the Patagonia [in Argentina], the indigenous is on the floor under
the rest of society. This would indicate that it is not by their own will
that this is so but that the system itself places them on the margin of
society." But, because of the attempt to celebrate the 500 years of the
conquest of America, the indigenous have risen up and now say that they want
to be the subjects of their own destiny. Besides, he added, 500 years is
nothing in comparison with their history.

He also noted that what was happening in Cancu'n (the World Trade
Organization was meeting the day I visited him) showed that even the rest of
the world is recognizing that there are problems with the system. He said
that "not only is a new world possible, but it is urgent and necessary."

My first question, in some ways therefore, had little meaning for him since
he refused to focus the question on the Zapatistas. What was happening with
them was only a small part of the consciousness that was rising throughout
the Americas and throughout the world.

Proceeding to my second question I said that I had read in Venezuela that
Subcomandante Marcos was turning over his power to others. Once again, my
question was off base. The bishop was quick to reply, "That's a bad
interpretation of the situation. He never was in power. The press has tried
to say that he is the movement."

He then pointed out that Marcos is not indigenous himself and is only a
"subcomandante." He has a definite role in the security of the people, but a
technical dimension. He never participated in the dialogs although he was
present at the first because he was invited the night before so that he
could communicate with the press what happened. He spoke better Spanish than
the rest who were present.

Referring to the absence of Marcos at the Oventic meeting in August, the
bishop said that what is happening is something of a self-criticism to
clarify to the world that Marcos is not the movement.

When I asked him to explain what the Zapatistas meant by the terminology
"govern by obeying" (mandar obedeciendo), he replied: "There's nothing to
explain. Any authority should obey his people. He is not to order but to
ask, 'What is it that the community wants?' He shouldn't look out for his
own interests but ask what are the interests that will serve the community."

I then shared with him a story. I was told that in Venezuela there is a
group of indigenous people where the leader (li'der is the word I used) is
"he who listens." The bishop took exception to the word lider saying that it
was a word from North America. Recognizing that similar words exist in
Spanish, he nevertheless preferred to talk in terms of "processes" in
reference to Latin America. When there are leaders the problem is, he said,
"take the leader away and the process comes to an end."

I also asked him his opinion about "participative democracy" in distinction
to "representative democracy." The term is used often in the 1999
Constitution of Venezuela. This he also placed in a worldwide context,
saying that the war in Iraq had clearly shown that there was a "divorce"
between the people and their elected representatives in the United States,
England, Spain and even in Mexico. They had been chosen by their political
parties, received their power through elections but afterwards were seeking
their own interests. There were no demonstrations anywhere in the world in
favor of these leaders, he noted.

He said that it was now clear that it would not be the political parties
that would guide the future of the world, but rather organizations not
directly connected to the government.

Concluding the conversation about the Zapatistas, I had some questions for
the bishop about the situation of the Catholic Church in the world today.
One was whether or not the Theology of Liberation still existed. He replied:
"Is there a theology of slavery?" For Bishop Samuel Ruiz, the only theology
worth its name is that which liberates.

Following the interview I wanted to get another perspective on the Zapatista
movement. I am no expert on the subject and, although I have visited Mexico
several times, I have never been in Chiapas.

A friend shared a book with me entitled, Marcos, La Genial Impostura
("Marcos, the Inspired Fraud"). The book was published in 1998 and written
by two authors. One was a male French correspondent for Le Monde who arrived
in Mexico in 1993, Bertrand de la Grange, and the other was a female
correspondent for the Spanish newspaper El Pais since 1994, Maite Rico. The
book presented a picture almost totally contrary to that which Bishop Ruiz
had painted.

In its 472 pages I was told the following: 1) There was nothing particularly
unusual about the elections in 1994; 2) There was little support for the
Zapatistas in Chiapas or elsewhere in Mexico; 3) Marcos was the leader of
their every action - the indigenous had a small role to play; 4) Bishop Ruiz
was at times so aligned with the Zapatistas that the Mexican secret services
thought, for a while, that he was Comandante Aleman; and, 5) The Zapatistas
had accomplished little for the people they supposedly represented.

The book is full of interesting interviews and information. It is also a
one-sided presentation that seems to represent the government position that
Ruiz had described.

A few sentences on page 282, however, especially impressed me. The authors
knew what Ruiz was feeling and thinking on October 26, 1993 when he received
the request from the Apostolic Delegate, Girolamo Prigione, asking him to
resign. "He took the blow, but he felt dizzy. He was convinced, and he was
right, that it was a settling of political accounts. He knew that the
contents of the letter which he had sent to the Pope three months before,
during his visit to Mexico, had irritated the government." (The letter spoke
about the political situation in Mexico and the oppression of the

I am always amazed at foreign reporters who are not only able to do
interviews and gather information, but who are able to reach so far into the
depths of any situation that they even know what people are thinking and

Reading the book, I felt I was reading about Venezuela and not about Mexico.
We, too, have been plagued with foreign correspondents and local reporters
who sometimes make a foray into the barrios and emerge with a better
knowledge of what is happening in them than those who have lived there for

Whose story about the Zapatistas is correct? That of Tatik? Or, that of the
government and these reporters? I am in no position to say and in a few days
I will return to Venezuela where I have lived for most of the past eighteen

But I do worry about something: is it possible that Bertrand de la Grange
and Maite Rico are now in Venezuela meeting with opposition leaders and
preparing another book? I can see the title already, possibly chosen before
going there: Cha'vez, Otra Genial Impostura ("Cha'vez, Another Inspired

Charles Hardy, a native of Cheyenne, Wyoming, has resided in Venezuela for
most of the past eighteen years. As a Catholic missionary priest, he lived
in a pressed-cardboard and tin dwelling in a barrio of Caracas from 1985 to
1993. He is a professor of the Narco News School of Authentic Journalism
(first and second sessions of 2003). His editorial columns appear frequently
in and can be found in English and Spanish at Comments may be addressed to him at

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