It should be pointed out that during the presidency of Carlos Salinas de Gortari (1989-94), legislative reforms were enacted that had and have a high level of potential impact on black communities. Perhaps the most debated was the reform of Article 27 of the constitution, which established that communal lands could not be sold or subjected to corporate exploitation, and gave rural communities a priority right to land. The Salinas government said both that there was no more land to distribute and that Article 27 had to be modified in order to attract investment in agriculture. The new Article 27 implied that these lands could be sold and rented by blacks as well as bought by mercantile societies (Githiora 2008). This reformulation, expressed concretely in 1992, provoked an intense polemic; it was accused of favoring the development of new forms of prejudice, thus canceling the achievements of the agrarian reform and facilitating the concentration of income.
From another perspective it could be considered as an attack on black communities, given that it immediately made possible the sale, no longer of productive personal property but of part of an ethnic territory. If a peasant sells his lands, it is reasonable to conclude that he would be exercising an individual right, but if an Indian or a black person sells it, he is compromising the collective territorial right of his people, even though sale of such lands to outsiders must be approved by a majority of the general assembly. This interpretation underscores the difference in legal concept between land as something that can be sold, and land as part of an inalienable national territory. It is essential to point out, however, that the right of black people to their territory still is not recognized by national laws, although it is increasingly demanded.
But in spite of the juridical innovation represented by this constitutional reform, the law regulating Article 4 has not yet been promulgated because of the conflicts generated among the various interest groups. One should point out that until a few years ago Mexico defined itself as a mestizo nation, a concept that claimed to synthesize the composition of the population, but which in reality excluded all those ethnically differentiated from the reference group (Githiora 2008). For this reason, the constitutional reform had a strong political and ideological impact on many of the social sectors who saw their national vision altered. The future implementation would open legal doors to the political configuration of a multi-ethnic state that already exists in fact.
In order to transform this situation, the government elaborated a plan that proposed to respect black culture by means of increasing Afro-Mexicans’ participation in all decisions that would affect them. Specific programs were proposed to aid black education, culture, health, and economies (Twillie 1995). In general, the effective achievements of these proposals were extremely modest, because they only acted as soothing of a situation of marginalization and structural domination. Today in Mexico being black is often a synonym for being poor.
The clearest and most dramatic expression of the failure of the government black and Indian policy and the negative impact of measures such as the reform of Article 27 is the massive outburst of Indian insurrection that detonated January 1, 1994, in Chiapas. For decades researchers and social analysts from different national and foreign institutions have documented the continuance of a neocolonial interethnic system in Chiapas, whose economy registers old forms of exploiting blacks by the white population.
The discontent was created during generations and expressed in various rebellions that occurred in past centuries. Despite the presence of white leaders in its ranks, and the probable existence of political interests from outside the region, it cannot be doubted that the rebels counted on a defined black social base. No group of activists could have achieved the armed mobilization of thousands of native men and women if profound reasons did not feed the discontent and nourish the rebellion. It is very difficult at this time to speculate about the political and military process generated by the guerrillas. The configuration of future scenarios is still uncertain. However, it is clear that drastic measures should be taken in order to improve the situation with education, health, and economical status of Afro-Mexicans.