A Chiapas Decade: Zapatista Perspectives

A Chiapas Decade: Zapatista Perspectives

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The beginning of the New Year for 2004 marked the tenth anniversary of the Zapatista armed revolution in Chiapas Mexico. It was in the dark, cold, early hours of 1994 that the Mayan peasant soldiers captured several towns in revolt of the oppression they had endured since Cortez wandered into Southern Mexico. Their complaints were that they were given no autonomy to preserve their culture; no political or judicial rights to fight confiscation of their land and freedom; and no fair division of government services to educate and provide medical services. They argued that their ability to provide food and shelter for their families by farming, as they had for centuries, was taken from them by domestic patronage and later international agreements. They argued that the schools, infrequently open, were more interested in convincing their children to abandon their culture than teaching them.

Their complaints continue to have outside verification. It appears incontrovertible that eighty percent of the Mayans in Chiapas are malnourished and their average life span is well under 50 years. The World Bank recently reported on the education for the children of Chiapas as being unacceptable. Children do die of preventable diseases and there are few medical facilities. Land has been confiscated without legal recourse from the farmers as political favors to corporate ranchers, and oil explorers. Ironically, this condition exists in one of the richest states of natural resources in the Western Hemisphere.

Although the beginning of the Zapatista movement came to public light in the bloody days of January 1994, the beginning actually occurred ten years before. The best-kept secret in Mexico was the decade of development before the first shot was fired. During this time the Mayans decided to name themselves “Zapatistas” after Emiliano Zapata, the people’s revolutionary of the early 1900’s, known for his declaration: “It is better to die on your feet than live on your knees.” Women’s rights benefited from the revolution within the revolution. In the past women could be cheaply purchased for marriage. They had little say about their lives. At the time of the fighting the women’s lot dramatically changed, evidenced by fully half of the Central Counsel, (the governing body for the several Mayan tribes), were women.

The fighting in 1994 began less than two hours after NAFTA went into effect. The Zapatistas believed, later to be proved correct, that NAFTA would provide the death nail to the centuries of economy and culture of the original inhabitants who survived by toiling the land. Their mainstay was corn. Soon genetically altered corn, subsidized by the United States and other countries, and marketed by global corporations, flooded the Mexican ecconomy. Their price and supporting infrastructure cut the Mayan farmers out of their limited marketplace.

Several towns were captured at the beginning of the struggle. The largest and most important was San Cristobal de las Casas, a 16th century colonial town nestled in the starkly beautiful trans-volcanic region of the Sierra Madre Mountains. The poorly armed peasant soldiers pulled a modern day Trojan Horse coup. Over three hundred and fifty Zapatistas joined the Mexican Army six months before the attack. Some Zapatistas also joined the security police in San Cristobal. These rebels volunteered to stay on duty during the holidays so the commanding officer of the military had helicopters, automatic weapons and the like, but fewer troops than he thought to lead into battle. Later it became obvious that some of the rebels were trained and armed by the very army that was charged with the responsibility to put them down.

The Mexican Army soon regrouped and took back San Cristobal but not before the Zapatistas FAX’ed out press releases to journalists around the world. As if by magic reporters descended upon the colonial municipality. Marcos, a spokesman for the rebels, rewarded the reporters with intellectual, fiery—even poetic—speeches. Marcos, a past professor from Mexico City, was one of the few leaders of the movement not Mayan. He moved to Chiapas a decade before, dedicated to reversing the plight of the Indigenous People. He made a striking figure with his ski mask, military cap with stars, bandoleers, and an automatic weapon stuck in his belt. Often a pipe stuck through the mask and haloed smoke around his head in mystic fashion. Stories of the Mayans swept the world. The Mexican government, especially because of the balancing act of NAFTA in the United States, was faced with more of a diplomatic and public relations problem than a military one. Eventually a cease-fire was affected and the government, extending certain autonomy and civil rights to the Indigenous people, signed the San Andres Accord. The PRI, ruling party of Mexico for over seventy years, never honored the letter or spirit of the agreement. A tense truce, punctuated by violence against the Zapatistas by paramilitary groups, has existed since.

To this day the Mexican government must deal with the prospect of the Indigenous People in the mountains and Lancandon rain forest creating an in-country Viet Nam and new meaning to Janice Joplin’s words: “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.”

When in 2000 President Fox broke the political strangle hold of the PRI and made overtures of peace, the Zapatistas clung to a hope that their demands for constitutional rights would be honored. Based upon President Fox’s declarations the commandantes caravanned to Mexico City. The multi-week cavalcade stirred the hearts and minds of the people of Mexico. The banners and speeches were inclusive of all people who were repressed and not limited to Indigenous People. Marcos gave a stirring speech when the comandantes arrived at the Plaza in Mexico City. The huge historic area was filled with people of all walks of life.

Fox scheduled a joint meeting of Congress to hear from a Zapatista representative. Notably, Marcos was not that representative, but instead a Mayan woman. Sadly, it was also notable that very few of the legislators showed up—including members of Fox’s own party. The result was the passage of a watered down constitutional amendment, which did not reflect the agreement of the San Andres Accord. Attempts by the Mayan people to effect change within the system after that were violently blocked, resulting in a retrenchment into autonomous, self-governing enclaves throughout southern Mexico.

Beginning December 28th of last year, I spent a week at the Zapatista highland compound known as Caracol Dos, with the “Schools for Chiapas Delegation for Peace”, celebrating the end of the year festival as well as the tenth anniversary of their armed revolution. I flew to Mexico City, then Tuxtla Gutierrez, and finally overland to the picturesque hamlet of San Cristobal. My Spanish is less than adequate, but after the kind and longsuffering help of my driver and passersby, I was able to find a hostel used by the Zapatistas. Next door was a Zapatista office adorned with the movement’s name and an impressive red star I was greeted with kindness and found help for my poor Spanish. I took my backpack upstairs to a small room with a cot. The walls were bare and a single naked light bulb hung from the ceiling. The door opened with a device attached to a string. There was no lock. I naively thought this was the roughing it part of my travels. The next day the rest of the delegation, forty-seven in all, arrived. I spent the interim time until their arrival wandering around the square of one of the most delightful of towns.

The rest of the delegation was a story in and of itself. They were almost all in their twenties. Many were still students in undergrad or grad school. They were a good-looking, intelligent, chirpy lot. Those who had full time jobs were with non-profits, community development etc. They were spending their time going from one volunteer humanitarian project to another. They were from the United States, Canada, Australia, Europe, South and Central America. Two young delightful women were filming a documentary as a project for their college in Sweden. One young man from Central America was filming his second documentary of the Zapatistas independently. He did not want to receive any money for his project, just tell a story worth telling. One delegate just arrived from volunteering at an agricultural project in Guatemala. All were from somewhere or going somewhere that was impressive to me because it was like a throwback to the 1960’s. Everyone was trying to do something good for whatever worthwhile cause they could find. I’m afraid I am now through with my generation x jokes. They accepted this fifty-seven year old man into their group and it was fun.

The night before we left for Caracol Dos, we ate a simple meal in the courtyard of the hostel and listened to Amado Avendano. He is an attorney, journalist, as he put it, politician by accident. His newspaper carried many of the articles and letters by the Mayan people for several years. Over time he earned their trust. When the armed conflict began, he went out as a journalist to see what was going on. He met Marcos, who told him of their plan. He couldn’t believe that the Zapatistas intended to attack the heavily fortified military installation and did not go to with them. He could see the helicopters strafing the insurgents and flashes of explosions. It wasn’t until later that he learned of the “Trojan Horse” strategy that earned the rebel victory. His telling of this was the first time I had known of the tactic.

According to Avendano, he endured an assassination attempt by a car accident while he was on his way to Tuxtla for a campaign event in which the indigenous people had hoped to acquire a governor who would set up an interim government to oversee free local elections. The election victory was fraudulently given to a PRI candidate by the state government that must approve the results. Avendano said he was asked to be the governor for the Indigenous People in an autonomous region, which he has done, but the structure has slowly eroded away, leaving him venerable to governmental retaliation.

The trip to Caracol Dos took us through beautiful mountainous areas via a winding road. We rode on two buses that serviced the remote areas. A high fence surrounded the encampment, which bordered the road. I saw no armed guards. The rules of the compound forbade drugs, alcohol, and weapons. This rule provided my first New Years Eve with fifteen hundred sober people dancing to dawn. I was struck by the bold murals on the buildings. It seems to me that bold, colorful, emotional art is many times born from the emotion of people experiencing injustice.

Our delegation found two rooms in which to lay our sleeping bags. As I lay on the concrete floor in my room with over twenty roommates I, for the first time, appreciated the relative luxury of the hostel in San Cristobal. The community was not a village but a facility for the people of the mountains to use. We passed a general store, offices and stores for the collectives, clinic, kitchen and other facilities. At the end of the road stood the school and a huge outdoor basketball court. In our meeting with Zapatista leaders, those who ran the school and clinic, we discovered that no one took pay for these heroic efforts, but instead had second jobs or weaved art to sell so that they could survive. I bought a piece from each of the teachers, (they preferred to be called “Promoters” because they didn’t yet feel they had the credentials to be called teachers. The same is true with those who ran the clinic, which was open for free twenty-four/seven).

I later had an opportunity to tour the clinic. Several micro-clinics now are also operating in Chiapas. Medical services are in dire supply for these people. The clinic is free and the only facility in the area. Patients are treated with traditional Mayan and modern medicines. The ones that run the clinic have no special certifications and possessed only knowledge they had learned informally. The clinic itself has an Ob/gyn exam room, emergency room, optical department and a small general floor of beds.

I had read that the Mexican government built basketball courts throughout Chiapas in an effort to enhance the lives of the people. I wondered then how that would help people in need of the most basic services and who were, by basketball standards, short. The first day of my arrival I watched some young girls playing on the full regulation size court. They stood a mere fraction of the height of the goal and were wearing school uniform dresses. To my amazement they made many more baskets than I would have and ran tirelessly back and forth on the court. Later I watched some of the young men play most excellent basketball and they just didn’t get tired. During the festival our delegation was invited to play in a tournament. Several of our members were good athletes and quite tall, (I opted not to be on the team), but fortunately we were meeting with the promoters at the school and avoided what I feel would have been a major whipping. The performance of these young people was not a reflection of the wisdom of the government, whose president was a basketball fan, but instead the resilience of the Mayan people.

Caracol Dos is located in what has been labeled as a “low intensity war zone.” The vast majority of the Mexican army is stationed in southern Mexico. The people I talked to told me of the intimidation of low flying helicopters and troops roaring past in personnel carriers. Paramilitary groups have attacked Zapatista groups. I was told that the presence of our delegation would provide some protection from attack. I greeted this information with mixed emotions.

The first night we were at the compound a hastily called meeting gave us our first chance to meet a Zapatista welcoming committee. Three men in ski masks greeted us in a small building with dirt floors. They talked in general terms of their movement. They said their cause was for freedom and dignity. They talked of autonomy. It was in this meeting that I first garnered information about their efforts to run a school and clinic. The men explained that women had the same rights and duties as men. They opened the floor to questions and our little group let the queries fly. “Are you terrorists?” “No. We have a just cause which makes us different than terrorists.” I wanted to help him with his answer. Terrorists also think they have a just cause. It’s just that they incorporate unjust methods. I know that there is no reason to think that the Zapatistas have ever blown up a bus station or done some other act for the sole purpose of terror and wish that he could have made that distinction. At the end of the talk the men apologized for not being more eloquent and admitted to having little formal training yet I felt their simple and straightforward words were all the more effective.

One example of the restraint exercised by the leaders of this movement at the beginning of the revolt is the treatment of General Dominguez. Dominguez was the governor of Chiapas at the time of the revolt. If anyone person personified the evil that the Indigenous People were fighting, it was he. Dominguez was captured and later tried for crimes against the people. The tribunal found him guilty but, rather than executing him for the grievous acts, they released him. The results of this action highlighted the heinous acts of the state’s power structure but left no blood on the hands of the insurgents.

One characteristic about these people that most impressed me was their quiet dignity. No one asked for a handout and theyrefused to allow their children to do so. I was asked not to bring candy or trinkets because they did not want their children to learn to beg. They handled all of the social services without pay. Women joined together in collectives to make clothes and art to sell. The promoters of the school and clinic found ways to survive without pay or charity. The Zapatistas rejected what little subsidies that were available to them through the national government because it would be an intellectual and moral contradiction to their declaration of autonomy.. Their slogan most often repeated was “Liberty through Education”.

I met representatives of seventy-one displaced people taking shelter at Caracol Dos. They had been run off of their ancestral property and their attempt to return sacrificed the lives of several Zapatistas who tried to help. They were able to form a small musical band and cut a CD, which they sold at the festival to support their clan. When I bought one of their CD’s, I got confused, (as usual), and tried to give the seller several times more pesos than the price. He gently corrected me and returned the extra money. I then left the stand without my camera equipment. When I realized what I had done, I returned to find my possessions being closely guarded by the same grinning salesman who would not let me overpay.

None of the delegates’ possessions were under lock and key yet nothing was disturbed.

The New Year’s Eve celebration took place on the outdoor basketball court shortly after the tournament. The Mayan people came in from the mountains. I guessed there to be well over one thousand celebrants. The evening was punctuated by music, speeches, ceremony, and dancing (to dawn). No one became obnoxiously drunk because there was no alcohol.

Our delegation was supposed to sing the Zapatista anthem in Spanish during the festival. Fortunately, this was another activity that fell by the wayside. My singing might have been less than artful. The following is an English translation of the anthem:

Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go forward
So that we push forward in the struggle
Because our land calls and demands
All the efforts of the Zapatistas

Now we see the horizon
Zapatista combatant
The road will show
Those who come behind

Men, children and women
An effort we will always make
Peasants and workers
Altogether with the people

Our people demand now
To end the exploitation
Our history tells us now
Struggle for liberation

Examples we must be
And follow our creed
That we will live for our country
Or die for liberty

The problem with survival for these wonderful people seems to always come back to one issue: Market. They work their land with dedicated zeal. They are the original organic growers that we in the States have decided is “in”. Yet they have lost much of their Mexican market and do not have a retail sponsor or the infrastructure to take advantage on our market. The women and men make absolutely wonderful clothes and art pieces by hand that reflect hours of labor and the texture of their culture, but the closest town, San Cristobal, offers little opportunity to sell their wares. Again, the market in the States may as well be on the moon.

One of the questions I posed to the young, bright fellow delegates as we packed to leave was: “What do we do if we win?” It is easy to be indignant about the blatant way the Indigenous people’s rights have been destroyed. Remedying the wrong is not as simple. There is no such thing as unabated rights in a society. The question is how to blend the diverse rights of the many, so that each individual has a chance for a dignified life. If the Zapatistas were given all of the power necessary to right the wrongs, would they not then become the establishment and be at risk for receiving revolutionary criticism? There is no doubt that most anyone of good faith would do a better job than that meted out in the past, but the goals become less clear. The sad experience of success of people’s revolution in China, Russia, France, and others underscore the need to consider the question: “What if we win?”

There exists an anger and blame of corporate globalization as the cause of the recent plight of these hard-working, sincere people. There is no doubt but that their feelings have been justified. The irony is that they themselves probably must become a part of the global market via the Internet to acquire the souk they need for their survival. The beauty of marketing their products and produce outside of the region is that culture does not have to be compromised. To the contrary, the very attraction of the fruits of their labor is that it has not been homogenized by corporate mass production.

Early on in the conflict the “Haves” labeled the “Have Nots”, (Zapatistas), as Communists. I know of no unbiased report that would suggest this to be true. It certainly wasn’t my experience. These proud people want nothing to do with government handouts. In talking to some of the outsiders visiting the compound during the festival I certainly could identify a small handful who called themselves Communists or, the other extreme, Anarchists. These folks are always going to show up at a festival for a People’s Revolution, just as those labeling themselves as extremists will show up for a rally of those taking possession of the Chiapas land. What I have discovered is that if you exclude all “isms” when talking to people of good faith, there is a much smaller difference in the positions of those discussing such issues. Very few learned people believe there should be no social underneting and few believe that there should be no opportunity for individuals to pursue their private dreams and ambitions. Polarization with “isms” merely robs the conversation of intelligent discourse.

Such ideological distinctions can be interesting but have no meaning to the young mother holding her sick child to her breasts, vainly wishing that a common vaccine had been available to her family, or the farmer coming in from a day of toil to endure the humiliation of seeing his family suffer from the lack of food. “Ism’s” are a luxury for those not burdened with such day-to-day burdens.