Mexico: The Zapatistas’ New Fight

Chris Tilly and Marie Kennedy

“WE ARE FIGHTERS, but not with guns,” said the man in the ski mask, one of a group of masked peasants addressing us and a dozen other visitors. “We invite all of the common people, who are of the left, who are not with the government, to join us in struggle,” he continued, speaking in the Mayan Tzotzil language. “Because we know the government will never hear our word, and will never help us.”

This masked man is one of the many voices of the Mexican Zapatista movement today. One of the Political Commissioners of the regional Good Government Council based in the community of Oventik, he helps represent a portion of Mexico’s southernmost state, Chiapas. The Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN), named after early 20th century Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata, made an international splash when they rose up in rebellion in January 1994.  Since a colorful protest caravan to Mexico City in 2001, they have been far less visible.

Today, as Mexico gears up for July’s presidential elections, the Zapatistas have raised their voices once again. Their charismatic spokesperson Subcomandante Marcos is touring the country in the “Other Campaign,” an attempt to build a coalition “from below and from the left,” in opposition to all the presidential candidates. But the cornerstone of the movement is a network of “autonomous” communities across Chiapas, where activists like the masked political commissioner,  without unseating the official government, have created a parallel set of grassroots self-government institutions, based on traditional Mayan forms of governance.

Mexico Since 1994: Hope and Disappointment

The twelve years since the EZLN declared war on the Mexican government have shaken up the political establishment, but at the same time repeatedly thwarted Zapatista goals. Two weeks after the uprising began, massive peace demonstrations compelled both sides to declare a truce. The national government began negotiating, but simultaneously built up troop strength – at this point, thousands of troops are posted in Chiapas (estimates range from 18,000-70,000). The government and local elites also created right-wing paramilitary groups that carry out ongoing harassment and the occasional assassination or massacre.

One of the Zapatistas’ central demands was (and is) autonomy for Mexico’s 62 indigenous groups, who are variously estimated to make up seven to twelve percent of the population, and have long been poor, dispossessed and despised. To underline this goal, in December 1994 they peacefully occupied government buildings in 38 of Chiapas’s 110 municipalities and declared them autonomous. They drew organizations representing 50 of the indigenous groups into the negotiation process, and despite uneven participation from the government, succeeded in codifying autonomy in the San Andrés accords, signed by both parties in 1996.

Implementing the accords, however, required an act of Mexico’s Congress. Hope for such legislation – and for other reforms on progressives’ wish-lists – ran high when the 2000 elections, for the first time in 71 years, broke the Institutional Revolutionary Party’s (PRI’s) control of the presidency. President-elect Vicente Fox, a former Coca-Cola executive who ran on the ticket of the conservative National Action Party (PAN) but garnered support from across the political spectrum as the candidate of “change,” vowed to resolve the problem in Chiapas “in 15 minutes.”

Chiapas voters also ousted the PRI, electing Governor Pablo Salazar, who also promised to resolve the conflict. The Zapatista movement voiced cautious optimism, and cranked up the pressure by organizing a national caravan of Zapatistas and their supporters from Chiapas to Mexico City.

Hopes for a quick resolution, however, were soon dashed: Fox endorsed a version of the San Andrés accords, but in Mexico’s Congress, where no party held a majority, leaders of his own PAN, the PRI, and the left-leaning Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) cut a deal to pass a watered-down, ineffectual autonomy law instead.

In Chiapas, Salazar, recreating the PRI’s old habits, gave government posts to grassroots leaders (effectively coopting or decapitating many progressive organizations), cracked down on dissidents, and did nothing to halt paramilitary growth. After prolonged silence, in August 2003 the EZLN announced that they would implement the San Andrés accords directly, through five newly created “Good Government Councils,” grouping a number of autonomous municipalities.

As of mid-2006, Fox’s six-year term is ticking to an end.  Fighting a close race for president with two other candidates is the PRD’s Andrés Manuel López Obrador, a populist in tailored suits who governed Mexico City before throwing his hat into the national ring. López Obrador is the hope of some on the left, and the despair of others.  He pledges to prioritize job creation (Mexico’s job growth has lagged far behind the expansion of the workforce, swelling the informal sector), and to rebuild the welfare state that sweetened the PRI’s pill of one-party rule until debt crisis and market-friendly reformers dismantled it. But he also promises the economic powers-that-be in Mexico to maintain financial stability and fiscal restraint – avowals at odds with the increases in spending that would be needed to carry out the populist planks of his program.  Moreover, most Mexicans view the PRD, like the other major parties, as corrupt.

The Zapatistas Bet Everything

In this context, the Zapatistas have launched the Other Campaign (Otra Campaña, or Otra for short), their counter to the presidential campaign. Marcos, reinvented as Delegate Zero, is traversing an ambitious itinerary to visit every state of Mexico before the July elections, to listen and speak with those who want to build “democracy, liberty, and justice” from below. The Zapatistas identify this campaign as a risk equal to the initial 1994 uprising (among other things, the physical risk to Marcos himself is enormous), but essential to break through the geographic isolation of their autonomy project.

The Zapatistas have drawn analogies with Gandhi’s tour across India to listen to ordinary Indians’ concerns before mobilizing the independence movement.  And indeed, Marcos is spending much of his time listening to hundreds of grievances, large and small. At the same time, the Otra is ideologically sharper than the Zapatistas’ populist rhetoric from the late 1990s: Marcos and the other Zapatista leaders traveling with him are explicitly condemning capitalism. As Felipe (a pseudonym), a supporter of the movement, explained:

“Up till 2001, when the San Andrés accords were rejected, the Zapatistas’ strategy was for a constitutional change that would ensure indigenous rights and autonomy, and they were trying to get broad support from society as a whole. But then they realized, ‘They won’t give us autonomy…so we’ll create autonomy for ourselves, from below!’ So this awakened a different line of thought. If they were just asking for support, they could address themselves to society as a whole. But if they were collaborating more closely with allies, it would be necessary to have a clearer specification: ‘from below and from the left.'”

Some on the left criticize the Otra for attacking Lopez Obrador, the presidential candidate of the center-left PRD, on equal terms with the others. But Ernesto Ledesma of the Center for Political Analysis and Social and Economic Research (CAPISE) points out that the party’s vote against the San Andrés accords, which would have codified indigenous autonomy, is “fundamental to understanding the Zapatistas’ fury against the PRD,” and that Jesús Ortega, who coordinated the vote deal, was named by Lopez Obrador to run his campaign. Moreover, the criticism of all the parties resonates with ordinary Mexicans’ disgust for politics as usual.

Marcos has definitely given the candidates some “Pepto-Bismol moments,” in Ernesto Ledesma’s words. The big question is whether the Other Campaign will achieve its bold goal to build a new, nationwide movement. Zapatista sympathizers to whom we spoke in mid-January, two weeks into the Otra, were cautious in their assessments, describing the counter-campaign as “incipient” or “in formation.” “It’s a bet on the grassroots organizations around the country,” Ledesma summed up. “The Zapatistas have bet everything on this initiative-and it might not work.”

Building Blocks of Autonomy

While the national campaign holds the future of Zapatismo, its present is firmly rooted in the development of local autonomy.  In the early years of the Chiapas stalemate, being an autonomous municipality meant in some cases that the Zapatistas maintained roadblocks, charged tolls, and posted signs (“You are entering autonomous territory”); in other communities autonomy was primarily a state of mind. Over time, however, the military wing of the Zapatista movement ceded more authority to the civil wing, and the civil wing built up local communities’ abilities to consult, plan, and decide.

The building blocks of autonomy today are, in order of increasing geographic scale, communities, municipios (the main unit of local government in Mexico, typically the size of a U.S. county), and regional organisms. At the regional level, the Good Government Councils, which are decision-making bodies, coexist with the Caracoles, complexes of regional services. (Caracol translates to “snail” or “conch,” and is used as a symbol for communication.)

The Caracol based in the village of Oventik, in the centrally located Chiapas highlands, provides the space for the Good Government Council that serves the seven neighboring municipios. In that Caracol we noted primary and secondary schools, a large clinic, and a cluster of “productive projects:” cooperatives for crafts, cultivation of coffee and mushrooms, and beekeeping; an agro-ecology group that consults with local farmers, a shoemaking shop, a language school for international visitors. The Caracoles also serve as contact points for supporters from Mexico and around the world.

But the rubber really hits the road at the municipio level. In Magdalena de la Paz, the seat of the autonomous municipio of the same name, we were treated to the unusual spectacle of two parallel and competing sets of government institutions. There are two primary schools, two clinics and two city halls. On one side of the central plaza is a large, windowless shed of rough boards with a metal roof, where we were met by men and women wearing traditional Mayan garb – beribboned hats set off by short white tunics or woolly ponchos for the men, multicolored blouses and skirts with distinctive weaves identifying the community of origin for the women. Across the plaza stands the home of what  autonomous authorities call the “bad government,” a standard-issue brick and stucco office building. We didn’t go inside, but in front stood a group of men (only) wearing the cowboy hats and jeans typical of Chiapas mestizos (assimilated mixed-race people). To complete the picture, the official government calls the municipality “Magdalena Aldama,” substituting the name of a mestizo hero of Mexico’s independence movement for the suffix “of peace.”

Local dual power is typical of the Zapatista municipios. As Miguel Pickard of the Center for Economic and Political Research on Community Action (CIEPAC) explained, “The Zapatista presence in the communities ranges from a tiny minority to an overwhelming majority.” The Zapatista organization itself has very exacting requirements: in addition to adhering to its ideological principles, members must follow a set of standards that include rejecting aid from the official government and abstaining from alcohol. It is not surprising that at least some in each community decline to join. “The issue,” Pickard said, “is how to convince people to give you legitimacy, if not through an election” (given that the Zapatistas reject the current electoral system).

How do they do it? It’s certainly not through access to greater resources, although the Zapatistas do have a system of taxation. They charge a ten percent tax on projects by outside agencies including NGOs and the official government (the highway tolls were dropped in 2003). Within communities, assembly decisions are resourced by labor or in-kind contributions from each family in the community. Coffee and craft coops bring in additional venues and international solidarity provides a further supplement – the clinic at Magdalena, for instance, has been supplied by Médecins du Monde for a number of years. But the total budget of the resistance communities is, to say the least, austere.

Good Government Pays

Instead, the key seems to be, in the words of the Maya communities themselves, good government. As the municipal authorities of Magdalena told us through their spokesperson, “The idea is to demonstrate that we can do this work. We’re trying to end the government’s power to use the people just to build the strength of the parties. We are resolving all our problems on our own, with our own words, in our own way, without the involvement of the [official] government.”

According to CIEPAC’s Pickard, it’s working. “The most impressive thing I hear about,” he said, “is the justice system.  For the first time in over 500 years, indigenous people are getting justice! They’re getting it in their own language, they can be heard, it’s not corrupt, the authorities can’t be bought off.”  The result, he added, is that Zapatista, non-Zapatista and even anti-Zapatista community members seek out the autonomous judicial authorities, even for complex and contentious issues such as conflicting land claims.

Zapatista governing structures are also, quite explicitly, schools of participatory democracy. Policing and jurisprudence lean heavily on discussion and negotiation rather than coercion. Municipios choose their leaders in assemblies. At the next level up, in the Caracoles and the Good Government Councils, the movement rotates people through for short stints, trying to spread around the experience of governing.

Another advantage of the autonomous councils is that they build on long-standing Maya traditions. Language and costume are the most visible signs, of course. Enrique, a young Zapatista activist, noted that collective work and taking up community collections are part of the Maya culture as well (we use pseudonyms to identify Enrique and all Zapatista activists). Alberto, an anthropologist who studies the Maya, added that Mayan peoples value simplicity and humility, and view costly possessions with suspicion – perhaps rendering the unfinished boards of Magdalena’s “other” city hall more appealing than the polished surfaces of the official one.

Zapatista local authorities, however, are seeking to break with some age-old traditions, in the name of… tradition. Current-day Mayan society before 1994 was, like most surviving pre-modern cultures, oppressively sexist. Arranged marriages, codified male authority in the home and the village, and widespread domestic violence kept women socially and physically subordinated. But during the EZLN’s 1983-93 underground phase, Maya women threw themselves into organizing and came to make up one-third of the rebel army’s ranks. Their payoff was a Revolutionary Women’s Law, promulgated by the Zapatistas during the 1994 uprising, proclaiming equal rights, including the right to choose whom and when to marry, and whether and when to have children.

The existence of the law does not mean that gender equality has been achieved in Zapatista communities – “It’s not easy to change this in just a few years,” as Paciencia, a young activist, stated – but the fact that the communities endorsed it at all is a milestone.

It would be a mistake to view Zapatista autonomy as simply a process separating a few communities from the rest of Mexico. Although local administration is the most concrete aspect of autonomy today, Zapatismo envisions autonomy as all of society governing itself, replacing the state and neoliberal capitalism with “freedom, democracy, and justice.” In short, autonomy in its full realization amounts to revolution.

Missed Connections

Stubborn independence, intensive consultation with the community, and deep roots in Mayan culture have helped the “good governments” to win local support. But the same three factors have in some cases estranged the Zapatistas from potential allies, both Maya and otherwise. Margarita (a pseudonym), a leader of a large Mayan women’s cooperative, forthrightly acknowledged her group’s debt to Zapatismo, but then went on to explain why relations between the two groups have become strained.

Zapatista craft coops allow each community to distribute the proceeds based on merit or need as they see fit, she pointed out; her coop’s members want to get paid based on the amount they produce. Creating autonomy, she added, “is not so easy. The parties still have power. The official mayor still runs the municipio.” Autonomous schools are not recognized by the official educational system, so that children who wish to transfer or move on to the next level end up stymied.

According to a 2004 report by the Network for Peace-Chiapas, a broad coalition of groups working for peace and indigenous rights, many grassroots Chiapas organizations formerly allied with the Zapatistas have distanced themselves over the issue of whether to accept government aid – especially once the Salazar state administration showed itself more disposed to dole out aid to community-based groups. Eastern Michigan University political scientist Richard Stahler-Sholk commented that government aid programs have been “clearly tailored and administered in Chiapas for the political purpose of dividing communities and attracting supporters away from the Zapatista cause.”

Margarita and others from her organization also spoke of “many women’s disappointment at having believed in the movement, but not having been respected in their autonomy as women.” Miguel Pickard confirmed that feminists question why Zapatista communities, nominally committed to women’s rights, expelled activists from gender-focused organizations (the Zapatista movement has recently criticized itself for this problem, and announced an effort to correct it).

Does all this mean that Zapatismo itself is shrinking? “We know of thousands who were Zapatista and left, who couldn’t take the hardships,” says Ernesto Ledesma of CAPISE. “We also know of thousands who have joined. If you ask, twelve years after 1994, are there more or fewer Zapatistas, the answer is we don’t know, nobody knows.”

Some sectors of the broader Mexican and global left have also become disillusioned with Zapatismo. Some of this boils down to straightforward ideological disagreements, in part because the Zapatista perspective strays from standard socialist formulas to adopt what political scientist Stahler-Sholk calls an “eclectic sprinkling” of anarchism, socialism, “liberation theology, Mexican agrarismo, indigenous community values, and sui generis forms of organization.”

José (a pseudonym), a recent college graduate and militant in the Chiapas-based People’s Resistance Movement of the Southeast (MRPS, a more traditional left organization), recounted how his organization was formed to carry out “civil society” work in support of the EZLN, but has now largely broken ties. The MRPS questions the Zapatista rejection of seizing power – the goal of Zapatismo, as repeatedly stated by Marcos, is to replace the state with the people, not take it over. The MRPS also laments Zapatismo’s unwillingness to suggest what system should take the place of capitalism. But as Andrés Aubry, Chiapas historian and EZLN supporter, argued to us, “The Zapatistas can’t propose a new world system, because that would be fundamentally authoritarian.” They prefer to leave the question open.

The MRPS has meaty criticisms of Zapatista actions – and particularly inactions – as well. José complained that on many occasions the Zapatista movement has failed to speak out against fierce repression of non-Zapatistas. Global activists have been perplexed as to why Zapatismo has declined to send representatives or even messages of solidarity to like-minded global gatherings such as the World Social Forum – but continues to organize its own global conferences, to which it expects others to come. “I’ve heard it said,” Pickard remarked, “that the Zapatistas are very sharp on strategic questions, but can’t get it together tactically. They know exactly what they will do in five years, but they can’t get along with their indigenous and peasant neighbors. They have a difficulty with making alliances.”

Why the Zapatistas Hold Back

Some of this standoffishness doubtless stems from simple left sectarianism. As Teresa Zepeda of the Civic Alliance of Chiapas (a political monitoring, education, and mobilization organization) commented to us, old left habits die hard – in this case, the habits of Marcos and other veterans of the 1970s politico-military organizations who joined with liberation theology activists and others to form the EZLN in the 1980s.  However, there is more to it than that.

There is a very real tension between being a truly community-based movement, and serving as a touchstone for the Mexican and even world left. Zapatismo is very consciously accountable to the communities that support it, and committed to decision-making through consultation.  But given the revived Maya customs of decision-making via wide-open community assemblies and the search for consensus, this is bound to imply long silences toward the outside world, and in some cases no statement at all.  Perhaps this is not all bad. “The Zapatistas say little and do much,” noted Alberto, the anthropologist. “That’s the opposite of the politicians, who say a lot but do very little.”

A final reason for strains between Zapatismo and the broader left is simply that the Mayan languages, world-view and style of communication are utterly foreign to most people formed in a more western way of looking at the world. As Ledesma of CAPISE put it, “Left intellectuals speak from the head; Mayas speak from the heart.”

Certainly these two left intellectuals found ourselves struggling to communicate. The Maya custom of having a designated spokesperson and a required set of greetings, sometimes supplemented by the Zapatista variation of ensuring that each person says his or her piece, tended to lead to very formal and repetitive – if sometimes insightful and even poetic – presentations and responses to questions in our group’s meetings with Zapatista representatives. (The laborious process of translating among Tzotzil, Spanish and English didn’t help, either!) After we left a session with the Political Commission of the Oventik Caracol in which one commission member after another repeated well-meaning abstractions, a plain-spoken U.S. college student exclaimed, “That was the most boring meeting I’ve ever been to!” We ourselves found it meditative and moving – but distant from the blunt communication that characterizes U.S. politics.

Individual conversations with Spanish-speaking Zapatistas flowed more naturally, but we still bumped into conceptual breaches – for example, trying to discuss the topic of political alliances with activist Rodrigo, we discovered that to him, “alianza” was a dirty word that referred only to top-down deals between political parties. Mayans also seem to look at causal explanations quite differently from us: questions about why they are following a particular course of action typically elicited, “Because we see it as necessary.” Despite all this, they also slipped in the self-deprecating humor for which Marcos is famous: “We’re just a crazy kind of revolutionaries,” Rodrigo joked at one point.

Bridging the Gap?

With the Otra Campaña, the Zapatistas have undertaken a concerted effort to bridge this set of political and cultural divides. The Otra has brought dramatic moments. In April, Marcos stood with environmental activists who had chained themselves to trees to defend a wild ravine in the city of Cuernavaca, holding off the bulldozers. In May, the entire Otra threw its weight behind the hundreds of protestors in the town of San Salvador Atenco who were beaten and jailed (with two killed) while defending flower vendors’ right to sell in a public square. But most important of all are the quiet conversations, outside the media glare, with hundreds of organizations and thousands of individual activists.

The “crazy kind of revolutionaries” from Chiapas have already upended Mexican politics more than once. Though some aspects of the autonomy developed in insular Chiapas communities do not translate well, Zapatismo’s basic call to reject a corrupt and uncaring government reflects the views of most Mexicans. Regardless of who wins the presidency in July, if the Zapatistas can successfully reach out to Mexican progressives and truly build a national-scale movement “from below and from the left,” the future of Mexico will look very different.

ATC 123, July-August 2006