The Zapatistas Today

Against the Current, No. 130, September/October 2007

an interview with John Ross

JOHN ROSS WAS interviewed in April 2007 by John O’Connor. Ross has been reporting on Mexico and Latin America for more than two decades. He has written three books on the Zapatistas (Rebellion from the Roots, The War Against Oblivion, and Zapatistas: Making Another World Possible). Ross lives in Mexico City. He has won the Upton Sinclair and American Book awards.

Against the Current: On June 26, 2005, the Zapatistas issued the Sixth Declaration of the Lacandón Jungle. Why was the Sixth Declaration issued?

John Ross: The Sixth Declaration was issued in that spirit of going out into the country to organize things in a Zapatista way. With the origins of the EZLN going back to the early 1980s, we are actually in the 22nd year of the rebellion. The Sixth Declaration says that an entire generation has grown up in rebellion, and that the communities are now in control of their own destiny. They are on the road to building autonomy, with an infrastructure of clinics, an educational system, and everything else that goes along with that. And there is even a way to finance that through the organic coffee sales. Now, the Comandancia — the political military structure — needs to find other work to continue to build Zapatismo outside of the zone.

ATC: Following the Sixth Declaration, the Other Campaign was launched. What is it?

JR: The Sixth Declaration was issued in June. It is important to understand that some of it was subterfuge. On June 19th, the Zapatistas call a “red alert” — which connotes that danger is afoot, that the military is moving in. In fact, what the red alert did was to alert attention that something important was about to happen; ten days later the Sixth Declaration was issued. Many meetings were held in August and September in the canyons, in which around 10,000 people actually came to the jungle during the height of the rainy season.

There were six meetings, each of which attracted different constituencies. One was for the left. One was for NGOs. One was labor, etc. Often the same people would show up, but if you tallied up the attendance at these six meetings, it was around 10,000. During those sessions, the shape of what the Other Campaign would be was decided. It was those groups that came and wanted to participate in the Other Campaign, essentially inviting the Zapatistas to come to their communities.

In the plenary — when it was announced what the Other Campaign would be, how it would look — I was very surprised that Marcos had been chosen to be the spokesperson. I saw that as being somewhat self-defeating, in the sense that Marcos — who certainly has the gift of gab and attracts a lot of attention — is always on the cusp of the cult of personality. If you allow him to be the sole voice of the campaign, you tempt that fate.

Testing the Waters

I was not happy that there were no Zapatista women on that first run. The justification was that Marcos would go and test the waters. If he was arrested and thrown in jail, then they would make other plans. Of course a lot of people, out of curiosity, would come out and listen to Marcos, but the people who really make the connection to Mexico are through the voices of the women. And there were no women on the Other Campaign, those voices were not heard. In fact, there were no indigenous voices — Marcos is a mestizo. From my perspective, that was a poor strategy for beginning the Other Campaign.

The Other Campaign begins on Jan. 1st, 2006; Marcos gets on a motorcycle and gains a lot of attention. It moves around the country, starting from the Yucatan and moving throughout the southern part of the country.

ATC: Given that the Other Campaign is about dialogue, alliances, and, building coalitions — from below and to the left — where ultimately do they want this to go?

JR: I think that what has been stated is pretty much on the level. They are calling for a new constitutional convention in 2010. You have to take a look at what the country will look like 2010 — after four years of Calderón. An important element in that will be the U.S. immigration crackdown. You can’t build up the pressure cooker in the country by cutting off the escape valve.

We are in the second stage of the Other Campaign, which began on March 25th.

ATC: In the aftermath of the last elections, and the violence within Oaxaca, has the Other Campaign been used by the government to scare the Mexican middle class?

JR: Certainly. Marcos’ image was used repeatedly in TV commercials that were designed by Dick Morris [a political media operative who worked for Bill Clinton— ed.]. Sometimes they would show Marcos, sometimes it would be Hugo Chavez, sometimes it would be a riot. The word “Danger” would be printed on the screen. These were an attempt to identify Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) [PRD candidate for president — ed.] with Marcos, when in fact the two could not be any further apart.

There has been some suggestion that the Other Campaign took some votes from the local AMLO campaign, and that is why he didn’t win. But the Other Campaign was always very marginal in its first outing.

ATC: Given the state of political parties in Mexico (PRI, PRD and PAN), is there any chance at all that the Other Campaign will result in a new political party?

JR: No. The Other Campaign talked about organizing down below and against the political class and political parties. It attacked Lopez Obrador, not so much because he was AMLO but because he represented the electoral left. The EZLN has never considered becoming a political party. There was an early referendum in 1995 that asked that question, and it got zero votes. It won’t happen. But it certainly can become a network. It is a way of organizing the little resistances throughout Mexico.

The Zaps are not against organization. They want to build this organization down below, not from the top down, but from the bottom up. And I think that has a lot of room for success. That is really the best part of the Other Campaign. (See Chris Tilly and Marie Kennedy’s “The Zapatistia’s New Fight” for background about the building of autonomous communities, ATC 123, July-August 2006.)

Constructing Autonomy

ATC: How would you assess the autonomous municipalities today?

JR: Essentially, they are haciendas, sometimes whole towns, but they were taken after 1994 and organized along Zapatista lines. They are much smaller than what is officially called municipalities. Municipalities in Mexico are very much like counties. There is a county seat from which all political power flows; these were always controlled by the PRI and by other political parties.

This was a rebellion against those county seats, because they represented power. In a real sense, this rebellion always was from the outside, it always came from the periphery. Establishing the county seat in the periphery, rather than in the center of power, creates a different equation. A moment occurs on January 1st 2003, when after having been silent for 19 months, the Zapatistas arrive in San Cristóbal de las Casas, and say “we don’t need the government’s permission to be autonomous” — we are autonomous.

Autonomy has been in construction for a long time. The organization of EZLN, it is important to note, is probably 150,000 people (four Mayan subgroups) organized into 1300 communities, grouped together into 29 autonomous municipalities. These are grouped into five public centers or Caracoles. The Caracoles, which are run by Juntas de Buen Gobierno (Assemblies of Good Government), administer regional autonomy.

Autonomy is a fiction unless you provide the infrastructure and a way to provide services for your people without becoming tied to the political parties or to the government. It is the establishment of these good government assemblies and commissions that oversee the clinic system, the preventive health system, and the educational system, teacher training system, the organic coffee collective, the bicycle repair shops, and the medicinal plant collectives that all go into making the Zapatistas autonomous.

This gets them off the grid, where they don’t have to trade their votes and become beholden to the political class.

ATC: Given that the Zapatista struggle has cut across a new generation, how would you assess the impact of the Zapatistas on left-wing politics within Mexico?

JR: It is less than we think. There are Zapatista formations all over the world. They really are all over the world. Its impact on organizing outside of Mexico has been great or greater than its impact on Mexican politics. They are one player on a large political stage. Unfortunately, people who align themselves with the Zapatistas tend to put them right in the center and magnify their impact and importance within the political structure. They certainly do have a base, and that base is growing incrementally but not exponentially.

Ferment in Latin America

ATC: Why is Latin America the center for struggles against neoliberalism today?

JR: The pendulum has really swung because neoliberalism has failed the people of Latin America. You can’t sell off what belongs to the people and expect to retain political power. People go to work in the morning and pay more to get on the bus because the transportation system has been sold. They try to make a phone call and it costs them more money because the telephone company has been sold. Their natural resources have been sold. Their health care systems have been privatized. People have been left unprotected.

ATC: Everyone these days is talking about Chavez and Venezuela. Doesn’t Chavez represent an important challenge to the Zapatista politics of “changing the world without taking power?”

JR: Of course — but the situation was best encapsulated after (Bolivian president) Evo Morales invited Marcos to his inauguration. The Zapatistas didn’t respond for a long time, they were on the Other Campaign. They arrived in Campeche, they were in the middle of the jungle, speaking to an ejido assembly of Mayan Indians, and Marcos said that we are not going to go Bolivia, to La Paz, because we don’t believe that bringing one person to power changes anything.

Having said that, there is a real distinction between Evo Morales and Hugo Chavez. Hugo Chavez took power from above and was reelected from above. The country has enough resources to finance the movement down below; you could say, buy off the movement down below. He hasn’t bought it off, so much as enhanced its ability to organize itself — everything from pirate radio stations to all these mechanisms in the slums of Caracas. These things were important in bringing him back to power after April 2002. But it is still coming from on top.

Bolivia is almost the reverse of that equation. Evo Morales came to power because of the strength of the popular movements, which had deposed three presidents in four years. Evo understands that. He could not be president without being able to appease the movements down below. That equation doesn’t hold up in Venezuela.

ATC: In terms of Brazil and Argentina, things have not turned out the way many people hoped they would. What do you think has happened in those two cases?

JR: Argentina basically collapsed. The middle class in Argentina was extremely influential and numerically very large. Some of the things that happened that triggered the collapse and the resistance was shutting down the banks and keeping the pensioners from accessing their accounts. Kirchner moved right away to deal with these things. The moment that he had the middle-class economy back on its feet, the potential for revolution was neutralized.

In Brazil, we have to recognize that Lula was always a member of the political class. You don’t run for president four times in a country without becoming an important member of the political class. That means you have to form a lot of alliances with a lot of people that your base may not appreciate.  He did exactly what every politician does — always promising that the second term would be better. Things have gotten worse and not better. I don’t think that we can elect members of the political class to power and expect power relationships to change.