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Eric Peterson. The Zapatistas - A Movement Becomes A Teenager

Eric Peterson

The Zapatistas - A Movement Becomes A Teenager

The Mexican – Indigenous movement ”Ejército Zapatista por la Liberación Nacional” – EZLN – has since its “birth” January 1. 1994 been able to attract world wide attention with its spectacular actions. Outsiders may have difficulties to get an idea of what the movement is really about, but the Zapatistas once described their political philosophy like this:

“Zapatismo is not an ideology
It is not a bought and paid for doctrine.
It is …an intuition.
Something so open and flexible that
it really occurs in all places.
Zapatismo poses the question:
“What is it that has excluded me?”
“What is it that has isolated me?”
…In each place the response is different.
Zapatismo simply states the question
and stipulates that the response is plural,
that the response is inclusive……”

Lately, international attention may have dropped off somewhat, but the EZLN still posses the capacity to bring themselves into focus. At the end of the 2006 the movement celebrated its 13 years anniversary at a meeting in the small mountainous village Oventik in Chiapas, in the south of Mexico. The birthday was celebrated in the presence of more than 4000 guests, of whom some 1100 were internationals coming from more than 40 different countries. The 4-day long party contained a series of speeches by the zapatistas on alternative culture, commerce, women’s role and media, where the guests were presented with the EZLN’s point of view, and then had the opportunity to ask questions and finally could present their own vision.

The general idea of the initiative was to close a circle that had started nearly a year ago. At that time the EZLN’s charismatic spokesman, Subcomandante Marcos, was sent out on a nationwide motorcycle trip, the primary purpose of which was to establish contact with the more than 20 indigenous groups in Mexico - but also to make contact with the rest of the country’s popular movements. Now a platform has been established for the next step, which consists in a call for Mexican and international civil societies to return to Chiapas in July 2007, where the anticipated thousands of guests will be invited to visit all five Zapatista headquarters – known locally as “Caracoles”.

It is undoubtably possible to say a considerable amount of words over four long days, and so the the masked representatives from the EZLN certainly did. That some of the “workshops” took place simultaneously did not really make it easy to cover the event, but if one should focus on the most important theme, then it probably was the presentation of the Zapatista vision on women.

Bearing in mind that Latin American ”macho culture” represents a gigantic obstacle for equality between men and women, then it is quite unique that the EZLN has imposed a so-called “Revolutionary Law for Women”, which, at least theoretically tries to do something about the problem. One thing is to impose laws; another thing is to make them efficient. But the Zapatistas have definitely been able to produce results, which among other things means that there are more and more female “comandantes” within the movement. But also on a civilian level a lot of progress has been made. It might seem like a minor detail, but in the Zapatista villages you see women playing basket ball – an indicator that women’s lives are no longer concentrated on only getting water from the river, cooking and having kids. And women are actually starting to make demands, which was pointed out by a young female member of the local autonomous council from a small Zapatista village: “ Of course I want to get married, but it has to be to a good man – and that is one who knows how to cook!”

The ”workshop” on the Zapatista vision on autonomy was the theme that attracted the largest audience. The Zapatistas declare themselves socialists, but it is a special “indigenous version”, which is definitely not that easy to understand. Self-determination and respect for indigenous culture are among the more important elements, but a “split” from the rest of Mexico is not on the EZLN agenda . Democracy is an organic part of the vision, because - as one the Zapatistas explained - : “Autonomy does not end up in less democracy – it is an amplification of democratic vision!” Being European, and recalling the cruel policy adopted towards asylum seekers in recent years there, one can not help getting quite embarrassed about the level of solidarity with which the Zapatistas attempt to handle one of the most serious social problems in Central America : illegal immigration. Every year millions of people from Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua etc try to cross the Mexican border striving to get to the USA. “When we meet them on our territory we offer them food and shelter. We also try to convince them to go back to fight for better conditions in their home countries – but we would never throw them out or mistreat them, NEVER!” as one Zapatista declared.

During the four-day long party, not one single critical word against the Zapatistas was heard – and, as guests, it would also nearly have been in poor taste! But in the longer term it cannot be kept a secret that the EZLN is an organization which certainly has some problems. Quite a lot of international observers can tell about inhabitants of Zapatista villages “escaping” to seek work in the sweat shops in the larger cities or even - like so many other Mexicans - try to get to the USA. Some outsiders claim that there has been little improvement in the standards of living in the “rebel communities” during the thirteen years of struggle. But on the other hand, others emphasise improvements especially in health and education. The fact of the matter is that it would be unfair to describe the situation as a crisis.

That the EZLN chooses this moment to strengthen international support has probably something to do with the recent presidential election in Mexico, which was won by Felipe Calderon from the conservative party PAN. In 2001 his predecessor Vicente Fox - also from the PAN - presented the Plan Puebla Panama (PPP), a huge development plan for the nine southern most states in Mexico. The plan was “sold” as a “social project” which would improve the living conditions of the inhabitants of these 9 states, but from the very start the EZLN has refused to let the plan be implemented in “their” territory, Chiapas. The reason being that the plan has nothing to do with “social intentions”, on the contrary it is an attempt to allow multinational companies access to the region in order to establish sweat shops – turning indigenous farmers into factory workers on slave salaries. Also – and this is probably of greater interest – to allow these companies access to the Lacandon jungle , considered one of the worlds riches area in terms of biodiversity. The PPP has been developed to such a point, building infrastructure etc, that the next step for the government has to be about resolving the “Zapatista problem”.

Meanwhile, in November 2006 a small settlement called Vieja Velázques in the Lacandon jungle was attacked by a paramilitary group, killing three villagers. The settlement had declared itself a “Zapatista support community” , but in a subsequent press release, the EZLN denied the fact and said that the EZLN as an organisation had no intentions of defending the village against further attacks. This is probably a tactical move which should be seen in the context of another regional uprising in the country, which took place in the state Oaxaca in 2006. An amalgamation of popular movements - led by the Teachers Union - occupied the Main Square in the State’s capital for six months protesting against the state’s governor. The occupation was brutally broken up by the army, the police and their paramilitary groups, killing more than 20 people in the process. Felipe Calderon has promised to continue implementing this “iron fist” policy and had the Zapatistas chosen to defend Viejo Velásquez, it could have been the perfect excuse for Calderon to once and all resolve his “Zapatista problem”. It failed this time, but Calderon’s next step has been to send some 10.000 elite soldiers to the border region between Mexico and Guatemala – which is Chiapas – in order to secure the borders against illegal immigration and drug trafficking. It should be pointed out that the EZLN has never been linked to drugs and that any kind of consumption of drugs and alcohol in the Zapatista villages is strictly forbidden.

Most Mexican and international observers claim that the coming year will be crucial for the EZLN. To turn thirteen means to become a teenager. To many this is difficult time, where one has to try to find one’s own way. This might also be the case of the Zapatistas?