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Chiapas: Ten Years Later
I t’s been ten years since the Zapatistas of Chiapas, Mexico launched their rebellion to create “a world where many worlds fit.” Once the heroes of progressive movements around the world, the continuing struggle and development of autonomous institutions in Chiapas now takes place with little media fanfare.
John Ross has written several books on the Zapatista struggle including Rebellion from the Roots and The War Against Oblivion . La Journada , Mexico’s foremost independent daily, describes Ross as, “the new John Reed covering the new Mexican revolution.”
ARSENAULT: You’ve been covering the Zapatistas and the situation in Chiapas for more than ten years now. In terms of daily life for the indigenous in the base communities, what’s changed since the 1994 insurgency?
ROSS: In 1994 we didn’t know this area very well, but we began to go into the villages and we could see that there was no infrastructure. Ten years later, at the very least, we see schools in communities, and some clinics. We see that a whole array of collectives and cooperatives has developed. The most visually startling image of these communities is the enormous number of murals painted on all the walls. There are over 400 murals in Zapatista communities in the 38 autonomous municipalities.
I think some things are more material or concrete, but what you can never measure is the way people feel about themselves—“the seizing,” as the archbishop emeritus of San Cristobal, Samual Ruiz, calls it, “the Indians becoming the subject of their own destiny.” In a real sense, the Zapatistas have done that. They’ve taken control of their own destiny. They have created a system of autonomous municipalities in five regions, which are in effect building their own way to live.
In 2001, the Zapatistas launched their March on the Capital to push for a lasting peace agreement. It was compared to Martin Luther King’s march on Washington, winning the Zapatistas tremendous popular support, but it failed to produce a lasting agreement. Has there been any movement towards peace since the March? Do you see any hope for meaningful talks?
There’s not going to be any peace talks as there’s really nothing to talk about. The Zapatistas negotiated for 22 months for the San Andres Accords, which would have been a landmark agreement, extending a form of autonomy to 57 distinct indigenous peoples in Mexico.
The Mexican Congress mutilated that law, after years of struggle, after referendums that drew millions to vote in favor of this law, so the Zapatistas said, “Why do we have to ask the government permission to establish autonomy?’
The Zapatistas are just doing what they agreed on with the government. They’re establishing their autonomy. I think the distinction here is that five or six years ago, when the PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party) still ran the show and the president was a guy named Zedillo, the government would have come down hard with the military or police. What the Zapatistas are doing now, in terms of building an autonomous structure, is being ignored by the government.
Vicente Fox tried to take command of the situation. He sent the
COCOPA [Constitutional Reforms on Indigenous Rights and Culture]
accords to Congress and Congress shot them down. Fox realized he
was getting deeper into a problem he could never resolve. Although
he had promised to resolve it in “15 minutes,” he’s
washed his hands of it. In a sense, this has been a great boon for
the Zapatistas; they haven’t had the kind of pressure you would
expect from the government.
You talk of Fox trying to “wash his hands” of the situation, but most of the violence directed against Zapatista support bases has come from paramilitary organizations, not the official army. Most observers feel Zedillo’s administration backed these groups, or at least turned a blind eye to their atrocities. Are paramilitaries still active in Chiapas and what is their relationship with Fox’s administration?
I’ve debated the question of the paramilitaries for a long time. I for one don’t believe there are active paramilitaries in the way there were in the period immediately following the rebellion, on through the Acteal massacre [when 45 unarmed villagers were killed in a church] and the months after.
There are disaffected PRIistas in many communities, essentially because the Zapatistas are doing much better than the PRI communities. Now that the PRI is out of power, it can’t service the communities and its electoral clientele is leaving—and often joining the PRD [Party of the Democratic Revolution, who are social democrats] in Ocosingo and other places in the jungle and the highlands.
The PRI communities are now emigrating out of the area. The highest migration rates in southern Mexico come from Chiapas—small coffee farmers affected by the collapse of coffee prices, small corn farmers—most of them from PRI communities. The Zapatistas have this infrastructure, so people don’t leave. They are able to take care of their own, through, for example, the Mut Vitz coffee collective, which sells organic coffee when the price of regular coffee has fallen.
There are a lot of disaffected PRIistas living in communities right next to the Zapatista communities, and I think this makes for tensions.
How are the Zapatistas creating the schools, clinics, and economic cooperatives that have made them better off than their PRIista counterparts?
I think we have to understand that creating autonomy is a fiction unless you have some way of financing it. The main source of funding for the Zapatistas is organic coffee. You have the Mut Vitz Coffee Cooperative, with 28 communities and 6 autonomous municipalities, and they’re selling between 10 and 15 containers a year now. They have over 500 farmers who are accredited as organic growers. There’s a steady market there and it brings an enormous amount of money back to Zapatista communities.
There’s a lot of NGO money and activity that generates infrastructure as well. The problem, at least in the first couple of years, is that all the money goes to Mut Vitz or Oventic, communities that are near the road, where there is a greater access. The back country communities get nothing.
Under the reorganization system of the Caracoles last August, a deal was worked out where the Juntas of Buen Goberino, or “good government committees,” were established and the NGOs now have to go to the good government committees and say, “We’d like to do this in this community.” And the Juntas say, “Well, yes you can do that, but you also have to give us 10 percent of the seed money for some other project.” It’s a way of redistributing the wealth.
Then there’s plain old civil society solidarity, which is certainly not as heavy as it was in the past. In the first few years of the rebellion, when the Zapatistas were unable to leave their communities to go out and plant corn, it was civil society that provided tons and tons of corn to the Zapatista communities to keep them alive.
In many respects the Zapatistas have been somewhat forgotten; they’re not on the front pages. But money still comes in.
What role has the U.S. security apparatus played in the conflict and how has that role evolved through ten years of Zapatismo?
The role of the U.S. military is somewhat reduced in Chiapas. There are still probably 18,000 troops in the jungles, cañadas, and highlands. The army has announced no reduction in troops and they would be the first to announce that reduction. It is a presence and that could be used any time it was warranted or unwarranted to oppose the Zapatistas.
The difference is that the military does not patrol with the kind of intensity it did in the past. It’s pretty much confined to barracks. There must be a lot of stir-crazy soldiers who can’t figure out what they’re doing out there in the jungle.
Last year, the U.S. trained over 600 Mexican officers; the previous year it was over 700. Mexican officers are everywhere, not only at the School of the Americas, but at the Center for Special Forces in Fort Bragg, North Carolina, right through to the army propaganda school in Indianapolis and the war college in Fort Leavenworth. Those officers will come back and serve an average of 20 years in the Mexican military and they will always have this U.S. contact with them.
Mario Ramond Castillo, who designed the counter-insurgency program that resulted in the deaths at Acteal, was trained at the Center for Special Forces. Essentially, the folks who fought the war against the Zapatistas were U.S. trained officers. The Mexican military is armed lock, stock, and just about barrel by the U.S. There is an enormous amount of hardware in the country: transport planes, munitions, guns, hummers, right down to ready-to-eat meals—all from the Pentagon.
Do you think the EZLN could defend themselves if they had to?
I don’t know what the condition of their arms is. My suspicion is that if you don’t have a constant supply and upgrading of arms, then your military capacity diminishes. For all I know, they may have that capacity and may be renewing it, but we haven’t seen any signs.
The last time the Zapatista army and the Mexican military exchanged gunfire was on June 10, 1998 in what is now called San Juan de la Libertad. The army tried to dismantle the autonomous muni- cipality and ten people were killed. That massacre—nine of the ten people killed were civilians—ended when the Zapatistas started firing back. That was the first time they had fired back in awhile.
The weapon of the Zapatistas has been the word, not the gun; “el fuego y el palabra” [fire and word], and el palabra is certainly more dominant at this stage of the game.
One thing you have to remember is that one guerrilla fighter is worth ten fighters in a standing army, particularly in a terrain where people know the landscape and where to hide. We saw this first in 1994 when the army chased the Zapatistas back into the jungle and again in 1995 when the army invaded the jungle and the Zapatista communities abandoned ship and started moving down the river banks.
The army is at a real disadvantage in the jungle. I think the Zapatistas would be able to stand off the military for long enough that it wouldn’t be worth the military’s time to continue.
Can we talk about what’s happening with genetically engineered corn in Chiapas?
We don’t know much about transgenic corn in Chiapas, except that people are very, very afraid of it. We do know what’s going on with transgenic corn in the next states over: Oaxaca and Puebla. In 2001, through some strange circumstances, a small village in the Sierra del Norte of Oaxaca discovered that their cornfields were contaminated by transgenic corn—specifically, Bt corn. The story is that once NAFTA kicked in, the amount of corn imported to Mexico increased from year to year. It’s currently around six million tons and will probably be a little more next year.
We have good reason to believe that four million of those six million tons are transgenic corn. U.S. farmers can’t sell that corn in Europe or Japan so we think they’re dumping it across the border.
Years ago, trying to sort out the animal and human corn that was coming into the country, green dye was put into the box cars for the animal feed. Within weeks green tortillas were showing up in the Mexican market. There is no distinction between the two; one is a pretext for the other.
We find GM corn in Jalapa, at the top of the Sierra del Norte, across the Sierra in Puebla, and in 11 out of 22 corn growing regions in Puebla and Oaxaca, where corn first appeared 7,000-10,000 years ago; and we find now that Bt and Starling corn is growing in these Milpas. We see that the plasma of the 300 to 3,000 distinct types, families, and varieties of Mexican corn are in danger of being homogenized. That’s really the greatest danger of GE corn—to eliminate biodiversity, to eliminate millions of years of biological history.
When you start making corn a commodity—which it is not to the indigenous people—you’re threatening a whole culture and way of life. The Mayan people are the people of the corn. When you talk about changing the corn, you’re talking about changing a way of life that has existed for millennia. The Zapatista Army of National Liberation, which represents in many respects the Mayan people, is going to resist.
When the Zapatistas first came on the international scene they were seen as something new, a movement that rejected the “free-market,” and made no attempt to seize state power. Do you think the idea of rejecting state power is becoming a new norm for social movements?
I think it is actually a social movement and there are a number of examples we can look at throughout Latin America. One such example is the piquetero movement and other youth movements in Argentina—this kind of horizontal, non-hierarchical left. I think we see some of that in the Sin Tierras [landless workers] Movement in Brazil. Although the structures are different, we see an echo of Zapatismo. Most importantly, in Bolivia, a movement of that kind was responsible for the defense of water resources against the Bechtel Corporation, forcing it to retire. This was one of the great victories for the anti-globalization movement.
I think among those people, Oscar Olivera and his committee, there is a real understanding of the Zapatismo approach of not organizing to take over state power. I should mention that all of the political ideas that came out of the Zapatista rebellion of 1994—wonderful ideas about communal decision making, serving the community, and organizing in a way that did not aim to take state power—all these ideas were welcomed by the left all over the world as a new model, a model to change the world.
I think we needed the Zapatistas more than they needed us. If you look at the historical moment— NAFTA had just been signed— many folks in the labor movement or the human rights movement who had been battling NAFTA for a number of years were in a sense lost. All of a sudden, in the first hour of the North America Free Trade Agreement, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation rises up against it. We rushed to their defense. We saw it as a way of helping us build our movement, and learning from them as well.
In the end, I think the Zapatistas didn’t stage their rebellion to save us. They did that to save themselves in the face of a globalization that, even as far back as 1993-94, threatened the corn of the “people of the corn.” After ten years they’ve done pretty well saving themselves and that is the real purpose of the Zapatista rebellion.
Chris Arsenault is coordinator of Students Taking Action in Chiapas. He took the photos appearing in this article.
Z Magazine Archive
CUBAN 5 - From May 30 to June 5, supporters of the Cuban 5 will gather in Washington DC to raise awareness about the case and to demand a humanitarian solution that will allow the return of these men to their homeland.
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BIKES - Bikes Not Bombs is holding its 24th annual Bike- A-Thon and Green Roots Festival in Boston, MA on June 3, with several bike rides, music, exhibitors, and more.
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