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Gustavo Esteva is a Mexican grassroots activist and “de- professionalized” intellectual. He is the author of more than 500 essays and a dozen books, including Grassroots Post-modernism: Remaking the Soil of Culture, with M.S. Prakash, London: Zed Books, 1998.
At present, he works at the Centre for Intercultural Dialogues and Exchanges (CEDI) in Oaxaca City, Mexico, publishes regularly in different journals, and works with Indian groups and NGOs, including the Zapatista Army for National Liberation.
STYLE: Seven years after the Zapatista uprising, 23 indigenous comandantes and subcomandante Marcos traveled from Chiapas through 12 of the poorest states of Mexico—with mobilizations by the tens of thousands along the way—in order to convince the Congress in Mexico City to approve the law on indigenous rights and culture. What do you think has been the impact of this historic march for indigenous dignity?
ESTEVA: I think the march has had three main impacts. The first was to take off the mask of decency and tolerance that was hiding a profound racism in Mexican society. This is the racism of the elite that has always governed Mexico, but it has spread throughout society and is now a hidden wound that expresses itself in many different forms. Right after the march this was evident, particularly in the reactions of leaders of the private sector and the government. They were in a kind of hysteria reacting against the march. Now we have proof of this racism that has always been denied and it will be one of the main issues in our public debate.
A second important function of the march was to make clear to everybody what we call the fiesta of diversity. It showed this diversity in a very effective way, even for the most closed minds and for the media. This diversity was of course about the Indian peoples—about their many different kinds of cultures, dresses, languages—but it was also about all the other groups that took part in the march, including foreigners. This was particularly clear in the final event in Zocalo. The fact is that we have a very diverse society, and this is the main endowment of Mexico.
Finally, I think the most important impact of the march is that it was a perfect illustration of a different political style for modern society. There is a radical disenchantment with formal or representative democracy—people everywhere are abandoning the ballot box. So I think what we are seeing is an alternative notion of politics that we call radical democracy, the possibility that people take their destinies into their own hands and have a legitimate political activity.
As a revolutionary movement, how do you think the Zapatistas have challenged the traditional role of leadership?
Marcos stated in a recent interview on Mexican television that the Zapatistas consider themselves more as social rebels than as revolutionaries. They are not classical revolutionaries because their aim is not to seize power and transform society from the top down. Instead, the caravan and the communiqués imply that the problem of power is in the hands of the people, and that the transformation of society should happen from the bottom up.
Another important point is that in the past all revolutionaries have considered themselves to have “the truth” in their hands, that they “know” the way. What the Zapatistas are saying is, “We don't have the truth, we are not the ones who should lead anyone.” Marcos also makes a strong argument that as a military struggle, they should never govern, because violence should never be used to convince. Instead the role of an armed movement is to bring awareness to the problem and then step aside, which is what the EZLN have done in the autonomous municipalities. So in many different ways they are destroying the idea of the great leader, of the party, of the organization, of whoever is at the top, and creating the possibility of the people organizing themselves.
However, in spite of these claims, there is still an enormous focus on Marcos as the leader of the movement and many have commented on the “Marcomania” displayed throughout the march and his status as a pop-idol for some.
Most of the focus on Marcos as the leader of the movement comes from the mainstream media and has been perpetuated by the business and economic elite. This has been part of a seven-year strategy to undermine the movement, to claim that outsiders are leading it. Instead, we can see that Marcos has played a key role as a bridge between the Indian communities and modern society.
There is also a human tendency to look for leaders, and today there is a void in society, especially among young people, that gets filled in one way or another. Marcos admits that this has been one of the errors of the movement: that they did not anticipate and do enough to avoid the personification around Marcos, which has blinded people to what is behind him, namely the organization, the indigenous communities.
It is here in the communities that this alternative notion of politics you talk about is being born. What kind of examples do you see that can be relevant to the rest of the world?
I don't want to make too much of the analogy, but just to stimulate the imagination, I think a good analogy for this whole process is the telephone system across the world. You can call anyone in any country from any place, but you don't really have a structure of power at the center. You have thousands of companies, thousands of technologies operating the telephone system, and the only thing you need are some agreed rules of the game. If you want to participate in that game, you need to follow certain rules of behavior and then you're part of the system.
Using that analogy, to be part of Mexican society, to have good coordination, we need some common rules of behavior establishing limits that can be accepted by everyone.
Like the rules in the cocopa law that would give indigenous communities autonomy within the state? What might these look like in practice, at a local level?
Yes. For example, there are now very well defined limits in the law of the state of Oaxaca. It is the first law in Mexico that incorporates what we call a juridical pluralistic regime that recognizes the normative systems of the Indian peoples. First it entails the explicit recognition of the Indian peoples in the legal system. Then it acknowledges that in Mexico we have different juridical systems. Every Indian group has a specific normative system defining what is justice and how to implement it.
One example of the different rules established in this law is in the case of homicide. In half the communities of Oaxaca, when a person kills another person, the problem is not the punishment of the killer but compensation for the victim. The point is first of all to understand why the killing happened. Although there is opposition from human rights activists, they tie the person to a tree for a few hours in order to bring the elders to talk to him, to understand what happened, how he was out of his mind killing another person. After that he is liberated, but he has the obligation of being economically responsible for the family of the dead person. And that is very healthy for that society. It is not only that they don't have prisons, but also that person has a real opportunity for rehabilitation. He usually becomes a very good citizen because he has two families on his shoulders. In many cases, he's one of those that goes to the U.S. to work to get a few dollars, because he needs money for the family. But he cannot leave the community for good, because he belongs to the community and to abandon it is worse than jail or death. It is an expression of the basic affiliation to the community. They are accepting that in this case, they can resolve the question of killing within their normative system. At the same time, if an outsider—a foreigner or a Mexican—commits a crime in the community, he will be referred to the conventional courts. This is just one example of the different rules established in this law, with mutual respect and mutual limits for the operation of the different systems.
In terms of defining these commonly agreed limits, different groups coming from diverse cultures or opposite ends of the political spectrum will have different standpoints, and this will inevitably lead to conflicts. How can these tensions be resolved effectively?
These kinds of conflict are particularly challenging for the so-called developed societies. They assume that there is a shared conceptual system. But what is called universal reason is really the reason or the conceptual system of one specific group. Dialogue has always been on the terms of one specific rational system. How you can have agreement between people that have different conceptual systems? Dialogue for us implies transcending the “logos” or reason, not reducing the agreement to the conceptual system of any of the parties.
I was present during a long conversation between a very gentle officer of the Canadian government and a Mohawk, and at one point, after many hours of discussion, the Canadian officer lost his patience and said, “But, Chief, you need to understand that the Canadian government will never accept the sovereignty of the Mohawk people.” Then the Mohawk Chief jumped to his feet and said, “We are not interested in your notion of sovereignty. For you, sovereignty implies causing some harm to our Mother Earth, establishing lines of division, and signs of ‘no trespass.' For us, in our language, in our notion, our conception of sovereignty is to be free like the wind. That is what we want.”
This notion of being free like the wind cannot be understood by the Canadian government. You cannot expect to have, even after many long conversations, a real agreement in rational terms, because the rationality of the Mohawks and the rationality of the Canadian government are basically different. So what we are talking about are accords that go beyond rationality, rules that can be accepted even if there are different interpretations of the meaning of these rules. What we are talking about are accords from the heart (“accord” comes from the Latin cor, heart), not from the mind.
In the context of the global economy, which is devouring people's physical and cultural spaces across the world, how can communities be free like the wind?
I think there are great opportunities for doing this. The nation-state was created with capitalism because that was the perfect model for its expansion. The main function of the nation-state was the administration of the national economy. Now the nation-state becomes an obstacle for the expansion of capital, and in a sense the nation-state and traditional sovereignty are being demolished. There isn't any country that still has something that can be described as a national economy; even the economy of the U.S. is no longer in the hands of the Americans—global forces permeate it. This means that now the nation-state is being confronted by a two-pronged challenge: by transnational corporations, by the expansion of capital, and by people in their regions that are no longer satisfied by this model. We are seeing a real opportunity for the transformation of the political regimes of the world.
Protectionism never protected the people. It protected local and national business. If people have no trust in bureaucrats and no trust in the market, then the solution is people at the local level, not at the national level, deciding about investment and trade. In a specific village or town, people can come together and say, “We want or we don't want this investment, we want or we don't want this kind of trade, we can accept or not that these products can go out or come in.”
I think it is feasible and practical that a small village can win over a big corporation. We say that David can always win over Goliath if David fights in David's territory. We cannot win against the World Bank in Washington. One of the reasons is the logic of globalization. Corporations are looking for opportunities for profit everywhere. They have the whole planet as their horizon. If we at a local level increase the social costs of investment through our opposition, then there is a point at which the corporation says, “Well, this is not the place to stay. I will look for another place because these stupid people are blocking my profits.” We are not solving the problem, but we are solving the problem of a specific group of people, because they go to some other place. As many more people do the same we are in a sense suffocating the space of capitalism.
The Zapatista movement has played a key role in linking groups around the world, hasn't it?
Absolutely. What we are talking about now is localization as a word that is both opposite to globalization and localism. I think this is one of the basic elements defining Zapatismo. There is a sense that what we had before Zapatismo was a form of localism in which people were resisting in their small communities and concentrating their forces internally. You can also see this in the U.S. or in England or wherever—a small group of people resisting Wal-Mart, or a road, or whatever. They become localists, and in many occasions this localism can become fundamentalism, a very dangerous form of localism that is authoritarian and inward looking.
What we are now describing is a transition from resistance to liberation, because people are still rooted in their own place, committed to that place, strengthening their roots in that place, but also opening themselves to wide coalitions of others like them, looking for solidarity, mutual support, new ideas, learning from others. This process of learning from others has been the definition of Zapa- tismo from the very beginning. This is really a critical point. Now you can have these great coalitions of discontent that are really very effective, not only in classical terms of solidarity where people support a group fighting elsewhere, but as a process of mutual solidarity, a shared learning process. I think these coalitions evolve into what was defined by the Zapatistas as the politics of “one no, many yeses.” Yes, we share this opposition to something, to neoliberalism, to a nuclear plant, or to whatever, but we can accept at the same time many different reasons for this opposition, many different ideas, many different affirmations.
Noam Chomsky commented during the march that the Zapatistas are one of the most important movements fighting neoliberalism and that their ripple effect could change the course of contemporary history. What are your thoughts on this?
At one point in the Intercontinental Encounter, the Zapatistas said a phrase that was accepted as a poetic suggestion but not really as something feasible: that we are not here to change the world—which is very difficult, next to impossible—but we are here to create a whole new world. You may say that it is very beautiful, but it is not pragmatic. However we are seeing this as a pragmatic principle that is extremely effective.
The best example is perhaps in education. If you want to change the education system in the world or in any country or city, it is almost impossible. You have the opposition of teachers, or bureaucrats, or almost everybody. You have Bill Gates talking about the global campus and that everybody will be educated through programs on the Internet. This is another illusion that will not destroy the oppression of education that basically creates two classes of people, the educated and the uneducated or undereducated. In Southeast Asia only 0.04 percent have access to the Internet and 70 percent of people on earth have never made a phone call, so even the global campus will only be for a minority of people. The point is not trying to change the system. The discussion for us is no longer about what education is doing to the educated, if the education is good or bad, if it is critical or oppressive.
We have abandoned that struggle and our debate and practice now are to create opportunities for learning in an alternative way, of which there are many examples in Oaxaca. We are creating many different opportunities for practical learning beyond the classroom, as well as the social recognition for this learning that takes place out of school, by giving out diplomas. We know there is symbolic power in diplomas, so we are using these dominant symbols and changing their meaning.
From the very beginning, many people were asking, “Why are they using the flag? They are against a nation-state.” Well, what the Zapatistas have been doing is reclaiming symbols that have been in the hands of the leaders until now. The flag was used by the elite as a tool to impose domination on the people, to establish the nation-state. Now by reclaiming the flag we can see that the Zapatistas were very clever to do this from the beginning: to express that this is not a separatist movement, that they are not trying to create an Indian republic, that this is not the Basque movement. They say, “we want a different kind of society,” but they use these symbols with a different meaning: we want to be together, but we don't want uniformity, homogeneity.
You mentioned the small percentage of people in the world who have access to the Internet, yet it has played a fundamental role in the Zapatista struggle. How can we make sense of the use of high technology alongside land-based cultures with oral traditions and minimal resources?
The Zapatistas have always insisted that they are not traditional but contemporary. They are implicitly saying, in my words, that one of their best traditions is the tradition of changing traditions in the traditional way. That is, to have historical continuity. Modernity implies a break with the past. What the Zapatistas are saying is, “I am remembering my tradition, I am not breaking with it, but I will not be trapped by tradition, or even worse try to go back, which is impossible.”
What we have learned is the need to be aware of the dangers of technology. I think we learned the hard way by accepting new technologies uncritically. The Green Revolution is a technology that we adopted and now it is very easy to see its damaging consequences.
Basically we need to do two things. One is to establish limits to technology. The problem with many modern technologies is not the technology, but the scale. If it goes out of proportion, then it is damaging. Nobody can really be against the idea of the combustion engine. You have a problem because of the scale, when everybody uses private cars—we have four million in Mexico City. The first thing in the consideration of any kind of technology is the scale of its use.
The second element is the relation between people and that technology. The problem with many of these technologies is that after some time they dominate and control the user. This is happening with the computer, where the mind is being formulated in terms of the screen. In Oaxaca we have a workshop every day to discuss how we can use the computer, the Internet, email. For example, the trap with email is using it as a substitute for personal interaction. You can see that many so-called modern people are in the same office, two meters apart, and are writing messages to each other, which is absolutely stupid. Email is very useful as a means of contact between different groups. One of its main uses is to convene meetings. But then you meet. That means knowing the importance of meeting.
I think that Seattle or Prague or other mobilizations are a good example of this. The Internet was used to convene people, but then they came together. They learned from the experience of being in Seattle, they talked to each other and started to have a different kind of relation, not through email, but person to person. So it is a question of how to use this technology, at the proper scale, with a sense of proportion, and, secondly, to establish limits, so as to use the machine, but not be used by the machine.
In relation to the march, how do you see the next steps developing?
Of course, there is a danger that the Congress will postpone the reforms or approve a Constitutional Reform that will be unacceptable for the Zapatistas. This would create a lot of tension and would be a signal for many people that do not believe in the dialogue to use violence. Not only the so-called guerrilla groups, of which there are around 20 in Mexico, but there are many other people, even people from the old regime, that will say, “The Zapatistas have moved millions and even so cannot get any reaction from the powers that be. Then let's try direct action with violence.” This can be very dangerous and create a terrible mess in the country. My hope is that this will not happen because even the U.S. corporations, the U.S. government, the World Bank, the local interests, the rich people, the bankers, Fox, everybody sees this as the great danger and cannot accept this scenario. It has no winners but only losers.
So I think that sooner rather than later we will have constitutional reforms acceptable to the Zapatistas and to the Indian people. Then I think that we will have the dialogue and this dialogue may soon include the transformation of the Zapatistas into a political force, into the Zapatista Front. At the same time, it will mean the continuation of the dialogue about the other five points of the agenda already established in San Andres—democracy and justice, economic development, women, local conciliation, and the question of weapons. I think in the end the Zapatistas will never give back their weapons, but they will be transformed into legal tools for the self-defense of the community. This can be fully accepted by the government. In the case of Oaxaca, the governor can give weapons to communities for self-defense. It is very clear that they need this, but it is a legal force, it is not an insurgent group. Then we will have the so-called peace that was supposed to be signed at the end of the March, which could mean a process of one to three years. This process is the consolidation of the Zapatistas as a political force, no longer as an army. There may be a lot of tension, but I think this is a probable scenario that would be very healthy and good for the Zapatistas and for Mexico. Z
Sophie Style is a freelance writer based in England who just spent four months in Mexico.