Reinventing Solidarity Activism
Since the January 1, 1994 Zapatista uprising in Chiapas, Mexico, EZLN* leaders have been quite forthcoming about what solidarity means to them, be it domestic or international. Their articulation of the revolution they envision is poetic in its clarity, as is the applied strategy they hope will achieve their aims -- one reaching well beyond their tiny corner of the world or surface problems. Realization of those aims, the Zapatistas explicitly state, is intimately tied to the development of movements throughout Mexico and the rest of the world. They are under no illusion that an "army" like the EZLN can reach its priority goal -- that of localized indigenous autonomy -- even with massive amounts of aid, from food and medical supplies to weapons and training.
Realizing the strength of their primary adversary (the US-backed Mexican government), the Zapatistas have moved from a military focus to a strategy of grassroots organizing among what they call "civil society." And since the beginning this has prompted a fresh look at how the rest of the world should perceive their movement and our role in solidarity with it. In North America, even many pacifists have come out in explicit support of the Zapatistas, recognizing the nonviolent social orientation of the EZLN strategy. But what does it mean to support the Zapatistas, or to be in solidarity with them?
There are really two main perspectives on international solidarity between the US/Canada and the people of Chiapas. One, which we will call the direct solidarity method, has viewed the people of Chiapas, and in some cases the EZLN, as primarily in need of specific contributions. Some of this aid is material, such as food, medicine, housing, money and so forth. In many cases it is observers or witnesses to perform "protective accompaniment" in order to provide badly needed safeguards against military attacks on autonomous Zapatista and other indigenous communities. Additionally, countless activists have travelled to Chiapas to share special skills and advice. These folks also tend to recognize the important role of organizing at home in the North toward greater awareness of the Chiapas plight and against US military aid, corporate involvement, and so forth. All elements of this approach, if carried out with respect for the autonomy of the Zapatistas and Chiapans in general, are vital aspects of the current solidarity movement.
But according to the Zapatistas, if their revolution is to be successful by their own standards, there is still more to be done. It isn't sectarian to suggest that, indeed, true solidarity means much more than unilateral aid. Old notions of solidarity, which identify the stance too closely with charity, need to be checked for both their inherent conceit and their limited potential. They are conceited in that unilateral solidarity, or one-directional aid-giving, assumes total privilege on one end of the relationship, that of the North. In order to understand my concern (shared by many indigenous activists) with such a dynamic, it helps to understand a bit about who the Zapatistas, and the Maya people in general, actually are.
The Zapatiasta struggle is decidedly different from the "Latin American" "national liberation movements" with which North American solidarity activism became identified in the 1980s. For starters, the predominantly and centrally indigenous Zapatistas tend not to consider themselves Latin, but Indian. As the Zapatistas will be the first to admit today, the term "National Liberation" in their army's title is essentially misleading, if taken to imply a desire, like that of the FMLN* or FSLN* before them, to seize state power as a method of such liberation. Like their namesake Emiliano Zapata in the Mexican Revolution of the 1910s, the EZLN harbors no desire to liberate indigenous people, or anyone else, through seizure of national political authority. As Subcomandante Marcos has eloquently stated, the Zapatistas "wish not to seize power, but to exercise it" in their own communities. And they hope others will do the same.
A second distinction between the Zapatistas and most previous revolutionary movements in the region (and throughout the world), is their focus on, and basis in, traditional Mayan democracy. In every way more direct, localized and cultural than commonly understood forms of democratic structure and process, Mayan democracy -- not guerilla warfare tactics -- is the cornerstone of the Zapatista movement. This is particularly relevant because the heritage and present assertion of participatory democratic ideals, despite some of the most severe material poverty in the hemisphere, indicates an imbalance between activists in Chiapas and their counterparts in North America. Much richer in material resources, because of our dislocation from indigenous or other democratic cultures, most activists in the US and Canada have much to learn about democracy. Without meaning to downplay very real economic despair in the North, ours is also a poverty of democracy.
And the Zapatistas have much to teach, which is consonant with their repeated insistence that we organize our own communities -- not exactly as they have, but according to our own needs and potential -- as a method of acting in solidarity with the EZLN. Their means of communicating with Mexican civil society, through human-centered language instead of academic meandering, is an example of the distinction between the Zapatista and typical Northern perspectives on radical organizing. Indeed, because the Zapatistas have used Mayan languages to develop their understanding of revolutionary social change, Northern models of "leftism" do not even apply to the Zapatista struggle. Zapatismo is inherently community-oriented, because it arises from communities with preexisting cultures of democracy predating European invasion.
There are other reasons, also articulated by the Zapatistas, for organizing in our own communities. The Zapatista vision considers worldwide grassroots organizing, not necessarily toward direct or even explicit solidarity with Chiapas, a requisite to their own success. Especially important in the US and Canada where international influence through NAFTA and military aid is strongest, transformation of social systems in the heart of the imperial homeland is essential to the Zapatistas' ability to make progress toward resistance and autonomy.
Which leads us to note the real reasons many North Americans have cited a special relevance of the Zapatista struggle among others taking place around the world. Once again the "threat of a good example" is a real possibility in our hemisphere; if the Zapatistas' form of grassroots, democratic, localized resistance and self-governance proves successful, or even inspiring, the lessons of zapatismo may spread beyond the besieged villages of Chiapas. Perhaps no more severely oppressed than other peoples of the world, the Zapatistas stand out because they're applying relatively unique methods of resistance and social transformation, plus holistically engaging not only economic and political struggle but also race, gender, age and ecological issues as well.
For the Maya people of Chiapas, 1994 marked a significant point on an ancient calendar. On January 1 of that year, they say, the Sixth Sun, marking the dawning of another century in the colonial era, rose above Chiapas. And according to their prophecies, the Sixth Sun will illuminate the time of renewal, where the people will "rise up from the hills like corn," and according to another prophecy, unite with the peoples of the world to start a new era.
Even in this time of draughts, fires and floods, when little corn is rising, the Maya people have begun to fulfill those prophecies by saying "Enough is enough!," and by placing consistent calls to us all to join in their struggle.
How we partake in this struggle is up to us. Many organizations in the North have understood the Zapatista definition of solidarity to promote the development of democratic understandings through their incorporation in cultural activities. Groups all over are organizing highly politicized festivals and culturally-oriented teach-ins, explicitly intended in solidarity with the Zapatistas. Other organizations, like the Boston Encuentro, have formed to bring the lessons of the Zapatistas home to their communities, applying translations of zapatismo to their existing activist endeavors. Whatever the specific approach, let it be known there are more ways to demonstrate solidarity than the sending of aid or observers, however important those efforts are indeed.
Brian Dominick is a community organizer and freelance journalist living in his hometown of Syracuse, NY. He is co-founder of the NorthEast Zapatista Solidarity Network (http://zapnet.rootmedia.org) and Syracuse Zapatista Solidarity. For more writings by him on this and other subjects, see http://www.rootmedia.org/~bad.