Chiapas Ten Years Later

Thursday, September 30, 2004

Refuse to look away: North American Activism and the Rebellion in Chiapas
Refuse to look away: North American Activism and the Rebellion in Chiapas
Justin Podur

At the end of the day, all anyone wants is to live with dignity. To eat
three times a day, to have some say in what happens to you, to watch
children grow, to teach them and learn from them. To know you'll be taken
care of when you're sick. To know you'll have a chance to learn and do
things. Maybe to be able to walk out in the air, to be able to breathe that
air. To sing songs in your language, to learn songs from your elders and
teach them to your children. These aren't culturally specific desires. They
aren't western norms or middle class aspirations.

Maybe these aren't aspirations but roles people want to play. But the script
says that there aren't enough roles like this. The script calls for millions
and millions of people who don't get to eat three times a day. For people
who have to watch their children starve. Who have to work all day and never
see what they worked for.

This script—called capitalism, colonialism, white supremacy, patriarchy,
authoritarianism, militarism—divides the world into worlds. A first world
here, a first world there, a third world here, a third world there. The
first worlds talk—they get all the best lines. The third and fourth worlds
listen. Obey. They aren't permitted to speak unless spoken to. They aren't
permitted to rage, except against each other.

The script is not like that of a neighborhood play. The actors can't quit if
they don't like it. It is enforced—by guns and bombs, by fire and hunger and
hatred. It reaches into every corner of the world and assigns roles to every
person in it, from birth. From birth you know if you're to be white or
brown, rich or poor, man or woman, fourth world or third or first.

The lines are quite familiar, to anyone who has lived in the world a while.
So is the fate of those who try to rewrite, to improvise. First world would-
be rewriters face ridicule, charges of insanity, discomfort, even prison.
Third and fourth worlders face torture and death. And yet we have a moral
responsibility to try to rewrite the script. To write out the roles of
biopirate, CEO, paramilitary commando, bomber, state propagandist. To write
in the things we like.

Isolation is the enemy of the rewriter. In a corner of this continent, a
group of people are trying to rewrite the script. They are trying to write
in intercommunalism, democracy, respect for women, food, land, education,
health care, human rights, leaders who take orders rather than give them.
The script would like to see them isolated. Seeing them isolated, it would
see them quieted. Seeing them quieted, it would see them dead, or returned
to their former roles as takers of orders, as eaters of scraps, as workers
who are not rewarded.

As long as there is a project going to try to change the script, anyone who
would rewrite it is invited. The price of failure is more of the same. But
success would mean food and dignity and democracy, for everyone.

How does the script play itself out in Chiapas? What does the order require

The order requires inequality, poverty, and non-development. Chiapas is a
state of people who do not get their fair share in a country of people who
do not get their fair share.

Mexico's literacy rate is 87%. Chiapas' is 69%. In Mexico, 79% of households
have running water. In Chiapas, 58%. In Mexico, 88% of households have
access to electricity. In Chiapas, 67%1. 72% of children do not complete the
1st grade. Of 3.5 million people in the state, 1.5 million lack access to
medical care. 54% of the population are malnourished.2 The RAND corporation,
a right-wing think-tank, says that "In nearly 15 percent of the Chiapas's
111 municipalities, over 70% of the population lack electricity, drainage,
or toilets. One index of marginalization shows that 85% of the population
lives in a desperate condition." 3

Indigenous people build their communities on communally held land, their
right to which was protected by the Mexican constitution. But when the
constitution conflicts with the script, screw the constitution. Mexico under
Salinas revoked the protection of communally held lands. And price supports
for farmers. And agricultural subsidies and credits4.

The script requires poor, desperate, hopeless people. The state and the
market deliver. The order requires racism. In North America, indigenous
people are moved around whenever resources are found, their lands
are 'developed' without consulting them, they are dispossessed and made
refugees of with abandon5. In the United States, the absolute majority of
males between 18 and 35 have been (mis)handled by the criminal justice
system in some way6.

These are not the victims of progress. They are not obstacles who had to be
swept aside for progress to occur. They are suffering people whose roles as
sufferers are written into the script. How else to take a person's rights
away, to make a victim of a person, except by pretending that they are
something other than you? How else to extract petroleum, gas, coffee,
cattle, hydroelectric power, wood, and corn, and leave nothing in return but

The order requires violence. Most of us (people, I mean) believe that humans
are not made to suffer endless indignity and poverty. We do not face these
things quietly, but we can be made to suffer them only through fear. There
are now 70 000 soldiers in Chiapas.

The presence of the army is characterized by "constant threats, thefts,
rapes, unauthorized detentions, and constant intimidation through incursions
into territories and regions, which place many indigenous communities in a
permanent situation of insecurity and terror."8 Zapatista leaders are
jailed9. Paramilitaries linked to the army are active, and commit human
rights violations in a "situation of generalized impunity."10
The order requires ecological destruction.

A modern agriculture, which is an agriculture for export, which means people
growing things that they do not get to eat, is ecologically expensive. It
requires the destruction of forests. The use of chemical fertilizers and
herbicides and pesticides, in large quantities. It means erosion and
degradation of the soil11. This says nothing about the mining of petroleum
or of hydroelectric power generation. But that's just business as usual.
What about when the army is trying to put down an insurgency?

One tactic, favored in Vietnam, Colombia, Indonesia, and Cambodia, for
example, is the forest fire. Unprecedented amounts of forest have been
burning, 46 thousand hectares as of May 1998. These are neither the normal
burnings of the agricultural cycle nor are they caused by epidemic bad
weather. Rather, they are one of many consequences of disobedience12.

The surprise rebellion of January 1, 1994 won some initial successes, but
the EZLN was forced to retreat into the Lacondon jungle as 70 000 troops
came to occupy the state. The EZLN has honored a cease fire agreement with
the Mexican government. It has concentrated not on building a force with
many weapons, and advanced training, but on organizing and reaching out—to
villagers, to Mexicans outside of Chiapas, to the rest of the world.

One Zapatista statement says "We do not wish to seize power but to exercise
it." The Zapatistas have created a system of autonomous municipalities,
based on village assemblies13. The principles of local autonomy, of
community and communal landholding, and leadership whose primary
responsibility is to obey the community, have enabled the communities to
withstand years of occupation by the army14. Indigenous women have organized
militant nonviolent resistance to military occupation, and in some places
have succeeded in curtailing army violence15.

But while communities without any resources can organize, they cannot
develop without property. If they can be thrown off of their land, if they
can be made refugees of, if their fields can be burned, if they can be made
dependent on the government for food, then their efforts will have failed.
And the script has many recourses available.

How presumptuous it is to believe that one can change the script. Who are
these poor indigenous people, to believe they can administer their own
affairs without the state? Who are they to believe they can seize the
property of their betters and get away with it? Who are these unarmed women,
or poorly armed soldiers, who believe they can stand against the army? If
those who would change the world- system can adapt to circumstances, so can
the world-system adapt.

The Mexican army has made numerous innovations for undermining those who
would fight poverty and hopelessness. It has engaged in a 'blanketing
strategy' or 'saturation strategy', occupying the state with a large number
of troops. It has succeeded in this because of "much-enhanced communications
and mobility, thanks in part to US aid."16 Add to this the paramilitaries,
many openly linked to the state, to Mexico's leading political party, or the
army17, and you have a recipe for human rights violations, economic and
social disruption, creation of refugees, and a climate of fear and

In 1997, at Acteal, 45 people were murdered in a church by paramilitaries,
with soldiers nearby18. The message is fairly clear: The Zapatistas cannot
protect you. The army will not protect you. Accept your role. Know your

One of the threats to the 'situation of generalized impunity' is the
presence of human rights observers, foreign or otherwise. Witnesses
complicate crimes. These observers have been able to constrain the Mexican
government's violence, even when the US government wanted to see the
Zapatistas destroyed19.

What's a repressive state to do? Keep the observers out. To that
end, "government agents began stepped up efforts to videotape, warn, and
question foreign activists, especially those who were traveling on tourist
visas but seemed engaged in activism, not tourism… some were deported."20
Over 200 activists have been deported since 1997. In April 1998, 12
foreigners were interrogated before being deported21.

So the script adapts, and the rewriters adapt, and the script adapts again.
What now? What are would-be rewriters to do?

Find out what the script requires of you, and don't do it. Refuse your role.
You are required to not watch, to not be a witness, to not know, to not tell
others. You are required to participate in the dispossession of indigenous
people here, and there, to be quiet and not speak up when it happens, or to
actively support it.

Are you a member of the elite? The script requires you to be happy with your
privileges. Are you a man? You are asked to oppress women and homosexuals,
to keep women out of work and dependent on you, to not share the work of
your house and your children.

Are you at the top of the racial caste system? You are required to oppose
those below you and resent them when they ask for what is theirs. You are
required to acquiesce as they are locked up, harassed, lied about and lied
to. Do you have land, wealth? You are required to believe it is yours by
right, not theirs who worked to create it, nor theirs from whom it was
stolen. You are required to defend what you have with all the vast resources
available to you.

Are you not a member of the elite? The system cannot function without your
obedience. You are asked to not realize that your work creates the wealth.
To not realize that your discomfort bolsters the system. To not realize that
leaders should take, not give orders. To not realize that there are better
ways to organize society. And most importantly, to not talk to others about
any of this.

In the short term, there are North Americans who are helping the Zapatistas
financially—directly or by allowing them to market their coffee at a just
price. There are people who are organizing delegations of human rights
observers. There are people who are pressuring the North American
governments to stop their key role in the repression. There are people who
do media work, education, demonstrations, letter-writing. All these efforts
could use more rewriters.

In the longer term, there are North Americans who have made proposals for a
just economy22, for just treatment of indigenous peoples23, for an
antiracist society24, for a sane foreign policy25. Any takers? Any other


1 Quoted in "Understanding Chiapas", by Food First: 1991 Statistics from
Anuario Estadistico de los Estados Unidos Mexicanos
2 Quoted in Marcos, "The Southeast in two Winds", 1994
3 (RAND corporation, 'The Zapatista Social Netwar', 199
4 (RAND corporation, 'Zapatista Social Netwar', 199
5 See for example, Ward Churchill, 'Struggle for the Land'
6 See, for example, Jerome Miller, "Search and Destroy: African American
Males in the Criminal Justice System"
7 Chiapas exports all of these commodities, despite the poverty statistics
listed above
8 from "Conclusions to the work of observation carried out by the
International Civil Commission for human rights observation", translated by
the Irish Mexico Group.
9 Ibid.
10 Ibid.
11 In "Understanding Chiapas", by Food First, 1994
12 La Jornada, May 13, 1998 "Who is starting forest fires in Chiapas?"
13 "The Mexican Zapatistas and Direct Democracy", Worker's Solidarity no. 55
14 "The EZLN and Indigenous Municipalities", Mariana Mora, April 1998, on
the Irish Mexico Page
15 Ibid.
16 "Zapatista Social Netwar", RAND Corporation, pg.74
17 "On the Offensive: Intensified Military Occupation in Chiapas Six Months
since the Massacre at Acteal", Global Exchange, 1998.
18 Ibid.
19 "Zapatista Social Netwar", RAND Corporation, pg.50
20 Ibid., pg. 83
21 Ibid.
22 See for an example
23 See "I am an Indigenist", by Ward Churchill, in his "Struggle for the
24 See "Killing Rage", by bell hooks
25 See any of the writings of Steven Shalom or Noam Chomsky


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