Chiapas Ten Years Later

Sunday, October 31, 2004

A Very Human Struggle

The Zapatistas inspire support from human rights campaigners across the world. In the aftermath of the Acteal massacre, Carlos Montemayor describes the vision and the struggle of Mexico's indigenous peoples.

In 1994 an army of destitute Indians, the Ejercito Zapatista de Liberacion Nacional (EZLN), sprang up in the Mexican region of Chiapas, challenging the country with complex questions about its history and social fabric. But the Zapatista insurrection had its roots in events almost three decades before. On 23 September 1965 a group of young radicals attempted to ambush the garrison of Ciudad Madera, near the Chihuahua hills in Sonora. This sparked an armed struggle which has lasted for 30 years, reaching a peak during 1971-77.

Throughout the 1980s, movements active in Chiapas helped to found what eventually became the EZLN. Today's armed struggle has its origins in popular organisations defending agrarian reforms and worker's rights and resisting the extreme discrimination suffered by indigenous communities. Behind the movement are thousands of children and older people who provide information, food, safe passage, clothing, arms and medicines. The family networks have penetrated large regions and have defeated all the military's efforts to dismantle it. However the latest move by the army to enclose the Chiapas forest, threatens this source of support.

The EZLN unlike other guerrilla movements, has had media attention from day one. This is partly due to globalisation, new international strategies of resistance and the spread of human rights organisations across the world.

The EZLN also differs from other groups in its influence on other sectors such as students, the National Democratic Convention, Consulta National, forums for the indigenous communities, and international meetings like the American Continental (Regional) Forum and the Intercontinental Meeting for Humanity and Against Neoliberalism (both held in 1996). Mexican intellectuals, artists and researchers participated in negotiations in San Cristobal de las Casas and San Andris Larrinzar, and numerous people have visited Chiapas. The EZLN launched its Fourth Declaration of the Lacandona Jungle to form the Zapatista Front. It set out not to be a political party but a form of civil resistance with a new political focus.

The EZLN's politics are rooted in the experience of the indigenous peoples. Those of us who have no indigenous blood have spoken too often about what does and does not constitute indigenous culture and about what indigenous peoples should and should not think. In the meantime, most aspects of the indigenous spirit have gained ground. This could be described as a process of 'Indianisation' of the socialist ideal. Western socialist notions have been subordinated to the communitarian culture of the Indian peoples. In Subcommandante Marcos's words: 'One-person decisions and vertical decision-making gave way to collective and horizontal decision-making.'

The traditional authority structure amongst indigenous people is strikingly democratic: not in the western sense, but in a unique, collective way. Indigenous authority takes shape over many years, and through many religious and civic activities that strengthen loyalty to tradition and to the community as a whole. Positions of authority do not bring riches but they carry the responsibility of sharing one's own goods: feeding the community and guests of the community. Every year the authorities change at every level. Every year the community builds on the spiritual maturity of its authority and on the respect which the community itself has for that authority. This explains the close integration of the Zapatista's military, political and community organisations.

First, there is a communal structure, the Clandestine Indigenous Revolutionary Committee (CCRI), organised along communal lines, with 'horizontal and collective' decision-making. This is the supreme Zapatista authority and its decision-making follows an age-old democratic pattern. Public discussion takes place in an atmosphere of respect, patience and wisdom unknown in western assemblies. Issues must be negotiated until a consensus is reached. What matters is the consent of the community, not the imposition of the will of the majority over the minority. Everyone's opinion has equal weight.

The armed body of the EZLN is called the General Command, and its head is Subcomandante Marcos. The General Command must obey the community as represented by the CCRI - the military authorities 'command while obeying'. Sometimes the EZLN's communiqu├ęs are signed by the CCRI, at other times by the CCRI and the General Command.

In Western cultures, past events have little relevance to the future. For the indigenous people the past is part of, and exists alongside, the present. Indigenous memory is a process of revitalising past times. Its celebrations, dances, prayers, oral tradition, are all part of a present inextricably linked with the past. So when they speak of Emiliano Zapata (or any other historic hero) they are talking about a living force. This world view in which past and present are simultaneous, constitutes a new understanding of society. This is why Zapata is the reincarnation of a force which is fighting not only in southern Mexico but in every corner of the country. This force, springing from the indigenous community, is made up of the common ownership of land, embracing the poor and their fighters. Zapatismo differs from other armed peasant groups which only identify themselves with a particular individual whose death, brings the movement to an end.

For those of us from the Judeo-Christian tradition, the planet seems to be at our disposal. For the indigenous peoples, though, land is a living partner; their communities are at the disposal of nature. Earth, rivers, rain, sowing and reaping all form part of an everyday living process. Each stage of the agrarian process, each element in nature -insects, the climate, the seasons - is part of how the indigenous communities understand the world.

In the west, it is of greater value to protect the rights of individuals than to preserve community values. For indigenous peoples, the values and sense of belonging to a community which aspires only to serve the world are paramount. This mean that constitutional reforms mean one thing for local land tenants but something quite different for indigenous communities which are often forced into the jungles and mountains either by political repression or to make room for dams and tourist resorts.

The indigenous vision of shared ownership of land, collective labour, civil and religious responsibilities, political and domestic values, is based on written law with high regard for equality. This is a judicial and political exercise which has been practised for centuries as a means of self-defence. They have a clear sense of their own identity and want to be respected for who they are. They do not want to act outside Mexican society but to be accepted inside it with a legal recognition they have termed 'autonomy'. Today, these communities have no autonomy but are isolated, marginalised and discriminated against. The final recognition of proper autonomy cannot be a concession or mere invention, but the beginning of a process of institutional openness, the first step towards a new administrative framework in Mexico.

The culture of the Indian peoples is a bulwark against the pressures to conform that come from neoliberalism and globalisation. The Zapatista's international struggle is an appeal, first of all, not to lose the human face of all the peoples of the earth.

It is also an appeal to focus on all the networks of support and solidarity that can work against the isolation of the EZLN's struggle. The international presence, in the form of world opinion, the media, human rights organisations, the International Red Cross, donors of foodstuffs and clothing, all contribute to the EZLN's goal of a new form of freedom, a chance to escape from the military and political encirclement of the Chiapas, an encirclement intended to snuff out its struggle and silence its voice.

This international support is necessary because this is not just an issue for the Indian communities of Mexico, but also a fact of life outside. The EZLN is the self-defence of a minority that symbolises every other minority, not just in weak and impoverished places, but also in powerful regions of the so-called First World.

We are witnessing increasing violence against minorities, both personal and state-inspired. These minorities may be Turks, they may be black people, they may be Asians and Hispanics. Racial discrimination is part of a much wider gamut of social exclusions. Discrimination may be economic, and take the form of poverty, unemployment, loss of social security and work. In Israel, in Germany, in France, in the United States, in Iraq, in Mexico, in any number of countries this is the case. What idea of humanity does this discrimination against the poor, this discrimination on the basis of skin colour, this violation of human rights imply? This contempt for others is a denial of humanity. Is this what we can expect today, at the end of the Cold War, when there remains but one great winner, when, with globalisation, a small group of countries and transnational companies exercise their hegemony over the world? This power that won the Cold War, does it propose to create a better human being? Or instead, does it propose to deepen discrimination, insisting on the superiority of one race, of one culture, of one economy, over all the others?

At a time when the violence of economic and racial discrimination seems to be growing, at a time when the powerful are ever fewer and the weak ever more numerous, a message comes from the Indians of Chiapas. From the Mayan peoples of Chiapas a call has been sounded: no one must be excluded from humanity. Discrimination in any form is a way of denying the human condition, of rejecting life, of turning one human being against others, against himself or herself.

This is why the EZLN's struggle and the bravery of the Zapatista Indians of Chiapas extends far beyond Mexico. This is a chapter in the human struggle to be recognised as human. This struggle did not begin yesterday and will not end tomorrow. But it does aspire to end. For this, it will have to triumph in every region of the world. After 30 years of armed struggle, an achievement of the EZLN was to bring a government to the negotiating table. That government has shown two major weaknesses: its failure to understand either the struggle or the indigenous mentality. A growing spectre of violence and a dangerous process of militarisation across the country can only be attributed to the government's resistance to negotiate. The recent massacre in Acteal has forced the government to shake off its stupor, at least for a while. We hope the government has the will to negotiate a lasting peace through dialogue rather than by force.

Translated by Marcos Braccaitta and Ben Webb. Marcos Montemayor is a poet and novelist, and writes for the Mexican newspaper La Jornada.


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