10 years of Autonomous Zapatista Government – time to share the learning



Es el sonido de su mundo derrumbándose.

Es el del nuestro resurgiendo…..

(“Can you hear that?

It’s the sound of your world tumbling down.

It’s the sound of our world resurging……”)

From the comuniqué from the Zapatistas, 21-12-12

Im definitely not a born-blogger, but this is an occasion I couldn’t pass up on to share with those back in Ireland and another few places, so that ye can get a small sense of what it’s like to participate in some of the celebratory events that the Zapatistas have organised to celebrate their 10 year anniversary of the formation of their ‘caracoles’ ( conches), which are in short, their organisational hubs around Chiapas (more later).  I’ve decided to break up this blog into two parts, coz if not, I’ll never get it all done in one go and I don’t want to leave folks waiting too long. So here goes the first part…..

 It’s been a few years since the Zapatistas have opened their doors to the outside world.  Since 2008-2009 to be precise, when they last held an international gathering on the occasion of  El Festival Mundial de la Digna Rabia ((The World Festival of the Dignified Rage), held in Mexico City and  Chiapas (Dec. 2008-January 2009), to celebrate the 15th anniversary of the beginning of the armed movement of the EZLN. The invite to this event was published in their regular ‘comunicados’, which they bring out regularly via enlacezapatista.org.mx .  They announced that there would be a 2-day party for all to attend in each of their caracoles, and everyone was welcome to join them, except government officials, politicians  and mainstream journalists.  After this La Escuelita (the little school) would take place; a 5-day course which the Zapatistas designed whereby those invited by them would get to stay with an indigenous Zapatista family for 3 days and go to class for 2 days at the caracoles to ask any questions they wanted about how they run their autonomy.  Finally the week would culminate with a 2 day congress of the Mexican National Indigenous Congress at CIDECI  (Centro Indigena de Estudios, Información de Desarrollo, Indigenous Centre for Studies, Information and Documentation) an autonomous indigenous university that support the Zapatistas, in San Cristóbal.

oventikI went along to Oventik, one of the caracoles, with some indymedia friends who were going to film some of the festivities with permission of the compas.  Oventik is caracol number 2 (order in which they were originally formed).  It is in Los Altos (the highlands) of Chiapas .  There was a chance to comandantes were going to make an appearance here hence we went there.  I was exited to be able to witness this event and obviously hoped that La Nariz (The Nose…Subcomandante Marcos’ nickname for himself) might make an appearance.

As we entered the caracol we were told we were only allowed to take photos of the murals and not the people.  Later on when they would make an official speech, and there would be a chance to take photos and video when all the zapatistas place their characteristic headpieces on.Bienvenidos a Caracol II ELZN

I figure about over 4,000 people were there over the two-day event, mostly indigenous, with a few hundred foreigners, and urban mexicanos (Remember, this is just one of 5 caracoles, though it is the largest, so easily there could have been about 15,000 folks celebrating all around the place).  It was like market-day with lots of little outdoor stalls selling all their home-grown fruit and veg, from corn on the cob, to atole (a hot yummy corn drink), rabbit mole (spicey chocolate y dish),tacos and even pizza! That, I’m told is a new one, sponsored by some Italian activists who’ve been busy running pizza/bread oven-making workshops for some years in these parts. Tasty too they were, Chicago-style thick based with their zapatista home-grown mushrooms and the mole was great too.  The one steep road in Oventik is lined with small wooden cabins which are little centres for different community collectives of which many are women’s artisan collectives making weaves to sell for their women’s projects mostly being health and educational projects.  There were some urban collectives too selling the usual merchandise, documentaries, t-shirts, stickers, jewelry, but strangely enough I saw very little books on sale.

I hadn’t been to Oventik before.  It’s got the largest amounts of beautifully painted murals on most of the buildings done in conjunction with many artist collectives who have visited the zapatistas over the years. It’s one long path down to the central podium where the basketball tournament was already getting underway at 10am.  Anyone could sign up teams for football, basketball, and volleyball.  The compas are big in

to these sports and already had many men and women teams signed up for these blitz leagues over the course of the 2 days.  The courts and pitches were basic but this didn’t stop them playing with passion!

First up was a team of not-so-fit gringos against a ‘compa’ (the local term used for a zapatista or zapa sympathisers, coming from the word ‘compadre’, meaning ‘friend’) basketball team.  With revolutionary hard rock music playing in the background, watching the sight of these short indigenous players running circles round the tall yanks was a crazy sight to behold just after breakfast.  The gringo players knew that they were a novelty for the mostly indigenous public and did some funny little moves for extra laughs.  Every time the speedy indigenous players intercepted the ball off the gringos,  giggles could be clearly heard.  Everyone enjoyed the show, but the indigenous players take their game seriously and don’t waste any time mourning missed opportunities or mistakes.  In the same way that they collectively live and decide together, it seemed that their game strategy was all about the team and not about self-glory in the least.  Watching their faces you couldn’t tell if they were delighted when they scored or got ticked when they missed, or the others scored. Straight poker faces concentrated on the game!  Culturally, indigenous communities here are known for being very shy about showing emotions in public.  They must think Im a wierdo-clown smiling to salute whoever passes by in my engrained Irish-mode.

Mexican sky band playing during the festivitiesBut tell me more about the Zapatistas I hear you say! Ok ok, so they play sports, and the description is quaint, but you really wanna know what they are doing these days, how does their autonomy really work, what are they planning, and how things really are on the ground?  Well, there’s no one comprehensive summary I can give you, and I’ve only begun learning, but I’ll try a smattering from here and there.

Well, claiming one’s autonomy is not a small feat, and not something to be taken lightly.  When the zapatistas carried out their uprising in January 1994 they first hoped to spark a national rebellion in all of Mexico.  Im sure they figured this would be difficult so they had other thought-out strategies just in case.  After a heavy prolonged counter-attack from the government once they realised who the hell was attacking them, the Zapatistas decided to try to negotiate with the government to buy time during the cease-fire to retreat their troops to safe places and minimise more casualties.  A document was drawn up jointly over many months, called the San Andrés Peace Accords.  With the eyes of the world watching , both sides signed on febuary 16th 1996. It seemed like a historic occasion as this document enshrined many basic rights for indigenous peoples in Mexico.  However, as was to be expected from a 70-odd year monopoly of the PRI government at the time, these accords were never kept.  With this latest expected deception, the Zapatistas slowly took steps towards making the world in which they want to live in, a reality on their own reclaimed lands, with their own cultivated crops, their own education, their own health clinics, and their own autonomous governments and justice system.  But it didn’t happen over night; there were many steps along the way which were slowly discussed, planned, and cooked over a low flame.DSC03569

I’m reading a book at the moment by Raúl Zibechi, called Dispersing Power which  I bought at Solidarity Books in December actually, and he mentions two core principles on which the Zapatistas base themselves….firstly, that the means is the end, and that you need to carry out your revolution in your timeframe, not theirs.  So trying to keep up with capitalism’s crazy pace and letting them set the pace will only wear you out….you gotta set the pace of your game or you can never win.  Just thought I’d throw that in, as it’s a hard one for me still….the panic and stress of how much there always left to do is always overwhelming and can only wear us out if we think of it in those terms alone.

Well, very briefly, caracoles are the hubs for the centres of the ‘Councils of Good Government’ of the Zapatistas (for them the ‘bad government’ is the Mexican national Government). These councils run on a continual rotation basis, just like indigenous community local councils and assemblies would run.  In indigenous communities (here and in many parts of Latin America), all the council positions are run on a rotation basis everyone has to give their time freely to help make decisions that affect the community.  Nobody gets any pay. It’s a duty everyone must take up.  It must be said though, that there’s still more men in these positions than women, but Zapatista communities are making big head-way in narrowing this gap with seriously active strong women going around creating awareness among many of the isolated villages so that women step up and take up these positions which is enshrined as their right under the Zapatista’s Revolutionary Women’s Law (which was drawn up by indigenous Zapatista women even before their uprising!). Basically Zapatista women had their own revolution within the ranks of the Zapatistas demanding these laws be passed a year before the uprising, and they are seriously progressive too!

But back to Oventik to finish this wee part.  The day was mostly made up of all these sport tournaments, with a couple of ‘whiteys’ taking part. I’m not really into any team sports, though it would have been nice to play against some of the indigenous women basketball players.  They were tough in their own right, but the women seemed to have less access to proper sports shoes, and many were in their traditional indigenous skirts making it a bit difficult to play.  It didn’t stop them from getting stuck in, even as the rain poured down for much of the afternoon.

I listened to some great mexican ska, rock and rap bands and MCs, and zapatista bands during the rainy afternoon, and then the point in the evening finally came when they announced that they were making their public speech.

DSC03590The rain poured on down and we all stood there covered in all sorts of umbrellas, jackets, coloured plastic sheets to watch the show, in a sea of little Zapatista black-hooded people. None of the commandantes showed up which was quite disappointing, but watching them do their whole flag show with the EZLN flag and the Mexican flag side by side (Mexican nationalism is so huge, it does not seem a contradiction to the Zapatistas to vow allegiance to both flags).  I was so enthralled with taking photos that I didn’t really listen to the darn declaration which was read out in Spanish and 2 indigenous languages.  I’m gonna try find a recording of it and give ye a summary soon, though it wasn’t anything very novel, mostly commemorating their anniversary and reaffirming their struggle….no mention of new strategies or campaigns as some people were expecting.

Seeing all these people standing in the rain, united, speaking of 500 years of resistance was very inspiring and made me think of all the hardships they have had to face just to get to this point.  We may over-romanticise this movement from the outside, and I may even feel jealous that they have been able to have the numbers to move forward to this point, but I ask myself if I would really be able to give up all I have to fully follow in their footsteps?  The life of a campesino (farmer) is in no way easy, and theirs in particular has many extra hardships as the government is always finding indirect ways to wear them down, causing strife among communities instead ofDSC_0038 attacking them these days.  I know that I have a ways to go and still lots to learn, but I also think I need to continue to find new ways to use the privileges that I have (education, social class, nationality etc) to support these struggles and find new ways of personally resisting the system and creating other ways of living.  John Holloway talks of urban Zapatismo, and applying and adapting some of their ideas to urban environments is definitely a good strategy because I have to be realistic and can’t think that I, let alone so many others, will be returning any time soon to work the land in the ways they do.  It’s a lot of fucking hard work, and maybe one day it’ll go that way again, but finding some inbetweeners  first would be a good start and see how much we can get out of urban agriculture first.

Next up in a few days will be how the Zapa Escuelita went down and the final weekend of the National Indigenous Congress in San Cristóbal….. check back in soon!

2 responses »

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s