From Below and to the Left...
The Zapatistas Build a Different Way of Doing Politics
by RJ Maccani
(Originally appeared in print in Left Turn Magazine's fifth anniversary issue)
The Zapatista rebels of Mexico’s Southeastern state of Chiapas are taking their boldest step since they rose up in arms twelve years ago. Continuing a twenty-two year journey of growth and transformation, they are spreading out beyond their autonomous communities to join with and build a Mexican and global movement for democracy, freedom, and justice.
Following an internal consultation with the over 200,000 members of the Zapatista communities in June of 2005, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) released their Sixth Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle. The declaration is essential reading as it tells their story in their own words and will be the guiding document for their future work. Also an invitation to publicly join the EZLN in building a movement against capitalism “from below and to the left,” it can be found on-line in at least eight languages.
Although the Zapatistas have been the most popular reference point for the radical Left in the past decade, and in spite of their being hundreds of books and hundreds of thousands of articles and essays written and translated into dozens of languages by and about them, they have often been misunderstood. One reason for this is that they have been practicing a way of doing politics quite distinct from the one to which the westernized world is accustomed. Since their emergence in the public eye on New Years Day of 1994, the Zapatistas have unfailingly put into practice the principle that leadership is a position of service, they have prioritized listening, accountability, and consensus-building, and they have put ethics before pragmatism, moving “at the pace of the slowest.” And it is because of this that the Zapatistas enjoy a nearly unrivaled level of moral authority in Mexico and the world.
In launching the Sixth Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle, they are putting this moral authority, as well as the lives of their leadership, at risk. The Sixth Declaration is distinct from the five that precede it because this time the Zapatistas don’t just intend to inspire or convene those fighting for humanity and against capitalism, but to defy arrest warrants and death threats by leaving their autonomous territories and literally joining with “the humble and simple people who struggle” in Mexico and throughout the world. The moral authority of the EZLN will soon be held not just in their own hands, but also in the hands of all those who build new initiatives with them.
That being said, the EZLN is remaining accountable to their Mayan indigenous support base and the majority of the army will remain in Chiapas and continue to defend the over 1,100 Zapatista communities which are grouped into 29 autonomous municipalities and five regions known as “caracoles.” With massive support and solidarity from Mexican and international civil society, these Zapatista communities are innovating with political and judicial structures and educational, health, communication and economic development programs that put the Mexican government to shame. They have accomplished all of this while being surrounded by 50 to 60 thousand troops—roughly one third to one fourth of the Mexican military.
Two new groups have recently formed out of the EZLN: the Sixth Commission and the Intergalactic Commission. The Sixth Commission is composed of fifteen indigenous comandantes of the EZLN and its iconic mestizo spokesman, Subcomandante Marcos, and is responsible for carrying out the national objectives of the Sixth Declaration. These objectives are to join with Mexican civil society to create or recreate another way of doing politics “from below and to the left,” to build an anticapitalist national plan of struggle, and to form a new Mexican constitution.
The Intergalactic Commission is currently headed by Lieutenant Colonel Moisés and is concerned with building closer links with movements around the world, including sending material aid to groups in resistance and participating in the creation of more convergences such as the legendary “Encounter for Humanity and Against Neoliberalism” convened by the Zapatistas in 1996, which laid the groundwork for what would become known as the Global Justice Movement.
In August of 2005, less than two months after releasing the Sixth Declaration, the Sixth Commission began convening meetings to build a national political force beyond the electoral parties. Over consecutive weekends, Mexican civil society came to the Zapatista territories of Chiapas in sectors: first—political organizations of the left, second—indigenous peoples and organizations, third—social organizations, fourth—collectives, non-governmental and artistic organizations, and fifth—families, communities and individuals with no organizational affiliation. A sixth meeting was held for all those who could not attend the previous meetings. Each meeting was a listening party in which everyone who came and publicly adhered to the Sixth Declaration was encouraged to speak for as long as they liked about their lives, struggles, and wishes for the new movement that they were building together. For six weekends in a row, the Sixth Commission listened and took notes while their new compañeros introduced themselves. Subcomandante Marcos played mediator and his opening and closing remarks generally framed each weekend.
At the conclusion of these six meetings, in the middle of September, all the adherents from the previous meetings were invited back to Chiapas for a plenary in which they launched what is being called “The Other Campaign”. They discussed in depth what it means to practice another way of doing politics and build a national plan of struggle. This discussion is being structured around six points or themes: 1. Characteristics, 2. Who is invited?, 3. Structure, 4. Treatment of differences, 5. Other forces, and 6. Work.
One aspect of this other way of doing politics is that these six points are intended to be discussed by all adherents not so that some people’s positions will eventually dominate others, or that there will be winners and losers, but so that adherents will begin a process of communication that allows them to create a movement together, understanding each others’ perspectives while respecting the autonomy of each organization and individual. It is understood by most that it will be the shared work more so than these discussions that will ultimately reveal the face and nature of the Other Campaign.
“The Other Campaign” is a clever title for this new initiative when put into the context of the June 2006 Mexican presidential elections and the massive electoral campaigns being launched by the three dominant political parties: the Institutional Revolutionary Party (the “PRI” whose over 70 years of one party rule was finally broken in the 2000 elections), the National Action Party (the “PAN” whose candidate, Vicente Fox, won the presidency in 2000 as “the candidate of change” and then followed in the footsteps of the PRI) and the Party of the Democratic Revolution (the “PRD”, founded in 1989 as a party of the left, whose candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador—known simply as “AMLO”—is expected to win the presidency this year).
What has perhaps made the Other Campaign most challenging for Mexican civil society are the blistering verbal attacks Subcomandante Marcos has been directing towards the PRD and their candidate, AMLO. What is most concerning for AMLO and the PRD is that a great deal of their base listens to and highly respects the words of the EZLN. While some on the Mexican and international left have scoffed at the Zapatistas for publicly attacking a left candidate poised to win the presidency, it should be understood that the PRD and AMLO have justly earned the Zapatistas’ suspicion and disdain.
After working beside each other in prior years, the PRD stabbed the Zapatistas in the back in 2001 by joining the PAN and PRI in ratifying a mutilated version of the Law for Indigenous Rights and Culture. The constitutional amendment they passed, which was later upheld by the Mexican judiciary, closed the door on the hopes of Mexico’s indigenous for achieving justice through the existing political structure. AMLO has continued to surround himself with former members of the PRI and even signaled that he does not have substantive objections to the Pact of Chapultepec, which was created by Carlos Slim (the richest man in Mexico and, according to Forbes, the fourth richest man in the world) to secure the commitment of all three leading candidates to continue pursuing neoliberal economic policy. Meanwhile, members of the Zapatista Front have been spending time in Brazil documenting the devastating effects that popular “left” president Lula’s tenure has had on that country’s social movements and people.
The Sixth Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle and the Other Campaign partially arrive as the culmination of various experiences in which the political class of Mexico has attacked, lied to, and betrayed the Zapatistas. The EZLN have broken all dialogue and relationships with the political class and are successfully organizing to bring the vast majority of Mexicans with them. For the first time in their history, at the beginning of 2006, the Zapatistas celebrated New Years Day not with “Long Live the Zapatistas” but with “Long Live the Other Campaign.” And they celebrated by taking over the city of San Cristobal de las Casas in Chiapas just as they had done twelve years earlier but this time they were not two thousand armed rebels but rather tens of thousands of unarmed indigenous and mestizo Mexicans poised to launch a peaceful, civil movement to, in the words of Subcomandante Marcos, “… shake this country up from below, lift it up, and stand it on its head.”
And so, on New Years Day 2006, at the center of San Cristobal de las Casas, the indigenous comandancia who comprise the Sixth Commission handed over Subcomandante Marcos to tour the Mexican Republic promoting the Other Campaign and, most importantly, to meet, listen to and speak with those adherents to the Sixth Declaration who could not make it to last years’ meetings in Chiapas. Unarmed and with the civilian title of “Delegate Zero,” the safety of Subcomandante Marcos is in the hands of those adherents who are hosting him in each of the 31 states of Mexico, in Mexico City, and at the border. He will conclude the six-month tour with an informational plenary in Mexico City at the end of June before returning to Zapatista territory just days before the country’s July 2nd elections. In September, the next delegates of the Sixth Commission—members of the indigenous comandancia—are scheduled to fan out across Mexico, taking up more long-term residencies, each in their own state or region, and join, in person, the building of the Other Campaign.
Delegate Zero has just completed his tour of Puebla—the eighth state in his route—and so far over 1,000 political organizations of the left, indigenous groups and organizations, social, non-governmental and artistic organizations and collectives have publicly joined the Sixth Commission to build the Other Campaign for another way of doing politics, an anticapitalist national plan of struggle, and a new constitution. In the backyard of our overextended empire, a revolution, from below and to the left, has already begun.
Go to www.ezln.org.mx to read and adhere to the Sixth Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle and to communicate directly with the Sixth and Intergalactic Commissions of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation.
This article is dedicated to Comandante Ramona who passed away on January 6th of this year after a ten-year struggle with kidney cancer. A fierce organizer for women’s rights within the Zapatistas, Ramona led the EZLN fighters in taking San Cristobal de las Casas in 1994. Two years later, she broke the military encirclement of her communities and defied the arrest warrant issued against her to be the first Zapatista leader to leave Chiapas to speak with her Mexican brothers and sisters. On that visit, Comandante Ramona promised to them that she was just the first of many more to come. As usual, the Zapatistas are keeping their word.
-Part 1 of the on-line series is "Outlines of a Mexican Rebellion" and continues telling the story of the national movement up to April '06.
-Part 2 is "Thoughts on Marcos and Leadership" and will appear (now with hyperlinks) here at Zapagringo by the end of the week.
-Part 3 will be called "Enter the Intergalactic" and focus on the global or "intergalactic" nature of the Zapatista movement-it will be posted next week...
Monday, July 24, 2006
From Below and to the Left...