After our "The Zapatistas and the World" event last night, featuring zapagringo authors Kolya Abramsky, Carwil James (today), Prita Lal, and M. Mayuran Tiruchelvam (as well as next week's authors, Dayanara and Toyin, from Casa Atabex Aché), I returned home to discover that two of our people from the Another Politics is Possible crew had been arrested at the after-party for a Sylvia Rivera Law Project benefit - please check their website for updates on the situation and solidarity actions.
Speaking of repression, the Zapatistas are undergoing a wave of threats and attacks so severe that they have released a communiqué announcing that instead of sending delegates to Central and Southern Mexico to continue building an outline of the Other Campaign's national program of struggle, they will instead be organizing actions for their communities. Stay tuned here for updates and solidarity actions! And with these things in mind, here is Carwil's report back and what I hope you will find to be insightful reflections from the Second Encounter of the Zapatista Peoples with the Peoples of the World:
Encountering Zapatista Autonomy
Who am I and what do the Zapatistas have to do with me?
My name is Carwil James. I'm 31, and I live in New York City. For the last 10 years, I've been involved in urban U.S. activism challenging corporate power, war, and the policies of empire. While I followed the Zapatista uprising in the news when it broke out in 1994, it wasn't until 1997 that translated communiques and the firsthand accounts of the resistance in Chiapas (published by the Chicago-based pro-indigenous collective, Dark Night field notes) began to influence my sense of political possibility. While I never visited Chiapas until this summer, the Zapatista analysis of neoliberal globalization as a continuation of colonization and war, and their praxis of grassroots autonomy were key to orienting my activism.
I worked full time for three years on corporate campaigns that combined resisting the power of oil corporations, exposing human rights violations, and asserting indigenous land rights. That meant finding ways to insert the stories of native struggles into the streets and into the media as part of the growing antiglobalization movement. But it also meant learning about movements more sophisticated in their analysis, tactics, and ability to challenge capitalism than the ones I took part in here in the global North. The relative invisibility of global South movements, and the lack of knowledge about what they believe and how they work undermines hope among people who dream of fundamental change in the United States. So I've chosen to use five or more years in graduate school to try to provide more of the picture of the ways and reasons people are resisting in the Americas, to do my best to understand and convey the possibilities opened up by efforts like the Zapatista autonomous zones.
What was the Encuentro like for me?
On a hillside, east of Altamirano, Chiapas, a metal roof arches over a massive stage surrounded by wooden buildings: Radio Insurgente, buildings for sleeping, a line of communal eating areas, and beyond them, a small cornfield and forested hills that go up for another 400 feet. The stage stands before a concrete platform which serves at times as audience seating, dance floor, or basketball court. Hung along the front is a banner which reads "Bienvenid@s / II Encuentro de los Pueblos Zapatistas con los Pueblos del Mundo [ Welcome / Second Encounter of the Zapatista peoples with the peoples of the world]" and bears the names of seven autonomous municipalities. This is Morelia, the organizing center or caracol (literally, "a snail," which grows by spiralling its shell ever outward) of the zone of Tzotz Choj, which comprises the seven communities and thousands of individual Zapatista "support bases," nearby members in non-Zapatista communities. To one side of the platform is the auditorium, a concrete-floored meeting hall with a wooden roof and open sides where as many as two thousand of us at a time listened to the Zapatistas and campesinos tell us the whys and ways of their struggles. Onstage, the Zapatistas sat at a line of tables, balaclavas or kerchiefs concealing their faces as they talked about building primary schools, or dividing the work in the milpas, or staffing the councils in the autonomous municipalities. And behind the stage is the office of the Junta de Buen Gobierno ("good government council" was a translation when we used English at all), where rotating representatives of the seven municipalities in the zone coordinate their activities, allocate the support of outsiders to efforts in need of it, and act as a court and dispute resolution group of last resort. Unauthorized by any external agency, the Zapatista system of autonomy is busily functioning, and has been deepening its path for at least fourteen years.
Morelia is just one of five caracoles, which are each home to one Junta de Buen Gobierno, schools, clinics, and all that is necessary for massive gatherings both among the Zapatista communities and with the outside world. This July, three of them, Morelia, Oventik, and La Realidad welcomed over two thousand of us into their world. The three caracoles are spread out over miles and miles of hills, pine and tropical forests, cornfields and gravel roads -- quite a lot of space. It's all the more spacious because of the lack of rapid means of travel across it, something that has probably saved the Zapatistas more lives and offered more autonomy than I can imagine.
At the encuentro, there were hundreds of voices, for days really, tracing their own personal work towards autonomous health and education systems, ways of coordinating between each other and managing outside support, efforts to revive local knowledge and to challenge the devaluing and oppression of women. The encuentro was first and foremost a giant collective report given to everyone in the camp. It was fascinating and exhausting, at times repetitive and at times deeply symbolic in demonstrating that so many people are working together.
Outside of the seminars, there was a massive community. 2,335 people registered as part of "the people of the world", while thousands more Zapatista activists, support bases, and community representatives were there. We danced together on basketball fields and lawns, constructed tent cities and slept in workshops and auditoriums, strung hammocks, hiked to rivers to relax, and above all shared stories and experience. Personally, I spent nearly all my off-seminar time talking with U.S. and Mexican activists other than the Zapatistas themselves, which was quite valuable and really the only way to meet one another as the presentations were nearly all by the Zapatistas, though a morning of presentations by Via Campesina--a global network of farmers and farmworkers movements--brought the camp to a high level of excitement.
If there is to be one word that sums up the Zapatista cause over the past 13 years in Chiapas, it is autonomy. Autonomy wasn't even one of the 13 demands raised by the EZLN when they rose up in arms on January 1, 1994. But it is impossible to understand what they mean by, "Democracy! Freedom! Justice!" without learning their vision of autonomy. By the 1995-96 San Andrés negotiations with the Mexican Federal Government, autonomous municipalities had begun proclaiming their existence across Zapatista territory and the National Indigenous Congress collaborated in drafting an accord which would allow any indigenous community in Mexico to define its own autonomous existence and to join with other communities in self-managed collectives. The government's signature in San Andrés, the advocacy of the Catholic Bishop Samuel Ruiz, the march of 1,111 indigenous representatives to the capital and numerous crowds filling the Zócalo in Mexico City couldn't make the Accord into law, but in the mountains of the Mexican southeast, they have been enacted nevertheless.
One face of Zapatista political action is dramatic. Defying the ranchers' White Guards, Zapatista communities seized numerous tracts of land as ejidos, to be worked collectively by communities. They uphold a demand for 10 percent of the revenues of federal contractors operating in the autonomous zones. And mass actions by thousands of women publicly confronted soldiers in bases near their homes in the late 1990's, leading some such installations to close and withdrawal. Many of the panel spoke eloquently of lost friends, neighbors, and comrades, of those who allowed their blood to be shed in the interests of their communities.
Yet these matters took up only a small portion of the discussion at the Encuentro. What people came to talk about for hours was "nuestra autonomía," their own ways of doing things — the Other education, the Other health, the Other agriculture — and the means by which these things are self organized. The Zapatista effort at autonomy is about detachment from official structures of the state, and they've been quite meticulous about this, especially in matters of health, education, and politics. In many cases, the separation from the state sounds unproblematic, even essential. Each presentation addressed the situation before 1994, when state social services in rural Chiapas could best be described as more neglect than service. What's more, the government has spent a good part of the last thirteen years engaged in low intensity attacks on them, and that Mexico has a history of one party rule organized by incorporating the various civil society organizations into the party. Given the role of state funding as a means for electioneering and cooptation in Mexico, you can see why the Zapatistas have opted to avoid it altogether.
Autonomy, however, isn't just about where funding comes from. It has emerged as an independent exploration of what exactly is meant by the Other health or the Other education. These are largely carried out by "promoters," people from each village who have attended secondary schools with the express purpose of returning to serve the community they come from. Some participants offered us a window into how this process came together. All Zapatista studies are somewhat self-directed, but the first group of young adults that went through secondary schooling were especially so, because they were the first generation of graduates charged with spreading the practical knowledge they amassed to the villages and communities they grew up in. They learned hygiene, basic health care, and sanitation so as to serve as health promoters, or they prepared themselves not just to teach within, but to create a system of primary education. In putting their knowledge to use, promoters are living out an ethic of service and of work directed towards both survival and political struggle. They are also redefining and extending the Maya custom of holding a cargo, or entrusted role, for which one is selected by the community. Teachers contrasted the system with the governmental system of memorization, competition, and preparing people for outside moneymaking jobs and emigration to the cities.
In doing these things, they are simultaneously rethinking and adapting them to their needs. Education is attuned to local life, to the history of struggle, to the knowledge that is needed to deal with local problems, and to maintaining language and culture. The health promoters are intensely involved in upgrading the logistics of day to day life to prevent disease--composting toilets and clay ovens that don't blow smoke in their users faces are big projects right now.
Multiple faces of oppression; one mask of resistance
What is it that the Zapatistas are resisting? As an outsider it would be easy to think of words: neoliberalism, the Mexican state, or five centuries of conquest. The Zapatistas themselves use a phrase -- el mal gobierno -- to encapsulate in one package everything that nuestra autonomía is not. If the Zapatistas strive to follow the principle of mandar obedeciendo -- When entering the Zapatista territory the welcoming signs say, “Here the people rule and the government obeys, ” -- for the mal gobierno it is the reverse. And in telling their story, any time during the Encuentro, from education in Oventik to bone-setting and midwifery in La Realidad to the overall balance of their struggle, a rhythm is repeated: before and after the conquest, in the time of our grandparents, before and after the 1994 rebellion. Memory, history, culture are recounted in terms of the beginning and the end of the mal gobierno.
The experience of those years included several different forms of oppression. One aspect is poverty even as enormous quantities of natural wealth — oil, wood, hydropower — flowed out from the region. In Chiapas, poverty means malnutrition, a shortage of doctors, pregnant women and sick people of all ages dying the long journey to find medical help. At the same time, indigenous Chiapanecos were made to live in a world where their knowledge was discarded. Maria de Jesus, president of one autonomous municipality near Oventik, spoke of how the conquest that meant a loss of pre-existing science, bought, and culture through dispossession and slavery, but also through the imposition of new ideas, laws, and government.
Their interactions with mestizos and whites during this period remind me of the Jim Crow South and the slave plantation. Plantations themselves were a big feature of Chiapaneco rural life. Knowing that many people have lost communal access to their land didn't prepare me for the testimony of what it was like to work full time for a landlord. Women especially recounted how landlords felt entitled to attack and rape them, and then to claim authority over peasant marriages. They proceeded to work both husbands and wives long hours, outside of which they had to attend to their own fields and care for their own children. Patriarchy, associated by some with outside power, also stemmed from "our own husbands and parents," who didn't provide women and girls with equal respect and even "treated us like animals."
Participation in Zapatista organizing has been an antidote to much of this. Their political action speaks powerfully to the outside world through the incredible mobilization of numbers and through collective work. What a landlord or an occupying military commander faces is massive crowds acting collectively behind anonymous masks. Yet that collective action — in the form of community assemblies, collective work, education, political mobilization, and the Zapatista Army — provides a space for redressing many of the specific harms of life as it existed before. And the creation of a universal "right to participate" in both community life and in this level has been an enormous tool in the struggle against sexism. This right effectively puts men who place demands and restrictions on their wives and daughters in opposition to the collective struggle itself, giving organized women a claim to press as they bring others out of the confines of their homes.
The Zapatistas have spoken of their balaclava as "the mask that reveals,” a symbol whose assertiveness and collectivity had made indigenous people visible once more as political actors and social beings. But listening to numerous people behind these masks taught me that while revealing, they also conceal differences in experience, oppression, and struggle that we must listen to attentively.
Poverty, resources, and solidarity
The morning after I arrived in Mexico, new figures were released on poverty in the country. The problems raised by economic scarcity are serious enough that they have defined three levels of poverty, the most severe being alimentary poverty, where one is unable to cover the cost of basic nutrition. On all measures, Chiapas, and particularly its rural areas, is among the regions hardest hit by this lack: 47% of the state is in alimentary poverty, while 75.7% are without secure rights to homes or land. At the same time, Chiapas' wealth is continually being trapped, piped, or transmitted through wires into the rest of Mexico and the profits of much of Chiapaneco commerce are sucked out with them. The process is both a component, and a miniature version, of how Mexican wealth flows to the United States and the larger world economy. This contradiction was the story told by Subcomandante Marcos in "The Southeast in Two Winds: A Storm and a Prophecy," a communique written before the 1994 uprising. It remains unresolved today.
Limited resources constrain nearly everything the Zapatista communities do. More than a lack of skills or training, the education and health providers talked about needing medicines, supplies, and ambulances. The difference between communities with a fair-trade-based flow of income and those exploited by middlemen is a mix of having outside contacts and having the resources to buy a truck. Poverty in Chiapas is a matter of life and death.
On the positive side, international solidarity has meant a significant flow of resources to Zapatista communities. The health care system has been enriched by a steady flow of volunteer doctors and donated supplies. People arrived to build schools or bring equipment. The operational fair-trade systems tie collective agriculture into networks of sympathetic consumers, and send a small flow of dollars and euros against the tide of extraction from Chiapas. Oventik has two Italian-purchased ambulances serving surrounding communities.
These are all serious, everyday matters, spoken of freely throughout the Encuentro. Those responsible for various autonomous services were frank and direct in naming lack of resources as a problem; coffee cooperative members actively called for new markets; and so on. Yet these issues are not centered by many Northerners interested in the Zapatista struggle. Those most inspired by politics of autonomy, of working from below and to the left, in the global North are often interested more in how to be autonomous FROM the exchange of money then achieving autonomy THROUGH the amassing of the resources necessary for it. Such a perspective can find much to admire in Zapatista praxis, which has an extraordinary reliance on collective work, communal lands, assembly-based decisionmaking and resources sharing, etc. And clearly something — many things, really — are being destroyed by the penetration of economic logic into all sides of Northern life.
However, disinterest in issues of money and resources also conceals privilege. We, as part of the world's wealthier minority, have to be prepared for honest conversations about sharing resources and transferring wealth and technology to the global South. Community-to-community relationships like those offered to the Zapatistas by people in solidarity are one important model. If we're serious about justice, we will have to think about how to massively scale them up. As mentioned earlier, the Juntas de Buen Gobierno make coordinating the use of outside resources a major part of their work. Teniente Coronel Insurgente Moisés contrasted this model with that of the United Nations (and, one can add, the entire "international development" world), which is accountable first to outsiders, and assumes the poor are incapable of making their own decisions or setting their own priorities. Direct solidarity is thus the Other Aid.
Similarly, the deployment of appropriate technologies can be a place for outside support. Lately, health promoters, at least in the zone of Tzotz Choj around Morelia have had been building dry compost toilets to reduce communicable diseases and ceramic stoves that prevent the respiratory illnesses that come from indoor wood fires. Lifesaving projects like these have only occasionally been the focus of international solidarity. Perhaps it's time for this to change.
On another front, we need to keep the shining example of Zapatista autonomy from reinforcing the capitalist value of "pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps." While it's true that enormous creative potential is unleashed by liberation from local hierarchies, confronting sexism internally, displacing profiteering middlemen, and so on, this is not the whole Zapatista story. The role of help from people inspired by their political vision, and the critique of how Chiapas' wealth is extracted by neoliberalism are important facets of their story as well. As we imagine a longer term future, we cannot settle for autonomy on its own. Mutual aid, recognition of the accumulated ecological debt and reparations for colonialism and forced servitude, expansion of land rights, and transfer of resources in the interest of equality should be part of that vision.