Thursday, July 27, 2006

Thoughts on Marcos and Leadership

(Part 2 of 3 for Left Turn's "Stories from the Other Campaign"--i'm republishing here to add some hyperlinks for folks to have more info...also makes a timely read as the zaps have just announced that comandantes will be leaving Chiapas to join the struggle to free Atenco's 30 remaining political prisoners...)

*With Subcomandante Marcos currently the most visible face of the Other Campaign, I figured it would be important to discuss him a bit before moving into a discussion of the “intergalactic” aspects of the Zapatistas and their Sixth Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle, which we’ll get into next week in Part 3…*

On February 9th, my last night in Mexico, Marcos came to speak in the Zócalo (city center) of Oaxaca City. It was a moment for which organizers and activists throughout the state had been preparing for over a month. Oaxaca’s corrupt and repressive Governor, Ulises Ruiz Ortiz, had, since assuming office amidst charges of electoral fraud the year prior, moved the seat of executive power out of Oaxaca City and outlawed demonstration or protest in the Zócalo. The organizers’ decision to hold Marcos’ public address there was bold…and up to that point, being the most popular leader in Mexico, government forces had been afraid to touch him. The Oaxacan movements were employing Marcos’ visibility to reclaim this most important and public space of resistance.

I didn’t know what to expect that afternoon as I walked towards the Zócalo. I wondered, “Will it be as big as the rally that Andrés Manuel López Obrador (leading presidential candidate in the upcoming elections) had held several weeks earlier in the city? Or will it be just the same 60 organizers from the city plus all those activists and organizers coming in from around the state?” Being my last night in the city and having spent the last month of my life documenting the process here, I was anxious, nervous. Different groups had wheat-pasted posters of the event around the city for the past week and a half and were presumably doing popular outreach as well as mobilizing their own bases for the event…but, really, who would be in the crowd? What I saw blew me away.

The Zócalo was packed. Marcos was going to be arriving very late for the event as the local organizers had him stopping at four or five different locations that day to listen to different groups of adherents. In the meantime, an indigenous dance troupe performed as part of the entertainment organized by the massive Oaxacan teacher’s union and radical musicians and actors taught the audience songs and poems of resistance.

When the van carrying Marcos finally arrived, it further confirmed my understanding of his rock star status in Mexico. I had already seen his arrival at the massive opening march in San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas on News Years Day when not only the independent media, internationals and other Mexicans mobbed him—but many Zapatistas as well rushed to get a look. Marcos’ reception in Oaxaca showed me that his mass appeal truly extends beyond Chiapas. The crowd dwarfed that of leading presidential candidate López Obrador…the Other Campaign was the biggest show in town. The crowd stayed for hours as indigenous, worker, and student leaders (and the one that stole the show, Tlahui) spoke from the plaza. Marcos, as usual, was the last to go on and it was clear that he was the one everyone had come to see. I wondered how many of the attendees would go on to publicly adhere to the Other Campaign. I wondered if this crowd would have formed for any Zapatista. I know that Comandanta Ramona drew massive crowds when she traveled to Mexico City in 1996…and yet still I wondered.

Compañera and fellow journalist, Daniela Lima (who works with a Xavante indigenous community building autonomy in her home country of Brazil) was extremely impressed with the successes of the Zapatistas but dismayed to see the central icon of the movement is a non-indigenous man. My political formation here in the USA had also sensitized me to this dynamic within the Zapatista movement. Identifying this as a key question of ours from the beginning, we incorporated questions regarding the role of Marcos into our interviews with organizers and adherents to the Other Campaign.

There are plenty of stories floating around about Marcos, from government disinformation to the anecdotes of people inside the movements. Over and over, however, in discussing the figure of Marcos, those in the movements stressed the historical context of their country, of the Zapatistas in particular, and of the utilitarian role of Marcos. An early clash between the Mexican government and Mexican civil society around Marcos highlights one aspect of how he is seen in the popular conscience.

The Mexican government says that Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos (now Delegado Zero), is Rafael Sebastián Guillén Vicente, 48, a former professor who grew up in the state of Tamaulipas where he went to Jesuit school and eventually went on to earn a master’s degree in philosophy from the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) in Mexico City. Using a picture of Guillén and a transparent ski mask overlay, the Mexican government symbolically unmasked Marcos on national television in 1995 and sent troops into the jungle to arrest him and the indigenous leadership of the Zapatista Army (EZLN).

For a Mexican audience, the televised unmasking of Marcos was not only a revealing of his alleged identity but also, in its cultural context, a representation of his defeat by the Mexican government. There is a history of masked rebels in Mexico and masked figures are, of course, the norm in Mexican wrestling, popularly known as “lucha libre” (in the 80’s, these two were combined by the activist Super Barrio). In response to this televised unmasking, tens of thousands of Mexicans demonstrated in the streets of Mexico City and elsewhere under the banner of “Todos Somos Marcos” (“We Are All Marcos”). The message, clearly stated, was that it does not matter who the person behind the mask is but, rather, what “Marcos” fights for…that anyone who struggles could be Marcos.

When discussing Marcos, it is important to recognize that within the EZLN, he is subordinate to its general command, which is the Clandestine Revolutionary Indigenous Committee (CCRI-CG). The EZLN is as hierarchical as most political-military organizations. This is why they have taken great steps to separate the structure of the army from the highly democratic structures of the Zapatista communities. And although Marcos is subordinate to the CCRI-CG as spokesperson of the EZLN, he has, in many ways, become the primary face and icon of the movement—something that the Zapatistas, themselves, have identified as a problem (See "EZLN 20 & 10, Fire and Word" by Gloria Muñoz Ramírez). As Gustavo Esteva, founder of Universidad de la Tierra, has pointed out, however, even detractors of the Zapatista movement, such as author Octavio Paz, recognize Marcos to be one of the great literary figures of Latin America. In this respect, Marcos is also an incredible asset to the movement. With characters such as Don Durito (a Quixote-like beetle to whom Marcos plays Sancho Panza) and Pingüino (a penguin, of course…), he succeeds in communicating the complex and serious with humor and poetry. And sometimes Marcos simply retells the stories of his indigenous mentors such as this one from Old Don Antonio (who may be real, fictional, or a composite character):

In the old times, the sword fought with the stone, the tree and the water. The tree said it was stronger, until it was cut down by the sword. The stone and sword fought 'til they both cried and one was dissolved to pieces and the other made dull. But water did not boast. It just let the sword thrash until it settled in water's recesses, and rusted and dulled to stillness.

Omar Olivera Espinosa, a member of the Oaxacan teacher's union and co-coordinator of Radio Plantón, explained to us the role of Marcos (by the way, this conversation is especially funny in Spanish in which the word “frame” is “marco”…):

Marcos is like the frame of a window that allows the Zapatista indigenous to see through to the Western world and through which that Western world can see their indigenous world. This is the first thing I’ll tell you. Also, in Mexico, there is a tradition of the caudillo [strong, male leader], of figures that have existed since pre-Columbian times, figures in the war for independence, in the war of reform, in the revolution, up to the presidentialism that continues to today. Therefore, this is the specter that Marcos fills and has been very well used by zapatismo. For example, if I ask you what you know about zapatismo you will reply Marcos, his writings his poems…In the moment that this frame doesn’t work it will simply be a frame on a wall…for a picture of Marcos! (laughing)

There is still more to explaining how the Zapatistas, an indigenous movement with a strong female presence throughout its structure (from leadership to base), ended up with a non-indigenous, male professor as their spokesperson. In discussions with Dul Santamaria, an activist, mother and writer with the Ricardo Flores Magón Brigade from Mexico City, she also pointed to endemic patriarchy and internalized notions of indigenous inferiority as reasons why many people throughout Mexico focus so heavily on Marcos. In addition to an understanding of his talent in functioning as a “window frame” or in the structural oppression within Mexican society that elevates his image, it is also important to understand the particular historical development of the Zapatistas…

While walking the side of a mountain on the edges of Oaxaca City, an activist from the “bridge to hope” collective (a member organization of the Oaxacan Zapatista Network) recounted for me the beginnings of the EZLN. Being an indigenous Zapotec man who still lives at the foot of the mountain we were climbing, he refused to the pay the fee now charged by the Mexican government to enter the sacred ruins of his ancestors, known as Monte Alban. We were climbing this mountain to take the “back entrance” to these ruins currently being marketed to European and Japanese investors and developers.

“The enlightened revolutionaries,” he said with a dry sarcasm, “who came to the jungles of Chiapas were from the Generation of ’68…after the massacre of student protestors during the1968 Olympics in Mexico many revolutionaries chose to go underground inspired by, amongst other things, the guerrilla “foco” theory of (Che) Guevara . They would eventually become the Forces of National Liberation (FLN). They were Marxist-Leninists trained in the science of dialectical, historical materialism. It was six members of the FLN who later joined with three indigenous in the mountains of Chiapas that were the beginnings of what would be the EZLN in the early 1980s.”

I had heard some of this story before but not with such a frank discussion of ideology:

Within a few years, the revolutionaries who had come from the city to lead an army of indigenous peasants were faced with a crisis…some of them protested that the practice and strategy they were building with their indigenous counterparts was differing too greatly from their scientific, Leninist training in how to make a communist revolution…this is why the EZLN sometimes joke that they lost their first battle…that is, that the enlightened revolutionaries lost their vanguard position with respect to their indigenous base…and so some of those enlightened revolutionaries decided to leave.

After our trip through the ruins, we returned to the home he is building (now just one room with a hammock and lantern) where he showed me a copy of an old, Russian text on historical materialism that he was reading. He affirmed that there was much to learn from such diverse sources as European left traditions, Eastern philosophies, Mexican history and the indigenous teachings of his community. This undogmatic willingness to listen and respect the insights of others is central to what some call zapatismo.

Marcos was not actually amongst those first FLN revolutionaries who came to the mountains of Chiapas in 1983; two years passed before he arrived. And they say that it was in 1989 when the ideological conflict within the group reached a head. With the departure of those non-indigenous or mestizo members that felt the organization was veering too far from Leninist methodology, the indigenous leadership body, the CCRI-CG, was formed. Those former FLN revolutionaries who decided to stay, Marcos among them, learned the art of listening as a form of building social organization and consensus. It was at this point that the membership of the EZLN began to grow rapidly. The gutting of article 27 of the Mexican constitution (the legal foundation for communal landholdings) in1992 was the spark that drove the Zapatistas to rise up in arms two years later.

With the uprising on New Years Day of 1994, Marcos, whose early training was much more literary than military, emerged as a capable spokesperson to communicate the Zapatista message to the Westernized world. Soon, however, his image in the public, and that of the Zapatistas in general, began to take on forms they were not comfortable with, such as when Marcos and Zapatista dolls began to be sold all over the streets of Chiapas and elsewhere. Initially thinking they would ask for the doll-selling to stop, the Zapatistas eventually decided against this realizing that the dolls were providing a vital source of income to mainly indigent, indigenous women struggling to survive in the city.

Thus, the figure of Marcos is parts rebel, window frame, caudillo, servant, and toy doll…all at the same time. In this first phase of the Other Campaign, the Zapatistas have placed him at the center of attention while at the same time sowing the seeds of something much different…it is difficult to say what will emerge but there are some things that can be inferred. It seems apparent that, with respect to the question of Marcos and leadership in general:

- The Zapatistas are not placing the life of Marcos, as Delegate Zero, above that of anyone else in the Other Campaign (see communiqué “SubDelegado Zero on Security Issues”).

- They are prepared to continue their movement even if they lose Marcos as well as all of their publicly known current leadership (See communiqué “Final Reorganization of the EZLN”).

- The Sixth Commission (that section of the EZLN that is responsible for participating in the national work of the Sixth Declaration) does not seek to attain any position of state power much less be the vanguard of the Other Campaign (See end of article “Marcos in Zapata’s Morelos”).

All of this being said, Marcos currently exercises a great deal of leadership within the Other Campaign. With the mandate of the Sixth Commission and the guidance of the Sixth Declaration, he is playing a major role with his tour in setting the tone of the Other Campaign. His style of leadership as exemplified by some of the points above, comes from his formation within the Zapatista movement. In addition to their radical respect for difference (which is pushing everyone in the Other Campaign to work together across their different beliefs, organizational structures and histories), the Zapatista’s have a concept of leadership embodied in the saying “Command by obeying.”

And so Marcos is touring the country. Part of the time, using his fame to draw large crowds to hear him speak about the Other Campaign but then flipping the script a bit by telling attendees that they must all create the Other Campaign together, that he is no more important than them, and that everyone needs to defend everyone else equally. But most of the time, Marcos is not speaking to a crowd but, rather, sitting and listening, taking notes while the “simple and humble people who fight” in Mexico speak to him and to each other. His role is not to give orders but rather to facilitate the unification of stories and struggles.

He is setting the tone not just through listening but also with respect to the manner and pace with which he carries out his work. Something he stressed in his first meeting with adherents on this tour (in Los Altos of Chiapas) was that people should be able to recognize in an adherents actions that they are doing something different, something truly “other”…that their politics not just be rhetorical but evident as well in their daily actions and demeanor.

What Marcos is also making sure people know is that he is just the first of many Zapatistas who will be coming out of their territories to build the Other Campaign. Those that come after him will most certainly be those members of the indigenous comandancia of the EZLN that are currently a part of the Sixth Commission. And so in less than a year, we will perhaps see a transition from a Marcos-centered Zapatista presence within the Other Campaign to something decentered, indigenous, and multi-gendered (just as they have self-critiqued the ways that the hierarchy of the EZLN has hindered the development of their democratic political structures within their communities, they also identify that the place of women within leadership positions is not yet where they would like it to be)…

Whatever the Zapatistas decide to do will, ultimately, be a product of their own process and logic. A powerful element already informing the “other way of doing politics” that is being created as part of the Other Campaign is a radical respect for each group’s or individual’s autonomy—including their choice and forms of leadership. From individuals to families, neighborhoods, and communities, from non-hierarchical collectives to Left parties, the Other Campaign looks less like a new organization and more like an intercommunal movement with many leaders and forms of leadership.

As I mentioned in Part 1, there are six main themes being discussed by participants in the Other Campaign regarding the “other way of doing politics.” One of them is the question, “Who is welcome to join [the Other Campaign] and who is not?” As reported by Al Giordano of The Narco News Bulletin, during one of the meetings last year in Chiapas, the Anarchist Feminist Coordinator proposed that “political parties and organizations that seek power, or that are authoritarian, or hierarchical, or that have exercised any kind of violence against women” should be excluded from the Other Campaign. In his notes, Marcos replied, “That would leave us (the Zapatista army) outside, because we are hierarchical.” And this draws out one of the paradoxes of being a spokesperson for a hierarchical organization that fights for radical democracy and which has inspired an often anti-hierarchical movement.

In discussing Marcos and the Zapatistas (or any person, group or movement for that matter), it is important to not just examine where they are today but also where they have come from and where they are going. This sort of knowledge can only come through listening…and it is with this listening that we create the understanding and mutual respect that is foundational for working together, unifying struggles. I am writing all of this about Marcos, the Zapatistas and the Other Campaign not as some sort of anthropological exercise but rather because they are coming out of Chiapas to join with other struggles not only in Mexico but throughout the world. I figured all of these stories might add to our collective understanding here in the US of a process that has so far been handled terribly by the corporate-created media and little reported on even in the independent media. I’m writing because I think our movements could grow, learn and share a lot through relationships with the Zapatistas, the Other Campaign and those other groups around the world who identify with the Sixth Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle.

The Zapatistas stress over and over that they are not a model for revolution but rather a mirror with which we might see ourselves. So who are we and what are we doing? What are our leadership structures? How do we deal with our contradictions? What is our response to the Sixth Declaration here in the USA? If the Other Campaign is the national expression of the Sixth than what is its international or “intergalactic” expression? These questions and more are what Part 3 is for…

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

As an american indian, and a tribal member though mixed blood I see the struggle of the Maya of Chiapas as a possible common thread between us. Your article sheds good light on the subject of the zapatista movement and its functions. I have always viewed Marcos as a true hero of the common people who no doubt could have chosen a much easier lifestyle for himself. It is too bad that there is no way that Indians in this country cannot help support the cause that Marcos has come to represent in Chiapas. There seems to be no info on the web about how to do that. Very good article you have written, good wishes - email at