Over the course of twenty years, the Zapatista insurgents have founded schools, hospitals, coffee exporting cooperatives, and even banks. Their model has also inspired the growth of community police forces, forest guards, and resistance movements around Mexico. However, they still have work to do in terms of justice and openness to the world.
Morelia Caracol, Chiapas – In the wooded heart of Chiapas, the highest authority in the Zapatista region (or Caracol) of Morelia meets to discover the motives of our visit and decide whether we can enter or not. Known as the Committee of Good Government (Junta de Buen Gobierno – JBG), the group is made up of three young women, two older women, and three men – none of whom receive a salary.
Dressed largely in traditional indigenous clothing, they all write down our names in their notebooks. Unlike the majority of images seen of the Zapatistas, the committee members do not have their faces covered. However, they are wary of our presence, and a serious-looking young woman of about seventeen years old asks us why we are here. Our answer is that we had previously witnessed the Zapatistas’ rupture of relations with the state and federal governments – and the subsequent creation of autonomous forms of government, justice, education and healthcare – and that we want to report on their progress.
According to a confidant close to the EZLN, there are around 250 thousand Tseltales, Tsotsiles, Tojolobales, Choles, Zoques, and Mames (indigenous Mexican communities) living under the system of self-management in the twenty-seven Autonomous Zapatista Rebel Municipalities (MAREZ). They represent twenty-one percent of the indigenous population of Chiapas, which stands at around 1,141,499, according to INEGI (the National Institute of Statistics and Geography).
On January 1st 1994, as NAFTA came into force, the EZLN rose up against the Mexican government, demanding land, food, work, healthcare, education, housing, justice, and equality for the nation’s indigenous population. Twenty years on, the movement is sharing its achievements with the world, such as four regional hospitals equipped with operating theatres – found on the border with Guatemala, in Los Altos, in Tzotz Choj and the Lacandona Jungle (where the hospital is specialised in reproductive and sexual health) – and dozens of municipal clinics. In addition, 1,100 midwives and 1,500 herbalists have been trained.
In the field of education, Bruno Baronnet – doctor of social sciences from the Colegio de México and the Sorbona University in Paris – recorded the presence of more than 500 primary and secondary schools “in resistance”, where 1,500 educators teach and from which 45,000 youngsters have graduated. Author of the book “Autonomy and Indigenous Education: The Zapatista Schools of the Lacandona Jungle in Chiapas”, Baronnet emphasises that these youngsters go on to serve their communities in terms of healthcare, education and communication, whether in Ejido authorities (community farms) or autonomous municipalities.
The Zapatistas have also created two banks – one of which is the Autonomous Bank of Zapatista Women (BANAMAZ) – along with dozens of ecological farming cooperatives, animal farms, community shops, brick factories, bakeries, and handicraft workshops. On top of this, they produce medicinal herbal products and export coffee to Italy, Germany, France, and Greece.
Franciso Bárcenas is the author of twenty books about indigenous communities, one of which is titled “Autonomy and Indigenous Rights in Mexico”. He believes that, since the EZLN uprising, indigenous communities have moved from being marginal figures to central figures in politics, saying “indigenous people have been responsible for the most important struggles in Mexico and Latin America in the last twenty years”.
However, he also points out that “the quality of life and respect for the rights of indigenous people is the same as it was twenty years ago, and in some cases worse, though this does not depend on the Zapatistas but on government policies”.
The five Zapatista Caracoles (La Realidad, Morelia, Roberto Barrios, La Garrucha, and Oventic) were created in 2003. In the Oventic Caracol, one militant explained his own understanding of Zapatista autonomy as follows: “we don’t accept help from the bad government. All that we have comes from our own hard work and effort and our aim is to ensure the welfare of everyone”.
One example of this philosophy is that both Zapatistas and non-Zapatistas are treated in the autonomous health institutions. A civilian source told me that the small hospital in Oventic – with emergency services; surgeries; and gynaecological, ultrasound, dental, optical, and endoscopic services – has attended to “PRI supporters, AMLO sympathisers, and even soldiers”.
The creation of the Caracoles came in response to the legislative rejection of the San Andrés Accords by all Mexican political parties in 2001. These accords would have recognised constitutionally the right of indigenous communities to autonomy, justice and equality. The fruit of seven years of negotiations between the government, intellectuals and indigenous organisations, its rejection was incredibly disenchanting. However, the EZLN took matters into its own hands, creating the Caracoles as a representation of the right to autonomy that had been constitutionally denied to the indigenous communities.
The regions were formed from 27 autonomous municipalities, dispersed along a corridor that occupies a third of the state of Chiapas – including the border area with Guatemala, Tzotz Choj, the wooded area of Los Altos, and the Lacandona Jungle.
Each Caracol is independent and has its own rules, but each one decided that members of the JBGs would be elected by an assembly of citizens. These members deal with internal and external conflicts and coordinate cross-community cooperation. There is no hierarchy between them, no wages, and total transparency regarding their activities. Nonetheless, through their work in the cooperatives, communities usually give the representatives corn or subsidise their transport.
The JBGs are normally made up of twenty-four people, though this number depends on the Caracol – as does the length of time they serve, which can be around three years, with rotation every week or two. The way in which the JBGs coordinate with other community representatives also varies.
Mariana Mora, author of the book “Decolonisation of Politics: Zapatismo, Autonomy, and Indigenous Peoples” which will soon be published, affirms that the EZLN “transformed political work into an ethical one”. Examples of this transformation can be seen in the collective decision making, empowerment of youngsters and women, and lack of government support with the foundation of the Caracoles.
Marcos Arana, investigator from the Centre of Training in Ecology and Health for Country Workers (CCESC), says that it’s necessary for these communities to open up to the outside world in order to share their achievements as, up to this point, they “have been closed to doing so”.
The major challenge for the Caracoles is their system of justice. At the Zapatista School of August 2013, a militant pointed out that there was insufficient infrastructure and a lack of programmes for the reforming and retraining of murderers, rapists, and thieves. In a video, recorded for and shared with EZLN sympathisers, the Zapatista says: “Who is going to look after them? Who is going to feed them? Who is going to care for them when they’re sick? That’s why they sometimes escape”.
The Zapatista Effect
One of the pillars of the Zapatista struggle is Agreement 169 of the UN’s International Labour Organisation, signed by Mexico, in which collective indigenous rights are demanded, including: territory; consultation; free decisions; autonomy; and freedom from discrimination.
The EZLN had an impact on several autonomous indigenous processes after 1994. One of these was the growth of community police forces, starting in 1997 and now present in dozens of municipalities in Guerrero and Michoacán. Another was the creation of forest guards like those found in Cherán, Michoacán.
It also inspired communities, united in the National Network of Resistance to the High Costs of Electrical Energy, resisting payments to the Federal Electricity Commission (CFE) in sixteen states. Equally, projects of ‘monetary resistance’ drew inspiration from the EZLN, such as those involved in creating the alternative ‘Tumin’ currency in Espinal, Veracruz.
Resistance has also spread as a result of the increasing encroachment into Mexican territory of multinational corporations. For example, popular struggles have fought to defend land and natural resources and fight against so-called ‘Mega-Projects’. The Mexican Movement of Dam Victims and in Defence of Rivers (MAPDER), the Network of Mining Victims, and other civil society groups have recorded 55 community conflicts against such projects.
Bárcenas adds to the list of struggles influenced by the Zapatistas, including those of “the Yaquis in defence of water; the Nahuas, Wixaritari, Mixtecs, and Zapotecs against mining companies; and the Zapotecs, Ikoots, and Kiliwas against wind farming companies”, among others.
An influence seen a lot recently in the news is that of civilian self-defence groups (or Autodefensas). When the EZLN rose up in 1994, they appealed to Article 39 of the Mexican Constitution, which says “The People have, at all times, the inalienable right to alter or modify their form of government”. This appeal helped to spread the idea of popular armament in defence of communities and rights and, since October 2011, Autodefensas have arisen in dozens of municipalities in Michoacán and indigenous municipalities of Guerrero – using Article 39 to justify their existence.
In the rest of the world, the Zapatista ideology gave fuel to the growing alter-globalisation movement against neoliberalism – a forerunner of the ‘Indignados’ movement in Europe and the Occupy movement in the USA.
The Struggle Continues with the Coming Generation
On the morning of December 21st 2012, prophetically marked by the Mayan Calendar as the end of time, 40,000 balaclava-wearing Zapatistas appeared in the municipal capitals of San Cristóbal de las Casas, Ocosingo, Altamirano, Las Margaritas, and Palenque. According to the press, two thirds of the protestors were youngsters. Marching through the streets in silence, the EZLN showed the next generation of Zapatistas off to the world.
On that day, Subcomandante Marcos wrote a communiqué, saying “Did you hear that? It’s the sound of your world collapsing. It’s the sound of ours resurging. The day that was day, was night. And night will be the day that will be the day”. With these comments, the EZLN reaffirmed its presence, reminding the world that it is still fighting to overturn the current world order and that, soon, it will succeed.
Translated and adapted by Oso Sabio from an article by Laura Castellanos, published in Spanish at http://www.eluniversal.com.mx/nacion-mexico/2014/impreso/gobierna-el-ezln-a-250-mil-indigenas-211992.html on Thursday 2nd January 2014