There is a lot of confusion surrounding violent events in Chiapas. In the following article, Peter Rosset gives us a short guide on how to respond to questions such as: “Are indigenous communities violent?” and “Are the Zapatistas violent?”
The counterinsurgency campaign in Chiapas is based partly on the implementation of government policies which are designed to fragment peasant, indigenous, and community organisations – creating smaller and smaller factions which are increasingly sectarian, opportunistic, and manipulable. This fragmentation is achieved by offering local and regional leaders resources for aid or production projects, political candidatures, or jobs in the public sector. In this way, the fundamental necessities of these groups are exploited, along with their personal aspirations, grudges, and jealousy.
The explicit or implicit condition for these political hand-outs, however, is that these groups distance themselves from Zapatismo. The aim of the powerful is to isolate the Zapatistas politically, and the resources and positions mentioned above are used to provoke open conflict, whether violent or not, with the Zapatista bases and communities. To stimulate violence, local problems and disputes (normally pre-existent) are exploited. Issues like these are often common, or even ‘normal’, disagreements that occur in rural society (in Chiapas and elsewhere), and have nothing to do with Zapatismo as such.
Some of these problems are related to disputes about land limits, where some wish to regularise land ownership and others do not. Others are connected to access to or control of local resources, such as water, timber-yielding trees, pieces of land suitable for urbanisation, and sand or gravel banks. Religious or family differences also play a part in these conflicts, as do political affiliations. There are also conflicts directly involved with quarrels over the government aid or production projects, and over the State’s presence in local communities. Other disputes are born from greed, bitterness, or historical resentment. And the State transforms these latent disagreements into open divisions through its manipulative actions.
Nonetheless, it would be erroneous to consider the State as a monolithic body, because there are forces in politics which hope to create the maximum possible violence whilst others aim to moderate it in order to avoid scaring tourists and investors away. On the one hand, anti-Zapatista violence is encouraged through “rewards” (projects, posts, and candidatures) while, on the other, the State acts as a mediating force which “resolves” problems and eases tension. Therefore, a peasant group could be paid to fight one day, and paid to stop doing so the next – at least until a certain amount of time has passed. Meanwhile, these groups alternate in their aggression against Zapatista communities in order to make the rebels look like the common factor in unrest rather than a specific opposition organisation.
Meanwhile, anti-Zapatista hostilities are often covered in the mass media with racist or classist bias, referred to as mere “local conflicts” or “confrontations between peasants”. Indigenous communities are described as “naturally violent” and the poor are said to “spend their time killing each other”. And such misinformation helps to justify government action against Zapatista bases of support through its “forces of order”.
At the same time, national peasant organisations often distance themselves from local affiliates when the latter are involved in violent acts. However, such groups are formed, split, reformed, and fused with great speed, making it difficult for national leaders to stay up to date with such changes. While they draw a line between themselves and former members, though, it is sometimes true that they simply ignore what is happening in the local organisations.
The fundamental issue, however, is that the counterinsurgency campaign in Chiapas uses local conflicts as a central part of its strategy. While the pre-existent local problems are the trees, the policy of counterinsurgency is the forest. And both need to be considered simultaneously. Without the trees, of course, there would be no forest. It is important for us to understand and remember that.
Finally, there is an additional element that should not be lost from view, and that is the way in which the disputed territories in Chiapas are host to two main visions. The Zapatista vision, on the one hand, believes in the gradual construction of autonomy for peasant and indigenous communities in terms of land, education, healthcare, justice, agro-ecology, and government. This is a vision which is gradually becoming reality. The other vision, meanwhile, is a short term, small-minded rapprochement with those in power which seeks immediate individual gain.
Those who identify themselves with grassroots, left-wing politics prefer the Zapatista vision, and want it to grow as a real alternative to the status quo and as an example for others. If we also share that vision, we must condemn vehemently every aggression that is launched at Zapatista communities.
Translated by Oso Sabio from an article in Spanish originally written by Peter Rosset (specialist in rural affairs at the University of Michigan) at: http://www.jornada.unam.mx/2014/05/10/index.php?section=politica&article=020a1pol