Zapatista, the Other Campaign, and Gathering in Oventik

Zapatista, the Other Campaign, and Gathering in Oventik

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John Ahni Schertow
January 19, 2007
 

The following was written and submitted by Zig Zag, a member of Intercontinental Cry: Here’s a report on a recent trip to mexico i made. You can post it if you like.

The Zapatista, the Other Campaign, and the Gathering in Oventik

The 13th Anniversary of the 1994 Zapatista New Year’s Day Rebellion
From December 30, 2006, to January 2, 2007, several thousand Zapatistas and international delegates gathered in the town of Oventik, located near San Cristobal in Chiapas, Mexico, to mark the 13th anniversary of the 1994 Zapatista New Year’s Day Rebellion. It was also the First Encounter of the Zapatista Communities with the Peoples of the World (although there have been any other gatherings, or encuentros, over the years).


Background: Who are the Zapatistas?

For those who do not know, the Zapatistas are an Indigenous insurgent movement based in Chiapas, the southernmost state in Mexico (Emiliano Zapata was an Indigenous peasant who became a leader in the 1910-19 Mexican Revolution). They are comprised mostly of Tzotzil, Tzeltal, Chol & Tojolabal peoples, the descendants of the Maya.

Despite being a major source of natural minerals, oil, timber, cattle ranching, hydro-electric projects, coffee, textiles, as well as a tourist destination for the Mexican economy, Chiapas is also the most impoverished region in the country. The large Indigenous population (over 30 % of the population) suffers from high levels of poverty, malnutrition, sickness & disease, even while vast amounts of natural resources are plundered from their traditional territories every day.

It has been this way for centuries, ever since the Spanish invasion & occupation back in the early 1500s. At the same time, so too has the people’s resistance to colonization continued, with many rebellions as well as the day-to-day forms of struggle against government officials, ranchers, land-owners, bosses, & priests ”most of whom have been white-skinned & non-Indigenous.

On New Year’s Day, 1994, the most recent rebellion began when armed warriors from the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN in its Spanish acronym) emerged from the jungle and briefly took control of 7 cities & towns across the state, including Ocosingo & San Cristobal (cities with populations of 100,000 & 80,000 respectively). While gun battles occurred with police & military forces, this first offensive was low in casualties but had a major impact on Mexico. In the days following, the Mexican Army’s counter-attack left hundreds dead, with some 15,000 troops deployed and fighter planes carrying out bombing runs.

The timing of the EZLN’s attack was coordinated with the implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and the Zapatistas were among the first to articulate a clear analysis and critique of capitalist globalization and its plan of neo-liberalism (literally, a ‘new freedom’ for transnational corporations to exploit people, land & resources without limits imposed by national governments). NAFTA also represented a major threat to Indigenous peasants in the region, particularly its requirement that Article 27 of the Mexican Constitution be removed thereby breaking up collective land rights held by Indigenous & peasant communities.

Although the Zapatista soldiers withdrew back into the jungles, they did not simply appear out of nowhere, nor did they disappear. Later revealed in press interviews, the Zapatistas had begun organizing & training ten years prior, in 1984. They had done this in secret, spreading their insurgent views, recruiting members, gathering resources, and expanding their organization.

Unlike many other insurgent movements in Mexico & Central America that operated in primarily Indigenous regions during the 1960s-80s, the Zapatistas were almost entirely Indigenous as was their leadership (primarily the Clandestine Indigenous Resistance Coordinating Committee- CCRI). Although they had organized an army, the Zapatistas were also firmly based within the Indigenous communities of Chiapas (unlike many other previous guerrilla groups active in Mexico & Central America during the 1970s-80s). Also, unlike many others, the EZLN did not seek to seize state power and to impose a communist regime.

In an oppressive patriarchal society such as Mexico, largely the result of the Catholic Church’s role in colonization, and where machismo is held up as a role model, the EZLN ensured that Indigenous women were promoted & accepted as genuine members of society & the movement, and not as second-class citizens. A Revolutionary Women’s Law was part of the EZLN’s initial statements, and many women not only underwent military training but also attained positions of command & leadership.

In February 1994, the EZLN entered into negotiations with the Mexican federal government, achieved a cease-fire, and began debate over the development of Constitutional rights for Indigenous peoples (eventually signing the 1996 San Andres Accords, which were never fully implemented). In 1997, a massacre by paramilitaries killed 45 people in the Chiapas town of Acteal. In 1999, the EZLN launched the Consulta (Consultation), a broad campaign across Mexico to solicit direction & gain support for the Zapatista movement. In 2001, the Zapatistas organized the March for Indigenous Dignity, which drew support from millions of Mexicans, as part of its efforts to pressure the Mexican Congress to include Indigenous rights in the Constitution. The Zapatistas also organized several national & international gatherings in Chiapas over the years.

Although an armed force of several thousand fighters, the EZLN have maintained a defensive posture since 1994, carrying out no new offensives but engaging government forces in numerous defensive battles. Instead, the main focus of their efforts has been the Indigenous communities in Chiapas (a true insurgent movement):

“We, the Zapatistas of the EZLN, have devoted this time to our primary force, to the people who support us”

(The Other Campaign, p. 85).

Over the years, the EZLN has assisted many Indigenous communities in Chiapas in self-organization & achieving self-reliance. This has included establishing autonomous governance councils in many villages, towns and municipalities (autonomous because they are separate from the Mexican government system). A common slogan has been to “govern by obeying.” Along with this has been the building of health clinics, schools, and collectives (i.e., weaving & sewing co-ops, coffee growers, etc.) — all without government support or funding. The leadership of the autonomous governments, health clinics & schools are rotated every 10 days or so, ensuring that corruption is minimized and that all learn how to participate in community self-organization. Overall, the Zapatistas have made significant steps towards achieving autonomy, self-reliance & self-determination, an inspiring model for Indigenous peoples in North America. According to a 2005 EZLN declaration:

“If you look at one of the government-sponsored studies, you will see the only Indigenous communities that have improved their living conditions–whether in health, education, food or housing–were those in Zapatista territory.”

(The Other Campaign, p. 85).

2005 La Otra Campana/The Other Campaign

After the 1994 uprising, the EZLN entered into negotiations with the government as well as the left-wing PRD (Democratic Revolutionary Party, the main opposition party). Above all, they sought inclusion & recognition of Indigenous rights in the Mexican Constitution & political system. Following the 2001 refusal by the state–including the PRD– to implement these reforms, the Zapatistas saw little hope in working with the official political parties.

In June 2005, the Zapatistas released their Sixth Declaration from the Lacandon Jungle and launched the Other Campaign shortly after, a national effort to unify social resistance movements across the country and create new networks & models of self-determination. It calls for the unity & solidarity of all extra-parliamentary movements & organizations (i.e., those outside of the political parties), and in particular the anti-capitalist Left. It was timed to coincide with the 2006 presidential election campaigns leading up to the July 2 vote, although its vision & organizing extends far beyond this date. The declaration itself is a history & analysis of the EZLN, the Zapatistas, and current conditions in Mexico, that has received widespread interest & support across the country. The 6th Declaration and the Other Campaign appear to be the main guiding philosophy & strategy of the Zapatistas at this time.

The 2006-07 Gathering in Oventik

Oventik is one of the stronger Zapatista rebel communities and has been the site of numerous international gatherings. It is located about 1 hours drive from San Cristobal and is in rugged, mountainous terrain that is colder & wetter than the low-land regions. At times, Oventik was shrouded in a heavy fog that made everything seem dream-like & surreal. It also rained several times, turning the ground into patches of slick mud.

Traveling from Mexico City to San Cristobal, and then to Oventik, we had expected to cross numerous military checkpoints, to be questioned & searched, etc. Instead, we did not pass one, nor was there any visible military presence in the area during the gathering. Traveling the highway, however, you cross many toll booths, at which there are usually soldiers posted.

Inside Oventik, several thousand people gathered for 4 days to attend workshops, listen to speeches, observe cultural performances, and celebrate the 13 anniversary of the uprising. Most of those attending were local Indigenous people & Zapatistas, people from across Mexico, groups of European radicals, and our delegation of Indigenous people from BC (including Native Youth Movement members, a Redwire staff member, WARRIOR Publications, and Secwepemc elder Wolverine). Many of the Zapatistas wore their ski masks, so there were usually hundreds of masked warriors in camp.

Although the gathering was promoted as an encounter with the “peoples of the world’, the main representation from outside Mexico appeared to be white European radicals from N. America & W. Europe. I didn’t see any Africans, and just a few Asians. It seems that beyond Mexico, the primary support networks that have been established have been with white radicals. This, in turn, appears to be the result of the politics of the EZLN as well as the economic capacity of white radicals to not only travel to Chiapas, but to also provide financial, technical & material support to the Zapatistas. Nor was there any significant representation from Indigenous peoples in Canada or the US (aside from us).

There were only 7 main workshops: Autonomy & Governance, Education, Health, Women, Communications, Commerce, and the Struggle for Land & Territory. They were almost all conducted by Zapatistas and comprised largely of reports from different towns & regions. They talked about the type of work they have accomplished and how they did it. After, there was time for questions & statements from others. There was no translation, but we had our own comrades to translate for us.

One of the main points I noticed was the Zapatista emphasis on training people to gain skills & experience, which they in turn pass on to others. For example, when they began establishing health clinics & schools, they sent people out for training and then began the process again within their communities. Because many of those who do the work do not get paid, communities support them by providing transportation, food, shelter, etc.

Oventik itself is a model of much of the work the Zapatistas have sought to carry out. In the market area, where the gathering was held, there is a main street running down to a large stage & open area. Along the street are small houses & shacks, many of which are co-operatives selling food, coffee, clothing, boots, literature & DVD’s, etc. During the gathering, these co-ops were the main source of food for those attending the gathering, as there were no community dinners or kitchens. The gathering itself put thousands of dollars into the local economy (clever capitalists those anti-capitalists). Along with a school and health clinic, there is also a pirate radio station, Radio Insurgente, that broadcasts to local communities. The Good Governance Council also has a building on this street. Most of the buildings had murals painted on them, part of a rich & vibrant culture of resistance among the people.

On the night of January 31, a large celebration was held in the main stage area. Many speeches & performances occurred, along with statements from several EZLN commanders, including Subcomandante Marcos, Comandanta/es Yoland, Hortensia, David, & Lt.-Col. Moises. Whenever the commanders appeared, there was a large security force around him or her, clearing a path through the crowd and ensuring no one got too close. Later every night until 3 in the morning there was dancing (a traditional Mexican-Spanish dance of some kind). Despite the heavy discussions during the day, there was always a festive atmosphere.

Conclusion

Overall, the gathering was very inspiring & educational. I was able to see the strength & determination of the Zapatistas with my own eyes (which you can see in theirs). I was also able to witness their efforts to achieve autonomy & self-determination within their communities & territories. The Zapatistas are well organized, trained, disciplined, humble & respectful. They are a true Indigenous resistance warrior movement, and one that Indigenous people in North America can learn a great deal from. To better understand the history & philosophy of the Zapatistas, it is recommended that you read the Sixth Declaration from the Lecandon Jungle (The Other Campaign), which is now widely available on the Internet, and check out the following resources.

Resources & Info

Websites
www.narconews.com
www.zmag.org/chiapas1/index.htm
www.chiapas.indymedia.org
www.ezln.org.mx (in Spanish, good graphics)

Books
– The Other Campaign, by Subcomandante Marcos & the Zapatistas, City Lights Books, San Francisco 2006
– Our Word is our Weapon; Selected Writings of Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos, edited by Juana Ponce de Leon, Seven Stories Press, New York 2001
– Homage to Chiapas; The New Indigenous Struggles in Mexico, by Bill Weinberg, Verso, New York 2000
– Rebellion from the Roots; Indian Uprising in Chiapas, by John Ross, Common Courage Press, Maine 1995

Films
– A Place Called Chiapas, 1998, Dir. by Nettie Wild, National Film Board of Canada (NFB), 92 min.
-Zapatista, 2001, A Big Noise Film, documents period 1994-98, interviews with Marcos, Tach, & Ana Maria, Noam Chomsky, music by Rage Against the Machine & others.
– Zapatista Women, 1995, 30 min., Spanish with English subtitles. Interviews with EZLN women combatants & commanders.

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