(If this is the first time you see this blog I suggest starting to read from “Chiapas 1” and onwards so that it all makes more sense.)
Look at a community in which there is Oportunidades, the government program we discussed earlier that pays you to send your kids to school and seek healthcare. Look how the entire town is gathered around looking for their money.
Compared to the previous photo, look at how different a Zapatista community is with a slogan at the entrance to town “Here the people order, and the government obeys.”
A photo of where the pacifist resistance group Las Abejas was killed and buried.
A Zapatista school
Lucky 13 will be my final post, and as I sit in the Jaltenango office waiting to fly home in a few days–doing hardcore Excel and Access manipulations to support the pasante’s information technology system and researching Chiapas history, I am enjoying a light 38C fever and stomach ache. After the course the team have each gone their separate ways, some back to work in their communities and some to vacation, and I am locked up in the office trying to accomplish something productive to contribute to the team.
This final post will focus on the Zapatista movement and its influence, and a brief note on the threat of mining corporations.
On January 1, 1994, rumors of war traveled throughout the Sierra Madre. It was said that “indigenous brothers” had taken over the municipal capitals of Altamirano, Chanal, Huixtan, Las Margaritas, Oxchuc, Ocosingo, and San Cristobal.1 That day the local radio station did not broadcast, and people would later learn that the indigenist radio station had been occupied by Zapatista troops and that technical problems had prevented them from broadcasting to borderland inhabitants “The First Declaration of the Lacandon Rain Forest,” a beautifully written document that summarizes some of the history we reviewed together in my posts:
TO THE PEOPLE OF MEXICO:
MEXICAN BROTHERS AND SISTERS:
We are a product of 500 years of struggle: first against slavery, then during the War of Independence against Spain led by insurgents, then to avoid being absorbed by North American imperialism, then to promulgate our constitution and expel the French empire from our soil, and later the dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz denied us the just application of the Reform laws and the people rebelled and leaders like Villa and Zapata emerged, poor men just like us. We have been denied the most elemental preparation so they can use us as cannon fodder and pillage the wealth of our country. They don’t care that we have nothing, absolutely nothing, not even a roof over our heads, no land, no work, no health care, no food nor education. Nor are we able to freely and democratically elect our political representatives, nor is there independence from foreigners, nor is there peace nor justice for ourselves and our children.
But today, we say ENOUGH IS ENOUGH.
We are the inheritors of the true builders of our nation. The dispossessed, we are millions and we thereby call upon our brothers and sisters to join this struggle as the only path, so that we will not die of hunger due to the insatiable ambition of a 70 year dictatorship led by a clique of traitors that represent the most conservative and sell-out groups. They are the same ones that opposed Hidalgo and Morelos, the same ones that betrayed Vicente Guerrero, the same ones that sold half our country to the foreign invader, the same ones that imported a European prince to rule our country, the same ones that formed the “scientific” Porfirsta dictatorship, the same ones that opposed the Petroleum Expropriation, the same ones that massacred the railroad workers in 1958 and the students in 1968, the same ones the today take everything from us, absolutely everything.
To prevent the continuation of the above and as our last hope, after having tried to utilize all legal means based on our Constitution, we go to our Constitution, to apply Article 39 which says:
“National Sovereignty essentially and originally resides in the people. All political power emanates from the people and its purpose is to help the people. The people have, at all times, the inalienable right to alter or modify their form of government.”
Therefore, according to our constitution, we declare the following to the Mexican federal army, the pillar of the Mexican dictatorship that we suffer from, monopolized by a one-party system and led by Carlos Salinas de Gortari, the maximum and illegitimate federal executive that today holds power.
According to this Declaration of War, we ask that other powers of the nation advocate to restore the legitimacy and the stability of the nation by overthrowing the dictator.
We also ask that international organizations and the International Red Cross watch over and regulate our battles, so that our efforts are carried out while still protecting our civilian population. We declare now and always that we are subject to the Geneva Accord, forming the EZLN as our fighting arm of our liberation struggle. We have the Mexican people on our side, we have the beloved tri-colored flag highly respected by our insurgent fighters. We use black and red in our uniform as our symbol of our working people on strike. Our flag carries the following letters, “EZLN,” Zapatista National Liberation Army, and we always carry our flag into combat.
Beforehand, we refuse any effort to disgrace our just cause by accusing us of being drug traffickers, drug guerrillas, thieves, or other names that might by used by our enemies. Our struggle follows the constitution which is held high by its call for justice and equality.
Therefore, according to this declaration of war, we give our military forces, the EZLN, the following orders:
First: Advance to the capital of the country, overcoming the Mexican federal army, protecting in our advance the civilian population and permitting the people in the liberated area the right to freely and democratically elect their own administrative authorities.
Second: Respect the lives of our prisoners and turn over all wounded to the International Red Cross.
Third: Initiate summary judgments against all soldiers of the Mexican federal army and the political police that have received training or have been paid by foreigners, accused of being traitors to our country, and against all those that have repressed and treated badly the civil population and robbed or stolen from or attempted crimes against the good of the people.
Fourth: Form new troops with all those Mexicans that show their interest in joining our struggle, including those that, being enemy soldiers, turn themselves in without having fought against us, and promise to take orders from the General Command of the Zapatista National Liberation Army.
Fifth: We ask for the unconditional surrender of the enemy’s headquarters before we begin any combat to avoid any loss of lives.
Sixth: Suspend the robbery of our natural resources in the areas controlled by the EZLN.
To the People of Mexico: We, the men and women, full and free, are conscious that the war that we have declared is our last resort, but also a just one. The dictators are applying an undeclared genocidal war against our people for many years. Therefore we ask for your participation, your decision to support this plan that struggles for work, land, housing, food, health care, education, independence, freedom, democracy, justice and peace. We declare that we will not stop fighting until the basic demands of our people have been met by forming a government of our country that is free and democratic.
JOIN THE INSURGENT FORCES OF THE ZAPATISTA NATIONAL LIBERATION ARMY.
General Command of the EZLN2
Where did this movement that burst forth in 1994 come from? Apparently in the 1970s indigenous people from all over the state were gathering together to colonize a rain forest East of the Sierra area where our medical team works. Immigrant Guatemalans and mestizo peasants converged with indigenous people of many ethnicities along with a Maoist organization called Popular Politics. The exchange of experiences has allowed many global perspectives and political and religious ideologies to coalesce into a political-military movement.3 After the Zapatista uprising the government set up a huge military base nearby, but this did not deter local communities who now felt a radical sense of empowerment. On January 27, 1994, the Mam Supreme Council of the lowlands led a demonstration in front of the local office of the Ministry of Agrarian Reform, demanding restitution of the lands of Finca La Patria (remember Fincas are the old farms that began during plantation times, 1910-1930s): “If you are not going to grant us the rights over our ancestral lands, then make the necessary formalities so that our fifty families can have passports to go work in the United States, for we are already foreigners in our own territory, being displaced by finqueros from other countries who have become lords of the Soconusco.”4 (Recall the finqueros that started in plantation time 100 years ago were American, German, Swiss, Italian, Ladino, and of other international origins, and apparently the people see this as unchanged to this day.) A flurry of peaceful civil protests supporting the Zapatista cause began throughout Mam and Sierra populations, causing friction in indigenous organizations when some members chose to support the cause while others preferred to stay out of the conflict. “The organization, the religious group, the community, and even the family are now crossed over by a line dividing those who favor the Zapatistas and those who favor the government[!]”5
Since the first violent conflict with the government, which became a ceasefire within weeks due to international pressure, the Zapatistas have operated peacefully and are actually running the government instead of the federal government in several municipalities in the area. In December, 2012 a silent march demonstrated to the world that the Zapatista are still active, still working hard in their communities. To quote Roar Magazine: “The Story of the Sword” is an ancient parable that demonstrates how the indigenous peoples of Mexico can finally defeat the European invader. “The tree”, says Subcomandante Marcos when narrating the story, “tried to fight the sword, but was defeated. The stone likewise.” But not the water. “It follows its own road, it wraps itself around the sword and, without doing anything, it arrives at the river that will carry it to the great water where the greatest of gods cure themselves of thirst, those gods that birthed the world, the first ones.”6
I asked a friend I met who had visited Zapatista areas to get a personal account of a Zapatista’s life: “The Zapatistas are campesinos. They work in their lands. They suffer a lot because they are separate from the system. Both men and women work hard, and they share food–they barter e.g. jam for coffee. They feel that they are a different community because they have dignity–and this comes from having autonomy. They have a hospital and clinics in each town served by health promoters. The level of education of these medical personnel is not the highest but they are open to any volunteer who wishes to teach. Preventive care did not seem to be prominent, but they seemed to have the same medications as the government hospital.”
When I asked this friend about a critique of the Zapatistas, that the community is very hierarchical, that Sub Commandante Marcos and his colleagues are very controlling of the population, he responded: “In fact I was told that the government is a direct democracy: all decisions are made by every member of the community, both men and women. In Zapatista communities the women’s voice is more heard and respected, and they are leaders in feminist thought. Zapatista feminist claims have trickled into other communities of Chiapas. When the decision requires coordination between many municipalities a representative is chosen to represent the opinion of the town. If this representative gives his own opinion instead of the communities opinion she or he is immediately deposed.” When someone asks them “Can I work with you?” The answer was “We are not looking for people to join us. We are asking people to join the revolution. We don’t need more people.”
A final challenge to the Zapatista model is their application of communism. So if someone works hard he or she does not receive more, he still needs to distribute his production to his neighbors. If a Coca-Cola is being drunk, everyone has to drink it together… Some people have emigrated to the United States when given the opportunity because of their distaste for this system. Let me end this summary of the Zapatistas by saying that first, to be clear Companeros en Salud is not affiliated with this group, that the Zapatista communities work very hard and suffer, and that their lives are not a romantic vacation in the jungle. Perhaps this is the cost of human dignity, and perhaps it is too high a price for most people to pay. The comforts that the mass market and multinational politics can bring are tempting.
Before ending I will describe a new controversy with the government pushing privatization of ejido land (land that began to be distributed by the government starting in the 1930s) that would allow multinational corporations to buy pieces of land in the community. When you purchase any piece of land in Chiapas the first 20m are owned by the land-owner, but deeper than that the land is owned by the federal government. Thus if a single piece of land is purchased and mining rights are given the company can dig deep under other community lands until the soil is polluted and entire communities stop being able to produce coffee. This is scary, but so far the communities in which we are working are fiercely opposed to these mining operations, which limits the government’s ability to give mining rights.
Although violent gangs still exist, the communities in which Companeros en Salud operates are peaceful and not sites of active conflict. So do not start panicking with all these stories of guerrilla warfare and mining.
I am going to end these thoughts with an invitation to support the wonderful team here doing excellent preventive medicine and primary care in isolated communities throughout Chiapas, to do so with a deep knowledge of the people and their experiences, their feelings, thoughts, and beliefs. In the month I was here I did no more than learn how little I know. If your experience is anything like mine, you will laugh often, eat well, work too hard, be touched by the stories of people’s lives and a shared humanity that has been oppressed in the most inhumane ways. This is one of the places where I can express my solidarity with those who wish to work the land free from oppression, as I work to fulfill my childhood aspiration to become a member of an international community of people that sustainably live off the land.
1: Histories and Stories from Chiapas; Border Identities in Southern Mexico. R Aida Hernandez Castillo. 2001. pp.204
3: Histories and Stories from Chiapas; Border Identities in Southern Mexico. R Aida Hernandez Castillo. 2001. pp.206
4: ibid. pp. 208.
5: ibid. pp. 214.
6: Roar Magazine: http://roarmag.org/2012/12/zapatistas-march-chiapas-mayas/