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"The Other" Way

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January 9, 2006

"The Other" Way

The Zapatistas' New Direction

by Chris Arsenault

Subcomandante Marcos, now called Delegate Zero, on the first day of the Other Campaign. photo credit: Chiapas IndyMedia
After a few years of relative quiet, relegated to their misty mountain strongholds in southern Mexico, Zapatista rebels have recently re-asserted their presence on the international stage. Their new initiative – called 'the Other Campaign' - continues a unique military strategy based more on words than weapons.

What began as a "scandalously Indian" uprising in 1994 in Chiapas, Mexico's southernmost state, is metamorphosing into a "national campaign for building another way of doing politics, for a program of national struggle of the left, and for a new Constitution," according to the Sixth Declaration of the Lacondon, issued by the Clandestine Revolutionary Indigenous Committee (CCRIG), the military commanders of the Zapatistas' armed wing.

After a series of September meetings in the Zapatista strong hold of la Garrucha with 91 social organizations from throughout Mexico, 36 political organizations, 129 groups, collectives and NGO's, and 26 indigenous organizations, it was decided that a national tour should begin in January to hear from different sectors of Mexican society.

Subcommandante Marcos, the rebels' iconic mestizo pipe-smoking former spokesman (he's stepping down as spokesperson for the EZLN to work on the campaign) will be traveling across Mexico, consulting and listening, to help build a non-parliamentary leftist movement.

It won't be the first time the Zapatistas have taken their show on the road. In 2001 the commandantes toured through Mexico, rallying for constitutional changes to guarantee indigenous rights to land and self-determination. The march was hugely popular, cumulating with a rally of 400 000 in Mexico City, but failed to gain the constitutional changes the rebels demanded. This time around the tour will have a broader audience: the politics from the Other Campaign belong "to everyone who embraces them", according to Marcos.

Politically, the timing for a national grassroots movement couldn't be better. When the Zapatistas first called NAFTA a "death sentence" in 1994, they were at odds with the majority of the Mexican population; 68 percent of Mexicans supported the agreement. Ten years later, less than 45 percent support NAFTA, according to polls published in Business Week. The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace notes that by 2004, 1.3 million farm jobs had disappeared in Mexico, as heavily subsidized corn, pork, poultry, and other foodstuffs from the U.S. competed with products from rural communities.

Despite this evidence, the Other Campaign will still have to combat the line toed by Vincent Fox's government: the Zapatistas are a revolution that couldn't deliver.

"People in Chiapas were very poor and forgotten but the Zapatistas didn't change anything and most people have moved on. The revolution couldn't deliver," said Luis Alvarez, the Mexican government's chief negotiator for Chiapas, during a 2003 lecture at Trent University.

In some cases, Alvarez is correct. "Truthfully the situation is still the same," said the representative from San Andres (Zapatista supporters almost never give their names in interviews).

Economically, the Zapatistas are facing a dilemma, how do you get something from nothing?

"At present [in 1997, but little has changed since then] some 6,000 cattle ranching families hold more than three million hectares, which is almost one half the area of the state," notes a report by CONPAZ, the Coordination of Non-Governmental Organizations for Peace. Unless an unlikely constitutional break-thorough is reached, the Zapatistas can't move onto any more productive ranch land without re-starting the war. Small farmers are forced to grow corn on steeped elevations eking a precarious existence from rocky soil.

And unlike other regions striving for 'development', it's unlikely the Zapatistas will get a bank loan for new capital. A 1994 memo from the Chase Manhattan Bank urging the Mexican army to "eliminate the Zapatistas" exemplifies how global capital evaluates those who seek alternatives. With no access to capital and no new land, the Zapatista's are in a difficult economic spot.

Activists, especially youth who were first involved in planning the insurgency or grew up with it, are taking on the tasks of economic development, teaching in autonomous schools with radical pedagogy, and creating a viable health-care system.

"Before, people in the bases of support had to pay for their own medicines, now they are free," said one Zapatista supporter after getting a check-up at the rebel-run clinic in Ovenitc Caracole, a Zapatista stronghold two hours outside the colonial tourist city of San Cristobal de las Casas.

The clinic is a thriving example of the kinds of "high quality public services" the Zapatistas are trying to create. It prominently displays a picture of campesinos washing vegetables in river water with a large X though it. People are advised to boil water and leave limejuice and ash in their latrines to prevent dysentery and other all-too-common curable diseases. Young "promoters of health" receive medical training from Mexico City-based doctors, and have been traveling to tiny, distant communities to convey life-saving messages.

"Communities give food-beans, tortillas, and fruit-to the workers of the clinic, so the clinic decided they couldn't charge them," says Anastasio, a health promoter, community organizer, and well-known basketball player who never attended primary school.

In Anastasio's home region of Los Altos, a rebel stronghold divided into seven administrative regions, the Zapatistas run eight micro-clinics along with the major facility in Oventic, which boasts a small operating room, dentistry equipment, herbal remedies, and an admittedly sparse pharmacy. "It isn't only the Zapatistas who don't have medicine; the government hospitals don't either," notes Anastasio.

The Zapatistas are also working to create local economic development through cooperatives. "Women want work and markets for their art-crafts. They are being exploited by coyotes [middlemen] and need a just price for their products," explains a representative from the Municipality 16 de Febrero community. Mujures por la Dignidad is one of the largest co-ops and is comprised entirely of women who produce shirts, blankets, hammocks, and other weavings.

"When there are meetings for the co-op, we leave our homes, our children, and our husbands. We also walk many hours and some of us on the board [of directors] live far from our homes," explains an elected board member from Mujures Por la Dignidad between forkfuls of rice and beans.

Coffee workers are also organizing themselves into fair trade co-operatives, or what farmers in Mutz Vitz, the largest Zapatista coffee operation, call "fairer trade," - they are still working long days and living in poverty. Coffee farmers are among the most radical elements of the Zapatista movement, representing a large portion of those who were armed on New Year's Day 1994.

Throughout the 1970s, the federal government and the IMF used marketing boards, training incentives, and loan guarantees to entice subsistence corn farmers to grow coffee for export. When Vietnam entered coffee production under IMF dictums, causing a massive devaluation of world coffee prices, coffee growers became among the most angry and desperate of a population already facing "acute marginalization", as defined by the Mexican government.

The failures of neoliberalism in Mexico have helped push Mexico City's left leaning former Mayor, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (or AMLO in the Mexican press), to lead the polls for July's Presidential election. The Zapatista's have condemned AMLO as a crude populist and are using the Other Campaign to build support for a grassroots progressive movement across the country.

The success of the campaign and will determine what kind of role the Zapatistas will play as a political movement outside their Chiapenco strongholds. But it is the schools, clinics, co-operatives, workshops, "high quality public services" and community organizing that rebut the rhetoric of "a revolution that couldn't deliver"-and prove another world really may be possible in the Zapatistas' Chiapas.

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The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.

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