Reinventing Solidarity Activism

Since the January 1, 1994 Zapatista uprising

in Chiapas, Mexico, EZLN* leaders have been quite forthcoming about

what solidarity means to them, be it domestic or international. Their articulation of the

revolution they envision is poetic in its clarity, as is the applied strategy they hope

will achieve their aims — one reaching well beyond their tiny corner of the world or

surface problems. Realization of those aims, the Zapatistas explicitly state, is

intimately tied to the development of movements throughout Mexico and the rest of the

world. They are under no illusion that an "army" like the EZLN can reach its

priority goal — that of localized indigenous autonomy — even with massive amounts of

aid, from food and medical supplies to weapons and training.

Realizing the strength of their primary

adversary (the US-backed Mexican government), the Zapatistas have moved from a military

focus to a strategy of grassroots organizing among what they call "civil

society." And since the beginning this has prompted a fresh look at how the rest of

the world should perceive their movement and our role in solidarity with it. In North

America, even many pacifists have come out in explicit support of the Zapatistas,

recognizing the nonviolent social orientation of the EZLN strategy. But what does it mean

to support the Zapatistas, or to be in solidarity with them?

There are really two main perspectives on

international solidarity between the US/Canada and the people of Chiapas. One, which we

will call the direct solidarity method, has viewed the people of Chiapas, and in some

cases the EZLN, as primarily in need of specific contributions. Some of this aid is

material, such as food, medicine, housing, money and so forth. In many cases it is

observers or witnesses to perform "protective accompaniment" in order to provide

badly needed safeguards against military attacks on autonomous Zapatista and other

indigenous communities. Additionally, countless activists have travelled to Chiapas to

share special skills and advice. These folks also tend to recognize the important role of

organizing at home in the North toward greater awareness of the Chiapas plight and against

US military aid, corporate involvement, and so forth. All elements of this approach, if

carried out with respect for the autonomy of the Zapatistas and Chiapans in general, are

vital aspects of the current solidarity movement.

But according to the Zapatistas, if their

revolution is to be successful by their own standards, there is still more to be done. It

isn’t sectarian to suggest that, indeed, true solidarity means much more than unilateral

aid. Old notions of solidarity, which identify the stance too closely with charity, need

to be checked for both their inherent conceit and their limited potential. They are

conceited in that unilateral solidarity, or one-directional aid-giving, assumes total

privilege on one end of the relationship, that of the North. In order to understand my

concern (shared by many indigenous activists) with such a dynamic, it helps to understand

a bit about who the Zapatistas, and the Maya people in general, actually are.

The Zapatiasta struggle is decidedly

different from the "Latin American" "national liberation movements"

with which North American solidarity activism became identified in the 1980s. For

starters, the predominantly and centrally indigenous Zapatistas tend not to consider

themselves Latin, but Indian. As the Zapatistas will be the first to admit today, the term

"National Liberation" in their army’s title is essentially misleading, if taken

to imply a desire, like that of the FMLN* or FSLN*

before them, to seize state power as a method of such liberation. Like their namesake

Emiliano Zapata in the Mexican Revolution of the 1910s, the EZLN harbors no desire to

liberate indigenous people, or anyone else, through seizure of national political

authority. As Subcomandante Marcos has eloquently stated, the Zapatistas "wish not to

seize power, but to exercise it" in their own communities. And they hope others will

do the same.

A second distinction between the Zapatistas

and most previous revolutionary movements in the region (and throughout the world), is

their focus on, and basis in, traditional Mayan democracy. In every way more direct,

localized and cultural than commonly understood forms of democratic structure and process,

Mayan democracy — not guerilla warfare tactics — is the cornerstone of the Zapatista

movement. This is particularly relevant because the heritage and present assertion of

participatory democratic ideals, despite some of the most severe material poverty in the

hemisphere, indicates an imbalance between activists in Chiapas and their counterparts in

North America. Much richer in material resources, because of our dislocation from

indigenous or other democratic cultures, most activists in the US and Canada have much to

learn about democracy. Without meaning to downplay very real economic despair in the

North, ours is also a poverty of democracy.

And the Zapatistas have much to teach, which

is consonant with their repeated insistence that we organize our own communities — not

exactly as they have, but according to our own needs and potential — as a method of

acting in solidarity with the EZLN. Their means of communicating with Mexican civil

society, through human-centered language instead of academic meandering, is an example of

the distinction between the Zapatista and typical Northern perspectives on radical

organizing. Indeed, because the Zapatistas have used Mayan languages to develop their

understanding of revolutionary social change, Northern models of "leftism" do

not even apply to the Zapatista struggle. Zapatismo is inherently

community-oriented, because it arises from communities with preexisting cultures of

democracy predating European invasion.

There are other reasons, also articulated by

the Zapatistas, for organizing in our own communities. The Zapatista vision considers

worldwide grassroots organizing, not necessarily toward direct or even explicit solidarity

with Chiapas, a requisite to their own success. Especially important in the US and Canada

where international influence through NAFTA and military aid is strongest, transformation

of social systems in the heart of the imperial homeland is essential to the Zapatistas’

ability to make progress toward resistance and autonomy.

Which leads us to note the real reasons many

North Americans have cited a special relevance of the Zapatista struggle among others

taking place around the world. Once again the "threat of a good example" is a

real possibility in our hemisphere; if the Zapatistas’ form of grassroots, democratic,

localized resistance and self-governance proves successful, or even inspiring, the lessons

of zapatismo may spread beyond the besieged villages of Chiapas. Perhaps no more

severely oppressed than other peoples of the world, the Zapatistas stand out because

they’re applying relatively unique methods of resistance and social transformation, plus

holistically engaging not only economic and political struggle but also race, gender, age

and ecological issues as well.

For the Maya people of Chiapas, 1994 marked a

significant point on an ancient calendar. On January 1 of that year, they say, the Sixth

Sun, marking the dawning of another century in the colonial era, rose above Chiapas. And

according to their prophecies, the Sixth Sun will illuminate the time of renewal, where

the people will "rise up from the hills like corn," and according to another

prophecy, unite with the peoples of the world to start a new era.

Even in this time of draughts, fires and

floods, when little corn is rising, the Maya people have begun to fulfill those prophecies

by saying "Enough is enough!," and by placing consistent calls to us all to join

in their struggle.

How we partake in this struggle is up to us.

Many organizations in the North have understood the Zapatista definition of solidarity to

promote the development of democratic understandings through their incorporation in

cultural activities. Groups all over are organizing highly politicized festivals and

culturally-oriented teach-ins, explicitly intended in solidarity with the Zapatistas.

Other organizations, like the Boston Encuentro, have formed to bring the lessons of the

Zapatistas home to their communities, applying translations of zapatismo to their

existing activist endeavors. Whatever the specific approach, let it be known there are

more ways to demonstrate solidarity than the sending of aid or observers, however

important those efforts are indeed.

EZLN: Zapatista

Army of National Liberation

For more on the EZLN and Zapatista solidarity, visit:

http://www.ezln.org or


FMLN: Farabundo

Marti National Liberation, guerilla army turned political party in El Salvador.

FSLN: Sandinista

National Liberation Front, revolutionary government of Nicaragua, 1979-1990.

Brian Dominick is a community organizer and

freelance journalist living in his hometown of Syracuse, NY. He is co-founder of the

NorthEast Zapatista Solidarity Network (http://zapnet.rootmedia.org)

and Syracuse Zapatista Solidarity. For more writings by him on this and other subjects,

see http://www.rootmedia.org/~bad.

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