Mexico’s Other Campaign




O

btilia Eugenio Manuel, a 30-year-old Me’phaa
indigenous woman, stands in the hollowed concrete frame of a two-room
schoolhouse, its walls peppered with bullet holes. She holds a microphone
a few inches from her face as she addresses the 200 people huddled
under the hot coastal sun. Beside her, subcomandante Marcos of the
Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) squints and looks down
at the dry earth. 


“We know that the government is against us,” she says,
“and wants to do away with us as indigenous people. So we must
build power from below, in our homes, in our families and in our
communities.” Those present keep listening, taking notes, clicking
photographs. Yet it is impossible to measure the defiance behind
her words. She gives no clue that she is risking her life by speaking. 


Since 2003 Obtilia Eugenio has received both written and verbal
death threats for her activism against militarization in the indigenous
villages of the Costa Chica, the mountainous region just south of
Acapulco in Guerrero State in Mexico. She has confronted—unarmed—squadrons
of soldiers trying to enter her village; she co-founded an organization
to promote indigenous rights and fight military abuses; and she
has served as an interpreter for monolingual indigenous women raped
by the soldiers that haunt the area and accuse anyone who stands
up or speaks out of being a guerrilla fighter.  


Despite the danger and the fear—“What hurts most are the
threats against my family,” she told me—she has come to
add her voice and testimony to the EZLN’s Other Campaign at
a meeting in the remote Na Savi village of El Charco. It was here,
outside the schoolhouse, where the Mexican Army massacred ten indigenous
villagers and one university student on June 7, 1998. 


This is the geography traced by the Other Campaign, the terrain
of the Mexican underclass where the visitor finds no paved roads,
no water projects, no universities, but instead hundreds of bullet
holes in the walls of a two-room schoolhouse. The Other Campaign,
with its motley crew of followers from across the country and across
the left side of the political spectrum, all piled into a makeshift
caravan, lumbered up the steep dirt roads for hours to gather at
El Charco and heard from survivors of the massacre, regional indigenous
rights groups, and people like Obtilia Eugenio. 



The Sexta 



I

n June 2005 the EZLN sent
out a Red Alert, calling an emergency session with the army’s
commanders. After a month of discussions, the EZLN released the
Sixth Declaration from the Lacandon Jungle (La sexta declaracion
de la selva Lacandona). The Sexta, something like a Zapatista Declaration
of Independence from capitalism, lays out the Zapatistas’ analysis
of the social ills in Mexico and abroad and what they plan to do
about them. 


The analysis in the Sexta is simple: capitalism treats people and
nature as sheer merchandise, objects without rights, to be used
and discarded at the whim of stock markets and speculators. Democracy
within a capitalist system is nothing more than window dressing,
reiterated false promises, and government aid programs that stifle
autonomy, foster dependence, and ultimately conquer social movements
fighting for social transformation. There is no way to overthrow
capitalism from within the electoral system; something entirely
“other” must be built without the corrupting influence
of the capitalist political class.







Early in the morning on January 1, 2006, Marcos set out on his 6-month
journey across all 31 states in Mexico as the EZLN’s Delegate
Zero. His assignment was to listen to the indigenous communities,
workers, social movements, nongovernmental organizations, students,
and individuals who make up the underdogs (los de abajo) of the
Mexican left. The Other Campaign’s ultimate goal: to pull all
these people together and, with them, overthrow the government,
uproot capitalism, exile business and political elites, and change
the country and the world. 


Hence the first phase of the Other Campaign: a journey across the
country to listen. The EZLN does not want to tell their fellow underdogs
of the left how to organize or what to do, but first to ask them
what they have been doing and how to bridge their efforts and create
a national movement. The listening sessions are long and arduous,
stretching for hours, several times a day, seven days a week. Most
meetings are held either in box-like concrete rooms in union offices
and public halls or outdoors, sometimes with and sometimes without
thatched roofs or tarps to provide shade from the sun. When the
agenda is tight, meeting organizers set a time limit for each participant,
but most often there is no limit. While no one ever screens for
content, there are two topics that are explicitly unwelcome: speaking
in favor of either capitalism or political parties. 



The July Elections 



T

he Zapatistas’ running
their campaign parallel to the 2006 presidential campaigns alienated
some Zapatista sympathizers, mostly urban middle class intellectuals
and activists within the Party of the Democratic Revolution (Partido
de la Revolucion Democratica, PRD). The PRD candidate, Andres Manuel
Lopez Obrador, ran neck-andneck against Felipe Calderon of the National
Action Party (Partido de Accion Nacional, PAN)—a right-winger
with formidable support from the Mexican ruling class. 


The July 2 vote was immediately mired in anomalies as the Federal
Electoral Institute (IFE), the body charged with conducting the
elections and tallying the vote, withheld early estimated results,
then selectively released results from areas won by Calderon while
leaving out millions of votes from areas won by Lopez Obrador. As
the days passed, the PRD amassed a several thousand-page complaint
that they filed before the federal electoral court, formally challenging
the IFE’s pronouncement that Calderon won the election by less
than 1 percentage point and demanding a vote-by-vote recount. Lopez
Obrador subsequently held two massive marches and protests in Mexico
City, drawing half a million to the first and over a million to
the second. The PAN and the PRD continued to launch accusations
back and forth, inundating the television news hour and the first
ten pages of the national papers with post-electoral intrigue. 


The Mexican elections came just as left—or in some cases, at
least not totally right—candidates are winning elections across
Latin America. Some, like Mexico City-based intellectuals Enrique
Dussel and Guillermo Almeyra, argued that the Other Campaign’s
harsh criticisms of the PRD and Lopez Obrador led to abstentions
on election day that aided the right-wing candidate. Too much was
at stake, they said, to let the right win the elections. 


The participants in the Other Campaign are undeterred by such logic.
Too much has been at stake for too long and nothing has changed.
Vote or not, still nothing will change after Election Day, they
say. Marcos has been careful with his words as well, never calling
for abstention, but rather urging his listeners to participate in
building a national, non-violent, grassroots rebellion through the
Other Campaign, whose slogan is “Vote or don’t vote: organize.” 


The abstention argument is not shared by the PRD rank and file.
At Lopez Obrador’s closing campaign events, as well as his
electoral fraud protests, I asked attendants what they thought of
the Other Campaign, expecting to hear criticisms similar to those
of the middle class intelligentsia. But most people didn’t
see a contradiction between voting for Lopez Obrador, supporting
the Other Campaign, and demanding a vote-by-vote recount. “The
Other Campaign? We also support the Other Campaign, but we came
here to defend our vote,” one marcher told me. 








Relatively
few beyond those directly involved, however, have paid much attention
to the Other Campaign. The Mexican and international mainstream
media’s scant coverage and fickle treatment of the campaign
comes as no surprise. What is surprising is the lack of coverage
in much of the left press. The left has made the same mistake as
the right: they reduced the entire Other Campaign to Marcos and
left out the participation of thousands of Mexicans. 




The Crackdown 



T

he Other Campaign did not
quite go as planned. On May 3—while the Other Campaign was
visiting the site of the 1968 military massacre of over 100 student
protesters in Tlatelolco Plaza—local and state police unleashed
a violent operation to repress a tiny march of flower vendors in
Texcoco, about 20 miles outside of Mexico City. When residents of
the neighboring town of San Salvador Atenco, members of the rural
farmers’ movement known as the People’s Front in the Defense
of Land, blocked the highway to demand the immediate release of
those taken prisoner in Texcoco, the government responded by sending
over 800 federal and state riot police. National television networks
filmed from helicopters the resulting clashes between the People’s
Front and the police—protesters kicking an unconscious police
officer in the groin, groups of officers huddled around fallen protesters
raining blows with their police batons—repeating over and over
again the scene of the police officer being kicked and trumpeting
the need for a stronger crackdown to “finish these people off.” 


That crackdown came the following day when over 3,500 federal, state,
and local police surrounded and invaded San Salvador Atenco. Hundreds
of members of the Other Campaign had traveled throughout the night
to stand in solidarity with the people of Atenco. Most of these
people, however, were caught off guard when the church bells rang
in warning at 6:00 AM. People scrambled to defend the entrances
to the town, but were overwhelmed by the number of police firing
tear-gas grenades. Within the first few minutes, police shot 20-year-old
economy student Ollin Alexis Benhumea in the head. He fell, was
immediately taken to a house close by where, surrounded by the police,
he was unable to get medical attention. Ollin Alexis went into a
coma and died a month later. 


The police pummeled all those caught in the streets. Jorge Salinas
Jardon, a telephone union worker, was beaten, on camera, so badly
that both of his arms were broken and he no longer has bones in
several fingers in each hand as the bones were pulverized and had
to be replaced with metal rods. But the beatings in the streets
were just the beginning. Once the police had taken control of the
town, masked locals led them house to house to beat and arrest known
participants in the People’s Front and the Other Campaign members
who had sought refuge in people’s homes. 


The police violence was indiscriminate. Arnulfo Pacheco, who has
been confined to a wheelchair for years, was pulled from his bed,
beaten, and then ordered to get up and walk. When he did not comply,
he was beaten unconscious. Police then piled bleeding bodies into
empty buses and pick-up trucks and drove out into the countryside
for further beatings. During the six-hour drive, police systematically
attacked women prisoners with sexual violence, including rape. The
riot police had included condoms in their gear. 








By
the end of two days of violence, over 200 people had been severely
beaten and imprisoned. Marcos called a Red Alert in Zapatista communities
and, after leading a march of several thousand people to Atenco
on May 5, announced that the Other Campaign’s journey would
be suspended in order to demand the release of all those taken prisoner
in Texcoco and Atenco. Other Campaign members set up camp outside
the maximum security prison near Mexico City and organized several
large marches, culminating in a rally in the central plaza on July
2—election day. Within the first month, over 170 people were
released from prison. 


Since July 2, the Other Campaign and the continued daily struggle
to attain liberty for the 30 people still in prison has been mostly
lost in the national outcry over the electoral irregularities and
the demand for a vote-by-vote recount. At an assembly meeting in
Atenco on July 23, Marcos announced that a delegation of commanders
from the Zapatista Army of National Liberation would soon leave
the Lacandon jungle to help in the struggle. Rumors have it that
the commanders will take over the helm of the Other Campaign’s
nationwide listening tour, continuing north while Marcos stays in
Mexico City to organize Atenco solidarity actions. 



Teachers’ Tent City 



A

n inspiring example of patient
grassroots organizing is in Oaxaca. Local Section 22 of the National
Education Workers Union—with 26 years of non-stop struggle
under its belt—took over downtown Oaxaca setting up a tent
city in the colonial town center. They also blocked access to state
government buildings and the major tourist industry festival—the
Guelaguetza—and organized their own free, alternative festival,
which over 20,000 people attended. The union has some 70,000 members
in Oaxaca and most of those are actively participating in resistance
actions, creating a force that local police are unable to bully. 


Nevertheless, on June 14 over 1,000 state and local police attempted
to lift the teachers’ tent city in a dawn raid that involved
helicopters launching tear gas grenades and hundreds of police stomping
and clubbing sleeping teachers. The police took control of Central
Americathe town square, but lost that control later in the afternoon
when tens of thousands of teachers and local supporters returned
to set their tents back up. The attempted violent dislodging of
the teachers galvanized the community. Tens of thousands of residents
not affiliated with any political organization created an umbrella
organization called the Popular Assembly of Oaxaca (APPO), which
has since organized hundreds of thousands into marches and civil
disobedience demanding the removal of the governor, Ulises Ruiz. 


The teachers have suspended their initial demands for an increased
federal and state budget for education in Oaxaca, to add their strength
to the APPO’s call for the governor’s removal. “We
have been building political alliances for some time, it is a matter
of survival. We don’t have any alternative,” Alejandro
Cruz Lopez told me. Cruz is a lawyer with the Indigenous Organization
for Human Rights in Oaxaca, a member of the Other Campaign in Oaxaca,
and a long-time activist for indigenous rights in the state. He
is now actively participating in the APPO, which he says is, in
the spirit of the Other Campaign, looking to build a different way
of doing politics where, “You don’t just struggle for
your health clinic, you don’t just struggle for potable water,
but you struggle for structural change in social and economic policies.”





John
Gibler reports from Mexico for ZNet, KPFA, KPFK,



Left
Turn

, and other independent media. He is a Global Exchange human
rights fellow.