I don’t know how to say what I want to say. We’re on the brink of a precipice, the sky’s about to fall. At the same time, we’re full of hope. We finally see the light at the end of the tunnel. How to explain this contradiction? All the terms in which I was politically educated now seem inadequate to describe the present moment in Oaxaca, Mexico.
I’m convinced that Zapatismo is today the most radical and perhaps most important political movement in the world and that the Zapatistas’ latest initiative, the Other Campaign, constitutes a real alternative in Mexico. But that seems absurd as no one is paying attention to their proposals. The media, where all political activity seems to be concentrated, barely notes their existence. How to raise their banner at this moment? Is it true, as many think, that the Zapatistas missed their opportunity a long time ago and march slowly but surely to their political extinction?
In the year 2000, the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI), the party which dominated the political structure of Mexico for 70 years, lost the presidential election. Let’s not have illusions about what happened. An indigenous leader put it clearly: "For us, the system is like a snake. Last night it shed its skin. Now it’s a different color, that’s all." But we are fully aware of what we did: we got rid of the oldest authoritarian regime in the world. Thus we catalyzed a political transition toward a new regime. But we’re not yet there. What characterizes the current juncture is the struggle to define it and, therefore, also the nature of the transition.
Some want to consolidate a regime that can be described as a neoliberal republic. Others want to reorganize society from the bottom up and create an entirely different one.
We are suffering the impact of the North American Free Trade Agreement and all types of economic difficulties and political conflicts. Nonetheless, what defines our situation, what feeds our hope is the possibility that we’re in the midst of the first social revolution of the 21st century, the revolution of the new commons. We are creating alternatives:
- We’re organizing ourselves beyond "development," reclaiming our own definition of the good life.
- We’re going beyond the economy and capital. We, the so-called marginal, are now marginalizing the economy in our lives.
- We’re going beyond the individual in reclaiming our commons.
- We’re moving beyond the nation-state in reclaiming a new political horizon.
We see globalization as an economic project that attempts to plant the possessive individual of the West under the hegemony of the United States and capital. This project has two attractive masks: a political mask, "democracy," and an ethical mask, "human rights." We are challenging three aspects of this project:
- We’re resisting the transnationalized economy that encroaches upon and disrupts our lives.
- We see "democracy" as a structure of domination and control.
- We perceive "human rights" as the Trojan Horse of re-colonialization.
We don’t accept globalization. For us it is neither promise nor reality; it is the emblem of a hegemonic project of domination.
End of the Old Regime
I n December 1992 the World Bank touted Mexico as a model for everyone. I often heard at that time a comment in the middle and upper classes: "We’re not going to live like the people in the United States, but better. We’ll have all the goods and services they have…and, in addition, servants." Obviously, this cynical observation didn’t take into consideration the point of view of the servants. But that was the feeling. We were getting closer to the supposed paradise of the American way of life.
At that time, President Salinas was universally recognized as a leader who understood the way the wind was blowing and was pulling his country out of under-development. He was a candidate for the first director of the World Trade Organization, the institution quintessentially defining our times.
On December 31, 1993 Salinas was celebrating his success in Huatulco. Neoliberalism was clearly established. Only months away from completing his term, he told a visiting high-level commission from Japan: "You can negotiate with us. We’ll be in power for the next 25 years." He also commented that he didn’t commit the error of Gorbachev: to start political reform before completing economic reform. He had used all the authoritarian instruments of the old regime to implement neoliberal economic reform, postponing the political. The opposition parties only offered variations of his model.
On January 1, 1994 a small group of Mayas, armed with machetes, sticks, and a few guns, occupied four major cities of Chiapas and declared war on the Mexican government. It was the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN).
In 1995 Mexico suffered its most serious economic crisis of the century and was transformed into an economic disaster. Salinas went into a kind of exile in Ireland and his brother was sent to prison.
How could such a small group, the EZLN, which never represented a military threat to the Mexican government, change a country of more than 100 million people? Some may say that’s not a valid question: we haven’t changed so much, as the recent 2006 electoral frauds demonstrate. Others recognize that, yes, we have changed, admitting that we live in a country radically different, but maintain that the change is not due to the Zapatistas, but many other groups and factors.
In 1993 we suffered from a general sense of individual guilt. People were enduring all types of adversity, but we heard that everything was good in the best of worlds. Experts were saying that the economy was advancing on all fronts and better than ever. The media celebrated the triumphs of Salinas. Intellectuals, politicians, and international institutions continuously applauded his actions. If I’m not doing well, many people thought, it must be because I’m stupid or lazy or have bad luck.
A few days after the Zapatista uprising, there was an immense "Aha" effect. People could see that their problems were not personal, but social. As journalists began to go to the villages and file reports on the war, the media began to show the real Mexico, that of our dramas and misery, not that of new bridges and brilliant skyscrapers that for years had created an illusion of a country that didn’t exist—or existed for only a few. The people once again saw themselves in this dramatic reality. It was a revelation. The Zapatista slogan caught on immediately: "¡Basta ya!" ("Enough. Now I’ve had enough"). The force that liquidated the old regime in Mexico thus crystallized almost by surprise.
Construction of a New Regime
W e’re in transition from a conventional political power structure to an alternative form of social organization. In order to construct this alternative, we need to finish dismantling the old regime and reorganize society from the bottom up. Our economy was a peculiar hybrid of capitalism. In 1982 the public sector represented 62 percent in a highly closed economy. The government controlled it completely. In 2000, due to the privatization frenzy, the public sector represented only 18 percent in one of the most open economies in the world. The Mexican economy had escaped from the control of the government…and of the country itself.
As regards political structure, with the mafia-like structure created by the PRI, which extended to the farthest reaches of the country, nothing moved without the will of the president. He had total control of executive power and his party, Congress, and judicial power. In those 70 years almost 500 amendments to the Constitution were introduced. All of them came from the president’s initiative.
For 70 years experts described our regime as a peculiar monarchy, which replaced the king every 6 years by another member of the so-called "revolutionary family," the group that inherited the power structure created by the 1910 revolution. This regime suffered a long, agonized end. A group of technocrats who took power in 1982 accelerated it. They used the authoritarian instruments of the old regime to dismantle it and to impose the neoliberal catechism until the Zapatista uprising. In the three weeks following, the regime was forced to make more concessions to the political opposition than in the previous 50 years.
At the beginning, the transition caused great disillusionment. Those who had fought against the old regime in the name of formal democracy were frustrated and depressed. Political campaigns, instead of providing opportunities for public debate and citizen participation, were reduced to a three-ring circus. Instead of a popular government capable of stopping the devastating neoliberal tsunami, Vicente Fox, a wealthy businessperson, ex-director of Coca-Cola, became president in 2000 and dedicated himself to consolidating that ideology.
People tried to reorganize society from the bottom-up to create a new political regime, taking advantage of the option created by the Zapatistas. Fully aware of the limitations of formal democracy in which citizens freely elect their oppressors, the Zapatistas saw a political umbrella for the transition to radical democracy. What we’re now doing in Mexico is to appeal to sociological and political imagination. As the Zapatistas say, to change the world is extremely difficult, if not impossible. But it is possible to create a new world. This is not a romantic dream, but a pragmatic attitude.
The Sixth Declaration and APPO
O n January 1, 2004 the Zapatistas used the celebration of their uprising to redefine themselves. "Twenty years have elapsed," said comandante Abraham. "But we’re just beginning." The report the Zapatistas presented in August 2004 on the operation of the Juntas de Buen Gobierno [Boards of Good Government, communal governing bodies] confirmed their usual style: they say what they do and they do what they say. It also revealed the impressive progress they achieved and the impressive obstacles they face. "The indigenous villages should organize and govern themselves, according to their own ways of thinking and understanding, according to their interests, taking into account their cultures and traditions" ( La Jornada ). It is Zapatismo, say the Zapatistas, that communities make their decisions at odds with the dominant regime. "Ours is neither a liberated territory nor a utopian commune. Nor is it the experimental laboratory of an absurdity or a paradise for an orphaned left. It’s a rebellious territory in resistance."
Throughout 2006, Delegado Zero (subcomandante Marcos) traveled throughout Mexico to organize the Other Campaign in the Sixth Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle, which included an explicitly anti-capitalist orientation. The Other Campaign was very different from those organized by the presidential candidates for the July 2 elections. While candidates were competing to be heard, delivering promises in order to get votes, the Other Campaign was creating conditions for people to articulate their discontent and converge in a national program of struggle.
In the course of the year, one of the seeds planted by the Zapatistas started to bear fruit in Oaxaca, a state neighboring Chiapas—the only one in Mexico in which indigenous people constitute the majority and govern themselves, in their own way, in four-fifths of the municipalities of the state. On June 14 Oaxaca’s governor, Ulises Ruiz of the PRI, brutally repressed a sit-in organized by the local teachers’ union to demand its annual salary claims. The repression detonated a social and political movement of historical depth and scope.
The Asamblea Popular de los Pueblos de Oaxaca (APPO, the Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca) is the product of many lessons gathered during previous struggles. APPO became in very short time the main player in the political life of Oaxaca and coalesced organizationally in assembly style without leaders or formal structures. APPO has creatively applied the policy of one no and many yeses, with people united in a common rejection, while also acknowledging the plurality of society with an attitude of inclusiveness.
The main challenge is to put the struggle to improve participatory democracy (popular initiatives, referendums, plebiscites, the right to recall elected leaders, participatory budgeting, etc.) at the service of the struggle. Oaxacans are not waiting for the inevitable departure of Ruiz to put ideas into action. There are already many APPOs operating around the state on community, neighborhood, municipal, and regional levels.
In Oaxaca the fraudulently constituted powers no longer function. From July to November there was no police in the city of Oaxaca and all public offices were closed by APPO, which established permanent sit-ins before every one of them. The displaced officials had to meet secretly in hotels or private homes. The police could leave their quarters only at night, surreptitiously, to launch guerilla attacks against the people. APPO showed an amazing capacity for autonomous self-government. There were fewer crimes and assaults in those six months than in any other similar period during the last ten years.
APPO refrained from attempting to seize power and kept itself as close as possible to the political traditions of Oaxaca’s indigenous communities. Rather than climbing into the empty chairs of those who abused power, APPO has been strengthening social networks and reinforcing the dignity and autonomy of Oaxacans. Proclamations of APPO’s good government decrees represent an appeal to free men and women who, with extraordinary courage, a healthy dose of common sense, and surprising ingenuity, are attempting to rebuild society and create a new set of social relations beyond capitalism. As the Zapatistas advised, rather than trying to change the world, Oaxacans today are more pragmatically trying to construct a new one.
O n October 27 paramilitaries and municipal police loyal to Ruiz attacked the barricades that APPO set up in the center of Oaxaca. In one of these, they shot and killed Brad Will, a U.S. journalist who had a deep sense of sympathy for the peoples of Oaxaca. Violent confrontations broke out around the city. That evening President Fox used the murder as an excuse to send in the federal police.
APPO explicitly decided to resist non-violently, avoiding confrontation. Unarmed citizens stopped tanks by laying their bodies on the pavement. Women offered flowers to the police. When police occupied the main plaza, APPO abandoned it and regrouped on the university campus, protecting their radio station, which transmitted the decision to remain non-violent and avoid confrontation and provocation. Outside the university, meanwhile, police began to selectively arrest APPO members at the barricades. By the end of the day, there were three dead, many injured, and many more disappeared. Those picked up by the police were sequestered in military barracks.
Human rights organizations, including the government’s own National Commission on Human Rights, were unable to visit or even identify those who had been arrested because the police moved them secretly from one place to another. In the following days, people coming from surrounding villages to support the movement were pulled out of trucks, beaten, and arrested. In the occupied city, the police committed all kinds of abuses, while Ruiz’s thugs went about their business with impunity.
The battle of November 2, when the people resisted a federal police attack on the university, was the largest and most violent clash between civilians and police in Mexico’s history. Although the police were outnumbered five or six to one, if we count children, they had shields and other weapons, not to mention tanks and helicopters, while the people had only sticks, stones, a few slingshots, and some uninvited Molotovs.
On November 25 APPO fell into a police trap, which used provocateurs and similar strategies. At the end of a peaceful march, a very violent repression started, causing at least 17 deaths, with many disappeared and injured, more than 500 in jail, and all kinds of serious violations of human rights, including sexual abuse of men and women. By mid-December most of the federal police left the state. Local police have been patrolling the city since then and "guard" strategic points. But the movement continues.
Felipe Calderón took office on December 1 as Mexico’s president in the midst of an open social and political confrontation. In his Administration the state’s crisis of legitimacy will deepen, as will social polarization and economic difficulties, along with acceleration of the destruction of the environment, violence in all spheres, and social decomposition. He will use repression and open militarization against growing popular discontent.
In Oaxaca the political apparatus supports a disreputable governor and uses its monopoly on legitimate violence to attack the people and protect those in power. But those who sow violence, reap it in kind. That’s where we are.
On November 23 subcomandante Marcos declared that Calderón "is going to start to fall from his first day" and that "we’re on the eve of a great uprising or civil war." When asked who would lead that uprising, he replied: "The people, each in their place, in a network of mutual support. If we don’t accomplish it that way, there will be spontaneous uprisings, explosions all over, civil war."
He cited Oaxaca as a bell weather of what’s going to happen all over. "If there isn’t a civil and peaceful way out, which is what we propose in the Other Campaign," Marcos warned, "then it will become each man [sic] for himself…. For us, it doesn’t matter what’s above. What matters is what’s going to arise from below. When we rise up, we’re going to sweep away the entire political class, including those who say they’re the parliamentary left."
The Other Campaign and the Zapatistas, like APPO, now find themselves exposed to a twopronged attack: the constituted powers and their paramilitary groups that systematically threaten them, while the institutional left tries to isolate, marginalize, and discredit them. It will be difficult, in such circumstances, to achieve the articulation of "pockets of resistance" that exist throughout the country into the "network of mutual support" that Zapatistas have been trying to create. No one can say whether the Zapatistas will be able to unify all the discontented into broad coalitions that could put into practice a "national program of struggle" in a great civil, democratic, and peaceful uprising. But the alternative couldn’t be worse: a government ruling by force; the reign of drug dealers spreading and deepening; increasingly violent forms of civil war exploding throughout the country in which people confront the constituted powers, local mafias, paramilitary groups, and their own demons.
This looks like the current state of affairs in many parts of the world, as people coming from more than 40 countries discussed in the Zapatista meeting in Oventic on January 1, 2007. In spite of dark prospects, the debates were a clear source of hope. They evidenced that Zapatismo is no longer in the hands of the Zapatistas, but in the international sphere of hope, created ten years ago. Nonconformity and discontent are not enough. Neither is critical awareness. People mobilize themselves when they think their actions may bring about change, when they have hope. And that is what more and more people have today.
This text is a synthesis of a talk given in the Center for Global Justice conference "Another World is Necessary" in San Miguel de Allende, July 2006, using excerpts from the book Celebration of Zapatismo (Mexico, Ediciones ¡Basta!, 2005), with commentary on Oaxaca added later. The complete version can be seen on ZNet.