Ten Years Into the Rebellion


It’s been ten years since the Zapatistas of Chiapas, Mexico, launched their rebellion to create ‘a world where many worlds fit’. Once the darlings of progressive movements around the world, the continuing struggle and development of autonomous institutions in Chiapas is taking place with little media fanfare.

John Ross has written several books on the Zapatista struggle including ‘Rebellion from the Roots’ and ‘The War Against Oblivion’. La Journada, Mexico’s foremost independent daily, describes Ross as, “the new John Reed covering the new Mexican revolution”.

Freelance journalist and Chiapas Solidarity activist Chris Arsenault sat down with Ross at his home on the first floor of the Hotel Isabel in Mexico City to talk about current realities in Zapatistas territory.

Chris: You’ve been covering the Zapatistas and the situation in Chiapas for more than ten years now. In terms of daily life for the indigenous in the base communities, what’s changed since the 1994 insurgency?

John: In 1994, we didn’t know this area very well, but we began to go into the villages and we could see that there was no infrastructure. Ten years later, at the very least, we see schools in communities, and some clinics. And we see that a whole array of collectives and cooperatives has developed.

The most visually startling image of these communities is the enormous number of murals painted on all the walls. There are over 400 murals in Zapatista communities in the 38 autonomous municipalities.

I think some things are more material or concrete, but what you can never measure is the way people feel about themselves – ‘the seizing’, as archbishop emeritus of San Cristobal, Samual Ruiz, calls it, ‘the Indians becoming the subject of their own destiny.’ In a real sense, the Zapatistas have done that. They’ve taken control of their own destiny. They have created a system of autonomous municipalities in five regions, which are in effect building their own way to live, a real autonomy. That is diametrically distinct from what it was ten years ago.

Chris: We’ve heard a little bit about peace talks. The former Zedillo government signed, and then refused to implement, the 1996 San Andres Accords, which would have given the Zapatistas autonomy. In 2001, the Zapatistas launched their March on the Capital to push for a lasting peace agreement. It was compared to Martin Luther King’s march on Washington, winning the Zapatistas tremendous popular support, but it failed to produce a lasting agreement.

Has there been any movement towards peace since the March, and if not, do you see any hope for meaningful talks or a legitimate peace agreement in the near future?

Ross: No, no and no. There’s not going to be any peace talks – there’s really nothing to talk about. The Zapatistas negotiated for 22 months for the San Andres Accords, which would have been a landmark agreement, extending a form of autonomy to 57 distinct indigenous peoples in Mexico. The Mexican Congress mutilated that law, after years of struggle, after referendums that drew millions to vote in favour of this law, so the Zapatistas said, ‘why do we have to ask the government permission to establish autonomy?’

In a real sense, the Zapatistas are just doing what they agreed upon with the government – they’re just establishing their own autonomy. I think the distinction here is that 5 or 6 years ago, when the PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party) still ran the show and the President was a guy named Zedillo, the government would have come down hard with the military or police. What the Zapatistas do now, in terms of building an autonomous structure, is being ignored by the government.

[President Vicente] Fox tried to take command of the situation. He sent the COCOPA [Constitutional Reforms on Indigenous Rights and Culture] accords to Congress; Congress shot them down. Fox realized he was getting deeper and deeper into a problem he could never resolve – although he had promised to resolve it in ‘fifteen minutes’ – and he’s just washed his hands of it.

In a sense, this has been a great boon for the Zapatistas; they haven’t had the kind of pressure you would expect from the government. The government would like to forget about them.

Chris: You talk of Fox trying to ‘wash his hands’ of the situation, but most of the violence directed against Zapatista support bases has come from paramilitary organizations, not the official army. Most observers feel Zedillo’s administration backed these groups, or at least turned a blind eye to their atrocities. Are paramilitaries still active in Chiapas and what is their relationship with Fox’s administration?

Ross: I’ve debated the question of the paramilitaries for a long time. I for one don’t believe there are active paramilitaries in the way there were in the period immediately following the rebellion, on through the Acteal massacre [when 45 unarmed villagers were killed in a church] and the months after.

There are disaffected PRIistas in many communities, essentially because the Zapatistas are doing much better than the PRI communities. Now that the PRI is out of power, it can’t service the communities and its electoral clientele is leaving – and often joining the PRD [Party of the Democratic Revolution, who are social democrats] in Ocosingo and other places in the jungle and the highlands.

The PRI communities are now emigrating out of the area. The highest migration rates in southern Mexico come from Chiapas – small coffee farmers affected by the collapse of coffee prices, small corn farmers – most of them from PRI communities. The Zapatistas have this infrastructure, so people don’t leave. They are able to take care of their own, through, for example, the Mut Vitz coffee collective, which sells organic coffee when the price of regular coffee has fallen.

There are a lot of disaffected PRIistas living in communities right next to the Zapatista communities, and I think this makes for tensions.

The term ‘paramilitary’ – which really applies to an organization trained, financed and armed by the military, but is not the military, yet does what the military asks them to do – is not really accurate in this situation.

‘Paramilitary’ has become a pejorative term for any people who create problems with the Zapatistas. I take the term with a grain of salt.

Chris: How are the Zapatistas creating the schools, clinics, and economic cooperatives that have made them better off than their PRIista counterparts?

Ross: I think we have to understand that creating autonomy is a fiction unless you have some way of financing it. The main source of funding for the Zapatistas, in terms of what the EZLN generates to operate, is organic coffee. You have the Mut Vitz Coffee Cooperative, with 28 communities and 6 autonomous municipalities, and they’re selling between ten and fifteen containers a year now. They have over 500 farmers who are accredited as organic growers. There’s a steady market there and it brings an enormous amount of money back to Zapatista communities.

There’s a lot of NGO money – well, not a lot of NGO money, but a lot of NGO activity, and NGO activity generates infrastructure as well. The problem, at least in the first couple of years, is that all the money goes back to Mut Vitz or Oventic – to communities that are near the road, where there is a greater access. The back-country communities get nothing.

Under the reorganization system of the Caracoles last August, a deal was worked out where the Juntas of Buen Goberino, or ‘good government committees’, were established, and the NGOs now have to go to the good government committees and say: ‘we’d like to do this in this community’. And the Juntas say, ‘well, yes you can do that, but you also have to give us ten percent of the seed money for some other project.’ It’s a way of redistributing the wealth.

And then there’s plain old civil society solidarity, which is certainly not as heavy as it was in the past. For example, in the first few years of the rebellion, when the Zapatistas were unable to leave their communities to go out and plant corn so they’d have food to eat in the winter, it was civil society that provided tons and tons of corn to the Zapatista communities to keep them alive.

In many respects the Zapatistas have been somewhat forgotten; they’re not on the front pages. But money still comes in.

Chris: What role has the American security apparatus played in the conflict, and how has that role evolved through ten years of Zapatismo?

Ross: The role of the US military is somewhat reduced in Chiapas. There are still probably 18 000 troops in the jungles, cañadas and highlands of Chiapas. The army has announced no reduction in troops, and they would be the first to announce that reduction. It is a presence and it could be used any time it was warranted or unwarranted to oppose the Zapatistas.

The difference is that the military does not patrol with the kind of intensity it did in the past. It’s pretty much confined to barracks; and there must be a lot of stir-crazy soldiers who can’t figure out what they’re doing out there in the jungle.

Last year, the US trained over 600 Mexican officers; the previous year it was over 700. Mexican officers are everywhere, not only at the School of the Americas, but at the Center for Special Forces in Fort Bragg North Carolina, right through to the army propaganda school in Indianapolis and the war college in Ft. Lebonworth. Those officers will come back and serve an average of 20 years in the Mexican military, and they will always have this US contact with them.

The man who designed the counter-insurgency program that resulted in the deaths at Acteal, Mario Ramond Castillo, was in fact trained at the Center for Special Forces. Essentially, the folks who fought the war against the Zapatistas were US trained officers.

The Mexican military is armed lock, stock and just about barrel by the U.S. There is an enormous amount of American hardware in the country: transport planes, munitions, guns, hummers, right down to the ready-to-eat meals all come from the Pentagon.

Chris: Do you think the EZLN could still defend themselves militarily if they had to?

Ross: I don’t know what the condition of their arms is. My sneaking suspicion is that if you don’t have a constant supply and upgrading of arms, then your military capacity diminishes. For all I know, they may have that capacity and may be renewing it, but we haven’t seen any signs.

The last time the Zapatista army and the Mexican military exchanged gunfire was on June 10th of 1998, in what is now called San Juan de la Libertad. The army came down and tried to dismantle the autonomous municipality, and ten people were killed. That shootout – that massacre, because nine of the ten people killed were civilians – ended when the Zapatistas started firing back. That was the first time they had fired back in awhile.

The weapon of the Zapatistas has been the word, not the gun; ‘el fuego y el palabra’ [Fire and Word], and el palabra is certainly more dominant at this stage of the game. One thing you always have to remember is that one guerrilla fighter is worth ten fighters in a standing army, particularly in a terrain where people know the landscape and where to hide.

We saw this first in 1994 when the army chased the Zapatistas back into the jungle. And again in 1995 when the army invaded the jungle and Zapatista communities just abandoned ship and started moving down the river banks and left town. The army is at a real distinct disadvantage in the jungle.

I think they would be able to stand off the military for long enough that it wouldn’t be worth the military’s time to continue.

Chris: Can we talk about what’s happening with genetically engineered corn in Chiapas? What steps are the Zapatistas taking to safeguard against it?

Ross: Well, we don’t know much about transgenic corn in Chiapas, except that people are very, very afraid of it. We do know what’s going on with transgenic corn in the next states over: Oaxaca and Puebla. In 2001, through some strange circumstances, a small village way up in the Sierra del Norte of Oaxaca discovered that their cornfields were contaminated by transgenic corn – specifically, by Bt corn. The story is that since NAFTA kicked in, the amount of corn imported into Mexico has increased from year to year. It’s currently around 6 million tons, and will probably be a little more next year.

We have good reason to believe that 4 million of those 6 million tons are transgenic corn. US farmers can’t sell that corn in Europe or Japan, so we think they’re dumping it across the border. When we go to some of the major corn handlers, they say, ‘well, we can’t sort the corn out’. The demand here has been either all corn imports stop or the corn is sorted out so we know where it goes.

Years ago, trying to sort out the animal and human corn that was coming into the country, green dye was put into the box cars for the animal feed. Within weeks green tortillas were showing up in the Mexican market. There is no distinction between the two; one is a pretext for the other.

We find [GM] corn in Jalapa, at the top of the Sierra del Norte, across the Sierra in Puebla, and in eleven out of 22 corn growing regions in Puebla and Oaxaca, where corn first appeared 7000-10 000 years ago. This is the cradle of corn; there would be no corn without these places. And we find now that Bt and Starling corn is growing in these Milpas. We see that the plasma of the 300 to 3000 distinct types, families and varieties of Mexican corn, are endanger of being homogenized. To me, that’s really the greatest danger of GE corn – to eliminate biodiversity, to eliminate millions of years of biological history.

When you start making corn a commodity – which it is not to the indigenous people – you’re threatening a whole culture and way of life. The Mayan people are the people of the corn. When you talk about changing the corn, you’re talking about changing a way of life that has existed for millennia. The Zapatista Army of National Liberation, which represents in many respects the Mayan people, is going to resist.

Chris: You mentioned the anti-globalization movement. When the Zapatistas first came on the international scene they were seen as something new, a movement that rejected the ‘free-market’, and made no attempt to seize state power. You’ve traveled a lot around Latin America covering a variety of social movements. Do you think the idea of rejecting state power is becoming a new norm for social movements, or do you think Chiapas is an isolated case?

Ross: I think it is actually a social movement, and there are a number of examples we can look at throughout Latin America. One such example is the picketero movement and other youth movements in Argentina – this kind of horizontal, non-hierarchical left. I think we see some of that within the Sin Tierras [landless workers] Movement in Brazil. Although the structures are different, we certainly see an echo of Zapatismo.

Most importantly, in Bolivia, a movement of that kind was responsible for the defence of water resources against the Bechtel Corporation, forcing Bechtel to retire. This was one of the great victories for the anti- globalization movement.

The water war was the first anti-globalization battle that was taken on as a result of Seattle, and it was won. I think amongst those people, Oscar Olivera and his committee, there is a real understanding of the Zapatismo approach of not organizing to take over state power.

I should mention that all of the political ideas that came out of the Zapatista rebellion of 1994 – wonderful ideas about communal decision making, serving the community, and organizing in a way that did not aim to take state power – all these ideas were welcomed by the left all over the world as a new model, a model to change the world.

I think we needed the Zapatistas more than they needed us. If you look at the historical moment, NAFTA had just been signed, many folks in the labour movement or the human rights movement who had been battling NAFTA for a number of years were in a sense lost. All of a sudden, here in the first hour of the North America Free Trade Agreement, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation rises up against it. We rush to their defence. We saw it as a way of helping us build our movement, and learning from them as well.

In the end, I think the Zapatistas didn’t stage their rebellion to save us. They did that to save themselves in the face of a globalization that, even as far back as 1993-94, threatened the corn of the ‘people of the corn’. After ten years they’ve done pretty well saving themselves, and that is the real purpose of the Zapatista rebellion.

For more information about the Zapatistas and autonomous development check out www.stacmexico.com/blackstarbootcooperative

Chris Arsenault is coordinator of Students Taking Action in Chiapas. He is currently on a speaking tour talking about Chiapas ten years after the uprising, and promoting participatory Zapatista economic structures.

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