From Aguascalientes to Caracoles

For some 10 years, the Zapatistas have inspired people all over the world. The Zapatistas’ ‘Autonomous Municipalities’, in particular, have been models of community organization and democratic self-governance. These municipalities managed to provide not only better basic services (health, education, culture, infrastructure) than the Mexican state ever had, but they did so in spite of violent opposition by the (US-backed) state and the paramilitary auxiliaries it employed.

The democratic decision-making processes within the municipalities, as well as the way they invited and accepted the help of outsiders willing to share genuine solidarity, were examples from which movements all over the world tried to learn.

It was therefore a surprise for many when the Zapatistas announced the ‘death’ of the Autonomous Municipalities, scheduled for August 8, 2003, to be followed by a ‘birth’ of something new on August 9-all of which was to coincide with a big party. Supporters from all over Mexico and the world traveled to the Zapatista rebel municipality of Oventic, in the highlands of Chiapas, to witness the rebirth of the autonomous communities from August 8-10, 2003.

Subcomandante Marcos extended the invitation to everyone “who, over these ten years, have supported the rebel communities, whether with projects, or with peace camps, or with caravans, or with an attentive ear, or with the compaera word, whatever it may be, as long as it was not with pity and charity.”

Pity and Charity

Frustration with ‘pity and charity’ from solidarity groups motivated some of the changes that the Zapatistas announced last month. In a communique about some of these changes, Marcos described some of the frustrating actions by parts of the Zapatista solidarity movement over the years:

“we tried to learn from our encuentros with national and international civil society. But we also expected them to learn. The zapatista movement arose, among other things, in demand of respect. And it so happened that we didn’t always receive respect. And it’s not that they insulted us. Or at least not intentionally. But, for us, pity is an affront, and charity is a slap in the face. ”

The most outrageous example of this kind of slap in the face was cited by Marcos at length, and is worth reproducing:

“I saved an example of “humanitarian aid” for the chiapaneco indigenous, which arrived a few weeks ago: a pink stiletto heel, imported, size 61/2…without its mate. I always carry it in my backpack in order to remind myself, in the midst of interviews, photo reports and attractive sexual propositions, what we are to the country after the first of January [1994]: a Cinderella. (…)

“These good people who, sincerely, send us a pink stiletto heel, size 61/2, imported, without its mate…thinking that, poor as we are, we’ll accept anything, charity and alms. How can we tell all those good people that no, we no longer want to continue living Mexico’s shame. In that part that has to be prettied up so it doesn’t make the rest look ugly. No, we don’t want to go on living like that.”

The second stiletto never arrived. Marcos also decried

“a more sophisticated charity. It’s the one that a few NGOs and international agencies practice. It consists, broadly speaking, in their deciding what the communities need, and, without even consulting them, imposing not just specific projects, but also the times and means of their implementation. Imagine the desperation of a community that needs drinkable water and they’re saddled with a library. The one that requires a school for the children, and they give them a course on herbs.”

In addition to the unbalanced development due to the flawed relationship with international aid and solidarity movements, there are internal reasons that the Zapatistas are seeking to make changes.

Governing by Obeying

The practice of ‘governing by obeying’, which pre-dates the Zapatista presence in Chiapas, is one by which authorities are monitored carefully by the community and recalled and replaced when necessary. The EZLN tried to use these practices, honed at the local level, in regional governance:

“Functioning with local responsables (that is, those in charge of the organization in each community), regional ones (a group of communities) and area ones (a group of regions), the EZLN saw that those who did not discharge their duties were, in a natural fashion, replaced by another. Although here, given that it is a political-military organization, the command makes the final decision.”

The result was that the dictates of military organization interfered with democracy and self-governance in the municipalities. When human rights organizations sought to lodge complaints against Zapatistas, it was unclear who the human rights organizations ought to try to hold accountable: the EZLN itself, or the Autonomous Municipalities?

Good Government Juntas

In order to try to address these problems, the Autonomous Municipalities have been reorganized into ‘Good Government Juntas’ (as distinguished from the ‘Bad Government’, which is what the Zapatistas call the government).

The Good Government Juntas will “be seated in the `Caracoles,’ with one junta for each rebel region, and it will be formed by 1 or 2 delegates from each one of the Autonomous Councils of that region. The following will continue to be the exclusive government functions of the Rebel Zapatista Autonomous Municipalities:

“the provision of justice; community health; education; housing; land; work; food; commerce; information and culture, and local movement. “The Clandestine Revolutionary Indigenous Committee in each region will monitor the operations of the Good Government Juntas in order to prevent acts of corruption, intolerance, injustice and deviation from the zapatista principle of `Governing Obeying.'”

Some new regulations by the Good Government Juntas: 1) Donations from the outside will no longer be allowed to be earmarked to anyone in particular, to a specific community, or to a particular municipality. This will help balance the unbalanced development that has been going on. 2) Only people and organizations registered with a Good Government Junta will be recognized as Zapatistas, preventing swindles from occurring where non-Zapatistas pose as Zapatistas, collecting money and even offering ‘military training’-which the real Zapatistas do not do and have not done.

The EZLN hopes that all this will have the following result:

“And so, members of civil society will now know with whom they must reach agreement for projects, peace camps, visits, donations and etcetera. Human rights defenders will now know to whom they should turn over the denuncias they receive and from whom they should expect a response. The army and the police now know whom to attack (just bearing in mind that we, meaning the EZLN, have already gotten involved there).

“The media which says what they’re paid to say now know whom to slander and/or ignore. Honest media now know where they can go in order to request interviews or stories on the communities. The federal government and its `commissioner’ now know what they have to do to not exist. And the Power of Money now knows who else they should fear.”


If the Zapatistas are making changes, those who oppose them are acting with predictable continuity. Even before the party, a senator from the National Action Party (PAN), the party currently in power in Mexico, said the PAN opposed the Zapatistas’ attempt to ‘create a state within a state’, a willful misrepresentation of the Zapatistas’ position refuted years before. Since then, paramilitary activity around at least one of the Caracoles, the “Caracol Que Habla Para Todos,” (Roberto Barrios Autonomous Municipality), has increased. Paramilitary leaders in that community have been firing warning shots and threatening and insulting Zapatista supporters.

For all the changes, several things remain the same. The authorities will still not leave the Zapatistas in peace. And the Zapatistas continue to build their autonomous communities, and to teach the world what solidarity really means.

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