On the morning of January 1st, 1994, with the seizure of governmental offices in San CristÃ³bal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico, the Zapatistas announced thier existence to the world. They had emerged from the remote highlands of Chiapas, the southernmost and poorest state of Mexico. The Zapatista National Liberation Army (“EZLN” in its Spanish acronym), was made up of indigenous Mayan peasants, in their words “the poorest of the poor.” They wore black ski-masks “so as to be seen,” they explained. Their top military leaders included women, such as the late Comandante Ramona, who stood, in bright-colored traditional embroidery, about four-feet tall — not so extraordinary for a Mayan, but small enough to earn her the affectionate title “the smallest of the small.” Their mestizo Mexican spokesperson, the incongruously tall and pale Subcomandante Marcos, effortlessly dispensed poetic prose, politics and wit in three languages: that morning of the takeover of San CristÃ³bal de las Casas , tourists in the street asked Marcos if they would miss their transportation connections; with exquisite politeness Marcos replied, “Forgive us, but this is a revolution.”
Their style, poetic language and unquestioned heroism in battle made the Zapatistas immediately irresistible even to many who barely understood their politics, origins or purpose. But for those who looked closely, there was so much there. The Zapatistas addressed themselves to that persistent enemy of the peoples of the world, the capitalist global empire. They denounced the capitalist juggernaut precisely in its neoliberal form that had greatly increased the rate at which Mexico’s corn-growing peasants were driven off their land into paupery and desperation. And to a divided global left, deeply wounded by the disappointment and disastrous collapse of eastern European socialism and the capitalist-roaders of China, the unclassifiable and magically inclusive Zapatista ideology seemed like water in the desert. Thus the Zapatista rebellion was from the moment of its appearance a political, indigenous, peasant movement activists in the industrial north could look to, not just for inspiration or in solidarity, but for direction and example.
Now, after years of victories and defeats, political engagement and autonomy, comes the latest initiative by the Zapatistas. Dubbed “The Other Campaign” (La Otra CampaÃ±a, or simply La Otra), its characteristically sly appellation manages to be self-deprecating while at the same time mocking the presumed political centrality of this year’s Mexican presidential campaign. La Otra is the Zapatista’s attempt to reach beyond its geographic and political borders to forge a national left from all manner of resistance, organized and not, throughout Mexico — a true left, that makes no concession to the reigning macroeconomics of neoliberalism (an economics which has been embraced by the center-left presidential candidate AndrÃ©s Manuel LÃ³pez Obrador of the Partido de la RevoluciÃ³n DemocrÃ¡tica, or PRD).
La Otra consists chiefly of a Zapatista tour of indefinite duration to each of Mexico’s 31 states and the federal district to meet with people in struggle from peasant farmers in the most remote regions of the country to maquiladora workers in Tijuana. The Zapatistas listen to people recount their struggles, and they take notes. The tour is not yet a plan to reshape Mexico and the world, but perhaps a search party to look for one.
If you didn’t know anything of Mexico’s recent electoral history, The Other Campaign/La Otra CampaÃ±a would seem not only astonishingly prescient but impeccably timed. For La Otra is a public announcement that Mexico’s electoral system is not just bankrupt as a political option for most Mexicans — workers, the unemployed, peasants, the indigenous — but is thoroughly broken even on its own terms of capitalist democracy. As of this writing, the Mexican presidential election remains undecided and under a toxic cloud of statistical and procedural anomalies that can only be explained by massive fraud by the ruling Partido AcciÃ³n Nacional (or PAN) and its candidate Felipe CalderÃ³n. The center-left candidate of the PRD, AndrÃ©s Manuel LÃ³pez Obrador (often called AMLO), is challenging the result, calling for a vote-by-vote recount. He is supported by a popular, massive civil disobedience mobilization in the form of a tent city encampment in the heart of Mexico City, blocking some roadways and snarling downtown traffic.
Meanwhile in the southern state of Oaxaca, the mass protests and direct action of schoolteachers and their supporters have culminated in the teachers’ seizure of 12 radio stations. They are calling for the resignation of the Oaxacan governor Ulises Ruiz Ortiz. The teachers hold Ruiz responsible for the violence of police and unidentified gunmen that have resulted in at least one death and numerous injured, and they’ve accused Governor Ruiz of having rigged Oaxaca state elections two years ago. Further south, in the state of Chiapas, another dispute over elections is taking shape between the PRD incumbent governor Juan Sabines and the candidate of the Partido RevoluciÃ³n Institucional (or PRI), Jose Antonio Aguilar Bodegas (who is also backed by the ruling PAN).
In light of these events, the non-participatory stand of the Zapatistas and La Otra toward elections, controversial at first, may begin to seem to the populace reasonable after all, and Zapatista followers might justly tell AMLO‘s hopeful supporters, “we are not at all happy to say this, but we told you so.”
La Sexta appears, La Otra is born
The first draft of La Otra‘s itinerary appeared more or less within the pages of The Sixth Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle (La Sexta DeclaraciÃ³n de la Selva Lacandona, aka La Sexta), released in July of last year. Previously on the internet, La Sexta is now available in a handy, bilingual edition, along with an excellent essay by Luis HernÃ¡ndez Navarro, as well as an interview by Pacifica’s Free Speech Radio News’ Aura Bogado with Subcomandante Marcos. (The book, part of the Open Media Series edited by Greg Ruggiero, is published by City Lights Books and is beautifully produced, with photographs and ample explanatory notes. All the material quoted or cited in this article is from this edition.)
When La Sexta first appeared in the summer of 2005 it was met with intense interest and enthusiasm by the Mexican left. Its call for a united global movement against capitalism, neoliberal economics, and all oppressions of class, race, gender, language and ethnicity was taken up by left labor, activists and intellectuals. La Jornada, the eminent left independent daily newspaper ran news articles, essays, debates, letters — sometimes as many as a dozen in a single issue — celebrating, analyzing, interpreting and criticizing the document. Even Vicente Fox, the conservative Mexican president, publicly welcomed the Zapatistas into Mexico’s national political process (as if they weren’t already in the thick of it), and blithely interpreted La Sexta as meaning that the Zapatistas had lain down their arms and forsworn their version of armed struggle and self-defense. (This was a mistaken interpretation, by the way, taken by a few left commentators as well).
Incidentally, this writer happened to be in Chiapas in 2005 during the Zapatista’s Red Alert (when they stopped speaking to the outside world and closed their autonomous regions to internationals) and the subsequent release of La Sexta. I felt the excitement in San CristÃ³bal de las Casas. Numerous cafe-meetings were organized to discuss La Sexta, and one I went to, at a spacious cafe/roastery, was attended by well over a hundred people.
The Sixth Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle (La Sexta)
In its spare, self-consciously biblical language, La Sexta is a plea — a shout of ¡Ya basta! on behalf of the peoples of the world. It is an eloquent piece of political literature filled with compassion, political yearning and resolve. While interpretations, summaries and commentaries on La Sexta abound, La Sexta itself is so lucid and beautiful a document that it ought to be read before turning to any commentary. From La Sexta‘s opening: “This is our simple word which seeks to touch the hearts of humble and simple people like ourselves, but people who, like ourselves, are also dignified and rebel. This is our simple word for recounting what our path has been and where we are now, in order to explain how we see the world and our country, in order to say what we are thinking of doing and how we are thinking of doing it, and in order to invite other people to walk with us[.]” (60/61)
In such language La Sexta proceeds to encapsulate the history of the Zapatista struggle, Mexican politics and Zapatismo’s critique of modern capitalism in Mexico and the world. It ends with the announcement of The Other Campaign (La Otra). Here is La Sexta on how the Zapatistas came to be, the 1994 New Year’s Day rebellion, and its conclusion:
“In the beginning there were not many of us, just a few, going this way and that, talking with and listening to other people like ourselves. We did that for many years, and we did it in secret, without making a stir. … We remained like that for about ten years, and when we had grown, we were many thousands. We trained ourselves quite well in politics and weapons, and, suddenly, when the rich were throwing their New Year’s Eve parties, we fell upon their cities and just took them over. … Then the rich sent their great armies to do away with us, just like they always do when the exploited rebel. We were running and fighting, fighting and running, just like our ancestors had done. …
“Then the people from the cities went out into the streets and began shouting for an end to the war. And then we stopped our war, and we listened to those brothers and sisters from the city who were telling us to try to reach an arrangement or an accord with the bad governments, so that the problem could be resolved without a massacre. … So we set aside the fire and took up the word.” (62/63 — 66/67)
The Zapatistas then entered into lengthy negotiations with the government, leading to the San AndrÃ©s Accords — to which the govern famously agreed and infamously later rejected. Here is La Sexta on the betrayal of the Zapatistas with the 2001 rejection of the San AndrÃ©s Accords by all the major political parties in the government: “But it happened that the politicians from the PRI, the PAN and the PRD reached an agreement among themselves, and they simply did not recognize indigenous rights and culture. … We can no longer believe that agreements will be respected. Take that into account so you can learn from what happened to us.” (74/75) But, La Sexta reports, the Zapatistas decided to implement the Accords on their own, without government permission, establishing a measure of regional autonomy, with their own civil government structures. (76/77-78/79)
La Sexta also serves as a simply written primer on the nature of capitalism:
“In capitalism, some people have money, or capital, and factories, stores, fields and many other things, and there are others who have nothing to work with but their strength and knowledge. In capitalism, those who have money and things give the orders, and those who only have the ability to work obey.
“Capitalism means only a few have great wealth … So capitalism is based on the exploitation of the workers, which means the few exploit the workers and take out all the profits they can. … [T]he workers receive a wage that barely allows them to eat a little and rest for a bit … Capitalism is a system where the robbers go free, and are actually admired and held up as examples.” (92/93-94/95)
La Sexta even introduces the concept of commoditization, noting that according to capitalism, “everything must be able to be bought and sold,” concealing the exploited labor within it. “[F]or example, we see coffee in its little package … but we do not see the coyote who paid him so cheaply for his work, nor do we see the workers in the large company working their hearts out to package the coffee.” (94/95-96/97)
Neoliberal capitalism, according to La Sexta, means war on the world literally and economically, through wars of conquest and occupation, as well as the machinations of the international financial institutions: “Sometimes that conquest is by armies who invade a country and conquer it by force. But sometimes it is by way of the economy, in other words, the big capitalists put their money into another country or they lend it money, but on the condition that what they tell them to do is obeyed.” (98/99)
In Mexico, La Sexta explains, neoliberalism results in the Mexican government functioning as the wholesaler of the country’s wealth, “something like employees in a store, who have to do everything possible to sell everything and to sell it very cheap.” La Sexta gives the example of changes to the Mexican Constitution allowing traditional communal lands to be bought and sold, as well as the attempted privatizations of the national oil company, PEMEX, as well as social security, electricity, water, the forests, “everything, until nothing of Mexico is left …” (112/113)
La Sexta concludes with a sketch for La Otra CampaÃ±a, in which the Zapatistas would set out for every corner of Mexico at the beginning of 2006:
“What we think is that, with these people and organizations of the Left, we can make a plan for going to all those parts of Mexico where there are humble and simple people like ourselves.
“And we are not going to tell them what they should do or give them orders.
“Nor are we going to ask them to vote for a candidate since we already know that the ones who exist are neoliberals.
“Nor are we going to tell them to be like us, nor to rise up in arms.
“What we are going to do is to ask them what their lives and struggles are like, their struggle, what their thoughts about our country are, and what we should do so capitalism does not defeat us.” (126/127)
And thus began La Otra CampaÃ±a.
The Breaking Wave
Luis HernÃ¡ndez Navarro is a columnist with La Jornada and was a key advisor to the EZLN during the San AndrÃ©s negotiations. He has written an excellent and frequently eloquent essay entitled “The Breaking Wave” discussing La Sexta and La Otra. This essay is invaluable to non-Mexican readers for its interpretation of La Sexta in the context of contemporary Mexican electoral politics and left politics generally. (The essay appears along with La Sexta in the book the other campaign/la otra campaÃ±a, mentioned above.)
The essay briefly traces the course of the Zapatista’s relations with the PRD from “friendly” in 1996, to the 2001 betrayal by the PRD, in collaboration with PRI and PAN legislators, in the rejections of the San AndrÃ©s Accords. As noted in La Sexta, this rejection was the turning point for the Zapatistas, driving them away from any hope of achieving their goals through negotiations with the government. “The moment of breakdown between the political class and society was consummated in April 2001, when the parties voted unanimously in the Senate for the constitutional reform on rights and indigenous culture that betrayed the San AndrÃ©s accords.” (36/37)
But rather than surrender the political, legal and cultural rights they thought they had won in negotiations, the Zapatistas responded by constructing their own autonomy as a practical implementation of the Accords: “the Zapatistas concentrated on building five autonomous regional governments which were baptized ‘Councils of Good Government’, or ‘Caracoles.’ They named their own authorities and took charge of organizing education, health, and the administration of justice themselves. In different regions of the country, the indigenous people decided to drop the fruitless struggle for autonomy through legal reforms and moved forward to achieve autonomy on their own, without asking permission.” (10/11)
HernÃ¡ndez puts La Sexta‘s analysis of the Mexican electoral left this way: “Regarding the Mexican Left, La Sexta asserts that the [PRD] — which stands a good possibility of winning the presidential election of 2006 — is not a party of the Mexican Left. La Sexta determines what is and is not on the Mexican Left according to the criterion of whether it struggles against or resists neoliberal capitalism. And the PRD does not.” (18/19) (As if to emphasize the point, since the issuance of La Sexta and the launch of La Otra, the PRD‘s presidential candidate, AndrÃ©s Manuel LÃ³pez Obrador, has explicitly embraced neoliberal macroeconomics, and failed to denounce the massive, orchestrated police riot against the autonomous Zapatista-identified community of San Salvador Atenco.)
La Sexta seeks more than just to revive the Mexican left, explains the essay.
“La Sexta‘s goal, in part, is to rearrange the Mexico from below into a new political force — explicitly Leftist, anti-neoliberal, and anti-capitalist — that is clearly distinct from the legally recognized political parties that now exist. … As a social and political initiative, it renounces the illusion that one can find shortcuts and miraculous solutions in the struggle for the transformation of a country. It rejects the notion that history is made by messiahs and charismatic leaders, and the history it is calling on the people of Mexico to make will only be possible by means of another kind of politics.” (20/21)
As to how the Zapatistas will enact these goals, HernÃ¡ndez explains, “The organizing tool for making La Sexta a reality is The Other Campaign. The Zapatista initiative to tour the entire country to listen to the communities articulate their resistence parallels the traditional campaigns of the registered parties, but is actually a non-electoral campaign that seeks to explore the possibility of doing politics another way during the federal elections period.” (22/23) Pursuant to La Sexta‘s call, “In 2005, hundreds of organizations, political leaders, and citizens responded to a Zapatista invitation from the Lacandon Jungle to participate in a diverse range of meetings called in order to debate and organize what would turn out to be the Other Campaign.” (26/27) And everyone came: “The diversity of their ranks was surprising: unionists, indigenous organizers, intellectuals, cultural workers, artists, religious people, neighborhood activists, feminists, gays, lesbians, human rights advocates, environmentalists and students.” (26/27-28/28)
The actual participants in La Otra CampaÃ±a‘s cross-country trek include “a mixed bag of old and new social insubordinates: fisherman, small merchants, rural settlers affected by the construction of public infrastructure projects, electricity consumers paying high rates, assembly-line factory workers, victims of natural disasters who have not been supported by the government, indigenous, poor peasants, defenders of the native corn (and enemies of genetically modified corn), democratic teachers, prostitutes, homosexuals, workers and youth.” (52/53-54/55) In the meetings taking place on the tour, the essayist sees “a common language” being created, “a language that many educated people despise and do not understand well.” (56/57)
This language, taking guidance from La Sexta‘s political and economic analyses, is a familiar one, naturally, since, in HernÃ¡ndez’ trenchant formulation, “The old electoral system asks, what can we do with the poor? The Other Campaign asks, what can we do with the rich? And it responds, struggle against them. … [La Otra] recuperates the language of Class in an epoch when the institutional Left is trying to get rid of it. Its speech — as has been the tradition of the statements of the EZLN — is increasingly more related to the proclamations and manifestoes of the indigenous and peasant rebellions of the nineteenth century and with the programs of popular and workers struggles of the twentieth century.” (56/57) In other words, it is the language of the revolutionary tradition.
Regarding the Zapatista stance toward elections, the essay makes a point the Mexican and international press repeatedly (perhaps willfully) miss: that La Otra is “a non-electoral political offensive during election time. It does not call for a vote for or against any candidate. Nor does it promote abstention.” (44/45) No matter how many times the Zapatistas repeat that they are not calling for an electoral boycott, the press says they are. Indeed, since the publication of this book we’ve seen the Zapatistas be among the first to denounce the fraud that may yet rob the PRD of its electoral victory — a principled stand that they took in defense of those who support the PRD and the electoral process, echoing the Zapatista’s principled stand in defense of LÃ³pez Obrador, the PRD presidential candidate, when he was threatened with prison in 2005.
The essay’s title, “The Breaking Wave,” is HernÃ¡ndez’ poetic premonition of Mexico’s political upheaval to come: “A strong wave is threatening to crash against the long-standing political framework in Mexico. It comes from very far away and is fortified by the storm winds that are shaking the country. … when it rises and breaks, it will shake the existing system of representation.” (50/51) The first stirrings of that wave are in La Otra: “A great ripple is crossing Mexico. The breaking of the wave is beginning to be heard. That is the sound of The Other Campaign.” (58/59)
The Other Campaign/La Otra CampaÃ±a
All quoted or cited material in this article is from the book the other campaign/la otra campaÃ±a by Subcomandante Marcos and the Zapatistas, introductory essay by Luis HernÃ¡ndez Navarro, interview with Marcos by Aura Bogado, photos by Tim Russo, edited by Greg Ruggiero, Open Media Series; published by City Lights Books, 2006, bilingual Spanish-English facing pages. All royalties from the book support independent media projects in Chiapas. For more information see: http://www.citylights.com/pub/openmed.html
The Zapatistas’ Web Page
The Zapatistas maintain an excellent, ever-evolving presence on the web. To find out the last news from the source, go here.
To hear the voice of the indigenous rebel communities in Chiapas, tune into the Zapatistas’ clandestine short wave and FM radio broadcasts here. Past programs are also available for downloading. An incredible resource for those interested in not just hearing Subcomandante Marcos, but the insurgent women, men and young people who are struggling together for democracy, dignity and justice in Mexico.
To get a deeper sense of the indigenous struggle in Chiapas and the ongoing human rights abuses and paramilitary attacks suffered by the communities there, take a look at Enlace Civil’s excellent web page.
Chiapas95 News List
To join an email list that sends out news and translations relating to the Zapatistas, see: http://www.eco.utexas.edu/facstaff/Cleaver/chiapas95.html
This Mexico-based Spanish-language publication runs a broad range of Zapatista related articles, and their web page is excellent.
Roger Stoll has studied Spanish at the language school at Oventic, in the Zapatista zone, and is working on a music transcription and translation project involving recordings made with Radio Insurgente.