While the front pages and TV news reports in Mexico are full of accounts of ghastly levels of corruption and violence that would have boggled the imagination of the most jaded pulp fiction writer, in every corner of the country there are spaces where “you breathe a different air,” as the saying is here.
On the outskirts of San Cristobal de las Casas, famed colonial center of the southern state of Chiapas, on the wooded campus of the Indigenous Center for Comprehensive Training (Spanish acronym: CIDECI – follow the link to learn more about this remarkable alternative university) over a thousand people from all over Mexico and beyond are attending a week-long seminar “Critical Thought versus the Capitalist Hydra.” It was conceived and organized by the Zapatistas, the Chiapas-based armed insurgency that has converted itself into one of the most extraordinary experiments in regional autonomy and self-sufficiency in the history of social movements in Latin America. Along with masked members of the Zapatista army, rural peasant farmers, high school and college students, activists, teachers, artists’ collectives, members of various social and political formations like the National Indigenous Congress (Spanish acronym: CNI) are spending the week listening to a wide-ranging number of presenters from Mexico and abroad with expertise in key areas where the “hydra” now dominates: finance, government, agriculture, social welfare, communications, race and gender relations, science and technology.
And, true to the comprehensive vision of human discourse that is modern day Zapatismo, they are also hearing from poets, artists, writers, historians, philosophers. The attendees pack the seats of the large auditorium and spill into the corridors and outside into the shaded walkways that surround it, using all the various ways we now have of capturing information, with an avidness and level of impassioned curiosity that would warm the heart of any college professor used to declaiming to a bored and distracted student body.
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The analysis so far has been relatively concordant and not surprising: a litany of the human and ecological disaster that capitalism has wrought (not just in Mexico, but of course that is the primary focus here). The Spanish word “despojo,” which has only a much weaker equivalent in English, “dispossession,” recurs in so many presentations that it is clearly seen as one of the most fundamental characteristics of the system. “To be stripped violently of everything that sustains you” would be closer to the real meaning of this word. That is the key experience of capitalism’s innumerable losers: the mass of humans without power or privilege, and the living world.
But sadly, if also not surprisingly, examples of functioning anti-capitalist alternatives involving more than a small number of people are few. And there has only been a single presenter so far representing a large-scale effective resistance movement – an astounding participation by Kurdish Peoples’ Party representative Havin Güneser, who gave a comprehensive overview of their forty-year history and particularly of the role of women within it.
But at the end of each session of the seminar, it’s the turn of the Zapatistas themselves to speak. And the point of their lectures is to describe what their own alternative looks, feels, and sounds like, to describe it from within.
The press, foreign supporters, and even Mexican Zapatista sympathizers have become accustomed to looking to the well-known figure of Subcommandante Marcos as the public face and voice of all things Zapatista, even though he is no longer their official spokesman. And he has already made several speeches during the seminar in the manner that has become his “brand:” metaphoric, digressive, lyrical ruminations – allegories or parables that leave one with resonant impressions and feelings of what it is to be creating a new world “from below and to the left,” as the Zapatistas now put it.
Marcos remains the master of symbolism. Since the murder by paramilitaries last year of the Zapatista teacher whose adopted name was Galeano, for example, Marcos himself has publicly “died” and taken the name of Galeano. In the ceremony on May 2 in the Zapatista caracol (literally, “snail,” their term for their autonomous community centers) of Oventic to commemorate the teacher’s death, Marcos/Galeano explained that this nom de guerre is not a tribute to the brilliant Uruguayan journalist and author Eduardo Galeano, but to one of the original comrades of Emiliano Zapata himself. It contains layers of symbolism, in other words.
Marcos/Galeano also had a uncharacteristically concise way of signaling the disastrous state of conditions in Mexico outside of these spaces of organized resistance: “Our reality today can be summed up in one word: Ayotzinapa.” He was referring to the forced disappearance of 43 students at a teacher’s training college during a protest last September that turned into a confrontation with local authorities. The horrible allegation that the protesting students were captured by police who then turned them over to drug gang assassins to be tortured, murdered, and incinerated, shocked a population that seemed to have become inured to endless reports of torture and death from the byzantine drug war.
But the terminally corrupt Mexican government has offered no proof of this hastily produced story, and the remains of only one student have been identified. So the parents of the 43 have been demanding answers. One of the parents, Bertha Nava, spoke in Oventic, and two others sent video testimonies. Their grief is still raw and overwhelming, and their appreciation that the Zapatistas’ concern has helped them from vanishing into the media oblivion where so many other families of Mexico’s murdered or disappeared have gone is clearly profound.
It is perhaps the culminating horror of Ayotzinapa, in addition to the threat of another wave of violence against their own communities, that made the Zapatistas see the need for another large-scale, public action, to stare down the sense of accelerating disaster of which their recent communiqués have been warning.
During the seminar itself, it is the words of now-official spokesman Subcommandante Moisés that have been the clearest, most unequivocal depiction of the 30-year long Zapatista story and its lessons. Moisés, a Tzeltal Maya, was one of the first locals to join up with the revolutionaries, so his experience is vast. Day after day, alternating with Galeano as speaker, Moisés has been giving a living history, from the arrival of the first group of clandestine (and non-indigenous) insurgents in the 1980s, to the 1994 armed rebellion which resulted in a standoff with government troops, and then (and this is the part that he has described in the most concrete detail) the transformation of that movement into an evolving experiment in regional autonomy, self-sufficiency, and resistance to violence and government cooptation. An experiment which,á la Mark Twain, has been reported moribund more than once, but now comprises thousands of campesino (peasant farmer) families collectively organized at four different levels of increasing scale: communities, municipalities, regions, and zones.
Moisés has been equally open and clear about the failures of certain aspects of the experiment: total collectivization of work did not function, nor large-scale barter projects, nor relying heavily on NGO-sponsored “development” or service projects. Direct governance of the base by the armed insurgency did not work either. “Se chingó, pues,” he will say ruefully about failed attempts, to much laughter from the audience. “The thing is you idealize us,” he admonished at one point, and again laughter erupted. Ironically, of course, this wry, self-aware sense of humor – which is completely absent from most left political formations, and from sects or cults of any stripe – is surely one of the things about the Zapatistas that does cause many of their supporters to idealize them.
But his dominant story is how trial and error (“through error we correct ourselves” is another repeated Zapatista expression) led to a functional form of government by community consensus. It also led to the development of relationships of solidarity with providers of essential services such as surgery or dentistry, to a communal bank and cooperative income-generating projects (livestock, coffee, corn, shoes and boots) that provide basic sustenance as well. All this in the midst of constant attempts by the government to undermine and diminish them through monetary cooptation or paramilitary violence. And it has led overall to a sense of personal dignity that is immediately evident in every word a Zapatista speaks.
Visiting a caracol makes it clear that physically, there is almost no separation between families that are organized in Zapatista structures and families that support traditional political parties and have no love for the Zapatistas. There is no such thing as “liberated territory,” in the old school sense, a restricted area of land protected by their soldiers, where only Zapatistas can live. All are tucked into the same steep, mist-shrouded, forested hills far from Chiapas’ few larger towns and cities. Zapatistas or not, all are poor here.
So the Zapatistas make a point of offering the services they have developed for themselves – schools, clinics, transport – to anyone who lives in the area, which includes many non-Zapatistas. But those who do not wish to work collectively – whether they are supporters or not – consequently have to pay something, according to their abilities. The government’s projects increase outside dependence, the Zapatistas’ whole thrust is to reduce it – reduce reliance on money and commodities, on outside services, on middlemen. And thus they’re able to reject all intervention by the Mexican authorities: police, tax collectors, officials of any stripe. They will not be uprooted now at any price short of a holocaust, and a second generation has begun to take its place in the collective organizations and projects.
But in spite of Moisés’ obvious pride in their accomplishments, there is also a clear sense of urgency in his discourse. One note sounds over and over again: a storm is coming, he tells the diverse and (mainly) urban audience. You must organize collectively. It is the only instruction he will give on behalf of the Zapatistas, whose experiment and history he acknowledges are uniquely their own.
And while the words are simple, it’s his own identification of exactly what gave the Zapatistas their original and continuing strength that signals the difficulty in creating anything like their experiment (even on the same scale) in many parts of the world today: land.
The forgotten Indigenous Peoples of Chiapas had an integral connection to a singular region that extended back hundreds of years. The world’s population today is majority urban for the first time in human history, and many of those have been displaced in a single generation from land their families had also occupied for centuries. The Zapatistas understanding of their living place, their centuries of inhabiting it, drawing from it only what it could provide without exhaustion, was absolutely essential to maintaining their organized resistance and resilience. But without such a profound connection, without any access to land at all, even if you are organized consciously and collectively in some way, how can you provide for basic needs without relying on the system to be the intermediary?
The question, which has stumped more than one radical experiment, is unanswerable, or at least, it has not yet been answered. It will not be answered by the Zapatistas. “We are not here to give instructions, but to provoke thought,” they say. But they also keep repeating that without organization, there is no effective challenge to the vast regenerative power of the capitalist “hydra,” or to the rolling catastrophe of its mounting global chaos. The world will go under.
The seminar ended on Saturday May 9. Then the participants will have returned to their homes, the Zapatistas to their caracoles. And then? “Our struggle is for the centuries,” the Zapatistas repeatedly say. One of the truest signs of the optimism their accomplishment has given them, is that they are confident they have that much time.