El Zapatismo and Our Visit to Caracol #4

By Maggie Schumann

In March, the Border Studies Program journeyed to Chiapas, Mexico to learn about how US policy has motivated and shaped migration from Mexico and Central America. One aspect of the trip was a visit to a Zapatista caracol, the seat of an autonomous and representative municipal government affiliated with the 1994 Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) rebellion.  There are five caracoles, which means snail, in Chiapas where these autonomous governments, called Juntas del Buen Gobierno, or Meetings of Good Government, gather. Our opportunity to visit a caracol was a special one. You need a trusted connection to enter into their communities — after all, they are in rebellion against the Mexican state. The day we were scheduled to go, I happened to feel horrible with my stomach being turned over by an intestinal illness. However, I decided to go nonetheless, thinking that I would never have another opportunity to learn of the Zapatista uprising directly from its members.

I didn’t know much of the Zapatista movement before our visit, so instead I started reading about it afterwards. This is a bit of a summary of what I’ve learned: The Zapatista movement started publicly on the 1st of January, 1994 after ten years of planning in the forests of Chiapas. That day, January 1st, 1994 was chosen to be the same day that NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, came into effect. The Zapatistas protested against the neoliberal state and its capitalist projects, exemplified by NAFTA, that were robbing the indigenous people of Chiapas of their traditional livelihoods close to the earth. The Zapatistas in their trademark covered faces took control of over 500 territories in Chiapas, including San Cristóbal de las Casas, in the first weeks of January. The Mexican government’s response was both rapid and strong, and the Zapatistas retreated for the mountains. The peace talks that followed saw the efforts of the Mexican government to trade so-called development funds for the submission of the EZLN.  There was a cease-fire from the 12th of January that lasted for two years, until the signing of the San Andrés Accords, that were supposed to give more rights to the indigenous peoples. Unfortunately, the Mexican government has never followed through on their promises. All the while, in those years the EZLN and especially its mysterious Subcomandante Marcos, fought a battle of public opinion and won the sympathy of the Mexican people and international activists.

In 2003, the Aguascalientes, centers of the Zapatista Army, were converted to be centers of municipal and autonomous government. Each one of the Aguascalientes became one caracol, a place where representatives of each community met in a Junta del Buen Gobierno. These governments served the same functions as state-sanctioned municipal governments but were autonomous and Zapatista. One of these Juntas, one of these governments, was the one we visited. The ten representatives that make up the Junta also spoke with us.

The Junta, remarkably diverse in both age and gender, described to us the history and politics of their work. The group described how they had been chosen by their communities. The appointment to the Junta lasts for three years, cannot be turned down, and requires that they travel to the caracol once per month to meet with the Junta for a week-long period. The representatives are not paid, but while they are away from home working in the Junta, their communities care for their crops and families. There is no campaigning. The Zapatista process of electing representatives made a great impression on me, especially as I have been interning with Congressman Raúl Grijalva’s Tucson District Office for the semester. The contrast between the Zapatista elections and our own couldn’t be more stark. The Zapatista way omits all of the competitivity, expense, and in this moment, pain, of political campaigns. We would likely have better representatives, too. However, this model is likely enabled by smaller communities in which all members know each other.

The Junta also told us a bit about their rules and initiatives in the Zapatista communities. For example, one set of rules regards alcohol in the Zapatista pueblos. Each Zapatista community prohibits all alcohol. If someone violates this rule, the first and second times they have opportunities to change their behavior. If there is a third time, the community meets to decide if they will expel the individual from the pueblo. This rule is one example of how communal decision-making is worked into their form of justice.

The Zapatista health centers are one of the Junta’s initiatives that seeks real, as opposed to neoliberal, development. Any member of the community can access medical attention at a Zapatista health center. If someone can’t pay for the medical services, she can pay with what she has, maybe corn, beans, or labor. Families only have to pay when the treatment is successful; if the family member dies, the family pays nothing. These examples of Zapatista rules, communal justice and initiatives for real, community-defined development are ways of governance I hope to dwell on for a long time.

Maggie pic 3

We stayed at the caracol for only one night. Too soon, we were leaving. But all of us carried the experience and the example of the Zapatistas into our studies and our lives afterwards. For one student, the visit to the caracol challenged her Quaker and pacifist identity. For me, the visit showed the power of local government and the merits of working outside of the system of official government to enact change. Someone said to us when we were in the caracol that our task was to reimagine and reconstruct Zapatismo for our own communities. For now, I am continuing in that thought experiment, bearing in mind the “Mandar Obedeciendo de EZLN / Obeying Mandate of the EZLN:

  •    Obedecer, no mandar / To obey, not order.
  •    Bajar, no subir / To lower oneself, not raise oneself.
  •    Proponer, no imponer / To propose, not impose.
  •    Convencer, no vencer / To convince, not conquer.
  •    Representar, no suplantar / To represent, not supplant.
  •    Servir, no servirse / To serve, not serve oneself.
  •    Construir, no destruir / To construct, not destroy.”

Sources and additional readings:

“The Zapatista Uprising: The Best Post-Modern Revolution.” http://vivatropical.com/podcast-mexico-zapatista-post-modern-revolution

Mexico Solidarity Network. “Zapatismo”. http://www.mexicosolidarity.org/node/317

Hayden, Tom. The Zapatista Reader. Nation Books, 2009.

Grant, Will. “Struggling on: Zapatistas 20 years after the uprising”. BBC Mundo. 1 January 2014. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-25550654

All photos by Jacob Wilson and of murals at the Zapatista caracol.

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