The Zapatista Challenge in Mexico’s Presidential Elections

This past October 1st, Mexico’s Federal Electoral Institute (IFE) cut the official ribbon on the 2006 presidential election year but the campaign has already been in high gear for many months now. The frontrunner, Andres Manual Lopez Obrador of the left-center Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) is methodically barnstorming the outer reaches of the republic drawing big crowds. and competing candidates for the presidential nominations of the once-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) and President Vicente Fox’s right-wing National Action or PAN Party are engaged in colorful slugfests full of invective and innuendo.

In short, 2006 is shaping up to be a typical election year here. But “La Otra Campana” ­ The Other Campaign ­ could radically change these perceptions.

The Other Campaign is the brainchild of the largely indigenous Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) whose Sixth Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle (the “Sexta”) issued in June called for a new approach to doing national politics. The Chiapas-based Mayan rebels plan to carry the Other Campaign to the rest of the country from “the Rio Bravo to the Suchiate” during the 2006 electoral process in a drive to consolidate the non-electoral, anti-capitalist left. Instead of running candidates, the Other Campaign calls for the enactment of a new national constitution that would bar privatization of public resources and other neo-liberal outrages, and insure indigenous autonomy for Mexico’s 57 distinct Indian peoples. The Other Campaign will also provide the EZLN with a platform from which to build an organization of indigenous and non-indigenous peoples in every state in the Mexican union.

In prototypical rebel style, the direction of the Other Campaign was determined by a series of xix meetings between the Zapatista high command and the EZLN’s diverse constituencies ­ Indians, farmers, workers, social movements, the organized left, NGOs and autonomous collectives, and individuals – held in August and September in insurgent villages in the canyons leading down to the Lacandon jungle. The weekend gabfests, protracted interactions between generations, ideologies, cultures, and social classes, culminated in plenary sessions September 16th and 17th, attended by thousands (including the long­absent rebel leader Comandanta Ramona) in the autonomous municipality of Francisco Gomez. For those who could not physically make it to the jungle, the proceedings were broadcast live worldwide on the Internet.

As of October 2nd, the last received totals, 181 indigenous associations, 68 left formations, 197 social organizations, 474 NGOs and collectives, and 1898 individuals and families had subscribed to La Otra Campana and committed themselves to making it work.

The Other Campaign will kick off January 1st, 2006, the 12th anniversary of the rebels’ 1994 uprising, when Subcomandante Marcos, the EZLN’s charismatic spokesperson, plus an as-yet unselected 16-member “Sexta” commission will begin a six month swing around the nation. The Sup will travel unarmed or at least “only with the arms God gave me” but will remain masked and carry with him his trusty laptop and a selection from his extensive collection of Sherlock Holms’ pipes. Interior Secretary Carlos Abascal has assured the EZLN that the Other Campaign will enjoy full freedom of transit. Who will provide security for the comandantes is one of many logistical issues still to be hashed out with the “mal gobierno” (bed government.)

The Other Campaign marks the fifth time the EZLN has sallied forth to try and convince the rest of Mexico of the righteousness of its cause. The last time the Zapatistas ventured from their Chiapas stronghold was for the March of Those Who Are The Color of the Earth in 2001 when the rebels were rebuffed by the Mexican congress’s gutting of an Indian Rights law for which the Zapatistas had long struggled. But the Other Campaign is far and away the most ambitious and protracted excursion to the outside world the EZLN has ever launched and is sure to generate as much opposition as it does empathy for the Indians.

“We must prepare ourselves for repression” the Subcomandante wrote to his comrades recently, “we could be jailed, we could be killed. We may never return home”

The itinerary of the Other Campaign is as meticulously plotted as Lopez Obrador’s presidential campaign. The rebels will spend the first week of January building ties to struggle organizations in other regions of Chiapas, then move on to Tabasco, the Yucatan, and Veracruz before crossing the isthmus to Oaxaca, Mexico’s most Indian state. From Oaxaca, the Other Campaign reaches into the central Mexican altiplano, arriving in Morelos, the home state of their namesake Emiliano Zapata on April 10th, his death day and the most hallowed date on the Zapata calendar. This first part of the Other Campaign’s route was previously explored by the Zapatista comandantes during the Indian Dignity march of 2001.

After spending the last two weeks in April in Mexico City and environs, the Other Campaign will head north state by state, working its way to the border by early June where meetings will be held with U.S. Mexican and Chicano activists who are preparing “La Otra Campana” on “El Otro Lado” (the Other Side.) Marcos has pledged that Mexicans in the U.S. will be a part of the Other Campaign.

On June 24th, the EZLN will close the first phase of “La Otra” with a mass meeting in Mexico City before Marcos and his crew return to Chiapas to sort out the election results in July.

If the above trajectory and the synchronization of dates with the electoral calendar lead the reader to confuse the Other Campaign with an electoral campaign, you may be excused. Actually, La Otra is much more of an anti-electoral campaign ­ the Other Campaign vs. Politics as Usual. The Zapatistas and their supporters will dog the political parties of which they have long been contemptuous ­ the EZLN thinks elections are for sale to the highest bidder and are not an accurate measure of democracy.

Inevitably, somewhere out there on the campaign trail, the Other Campaign will cross paths with one or more big party candidates and the fireworks are sure to begin. Because La Otra is basically a battle for the hearts and minds of the Mexican left, the Zapatistas have lavished a lot of energy attacking Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador and the PRD. The EZLN, in turn, has been sharply rebuked for what AMLO’s fans term “sectarianism” and worse, bettering the PRI’s chances of returning to the presidency by draining votes from Lopez Obrador ­ the same argument U.S. Democrats used against Ralph Nadar in 2000.

“We are not telling anyone who to vote for ­ or whether to vote at all” Subcomandante Marcos argues, “this is not an electoral campaign.”

The Other Campaign will focus equal energies on exposing PRI and PAN chicanery in the upcoming elections. Indeed, the dirty tricks and backstabbing scandals that are integral to the PRI, PAN, and PRD internal dramas could make the Other Campaign an appealing alternative to big party politics for many voters.

A PRI return to power is a particularly alarming scenario for the EZLN ­ not only would it signal the vanishing point for Mexico’s glacial “transition to democracy” but it is sure to bolster the standing of Zapatista-hating paramilitaries and hardliners inside the military.

But the Other Campaign will not fold up its tents after the July 2006 presidential vote is in. Unlike the political parties, the Zapatistas have a longer-range political goal than taking power ­ organizing Mexico for a new constitution. After evaluating the July election results, a second set of comandantes will embark from Chiapas in September 2006 and not return until March 2007 at which point the successes and failures of the Other Campaign will be weighed.

The Other Campaign is not just another kind of political campaign ­ it is literally a campaign of others. Diversity, bringing together the most marginated ­ Indians, gays and lesbians, the disabled, punks and anarchists – is the EZLN’s source of unity and strength. Because the Zapatistas attract the most disaffected ­ the outsiders ­ it is literally a campaign of the “Others.”

The Zapatista ethos of building power down below but eschewing taking state power has currency in Latin America today. The triumphs of the electoral left as a response to the savage capitalism of the neo-liberals have failed to live up to their expectations. Unable to shake off the World Bank, the World Trade Organization, and the White House, Lula and Kirschner, Tabare Vazquez and next Evo Morales and Lopez Obrador have not and will not be able to deliver meaningful change. Hugo Chavez rules from the top down while the Zapatistas build from the bottom up.

Latin America will be the setting for 12 presidential and parliamentary elections in 2006 and given the temper of the times, the EZLN’s Other Campaign should have an echo far beyond the race foe the Mexican presidency.

JOHN ROSS is currently on the road in California where he will present four seminars on rebel journalism at the New College (San Francisco) in October and November. Ross will also speak at a New College public presentation, “Our Dreams Are Not On The Ballot – The Other Campaign & The Mexican Presidential Elections” on Nov. 15th.



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JOHN ROSS’s El Monstruo – Dread & Redemption in Mexico City is now available at your local independent bookseller. Ross is plotting a monster book tour in 2010 – readers should direct possible venues to johnross@igc.org

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