Celebrating the "Sum of the World" in Chiapas

Oventik, Chiapas.

The unmistakable reedy voice of Subcomandante Marcos floated eerily over craggy peaks and deep hollows illuminated by a full moon that had opportunistically parted the ghostly mountain mists just an hour after midnight this past New Year’s Eve. Speaking entirely in Tzotzil, the language of the People of the Bat (“Tzotz”) or highland Maya, the Zapatistas leader reviewed the pluses and minuses of the past year to thousands of Indians and outlanders gathered at this “caracol” or political/cultural center in Los Altos of Chiapas, on the 13th anniversary of this unique indigenous uprising.

The Subcomandante’s words were translated into Spanish by Comandanta Hortencia, a member of the rebels’ politico-military structure, the Clandestine Revolutionary Indigenous Committee (CCRI), the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) General Command. “What we have learned on the road of our struggle is that we could not win unless we united with the people who struggle everywhere.” Hortencia’s full, dulcet tones rose and fell over the moonstruck mountain landscape, a moment of maximum luminosity in a world that is not often so crystal clear.

The 13th anniversary of the EZLN’s taking of the old colonial city of San Cristobal de las Casas and seven other county seats in southeastern Chiapas January 1st, 1994 was encapsulated by an “Encounter Between the Peoples of the Zapatista Communities and the Peoples of the World”, a four-day huddle (Dec. 30th-Jan.2nd) up at Oventik, the EZLN’s most accessible outpost. The event seemed to mark a return to the roots of civil Zapatismo with more than 200 officials from the 29 autonomous municipalities and five Juntas De Buen Gobierno (JBGs or “Good Government Committees”) that administrate the autonomous regions, on hand to discuss the nuts and bolts of building autonomy with 1500 delegates from 47 countries (most from Mexico), “a journey to the heart of the caracoles” as Lieutenant-Colonel Moises, who presided over the conclave at the caracol “Resistance and Rebellion for Humanity”, proposed.

In Mayan numerology, 13 is “the perfect number” – “the sum of the world” consider Mayan daykeepers who meet each January in Momostenango in western Guatemala to correct the calendar. 13 represents the number of days for human gestation and is the cornerstone of keeping time on the Mayan calendar: 20 13-day periods compose the 260-day Mayan year. The new Mayan calendar cycle will begin in 2013.

But the Oventik encounter, a kind of gathering of the tribes who “adhere” to the Sixth Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle (“La Zezta” in the new Zapatista orthography), not a few of them spectacularly pierced and tattooed (more kaffias were in evidence than at a good-sized Palestinian demonstration in San Francisco) celebrated another anniversary: the first birthday party of “the Other Campaign”, a mobilization convoked by the “Zezta” and launched last January 1st as Subcomandante Marcos, now doing business as “Delegate Zero” began a perambulation that took him all the way to the northern border, summoning activists to band together to build a new Mexican Left from the bottom up.

Judging by the numbers and their enthusiasm at the “Encuentro”, the Other Campaign continues to be a viable mechanism for spreading the Zapatista message of unity from below.

But it has been a tentative, turbulent first year for “La Otra.” Drawing sparse crowds as he plied the backwaters of a nation preparing for presidential elections, Delegate Zero and the Other Campaign were universally ignored by all but the most marginal of media (the Mexican Left daily La Jornada was the sole exception.) Brutal police repression of militant farmers at San Salvador Atenco in May was a first flawed test of the Other Campaign’s capacity to mount a mass movement in defense of its adherents. Marcos’s subsequent imposition of a Red Alert on the Zapatista autonomous zone in Chiapas lasted five months, shut down the civil infrastructure, and cut the communities off from commerce.

Delegate Zero’s demonization of left-center presidential candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO) divided the left at a critical juncture and La Otra’s refusal to participate in the post-electoral struggle after the fraud-marred July 2nd election was stolen from AMLO led to charges of sectarianism – the ubiquitous presence of portraits of Joseph Stalin at Other Campaign marches and rallies lent credence to the allegation.

But there were no portraits of Old Joe up at Oventik and the nominal shrillness of the mostly young adherents seemed muted by the presence of civil Zapatismo. Instead, the ambiance was one of respectful interchange between activists learning how to build Zapatismo where they live and the ski-masked autonomous officials.

“We do not have to consult the dictionary to know what the word ‘autonomy’ means because we live it everyday in our houses and our fields and the community” offered “Beto”, a member of the JBG “Whirlwind of Our Word” on the Ejido Morelia.

“We do not charge money to serve our communities because we are all poor. We serve by obeying the will of the people (‘mandar obedeciendo”.) We serve for three years but if we do not do well, we must go before then” was how a representative from the Caracol at Roberto Barrios explained the Zapatista way of governance.

“I did not know how to read but I did know how to think,” observed a young woman from the Caracol at La Realidad, musing on how she came to participate in the autonomous council. Woman comprised about 30-40% of the Zapatista delegates at the Encounter – most of the autonomous authorities represented a new generation that has grown up in the rebellion.

Workshops examining how the rebels organize autonomous education, health services, agrarian projects, their justice system, cultural collectives, and communication presented the Zapatista model of autonomy. A session on fair trade, essential to financing Zapatista infrastructure, featured promoters of anti-capitalist condoms, bicycle power, and organic coffee. Coffee sales are a building block of the EZLN’s autonomy but cooperatives of Zapatista farmers such as Muk Vitz and Y’axil are not able to produce enough to meet the spiraling international demand for rebel coffee.

The concept of being a Zapatista where one lives seems to have spilled over both of Mexico’s borders with ex-guerilleros from Guatemala and Los Angeles-based Chicano activists (“The Other Campaign on The Other Side”) sharing their experiences as did activists from as far a field as Greater Kurdistan.

La Otra, which suspended activities in early December after trekking the nation from border to border will soon be back on the road. Comandante David, an Oventik native, confirmed that small groups of Zapatista comandantes will spread out into the four corners of Mexico to share their experiences with adherents and listen to “los de abajo” (“those from below”) with the goal of weaving many little resistances into one great anti-capitalist upsurge from the bottom.

“We are not afraid of what lies ahead” David advised, a pointed reference to the “hard hand” (“mano dura”) of new Mexican president Felipe Calderon who has taken to strutting around in a military uniform. The Zapatista rebellion has now outlasted three Mexican presidents (Carlos Salinas, Ernesto Zedillo, and Vicente Fox) and “Fecal”, as his detractors dub him, will assuredly have to suffer the EZLN for the next six years – if, in fact, he remains president that long.

“The Encounter of the Peoples of the Zapatista Communities with the Peoples of the World” was a preamble to the long-awaited “Intergalactica”, a more ambitious coming together of activists from the five continents and beyond slated for the five Zapatista caracoles July 20th-28th. The first Intergalactica (all sentient beings from other planets were invited) was staged in the jungle mud in the summer of 1996 and became a seedbed for the anti-globalization movement and the nation of Seattle. “Now we are talking about a different globalization – the globalization of rebellion,” emphasizes Moises who is coordinating the new edition.

Registration for the Intergalactica is being handled on the World Wide Web (intergalactiva@ezln.org.mx) as befits a rebellion, which has often seemed to take place on the Internet. The first rebel organization to seize upon the reach of the net to disseminate its insurrection, all five EZLN caracoles are now net accessible and the Internet has become a motor of internal cohesion as well as a window through which to tell the Zapatistas’ story to the world.

Solidarity was the subtext of the Encuentro at the Caracol “Rebellion and Resistance for Humanity.” Mexico 2007 is a motherland with many “ombligos” (unbillicuses) of resistance. San Salvador Atenco and Oaxaca are just two. Delegates from the Oaxaca Peoples Popular Assembly (APPO) which held the streets of their state capital for seven months before government troops came down upon them like Cossacks (over 200 arrests and 19 dead) journeyed up to Oventik to express gratitude to the EZLN for “blazing the path on the road of resistance.” A delegation from Atenco, among them the father of Alexis Benuhmea whose 21st birthday would have been January 3rd had not federal and state police murdered him in Atenco last May, came to denounce the brutal indignities forced upon them – 26 militants remain imprisoned.

But notoriously absent from the pronouncements of indignation and solidarity was Lopez Obrador, victim of massive electoral fraud last summer, who now travels the Mexican outback, speaking and listening to “los de abajo”, on his own private Other Campaign. According to Sergio Martinez Lescano, who co-edits the EZLN journal “Rebeldia” and is considered Subcomandante Marcos’s key advisor (reporters label him “the ayatollah”), the Other Campaign abstained from participating in the post-electoral marches and encampments that brought millions of Mexicans into the streets because that movement was “declared from the top down.” Lescano made his observations at a post-encounter forum at San Cristobal’s University of the Tierra during which Sub Marcos regaled the audience with a convoluted creation myth that had to do with falling stars and the origin of popcorn. No encounter with the EZLN would have been complete without such myth making from Marcos, a master storyteller.

Being a Zapatista wherever one lives on the planet could be a hazardous occupation in 2007 and particularly so in this distant neighbor nation where Calderon has invested his fragile authority in the Mexican military – 18,000 troops remain in Chiapas with large encampments in the Zapatista zone.

Yet as their anthem enjoins, the compas advance steadily on the horizon. At the closing ceremony of the “Encounter Between the Peoples of the Zapatista Communities and the Peoples of the World” in drizzle and mud that is often a condition of life in the highlands of Chiapas, Beto, the bard from the Ejido Morelia whose silver tongue makes him an heir to Marcos, poetized about being immersed in a sea of dreams and proclaimed his “Alegria para la Rebeldia” (joy at rebelliousness) as the banda de guerra cranked up “Horizontes” the Zapatista hymn based on the old revolutionary corrido “Carbine 30-30”, and the adherents danced crazily in the mud. The Zapatista year had begun again.
JOHN ROSS will be on the road in the southwest (February), the south and the Midwest (March) and the East Coast (April) with his latest opus ZAPATISTAS! Making Another World Possible–Chronicles of Resistance 2000-2006 Contact him at johnross@igc.org for bookings (note – dates are disappearing fast.)



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