What I Re-Discovered in Mexico

What ever happened to the Zapatista struggle?  This question and others about what was probably the most inspirational social movement and rebellion in the world around seven years ago propelled me to participate in a study abroad program on Zapatismo with the Mexican Solidarity Network this summer.  Seven years ago, I was a recent graduate of U.C. Berkeley and was deeply involved in the global justice movement.  Since that time, however, for both political and personal reasons (e.g., the post 9/11 climate and the demands of establishing an actual career and taking care of family), I have not been as involved politically and not been able to follow the Zapatista struggle as much as I’ve wanted to.  My decision to enroll in the program was in large part an attempt to become politically engaged again.  It helped me achieve that and more.  For six weeks a group of us studied the history, culture, and political economy of the Zapatista struggle while living in and working with a Zapatista community in the highlands of Chiapas.  Among many things I learned and was reminded of is the justness of their cause and the lengths that nation states are wiling to go in protecting their power and interests.  Below is an analysis/explanation on the current security situation facing the Zapatistas.

With the recent passage of such policies as the Merida Initiative (Plan Mexico), the evidence suggests that the Mexican government, with U.S. backing and support, is planning on increasing its repression of the Zapatista movement.  In fact, in enhancing the Mexican government’s ability to use its military internally as it does, many concerned activists, human rights groups and political commentators describe Mexico’s new security plan as a (re)militarization of Mexican society.

To the Zapatistas, however, their communities and land are already militarized and the repression, harassment and attacks by both military and paramilitary forces that literally surround them (The nearest paramilitary camp was just a ½ mile away from the community we were living with.) will most certainly increase with the passing of the initiative.  Indeed, the Zapatistas view the Merida Initiative as an escalation of the repression and violence already being used against them by U.S. and Mexican government and corporate interests.

Thus, to the Zapatistas, the political, economic and military aspects of governance are all very interrelated.  In essence, they would say that the government’s economic plans can’t effectively be implemented without using military and political repression against those very social actors (e.g., the poor, indigenous, workers, farmers) who are being hurt by those same economic policies and that are being left with little choice but to resist them.

The Political Economy of the Struggle Today

The economic conditions that the Zapatistas originally rebelled against on January 1st, 1994 are still very much present.  Corporate interests want to gain more access to the potential markets, cheap labor pool, ample land and natural resources that the state of Chiapas provides.  The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) is the specific form the corporate economic model took then.  Plan Puebla Panama (PPP) is the more specific and extended form that it takes now.  While it wouldn’t establish a free trade zone, if implemented, the PPP would attempt to economically integrate Southern Mexico and Central America with each other (Mesoamerica).  The plan’s main goal, however, is to open up the area to corporations from Latin America and other countries outside the region, particularly the U.S.

Originally launched in 2001 by the very pro-business Vicente Fox of the National Action Party (PAN), the PPP stalled in 2003 due to its controversial, pro-corporate nature and the resistance generated by nearly a decade of economic dislocation and misery experienced by the large majority of Mexicans from NAFTA.  Economic elites around the world, including in Mexico, have not acquired immense wealth by easily giving up, however.  Thus, the euphoria experienced by critics and opponents when the PPP was seemingly defeated was proven premature when current Mexican President Felipe Calderon, who is also in the PAN and probably won the election through fraud, announced shortly after taking office in December 2006 that he would reinitiate PPP, though he plans on renaming it the Mesoamerica Initiative.

To help begin realizing their corporate goals, economists or technocrats in the Mexican government have recently launched ambitious infrastructure projects.  They include or have included the construction or repaving of highways, the modernization of the ports of Chiapas, the construction of an International Airport in Tuxtla, electricity distribution upgrades, and the construction of a fiber optic system between Tuxtla and Ciudad Hidalgo.  Sectors and/or industries that Mexico’s elites want to eventually establish and that the infrastructure improvements are ultimately for are tourism, manufacturing, or maquilas with all the perks such as tax exemption for foreign companies that go along with them, forestry and agroindustry, which would largely take the form of African Palm and eucalyptus plantations.

This of course does not include ongoing economic plans such as the desire to further open up the Lacandon rain forest, where 20% of Mexico’s biodiversity is located, to pharmaceutical and biotech companies who want to use the organisms of the jungle to develop new drugs, pesticides, perfumes and even new, genetically modified crops.  Needless to say, these plans and projects will further displace and exploit indigenous people and communities, ignores their cultural way of life and wreak potential havoc on the environment itself.

In the case of African Palm trees, for example, indigenous families will be expected to give up their farming and/or the cultivation of goods essential to their way of life and survival like corn, beans and coffee in order to produce palm oil for goods like cosmetic products primarily produced for export.  Furthermore, the foreign plants excessively drain the nutrients and the water from the soil they grow in and require heavy usage of herbicides and pesticides, all of which greatly draws the environmental sustainability of the PPP into question.  And Mexico’s elite won’t of course admit it publicly, but racism certainly permeates their economic ideas, given that it is still very common for elites to think that “in Chiapas, a chicken is worth more than an indio [Indian].”

The Military/Para-Military Component

The revival of the PPP has its military complement in the recent passage and acceptance by both the U.S. and Mexican governments of the Merida Initiative or Plan Mexico.  Largely presented as a way to combat spiraling crime and deadly violence spurred by the Mexican drug trade (437 people were killed in drug related violence in Mexico in June alone!), there is little doubt that the Mexican government will use the money it gains from the plan and military/law enforcement equipment to repress social/political dissent and challenges, especially the Zapatistas. This can perhaps be seen by analyzing the plan’s funding priorities and just by recognizing the fact that the plan is actually considered part of a national security plan.

In regard to funding, according to Laura Carlsen’ recent article (http://www.fpif.org/fpiftxt/4684 ) under the plan, the U.S. government will provide a three year aid package worth $1.6 billion dollars.  In the first installment provided this year, the Mexican government will receive around $400 million dollars in aid.  Around 30%, or $116.5 million, will go to the Mexican military.  $73 million will go to “judicial reform, institution building, anti-corruption, and rule-of-law activities.”  $48 million will go to “narcotics controls and deterrence” which includes surveillance, inspection, training and purchasing of security equipment (Not one penny goes to drug treatment or rehabilitation!).  The rest of the $400 million, roughly $112 million, is earmarked for increased criminal justice efficiency (read: quicker prosecution of criminals) in the form of software and training in case-tracking and the centralization of data.  Omitting the $73 million earmarked for “judicial reform” (How serious should this be taken, given the immense corruption in the Mexican state?), obviously the bulk of the money is going towards repression and prosecution of perceived “criminals.”  And this doesn’t even touch on increased domestic spying powers like phone tapping the Mexican government is contemplating adopting.

Of course, along with the drug trade and problem, terrorism is also cited as a justification for Plan Mexico.  Similar to what American elites say, Mexico’s elites are raising the specter of terrorism coming from what they see as a porous southern border too, the one they share with Guatemala.  And while nothing in the document is specific about protests or social movements, or any kind of resistance against corporate practices or encroachment, the historical behavior of capitalist countries is proof enough that they will defend their economic power and interests with military and police force when necessary, whether from external or internal threats.  Given the Zapatistas are still vehemently resisting the economic and cultural subjugation of their communities and lives, it should come as no surprise, then, that the Mexican government is already making claims that Zapatista communities are illegally cultivating drugs and using the military to conduct raids and/or searches (Read John Gibler’s recent article here: http://www.zmag.org/znet/viewArticle/17855.)

Paramilitaries are increasingly being used by the Mexican government as well.  In fact, since the early days of the Zapatista uprising, the Mexican government has been fine-tuning its use of paramilitaries.  Various groups that were operating throughout the 90s have been forced to disband due to negative publicity, but they have since been unified and given a more public and legitimate face with the creation of the Organization for the Defense of Indigenous and Peasant Rights (OPPDIC) in 1998.   Publicly, OPPDIC claims to represent indigenous communities by pushing for more services, subsidies and petitioning for land.  (A favorite tactic by OPPDIC members is to expel through force a Zapatista family or community and then petition the government for the land that they have just taken.)  Privately and militarily, however, its members largely play the same roles they did before.  They regularly harass, intimidate, beat and have shown a willingness to even kill Zapatistas.

The close connections the Mexican government has to OPPDIC has been well-documented by such groups as the Center for Political Analysis and Social and Economic Research (CAPISE).  CAPISE also has recently reported that over 74,000 hectares of Zapatista territory are under threat of invasion from military and/or paramilitary forces.  Quite literally, this means that Zapatista communities are surrounded by and/or even mixed with anti-Zapatista communities (e.g. PRI dominated communities) and paramilitary strongholds or camps.  In another Zapatista community we visited, half the town was PRI.  It was obvious they did not want us there when we nervously walked through their market to get a feel how they lived and what government control looked like (The Mexican government was handing out welfare checks that day and the community was having a market day just for the occasion.  On principle, the Zapatistas don’t accept welfare or any government services, for that matter.)  The Zapatistas describe this situation as a perfect example as to how the Mexican government (the mal gobierno or bad government) actively uses divide and conquer strategies to split the indigenous population apart from each other.

U.S. Government Complicity/Involvement

As the Zapatista’s perspective on the modern world would expect, the U.S. government is playing an active and supportive role in their repression in essence because U.S. and Mexico interests (political, economic and military) greatly coincide.  In respect to America’s politics, this strong and close relationship is what creates so much continuity between American presidents and the two main parties in the American political system.  Applied to the American presidential campaign, what this looks like is pretty straight forward.  While John McCain is understandably drawing ire from liberal and progressive activists with his staunch support of the Bush Agenda and openly expressed willingness to use military force to protect American interests, Barack Obama can also be viewed as fundamentally supporting the same aims.  The Zapatistas certainly view this as being the case.

Unlike many American progressives and social justice activists who believe Obama can and/or will significantly shift the priorities of American capitalism and U.S. militarism, the Zapatistas don’t expect much of a change if he is elected.  Indeed, it doesn’t surprise the Zapatistas at all that Obama supports the Mesoamerica Initiative and is pro-corporate.  In fact, in several political and educational conservations, several Zapatistas expressed this exact view.  As they regularly told us in political conversation, “Obama is an elite politician.  He represents the opinions and interests of corporations and the wealthy, not of the people.”  Recent articles by such authors as Naomi Klein on Obama’s circle of advisors certainly suggest this is true.

The Zapatistas, however, do not have to wait for and read critical news pieces like Klein’s to understand how the modern political world works and why it’s important to build an effective social movement for social change.  They understand that their vision of democracy, where ordinary people and communities have real control over their lives, where there is true political and social equality and where their economic needs are met, is a fundamental challenge to the elite democracies practiced by the U.S. and Mexico.  They also feel that their vision will only be achieved or constructed by ordinary people fighting for it themselves (In fact, the Zapatistas the last 5 years have deepened their vision of democracy by instituting the Juntas de Buen Gobiernos [Juntas of Good Government]).  Elites, whether Calderon, Lopez Obrador from the left-of-center party in Mexico, McCain or Obama, are part of the problem, not the solution, given this perspective, and need to be resisted, not placated to.  This is a lesson that perhaps liberals and progressives in the U.S. should learn from and contemplate how to put to practice if they are truly serious about building alliances with other struggles for social justice around the world like the Zapatistas.  Voting for Obama shouldn’t be considered the wrong thing to do, but failing to hold him accountable, or any politician for that matter, for betraying the interests of the people by taking to the streets en masse should be.

MICHAEL ESTRADA is a Political Science Instructor at the City College of San Francisco.  He would like to think Tom Hansen with the Mexico Solidarity Network with the recommendations he made about the article.  He can be contacted at estrada-michael@sbcglobal.net