In May of last year, José Luis Solís López, a teacher in the Zapatista community of La Realidad (one of five affiliated communities of the now 20-year-old Zapatista experiment in autonomy and self-governance) was killed by paramilitaries during an ambush in which several other unarmed Zapatistas were also injured. The paramilitaries proceeded to destroy the community’s clinic and seriously damage its school. Such tensions have been a constant part of life in Zapatista territory in the remote south of Mexico. Failing to dislodge the Zapatistas by force after their initial uprising in 1994, the Mexican government, wealthy landowners and developers have been waging a slow dirty war against them ever since, using paramilitary organizations made up of paid locals, practicing hostility and harassment which sometimes erupts in violence and death.
In spite of this, the communities organized along the lines of horizontal and participatory democracy (governing from below, or “commanding by obeying,” as the Zapatistas call it) have survived, grown in population and a second generation is now coming into the ranks. Fifty thousand Zapatistas marched in the streets of the several cities in Chiapas in December 2013, a few weeks before the 20th anniversary of their uprising, in an effort to show the rest of their society that they were still active and strong, not diminished or irrelevant as the Mexican mass media has often tried to portray them. The clinic and school have since been rebuilt with international support, and the Zapatistas are preparing to repeat a previous experiment of inviting large numbers of interested people from Mexico and abroad to live in the communities temporarily and study their way of life. The communities refuse all aid from the Mexican state, and manage all internal governance themselves. Extreme poverty is still a constant fact of life, but so, according to many reports, are a level of dignity and equality almost unknown among other populations in similar economic conditions.
To honor Solís López, who went by the name Galeano in the community (perhaps a nod to the great Uruguayan leftist writer and activist Eduardo Galeano – recently deceased), a year after his death, the Zapatistas have organized a commemoration open to friends of the communities from Mexico and beyond. Another honoree is the Mexican academic and philosopher Luis Villoro Toranzo, who participated in an exchange of letters on a wide-ranging series of topics with Subcommandante Marcos in 2011. He passed away in March at age 91.
From the gently jokey communiqués of their eternal spokesman Marcos (who has since assumed the name Galeano, in honor of the murdered teacher), you’d never know tensions had been running so high in the region. But in addition to organizing the commemorations of these dead friends, the Zapatistas have put out a call to trusted members of the international community to come and share their thoughts on the current situation, globally, and in Mexico particularly. The tone of the invitation was fairly dark, indicating that the Zapatistas may be on the alert for a new wave of large-scale repression against their communities, or simply indicating that in a Mexico rife with corruption and murder perpetrated with absolute impunity, with no sign that the forces in charge are capable of self-reform, and no mass movement as yet capable of forcing it – dark days are guaranteed.
With his usual gift for metaphor, Marcos/Galeano described what he called “Night Watch Syndrome” in which those who are always on the alert for danger (i.e., the Zapatistas themselves) sometimes fail to recognize it when it is coming, simply from fatigue at always being on the alert. Or conversely perhaps they are over-sensitive to the possibility when really things will just carry on as usual. So the idea of bringing in experienced friends from other movements in Mexico and beyond is to get a kind of reality check – by assimilating information from many realities of confrontation or suppression by the system, and from analysts who’ve been “on watch” a long time themselves.
We don’t know yet what the conclusions will be, or even who all the presenters are. Over a thousand people are currently registered to attend. Family members of the disappeared students of Ayotzinapa are on the list of invitees, as well as international activist-intellectuals like Immanuel Wallerstein, Sylvia Federici, and John Holloway. On May 1st and 2nd, commemoration ceremonies will take place in Zapatista territory. From May 3rd to May 9th, invited thinkers, activists and supporters will meet, listen to one another, and try to get a collective understanding of the situation they face and the difficulties ahead. More to come.
Christy Rodgers has lived and traveled extensively in Latin America and worked in solidarity with the FMLN in El Salvador during the country’s twelve-year long civil war. She has been visiting Mexico for over 20 years and is currently there visiting various projects for change in the country and writing a series of reports on them.