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(en) Libertarian Chiapas - interview with an Italian anarchist

From worker-a-infos@tao-ca
Date Wed, 16 Feb 2000 14:27:34 -0500


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Dino Taddei
Chatting with an Italian comrade who has been living and
working in Chiapas for three years.

A good friend and comrade has been to visit us in Milan: he is
Pietro Vermentini, who has been living in Chiapas for over
three years, working in the field of popular education through
the FOCA organization (Formación y Capacitación - Training
and Education), a Mexican organization active in both the
educational and the health spheres, focusing its actions on
the recovery of traditional indigenous medicine. Of course, we
could not miss out on this opportunity to find out more about
what is happening in Mexico.

Not so long ago, not a day passed without news of what was
happening in Chiapas. Is the fact that we hear less talk of it
today due to a conscious choice by the media, or has the
situation really changed?

   I believe there have been events recently, such as the
   Ocalan case or the war in Kosovo, that have - obviously
   - attracted the attention of both the media and our
   comrades here, but this doesn't mean that the situation
   in Chiapas has 'normalized'.

>From what you have been able to observe, in what situations
can you detect the strongest trace of a libertarian attitude?

   There are certainly very strong traces in the
   autonomous municipalities; we need only think that one
   of the most important Zapatista communities is called
   Flores Magon, named after the Mexican anarchist who
   was most representative of the libertarian side of the
   Mexican revolution.

   The municipalities are an experience that links up with
   the indigenous community tradition. While in other
   South American guerrilla wars of a Marxist mould there
   are orthodox links with models used at any latitude and
   with any culture, with forced collectivization of the land,
   in the Zapatista case, each community decides for itself,
   creating a large variety of situations, with communities
   that have decided on completely communal ownership
   of the land and others where a mixed system is in force,
   with common land and individual land; in some cases a
   couple that has married receives a piece of land from
   the community. All through direct forms of democracy,
   without decisions from above.

   There is a substantial difference between the Zapatista
   army, which has its own internal rules, and the bases of
   grass-root support, which self-organize by means of the
   community assembly. Contacts between the
   communities are maintained by the CCRI (Clandestine
   Indigenous Revolutionary Committee), a collective
   organization that can only take important decisions after
   consulting the communities. Through the tool of the
   assembly, communities with Zapatista majorities but
   with strong minorities supporting the government
   manage to coexist, also because the Zapatistas have
   never seen the indigenous Priista [supporter of the
   governing PRI party] as an enemy, but more simply as
   someone who has bowed down in order to eat. A tactic
   widely used by the government to divide indigenous
   communities is to guarantee privileges to those who
   move away from the Zapatistas - a sack or two of corn
   or a tractor are very convincing arguments for those
   who are struggling to survive.

   This campaign of delegitimization had its peak in May
   last year, with the psychological offensive of desertion:
   in all the Mexican media, great prominence was given to
   the supposed mass desertion from the Zapatista ranks,
   with the interviewing of fifteen or so ex-Zapatistas, who
   accused the EZLN of only fighting for power and said
   that because of this many like them were leaving.
   Filmed by the television channels, they ostentatiously
   took off their balaclavas, declaring that they wished to
   enter lawful society again, accepting the government
   proposal: "A machine gun for a sack of grain".

   Of course, two days later the Zapatista army provided
   the names of these people and their communities of
   origin, declaring that they had never been Zapatistas,
   and that they had each received a new tractor for this
   service: you need only go and see them at their homes.
   But this counter- information had no outlet in the media.

   It is also true that one quality of the Zapatista army is
   that of allowing to return home those who, after years of
   guerrilla in the forest, are tired and prefer to help the
   movement in some other way, obviously provided they
   don't become informers. This is no minor difference from
   other guerrilla wars, for which there is no return ticket.

What role do Mexican anarchists have?

   The Mexican anarchist movement is small-scale;
   nevertheless, it is seeking to support the Zapatista
   initiative to the maximum. In the past the "Love and
   Rage" collective opened a libertarian school in Zapatista
   territory, but the experiment ended badly, because of
   the ambiguous attitude of certain individuals. Currently
   small groups or individuals operate in Chiapas, and in
   Mexico City there is a large group of youngsters who
   publish the magazine Letra Negra.

What kind of numbers can the Zapatista movement count on
today?

   It is difficult to quantify the support the movement
   enjoys in the cities and towns, particularly in a reality so
   multiform as Mexico. One indicative figure - though
   numbers may well be considerably larger - is that of the
   voters at the last consultation launched by the
   Zapatistas: over three million people voted. This is not
   an exceptional number, considering that the country
   has ninety million inhabitants, but you must consider
   that almost half the population is under fifteen years old,
   that the news of the consultation was by word of mouth
   alone and that only a million people participated in a
   similar initiative in 1995.

What type of relationships have the Zapatistas been able to
create with Mexican civil society?

   Despite the continuing desire to forge alliances
   involving other sectors of Mexican society, it is hard to
   make any headway. Yet something is moving; the
   university was occupied recently, something that hadn't
   happened since the harsh repression of '68. The protest
   started in Mexico City and spread to the other
   universities in the country. The reason that sparked the
   protest was the shocking increase in university fees, but
   very soon the matter began to take on political
   implications. A delegation from the EZLN went to
   establish contacts with the students.

   The government is in difficulty in this protest, because
   they cannot identify the leaders, to buy or frighten them
   off, as - at the moment - the movement is based on an
   assembly model and those negotiating are only
   spokespersons on behalf of the assembly. This method
   was borrowed from the Zapatistas, who don't take any
   important decision without first consulting the
   communities supporting them. This is the great
   challenge for the Zapatistas: not to win a war militarily
   (one already lost at the start) but to involve the people,
   to decide their own destiny. This challenge meets with
   powerful resistance from Mexican civil society,
   dominated by logics of power, by micro-factions, so
   grass roots organizations struggle to take off.

   The Zapatista Front (an organization created precisely
   to coordinate civil initiatives) continually seeks to
   stimulate the birth of new autonomous focuses and
   indeed that was the purpose of the latest consultation:
   to encourage self-organization. In fact, to administer this
   vote two thousand civil brigades were formed
   throughout the country. These did not dissolve after the
   consultation; quite the opposite, they created a national
   coordinated structure. The Zapatistas refuse to direct
   movements from above; their proposal is very simple:
   "we will not structure you, organize yourselves".

   Unfortunately Mexican civil society is not used to this
   libertarian approach, and many can't manage to free
   themselves from authoritarian mechanisms, those of
   delegation. At some meetings of the Zapatista Front,
   when faced with important decisions, some delegates
   ask to adjourn the meeting to report back to the
   community, while others - with the excuse that it is
   necessary to act quickly - go beyond the delegate
   powers they have received.

   Unfortunately civil society finds it difficult to accept direct
   forms of democracy. This type of resistance is less
   noticeable in Chiapas, in the indigenous communities
   that traditionally adopt these methods. And perhaps the
   peculiarity of the Zapatista movement is their knowledge
   of how to interact with this basic cultural identity. The
   difficulties are our own: a lot of Mexican and foreign
   organizations that use the Zapatista message as a
   reference point in reality have an internal structure that
   is hierarchical and authoritarian. But the Zapatistas do
   not give up; they know that much time is needed for
   change to take place: they direct their message at
   society, not at power, and therefore the time needed for
   the transformation is long, but the important thing is to
   proceed along the right path. The EZLN discourse is
   this: "we don't want power for ourselves, because
   nothing guarantees that we will not end up like our
   oppressors. On the contrary, we want to decentralize it,
   to dilute it, so there is less power and more
   participation".

Currently, what is the effect of the presence of the government
army?

   Considerable; among the guerrilleros operating in the
   Lacandona Forest and the support communities, the
   possibilities for exchange have been weakened: the
   strategy of the army is to deprive the Zapatistas of their
   social hinterland. This initiative has borne fruit for the
   army, because now it is much more difficult for the
   Zapatistas to participate in the life of the community. Yet
   these community experiences are hard to liquidate, as
   they are so deep-rooted; they have brought about
   substantial changes not only to land management plans
   but also at a cultural level.

   We need only consider the role acquired by women in
   community decision- making; for instance, in the
   Zapatista communities it is forbidden to drink alcohol, on
   account of the clearly devastating effects this produces
   on indigenous people, and this decision was made at
   the insistence of the women. Let's not forget that
   women represent one third of the Zapatista forces, the
   highest presence among Latin American guerrillas. As
   Comandante Ana Maria recalls: "In the EZLN
   relationships between men and women are on a level of
   perfect parity". This is no small matter, considering the
   ultra-macho attitudes existing in Mexico.

But don't you think there is a contradiction here, with Marcos'
role within this experience, as a charismatic leader?

   The danger of transforming Marcos into a sort of icon
   does exist, but he is the first to be aware of this, and
   does not waste a single opportunity to ironize about it.
   After all, the Marcos myth is more a construction that is
   external to the Zapatistas, where in reality a very much
   more collective decision-making process exists than
   people would think: the Command of the EZLN is not
   Marcos, but a collective body, it's as simple as that; the
   fact that Subcomandante Marcos is an excellent
   communicator and an effective symbol for the Zapatista
   struggle is a whole other story.



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