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(en) Mexico, Chiapas, John Ross on 10 Years of Covering the Zapatistas

From Worker <a-infos-en@ainfos.ca>
Date Tue, 9 Nov 2004 11:01:45 +0100 (CET)

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John Ross interviewed by November 05, 2004 by Chris Arsenault
It’s been ten years since the Zapatistas of Chiapas, Mexico,
launched their rebellion to create ‘a world where many worlds
fit’. Once the darlings of progressive movements around the
world, the continuing struggle and development of autonomous
institutions in Chiapas is taking place with little media fanfare.
John Ross has written several books on the Zapatista struggle
including ‘Rebellion from the Roots’ and ‘The War Against Oblivion’.
La Journada, Mexico’s foremost independent daily, describes Ross as,
“the new John Reed covering the new Mexican revolution”.

Freelance journalist and Chiapas Solidarity activist Chris
Arsenault sat down with Ross at his home on the first floor of the
Hotel Isabel in Mexico City to talk about current realities in
Zapatistas territory.

Chris: You’ve been covering the Zapatistas and the situation
in Chiapas for more than ten years now. In terms of daily life for
the indigenous in the base communities, what’s changed
since the 1994 insurgency?

John: In 1994, we didn’t know this area very well, but we
began to go into the villages and we could see that there was no
infrastructure. Ten years later, at the very least, we see schools in
communities, and some clinics. And we see that a whole array of
collectives and cooperatives has developed.

The most visually startling image of these communities is the
enormous number of murals painted on all the walls. There are
over 400 murals in Zapatista communities in the 38 autonomous

I think some things are more material or concrete, but what you
can never measure is the way people feel about themselves - 'the
seizing', as archbishop emeritus of San Cristobal, Samual Ruiz,
calls it, ‘the Indians becoming the subject of their own
destiny.’ In a real sense, the Zapatistas have done that.
They’ve taken control of their own destiny. They have created
a system of autonomous municipalities in five regions, which are
in effect building their own way to live, a real autonomy. That is
diametrically distinct from what it was ten years ago.

Chris: We’ve heard a little bit about peace talks. The former
Zedillo government signed, and then refused to implement, the
1996 San Andres Accords, which would have given the Zapatistas
autonomy. In 2001, the Zapatistas launched their March on the
Capital to push for a lasting peace agreement. It was compared to
Martin Luther King’s march on Washington, winning the
Zapatistas tremendous popular support, but it failed to produce a
lasting agreement.

Has there been any movement towards peace since the March,
and if not, do you see any hope for meaningful talks or a
legitimate peace agreement in the near future?

Ross: No, no and no. There’s not going to be any peace talks
- there’s really nothing to talk about. The Zapatistas
negotiated for 22 months for the San Andres Accords, which
would have been a landmark agreement, extending a form of
autonomy to 57 distinct indigenous peoples in Mexico. The
Mexican Congress mutilated that law, after years of struggle, after
referendums that drew millions to vote in favour of this law, so the
Zapatistas said, ‘why do we have to ask the government
permission to establish autonomy?’

In a real sense, the Zapatistas are just doing what they agreed
upon with the government - they’re just establishing their
own autonomy. I think the distinction here is that 5 or 6 years ago,
when the PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party) still ran the show
and the President was a guy named Zedillo, the government
would have come down hard with the military or police. What the
Zapatistas do now, in terms of building an autonomous structure,
is being ignored by the government.

[President Vicente] Fox tried to take command of the situation.
He sent the COCOPA [Constitutional Reforms on Indigenous
Rights and Culture] accords to Congress; Congress shot them
down. Fox realized he was getting deeper and deeper into a
problem he could never resolve - although he had promised to
resolve it in ‘fifteen minutes’ - and he’s just washed
his hands of it.

In a sense, this has been a great boon for the Zapatistas; they
haven’t had the kind of pressure you would expect from the
government. The government would like to forget about them.

Chris: You talk of Fox trying to ‘wash his hands’ of the
situation, but most of the violence directed against Zapatista
support bases has come from paramilitary organizations, not the
official army. Most observers feel Zedillo’s administration
backed these groups, or at least turned a blind eye to their
atrocities. Are paramilitaries still active in Chiapas and what is
their relationship with Fox’s administration?

Ross: I’ve debated the question of the paramilitaries for a long
time. I for one don’t believe there are active paramilitaries in
the way there were in the period immediately following the
rebellion, on through the Acteal massacre [when 45 unarmed
villagers were killed in a church] and the months after.

There are disaffected PRIistas in many communities, essentially
because the Zapatistas are doing much better than the PRI
communities. Now that the PRI is out of power, it can’t
service the communities and its electoral clientele is leaving - and
often joining the PRD [Party of the Democratic Revolution, who
are social democrats] in Ocosingo and other places in the jungle
and the highlands.

The PRI communities are now emigrating out of the area. The
highest migration rates in southern Mexico come from Chiapas -
small coffee farmers affected by the collapse of coffee prices,
small corn farmers - most of them from PRI communities. The
Zapatistas have this infrastructure, so people don’t leave.
They are able to take care of their own, through, for example, the
Mut Vitz coffee collective, which sells organic coffee when the
price of regular coffee has fallen.

There are a lot of disaffected PRIistas living in communities right
next to the Zapatista communities, and I think this makes for

The term ‘paramilitary’ - which really applies to an
organization trained, financed and armed by the military, but is
not the military, yet does what the military asks them to do - is not
really accurate in this situation.

‘Paramilitary’ has become a pejorative term for any
people who create problems with the Zapatistas. I take the term
with a grain of salt.

Chris: How are the Zapatistas creating the schools, clinics, and
economic cooperatives that have made them better off than their
PRIista counterparts?

Ross: I think we have to understand that creating autonomy is a
fiction unless you have some way of financing it. The main source
of funding for the Zapatistas, in terms of what the EZLN
generates to operate, is organic coffee. You have the Mut Vitz
Coffee Cooperative, with 28 communities and 6 autonomous
municipalities, and they’re selling between ten and fifteen
containers a year now. They have over 500 farmers who are
accredited as organic growers. There’s a steady market there
and it brings an enormous amount of money back to Zapatista

There’s a lot of NGO money - well, not a lot of NGO money,
but a lot of NGO activity, and NGO activity generates
infrastructure as well. The problem, at least in the first couple of
years, is that all the money goes back to Mut Vitz or Oventic - to
communities that are near the road, where there is a greater
access. The back-country communities get nothing.

Under the reorganization system of the Caracoles last August, a
deal was worked out where the Juntas of Buen Goberino, or
‘good government committees’, were established, and the
NGOs now have to go to the good government committees and
say: ‘we’d like to do this in this community’. And the
Juntas say, ‘well, yes you can do that, but you also have to
give us ten percent of the seed money for some other project.’
It’s a way of redistributing the wealth.

And then there’s plain old civil society solidarity, which is
certainly not as heavy as it was in the past. For example, in the
first few years of the rebellion, when the Zapatistas were unable to
leave their communities to go out and plant corn so they’d
have food to eat in the winter, it was civil society that provided
tons and tons of corn to the Zapatista communities to keep them

In many respects the Zapatistas have been somewhat forgotten;
they’re not on the front pages. But money still comes in.

Chris: What role has the American security apparatus played in
the conflict, and how has that role evolved through ten years of

Ross: The role of the US military is somewhat reduced in Chiapas.
There are still probably 18 000 troops in the jungles, cañadas
and highlands of Chiapas. The army has announced no reduction
in troops, and they would be the first to announce that reduction.
It is a presence and it could be used any time it was warranted or
unwarranted to oppose the Zapatistas.

The difference is that the military does not patrol with the kind of
intensity it did in the past. It’s pretty much confined to
barracks; and there must be a lot of stir-crazy soldiers who
can’t figure out what they’re doing out there in the jungle.

Last year, the US trained over 600 Mexican officers; the previous
year it was over 700. Mexican officers are everywhere, not only at
the School of the Americas, but at the Center for Special Forces in
Fort Bragg North Carolina, right through to the army propaganda
school in Indianapolis and the war college in Ft. Lebonworth.
Those officers will come back and serve an average of 20 years in
the Mexican military, and they will always have this US contact
with them.

The man who designed the counter-insurgency program that
resulted in the deaths at Acteal, Mario Ramond Castillo, was in
fact trained at the Center for Special Forces. Essentially, the folks
who fought the war against the Zapatistas were US trained

The Mexican military is armed lock, stock and just about barrel by
the U.S. There is an enormous amount of American hardware in
the country: transport planes, munitions, guns, hummers, right
down to the ready-to-eat meals all come from the Pentagon.

Chris: Do you think the EZLN could still defend themselves
militarily if they had to?

Ross: I don’t know what the condition of their arms is. My
sneaking suspicion is that if you don’t have a constant supply
and upgrading of arms, then your military capacity diminishes.
For all I know, they may have that capacity and may be renewing
it, but we haven’t seen any signs.

The last time the Zapatista army and the Mexican military
exchanged gunfire was on June 10th of 1998, in what is now
called San Juan de la Libertad. The army came down and tried to
dismantle the autonomous municipality, and ten people were
killed. That shootout - that massacre, because nine of the ten
people killed were civilians - ended when the Zapatistas started
firing back. That was the first time they had fired back in awhile.

The weapon of the Zapatistas has been the word, not the gun;
‘el fuego y el palabra’ [Fire and Word], and el palabra is
certainly more dominant at this stage of the game. One thing you
always have to remember is that one guerrilla fighter is worth ten
fighters in a standing army, particularly in a terrain where people
know the landscape and where to hide.

We saw this first in 1994 when the army chased the Zapatistas
back into the jungle. And again in 1995 when the army invaded
the jungle and Zapatista communities just abandoned ship and
started moving down the river banks and left town. The army is at
a real distinct disadvantage in the jungle.

I think they would be able to stand off the military for long enough
that it wouldn’t be worth the military’s time to continue.

Chris: Can we talk about what’s happening with genetically
engineered corn in Chiapas? What steps are the Zapatistas taking
to safeguard against it?

Ross: Well, we don’t know much about transgenic corn in
Chiapas, except that people are very, very afraid of it. We do know
what’s going on with transgenic corn in the next states over:
Oaxaca and Puebla. In 2001, through some strange
circumstances, a small village way up in the Sierra del Norte of
Oaxaca discovered that their cornfields were contaminated by
transgenic corn - specifically, by Bt corn. The story is that since
NAFTA kicked in, the amount of corn imported into Mexico has
increased from year to year. It’s currently around 6 million
tons, and will probably be a little more next year.

We have good reason to believe that 4 million of those 6 million
tons are transgenic corn. US farmers can’t sell that corn in
Europe or Japan, so we think they’re dumping it across the
border. When we go to some of the major corn handlers, they say,
‘well, we can’t sort the corn out’. The demand here
has been either all corn imports stop or the corn is sorted out so
we know where it goes.

Years ago, trying to sort out the animal and human corn that was
coming into the country, green dye was put into the box cars for
the animal feed. Within weeks green tortillas were showing up in
the Mexican market. There is no distinction between the two; one
is a pretext for the other.

We find [GM] corn in Jalapa, at the top of the Sierra del Norte,
across the Sierra in Puebla, and in eleven out of 22 corn growing
regions in Puebla and Oaxaca, where corn first appeared 7000-10
000 years ago. This is the cradle of corn; there would be no corn
without these places. And we find now that Bt and Starling corn is
growing in these Milpas. We see that the plasma of the 300 to
3000 distinct types, families and varieties of Mexican corn, are
endanger of being homogenized. To me, that’s really the
greatest danger of GE corn - to eliminate biodiversity, to eliminate
millions of years of biological history.

When you start making corn a commodity - which it is not to the
indigenous people - you’re threatening a whole culture and
way of life. The Mayan people are the people of the corn. When
you talk about changing the corn, you’re talking about
changing a way of life that has existed for millennia. The
Zapatista Army of National Liberation, which represents in many
respects the Mayan people, is going to resist.

Chris: You mentioned the anti-globalization movement. When the
Zapatistas first came on the international scene they were seen as
something new, a movement that rejected the
‘free-market’, and made no attempt to seize state power.
You’ve traveled a lot around Latin America covering a variety
of social movements. Do you think the idea of rejecting state
power is becoming a new norm for social movements, or do you
think Chiapas is an isolated case?

Ross: I think it is actually a social movement, and there are a
number of examples we can look at throughout Latin America.
One such example is the picketero movement and other youth
movements in Argentina - this kind of horizontal,
non-hierarchical left. I think we see some of that within the Sin
Tierras [landless workers] Movement in Brazil. Although the
structures are different, we certainly see an echo of Zapatismo.

Most importantly, in Bolivia, a movement of that kind was
responsible for the defence of water resources against the Bechtel
Corporation, forcing Bechtel to retire. This was one of the great
victories for the anti- globalization movement.

The water war was the first anti-globalization battle that was taken
on as a result of Seattle, and it was won. I think amongst those
people, Oscar Olivera and his committee, there is a real
understanding of the Zapatismo approach of not organizing to
take over state power.

I should mention that all of the political ideas that came out of the
Zapatista rebellion of 1994 – wonderful ideas about communal
decision making, serving the community, and organizing in a way
that did not aim to take state power – all these ideas were
welcomed by the left all over the world as a new model, a model to
change the world.

I think we needed the Zapatistas more than they needed us. If you
look at the historical moment, NAFTA had just been signed,
many folks in the labour movement or the human rights
movement who had been battling NAFTA for a number of years
were in a sense lost. All of a sudden, here in the first hour of the
North America Free Trade Agreement, the Zapatista Army of
National Liberation rises up against it. We rush to their defence.
We saw it as a way of helping us build our movement, and
learning from them as well.

In the end, I think the Zapatistas didn’t stage their rebellion to
save us. They did that to save themselves in the face of a
globalization that, even as far back as 1993-94, threatened the
corn of the ‘people of the corn’. After ten years
they’ve done pretty well saving themselves, and that is the
real purpose of the Zapatista rebellion.

For more information about the Zapatistas and autonomous
development check out

Chris Arsenault is coordinator of Students Taking Action in
Chiapas. He is currently on a speaking tour talking about Chiapas
ten years after the uprising, and promoting participatory Zapatista
economic structures.
Copied from infoshop.org

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