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(en) Mexico, Zapatista's - 11 years on, a retreat and a consolidation by Andrew - WSM

Date Tue, 21 Jun 2005 16:18:53 +0300

What has been happening in Chiapas in recent years?
The Zapatistas were one of the major influences on the development
of the libertarian wing of globalization movement. What happens to
them is significant not just for Mexico but also for the direction that
movement takes. In recent years the direction of the Zapatistas has shifted
from trying to spark off similar movements elsewhere to consolidating what
they have in Chiapas. If not a physical defeat for the Zapatistas this
certainly represents a significant scaling down of their hopes.
I've already written at length about the positive aspects of the way the
Zapatistas organize and I don't intend to repeat the detail of that
argument here. To summarise - the non-military side of the
organization is organized in a libertarian fashion through elected
mandated and recallable delegates who are rotated at regular intervals.
Regionally these delegates form 32 Autonomous Councils. The
military side (EZLN) is hierichcal but the EZLN command is however
answerable to the system of delegate councils. It doesn't make
decisions on behalf of the people like most clandestine armies.

In any history of the left defeats and retreats and the often unspoken
side of the victories and advances. The heroic early days of the
Russian or Spanish revolutions are far more attractive then the later
months and years which were not only complex but also ended in
betrayal of many of the ideals of those revolutions. Everyone on the
left knows of the student and worker uprising of 1968, few consider
why it vanished or how it ended within months with De Gaulles
re-election. On a recent more minor level the left has not yet come to
terms with the retreat of the anti-war movement after its peak in terms
of numbers on February 15th 2003.

The simple fact is that most of the time we will fail in what we try to
achieve because the forces that we are fighting are so strong. While
the numbers we can typically mobilize will sometimes have the effect
of being enough of a nusiance to force a change in direction by ruling
class we can only defeat them in a revolution that unites the vast bulk
of society, the working class, against them. And that is unlikely to
happen tomorrow. Until then we need to be able to deal with defeats
and partial victories, most importantly we need to be able to argue
when there is a clear need to retreat because to continue trying to
advance would mean needless losses for no benefit.

The Zapatistas have not yet been defeated but Mexican capital has
managed to stabilize and indeed moderinise itself in the period since
1994. The possibilities of sparking a more general insurrection appear
to have receeded. A de facto 70 year dictatorship was replaced with a
'democracy' that was able to use the carrot of eliminating the worst of
the repression and corruption to modernize and stabilize capital.

This has left the Zapatistas in a very exposed position. At the time of
the 1994 uprising they expected that either they would spark a general
rising in what was then a very unstable Mexico or that the army would
rapidly crush them. What was not expected was that there would be a
huge mobilization of civil society demanding an end to military action
against them. In the decade that followed they attempted to turn this
mobilization in defence of their right to exist into a mobilization to
transform Mexico (and indeed the world) with them.

At the same time the Zapatistas were constructing in Chiapas a self
management project for their communities of some 32 regional
councils each of which brought together delegates from a few dozen
villages. The government recognized that attempts to militarily crush
the Zapatistas destabilized Mexico in general so they opted to ignoring
the Zapatistas while pumping limited funds into anti-Zapatista
communities. This had the desired effect of confusing the situation for
outsiders as the military and police were less and less involved and
instead conflicts between such communities came to the fore.

What is happening is interesting in another way than what I have
already talked about. It also should cause us to re-think some of what
we understand by dual power. Dual power is where side by side you
have a state and revolutionary structures designed to replace the state.

Traditionally it us understood that you cannot have a long running
situation of dual power. That fairly fast either the state must crush
these new structures or be replaced by them. The key moments of
revolutions are often those moments when the state moves against
such structures be it Petrograd in October 1917, Kronstadt in March
1921 or Barcelona in May 1937. There are even examples from
Ireland as in the 7 day period when the workers unions ran the city of
Limerick in 1919 during the 'Limerick soviet'. The success or failures
of such a move determine the outcome of the months of constructive
self management that preceeded them.

The crushing may not need to be physical. A massive two year wave
of workers self management and factory occupations was resolved in
favour of the state in Portugal in 1974. In Argentina today the
factories are being taken back into the capitalist economy as much by
compromise and the offering of reforms as by open conflict.

Yet the Zapatistas structures have survived for over 11 years and there
current strategy seems to be based around an indefinite consolidation
of these structures - perhaps until a point is reached where changes in
the general situation in put revolution back on the agenda. This
process seems to have started in the wake of the march on Mexico
city in March 2001. After the usual long period of silence which
indicates a lot of internal discussion the Zapatistas announced that the
Auguscalantes (where big external meetings were once held) were
becoming Caracols or the centres of Zapatista internal organization.
These were to be the centres of the 'juntas of good government'
(although in English junta is assumed to mean dictatorship in fact it
just means council). The Caracols would also serve as contact points
between the Zapatistas and the outside world.

What exactly this meant was not all that clear until on the 15th of
August 2004 when Marcos released a set of 8 communiques most of
which fleshed out in a fair amount of detail just what the Zapatistas
were up to. In many ways these are among the most important
documents of the rebellion and it is worth taking the time to read
them in detail.

From these documents we learn that the 'good government juntas'
follow the libertarian structures established by the other layers of
Zapatista self-management. That is they are composed of mandated
delegates answerable to those that delegate them. The individual
delegates who make up each junta are rotated in an incredibly rapid
fashion. According to Marcos these rotations vary from every "eight to
15 days (according to the region)". The delegates are themselves
drawn from the members of the Autonomous Councils. Because
these are rotated in turn (over a longer period which seems to be a
year) this means that by the time every one an AC has been on the
junta a new AC is created.

As might be imagined this is driving outsiders who need to have
regular contact with the Zapatistas (eg NGO's) nuts because it means
every time you go to a 'good government junta' you are dealing with a
different set of people from your last visit. This is by design as Marcos

"If this is analyzed in depth, it will be seen that it is a process where
entire villages are learning to govern.

The advantages? Fine, one of them is that it's more difficult for an
authority to go too far and, by arguing how "complicated" the task of
governing is, to not keep the communities informed about the use of
resources or decision making. The more people who know what it's
all about, the more difficult it will be to deceive and to lie. And the
governed will exercise more vigilance over those who govern.

It also makes corruption more difficult. If you manage to corrupt
one member of the JBG, you will have to corrupt all the autonomous
authorities, or all the rotations, because doing a "deal" with just one of
them won't guarantee anything (corruption also requires
"continuity"). Just when you have corrupted all the councils, you'll
have to start over again, because by then there will have been a
change in the authorities, and the one you "arranged" won't work any
longer. And so you'll have to corrupt virtually all the adult residents of
the zapatista communities. Although, obviously, it's likely that once
you've achieved that, the children will have already grown up and
then, once again"

One organisational issue libertarians have always struggled with arises
out of the recognition that even people with no formal power can gain
power if they occupy a post and so become the only person with the
skills and contacts required for that post. The solution advocated for
this problem has always been to limit the amount of time anyone can
serve in such a post. The Zapatistas have taken this concept to a
whole new level which is intended to also provide a direct experience
in such administration and the decision making that goes with it to a
large percentage of the population.

However the formation of the Juntas is also a recognition of the need
to consolidate the gains of the last few years. Or to put that another
way the new strategy is a retreat from a position of helping to
transform Mexico and the world to one of building indigenous
autonomy locally.

The Zapatistas calculate they will be allowed the space for this
construction because they have heard that the government expects
them to fail and so is content to wait for failure. As Marcos claims
"Someone else recommended letting them do it, waiting for the failure
and preparing the "I told you so" along with the military advance by
the federal Army on zapatista positions. ...What I'm recounting
actually took place at the meetings of Vicente Fox' cabinet"

The Zapatista experience of the previous decade however also shows
that small local conflicts can escalate into excuses for state
involvement. So in terms of the decisions made by these councils they
have sought to eliminate as far as possible areas where conflict with
the state or excuses for stated intervention might arrive.
Law and order

Up to 2004 the Zapatistas had refused any contact with the Mexican
courts or police. However serious crimes like rape and murder could
create the circumstances where the police would be ordered to
intervene and this in turn could escalate as their intervention was
resisted. So now with some serious anti-social crimes the Zapatistas
intend to investigate them and then hand the evidence and possibly
the suspect over to the state to be dealt with.
Inter community conflict

In the 1990's the assumption had been that any conflict between
Zapatista and non-Zapatista communities had the hand of the state
behind it. This is because for a number of years, culminating in the
Acteal massacre when 45 indigenous were murdered by
paramilitaries, the state was indeed behind many such conflicts. It was
using the classic 'low intensity conflict' strategy as taught to some
3,000 Mexico soldiers in Fort Brag, Texas.

From 2003 the Zapatistas were no longer assuming the hidden hand
of the state in all local conflicts. Instead each conflict is being
investigated and a process of arbitration followed to resolve the
conflict. In 2004 it was claimed this was avoiding a repeat of many of
the escalations of the past.

The Zapatistas do not believe the changes they want will come
through the electoral system. In the past this has resulted in conflict
as the government tried to open polling stations in Zapatista areas and
the Zapatistas sometimes responded by burning the ballot boxes. Now
the individual JBG's have written to the commission saying they will
facilitate polling stations but they want the commission to respect the
fact that Zapatistas won't be voting.

As an aside to this it is worth noting that the most serious act of
violence of 2003/4 was when several Zapatistas were shot and
wounded by an ambush which appears to have been carried out by
PRD members. The PRD is the Mexican section of the 2nd
international, (ie the Labour Party) and its role in this ambush seems
to be confirmed by the statement the local PRD put out saying that
maybe the Zapatista will learn a lesson about boycotting elections
from this!
Drug trafficking

The Zapatista communities have always not only banned illegal drugs
but also alcohol because they saw it as tightly linked to domestic
violence. Drugs are the favorite public excuse in the Americas for the
US military to get involved in conflicts so the Zapatistas have taken
the step of formalizing the drug ban. The JBGs have been given the
responsibility of checking for people growing drugs and destroying any
that are found.
Stolen cars

As well as requiring vehicles in their areas to register with the JBG's
they have said " In order to prevent the zapatista regions from
becoming sanctuaries for stolen and illegally imported automobiles,
the registrations granted by the JBG will only be given to those who
have their regularized, official paper".

Several of the Zapatista communities are in or on the borders of a very
important nature reserve. Early in 2004 it appears they pulled all or
most of the communities out of the reserve itself. Now they are also
saying trees can "only be cut for domestic needs, not for selling" and
that if you cut one down you must plant and care for two saplings.
People smuggling

Chiapas is the major route for people smuggling from Central
America through Mexico to the USA. There is a considerable force of
'Migration police' in Chiapas intended to stop the unauthorised
movement of people across the border. Indeed for years the main
problem for international observers in Chiapas was dodging this
migration police who doubled up as an anti-observer force. If they
stopped you more than a couple of times away from the tourist areas
you were likely to be deported - and hundreds of international
observers were in the 1990's.

Zapatista law now forbids Zapatistas making any money from the
'people trafficing' trade yet the communities are also required to feed
migrants (and they are not allowed to charge for this food). It also
targets the people smugglers so that "All those trafficking in persons
(or polleros) who are discovered and detained in zapatista territory
shall be obligated to return any monies to the affected persons and,
after being warned, and if they repeat their crime, they shall be turned
over to the proper authorities in order to be punished according to the
laws of Mexico."

All of these compromises involve a recognition of the right of the
Mexican state to impose its rule in the Zapatista areas. Indeed we are
told that " the Good Government Juntas maintain respectful contact
with different social organizations, with many of the official municipal
governments with which the autonomies share land, and, in some
cases, with the state government. Recommendations are exchanged,
and they seek to resolve problems through dialogue."

The Zapatistas remain just about the only large scale example in the
modern world of libertarian organisational principles in operation.
Because of this - despite these compromises - there is much that can
continue to be learned from them.
This article was for publication in Red and Black Revolution, Autumn
2005. However while being worked on in June news came through of
a Zapatista communique that appears to be a preparation for a return
to war. At this stage (a few hours later) it is not clear what is about to
happen but I am releasing the article as I think it provides a useful
background of events in the last couple of years and the sort of
reasons why the Zapatistas might have decided to return to armed
struggle. On the other hand it is also possible that the Zapatista
communique is simply a reaction to either military provocation or
paramilitary threats and that this situation will be quickly resolved.
(Tue 21 June)
First published on Anarkismo.net

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