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Part I. On the Continued Centrality of the Zapatista Movement

tacho | 02.01.2008 00:55 | Globalisation | Social Struggles | Zapatista | Liverpool

Feliz Año Cabrones: On the Continued Centrality
of the Zapatista Movement after 14 Years
(written by El Kilombo;

January 1, 2008

“It’s not just our duty and our hope in this country, but in the continent and the rest of the world. If in some way Zapatismo has achieved a synchrony of global sympathy, it’s not because we have made certain use of the word, or because of the unquestionable heroism of the indigenous communities, but because from this moment it was proposing an alternative, the seed of something else. And this is what the Other Campaign means to do: name the enemy, capital, and the ally of this enemy, the political class[….] we intend the defeat of this government and the destruction of capital. And then, like someone said once, we will have only just won the right to start over…but we will have to start where one always has to start, from below.”
—Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos
Zapatista Army for National Liberation

Introduction: Happy New Year

On January 1, 1994, Mexico was set to enter the “first world” with the implementation of NAFTA (North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement). Then president Carlos Salinas de Gortari had made multiple free trade deals, NAFTA being the most comprehensive and important. In order to enter NAFTA, Article 27 of the Mexican Constitution protecting ejidal or communally-held lands had been modified to allow for their possession as private property and thus their availability for sale or appropriation through debt collateral and investment strategies. As businessmen and politicians celebrated their new treaty, guaranteed to reap large profits for large agro-industrial and food distribution companies, the indigenous Zapatista Army for National Liberation (EZLN) was coming out of the jungle and down from the mountains, armed with weapons that would successfully enable them to take seven major municipalities in the state of Chiapas and words that would help catalyze not only a new politics in Mexico but a new global movement. When Mexico’s political and business elite woke from their hangovers on January 1, the world, with its eyes on the masked rebels in Mexico, was another.

Throughout their struggle, the Zapatistas have maintained a constant analysis of the trajectory of global capitalism and the strategies of resistance possible in that context. In 2005, after over a decade of resistance and construction, the Zapatistas released the Sixth Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle, announcing a new turn in the struggle. The capitalist system is destroying our communities, our people, and our environment, they stated, what we want we cannot win alone, nor is what we want only for us. The Sixth Declaration announced their desire and intent to organize with other sectors of national and international society, creating a united, explicitly anti-capitalist front of all those “below and to the left;” there would be no more dialogue with those “above,” with any political party or state official. Nationally this organizational process would be called the Other Campaign, launched with the journey of an EZLN commission through every state of the Mexican Republic to meet other people in struggle; internationally it would take the shape of what the Zapatistas call an “Intergalactic” network, beginning with a series of encounters between “Zapatista Peoples and Peoples of the World.” Thus, 12 years after declaring war on the Mexican government and federal army, the Zapatista commanders left the protection of guerrilla clandestine existence and walked out of the mountains, unarmed, to meet the rest of Mexican and international society.

Many, in the trajectory of the Other Campaign, have condemned the EZLN’s harsh criticism of the PRD (the “leftist” Democratic Revolutionary Party) and its current star, Andrés Manuel Lopez Obrador. It could have been a strategic move, they have fretted, an alliance to gain more space for struggle, an institutional foothold. There are clear and obvious reasons for the EZLN’s criticism, including a rejection of the electoral system of representation in general, but also the insistence that they could not support a party that had treated them as the PRD had and maintain even a minimum of dignity, referring to PRD-sponsored deadly attacks on Zapatista bases of support in 2004, the betrayal of the San Andres Accords (a product of the EZLN-government peace dialogues) by PRD representatives in the national congress in 2001, and the current PRD candidacies of ex-state and federal officials, former members of the PRI and the intellectual authors of the most severe ambushes and attacks against the EZLN and their bases of support from 1994 through 1997.

At this moment, the Zapatista communities are under what may be the worst attack against them in the last decade. There have been multiple “official” evictions, sponsored by state (PRD) and federal (PAN, the right-wing National Action Party) agencies and security forces, including the violent removal of a community in the Montes Azules region of Chiapas (a government designated “Biosphere Reserve”) in August of 2007, where inhabitants were forced into helicopters by uniformed police and airlifted out of their community, the men thrown in jail and the women, some pregnant and with small children, stuck in an abandoned warehouse without food or water. The autonomous authorities of San Andres Larrainzar, a community in the Chiapas Highlands, received direct death threats in late September and October from PRI-(the traditional state Institutional Revolutionary Party) sponsored organizations in the region. Paramilitaries roaming openly with high-caliber weapons have threatened the violent invasion of multiple communities, in particular Bolon Ajaw, a Zapatista community in the Mountain Region, where several Zapatista bases of support have been severely beaten or wounded by bullets and machetes and where, at the time of writing (December 2007), paramilitary forces seem to be closing in. The community 24 de Diciembre, at the mouth of the Jungle, built on lands recovered in the 1994 uprising and currently surrounded by police and paramilitary forces, has lived with the implicit threat of violence and the explicit threat of eviction since mid-2007. The Zapatista Ecological Reserve of Huitepec, near San Cristobal de las Casas, which has suffered increasing military harassment is now imminently and publicly threatened by the campaign promise of the victorious PRI municipal president to evict the reserve on January 2, 2008. The escalation of threats, hostilities, and direct attacks is similar to what the region saw almost exactly 10 years ago, in the months leading up to the Acteal massacre December 22nd, 1997, in which 45 people, principally women and children, members of the indigenous pacifist organization Las Abejas and Zapatista sympathizers, were massacred while praying in their community church. The aggressors this time are a combination of PAN-directed federal police and military forces, PRD-directed state government agencies, state police, and indigenous organizations, and paramilitaries linked to both the PRI and PRD.

In the 1990’s, before the Zapatista uprising, it was said that there was no possibility for struggle, that left-led revolution was dead and the path of global capitalism was the only option. Today it has been said that the Zapatista struggle has faded away, its causes resolved or its militants resigned, or that any struggle that does not aim for or collaborate with state power is at best ineffective and worse, debilitating to the institutional left. But, as we will detail below, the political work and daily organization of the Zapatista communities, which, even under harsh attack have formed not only functioning autonomous systems across their territory but also a national organizational plan and a global network, is a project that remains central for all of us who are trying to build another world. And it is a project we must defend against the war now being waged against it, because in the end it is a war against all of us.

I. North America from Below

1.a. Destruction of the Commons
1.a.(1). Rural Communal Lands

Unlike Canada and the United States, where rural communities and small farms have suffered a long and nearly total process of depopulation and reorganization into agro-industrial farming, Mexico through the late 80’s and 90’s was characterized by a large rural and traditionally self-sustaining population, especially in indigenous areas. Even today, a quarter of the Mexican population is considered rural with an average land parcel of 1.2 hectares (2.97 acres), as opposed to 30.6 (75.61 acres) in the United States and 72.9 (180.13 acres) in Canada. Since NAFTA went into effect in 1994, the Mexican countryside has lost a quarter of its population, with the rural sector losing 30% of its buying power over the last 20 years. These factors have played a major role in leading Mexico to become, over the past decade, the biggest exporter of labor in the world, with, by official estimates, 15% of Mexico’s laboring population working in the United States, and a total of over 28 and a half million people of Mexican origin living in the US. Immigration to the US as well as internal migration within Mexico from the countryside to the cities or between states has reached such levels that the exodus has literally emptied entire villages, towns, in some cases entire states, ie., there are now more Zacatecans living in the US then in the state of Zacatecas.

Mexico has now moved into first place worldwide as receiver of remittances, which required that internationally it pass India in the quantity of remittances received from citizens outside of the country and that internally, remittances pass petroleum and tourism as a source of national income. Remittances during the six years of the Fox administration (2000-2006) totaled USD$82 billion. In 2006 alone they totaled USD$21 billion, and in the first six months of this year (2007) remittances increased by 22% to reach USD$13.4 billion, on track for a record 27 billion total for the year. With the exodus of the Mexican countryside since NAFTA contributing heavily to the 500% increase in immigration to the US between 1980 and 2002, Mexico now must import grains from the US, paying some 100 billion pesos (roughly USD$10 billion) per year.

1.a.(2). Metropolitan Cooperation

Partly as a result of the depopulation of the countryside as well as a general lack of generation of employment, 60% of the Mexican working population are classified as part of the “informal economy,” that sector of unofficial or underground business which may include street vendors, unregistered home businesses, the reproduction and sale of pirated items, or services rendered, all without tax registration or any kind of employment security or benefits. The informal economy generates approximately uSD$285 billion dollars a year, representing, by conservative estimates, 30-40% of the GDP and making it the 3rd largest informal economy (as percentage of GDP) in the world.

But just as NAFTA erased the livelihoods of millions of campesinos in the countryside, the Mexican government, in partnership with private investment (namely in this case Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim), has now undertaken a campaign to “clean up” Mexico City, meaning ridding its historic district of the enormous number and thriving culture of the street vendors that have long populated it. In just the past month (October 2007), in Mexico City’s historic center, 30,000 street vendors were evicted or “relocated” to non-street and non-central areas. In Tepito, a poor but proud barrio in Mexico City and the largest market of pirated goods in all of Latin America, the eviction raids began in February of 2007. With the displacement of many hundreds of people from their homes and market posts, Tepito residents, made up precisely of those who have had to seek their livelihood in the informal sector for lack or elimination of other employment opportunities, were not only forced out of their homes and jobs but out of the social network and community economy they had created.

1.b. The Flailing State
1.b.(1). Crisis Spots

The number of hotspots in the country, a result of both crisis and of revolt, has been multiplying rapidly, with government-sponsored repression growing in brutality and impunity.

San Salvador Atenco, Mexico State, a small town known for its successful resistance to expropriation of its farmlands for the building of a new international airport in 2001, returned to the international spotlight in May of 2006 when Atenco residents supported neighboring flower vendors threatened with eviction from their marketplace with a highway blockade, which turned into a standoff and battle between police and protesters. The following dawn, on May 4, 2006, 5,000 police invaded Atenco, dragging people out of their houses, severely beating community members and supporters, killing two minors, raping dozens of women, and taking over 200 prisoners. Many of the people arrested, beaten, and raped in Atenco remain political prisoners today.

The severe police brutality against those detained in Atenco was followed by the repression against and disappearances of members of the APPO (Oaxacan Peoples’ Popular Assembly) and the state-wide cross-sector resistance movement in Oaxaca demanding the removal of the governor, the repression of protesters against the Canadian San Javier mine in San Luis Potosi, the massive evictions of street vendors in the barrio of Tepito, the repression and detainment of activists and adherents of the Other Campaign in La Huasteca, Veracruz; in Tlaxcala, Tlaxcala; La Zorra, Baja California; Yerbabuena, Colima; Rincón de Chautla, Guerrero; Flor del Sur, Yucatan; Mazatlán, Sinaloa; and many more.

In light of these events it has to be asked, why so many police for a handful of flower-growers? Why this level of repression, of brutality, in many cases of torture, in response to a community defending its marketplace with a road blockade? Or to teacher demands or student protests or indigenous resistance? State violence is not random. Rebellions are not repressed merely for being rebellions, but for threatening the capitalist relation—the system of private property, the imposure of a single measure of value, the obligation to sell one’s labor. In Atenco, Oaxaca, and the Other Campaign, among others, the state has identified people and movements that have created a way to construct power from below, to create autonomous mechanisms of cooperation and daily self-determination that collectively evade individual submission to capitalist exploitation and domination, and that is what the state seeks to destroy. But the significance of such an extensive though abbreviated list is not that there is repression all over the country, but rather that there are almost innumerable movements and rebellions.

1.b.(2). The Crisis State

The repression does, however, create a general sense of instability and crisis, which is accompanied by the natural and manmade catastrophes ignored, mishandled, or manipulated by the state: the burying of 65 miners in the collapsed mine in Pasta de Conchos in 2006, the still unremedied effects of Hurricane Stan in Chiapas in 2004, the drainage disasters in Mexico City and other metropolitan areas as a result of heavy seasonal rains in 2006 and 2007, the floods in Tabasco and Chiapas last month, and the increasing frequency and force of tropical storms battering the coasts, to name just a few. In addition, though closely related to a state at the service of capital and a political class without relation to the “represented,” is the increasing lawlessness (or rather power struggles) in the north where narcotrafficking and drug cartels have a much firmer grasp on power than the local governments, when they do not work directly together, and where the heads of non-compliant or non-complicit police officers and security officials appear regularly in public places as signs and warnings of who rules. As manifestations of economic, environmental, political, and social crisis and corruption surface, and with the mass media striving to maintain the simulation of governance by their respective political patrons, the state grabs terms like “state of emergency,” “national security interests,” and “rule of law” as facades for suppressing democracy and wielding violence. All of this occurs in the midst of the discursive wars and literal fistfights between the principal political parties for control over the moral and symbolic territory of the national consciousness and the media spotlight. The crumbling of the official powers above, between parties, and the battling between the unofficial powers-that-be—drug cartels and their political mafias—demonstrate that repression toward those below is not the result of a powerful state exercising absolute rule, but is rather the flailing of a failing state, itself subject to powers above its own sovereignty and forces below that it can no longer subjugate or manipulate, desperate to maintain some semblance or see a reflection of its own power. This is the show of extreme force on the physical bodies of a population that comes only when the powers-that-be have lost all control over their imagination.

1.c. Where to? North...

Displaced from the countryside, kicked out of the cities, with manifestations of social struggle carrying the threat of harsh repression, where do people go? Some 1600 cross into the United States every day.

The United States, while clearly not the land of opportunity and equality it is advertised to be, is now not even a refuge for a decent wage and an increase in quality of life. The average real wage in the US today has remained static despite the fact that the economy and productivity have been growing steadily; adjusted for inflation, the average wage in the US has grown by a grand total of one-half percent since 1973. According to data for 2006, 36.5 million US citizens live in poverty, five million more than in 2000. Health care premiums in the country have risen 78% just since 2001, while 47 million have no health insurance at all, a rise of 2.2 million in just the last year, which, without socialized medicine, means almost no access to health care. In this already bleak scenario, migrants make less than half the wage of US citizens for the same work, are more vulnerable to injury and illness, and have even less access to labor-related and medical protection.

In addition is the current wave of foreclosures and evictions devastating communities across the country due to the sub-prime lending crisis. 1.7 million families lost their homes in the first eight months of 2007 and another 2 million are expected to foreclose in the next two years, the highest rates since the Depression of the 1930’s. The phenomenon of the foreclosures is not random market fluctuation, it should be noted, but the result of predatory lending policies that have resulted, some analysts say, in the largest transfer of property from families and communities of color into the hands of banks and investment firms in the history of the country. In an eerie echo of abandoned towns in Mexico due to migration, whole sections of US cities with large poor populations are emptied out; for example, one in 10 homes in Cleveland is now vacant. In addition, decades of public neglect in inner cities has become the pretext for “urban renewal” projects across the country. Through combined state and private “development funds” and the concurrent rising property taxes, urban spaces have undergone a process of intense gentrification, pushing communities of color, working class sectors, and the poor further into non-serviced, isolated, and undesirable areas. At the same time, land speculation, investment projects, and the cultivation of an elite, ultra-rich class has turned mountainous, costal, and rural areas into vacation homes and tourist stops, unaffordable for their original inhabitants pushed out by high rents and property taxes, who now drive into their former hometowns in order to perform jobs in the tourist or service industry.

This is the United States in the 21st century, which has, at the mercy of neoliberal policies and parallel to what we have come to consider characteristic of “developing” nations, experienced that once curious and now commonplace combination of statistical economic expansion on a national scale and falling wages and job growth for the great majority of the population. The rewards of US economic expansion and globalization in fact do not benefit even the top 10% of the US population, but rather the top 1%. And while that 1% has enjoyed a salary growth of 87% in the last 30 years, the top .1% has enjoyed 181% increase and the top .01%, a 497% increase, this alongside the average wage growth of .05%.

Meanwhile, while it appears that there is a debate over immigration policy, in reality there is merely a productive tension between the promotion of an anti-immigrant sentiment through a false patriotism and national protectionism and the constant corporate necessity for labor. Thus a social, moral, and legal conflict is created—with corporate media urging people to hate the migrants while corporate business continues to hire them—as a facade for what is really desired: an immigrant population providing cheap labor with no labor rights. The government-sponsored raids, deportations, and discriminatory housing policies, the wall being built on the border, the armed citizen squads “hunting” immigrants in borderlands; these are matched in force not by any alternative argument or ethic but rather by the insistence and demand by the corporate sector to maintain the flow of cheap labor.
North America is now a largely integrated economy. If this was not achieved officially by NAFTA, or unofficially in the recent US-Mexico agreement Plan Mexico/Merida initiative, then the labor pool of migrants supporting at least two economies—the United States and Mexico—achieve it in practice.

As dictated by NAFTA, January 1, 2008 marks the total market liberalization of Mexico’s two most important crops, corn and beans, guaranteeing a fresh flood of migration north. Increasing tensions in the US about migration and the building of the border wall have made crossing more difficult, and the recent burst of the US housing bubble and consequent stock drops have threatened the level of remittances sent south, with these numbers showing reductions almost immediately after the crisis. These factors, in addition to the growing intensity and frequency of storms, floods, droughts, and fires as result of development-related environmental damage and global warming conditions, have created essentially a pressure cooker in Mexico. With the escape valve to the north—migration and the relief sent in the form of remittances—threatened, and with growing resource scarcity as a result of privatizations and over-exploitation, the likelihood of continued social conflict is nearly guaranteed.

1.d. A Globally Consistent Pattern (One System, Four Axes)

The neoliberal restructuring and “free” trade treaties leading to widespread privatizations and unemployment in the countryside and the city that precipitated the crises and uprisings in Mexico is a global phenomenon. The combination of government “development” programs (administered by both “left” and right-wing administrations) and private investment initiatives have generated in all parts of the globe massive land privatizations, the patenting of material sources and traditional knowledge of biodiversity, the extraction and exploitation of water and other resources, and the converting of subsistence croplands to agro-industrial use, natural reserves to tourist resorts, and farmers to wage laborers.

The Zapatistas have done their own study of this phenomenon in Mexico, as part of the journey of the Other Campaign throughout the Mexican Republic, and have begun the same process globally, through the international encounters and organizing initiatives with people from all over the world. The stories from a great variety of social, physical, and economic geographies are consistent on four basic axes, which were also identified in the Sixth Declaration: the dispossession of land and resources from the community level or from a socialized use to individual or private, usually investment-oriented ownership; the forced or coerced eviction of people from lands, neighborhoods, or spaces where resources were held or used in common; the violent repression of resistance to these initiatives and attacks; and the harsh discrimination against sources and aspects of difference created in and upheld by the diversity of a community and the choices permitted by collective self-sustainability. The differences repressed and resources held in common in many cases are the natural resources of the earth—soil for cultivation, plant biodiversity, traditional seed preservation, forests, mountains, oceans, beaches, fish, wildlife, etc., but they also include common spaces—street corners, meeting spaces, local markets, classrooms; collective practices—bartering, internet file-sharing, street carnivals; and public institutions—free education, public health care, social security funds, etc. This has resulted in global waves of population displacement as well as the elimination of any community controlled space or practice, be that by deliberate policy and violent removal, or by the devastating effects of the pollution, contamination, flooding, and resource depletion resulting from such “development” initiatives.

1.e. Fighting the Fourth World War

The capitalist onslaught, so far-reaching in its speculative activities and so short-sighted in its destructive tendencies, has been theorized extensively by the EZLN over the past decade. Neoliberal globalization required a new internationalist design, that of the empire of money, in which the nation-state lost most aspects of what defined national sovereignty. But making the world world-wide in a time and space adequate to a global market was still a project that needed to be directed, and the state, in some cases at least, turned out to be an adequate instrument for such management, not as the politically and economically independent entity it once supposedly was, but as the “hologram” of a nation used to simulate national governance while carrying out the wishes and demands of a new, global “society of power,” a conglomeration of international financial organizations, mass media companies, large corporations, educational centers, and an elite class of billionaires. In this context, the traditional political class is made irrelevant by the much more useful market analyst, and the politicians who managed to keep their jobs take on the role of managers for bosses whose loyalty is not to a nation but to a currency, any currency currently valuable in the global markets. This is what the EZLN has called the Fourth World War, not a war between national entities for territorial control, but a war of a capitalist class to conquer the entire world—labor, land, and resources—for profit-making purposes. The flags waving in Kabul and Baghdad, the EZLN warned us in 2003, are not stars and stripes but those of transnational corporations.

Yet it is precisely those who have suffered most from this complicit conjuncture of state utility for capitalist interests who now say, at so many points in and moments of the encounters of the Other Campaign and the international organization of the Sixth Declaration, that with the cooperation of social movements and struggles from below, that global assault can not only be stopped but turned into something new.

Continued in Part II.



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