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Part III: The Politics of Bridge-Making

tacho | 02.01.2008 01:01 | Globalisation | Social Struggles | Zapatista

III. Encounter: The Politics of Bridge-Making
Feliz Año Cabrones: On the Continued Centrality of the Zapatista Movement after 14 Years
(written by El Kilombo;

January 1, 2008

III. Encounter: The Politics of Bridge-Making

Behind our black face, behind our armed voice, behind our unnameable name, behind the us that you see, behind us we are you. We are the same men and women, simple and ordinary, that repeat across all of the races, that paint themselves of all colors, that speak in all languages and that live in all places. [...]Behind us, we are you.
—Major Ana Maria, EZLN words of welcome at the First Intercontinental Encounter For Humanity and Against Neoliberalism. July 1996

3.a. Zapatista Peoples and Peoples of the World: Zapatismo in Tzotzil and Thai

July of 2007, 13 and a half years after the uprising of the EZLN, the Zapatista caracol of Morelia is filled with several thousand people and the sound of multiple translations, Thai to English to Spanish to Tzotzil. This is the second Encounter Between Zapatista Peoples and Peoples of the World. It occurs 12 and a half years after the formation of the Autonomous Zapatista Municipalities, 11 years after the first Intergalactic Encounter, 4 years since the emergence of the Good Government Councils (autonomous Zapatista governance), 2 years after the release of the Sixth Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle, and a year and a half into the Other Campaign. What has happened throughout those years is marked by the 46 countries represented in this Encounter, the multitude and diversity of voices circulating here, and the communications from those who could not come. Present are Mayan indigenous and urban punks, teachers, students, farmers, artists, housewives, unionists, sexworkers; Edith, political prisoner taken in San Salvador Atenco, writes from the Penitentiary of Al Molino de los Flores in Mexico State, the Yaqui Indian tribe writes from Sonora, representatives from the Landless Movement in Brazil bring messages from their communities, campesino leaders from Thailand, Indonesia, India, and Bolivia speak on behalf of bases that number into the millions in their countries. The visible contrasts that tend to characterize Zapatista Encounters—giant, multiply pierced, pink-mohawked Europeans alongside four-foot indigenous women in skimasks, the leather pants and woven skirts—which is always and once again striking, is this time newly accompanied by a new diversity of Asian, Oceanic, and South American voices brought by the specially invited Via Campesina delegation, and the ever-growing cross-section of groups and sectors brought by the new political formations and alliances of the Other Campaign and the Sixth Declaration. What has made such an encounter possible? Our hosts here are among the poorest communities on the continent, of multiple language groups, people who speak humbly in a language not their own, asking permission from their public to address them, apologizing for their limitations in this second tongue, completely masked and completely open; it is they who have organized a meeting of thousands. Their power of convocation is what has given them not the position of vanguard, which they have constantly refused, but rather the role of what somebody once called the “armed matchmakers of a new international movement against globalization.”

The first of these international meetings in Zapatista territory was held in July of 1996, the Intercontinental Encounter For Humanity and Against Neoliberalism, also known as the “Intergalactic.” At that meeting, the thousands of visitors from other countries spoke at the thematic roundtables organized for discussion, with the limited though significant participation of the commanders of the EZLN. Ten years later, in December 2006, in the first Encounter between Zapatista Peoples and Peoples of the World, the roundtables belonged to the Good Government Councils, those currently serving in the autonomous community government. The ingenuity of each moment of encounter is matched only by the innovation—and further democratization of the word and the voices of below—of the next initiative: time they report that the next International Encounter will be held in December of 2007, this time between Zapatista Women and Women of the World.

The invitation to Via Campesina to attend the July Encounter with Peoples of the World again expanded the movement’s horizons. Here stories from four continents represent a small but symbolic sample of these trends. The Korean Peasant League (KPL) fight a free trade treaty with the US that would condemn an already flailing farming economy and damage further a farming population that has declined from 6.5 million to 3.3 million in the last decade. In Brazil, the acceleration of private land monopolies driven by the new ethanol market is leading to massive displacements and driving farmers into the Amazon, which signifies both further deforestation as well as the heavy water depletion and air pollution resulting from ethanol production. Whole cities have closed their schools, the Landless Movement (MST) delegate reports, as a result of the heavily polluting burning of sugarcane in ethanol plants, and this year alone there are 20 cane workers dead from the pollution. In India, the peasant union Bhartiya Kissan (BKU) reports that between 1992 and 2007, as a result of massive land privatizations and credit-lending policies which have led to farmer’s loss of livelihood and heavy debt, 150,000 Indian farmers have committed suicide, suicides both of desperation and a refusal to die slowly under such policies. The delegate from Thailand’s Assembly of the Poor tells how organized farmers and indigenous communities are either starved off their land or burned out of their houses, the young people educated against their own communities, part of a privately-sponsored governmental campaign to condemn indigenous farming practices in favor of industrial-level and chemical-based agriculture. “We have lived the future of the market,” states the representative of the US National Coalition of Family Farmers, referring to neoliberal agricultural policies implemented in the US since the 1950’s which led to the essential extinction of the small farm in the country, “and it is a lie.”

The tragedy of such an assault is matched only by the stories of resistance brought by the Via Campesina delegates: The Korean Peasant League is known to put together mobilizations of 100,000, to shut down every single highway in South Korea and block train tracks with farm implements, and that traveled to Mexico to fight police in the barricades of Cancun during the World Economic Forum meetings of 2004; the 350,000 families of the MST in Brazil that have recovered lands greater in area then the size of Italy, and the 2,000 MST women who destroyed 2 million eucalyptus plants in protest of export-driven mono-cropping during a trade meeting between Brazilian president Lula and other world leaders; the Peasant Network, part of the Assembly of the Poor in Thailand, that walked for a month to the capital where they occupied government buildings for 99 days protesting the criminalization of traditional farming techniques; the Indonesian farmer’s union that has occupied lands in order to produce their crops organically, insisting, “we will not poison our own people”; the 71,000 Indian farmers arrested in a protest who took over the jail where they were being held, refusing to leave until they were given food and train fare home. These farmer and peasant groups learned in the Encounter about struggles of marginalized youth from the cities, urban occupation/squatter’s movements, student organizations, teacher’s unions, anarchists’ collectives, of the struggles of sexworkers for dignified working conditions, of transsexuals for dignified treatment, of punks and goths for freedom from discrimination and criminalization. Interesting in this context was what almost every Via Campesina delegate presented as a decision arrived at by their organizations and bases: the need to organize with other sectors, to form united fronts and alliances across customary cultural and class lines. The MST said that their struggle, in order to advance, would have to be tied to the student organizations and the workers’ unions; the Korea farmers’ league said that for the first time they were joining the labor unions in their strikes and vice versa; the Indian farmers’ representative, the US small farm leader, and the Thai delegate repeated this necessity, in a striking simultaneity of strategy with the Other Campaign.

3.b. An Army for Abajo

“You must see that we are the rebellious mirror which wants to become crystal and shatter. You must see that we are what we are in order to cease to be what we are and begin to be the you that we are.”
—Major Ana Maria, EZLN words of welcome at the First Intercontinental Encounter For Humanity and Against Neoliberalism

Contrary to what many have thought and said over the past 14 years, the Zapatistas have always maintained that theirs is a struggle for everyone, that their initial cry of “everything for everyone” was borderless and boundary-less. The Sixth Declaration made explicit what had been practice for over a decade: a series of attempts to make connections, or more precisely to be a bridge, to and between groups and peoples, each attempt going out in different words and forms until something caught wings and resonated with people across the world. The first National Democratic Convention was held in August of 1994, the first Continental Encounter in April of 1996, the first “Intergalactic” in July of 1996; In September 1997, 1,111 civilian Zapatistas traveled to Mexico City to attend the National Indigenous Congress, 5,000 went out into all of Mexico in March of 1999 to hold a national and international referendum on the EZLN’s demands, 24 EZLN commanders went to Mexico City in February of 2001 in the “March of the Color of the Earth.” Then came the inauguration of the five caracoles as gathering places for the rebellions of the world, the Other Campaign, the Encounters with the Peoples of the World, and the Encounter of Indigenous Peoples of the Americas, in Vicam, Sonora. Even the dialogues with the government have been described by the EZLN as only secondarily about negotiations with the state, and primarily about getting to know the society that had come out in the streets to protect and support them, as well as to free themselves from the isolation that clandestinity had forced on them. The Zapatistas have been windows, mirrors, and bridges to and for the world, and though their own name and many of their supporters may contest it, they are an army not so much of a nation but an army of and for abajo, for all those below. They take what they have, the richness of the poor—struggle, spirit, generosity, collectivity, cooperation—and begin to fight for everyone, everywhere.

The EZLN has made abajo not a term for victims, but for a different organization of people, a different way of composing community, a different collective subjectivity. Abajo is a political initiative; it cannot be an opposition to arriba (above), a reaction, or a consequence. It is an affirmative project, a new organization or arrangement of forces; this is what the Other Campaign is at the national level and the Sixth at the international. The “todos” and the “otros” (the “all” and the “others”) aspects of the Sixth Declaration and the signing-on by national and international civil society as partners in the effort requires understanding the construction of “below” in this sense; that is, in the construction of a below among all that wants everything.

3.c. A New We

In 1996, at the first Intergalactic, the Zapatistas were already talking about constructing a new “we,” one that would become much more deliberate and explicit in the Sixth Declaration and the Other Campaign. The pending intergalactic, preluded by these Encounters between Zapatista Peoples and Peoples of the World (December 2006, July 2007, and December 2007) is another exercise in this construction. There are of course plenty of mis-encounters along the way: many of us still do not understand why we are being called together, why we are not given the microphone, what it is we are hearing, or how to listen. Along the way there are and have been needs ignored, desires smothered, dialogues cut short. We clearly have a lot to learn from the Zapatistas about our own adopted banners in the movement—autonomy, horizontalism, respect for the other—and hopefully we will have much to teach them also. Differences are great and barriers of misunderstanding high, but if we were to accept that differences and misunderstanding go together naturally we would be doing ourselves a great injustice and dealing the movement a death blow. In the intergalactic network, or the”Zezta Internazional,” as the Zapatistas now call it, we are in the first small steps of the creation of a community and political project at a global level, which requires the creation of a “we” at this level.

We see this already in process, not only in political coordination and joint protests, but in the creation of new legends, stories, dreams, and practices with their base in a new community or society, a new configuration of social organization. The innovations of the Zapatistas and their contemporaries in the alterglobalization movement have led to a proliferation of practices and experiments in democracy and collectivity: assembly forms for decision-making, network forms for organization, community forms of becoming the media and reclaiming the radio waves, constantly opening more spaces and channels for listening to each other; and then in shared and loved, real and imagined, characters and persons that give us new compañeros in the struggle: Don Durito, Don Andres, Don Amado Avendaño, El Viejo Antonio, Mariana and the Doc, Carlo Giuliani, Magdalena Garcia political prisoner and Magdalena the compañera of Elias Contreras, Alexis, Nacho, the farmers of South Central Farm in Los Angeles, the Mapuche, the Kiliwa, el Alibrije, Tepito, Santiaguito, and so many more.

Conclusion: The Tightrope of Democracy

“We will walk then the same path of history, but we will not repeat it; we are from before, yes, but we are new.”

Perhaps one of the most important things the Zapatistas have taught us is that holding a position or having an opinion is not doing politics. Part of what has been considered the EZLN’s talent for innovation and infinite ability to surprise us is their drive to constantly abolish themselves and become something else. They never build a fort around what they have won or established, but instead open it up, expose it to the eyes and opinions of the world around them, and allow it to transform once again through that contact and connection to a diverse reality. They never stay the same, never allow their practices to become static, and in that sense, never allow power to accumulate or isolate or sit in one place. That movement, that constant transformation, is a commitment to politics—politics as movement that constantly reopens the decision-making power of the community and the possibility for acting on one’s own collective life. They have taught the left that that dogmatism of idea and practice, the insistence on an ideology or model that transcends history and the decision of those in the present, always accompanied by a refusal to move, re-analyze, change, adapt, transform, is, in fact, a conservatism.

The power of community and emphasis on collectivity that we have seen and heard in so many ways in Chiapas is not simply an indigenous tradition or geographical organization or survival mechanism, though it is in part all of those things. The social power that has come from the development of particular laws and practices in Zapatista territory—the Revolutionary Law for Women, the prohibition on alcohol, the rotating authority positions—are progressive, but not in themselves radical. Their radicality comes from the fact that they are collectively decided upon and implemented, and subject to the continual re-approval or removal by a collective body. Any particular policy in any particular moment can have progressive or regressive effects; what makes politics is the capacity and structure to decide on those policies in democratic fashion, and to hold open the space for the constant and continual reevaluation or recreation of that decision. That is the great significance of community: community doesn’t just exist, simply by sharing an identity or a block or even a barrio. Community is the capacity to exercise power through the ability to make decisions and take action collectively, and thus it must always be constructed. What has been constructed in Zapatista territory—through the Good Government Councils, the autonomous institutions or systems, the entity of the assembly—is that capacity, not merely progressive policy but rather an enormous social power and potential.

There is no policy or law or order that can protect us from tyranny or repression, from fascism or domination. There is only the decision of the people of the present—that is, our infinite decision-making capacity in the present. And there is no way to guarantee the goodness of what the people of the present decide, there is only the guarantee that it will be their decision. True democracy is a tightrope walk; there is no time to close your eyes. It is always a risk, but it is also the only hope for a collective life free of domination and free for our construction.

As we leave La Realidad, where the Second Encounter between Zapatistas Peoples and Peoples of the World ends, it feels as though we are standing on the edge of time, under a nearly full moon, smelling the rain out the cracked window as jungle turns back into mountain, the head of the Korean farmer’s league representative falling with sleepiness onto the shoulder of a Chiapas indigenous compañero in the back window of the car in front of us. The new “we” is still in process, but the global generation—that shares not just a milieu of capitalist-driven war and environmental destruction, but also an understanding that today Iraq is in the Mexican Southeast, Oaxaca on the Mexico-US border, that New Orleans and Atenco are everywhere—has already been constructed. It is a generation that insists on having, as the Zapatistas have put it, “the air as homeland and tomorrow as their flag!” “So many people and so many colors! So many words to name hope!”



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