Above Photo: Nathan Gibbs/Flickr
At their annual celebration, the Zapatistas took aim at the Maya Train and tree farm megaprojects that trample the rights of Indigenous people.
On January 1, 2019, the Zapatistas in Chiapas, Mexico celebrated the 25th anniversary of the start of their uprising in 1994. Normally, these yearly celebrations are festive activities marked by speeches and dances commemorating the historic moment the Zapatistas said “Enough!” (¡Ya basta!) to five centuries of colonial rule that left Indigenous communities devastated; to the Partido Revolucionario Institucional’s decades of “perfect dictatorship”; and to the neoliberal policies that brought about the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).
This year, the anniversary was anything but a happy event. Subcomandante Moisés stated it clearly: “Our hour as Zapatista peoples has come, and we see that we are alone. I want to tell you clearly that this is what we see, compañerosand compañeras of the support bases, compañeros and compañeras of the militias: we are alone, just as we were 25 years ago.”
But even more so than the words spoken by the Subcomandante, it was the rare display of military strength by the EZLN, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation, that clearly set the tone for this year’s celebration. To the powerful clamor of their canes striking in rhythm with their steps, thousands of EZLN militia marched into the central square of the caracol of The Mother of Caracoles — Sea of Dreams, formerly known as La Realidad.
The roughly 3,000 combatants were drawn from all five of the Zapatista autonomous zones and belonged to the 21st Zapatista Infantry Division, the same unit that first occupied seven municipal centers in Chiapas at the beginning of the insurrection.
The entire event indicated a return to the early days of Zapatismo. Moisés outlined the position of the EZLN in regards to the new Mexican government headed by President A.M. López Obrador (or AMLO, as he is popularly known):
That trickster in power now, what is his game? That he pretends to be with the people of Mexico, trying to deceive the Indigenous peoples by kneeling upon the earth to ask permission for his projects. He thinks all the Indigenous peoples are going to believe that charade. Here we say no, to the contrary, we don’t buy it.
The Zapatistas already explained their view of AMLO’s politics after his election to the presidency in July 2018, but this time the message was addressed directly to the newly inaugurated president who took up his post on December 1, 2018. Contrary to the views of some 30 million voters, the Zapatistas do not view AMLO as a bearer of hope, but rather as a foreman in the great estate of global capitalism.
THE CHALLENGES AHEAD
Over their 25 years of struggle, the Zapatistas have shaped and defended a unique experiment in political autonomy: first with the declaration of 30 autonomous municipalities in December 1994 and then with the creation of the five Good Government Councils in August 2003.
The Zapatistas have built their own grassroots democracy and justice, health and education systems. They have revitalized production based on collective ownership of the land and introduced new ways of working communally to strengthen and support their autonomy.
For them, autonomy is an affirmation of their own ways of life, firmly rooted in the local communities and in the rejection of the practice and ideology of capitalism that seeks to destroy them. At the same time, theirs is an experiment in popular self-government outside of the institutions of the Mexican state. And not only have they persisted for a quarter century, they continue to work on their own transformation.
In this regard, the series of initiatives over the last six years provide some powerful examples: the Little Zapatista School (La Escuelita Zapatista), the World Festival of Resistance and Rebellion Against Capitalism, the international seminar “Critical Thought in the Face of the Capitalist Hydra,” the various gatherings exploring art and science (CompArte por la Humanidad andConCiencias por la Humanidad) and the recent impressive Puy ta kuxlejaltikfilm festival.
Moreover, during the last presidential elections, the Zapatistas collaborated with the National Indigenous Congress to form a nationwide Indigenous Government Council; spokesperson Marichuy ran as an independent candidate.
These, and other examples, are an expression of the joy of this rebellious experience that has overcome obstacles, resisted the inevitable test of time and demonstrated undeniable creativity. But some of the Zapatistas’ biggest challenges might still be ahead.
PERMISSION FOR DESTRUCTION
In his speech, Subcomandante Moisés excoriated AMLO’s energetic pursuit of mega-projects in the name of progress, employment and the fight against poverty. AMLO relies on a long-established rhetoric cataloguing and condemning all those who oppose such projects as retrograde conservatives and enemies of collective welfare, if not simply anachronistic primitivists.
But, for Indigenous peoples, these mega-projects mean above all the dispossession of their territories and the accelerated destruction of their ways of life. As Subcomandante Moisés sums it up: “Now we are seeing that they are coming for us, the Native people.”
The mega-projects include the expansion of a wind turbine farm in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec; the creation of a special economic zone; and a Panama Canal-sized corridor of multi-modal inter-oceanic communication — an old project that various neoliberal governments never managed to realize.
Another plan, one that has been fueling suspicions of conflict of interest, concerns the planting of timber-yielding and fruit trees on one million hectares of land in the southeastern states of the county. The controversy here is that Alfonso Romo, a big player in Mexican agro-business and AMLO’s chief of staff, is also the owner of Agromod, the biggest papaya producer in the world. The company is growing crops on hundreds of acres of land on the Chiapas coast and in Yucatán, and if selected by the president to provide the millions of seedlings required for the tree-planting project, this would raise major concerns regarding a potential conflict of interests.
Subcomandante Moisés talked more than anything about the Tren Maya(Mayan Train), which plans to connect Palenque in Chiapas with the main tourist and archaeological sites in the Yucatán peninsula. This railway project would intensify the exploitation of the natural resources of the peninsula — between 2000 and 2012, 1,420 km2 of jungle was destroyed as a result of illegal farming and ranching practices — and increase the number of tourist centers and all its accompanying troubles: privatization and destruction and pollution of the coastal zones. AMLO has lamented that this scale of development has graced only the Mayan Riviera.
AMLO’s style of announcing the railway project was itself an unacceptable provocation of the Zapatistas. On December 16, 2018, AMLO visited Palenque to officially start the construction of the railway where he took part in a pseudo-ritual of honoring Mother Earth. Subcomandante Moisés explained that in pretending to take up Indigenous customs and ways — asking permission of Mother Earth to act — he was asking for permission to destroy the Indigenous peoples. “Some of our brothers and sisters of the Indigenous peoples have been fooled,” said Moisés. “We don’t buy it. Mother Earth doesn’t speak, but if she did, she’d say clearly, “No! Go fuck yourself.”
The parody of the Mayan ritual was a “mockery” and a “humiliation.” AMLO bypassed the people of the region to address Mother Earth for permission for a project that invokes the name of their ancestors..
It must be remembered that free, prior, and informed consent is required when the states that have signed the International Labor Organization Convention 169 (C169) and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples plan to develop or access resources on Indigenous land. Mexico is a signatory to both documents. But AMLO leans on his interpretation of the authority of Mother Earth to destroy her and to authorize his violations of international agreements.
AMLO is not a climate denier, but in regards to his indifference towards global warning and lack of interest in ecological issues he is not very different from US President Trump, with whom in fact, he has very cordial relations. It was announced that the Mayan Train would rely on a large Central American workforce and create other investments in the southern part of the country. This means that the mega-projects of the current government clearly function to contain the flow of migrants to the US. In a way, Trump is right to insist that Mexicans will end up paying for the wall, especially since most of the funds the US have promised to contribute to regional development projects are in fact private-sector loans that will have to be paid back.
“WE ARE ALONE”
Faced with the creeping, brutal threat of the capitalist Hydra disguised as progress, the Zapatistas firmly and thoroughly expressed their position: “We are not going to give up.”
“No matter how small the provocation, we will defend ourselves,” Zapatistas say. “We will not allow this project of destruction to pass through our territory.”
The warning could not be more clear. In this context, the thousands of soldiers who marched into town during the recent celebration, along with the many thousands more who remained invisible, were all ready to give their life in defense of the territory and the autonomy the Zapatistas have built for themselves.
However, this message should not be interpreted as a return to armed struggle, but rather as a reminder that the EZLN is ready to defend their land and their struggle if necessary. Everything they have accomplished so far, explained Moisés, has been the fruit of their effort. “We are going to continue building and we will win.”
But throughout his speech, Subcomandante Moisés repeated, “We are alone.” For many people, this felt like a punch in the stomach. Did this mean that the EZLN’s 25-year efforts of working with the National Indigenous Congress, the Indigenous Government Council, the Sixth (la Sexta), national and international network of struggles, were all in vain? Was this a reference to an inability to overcome inertia and divisions among national and international networks of rebellions and resistances?
Not quite; these statements indicate a strategic decision vis-à-vis the new Mexican government. In all likelihood, it also represents a key moment in the trajectory of the Zapatista movement. It could be that Subcomandante Moisés was referring to the majority of Mexican voters who did not pay attention to the Zapatistas’ warnings. But most importantly, his reference to the Zapatistas being “alone” was a reflection of that moment, 25 years ago, when they “alone went and woke up the people of Mexico and the world.”
That is to say, just like the decision to rise up in 1994 was wholly taken by the EZLN, now again, the decision to prepare for a confrontation with the federal government is the EZLN’s alone.
CHALLENGING THE NEW MAN IN POWER
It is likely that the lessons of the so-called progressive governments of Latin America over the last 15 years, especially in Brazil, Argentina, Bolivia and Ecuador, also carry some weight. On the one hand, there has been a weakening of social movements, especially of Indigenous movements, through co-optation, loss of autonomy, division and self-censorship. On the other hand, there is an unprecedented advance of the market through mega-projects, extractivism, GMO agribusiness, land grabbing and the destruction of ways of life sorely shaped by social relations warped by capitalists.
In short, “progressivism” has been, at least temporarily, one of the most efficient political tools making the capitalist hydra stronger and feeding its insatiable appetite. Instead of waiting for policies of the same kind to produce their deadly effects little by little, the Zapatistas preferred to take the lead.
Therefore, they challenge the new man in power, forcing him to choose between two of his solemn commitments: one, to carry out the announced major projects, and two, to never repress the Mexican people. They also oblige everyone, especially those in social movements and Indigenous struggles, to choose a side.
Above all, they are preparing to defend what they have been building for a quarter of a century: an experience of rebel autonomy with a scope and radicalism that have few equivalents in the world.