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Building Zapatista Autonomy: From Below and to the Left

By: 
Jennifer Whitney
Date Published: 
November 01, 2007

Oventik, July 21, 2007—Today I woke up in autonomous rebel territory, to a blast of cheerful cumbia. Unbelievingly, I grabbed my flashlight and checked my watch: 5:30 am. Ah, yes. As a guest of an army of farmers, you always get up soon after they do, which is to say, before dawn. But to dance music? I peeked out from the tent. The village was enshrouded in pink fog. The sun hung just below the mountainous horizon, with a thick bank of lavender clouds tumbling towards me. A Tzotzil man with a bandanna covering his face appeared from behind another tent; he wore an elaborately embroidered magenta and purple flowered tunic. Two rambunctious youngsters sporting balaclavas clambered up the path behind him. Riotous birdsong exploded from the saplings nearby, where clothing hung, rather optimistically, to dry after last night’s downpour.

Mornings are my favorite times in Zapatista territory, with masked indigenous families squatting around campfires heating up tortillas and beans, the mist rendering everything magical, and children poking curiously at high-tech tents and backpacks. Also, the lines are shorter at the coffee stands, so I scrambled to get up and prepare for the long meetings ahead.

I came to Chiapas, México to attend the Second Encuentro of the Zapatista People With the People of the World, along with about 3,000 others. The first encuentro was in December; this summer’s was to continue the work of the first. For ten days, in three of the five caracoles (socio-political centers), members of the civilian branch of the organization explained structural details of their autonomous government and social services.

The second encuentro began the previous night, with a presentation by members of Vía Campesina, a global network with branches in over 70 countries, who were invited as special guests of the Zapatistas. Dong Uk Min from the Campesino League of Korea spoke first, of the farmers’ new strategies to unite their struggles with those of the urban unions and unemployed. Organizers from Brazil, Madagascar, and the United States followed, with Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos, under the strobe lights of hundreds of camera flashes, wrapping things up. And then it was over, and people streamed down from the building, enthusiasm burning in everyone’s eyes, glittering in the streetlights. This thing had finally begun, and what a beginning!

From there, we spent two days in Oventik before an epic fourteen-hour journey to Morelia, where we spent five days listening to presentations for up to ten hours a day from the two caracoles not included in the tour, as well as hearing more from Vía Campesina. Then we continued on into the Lacandon Jungle to the caracol at La Realidad.

The presentations took the same form—members of different commissions and governing bodies of each caracol spoke for up to an hour, and then answered written questions from the audience for 15 minutes. Every night there was a cultural event, followed by a dance party, because “dancing and culture are a part of our autonomy too.” Even at 5:30 am.

Everyday autonomy

The autonomy being lived, constructed, and dreamt by the Zapatistas differs greatly from the way it is commonly understood in the US. What we often think of as “autonomy” might more accurately be defined as individual freedom. But autonomy is nothing without connections, without collectivity. To build a true autonomy, our freedom cannot be limited to the realm of the personal. We must bring it into the realm of that which can benefit the community, not just for our survival this week, but for the survival of our grandchildren, and that of those we’ve never met, but whose dignity and humanity we also must consider.

This is the kind of autonomy the Zapatistas are building—new kinds of relationships, rebellious spaces of freedom to dream, and through which to recognize and respect the autonomy of others. But it isn’t only through theory that the Zapatistas are creating “a world in which many worlds can fit.” It also is through solid, concrete initiatives—infrastructure from the ground up—systems of health care, education, justice, trade, commerce, and transportation.

The health centers of each of the three caracoles vary widely in their capabilities and resources. All have at least one vehicle devoted to the transport of patients—a few have decently equipped ambulances. Oventik, which is the most advanced, has an emergency room, where they sometimes perform minor surgery, as well as ophthalmological, gynecological, and dental clinics. Morelia’s clinic is far more modest. All of the autonomous health centers feed patients into the national health service, and the Zapatistas have publicly expressed their support for the workers in the government’s public health system, which, like most, is under threat of dissolution and privatization.

A member of Oventik’s Good Government Council summed up the autonomous approach to education best: “We don’t separate manual work from intellectual work because we need both to be truly human. When we talk of culture, we’re talking of our history. The dances, music, how we cultivate crops and protect our mother earth, how we smile, organize, protest, how we struggle—is all culture. How we play is culture. This is the Other Education. It’s a means of transforming this unjust society.”

A justice system respecting the dignity of those who commit crimes is hard to conceive of, and yet the Honor and Justice Commissions do just that. The name alone offers a clear distinction from what we call “criminal” justice. “We do not charge fines because we are all poor, and we don’t wish to profit off the mistakes of our community,” explained one compañero from La Garrucha. The most common sentence is collective work, so that serving a sentence is quite literal—it serves the community, without isolating or expelling the individual. Prisons exist, but are used only in cases of emergencies, and for short terms.

New world

The 12-hour journey back from the dreams of Reality into the city was arduous, with 21 of us taking shifts standing up in the back of the open cattle truck, (no room to all sit at once) under the blazing tropical sun. But as we rattled along, I felt some of my disjointed swirling thoughts over the last 10 days sliding into place, and provoking many questions about how to bring this Reality, this dream, back into my work at home.

Many have said that zapatismo is a lovely philosophy that wouldn’t last a second outside its incredibly specific context—rural, indigenous, poor, armed, mountainous, geographically inaccessible; that its real purpose for the over-developed global North is through the inspiration of its poetry and romance; but, that it can’t be applied there. Perhaps we’ve been wrong all this time—we long-term Zapatista supporters, we who have derived much of our political language and ideology from these southeastern Mexican lands. Maybe we just can’t open our minds wide enough to imagine real social change—the development of a new world—in our cities, in our lifetimes.

But how can we ever hope to build a new world of autonomy, of dignity, if we cannot dream it? What if it isn’t only through inspiration and hope and the power of a good example that we in the North can benefit from zapatismo?

In Oventik, a member of the Good Government Council remarked that building autonomy is a walk towards utopia. “Walking, we ask questions; walking, we are learning; walking, we are teaching.” A week later, from Reality, the Third Encuentro was announced. It will be a women’s encuentro, to take place during the 14th anniversary of their uprising. And so, with this generous invitation to return to their rebellious lands, this walking together towards utopia, towards autonomy, will continue.

About the Author

Jennifer Whitney lives in New Orleans, where she is co-founder and director of the Latino Health Outreach Project. She's also a co-author/editor of We Are Everywhere: the irresistible rise of global anticapitalism, and is working on getting a Spanish translation published within the next year. She is excited to reignite the zapatismo in her heart, and to integrate it more deeply into all of her work. More of her writings from this Encuentro can be found on www.leftturn.org.