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Encuentro of the Zapatista Communities with the Peoples of the World

M. Mayuran Tiruchelvam
Date Published: 
April 01, 2007

Many movements around the world are afraid to share their failures and internal flaws alongside their successes and methods of resistance. The risks of exposure, seeming weak or imperfect, and having a struggle co-opted by others puts us in a position to speak of ourselves vaguely through rhetoric and ideology.

The Zapatista communities of Chiapas, Mexico broke through this barrier in the Encuentro of the Zapatista Communities with the Peoples of the World, which took place in the Caracol of Oventik over three cold nights and four alternately hot and soggy days (December 30– January 2). In the struggle against capitalism and neoliberal globalization, the Zapatistas are opting to “create another world” instead of reforming or retaking the one that exists. In the words of compañero Veto, who represented the Caracol of Morelia: “As we sing fighting in Mexico and throughout the world, from below: although we cannot change this world, we will fight so that the world doesn’t change us.”

For the first time, representatives from all Zapatista communities came together and spoke of their process of building autonomy from “the bad government of Mexico,” of their challenges and failures, and of their hopes for the future. Participants included over 2,000 community members from the Zapatista support bases and an equal number of visitors from 48 countries, primarily Europe and the Americas (with Mexicans in the vast majority). Many of the participants were adherents to the Sixth Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle, which laid out the Zapatistas´ proposal to build an international and national movement against capitalism. This movement is called the Otra Campaña (Other Campaign) in Mexico and its international form, the Zezta Internazional.

Workshops and exchanges

Organized around seven thematic “workshops,” the Encuentro format focused heavily on presentations from members of the Juntas de Buen Gobierno (the Zapatistas’ “councils of good government”), representing each of the five Caracoles: La Realidad, Oventik, La Garrucha, Morelia, and Roberto Barrios. Representatives from each Caracol shared words on the themes of autonomous governance, education, health care, women, communication and culture, cooperative economics, and land and territory struggles. Following the Zapatistas’ presentations, participants from around the world asked questions, and presented on their own struggles and work on the relevant theme.

The willingness of the [email protected] to share their failures and mistakes brought an environment of trust to the Encuentro. This spirit grows from the Zapatistas’ commitment to build a movement of humanity and humility while challenging neoliberalism. The Zapatistas have never before spoken so openly of their process, and certainly have never allowed those words to be recorded, video taped, and broadcast live over the internet. Even those who did not speak Spanish presented in the indigenous languages of their communities.

In the women’s workshop, compañera Lucia from Morelia spoke of the suffering and sadness of many indigenous women in the days before the Zapatista movement: women were targets for violent attacks by paramilitaries, girls were not allowed to attend government schools (and are still prevented from attending those schools), and women played subservient domestic roles to their husbands and male relatives. Within the Zapatista movement, women began to organize themselves as workers into cooperatives and collectives, and have held the men accountable to their own process of change. Today, in the words of compañera Gabriela, “As women we see the importance of being authorities, because we are many and we have thoughts and hearts, and the right to decide the right road to the better world we are creating.” After 13 years of open struggle, women participate in greater numbers in the leadership of the Juntas, girls and boys participate equally in autonomous schools, and men are learning to cook their own dinner, wash clothes, and participate in the cooperative work of raising children.

A frequent disappointment, however, was the inability of the international participants to engage in the process with similar openness or willingness to dialogue. Many of the questions asked of the Zapatista [email protected] were posed as challenges and judgments. During the women’s workshop, questions such as “What do you do when there is child abuse?” or “What are the instances of sexual assault of girls in the Zapatista communities?” made appearances, without participants offering their own perspective on these challenges in their own communities and movements.

In the early morning hours of January 1, the communities celebrated the 13th anniversary of the Zapatista uprising with a New Year presentation by the indigenous leadership of the Zapatista army or “EZLN” (an army that has committed itself to a nonviolent and confrontational political struggle since the early days of 1994). Subcommandante Marcos, charismatic mestizo spokesperson of the EZLN’s “Sixth Commission” (created for their participation in the Otra Campaña), made a cameo appearance at this celebration. Rather than cater to an international audience, “Delegate Zero” (as he is now referred to in the Otra Campaña) spoke in Tzotzil to the indigenous communities and Zapatista support bases, sharing a summary of their 13 years of public struggle and of the past year of the Otra Campaña. He also restated the Zapatistas’ commitment to the struggles in Atenco and Oaxaca, and for the freedom of all political prisoners.

This speech was followed by a recitation of the Zapatista Hymn and a dance party that extended into dawn. Zapatista celebrations do not include alchohol, drugs, and other activities found in New Years parties around the world. They seek to build a space where families, young and old, can participate safely and share their strength and inspiration with the communities of the world.

Toward the Intergalactica

The final day of the Encuentro was a plenary session on the “Intergalactica” —a future gathering to develop the Sixth Declaration’s international movement, the Zezta Internazional. Colonel Moises, the EZLN officer who is coordinating their “Intergalactic Commission,” shared the proposals from around the world. Participants were then given the opportunity to share more words and thoughts, while the Zapatista representives listened and asked clarifying questions.

Some strong ideas grew out of this session, including the importance of involving children and youth in the Intergalactica. Most apparent was the necessity for international groups and participants to communicate with each other beyond the Encuentro, across borders and struggles, and through privileges of nation, culture, class and race that must be challenged.

The challenge facing the Intergalactica is to reconcile the tension between creating a gathering, an action, or a series of simultaneous actions, and creating transformative spaces to build alternatives to capitalism. As stated by one US-based participant near the end of the intergalactic plenary, “We cannot expect any nation-state to permit us to conduct the Intergalactica. We must build links across all autonomous and indigenous territories and hope that those will be the places for this gathering.”

The Otra Transfronteriza, a collective process between communities north and south of the California-Mexico border, is one form of building these new autonomous territories and relationships. At the request of the Cucapa, an indigenous fishing community in Baja California that has been banned from fishing by the bad government of Mexico, collectives from throughout the region are participating in an encampment in Cucapa lands throughout the early months of 2007. In addition, as stated by EZLN Commandante David, the Otra Campaña is planning “with the National Indigenous Congress, [to] convoke an encuentro of all the original peoples of the American continent, from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego, possibly in October of 2007.”

The work of the Otra Transfronteriza challenges us to overcome the barriers between our autonomous communities and spaces. These barriers have as many cracks and holes as the borders between nation-states, but are invisible, between individuals, groups, lifestyles, and ideologies. Crossing through these borderlands requires the same honesty and humility that the Zapatistas brought to the Encuentro—a willingness to share all aspects of our struggles, good and bad. We must work to overcome these barriers, building encuentros among our own communities, so that we arrive at the Intergalactica with an understanding of how to move forward.

Audio and transcripts of the entire Encuentro are available on-line at Information on the Otra Transfronteriza can be found at and

M. Mayuran Tiruchelvam participated in the Encuentro, traveling to Oventik alongside members of Estación Libre, the Autonomous Peoples Collective of LA, ChicagOtra, and the Chiapas Support Committee. Together, they wrote a series of daily summaries of the Encuentro for their [email protected] in the US.