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Zapatista Red Alert

By: 
M. Mayuran Tiruchelvam
Date Published: 
November 01, 2005
    On June 19th, 2005 the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) announced a general “Red Alert”—its first in eight years. The alert, which in the past was used during times of extreme military threat to Zapatista communities, set off a crisis amongst national and international supporters of the Zapatista struggle. First, came the general concern about the future of the movement that has inspired us for over 11 years, then a flurry of speculation. Was the EZLN preparing for an attack against the military? Were the Caracoles and Good Government Councils (Juntas de Buen Gobierno) being shut down only to be replaced by Zapatista military leadership? Would the Zapatista movement as a whole cease to exist?

The stakes seemed high enough, whether one was reading about these events behind a computer screen in the US or in the Mexican press mere miles away from Zapatista communities. I was in San Cristobal, Chiapas, working as part of Estacion Libre—a people of color collective building links with autonomous struggles in Zapatista communities. Even so, being “on the ground” did not provide further insight into the red alert, or the process of the EZLN during the alert itself. Even those organizations and individuals who worked closely alongside the Zapatistas could only sit by and speculate as the red alert went into affect. The Caracoles were closed, and all non-Zapatista allies were requested to leave indigenous communities.

We watched and waited, as the Mexican government declared (and later retracted) that the Zapatistas were growing $500,000 of drugs in rebel territory, and simultaneously moved over 1500 troops to Chiapas—already the most militarized state in all of Mexico—for “training purposes.” Emergency meetings of allies and supporters were held all over Mexico and the world. Those “in the know” wondered why the Zapatistas weren’t telling them anything—failing to reflect on their sense of ownership over a movement that is uniquely indigenous and autonomous. Across the globe, various solidarity movements grappled with the question of just what their role should be. Was it another emergency meeting, a dialogue, a newspaper article, a radio show, a shipment of money/supplies to the EZLN? For our part, Estacion Libre engaged in several observation trips along the major roads of Chiapas, keeping tabs on movements of military and police in and around Zapatista communities—one way to feel like we could do something more than sit around.

As we watched, waited, and speculated, the Zapatistas engaged in a deep internal consultation amongst every single one of their communities. What to us seemed a movement of crisis and confusion, fueled by our own collective addiction to crisis, was to the Zapatistas a time for reflection. Where is our movement, they asked? How far have we come? How much are we willing to risk to go further?

Within ten days of the alert, the Zapatistas had answers to these questions—and the Sixth Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle (the “Sexta”), written by the Clandestine Revolutionary Indigenous Committee, the Commandancia of the EZLN, was released to Mexico and the world. It proclaimed a new direction for the EZLN, the “otra campana”—an initiative to challenge the traditional Mexican political parties and build a movement of all those on the “left” who stood outside of the party system. Over 98% of all Zapatista members proclaimed their support for this initiative, which would take some of the EZLN’s resources out of the jungles and mountains of Chiapas and away from the indigenous communities to which the movement has always and primarily been dedicated. They will unite with the workers, the campesino farmers, students, teachers, families, individuals, queers and transsexuals, and any people who are “humble and simple” to fight against neoliberalism, “bad governments,” and for a new constitution.

Within a week of the Declaration’s release, a process was revealed for groups and individuals to sign on in support of the “Sexta.” Subcommandante Marcos announced that a series of talks would occur with all groups and individuals who had signed up “with the Sexta.” As of August 13th, the number of supporters of the “Sexta” includes 48 political organizations of the left, 60 indigenous organizations, 58 social organizations, 248 non-governmental organizations, collectives, and groups, and 895 individuals, families, neighborhoods or communities—in addition to an unrevealed number of international supporters. These numbers are growing weekly, and the Zapatistas seem committed to meeting with each of these allies, on an individual and group level, as long as (for the time being) these allies are willing to come down to the jungles of Chiapas for scheduled talks every weekend.

The process itself appears transparent. I was privileged to observe the discussions with indigenous groups, which occurred on August 13 and 14. Atop a small hill in the middle of a remote Zapatista community, underneath a large tent, the Commandantes and Subcommandante Marcos sat before the gathered groups, observers, and the press. Representatives of 40 indigenous groups spoke, at length, about the problems of their communities and struggles, their thoughts about the Sexta, political parties, and their proposals. The process lasted an entire day, from 10 AM until 10 PM, with each group given as much time as needed to deliver their address. However, there was no formal or structured dialogue between the groups. Marcos delivered a synthesis of what had been said on the second day, and then he and the Commandantes met in private with representatives of each indigenous group, with the understanding that all discussions would be made public. The Sub said, quite definitively, that the campaign is going to take years and that they will visit these groups where they are, and spend time with them—as much time as is necessary to build the movement.

At the same time, engaging with a broader “left” requires challenging the oppressions and privileges that exist within it. Even in a dialogue with indigenous groups, no translation to indigenous languages was provided. The coordinators of the event, allies from NGOs and a prominent pro-Zapatista magazine “Rebeldia,” failed to provide guidelines for the press and the national and international observers who occupied the front rows of seating, spending time grabbing photos and video of Marcos, while the indigenous delegates sat in the back. What the Zapatistas bring to any space they enter is patience. Patience to listen, reflect, and understand. In time I hope that they will challenge the unequal power dynamics of the left, with analysis and proposals for change.

With the Zapatista communities and the talks of the “Sexta” open to observers from around the world, there is a place for the solidarity movement to directly exchange with their process. If we go, we must be conscious of the power dynamics and privileges we bring. We must think about whether being amongst indigenous communities contributes to or assists their process in anyway at all, or whether it is merely to satiate our own political journey and desire for legitimacy in our own circles. We do have much to share, if we know how.

People of color from the US can contribute an analysis and understanding of internalized oppression that may help the “Sexta” campaign to deal with the privileges and prejudices which the mainstream left carries.
And that brings it back to us—where do we stand in our own struggles, and what does our “solidarity” with the Zapatistas and their new campaign mean to our own lucha (struggle) within the belly of the beast? We have rejected the watered down, corporate presentation of the “left” in America, from mainstream political parties, to bureaucratic unions, to reformist social movements, most recently during the 2004 election cycle. Like the Zapatistas with the “Sexta,” we struggle to redefine or reclaim the “left,” in an environment where the language of the “right” dominates. Through collectives and affinity groups, networks and coalitions, communities and families, we have come together to make alternatives.

Now we must find that thing—be it patience, humility, or simplicity, that will sustain us in our struggle through these dark years. We must take time to reflect critically on our processes, to better understand where the roads we walk are taking us. The best way for us to support the struggle for the Zapatistas and the Mexican people to free their country from neoliberalism is to dedicate ourselves to defeating the monster of neoliberalism here—in the heart of the Empire—and to protect our comrades, our communities, and allies in the lifetime of struggle ahead.

To this struggle—the building and sustaining of community—the Zapatistas will continue to be a model. They do not need us to help them, as much as we need them to show us how to struggle with dignity, in some of the worst conditions. Amongst the Zapatista communities, I have seen incredible patience and a dedication to the process, faith and trust in others to do what is best, and a daily commitment to a dignified life. During one Red Alert, of what may be one of many to come, the communities continue to build, protect one another, and celebrate their autonomy. If we only have so little in the world, we can ask ourselves and our communities “what does a dignified life look like?” and “what are we willing to sacrifice in order to build that dignified life of struggle, in this world, where many worlds and struggles fit?”

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Mayuran is a New York based Sri Lankan Tamil who went to Mexico because he was burnt out, and to write his comic book, but realized that leaving your struggle due to exhaustion is something we all have to work to resist. He
hopes that we can do a better job taking care of each other in the days ahead. For more info on Estacion Libre: www.estacionl