Zapatistas Celebrate Ten
Lars Din
January/February 2004

As if to get a jump on 2004, as if to say "we have a lot of work to do this year, so let's get started!" the masked Tzeltal commander on the stage inaugurated the new year at 11 pm. We stood in the muddy square of La Garrucha, several thousand people from neighboring communities of the Autonomous Municipality of Francisco Gomez, and over a hundred visitors from the U.S., Canada and other parts of Mexico. The commander spoke in Spanish about the power of women in the Zapatista and indigenous struggles for self-determination over their lives and land. She chastised the Mexican government for its lies, bribery and militarization of Chiapas. We sang, "Vamos Vamos Vamos Vamos Adelante/ Para que salgamos en la Lucha Avante"

While people across North America ushered in the new year in typical drunken fashion, many indigenous communities in the mountains of southern Mexico celebrated the ten year anniversary of the Zapatista insurrection. To learn about their struggle and show solidarity for this inspiring movement, I joined a delegation organized by the Mexico Solidarity Network.

Evidence of the power of women in the struggle, explained Alexandra Halkin, founding director and international coordinator for the Chiapas Media Project, is that the everyone at the New Year's party in La Garrucha was sober. Drinking had such a deleterious impact on the communities that from the very beginning women demanded that Zapatista communities be dry. Not that the absence of alcohol dampened the festivities: there was dancing to live Banda and Cumbia music for nearly three days, despite a persistent nightly drizzle.

On January 1, 1994, as NAFTA began its insidious work of undermining worker's aspirations in North America, the Zapatistas surfaced from ten ears of organizing in the indigenous communities to wage a 12-day insurrection on the Mexican Federal Government. They said they were fighting for "work,land, shelter, food, health care, education, independence, freedom, democracy, justice and peace." On January 12, tens of thousands of indigenous Mexicans and their supporters marched in Mexico City, demanding constitutional recognition of their human right to self-determination.

Throughout the last ten years the Zapatistas have shown both remarkable transparency and foresight, as they encouraged the participation of civil society, and international solidarity movements, in the process institutional reform in Mexico. Partly thanks to the Internet, which exploded into public consciousness at the same time, this small revolutionary army won international support for its cause, despite the predictable violent repression by authorities and mainstream media misinformation.

The basis for this support is a scrupulous attention to the goals of their work: to help traditional indigenous communities empower themselves. Subcommandante Marcos addressed the reasons why the Zapatistas are different in 1995.

"We want to participate directly in the decisions which concern us, to control those who govern us, without regard to their political affiliation, and oblige them to "rule by obeying." We do not struggle to take power, we struggle for democracy, liberty, and justice...It is not our arms which make us radical; it is the new political practice which we propose and in which we are immersed with thousands of men and women in Mexico and the world: the construction of a political practice which does not seek the taking of power but the organization of society."

The idea that the people should decide public policy is not new. But the Zapatista's trust that everyday people want to have some say in the political decisions that affect them resonated strongly in countries affected by globalization, including the U.S.

Across the globe people were growing increasingly uncomfortable with the power of transnational corporations. The Zapatistas were uncompromising: indigenous communities may decide their own political organization, and theirs is part of a global struggle.

It energized the global justice movement, and inspired many of the activists in the U.S. who took the streets of Seattle in 1999, and more recently braved severe police violence in Miami last November at the FTAA protests.

In August, the Zapatistas announced they were no longer waiting for the Mexican Government to "grant" rights. They reorganized the centers of resistance in Chiapas, calling them "Caracoles," the spanish word for snails. Thru the "juntas of good governance" members of the communities rotate leadership, and develop their own autonomous models of resolving disputes, and coordinating municipal projects. It is an effort at self-government, one I wondered might be needed here in Alachua County, to protect the rights of poor people from prison, police (or domestic) violence and economic desperation.

In the autonomous municipalities (some several thousand square kilometers), communities have organized their own schools, taught in both the native language and Spanish. These areas refuse funding from the state on the principle that state funding means dependence. Nor do they pay taxes. During my stay we visited the faith-based solidarity group SIPAZ in San Cristobal. Life is not easy in the autonomous zones, they explain: "They have no resources or real power or legal legitimacy, and they are dying, encircled by hunger, diseases, the paramilitary threat and the security forces. However, for the indigenous peoples, they constitute an eloquent symbol of a culture which is resisting and defying the dominant culture, making a reality of a different way of understanding politics and of organizing the economy, society, and even human relations."

One of the new realities is that they are refusing to be represented by some well-meaning outsider. In 1995, Chicago documentary-filmaker Alex Halkin, while filming in Chiapas, was approached by members of a community about getting access to video and computer technology. The result was the Chiapas Media Project (Promedios in Spanish), which has distributed 22 different videos recorded, edited, and produced by the indigenous communities, on issues like water and autonomy, the WTO, and Xulum' Chon, a Mayan women's weaving collective. This month, they established a satellite-dish internet connection in the Caracol of Oventik, and will eventually do the same for other communities. The significance of marginalized communities being empowered to represent themselves should not be underestimated. (In other news, public access television is a real possibility for Gainesville...)

It's about people taking risks for democracy. After women in Morelias forced the military to withdraw January 8th 1998 (you may have seen the famous photograph), one participant explained: "We held a meeting and decided that we were going to throw out the army if they came, ... we have decided that we are going to defend our communities, ... We want everything for the pueblo and not just for a few people or for one community."

Alex Halkin will be presenting several of the Chiapas Media Project ( documentaries on February 9, at 7 pm at the Civic Media Center. She will also be speaking at UF. If you are interested in having her speak to your class, please write to

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