Why U.S. should pay attention to Mexico's Zapatistas

Submitted by PAAMember on January 17, 2006 - 12:03pm. ::

Hopes for new democracy a challenge to political class
By ALEJANDRO REUSS

The Zapatistas of Mexico have not gone away. And they have much to teach us in
the United States.

Visiting the city of San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, on New Year's Day, I
was lucky to witness an extraordinary event.

Thousands of indigenous people, men and women, adults and children, some
wearing the traditional clothing of the Maya people of the region, most
wearing the black ski masks emblematic of Mexico's Zapatista National
Liberation Army (whose Spanish initials are EZLN), marched en masse into the
city square.

The rally there, featuring speeches by EZLN leaders, marked the 12th
anniversary of the uprising that first brought the group to international
attention. It also touched off the beginning of a national tour the
organization hopes will help build a new kind of democracy "from below."

The Zapatista caravan intends to visit all 31 states of Mexico and the federal
district on a six-month tour ending in Tijuana, 2,500 miles from Chiapas. The
group calls the tour, which coincides with the country's national
presidential campaign, the "other campaign."

For the Zapatistas, however, the campaign is not a sideshow to the
presidential elections. It is a challenge to the entire Mexican political
class, which they view as promoting the interests of large corporations at
the expense of Mexico's workers and peasant farmers, and especially at the
expense of the country's indigenous people.

The Zapatistas are fiercely critical of the turn toward free-market,
free-trade policies on the part of Mexico's main political parties, the
Revolutionary Institutional Party (PRI), which ruled Mexico continually for
more than 70 years, and the pro-business National Action Party (PAN), the
current ruling party.

These policies, the Zapatistas say in a new manifesto, have left "many
Mexicans destitute, like peasants and small producers, because they are
'gobbled up' by the big agro-industrial companies" while urban workers face
factory closures, with the only alternative being low-paid work in the
maquiladoras opened by multinational corporations. To the Zapatistas, this is
the fullest expression of an economic system that generates wealth for the
few while sowing poverty, inequality and exploitation for the many.

The Zapatistas practice a different kind of politics. In the areas of Chiapas
where the EZLN is strong, they have not simply governed on their own
authority, but have largely stepped back and allowed indigenous "autonomous
communities" to decide how to govern themselves. Nor has the EZLN sought
power through the ballot, in order to govern on behalf of the people. They
have repeatedly submitted their decisions to popular ballot, an approach they
call "leading by obeying," but they have not sought office.

The message of the Zapatistas is that there is more to politics than just
electioneering, and that the people should not be satisfied with leaders who
care about them only when they are looking for votes. People can take power
and change the conditions of their own lives, collectively, the Zapatistas
argue, without relying on politicians to do it for them.

That is a message with more than a passing relevance to the United States,
where we often reduce politics to nothing more than elections, and where
election campaigns rarely deal seriously with the blights, such as poverty
and racism, which vex our society as they do Mexico's.

We would do well to take to heart the Zapatistas' message:

"We believe that a people which does not watch over its leaders is condemned
to be enslaved, and we fought to be free, not to change masters every six
years."

Reuss is an associate of Dollars & Sense magazine.


Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.
Submitted by PAAMember on January 17, 2006 - 12:03pm.

'The Zapatistas practice a different kind of politics. In the areas of
Chiapas where the EZLN is strong, they have not simply governed on their own
authority, but have largely stepped back and allowed indigenous "autonomous
communities" to decide how to govern themselves.'

This sounds a lot like a form of anarchy. I don't know a lot about anarchy,
but I have read enough to know that most anarchists believe people have the
innate ability to govern themselves if given the chance. This Zapatista
movement sounds extremely interesting. I agree that most of the time
politicians in the U.S. and elsewhere will say and do just about anything to
get votes from the electorate and once they get into office they forget
about their constituency.

Thanks very much for posting this, Aimee.

Kris