The Zapatistas Break their Silence
In an incident that helped break the Zapatistas’ long silence,
Subcomandante Marcos described Spanish judge Baltasar Garzón
as a “fascist” while Garzón countered that Marcos was a “drifting ship.”
It can only be hoped that this serious mistake, which Marcos has
tried to rectify, will not affect the cause he represents
on the international level.
Ever since the Mexican legislative branch passed an Indigenous Law that failed to honor the San Andrés accords, the Zapatista high command and its spokesperson Subcomandante Marcos have opted to remain silent. While the silence has been deafening, the powers that be have preferred to ignore it. Meantime, Zapatista support communities and various civil society organizations continued to talk about the indigenous cause.
Successful autonomy In the middle of 2002 the conclusions of the National Peace Conference were announced. Over a thousand people from 285 organizations and 23 Mexican states attended the conference, which was held in San Cristóbal de las Casas. While experts discussed whether what was going on in Chiapas was a war of attrition, low intensity warfare or a counterinsurgency operation, the participants concluded that it was a neo-colonial war involving ethnocide. They also reported that military intrusion into the communities was continuing, that agrarian uncertainty was multiplying land conflicts in the communities and that the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) was still acting as an instrument of peace because it was making an enormous effort to prevent the violence from increasing. Among other elements of their analyses, the most important highlighted the ongoing affirmation of autonomy, which was now a concrete practice expressing the communities’ capacity to regulate their own coexistence. Many communities are already producing what they need and achieving food self-sufficiency without sacrificing commercial opportunities.
in a hostile climate
The conference evaluated how the Zapatistas were successfully promoting autonomous markets and combining traditional practices and contemporary tools. Faced with a single global market in the hands of a few, alternative markets not governed by greed or dispossession are a positive and viable reality. The conference participants reinforced their decision to continue defending the San Andrés accords, help rebuild the social and community fabric in Chiapas, support autonomy and resistance and expand the new culture of respect for diversity and different cultures in Mexico. These and other pronouncements were summarized in the demand to reconstruct the indigenous peoples and their social and autonomous capacity as part of the civil society of a nation of multiple cultures.
At around the same time, the Fray Bartolomé de las Casas Human Rights Center published a special report on people displaced by the war in Chiapas. By the year’s end, there was consensus among human rights defense groups in Chiapas that the paramilitary groups exist with the complicity of federal and state authorities, their crimes are still committed with impunity and their hostility has not ceased.
In the case of the 1997 Acteal massacre, not even half of those responsible are in prison, certain inquiries have not been followed up and arrest warrants have not been acted upon. Bishop of San Cristóbal Felipe Arizmendi demanded that the truth about Acteal should be finally established, while the victims’ relatives feel that justice has only been partly done. Members of the Las Abejas organization targeted by the massacre point to the impunity through which many of the material authors and all of the intellectual authors of such an atrocious massacre continue to enjoy their freedom.
During a reflection and planning workshop of the Indigenous National Congress, organizations from ten states positively evaluated the EZLN’s policy of silence and opted to continue working to build different forms of autonomy in the communities. They said they would not talk to the government branches anymore because “We’ve already talked to them; we wanted to help them see reason and they didn’t want to.”
Traces of wordsWhile the Zapatistas maintained their silence toward the government, they did occasionally communicate with civil society. At the end of July 2002, Marcos sent architect Fernando Yánez some verses he had written 18 years earlier, when the EZLN was beginning to form, for display in a local museum in Monterrey. The verses were accompanied by the desire that hope could be renewed. In a subsequent letter, Marcos hailed the appearance of the Zapatista magazine Rebeldía, stating that “as we are in silence, and silence isn’t broken but rather cultivated,” it would not refer to current affairs or comment on the Indigenous Law. In an enigmatic promise regarding such issues, the Zapatista spokesperson announced that “the words that will come will come,” then could not resist referring to the country’s political parties. Unsurprisingly, his description of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) as “a den of thieves without Ali Baba,” the National Action Party (PAN) as “an employment agency” and the Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) as “an empty alternative” angered politicians from all three parties.
Marcos’ serious mistakeAt the end of 2002 a meeting place was opened in Madrid as the honorary version of the EZLN encampment headquarters in Mexico known as los Aguascalientes, since the center’s organizers consider the Zapatistas an ethical reference point in the struggle against neoliberalism. During the opening ceremony a letter from Marcos was read out that ranged from political allusions to poetic imagery, among them the prediction of “a geometric growth” of “globalphobes.” The letter’s most controversial reference was to the struggle of the Basque people. Among other strong accusations against prominent Spanish political figures, Judge Baltasar Garzón was dubbed “a grotesque clown at the service of the governing political party,” a “fascist” and a “state terrorist.” These broadsides loosed an avalanche of criticism in both Spain and Mexico. Marcos was accused of siding with Basque terrorism while the few words in his defense were limited to arguing that he was simply irreverent towards any form of power.
A number of commentators agreed that the Zapatista spokesperson had erred by meddling in an international dispute. They considered it a serious insult to accuse the judge of having a “fascist vocation” when he had shown himself a defender of international law and of justice. The Spanish writer Fernando Savater weighed into the debate, his indignation fed by what he interpreted as an alignment with Basque terrorists. “The slander that bothers me is not his, but that of the coryphaeia that urge him on and accompany him in legitimizing or trivializing the crimes committed in my land in the name of a so-called “just cause.”
Writers whose support for the Zapatista cause had stood out also criticized both the tone and content of Marcos’ message. Manuel Vázquez Montalbán lamented the error and pointed out that, like it or not, Judge Garzón had been responsible for many formidable actions against state terrorism and Marcos’ letter had trivialized too many important and polemical issues. José Saramago stressed that all those who supported the indigenous cause in Latin America had been “bewildered” by his backing of ETA and his accusation that the Spanish judge had promoted state terrorism. Mexican columnist Luis Hernández tried to minimize the problem by bringing to light publications revealing the judge’s darker side, such as his failure to deal with the many cases of torture against leftwing Basque nationalists that Amnesty International had denounced to Garzón. But it was to no avail. Garzón had accumulated more bright spots than dark secrets in international public opinion.
Garzón’s angry responseJudge Garzón angrily responded to what he called Marcos’ “sectarian letter.” The following are a few excerpts from his extensive reply:
“Where in your letter are a few words, just a few words, for the victims of terrorism? They are not to be found anywhere, because you (in your repressing fundamentalism, full of authoritarianism and arrogance) exude hatred toward those victims and toward all of us who neither act nor think like you…. Those whom you euphemistically term ‘Basque rebels’ are people submissively linked to the most unjust and demented strategy of violence that exists in Europe... With such attitudes, you will lose even those who follow the dream of the future you have offered them. The indigenous cause will be seriously threatened by the attitudes of extreme intolerance you have adopted.
“I confess, Mr. Marcos, that you represented something different to me: a kind of beam of coherence. Now I can see that I made a serious mistake. I had placed you in a category you did not deserve. You are nothing more than a drifting boat. At the beginning, at the head of your ‘army,’ you had the sympathy of many people (including mine) and you had the chance to bring the indigenous cause safely to port, but you took the wrong course and now we know why. You need not take off your mask to have unmasked yourself: you quite simply do not believe in the essential rights of man or in democracy, or even in the civil rights of your own people.
“I am not, as you claim, a ‘fascist’ or a ‘state terrorist.’ I have never taken up arms in my life (except to hunt partridges). I am essentially a pacifist. I try to apply the law and to honor it rigorously in a social democratic state with a rule of law, as corresponds to me as a law professional, which is where I pledge my responsibility. I have worked 22 years in public service, 14 of them trying to fight drug trafficking, organized crime, corruption, terrorism, state crimes and crimes against humanity with the weapons offered by the law. I have made mistakes during this long battle, but unlike you I have shown my face, signed my name and assumed my errors. You, on the other hand, hide like a coward behind a kind of parapet that turns you into a strange, exotic being, a ghost behind a mask and a ridiculous pipe.
“I challenge you—whenever and wherever you want and without masks or disguises—to talk face to face about terrorism, rebelliousness, dignity, struggle, insurgency, politics, justice and all of those values that serve to build a country and a democracy and defend the rights of those who have the least. ‘Today is still forever,’ said Antonio Machado. I harbor the faint hope that you will recover the sense you seem to have lost and the democratic essence you perhaps once had.”
Marcos had certainly slipped up, and he quickly set about repairing the damage. Five letters written by him in the name of the EZLN were circulated during December and he accepted Baltasar Garzón’s challenge. He proposed that the debate take place in Lanzarote, on the Canary Islands, between April 3 and 10 and that Garzón should obtain the necessary guarantees and safe-conducts for Marcos and six “squires” to attend the intellectual duel. The latter term chosen for his bodyguards was one of several playful references to Don Quixote.
He also proposed a parallel, but not simultaneous, meeting of all the political, social and cultural actors involved in the Basque problem that wanted to attend. The theme would be “The Basque Problem: ways forward.” He invited Garzón to come to the meeting to listen and help ensure the government’s goodwill towards the event, and invited the Spanish government to send a high-level delegation to listen and speak. Marcos would also attend, but only as an observer because the only issue was the sovereignty of the Basque people. Marcos also called on ETA to commit itself to a military truce for 177 days, starting on December 24, and called on Basque civil society to mobilize in a campaign to “give words a chance.”
Marcos’ proposals combined very concrete and witty elements. He promised to unmask himself if he lost the debate with Garzón, and called on his opponent to demand the recognition of indigenous rights and culture should Marcos come out on top. The Spanish government declared that the letter was “eccentric” and “incoherent” and disqualified his proposals on the grounds that he was “an outsider.” Meanwhile, European Union migration authorities stated that Marcos could enter Europe if his papers were in order, using his real name and surname and without a mask.
Marcos distances himself In his letter to ETA, Marcos explained that his previous letter had been misinterpreted because it clearly referred to the Basque political struggle and not to the military one, but he acknowledged his ambiguity. To leave no doubt about his position, he stressed that the EZLN had not carried out and would not carry out any military action against civilians. He emphatically condemned such attacks and criticized ETA’s actions against civilians. Marcos specified that the EZLN considered the Basque people’s struggle for their sovereignty to be legitimate and just, but that such a noble and just cause did not justify the sacrifice of civilian lives. The letter ended with a strong condemnation of armed actions that harm civilian populations, be they loyal to ETA, the Spanish state, George W. Bush, the Israelis or the Palestinians.
from ETA and apologizes
With this Marcos separated himself from the accusation that his letter to Madrid’s Aguascalientes center showed him to be “an apologist for terrorism.” He repeatedly stressed that not only do the Zapatistas not practice terrorism, they actually condemn it, believing that something should be done to change the criminal logic imposed around the planet that terror can be fought with terror. It cannot be defeated that way, and is only a trap that forces people to choose between one form of terror and another. The Zapatistas propose finding a new path and hoped that Iberian dignity would show the world that it was possible and necessary to give words a chance, change the warlike logic and create a ray of hope for all peoples.
Marcos offered his sincere apologies to relatives of the victims of both ETA and the Spanish state—among whom he knew there were many Zapatista sympathizers—for any lack of respect his ambiguity may had added to their pain: “We wholeheartedly hope you understand us and one day will forgive us for the part we are responsible for.” He lamented that the Spanish government had manipulated the suffering of the victims of ETA terrorism to distract attention from its criminal inefficiency in dealing with the ecologically catastrophic oil spill affecting the coasts of Galicia and the Galician people.
Speaking about Mexico againIn another letter, Marcos called on the leftist political, social and cultural organizations from the Basque country to look for new ways of winning their sovereignty. He invited them to his proposed meeting, calling for the biggest possible concentration of forces to come together in a spirit of inclusion and tolerance to organize the forum. As the terror being encouraged by both sides blocked alternatives, Marcos asked them to talk and listen to each other. Subcomandante Marcos touched upon a Mexican issue in passing when he stated that the Basques did have an alternative political project, unlike the Mexican parliamentary Left.
In fact, the Zapatista spokesperson used this cluster of apologetic letters to break his silence on the Mexican situation. He emphasized that Mexico’s three branches of government had violated international law by ignoring indigenous rights and culture and announced that the EZLN would file suit against former President Zedillo for his responsibility in the crimes against humanity committed during the Acteal massacre.
Marcos picks himself up off the matIn an interview, José Saramago described Marcos’ proposal for the Basque country as positive, although it remained to be seen whether ETA would dare take it up. Making a place for dialogue as a way of seeking solutions would be “a much-desired demonstration that utopias are achievable,” said Saramago, pointing out that Marcos’ rectification showed that his thinking was as always based “on the pedagogy of words.”
Vázquez Montalbán declared that he would back any possibility of dialogue, but warned that no breakthrough would be possible if civil society did not participate. He expressed sympathy for the Zapatista leader’s splendid proposal to call a meeting of the political and cultural forces involved in the Basque question, although he considered it unlikely that the Spanish government would accept. He described Marcos’ rectification as “an intelligent, lucid and very ingenious solution,” while the proposal itself seemed good because with so few possible solutions to the Basque question, he would accept any one, even if it were “surrealist.” For Vázquez Montalbán, Marcos’ second letter sorted out the “blunder of the first one, which caused damage and unease.”
Mexican columnist Emanuel Carballo considered that the subcomandante had picked himself up off the mat and annulled the count. He praised the rectification, because the letter to Madrid had erred in its “disinformation, flippancy and rather injudicious position,” when the Zapatistas’ greatest victory had been to associate its name with peace. In the new letters, Marcos had once more favored dialogue.
Terrorism: “Genetically counter Answers were also forthcoming from Spanish and Basque political parties. Herri Batasuna, the separatist Basque party outlawed by Judge Garzón, accepted the proposal for dialogue to resolve the Basque conflict. Izquierda Unida supported the proposal as well and its general coordinator sent Marcos a letter thanking him for his concern about Spanish issues at a time “when you are seeing many of your own hopes frustrated and your silence has been disbelieved by those who should have been attentive to its clamor.” He stated that Izquierda Unida had condemned and would continue to condemn all cases of aggression against the indigenous communities and the mercantilism affecting the goods and lands belonging to humanity as a whole and in the hands of the peoples that had ancestrally inhabited those lands.” He thanked the Zapatistas for not showing the least indulgence towards ETA’s terrorism—Izquierda Unida activists described ETA as a “band of assassins”—and stressed that “terrorism is genetically counter to a transforming Left.”
to the Left”
Several intellectuals held a cultural forum in Madrid to support the EZLN’s call for peace and express concern over the imposition of a warlike logic that was placing the citizenry and its freedom in danger. The EZLN’s recently opened political and social center in Madrid also welcomed the proposal to hold a debate on the Basque conflict. During the whole controversy, however, ETA failed to suspend its terrorist activities and no truce was called.
ETA rejects Marcos’s “pantomime”In early January this year, ETA issued its response to Marcos, which was interpreted as an attempt to separate Marcos from indigenous Zapatistas. They explained that they were willing to receive “serious proposals” but described his letter as a “desperate maneuver to attract international attention,” stressing that ETA was unwilling to take part in any “pantomime.” They complained that the proposal had been made public without so much as consulting them, which they considered a show of “disrespect.”
Marcos was quick to reply and again clarified his position. He explained that the Zapatistas had launched their initiative without prior consultation because they do not make shady deals. They were not attempting to tell anybody what to do and had only called for words to be given a chance, but if ETA did not want to do so then so be it. In reply to ETA’s statement that EZLN children understand everything without words, Marcos replied that Zapatistas treat children like children and that the powers that be are the ones who use war to treat them like adults. That’s why Zapatistas talk to their children and teach them words, along with love and dignity.
He also offered ETA an important lesson related to “teaching to fight with words.” The Zapatistas make their children see that while “words don’t kill, words can be killed, along with human beings.” They take great care to teach their children “the existence of different ways of thinking, which they should respect.” They warn them that some people want their way of thinking to be the only way and persecute, jail and kill people whose way of thinking they view as different. In this respect they are taught to tell the truth, to talk and to listen, because “he who speaks and does not listen ends up believing that only what he says is of any value.”
ETA “prefers tragedies”Marcos also referred to ETA’s statement that it did not want to take part in any kind of “pantomime,” which Marcos accepted, understanding this to mean that ETA prefers “tragedies.” He reminded them that the Zapatistas take no one seriously, even themselves, because “those who take themselves seriously end up thinking that their truth is for everyone and is eternal,” which is different from taking reality seriously. He explained that the proposed meeting had to be serious, which was why the Zapatistas had proposed it to the political and social forces from the Basque country, which would be responsible for organizing it.
Marcos stressed that the Zapatistas have neither the means nor the obligation to consult ETA before speaking, because they had won the right to use words and did not have to ask anyone’s permission to do so. Neither did he accept that they had shown any lack of respect to the Basque people, attributing ETA’s reaction to the fact that “proposing to give them a chance to use words runs against the interests of those who from apparently opposite positions have made the death of words their business and alibi.” He denied being misinformed and called on ETA to inform the Basque people. In reaction to ETA’s statement that they represented the Basque people, Marcos responded that respect is not the same as fear. The Zapatistas do not allege to represent anybody but themselves: “We do not represent the whole Mexican people, or the Mexican Left or all of Mexico’s indigenous peoples.” They had renounced acting as a vanguard together with the idea of obliging anyone to accept their way of thinking through any method that did not involve the force of reasoning. Their weapons are not to impose ideas or ways of life, but rather to defend a way of thinking and a way of viewing the world and relating to it.
Finally, Marcos established that the EZLN did not need ETA’s support or solidarity, because its struggle has “a code of honor inherited from our ancestors that includes, among other things, respecting civilian lives, not resorting to crime to obtain resources and not responding to words by opening fire.” The EZLN referred to the end of the ETA communiqué, which proclaimed “long live free Chiapas,” pointing out that they do not want to split from Mexico; they want to be part of it, but without ceasing to be what they are. That’s why they always end their communications by proclaiming “Long live Mexico with its indigenous peoples.”
Marcos’ “ambiguities” It was impossible for Marcos’ incursion into Spanish affairs not to produce waves back in Mexico. Members of the legislature’s Harmony and Peace Commission (COCOPA) said the EZLN would be better off making national declarations than international ones and demanded that the Zapatistas act according to their Spanish proposal, which would imply abandoning their silence in Mexico and giving words a chance here. The Government Secretariat stated that it would issue no safe-conduct or benefits to the EZLN leader that do not comply with the law.
harm the Zapatistas
Bishop emeritus Samuel Ruiz considered that in the end Marcos had left it clear that violence was not the correct way. The current bishop of San Cristóbal, Felipe Arizmendi, supported Marcos’ call to ETA and asked the subcomandante to practice what he preached and reinitiate negotiations in Mexico. He accepted that the first letter’s ambiguities had harmed the Zapatistas, but was glad they had quickly explained themselves and that the EZLN had shown laudable signs of having permanently rejected terrorism, which was an example for the whole world. The bishop expressed his support for the EZLN’s just causes because they were the causes of the indigenous peoples and the poor.
The return to words in MexicoIt was in this context that the EZLN started 2003 by conclusively breaking its silence over the Mexican situation. Government Peace Commissioner Luis H. Álvarez had previously claimed publicly that he had collected information in pro-Zapatista indigenous communities that the grass roots in several regions were beginning to differ with some of the EZLN comandantes. The commissioner blamed the Zapatista movement for the absence of dialogue and claimed that certain sectors of it were being questioned by their own communities, which were open to the idea of collaborating on the organization of infrastructure projects for roads, production and housing improvement. He considered that such projects could be implemented more quickly if there was dialogue with EZLN representatives.
While it had remained silent, the Zapatista movement was focusing on strengthening autonomy in its municipalities. On January 1, 2003, some 20,000 indigenous people from around 40 autonomous municipalities, covering their faces and carrying machetes, symbolically took the city of San Cristóbal de las Casas. They included comandantes of both sexes, demonstrating that the leaders were united and supported their spokesperson. The leaders known as Tacho, David, Omar, Míster, Brus Li (sic), Esther and Fidelia all spoke. Effectively breaking the silence, they talked about what they thought of the political situation and what they planned for the future.
The event was held to commemorate the ninth anniversary of the day the EZLN first broke onto the public scene. The speakers briefly reviewed the different political actors, answered various questions and rumors and demonstrated that Zapatismo is not dead. The leaders denounced what they termed the main parties’ “confabulation” against the indigenous people and accused the PAN, PRI and PRD of having closed the doors to dialogue and wanting to confine the Zapatistas in a war against the paramilitary forces. Comandante Tacho explained that they consider the PAN “a racist party that uses Indians as servants,” while the PRI resents the EZLN because its appearance implied that party’s defeat. He explained that the EZLN was disinterested in any short-term electoral agenda and called the parties “traitors,” comparing the governing PAN to the PRI. Finally, Tacho reaffirmed the rejection of the free trade agreement with the United States and Canada that the Zapatistas had expressed since their public debut on January 1, 1994, and accused President Fox of having policies similar to those of PRI predecessor Zedillo.
Comandante Esther told Fox that people were “disillusioned with his deceit.” The Zapatista movement claimed its right to link up with other struggles in Mexico and other parts of the world. They thus expressed their solidarity with the Italian and Argentine peoples, supported Venezuela’s right to self-determination and rejected US policy.
The comandantes also rejected rumors of a conflict among the Zapatista leadership—“we are not disunited or fighting”—and wondered why they would fight among themselves when they still had others to fight against. They warned the government peace commissioner, one of those responsible for the rumors, that they would not allow him to enter the Zapatista communities and would not recognize him as a mediator. They left it clear that they did not want charity handout programs and that the roots of the problem in Chiapas had to be dealt with. And to undermine any speculation that Marcos was in conflict with the indigenous people, they stressed that the Clandestine Committee supported his communiqués and actions. At the end of their appearance, they proclaimed “the globalization of rebelliousness and dignity.”
The government caught off guardWhen the EZLN suddenly reappeared on the scene, the executive branch did not know what to do. Peace Commissioner Álvarez replied that he was still open to dialogue and asked the EZLN to give peace another chance, but his words did not contain even a hint of self-criticism related to the Zapatistas’ reasons for not trusting the government.
Meanwhile some of the parliamentary representatives belonging to COCOPA, and one belligerent PRD legislator in particular, accused Marcos of having cornered the indigenous movement. They claimed that he was putting “a break” on the movement and lying to the indigenous people. This was because the Zapatistas had inferred that PRD leader Cuauhtémoc Cardenas had traded recognition of his son’s victory in the Michoacan governor’s race for the PRD senators’ endorsement of the indigenous legislation that goes against the San Andrés accords. The Zapatistas had certainly exaggerated this interpretation, as electoral victory does not depend—as used to be the case—on high-level party negotiations, but was the result of the Michoacan voters’ free choice.
The reappearance of the Zapatistas obliged COCOPA to call an urgent meeting. This parliamentary commission again invited the EZLN to set a time and date for a meeting aimed at reactivating dialogue, but did not open any doors to amending the legislation that had caused the distancing of the Zapatistas in the first place. The Zapatistas made it quite clear that they expect nothing from the state or even from parties such as the PRD, because its representatives soon forgot they had originally opposed passage of the Indigenous Law, and took part in the legal game of regulating it.
Hollow calls for dialogueThe powers that be returned to the well-trodden path of empty and none-too credible calls for dialogue that so far have only led to betrayal of the San Andrés accords on indigenous culture and rights. The Zapatistas rejected the idea of such an official dialogue in which they could not trust, preferring to strengthen their autonomy and the search for dialogue and support within an alternative popular movement far from the scramble for electoral posts.
Meanwhile, a combative alliance of independent peasant organizations continues to grow throughout the country. It is opposed to implementation of the agrarian section of the free trade agreement and its demands include respect for the San Andrés accords.