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Central American University - UCA  
  Number 261 | Abril 2003



Zapatista Chiaroscuro: The Risk of Sectarianism

While anti-war protesters took to the streets in Mexico, Marcos explained why the Zapatistas wanted to go to Europe to work for peace, and why they decided not to go. Recent debates have again demonstrated both the Zapatistas’ achievements and their sectarianism and contradictions.

Jorge Alonso

The United States has forced a unilateral, illegal, unjust, genocidal invasion on the world, and countless innocent victims will pay the cost. In response, a growing global movement is demanding the end of such bloody, destructive aggression. On March 15 in Madrid, during one of the many huge marches organized by this new world movement for peace, Nobel Laureate José Saramago described public opinion against the war as a new world power. There have been numerous and continuous demonstrations for peace in every corner of Mexico. Fortunately, the Fox government, which had previously been so submissive to US interests, put up a dignified defense of national sovereignty in response to the Bush administration’s pressures and threats to try to line up Mexico’s vote in the Security Council behind its crazed thirst for war. Fox’s position won him the support of political leaders and the vast majority of the Mexican people. The only ones to urge that we bow to the US government’s demands were a handful of business leaders, who pointed to the economic damage that could ensue from US reprisals. Some of them went so far as to argue that “principles are for beginners.” Finally, when it was clear that the nation was largely united around this issue—the first time such unity has been achieved on any issue since the government took office—the business association ended up granting lukewarm approval to Fox’s position. Most Mexicans believe that the blood of the civilian population of any nation on the planet is not negotiable in the market of US promises and threats. The Mexican government rose to the challenge and faithfully represented the pacifist will of the Mexican people and the multilateralism that has traditionally characterized Mexican foreign policy.

Message from Marcos in Italy

The Zapatista movement has been present in many ways in the immense worldwide peace movement. In one of the massive peace marches in Italy, the mother of the Italian activist killed in the anti-globalization march in Genoa two years ago read a message from Marcos: “Bush’s war is a war over money designed to create fear.” Marcos argued that Bush was acting like the “global police” and was only able to do so thanks to electoral fraud. He said that for the Zapatistas, the weak’s only strength lies in their dignity, which motivates them to resist the powerful, to rebel. “The question,” he said, “is not whether we can change the murderous course of the powerful but whether we can live with the shame of not having done all we could to prevent or stop this war.” Marcos called on people to voice a universal “‘no’ to war, to fear, to resignation, to renouncing our humanity. It is the ‘no’ of humanity against neoliberalism.”

EZLN plans to go to Europe

Around the same time, in the context of a series of statements addressed to people at home, Marcos tried to explain publicly why he was trying to organize a Zapatista visit to Europe.

Since late 2002, the EZLN has been exploring whether it could regain in the international realm some of the ground it had been losing in Mexico. The plan was to send a delegation to Europe to visit international organizations in an effort to obtain recognition of indigenous rights and culture, with support from those in Mexico and around the world who have sympathized with the indigenous cause. The idea was to organize a march similar to the one in Mexico in 2001, with one fundamental difference. While in that first march through Mexico the Zapatistas had limited themselves to the indigenous issue, in the international march they would link it to the struggles of other peoples around the world, especially those related to the recognition of differences, resistance and rebellions, and with opposition to the war already being prepared by the United States against Iraq.

The Zapatistas felt that the drive to war could best be countered in Europe, and that the force of the opposition could then spread to the rest of the world. In his messages, Marcos explained that it was not that the Zapatistas felt they had the capacity to spark such an international movement, but that they believed they could help set it in motion alongside other forces that were already in action in Europe. He saw a visit to Europe as an opportunity to participate more directly in building “a world with room for all worlds.” He clarified that they weren’t planning to go on their best behavior but rather to spread words of rebellion.

A damning revelation: True or false?

The Zapatistas were looking into where and how to travel when the Zapatista General Command was contacted on November 2, 2002, on behalf of someone who had been very close to the circles of Mexican political and economic power from 1993 to 1996. Once they agreed with the conditions of discretion and secrecy, the Zapatistas were given a message from this person, who claimed to have information that could be useful to the Zapatistas and concluded, “If you’re interested let me know. It has to do with Acteal.” Marcos explained that it was not the first time that government dissidents had sent them information, which sometimes turned out to be true and sometimes false.

In a series of messages, Marcos summed up what this person had revealed. In the months following February 1995, after Zedillo’s plot against the EZLN and the military offensive in Chiapas accompanying it had failed, and in the wake of the theatrical detention of Raúl Salinas de Gortari, Generals Cervantes Aguirre (Secretary of National Defense) and Renán Castillo (not only head of the military but also the de facto governor of Chiapas) insisted on the need to activate paramilitary groups to deal with the Zapatistas. Castillo had studied in the United States and Cervantes had very good relations with the US Defense Department. They put together a plan they called “Colombia” with State Department support, but Zedillo could not decide whether to carry it out.

That same year a member of the Spanish government visited Mexico. He was very close to President Zedillo and attended meetings that dealt with state affairs, in one of which Zedillo mentioned the Zapatistas and the problem of how to get rid of them, given that they had public opinion on their side.

The informant claimed that the Spaniard proposed destroying Zapatista legitimacy: since the Zapatistas fought for indigenous people, it was simply a matter of getting them to fight against indigenous people. He gave Zedillo the example of what had happened in Spain, where groups had been created to counter the Basque independence movement. The Spaniard said that “killing and kidnapping assassins is not a crime but rather a favor to society.” He explained how the groups created by the Spanish government not only killed and kidnapped but also carried out terrorist attacks and blamed them on the Basque separatist group ETA. He assured that no one asked any questions when terrorists were killed, and argued that serious decisions had to be made for reasons of State security.

Zedillo replied that the recipe wouldn’t work in Mexico because the Zapatistas weren’t terrorists. The Spaniard had the solution: “Let’s make them into terrorists.” They would have to create an armed indigenous group, orchestrate a conflict with the Zapatistas, let them fight and kill each other, and then send in the army to establish peace. Voilá! The problem would be solved. Given his own experience, the Spaniard offered to provide advice, which naturally would not come free: the Mexican government would have to cooperate with the Spanish government by extraditing ETA members residing in Mexico. Zedillo objected that the Basques in question had never been proven to be ETA members, but the Spaniard said that he would take care of ensuring they were identified as such. He also offered the Spanish government’s support in trade negotiations between Mexico and Europe. The Spaniard concluded by bragging: “If we Spanish are experts at anything, it’s exterminating Indians!”

1997: The “Spanish plan” in Acteal

Based on this information, Marcos inferred the rest of what happened as part of the “Spanish plan.” Zedillo ordered the activation of paramilitary groups. The Spanish government provided advice and in return the Mexican government stepped up its extradition of purported ETA members. On December 22, 1997, a paramilitary group set out to meet the Zapatistas. The Zapatistas retreated to avoid a conflict between indigenous people and warned non-Zapatistas of the threat. The unarmed Las Abejas group remained in Acteal, trusting that their neutrality would keep them safe. But the plan was carried out against whoever was in Acteal: civilians, mostly women and children, were massacred while the police and military waited patiently to come in and impose peace in a “conflict among indigenous people.” What took place was not a battle but a massacre, and the truth came out thanks to the media.

Word of the Acteal massacre traveled around the world. On March 10, 1998, Spanish President Felipe González was interviewed by the Mexican journalist Luis Hernández. González said that events like the Acteal massacre always create a huge commotion since we are living in a time of media globalization, but lamented that far more serious events in other places never surmount the communication barriers.

As Marcos now interprets that interview, “González presented it all as a problem of media exaggeration,” and Marcos now wonders if he was not perhaps the Spaniard who spoke with Zedillo about paramilitary groups and extradition of the Basques, listing the times that Zedillo and Felipe González met as heads of state. He even wondered whether the reason for Aznar’s visit to Mexico in February 2003 was not to convince Fox to vote in favor of Bush’s war in the UN, but rather to ensure that the Zapatistas wouldn’t go to Spain.

Why Spain and
why the Basque issue?

After recounting this story, Marcos explained why the Zapatistas’ proposed visit to Europe should begin in Spain and why it would have to address the Basque question. Indeed, justifying why the Zapatistas were obliged to address the Basque issue was one of the reasons for revealing the plot because it showed how the Spanish government itself had mixed the Basque issue up with the indigenous struggle. “The Zapatistas consider it our duty,” Marcos explained, “to go to Spain to demonstrate to the King, to Felipe González, to José María Aznar and to Baltasar Garzón that they are lying when they say ‘if the Spanish are experts at anything, it’s exterminating Indians,’ since we are still alive, resisting and rebelling.” He said that while the Zapatistas would not provoke a massacre in Spain, they could provoke a debate. The initiative he launched a few months ago for a meeting on the Basque issue, called “give words a chance,” grew out of this concern. “There was also,” according to Marcos, “the problem that the Basque issue was a taboo among progressive forces. It could only be brought up to condemn ETA terrorism, while carefully ignoring two things: one, state terrorism, and two, that ETA is not the only force fighting for the sovereignty of Euskal Herria.”
Marcos said that the Zapatistas didn’t realize they’d get into so much trouble by addressing the Basque question, but considered it their duty to do so. He recalled that they had hinted at where they would take aim during the presentation of the new journal Rebeldía on November 17, 2002, and that several days later they decided to lob “a provocation” at Felipe González, although it was Baltasar Garzón whose ego was wounded. The EZLN, he clarified, never proposed mediating in the Basque conflict, nor telling the Basques what they should or shouldn’t do. He acknowledged that while the Zapatistas’ proposals may have been clumsy or naïve, they were not dishonest: “there were no hidden accords or double-dealing.” He also said that they were planning to reveal the information they had received on the plot cooked up by Zedillo and “the Spaniard” during their visit and when they presented criminal charges to international organizations.

Marcos once again defended himself from the criticisms that rained in from all sides when he took up the Basque question, accusing him of meddling in an issue he didn’t understand. He countered that he had more knowledge of the issue than many imagined: he knew about the connection between Spanish and Mexican state terrorism.

Defensive arguments
and offensive adjectives

Having made all these clarifications, Marcos announced that the Zapatistas wouldn’t drop the issue, but had decided to cancel their visit to Spain. He reiterated that his initiative had been clean and honest, but that he had quickly been surrounded by the condemnation and misunderstanding “of those who claim to be progressive but when pressed by the media, refused to see the implications.”
He had only a “feeling of reproach” for them and no more, because bitterness could not be sustained against those who “can be mean, but have been generous on other occasions.” And he continued to vent his feelings: “Someone on the left even dared, in a mean, low-down way, to suggest that the EZLN’s position on ETA was a condition set by the Spanish government to allow the Zapatista delegation to visit Spain.” He appealed to history: the EZLN’s position on terrorism dates back to its foundation.

He turned his arguments over and over: if the Zapatistas had decided not to participate in the meeting on the Basque issue, it was not because they were worried about “criticisms, reproaches and mean accusations,” but rather because they could not ethically participate in a meeting that didn’t have the support of all nationalist forces in the Basque country. In such a case, the meeting would run the risk of degenerating into a tribunal to judge those who were absent, instead of a forum to discuss and analyze the Basque country’s options. Finally, he offered apologies to all the people of the Basque country who he had hurt or wounded and hoped they would someday forgive him.

With respect to the proposed debate with Baltasar Garzón that had emerged in the wake of his earlier critical remarks, Marcos explained that the Zapatistas had waited long enough and Garzón, who was the challenger in this debate, had chosen to remain silent. Marcos accused Garzón of citing laws for want of truth. And he once again turned to adjectives: “We previously accused Garzón of being a grotesque clown. This was not true. He’s only a chatterbox and a coward.” Marcos concluded this series of statements by thanking the Basque organizations that had responded positively to the EZLN’s initiative and hoping that the proposed meeting could still be held in the future.

Criticism for all sides

Since the beginning of 2003, Marcos has once again been speaking out vigorously to people both in Mexico and abroad, asking them to understand his long silence and his renewed words.

On Mexican issues, Marcos commented on the Supreme Court verdict to uphold the legislators’ “counter-reform” of the indigenous law, denying indigenous rights and undercutting their interests. This decision, he stated, had brought the three state branches together to definitively rule out dialogue and negotiation as a way to resolve the Zapatista uprising. He listed the number of indigenous people in each Mexican state, drawing on official statistics, and summarized the problems and struggles of the various indigenous peoples based on notes he had gathered during the Zapatistas’ 2001 march.

His criticisms of the entire Mexican political class were caustic. The creation of “the new old PRI,” he said, could not hide the fact that the old party refused to die. He recalled that PRI Senator Manuel Bartlett, one of the leading figures behind the counter-reform of the indigenous law, had used expropriated land to build a shopping center, golf club and exclusive residential development when he was governor of Puebla. Bartlett, he said, wanted to make himself out to be a patriot defending national sovereignty by opposing the privatization of the electricity industry, but people shouldn’t be fooled, since he was holding out until the price was right, “preferably in dollars.” He accused the PRI government of Veracruz of repression: under the PRI dictatorship, he said, the federal government used foreign policy to cover up a policy of domestic terror.

Marcos ran down the list of those already aspiring to be candidates in the 2006 presidential elections. He described the campaign of President Fox’s wife as an attempt to turn 80 million Mexicans into “grateful beggars” and called Government Secretary Santiago Creel a “psychopath.” He described the project of Fox and his National Action Party (PAN) as an effort to favor big business and “transform the nation and its history into business.”
According to Marcos, there are no ideological disputes in the PAN: all of the party’s internal rival groups have the same economic, political, social and cultural project. The internal struggles are over minor differences in their political and economic interests. Marcos also accused the PAN governor of Morelos of expropriating the lands of small farmers to make way for maquilas and mentioned that he had already been accused of cooperating with organized crime.

But the Zapatista leader reserved his sharpest criticism for the Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD). He said that what had once been a leftist party had become “a party without principles or a program.” It abided by the logic of the political class and only aspired to slightly tip the balance, making it “a Left agreeable to the Right.” In response to Zapatista criticisms, PRD leader Rosario Robles had already admitted that the vote cast by PRD senators on the indigenous bill had been a mistake and had called on the Zapatistas not to fight “among friends.” But Marcos didn’t listen; he continued the fight. He again accused Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas of being responsible for that vote, and the PRD of having chosen to be an “accomplice of the Right.”

A running battle with the PRD

Marcos explained how the new indigenous law was a triumph for the political class over the indigenous peoples. He admitted that although the PRD’s representatives in the House had voted against the law, they more recently voted to approve its specific regulations. According to Marcos, the PRD has been voting in favor of neoliberalism and against the Mexican people for the past three years. As an example, he mentioned how in December 2002 several PRD legislators had joined the PRI and the PAN to vote against the suspension of the agricultural section of NAFTA. This is currently one of the main concerns of Mexico’s small farmers, who fear they will be put out of business by cheap (and US government-subsidized) grain imports from the North.

He accused the PRD government of Michoacán of having tried to break the indigenous movement by coopting it and pushing it towards the government’s positions in an effort to dilute resistance. He charged the PRD mayor of the Federal District with trying to “control” the social movements, believing that “simulation was still effective,” and concluded that the idea of the “city of hope”—the municipal government’s slogan—was coming to mean nothing more than its leader’s presidential hopes.

In the Federal District, Marcos said, “people have lost the capacity to be shocked by corruption.” He expressed his opposition to the “zero tolerance” plan imported from New York by the capital’s PRD authorities, since it would limit individual rights and advance conservative thinking in an effort to build a wall excluding the poor from Mexico City. Finally, he charged that the municipal government favored businesspeople, and mentioned by way of example that the foundation for the city’s historic center was headed up by Carlos Slim, the richest man in Mexico and Latin America.

Another wave of criticisms fell on the PRD’s internal elections. Marcos asked how much had been spent on radio and television ads, and wondered why a leftist party was resorting to surveys to elect its candidates and promoting names and faces instead of principles and programs. The PRD had lost 67% of the municipalities it once won, he said, because the party governed like the PRI and the PAN. According to Marcos, it is clear that the PRD’s language wasn’t reaching young people, indigenous people or peasant farmers. For Marcos, the PRD contains “a new political class that is living off the budget” and he thus dismissed the argument that people should keep voting for it due to the lack of alternatives.

“An intelligent rebelliousness”
is emerging

Marcos also referred in his messages to the mass media, which he sees as alternating “between easy scandals and lies.” Nor did he forget the Catholic Church. He alluded to Bishop Onésimo Cepeda as an example of the country’s many top church officials who can be found giving blessings on golf courses and in luxury restaurants, “at the sumptuous tables where everything abounds except dignity and shame.” The bishop represents the Church that worships the gods of power and money and is indulgent “with crime turned into government and business,” he said, while it condemns to eternal fire the rebelliousness of those who ask for justice and peace. Despite this, Marcos also recognizes the existence of another church that “talks about humility and honesty” and has chosen to stand beside the marginalized.

Marcos also addressed the overexploitation of workers. He explained how the logic of big capital does not prioritize food production. Neoliberalism produces nauseatingly extreme wealth and unbridled corruption in the face of extreme poverty; it creates a bonanza for the rich by plundering the poor. In this context of increasing poverty, Marcos perceives a path of “intelligent rebellion.” He talked of a resistance that demands a great deal and doesn’t make a show. He spoke about the issue of self-management, which is progressing despite the obstacles erected by federal and state governments, and about the experience of good government in the face of official inefficiency. He sees many groups, especially among the young, in a “dispersed, fragmented rebellion.” And he recalled the triumph of the small farmers of Atenca following “a struggle that asked us to believe in what the people can do rather than in politicians.”

Marcos “doesn’t want friends”

Marcos’ statements provoked all kinds of reactions. The PRI governors of Veracruz and Oaxaca said he was “misinformed.” PRD leader Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas wrote a letter to the Zapatista leadership at the beginning of February. He lamented that as a spokesperson for the leadership, Marcos was repeating the unfounded charge—which he had already set straight—that Cárdenas had directed the PRD senators to vote for the counter-reform of the indigenous law. Cárdenas expressed his concern that a social movement like the EZLN, with which one could agree or disagree but which had always acted truthfully, was stooping to lies. He called on the leadership to ask its spokesperson where he had obtained the information that supposedly proved that Cárdenas had told the PRD senators how to vote. He did not want to believe that some people were trying to turn this version into the truth by repeating it over and over again, even though they knew it was a lie. He reiterated his conviction and willingness to contribute whatever he could to achieve peace with justice and dignity in the conflict surrounding the Zapatista uprising.

Pablo Gómez, the PRD representative in the Electoral Institute who had proved the illegal diversion of funds from the oil workers’ union to the PRI’s presidential campaign, also intervened in the dispute. It seemed clear to him that Marcos “doesn’t want friends.” Gómez recalled that it was not the first time Marcos had attacked the PRD, and reiterated that the PRD senators’ vote had been a “mistake” that the party had already recognized on several occasions. He pointed out that the EZLN, too, had made a mistake, by signing one of the San Andrés accords that did not include indigenous autonomy via the creation of a regional government entity with broad attributions. Gómez stressed that while the PRD recognized its error, Marcos refused to admit he had failed to defend the indigenous movement’s most important political demand: regional autonomy. Gómez concluded that Marcos only accepted “subordinates” and was wont to “pontificate.” Another PRD member who had participated in the San Andrés negotiations also intervened in the debate, clarifying that the accords were not only signed by the EZLN but by a larger group of representatives of the Mexican indigenous movement.

“Bitterness” in Marcos

Marcos replied, provocative as always. He accepted the invitation from the governor of Veracruz to visit the state, but asked whether the real acting governor, Alejandro Montano, knew about the invitation. He wondered whether the governor hadn’t already fled, in light of accusations that he was linked to drug trafficking. Marcos also said he hoped the authorities of Veracruz wouldn’t use his visit to throw him into one of their prisons.

To Pablo Gómez he again insisted that the PRD wasn’t a leftist party, and noted that not all political parties are registered. To Cárdenas he responded that the Zapatistas aren’t liars and recalled that the PRD leader had chastised his son Lázaro when he was a senator by asking him, “Are you representing the EZLN or the PRD?” He was pained to think that Cárdenas, whom the Zapatistas viewed as committed to peace and justice with dignity for the indigenous people of Mexico and for all Mexicans, would have thought and said such a thing. And referring to the PRD government in Michoacán, he charged that it was made up of people who first betrayed their principles, then the truth, and then their friends—the Zapatistas—whom they accused of being liars.

Senator Ortega of the PRD lamented the tone of Marcos’ messages and considered that they were dominated by “bitterness” rather than ideological confrontation or a political thesis. Ortega expressed his disagreement with the practice of trying to discredit opponents through insults, personal attacks and lies.

A move towards sectarian positions

The journal Rebeldía, which first appeared in November 2002, includes articles by Zapatistas as well as activists and academics from other parts of the world. Four issues have appeared in the first few months of 2003. Some observers of events in Mexico who have read what has been published in the journal feel that certain sectors of the Zapatista movement have been leaning towards sectarian positions on national issues. It seems as though they have forgotten the brilliant Zapatista line about fighting for a world in which there is room for many worlds, for all worlds. Perhaps this has been fed by the isolation and lack of progress following so many frustrated initiatives.

The Zapatistas called a National Democratic Convention in 1994, but this effort came to naught since sectarian groups prevailed, although this was not the Zapatistas’ fault. The phenomenon was repeated in the Zapatista Front, however, hindering its growth. Of the long list of social movements named by Marcos in his summary of movements in the states visited by the Zapatistas, few were recognizable. And worst of all is the division within many communities in the Zapatista regions.

The Zapatista movement has had a hard time repositioning itself for this new phase of its struggle. The Zapatistas do not want to be subjected to the government’s handout policies, but the resistance has been a very long and tiring one for some sectors. There is never a dearth of specific acts of resistance, but at times there are contradictions. In addition, these isolated acts of resistance do not achieve much in terms of community development, much less social transformation. And isolated acts of resistance have always occurred.

The Zapatista movement’s
clear and luminous side…

The Zapatista movement still speaks of a “new way of doing politics”: the politics of resistance rather than government. It asks people to globalize dissidence. This remains valid. And despite the recent stumbles, it would be unfair not to recognize what the Zapatistas have helped generate in the world: the aspiration for another kind of globalization, one with a humane face, respectful of differences.

The Zapatista movement has been very successful internationally, ever since the Intercontinental Meeting for Humanity and against Neoliberalism held in Chiapas.

In Mexico, their cause has been taken up by the majority of those affected by neoliberalism. And their rallying cry—not to aspire to power but rather to ensure that those who govern do so in accord with the will of the people—is innovative and profoundly democratic. Their struggle for indigenous culture and rights has been a consistent one.

…and its murky, troubling side

Nevertheless, we must recognize the obvious: capital has succeeded in exercising absolute power through a dense network of international institutions that impose their views and their rules, an arrogant and extreme power that is personified today in the US attack against Iraq. The movements against neoliberalism have also been making progress, demanding another world, rising up against this war and all wars. There is great potential in the indignation and rejection of injustice, the rebellion against power and the hope for a different world. But the enemy is very strong. There is a need for a network of political organizations, strong parties and social movements that can propose, from within this global movement of resistance, an alternative project beyond capitalism. And in this project there cannot, there must not be sectarianism.

In Mexico’s case, the “partidocracy” is clearly a problem and certainly must be fought, but never with sectarianism, and always by looking for ways to win allies and increase convergences. The Zapatistas should not forget what they have contributed to 21st century internationalism: a new universalism based on recognition of differences and the struggle for a world that has room for many worlds, for all worlds. The Zapatista movement must now find ways to make sure that sectarianism doesn’t exclude any “world,” whether on Mexican soil or the new global soil.

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