Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 268 | Noviembre 2003



Good-Government Committees: A New Stage for the Zapatistas

In an intriguing initiative, the EZLN has organized nearly half the state of Chiapas into five “Caracoles” run by Good-Government Committees. These committees are guided by the words on a banner that runs across the main road into town: “Here the people rule and the government obeys.”

Jorge Alonso

Just when everyone thought the Zapatista movement had run out of
steam, the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) reemerged in July to announce several new initiatives that had been brewing for the past nine months. They prefaced their statements by admitting that no one is happy with them. When people expected them to talk, they kept quiet; when people wanted them to be quiet, they spoke out; when people looked to them to lead, they stood back; when people wanted them to fall in line, they set out on their own course. They angered even people who sympathize with their cause. But the first to make fun of their “very different way of being” are the Zapatistas themselves: they may not have won, but they haven’t died either. In reappearing, they explained that they hate martyrdom as much as giving up. And they haven’t given up or surrendered; they persist in living.

The moment the Zapatistas chose to speak out again was a singularly tense one. The PRI had grown bolder in the wake of its wins both nationally and locally in the recent elections and the paramilitary groups have become stronger and more aggressive. Indeed, communities in Chiapas describe the environment as similar to the one preceding the Acteal massacre.

A series of statements from Marcos

Thirty municipalities in Chiapas that have been under EZLN control since 1994 and have proclaimed themselves “autonomous” asked Subcomandante Marcos to act temporarily as their spokesperson. In late July and early August, Marcos issued ten statements, a clarification and a recording to explain how these municipalities were now organized and how they would relate to national and international civil society.

Marcos reaffirmed their decision to cut off all contact with the Mexican government and the country’s political parties. He criticized the recent election campaign, noting that the people’s positions were most clearly expressed in the high abstention rate. He accused the political class—including all parties and the executive, legislative and judicial branches—of having crushed the hopes of millions of Mexicans and thousands of people from other countries who have demanded recognition of indigenous rights and culture in Mexico. He insisted that the Zapatistas would continue to resist as a form of struggle. The main point in all his messages was that the Zapatistas had decided to unilaterally apply the San Andrés Accords in the territories in Chiapas under their control.

Aguascalientes dismantled

The first change Marcos announced on behalf of the Zapatista municipalities was the dismantling of the places known as “Aguascalientes.” One of his statements recalled their origins, which date back to the government of President Carlos Salinas de Gortari.

At the time Marcos offered this explanation, Salinas de Gortari had just reappeared on Mexico’s political stage, making this recap of his record even more relevant. After taking office thanks to outrageous electoral fraud, Salinas implemented a number of anti-populist reforms including one that effectively put an end to peasant farmers’ right to their land. The neoliberal model he imposed sent millions of Mexicans to their ruin. It was precisely in response to this policy, perceived as a war of extermination, of ethnocide, that the Zapatistas took up arms to attract the world’s attention in January 1994.

While they knew they didn’t have a chance militarily, they weren’t thinking of becoming martyrs but rather of finding a way to live. Civil society soon encouraged them to take another path: prepared to fire arms, they had to learn to fire words instead. To use the new words they acquired, they needed arenas where they could learn to listen and converse with the plurality of voices they called civil society to distinguish it from political society. They decided to establish a place for this purpose in the Chiapas municipality of Guadalupe Tepeyac. They called it Aguascalientes and turned it over to civil society on August 8, 1994.
The following year, President Zedillo destroyed Aguascalientes, establishing a military base in its place. The Zapatistas then built five more Aguascalientes in five other municipalities: Oventic, La Realidad, La Guarucha, Morelia and Roberto Barrios. Each was designed as a place for dialogue between the Zapatista communities and national and international civil society, where meetings could be held and initiatives developed. Similar places were also established in Mexico City and Madrid.

Neither pity nor charity

In July of this year, the Zapatistas announced that the Aguascalientes had fulfilled their mission, but had also created problems that needed to be corrected. Since the Zapatistas gave out information piece by piece in their series of statements, some observers were initially disconcerted to hear about the end of the Aguascalientes, fearing that the Zapatistas were going to become even more isolated.

One problem in the relationship between the Zapatistas and civil society is that the latter has not always treated the Zapatistas with respect. It hasn’t been a matter of insults but rather of attitudes: some people have felt sorry for them or given them charity, which they found offensive. They gave some of the worst specific examples: people have donated computers that don’t work, expired medicines, extravagant clothes, single shoes.... Some NGOs and international organizations have drafted development projects that imposed both objectives and timeframes on the Chiapas communities without consulting them. Such practices seem hardly different from the paternalistic projects the government has offered them in exchange for their surrender.

The Zapatistas said they have continued to resist the government’s attempts to interfere, making their poverty a lesson in dignity, not something to provoke pity. They explained that they oppose paternalism and charity no matter where it comes from, and pointed to the autonomous municipalities as proof that they are capable of governing themselves. They decided to bring down the curtain on the Aguascalientes in order to signal an end to such relations. Problems aside, Marcos acknowledged that the Zapatistas have not been alone in their efforts to build indigenous autonomy and thanked civil society for its support.

The autonomous municipalities’ evolution to “Caracoles”

In place of the Aguascalientes, the Zapatistas are establishing “Caracoles,” the name they have given to the five territorial seats where Good-Government Committees have been set up in the autonomous municipalities. According to one of the Zapatatista statements, the word means “conch shell,” a Mayan symbol for “the opening to the heart.” Demonstrating the Zapatistas’ pedagogical approach towards the rest of civil society, the statements detailed why they created the autonomous municipalities, how they are governed and what the Caracoles consist of.

The Mexican state’s refusal to fully recognize indigenous rights and turn the San Andrés Accords into legislative reality led to the decision to put the accords into practice in daily life through these new structures, following the path the Zapatistas have been taking to consolidate their autonomous municipalities.

The communities themselves have been democratically governing these municipalities since 1994. Officials who don’t carry out their functions are removed from their posts. People don’t receive salaries for serving in leadership positions; rather, this i
s considered collectively beneficial work and rotates among community members according to an old tradition. The Zapatistas have added some innovative elements, emphasizing the principle of “governing by obeying.” People in the autonomous municipalities have prioritized activities related to health and education, despite their extreme poverty. With support from civil society, they have built health clinics and organized health brigades to conduct hygiene and prevention campaigns. They have also built schools and trained and organized grassroots educators to carry out literacy campaigns. The autonomous councils approve the material taught in Zapatista schools.

The governing councils also address problems related to land, work, business, housing, food, transit, culture, information and the administration of justice in the communities. One of the big achievements in autonomous organization has to do with the dignity of women: progress has been made in changing the custom of “selling” women, who in the past could not freely choose their spouse. And although it is not yet entirely implemented, the councils have passed a progressive law on women’s rights. The Zapatistas are especially proud of the fact that girls—traditionally excluded from education—are now going to school.

The Zapatistas have translated these community-level practices to broader levels. The first higher level is that a group of communities come together to make up an autonomous municipality, where each community has a representative. Above it is the zonal level, which covers a set of groups and municipalities, and is the level at which the EZLN intervenes. In his statements, Marcos recognized that direct community democracy is contaminated to some extent by the military presence. While EZLN officials don’t intervene in elections or hold posts in the community or regional councils and any officials who want to assume such a post must first resign their posts in the EZLN, self-government at all levels is exercised under the shadow of the EZLN’s military structure.

For the past several years, these autonomous municipalities have maintained relations with Zapatista and non-Zapatista communities in Chiapas and with both national and international civil society.

Taking tally and identifying problems

After working this way for several years, the Zapatistas tallied up the achievements in these municipalities. In the process, they identified a serious problem: some municipalities, including the seats of the Aguascalientes, had more resources than others because of closer relationships with national and international civil society and/or easier accessibility by road. This greater benefit from outside support had resulted in differing development levels among both the autonomous municipalities and the individual communities and families. Steps had to be taken to counter these internal inequalities and imbalances as well as the tensions they produced.

While problems within the Zapatista communities were also identified for the autonomous authorities to resolve, the most serious conflicts and tensions were with non-Zapatista communities; for example complaints have been brought against authorities who have not respected the human rights of non-Zapatistas. This is another of the problems that the Zapatistas hope the new form of organization will be able to address.

A Good-Government Committee

in each Caracol The Zapatistas assigned several functions to the Caracoles. First, they are to serve as bridges for the communities, “like mouths that can carry our words to distant places and ears that can hear those far away.” They were given five names, chosen democratically. The Caracol in La Realidad was named “Mother of the caracoles in the sea of our dreams,” the one in Morelia “Whirlwind of our words,” the one in La Garucha “Resistance on the path to a new dawn,” the one in Roberto Barrios “The Caracol that speaks for everyone,” and the one in Oventic “Resistance and rebellion for humanity.”
Good-Government Committees were created in each Caracol as the highest level of administration in the autonomous municipalities. An office was built for each committee, so it would have a place to work. Their main responsibility is to “govern by obeying.” They are in charge of resolving the community’s problems and serving as bridges between the communities and the rest of the world. They have been put in charge of redressing the imbalances in
the development of the autonomous municipalities and communities, and mediating conflicts that arise among autonomous municipalities and between them and state municipalities. They are also responsible for receiving, investigating and finding ways to address any charges filed against the autonomous councils for human rights violations.

The Good-Government Committees have to oversee implementation of community tasks and projects in the autonomous municipalities, seek support for community projects, promote production projects, ensure compliance with Zapatista laws, receive and guide civil society representatives during visits to the rebel zones, establish peace camps and do research for the benefit of the communities. By common agreement with the EZLN’s Indigenous Revolutionary Clandestine Committee’s General Command (CCRI-CG), they must also promote and approve participation by members of the autonomous municipalities in activities outside the rebel communities. The Zapatistas established that the CCRI-CG will be set above these committees to oversee their operations and avoid corruption, intolerance, arbitrary actions, injustice and deviations from the principle of “governing by obeying.”
Just as each Caracol has its own name, each of the five Good-Government Committees was baptized with a name selected by the autonomous council: “Toward hope,” “Heart of the rainbow of hope,” “Path towards the future,” “The new seed that is going to produce” and “The center of the Zapatistas’ heart before the world.”

The good-government regulations

The committees began their work with three sets of regulations. The first established that donations and support from civil society could not be destined for a particular individual, community or municipality. The Committee in each Caracol will evaluate the situation and decide where donations will go and which projects will be accepted. Each project will be charged a 10% “solidarity tax” to be distributed among the communities not receiving support. It was decided that neither leftovers nor alms nor imposed projects would be accepted.

The second set of regulations established that only individuals and collectives registered with the committees will be recognized as Zapatista, to prevent other groups from passing themselves off as such. It was also determined that profits earned by marketing products produced by Zapatista companies or cooperatives will be turned over to the committee to support those who can’t market their products or aren’t receiving any support.

The third set of regulations covers everything related to identification of the Zapatistas to the outside, in an effort to prevent dishonest people from deceiving international and national civil society by purporting to be Zapatistas. They clarified that there are no Zapatista safe houses in Mexico City and thus no one is being trained in one.
The committees were made responsible for issuing accreditations, and it was recommended that these be corroborated. The Zapatistas explained that although the Good-Government Committees would serve non-Zapatistas, they would not impose anything on them.

The PPP will split Mexico in three

Along with this promising initiative, the Zapatistas announced that they will take down the EZLN’s roadblocks, eliminate charges on roads through rebel territory and search only vehicles suspected of transporting wood, drugs or arms.

To accompany this thoroughgoing internal reorganization, the EZLN proposed five plans at the national and global level, prefacing these proposals by insisting that autonomy does not mean fragmenting the country, as many seem to fear, and that no separatist intentions are lurking behind it. All the Zapatistas are asking for is their right to govern themselves. They expressed pride in their Mexican identity, while demanding that their indigenous identity also be recognized and respected.

Aware of the country’s current fragmentation, they charged that the real separatist project is in fact the Puebla Panama Plan (PPP), which will divide Mexico into three pieces. The PPP assigns a productive, commercial role to the north, turning it into a huge maquila and integrating it into the United States. It situates central Mexico as a commercial center to provide goods to consumers and reduces the southeast to a huge plantation, a hunting ground for global capital, a source of natural resources to exploit. The Zapatistas remarked that Mexican capitalists may fear the country’s social organizations but it’s the foreign bankers who are snatching the country out from under them, crushing them under the weight of savage capitalism.

Convinced that the globalization of capital aims to destroy the nation state, the Zapatistas noted that seeds of rebellion and massive, strong resistance to the plans of the powerful can be found all over Mexico. They predict that the PPP will run into trouble as social conflicts intensify and insist that it will not be allowed in Zapatista territory.

Five plans for five Caracoles

The Zapatistas then described plans involving each of their five Caracoles, which are in line with their basic vision of building a world with room for many worlds. The first, named the La Realidad-Tijuana (Reali-Ti) Plan, is to link all resistance efforts in Mexico in order to build the Mexican nation “from below.” The second is the Morelia-North Pole Plan. The third, called the La Garucha-Tierra del Fuego Plan, is for the Caribbean and Central and South America. The fourth, the Oventic-Moscow Plan, covers Europe and Africa. And the fifth, the Roberto Barrios-New Delhi Plan, covers Asia and Oceania. The core of all of these plans is the same: to fight for humanity and against neoliberalism.

The plans were warmly received all around the world. In France, for example, thousands of people who were meeting to prepare what turned out to be the “derailing of the WTO” in Cancún saluted the birth of the Zapatistas’ Caracoles.

“Armies aren’t supposed to govern”

The inaugural celebration for the Caracoles was held on August 10 in the municipality of Oventic. Although the Zapatistas extended an open invitation, they clarified that they were not inviting the political class, nor would they meet with any of its members. Ten thousand people participated in the event, including Zapatistas, indigenous organizations from several states, peasant organizations, union members and activists from a number of foreign countries.

The Zapatista comandantes spoke at the event. Subcomandante Marcos was not present, apparently because of an intestinal disease. Although some observers felt that his absence stripped some of the glitter from the event, others said that it demonstrated who was really in charge of the process.

Marcos made his statement through a recording. He celebrated the birth of the committees, predicting that the example would spread throughout Mexico and the world. Having carried out the task that the autonomous municipalities had temporarily commended to him—to act as their spokesperson in making the statements—he was returning “their ears, their voice and their eyes” to them. From that point on, their authorities and the Good Government Committees would address everything related to the autonomous municipalities.

Marcos clarified some very important points about organization in the Zapatista region. The EZLN would not be the voice of those who governed—even if they governed by obeying—because the Zapatista movement was the voice of those from below, of the governed. The EZLN has a mission to defend the municipalities and committees. He also noted that authorities in Zapatista territory—the autonomous municipalities and the committees—would not resort to the EZLN’s military forces in order to govern. They would have to govern through use of reason, not force. Marcos thus limited the role of armies: they should be used to defend, not govern. And this is precisely what the EZLN will do: defend the communities from the aggressions of a bad government, the paramilitary groups, and anyone else who might want to do them harm.

Positive reactions to the Caracoles

The Mexican government took some time to figure out how to respond to the reappearance of the Zapatistas and the reaffirmation of their break with the government and the whole political class. The founding of the Caracoles obliged government officials to reexamine the new situation. At first, the Government Secretary indicated that the government would not accept them. He later backtracked, declaring that it would respect the EZLN’s actions as long as they are in line with the Constitution. In the end, it decided to accept the Caracoles officially, deeming them constitutional since they are forms of internal organization.

The federal government praised the Zapatistas for defining themselves as a civic rather than military movement. The coordinator of the suspended peace talks described the new forms of political organization as positive. The head of the recently formed National Commission for Indigenous Development, Xóchitl Gálvez, also recognized that the only way to resume the talks would be for Congress to approve a new constitutional reform, since the last one fell far short of satisfying the indigenous communities and the EZLN. In response to comments that the Zapatistas were trying to impose something on the government, she insisted that the committees were not a state within a state, and praised the communities for trying out autonomy.

“A far-reaching initiative”

The government commissioner for Chiapas responsible for reconciling communities in conflict described the Zapatista initiative as an effort by the communities to find new ways to solve their conflicts. The state’s governor said that the effort to improve the lives of the indigenous people in the jungles and highlands of Chiapas—where most of the autonomous municipalities are located—does not violate the law and that the EZLN’s new actions reflect a decision to replace war with politics.

Not all of Mexico’s political class echoed such positive positions, however. Local PRI and PAN legislators in Chiapas publicly repudiated the committees and many of those parties’ federal legislators agreed, arguing that they violate the law. Some PRI members even interpreted the committees as a response to a weakened government and the PRI’s resurgence in the area. The PAN spokesperson first urged his government not to tolerate illegal activities that could harm Mexico’s institutional structure and later, after the Government Secretary announced the official position that the committees do not violate the Constitution, accused Marcos of being “a postmodern cacique.”
Recently elected PRD representative Manuel Camacho, the government’s first negotiator with the Zapatistas in 1994, said Marcos had repositioned himself with this far-reaching initiative. PRD leader Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas described the committees as an important step forward that provides mechanisms for working in the communities and municipalities in rebel territory.

The Mexican bishops also took positions, according to whether they are allied with the powerful or the popular movements. The secretary of the Indigenous Pastoral Commission of the Bishops’ Conference feared that the committees would mean “segregation.” The cardinal said he hoped the Zapatistas’ reappearance would not be just another show, like the ones put on when Danielle Mitterand and a group of Italian activists came to Mexico. The Bishop of San Cristóbal de las Casas praised the formation of the committees and said the Zapatistas have entered a new stage that society should try to understand. He valued the humility in the EZLN statements, which recognized that not everything is fair and right in their efforts to put their project for a new society into practice and admitted cases of human rights violations and ideological impositions on their side too.

A model to consider

The National Indigenous Congress praised the Zapatistas for putting indigenous autonomy into practice. The National Plural Indigenous Assembly for Autonomy described autonomy as a grassroots response to the crisis in the political system, a new way of doing politics, a long-term project and a model. In northern Mexico, 244 traditional indigenous authorities and representatives of Mayan, Rarámuri and Odomi organizations established the Northern and Northwestern Indigenous Peoples Alliance.
After the EZLN’s reappearance, 75 indigenous organizations from around the country met in Chiapas. They defended the autonomy processes being tried out, arguing that autonomy is an alternative to the current crisis of credibility, legitimacy and representivity, and adopted the Zapatistas’ Reali-Ti Plan. While Guerrero’s 500 Years of Indigenous Resistance Council began to study the model of the Caracoles, several indigenous towns in Veracruz announced their intention to create similar committees. And in Michoacán, indigenous communities announced that they would form 18 autonomous municipalities.

Many peasant organizations saw the Good-Government Committees as extraordinary instruments for grassroots democracy. The labor organizations grouped together in the Union and Social Convergence, which include the electricians’ union, telephone workers’ union, social security employees’ union and Autonomous University of Mexico’s staff union, expressed their support for Zapatista autonomy.

Time for talks?

In President Fox’s traditional September 1 presidential report, he made a brief general reference to indigenous peoples, reaffirming the government’s policy of offering paternalistic poverty-cushioning projects and saying nothing about the Zapatistas. Fox’s government extends the EZLN formal invitations to talks, knowing full well that it will not negotiate until the government complies with previous agreements. The government believes the Zapatistas could talk but won’t, since this position has brought them the greatest political dividends. Also, at a time when the government is working on many fronts and can point to very few achievements, it is afraid of opening a new front with the Zapatistas. But the Zapatistas are right in insisting that fundamental aspects of the San Andrés Accords were not included in the 2001 constitutional reforms and that there is no point in returning to the negotiating table until the government fulfils its part of the agreement and ensures full legal recognition of indigenous rights and culture.

Several legal concerns

Analysts of this new stage for the Zapatista movement have raised several legal concerns, the first of which has to do with the legality of the Good-Government Committees. It appears that the committees are covered by article 2 of the Constitution, which recognizes that indigenous peoples have the right to self-determination and the autonomy to determine their internal forms of coexistence and social, economic, political, and cultural organization, and that they may apply their own normative systems in regulating and resolving their internal conflicts. This legal basis resolved the problem less for the Zapatistas than for the government, which thus managed to stave off the conservative wing that was urging it to take repressive measures against the Zapatistas. Despite this constitutional legacy, however, it is clear that the autonomy announced by the Zapatistas goes beyond the legal framework.
Another legal concern was raised by the announcement that the committees would levy taxes. This could be resolved by considering the taxes voluntary contributions. Yet another problem is that the committees appear to be set above the municipalities, as a fourth level, although the Constitution only recognizes three levels of government: national, state and municipal. Several commentators, however, argued that the committees are no threat to the established order but rather an opportunity to solve conflicts, and recalled that throughout history legislation has been changed by the force of events. There is no doubt that the committees represent both challenges and opportunities for constitutional reform.

Specialists in indigenous rights have also noted that International Labor Organization Convention 169 forms part of the supreme law of the land and provides the committees with their fullest justification. They further noted that the Vienna Convention determines that states cannot use internal legislation to justify their failure to comply with treaties they have signed.

Trade and local coexistence?

Another concern has to do with the limits perceived in some of the new measures. Since the Zapatista communities are not and cannot be economically self-sufficient, they have to deal with the market. Imposing a “solidarity tax” on the cooperatives that market coffee and handicrafts could place them at a disadvantage with respect to their competition. The desire to avoid inequalities among the communities could lead to the imposition of bureaucratic centralization controlled by the military apparatus.

Then there is the issue of local coexistence. The local PRI in Chiapas is especially adverse to and aggressive towards the Zapatistas, with particularly sharp polarization in some communities. The fact that each group has its own authorities has already led to friction, and the social fabric has been very slow to mend. Dialogue is essential, with negotiations inside the communities.

Zapatista achievements shine

Despite the concerns, what is most striking are the Zapatistas’ achievements. They have contributed a great deal to the world and the autonomous model they have proposed is one of their most important contributions. Mexico’s indigenous peoples have been able to survive through their autonomy, even if it isn’t recognized by law. Now, without basing their efforts on classic revolutionary texts, they have imaginatively synthesized indigenous traditions and innovative proposals. They don’t want state power but rather to build grassroots power from below. They don’t aim to be a vanguard, but their national and global influence has continued to increase in the ten years since they burst onto the public stage.

With this new step, the Zapatistas have reaffirmed the pacifist vocation that society imposed on them a decade ago. They have followed the path of prioritizing community needs and minimizing military tactics. They have not forsworn weapons, but have relegated them to second place, using them only for defense. They don’t want to militarize their culture. Through these new measures, they are prioritizing reconciliation with opposition groups. And they continue to demand respect.

The Zapatistas have demonstrated great capacity for resistance and political inventiveness. Their Caracoles link local organization to global alternative projects, combining a defense of specific interests with universal interests. The two basic pillars of the Zapatista movement, to govern by obeying and to create a world with room for many worlds, remain goals for the popular movements of Mexico and the whole planet.

Print text   

Send text

<< Previous   Next >>


The “Powell Effect” on the Three Political Forces

Sorry, Uncle Powell, The Sams Are Ours

Nestor Avendaño: Where Is the State’s Role in the National Development Plan?


El Salvador
ARENA’s 15-Year Legacy in the Transition

Good-Government Committees: A New Stage for the Zapatistas
Envío a monthly magazine of analysis on Central America
GüeGüe: Web Hosting and Development