Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 213 | Abril 1999



Zapatista Consultation of Universal Value

ith a mobilization never before seen in Mexican history, the Zapatistas and civil society taught their compatriots unforgettable lessons about radical democracy, organizing from below and intercultural dialogue The consultation and the mobilization accompanying it were like nothing before seen in Mexican history. They reappraised the role of women, encouraged mutual learning and sowed joy and new hopes. It is a gift from Mexico to the whole world.

Jorge Alonso

March 21, 1999 will be inscribed in Mexican history as the date the Zapatistas consulted Mexican society. It is worth setting the immediate context of this event. While the government announced its economic forecasts with the haughty arrogance typical of neoliberalism, the country's leading financial group threw a bucket of cold water on President Zedillo's team by cutting its official growth figures by nearly half.

The population will grow faster than the economy, but consumption is expected to remain lower than that growth because people simply cannot afford to consume. The only sure thing is that Mexico's economy will remain vulnerable. The government announced that it will cut 13 million poor people from its poverty programs. Human rights centers charged that the social fabric is worn to threads in the states of Oaxaca and Guerrero. The US Drug Enforcement Agency again criticized the country's high levels of corruption. In its annual report, Amnesty International warned that Mexicans live under the shadow of endemic impunity. Against this backdrop, Zedillo tried to privatize the energy industry to obtain resources to pay on the foreign debt, but his plan met with massive opposition.

People are fed up

If the economy is bad, the political situation is especially tense. Infighting for control of the party and the presidential nomination is fierce among the various groups within the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). Fraud and vote buying were carried to an extreme during the latest elections, and opposition Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) members in Guerrero marched all the way to Mexico City to denounce fraud in their state's gubernatorial elections. The opposition groups have been discussing the need for an alliance to put an end to the state-party system. But fraud also marred the internal elections for national PRD leaders. Citizens are increasingly fed up with political parties.

The indigenous people speak

In early February, the state granted protection to officials accused of the massacre of 45 people while attending church in Acteal in December 1997. In those same days, a group of prominent figures asked the Legislative Commission for Harmony and Pacification (COCOPA) to verify compliance with the Law for Dialogue and Pacification. They also described the Zapatistas' March 21 consultation as a call to eliminate racism, authoritarianism and passive conformity.

The indigenous people represented in the National Indigenous Congress reaffirmed their commitment to the national consultation as a means of gaining recognition for indigenous peoples and for the end of the war of extermination, which are key to making their right to free determination effective. They said that the consultation represented an opportunity to make progress in reconstituting their communities. They described the consultation as a campaign for democratization, and stressed that, three years after the San Andrés Accords were signed, the state has still not fulfilled its commitments. They also insisted that indigenous people do not need laws imposed on them and denounced President Zedillo's insistence on presenting a bill based on a unilateral proposal for indigenous rights as a threat to dialogue and part of his strategy of war.

In these three years, at least 136 indigenous people have been massacred by paramilitary groups in Chiapas. The actions of these groups, protected by the army, have led to the displacement of 15,000 indigenous people. They have also forced some 300 foreigners to leave the country, so that they could not testify to the government's brutality against the indigenous people. Despite this, the government commission has continued to insist that the legislature should examine Zedillo's indigenous rights bill, while the government of Chiapas has presented an amnesty bill that would guarantee the paramilitary groups' impunity.

With the world's support

The context clearly shows that the government is trying to wear out the Zapatistas. But this strategy has failed. The Zapatistas proved this by preparing and carrying out their consultation to Mexican society on indigenous rights and an end to the war of extermination.

The EZLN emphasized that the consultation was a step on the road to peace, a mobilization in favor of dialogue and a means to make the transition to democracy. Subcomandante Marcos also encouraged international solidarity around the consultation. Spanish writer Manuel Vázquez Motalván described Zapatismo as a seed of the future. Noam Chomsky supported the Zapatista initiative from the United States. Nobel Prize laureate José Saramago wrote that the Zapatistas and the Brazilian landless movement reveal a new mentality, proclaiming that the time has come to end the humiliations. Other writers described the preparation of the consultation as a certificate of life of civil society.

Brigades all over the country

To prepare the consultation, brigades were organized all around the country. Using new methods, quite different from those of the old political apparatus, state coalitions were formed from the base to take care of all the necessary preparations. As Marcos said, civil society was the protagonist in the search for a better country. As a result of the first preparatory mobilization, over 20,000 brigade members, mostly young people, were contacted tree-fashion throughout the country. People organized themselves better and more quickly this way. The Zapatistas made room for new actors, who taught tolerance and inclusion to many older ones who have accompanied their movement from the start.

Zedillo attacks and disqualifies

The Zapatistas have said many times and in many ways that they do not want war. They understand that the Mexican federal army is made up of human beings who joined its ranks because of poverty, unemployment and the lack of a decent life. It grieves the Zapatistas that soldiers are sent to evict, repress and even assassinate their own brothers and sisters.
Nonetheless, Zedillo has responded to every peace initiative by increasing military pressure, and this time was no exception. The government responded to the preparations for the consultation by disparaging it in the media, described it as rigged, and trying to block it with military provocations. On several occasions, the secretary of government charged that the questions were written in such a way that they encouraged an affirmative response. Several columnists asked the government if its officials and other PRI members would answer yes to the indigenous rights bill formulated by COCOPA or to demilitarization, topics that the Zapatistas included among their questions. If so, they pointed out, consistency requires that the government end the conflict in Chiapas.

The Zapatistas told people not to be surprised by the government's provocations, since the mobilization around the consultation was seriously questioning its policies.

Resistance by "those who are different"

The biggest obstacle to the consultation was economic. The cost of the Zapatista mobilization fell on the organizations of the grassroots poor in an impoverished society.

As part of the consultation, meetings took place between the Zapatistas and people who did not know them. The Zapatistas invited them not to take up arms but rather to dialogue. They knew they would learn much from the meetings with workers, peasants, other indigenous groups, housewives, artists, intellectuals and young people from all over the country. In their messages, the Zapatistas emphasized that they want a world in which there is room for many worlds, knowing that the triumph of a resistance movement made up by "those who are different" would have repercussions on everything that globalization has triggered. This triumph would firmly oppose financial power with a network of grassroots resistance, and its positive vibrations would reverberate around the world.

Ready to cover the country

The message carried by the Zapatistas is that they can resist and survive, and live alongside different kinds of people. They emphasized that the number of votes they get is not as important as the mobilization itself and its meaning, since it would show that civil society is capable of organizing itself not only during elections. Through the mobilization, the Zapatistas and civil society groups were trying to build a new opportunity, a new movement that does not seek power but rather announces another Mexico.

The Zapatista representatives elected by their communities in Chiapas had to prepare themselves to go out and visit all the municipalities in the country. They studied and took notes in folders they would later consult in the meetings with civil society in each region.

More than a few of these messengers felt the uncertainty that grows in the face of the unknown. Some were afraid of getting lost, since it was the first time they would leave their dispersed little villages and see the life of distant towns and big cities. But they were very enthusiastic. Spanish is a second language for many of them and they do not speak it fluently, but their ideas were clear and solid.

The brigadistas all around the country, most of whom didn't have much experience either, also prepared to receive the Zapatistas. They raised money to pay bus fares, sought places to lodge the visitors, found ways to feed them.

Conflicts and tensions were a constant part of the process. Some bishops joined the government in deeming the consultation's questions partial. Other prelates, especially those who work with indigenous people, saw the consultation as an effort for peace and a peaceful resolution to the conflict. They joined many other social sectors in feeling that what was being sought was nothing other than a just solution to marginalization and poverty.

Dazzling sparks

With the consultation to civil society, the Zapatistas were able to break the military encirclement of nearly 70,000 soldiers and spread out all over Mexico. A first meeting took place between the brigadistas who traveled to Chiapas by bus and the Zapatistas who would travel around the country. The Zapatistas immediately trusted the energetic young women who had come to be the first to welcome them. The brigadistas from each state coalition went to the Zapatistas' five meeting points to pick them up and take them to the state capitals. From there, they moved out to the various municipalities. The trips were not free of tension, since the Zapatistas were detained at various Army checkpoints under the pretext of ensuring that they were not carrying arms.

There were cultural clashes between the young city dwellers, with their way of dressing and speaking, and the indigenous people, who dressed and expressed themselves differently and saw the world from a totally different perspective. The young people were better prepared for this clash than the indigenous people, who had to make great efforts to see into the hearts of their first hosts, with whom they spent long hours on the way to their destinations. It was the beginning of a rich intercultural dialogue that took place in the various regions of the country. The dazzling sparks lit by their differences, by the "nevers" with which they were indeed coming to grips, surprised both sides. All over the country, situations arose that none of the participants had faced before.

The indigenous people saw that Mexico is very diverse and filled with contradictions. They had been prepared for hostility, rejection and fear, which they found, but less than expected. The welcome and affection expressed by very diverse groups was greater than imagined and they were able to communicate in order to bring seemingly irreconcilable positions together. During one long week, the consultation caught hold of people's minds, wills and feelings.

They listened to everyone

At the point furthest from their place of origin, in Tijuana, Zapatistas and some of the US internationalists expelled by the Mexican government held hands through the fence on the border and said that, although those on neither side could cross to the other, they stood together to demand that the indigenous people receive a just treatment. Wherever the Zapatistas went, they made clear that they had come to express their own voices and listen to the voices of those who were talking with them, and to testify that they are continuing to resist.

In the days of mobilizing before the consultation, they met with intellectuals, students of all grades, rural settlers, peasant groups, workers, professionals, businesspeople, athletes, religious base communities, nuns, priests, opposition party officials and party activists. They went everywhere, to very poor places and even to exclusive places where big manufacturers meet, though they could not go to some municipalities because of the threats of local PRI bosses. They always listened attentively to what was said to them and responded with great respect.

Why masked?

In addition to the verbal communication, visual communication took place between civic groups and the masked Zapatistas. Since the only thing the Zapatistas leave visible in their faces are their expressive, sparkling eyes, these have acquired a symbolic force.

The Zapatistas had to explain many times why they came with masks. While other indigenous groups only asked if the masks didn't make them very hot, people from the middle and upper classes asked them why they covered their faces. The Zapatistas patiently explained why. With their faces showing, they had always been invisible. They went from place to place to lodge their complaints but no one paid them any attention. They held marches, and their problems were ignored. They held hunger strikes, demonstrations, sit-ins, protests, and everything went on as though they did not exist. Then they decided to take up arms to demand that they be listened to, and they covered their faces. It was then that the world saw them. Paradoxically, when they laid down their arms in favor of dialogue, the government used the dialogue as a diversion and resorted to its war of extermination. They gave many other reasons for their masks as well: since people did not want to see their faces, they had decided to present themselves as though they were faceless. The mask was what identified them as Zapatistas. It meant that they were the forgotten, and only when their problems were resolved would they take off the mask that was the face of a collective. The government understands the symbolic force of the Zapatista mask very well. That is why, in February 1995, it tried to "unmask" Marcos, presenting him as Rafael Guillén. It thought that it had struck a fatal publicity blow in saying that it knew who he was and that he had a known face, and that this would defeat him. Once his mask was lost, he would lose his appeal; with his face uncovered, he would become a no one, defeated and finished. But society refused to play the government's game. In public events during that time, Marcos had asked if people wanted him to take off his mask. The unanimous cry was no. Society left his mask on and he remained Marcos.

Unforgettable impact

In their contacts with civil society, the Zapatistas made people see that dialogue was their most effective weapon. Mexico saw the indigenous people speaking with determination. The Zapatistas were surprised to find that the kind of poverty they suffer in Chiapas exists in many other corners of the country as well. They were struck by the great inequalities in the city, the contrast between the very rich and the very poor. They also saw that there were poor areas that had services they lack: schools, hospitals, drinking water, electricity, recreation, public transport. The way the city dwellers lived and spoke caught their attention. Sometimes the Zapatistas did not understand them, especially the young people who seemed to be speaking another language, because of their slang.

Those who prepared the meetings between the indigenous and non-indigenous people explained that the indigenous people of Chiapas had proposed solutions and the government had rejected them on the grounds that the people of Mexico would not agree. So they decided to come to the people of Mexico to ask if this was true.

The fact that an equal number of men and women left Chiapas was also very important, a symbolic demonstration with a resounding impact. The Huicholes tend to send only men to public events, but now the men are seen accompanied by women. The Zapatista women were the ones who had the most trouble speaking. They preferred to express themselves in their own languages and be translated. When this happened, although the people present could not understand the language the women used, they did understand their strength and courage.

From below and without resources

Great progress has been made in the Zapatistas' efforts to reach out to the rest of the country. In September 1997, 1,111 Zapatistas marched to the capital. On March 21, 1999, 5,000 traveled the whole country on the consultation. In a 1995 consultation, 1.3 million citizens answered. This time, nearly 3 million Mexicans turned out to vote in the Zapatista consultation.

In Mexico, elections for public office are organized with public money. When a party does a consultation, as the PRD did on the FOBAPROA financial scandal, it uses its own human and material resources. But the Zapatista consultation had no established organization, or central command, or public money. Each brigade set up its own voting table.

In elections and party consultations a great deal of publicity is generated through the media. This time, the media set out to undermine the consultation. But this did not discourage the Zapatistas; it buttressed their conviction that the media's job is to disinform. They were happy to have carried out thousands of small acts rather than massive demonstrations, since this allowed them to express themselves and listen to those who invited them. The consultation was put together from below, with resources from below.

A success: 3 million voters

Over 95% of the voters were in favor of indigenous rights and the indigenous rights bill drafted by COCOPA. They demanded the demilitarization of the indigenous communities and pronounced themselves in favor of peace.

The consultation was a success. The number of those who turned out to vote at the Zapatista tables equaled a tenth of the total voters in the country's federal elections in 1997. Those who supported the Zapatistas in the consultation exceeded the combined number of voters for two parties that have seats in the Mexican House of Representatives (PT and PVEM). In Jalisco, the consultation attracted more voters than the PRD consultation on FOBRPROA.

The consultation was also carried out internationally with positive results. The Zapatistas showed that they have not been worn down, but rather are a growing force.

Mobilization never before seen

The consultation was a social mobilization never before seen. The Zapatistas spoke in their language and were listened to. They dialogued and debated, sometimes sharply, as with some businesspeople. They went everywhere that doors were opened for them, even to such unlikely places as the Hard Rock Café. The consultation was broad and inclusive and has led to new kinds of organizing. The government calculated that the PRD would put its infrastructure at the service of the consultation, and in its desire to block the consultation immediately accused the Zapatistas of being the PRD's armed wing. This inhibited the PRD, which was otherwise caught up in resolving its own internal disputes, inflamed by very dirty internal elections. All this turned out positively for the Zapatistas, as only groups from civil society and not the parties supported the consultation.

Many Zapatistas stayed in community houses run by nuns and priests. They got a great deal of support from the religious base communities. Groups that have long supported the Zapatistas began to see new groups moving around them in many places. This led to the convergence of these groups into networks that can be consolidated. The consultation was a new exercise of democracy, of participatory, deliberative democracy not limited to the election of candidates to public office.

The consultation was carried out through a new and independent network, in an open process whose cleanliness was especially refreshing in comparison with the dirtiness of the government and the political parties. It grew out of the organization of true citizens. The Zapatistas did not tire of demonstrating that they do not want power, but rather want the people of Mexico to participate, listen to them and hear them. It was a way of making the government see that it cannot make decisions in the name of people without consulting them. A great number of indigenous groups felt very close to the Zapatistas, who have proved unbending in their desire to achieve justice, democracy, dignity and peace.

Lights have been lit

The evaluation of the consultation showed that it was a success for both the Zapatistas and civil society. In saying goodbye and returning to Chiapas, the indigenous people said they left "little shining lights" in the care of the groups that had accompanied them for over a week all around the country.

The consultation cannot be reduced to figures, although there were thousands of meetings between the Zapatistas and groups of all kinds. The Zapatistas were able to explain themselves and to make the situation in the country better understood. New forms of solidarity arose, linking groups that had no contact before. Confidence grew in civil society's capacity to create and manage things on its own. The consultation showed the possibilities of radical democracy and gave rise to a new faith in people's strengths. One concern, however, cannot be forgotten: the government is so hardheaded that in light of the Zapatistas' success, it may well respond with new provocations of war.

Singing two anthems

Those who accuse the Zapatistas of being separatists were refuted by the facts. The Zapatistas did not try to close themselves off and go their own way. They covered the whole country, contacting numerous groups of Mexicans of all kinds. They defended their difference, but also promoted pluralistic coexistence.
In all their events, they sang the national anthem and the Zapatista anthem and came carrying the national symbols par excellence: the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe and the Mexican flag. At first, those who met with them joined in singing the national anthem and then listened as they sang their own anthem, whose lyrics are adapted to the music of the revolutionary song "Carabina 30 30." By the end of the week, however, Zapatistas and civil society groups emotionally sang the two anthems together.

First results bode well

There was so much affection that both sides had a hard time saying goodbye. The grassroots groups did not want the Zapatistas to return home without gifts and the first brigadistas, reinforced by enthusiastic new groups, accompanied them back to Chiapas. The Zapatistas have since begun the intense task of communicating the experience to their communities: how their proposals were received, the questions they were asked and the answers they got. Later, the time will come for them to contact the groups of civil society once again to take the next step: presenting their conclusions to Congress.

The brigadistas, the groups of civil society who spoke with the Zapatistas, and the Zapatistas themselves have all entered into a stage of evaluating this experience. It is already clear that a new, young, vigorous actor has emerged with imaginative proposals, outside the traditional organizational frameworks, willing to work selflessly, without expecting compensation from the government or the parties. The movement generated was broad, pluralistic, convergent, and has already put together very efficient networks. Many groups that felt alone and isolated have seen that similar groups exist in many parts of the country. The Zapatistas gave them the opportunity to make contact with each other.

A movement that can go the distance

Despite all efforts by the government and the media to the contrary, the indigenous question remains at the heart of the national debate.

The Zapatistas have also encouraged a revaluing of the women's struggle. Many of the groups that have accompanied the Zapatistas' struggle from the start still use very cutting slogans; the Zapatistas have tried to teach them to be tolerant, not to divide, to join together all who support the cause of justice and democracy. For these reasons, the movement created is one that can go the distance. The Zapatistas have shown us that it is possible for very diverse actors to agree, for mutual learning to take place at a horizontal level. The consultation proved that democracy is not limited to elections and that there are more radical ways to experience it. This has left seeds and encouraged awakenings. For their part, the Zapatistas could actually see and feel what this thing called civil society is and know that they are not alone. The consultation was an important referendum, possible thanks to the potential of networks of ordinary citizens.

"For the whole world"

In March 1999, the representatives of a guerrilla movement launched an impressive offensive for peace. The indigenous struggle propelled by the Zapatistas has given new energy to democratic multiculturalism, converting it into a symbol of resistance to economic globalization, into a call to seek a new national pact, showing that the world is not so much globalized as fragmented, but that it can join together through egalitarian networks, and from below. The former First Lady of France, Danielle Mitterrand, speaking from Chiapas a day after the consultation, said that what had happened was of historic importance not only for Mexico but also for the whole world.

Jorge Alonso is a researcher with CIESAS West and the envío correspondent in Mexico.

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