Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 294 | Enero 2006



What are the Zapatistas Seeking With Their “Other Campaign”?

During his tour through southeastern Mexico, Marcos constantly criticized López Obrador’s candidacy. He also turned down the invitation extended to the Zapatistas to attend the inauguration in Bolivia of Evo Morales, Latin America’s first-ever indigenous President. The next months will show the EZLN’s influence on Mexico’s own presidential elections.

Jorge Alonso

In January 2006, Mexico’s presidential candidates officially kicked off their campaigns, after spending millions of dollars on their primaries and unofficial campaign activities. We don’t know who financed these activities or what promises the candidates may have made in return, and for this reason among many others, the parties continue to inspire little confidence among the Mexican people. The Zapatistas’ “Other Campaign” also began its tour of the country in January, the first stage of which was led by Subcomandante Marcos, who has taken on the name Delegate Zero.

Five presidential candidates

Five candidates are running for President in the July elections. Felipe Calderón, former head of the National Action Party (PAN), is now in second place in the polls. In third place, after a hard and divisive internal battle, is Institutional evolutionary Party (PRI) head Roberto Madrazo, running in a coalition—already discredited by corruption—with the Green Party. Two newly established parties are also running presidential candidates. The New Alliance, under the strong leadership of Elba Esther Gordillo of the teachers’ union, after she finally broke with Madrazo, chose a close ally as candidate. The Social Democratic and Peasant Alternative selected Patricia Mercado, a minority rights activist, as its candidate, following a schism between its two wings and some political and legal scuffling. The challenge facing these two latter parties is to pull a sufficient percentage of the vote to ratify their registration. Running first in the polls at the start of the campaign is Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the candidate of a leftist alliance made up of the Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD), the Labor Party (PT) and the Convergence Party. Even though he hasn’t appeared in the media in recent months, he has an eight-point lead over Calderón.

On motorcycle, truck, horseback…

The Zapatistas initiated their Other Campaign at the same time as the official one. Marcos is leading it off with a tour through southeast Mexico, made up of the states of Chiapas, Quintana Roo, Yucatan, Campeche and Tabasco. Some feared that enemies of the Zapatistas would take advantage of Marcos’ travels outside Zapatista territory to attack him, so numerous contingents of indigenous people accompanied him through Chiapas to protect him during the first days of the tour. The Zapatista command also asked civil society groups involved in the Other Campaign to help ensure his safety, and each made sure to turn over the task to another group on his next stop. That “security” worked just fine.

Although the federal government and religious hierarchy praised the Zapatista tour, local police hassled people involved
in the campaign in several states who were trying to publicize the meeting sites. Provocateurs also attended some of the events and in some towns poor families were given food handouts on the condition that they didn’t participate in the meetings.

People also feared that there would be attacks on Zapatista communities during the tour, as in fact happened in one community at the hands of a group of PRD members allied with PRI paramilitaries. The Zapatistas were careful not to fall for any provocation aimed at undermining the campaign, while the Fray Bartolomé de las Casas Human Rights Center warned that any act of aggression against the campaign would jeopardize the search for peaceful solutions.

In his first appearance, Marcos rode in on a motorcycle named “Sombraluz,” together with the chicken named “Penguin” that made its debut in the Sixth Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle. Next he traveled by pickup truck, taking his turn at the wheel. On the outskirts of one town, people met him with a horse so he could ride in on horseback. In another, he showed up peddling a bicycle taxi. He slept in community centers and the humble houses of campaign sympathizers.
There were three kinds of meetings. Some were just with participants in the initiative, so they could put forth their points of view. Then there were larger events, to which the press was invited. And there were massive events, which were very well attended and made a big impact.

“Perhaps they’ll want
to get involved”

The meetings with those already involved in the Other Campaign and those joining it along the way are the main purpose of Marcos’ tour. Marcos is making contact with many new people in addition to meeting with those he’s known since 1994, when the Zapatistas, fed up with the “criminal Salinas,” finally said “enough!”

Acknowledging the important role played by the elders in Zapatista communities, Marcos shared their instructions to him: “You have to fight, but not alone. Look for others like us who want to organize. Share your thoughts with them and listen to their hearts. Invite them to join us in this struggle. And if they’re not convinced, let them see what we’re doing and perhaps they’ll want to get involved.” Marcos explained how the Zapatistas’ struggle had begun with six people and then grew, and although that struggle began among indigenous people, it had been able to reach beyond them into other sectors of society. He insisted that each person and each group, no matter how small and weak they may feel, could become part of the struggle and help it grow.

Listening to each other,
hearing about the problems

Everyone spoke freely at these meetings, with the participants invited to take the floor. There was plenty of time for discussion, but not in the desire to convince, much less defeat, those who think differently. No one had anything to lose by speaking up. Marcos said the Other Campaign is like a large table set up to give an opportunity to speak to people who haven’t had a chance. He explained that it’s different from events in which a few outsiders climb up on a stand to speak to people whose history and struggles they know nothing about, and the people are expected to listen. He emphasized the importance of listening in order to see what’s happening in the country and together discover what we have in common, so we can build a national movement.

With this approach, memories and histories emerged that were unknown to most people at the meetings. People compiled a list of problems, grievances, laments and demands as they spoke of humiliation, exploitation, disdain, discrimination, injustice, unemployment, illegal migration to the United States, the eviction of artisans from archeological sites, the theft of land and water, contamination, the destruction of nature, time-consuming requests and appeals with no response from the government, useless social programs, the rising costs of basic services, the lack of access to education, fraud in Fox’s health care program and its failure to cover drugs or hospital care, the government’s failure to help those affected by the recent hurricanes… The list went on and on.

Becoming partners in the struggle

People also spoke about persecution, repression and unjust imprisonment. Some came in the hope that Marcos would resolve problems no one else has addressed. Others presented proposals to deal with the problems. Marcos listened patiently, taking note of people’s words and silences so he could write up reports. But he was also asked to speak.

Marcos shared some of the Zapatistas’ experiences, and explained how their communities live better now than they did 12 years ago, and better than other communities that have put their trust in the political parties. Now they have schools and hospitals efficiently managed by the people themselves; they have taken the law into their own hands and apply it justly. With one story after another, he explained that he wasn’t bringing solutions but rather another problem: the need to organize. People have to choose if they want to continue living in the same country or build another one together. He told them that southeastern Mexico had been a victim not only of the fury of nature but also of the hurricane of ambition, because the aid had gone to the rich. He called on people to mobilize against the region’s economic, political and social devastation.

Marcos identified several fears. One has to do with the future of the movement promoted by the Other Campaign. He spoke of the fear that its leaders would become corrupt and people would be left alone, out in the cold. He presented himself not as a leader but as a compañero, a companion or partner. People don’t need Marcos to build the Other Campaign; all he was doing was putting the sympathy the Zapatista movement has generated at the service
of the cause, so those who otherwise wouldn’t even have the chance to talk to each other could come together in the struggle. He explained that the words spoken at the meetings would be posted on the Zapatistas’ web site, so they would reach people in other regions who would no doubt agree with their positions and proposals and also become partners in the struggle.

The meetings encouraged antagonistic organizations to connect, increasing the number of people involved in the Other Campaign. Marcos called on people to build a just country in which everyone is equal, and leave those who are shaming the country in the dust. He invited people to establish new laws and build a new country. He explained that the movement being formed, rooted in the history of the people, was something new, not a copy of what was being done in other places around the continent. He asked the alternative media to help encourage ties by reporting on how the participating organizations had been born, the problems they’d faced, the defeats they’d suffered and victories they’d won. And he proposed that all the organizations establish a regional agreement for the southeast.

The death of comandantaRamona

A few days after it had begun, Marcos suspended the tour when he learned that comandanta Ramona had died. She had been diagnosed with kidney disease ten years earlier, but had held death at bay for all of those years through the medical care she received thanks to the solidarity of civil society. Her body was buried in a private ceremony, attended only by members of her community.

Visibly moved, Marcos said he didn’t even come up to the ankles of tiny Ramona, a symbol of the Zapatista struggle. He said Mexico had lost one of the fighters it sorely needs, and they had all lost “a piece of our hearts.” The EZLN had to reschedule the rest of his tour around the country.

Take off his mask?

Once he left Chiapas, the Right began to insist that Marcos take off his mask, a demand echoed by the occasional voice of a provocateur at some events. Marcos replied that if he spoke without the Zapatista emblem, people wouldn’t know who he was. Only when he wore the mask did people stop to see him, as had been the case since 1994. He reflected once again on the indigenous struggle, which requires people to hide themselves in order to make their demands visible. And he invited people to demand that the rich take off their masks.

At an event before a huge crowd in Yucatan, he announced that he’d take off his mask. People looked on, astounded and in many cases afraid—in popular mythology, fighters lose their masks when they’re defeated—as he began to remove the balaclava. The relief was palpable when people saw that he was wearing a second one underneath the first.
That day, Marcos challenged the government to unmask itself.

For those without a party

During the course of the tour, the Other Campaign was joined by people from all walks of life, including peasant farmers, fishermen and women, union and cooperative members, teachers, nurses, salaried workers, students, artists, environmentalists, people fighting against privatization and for the freedom of social and political prisoners, among many others.

The Other Campaign aspires to be a slow, long-lasting action, different from the media-driven excess of election campaigns. The Zapatista tour isn’t aimed at forming a political party. Marcos is emphatic about this: they’re not looking for political posts, nor playing the game of any presidential candidate. They’re creating a place for people without a party. Marcos constantly calls on people to respect this place, asking those who have opted to participate in the elections not to bring their search for votes into it.

Against all parties

Marcos describes all of the country’s political parties as “overseers working for the rich,” whose false leaders buy people’s votes by taking advantage of their needs. He constantly recalls that the indigenous peoples were betrayed by all the parties and the three branches of the state in 2001, when the government backed off the promised legislation to guarantee their rights.

He criticizes all the parties, most specifically any time one of their activists speaks out at a meeting in defense of the election process. He blames the governing National Action Party (PAN) for trying to put Mexico in a neocolonial situation, to turn it into a hacienda. He criticizes the children of the President’s wife for illicitly enriching themselves.

He criticizes her for making decisions alongside the President as though she held a public post when no one has elected her. He pointed out that although she purports to speak in favor of women, PAN members left the chamber when Zapatista comandanta Esther testified before Congress on indigenous peoples’ demands, because “they couldn’t see an indigenous women who wasn’t their servant.”

Marcos dismissed the charge that the PAN is paying him to criticize PRD candidate López Obrador to prevent him from winning. He continues to reject the idea that the PRD is a leftist option, because López Obrador himself has said it’s not. He predicts that if López Obrador wins, those who vote for him will later regret it.

“Make sure your
hearts are thinking”

Local PRI activists threatened Marcos in La Hormiga, an indigenous neighborhood on the outskirts of San Cristóbal de las Casas made up largely of people expelled from their original community for religious reasons, but residents of the neighborhood rallied to protect him. He said the PRI is the only party of which it can be said that it “has grown on the blood, humiliation and death of indigenous people.” He maintained that the PRI is made up of “liars and murderers from the top on down.” He described its presidential candidate, Roberto Madrazo, as a criminal unashamed of the thefts he’s committed, and accused him of being involved with drug traffickers. He accused the Labor Party’s leaders of going where the money was, and recalled that they had walked hand in hand with a governor of Guerrero responsible for a massacre of peasant farmers. He also recalled that the leader of the Salinas Convergence Party had been charged with hiring people to evict Zapatistas from the lands they had recovered. He described the other parties as “shrimps that sell out to the highest bidder.”

The Other Campaign is open to those who are not represented by the political parties, although the electoral sympathies of some campaign members don’t prevent them from taking part in this effort. The campaign doesn’t urge people
to abstain or oblige them to vote or not to vote, but rather calls on them to do something else; not to be satisfied with elections. It promotes the use of reason in analyzing political options, encouraging people to “do what your hearts tell you to do, but make sure your hearts are thinking.”

The message is clear: this democracy only allows you to elect the executioner, to select who will give the order to raise prices, evict people from their land or imprison social activists. The solution isn’t to change one ruler for another; it won’t come from above, but must be won through a force built by those at the bottom, a movement rich in ideas, proposals
and struggles.

Identifying the common enemy

The Other Campaign began by analyzing the Pact of Chapultepec, signed by the powers of money and the big media that rule the country. This pact called on presidential candidates to commit themselves to neoliberal dogma, a pledge to which the PRI and PAN candidates both agreed. López Obrador said he would sign if aid to the poor were included.

Marcos argued that Mexico’s problems can’t be reduced to charity. He also noted that the pact discusses security as something requiring a firm hand, with more army, police and prisons to contain the people’s rebellion, but not more jobs, houses, food or support for rural areas.

The Other Campaign has described the pact as a plan to plunder and destroy the country, around which the powerful class has united to turn the elections into a circus, and to choose who will fan the false hope of change.

The Zapatistas’ analysis of the problems discussed during this first stage of the Other Campaign has led to the conclusion that the capitalist system itself lies at the root of the evils. Marcos asked people to reflect on this common enemy and called on “those at the bottom” not to fight among themselves but rather aim their fire at those responsible for the misery. To change the situation, he proposed that all forces unite and send out an “enough already!” even louder than the one shouted by the Zapatistas on January 1, 1994. And the specific change he proposed was the creation of a huge national anti-capitalist leftist movement of struggle so those on the bottom can build a just and equitable country for all.

“Make it all anew”

Marcos said that everything remains to be done, and insisted that the Other Campaign not subordinate itself to what the Zapatistas do or don’t do. No one is going to tell anyone what they should do. A network is being woven in which people need to learn to listen to each other, lose or control their fear, not be alone, raise themselves up in dignity, courage and rebellion, and organize in order to fight for their rights and win them and to promote a national program of struggle.

The goal is to transform Mexico into a new, just, free and democratic country. “We’re going to sweep away everything, and make it all anew.”

The EZLN is not going to Bolivia

For all that, the EZLN has garnered its share of criticism, starting with a controversial decision it made at the beginning of the tour. It did not accept the invitation to the inauguration of Bolivia’s new President, indigenous leader Evo Morales, even though it is the first time in Latin American history that an indigenous person has come to office with the support of a grassroots movement and on a government program that is not only anti-neoliberal but also anti-capitalist. Are the Zapatistas afraid of endorsing a movement that is changing the correlation of forces through electoral means? Is it an over-insistence on purity?

Marcos explained that the movement expressed through the Other Campaign isn’t looking towards either Bolivia or Latin America; it is based on the Mexican people’s concrete current situation, and that instead of following the leaders to Bolivia, he preferred to speak with people here. His reply was not convincing.

Will the PRD’s defeat help
“those at the bottom”?

Others reproached Marcos for his constant critique of López Obrador. Marcos dismisses the entire political class, but while he makes only tepid references to the PAN’s Calderón, he comes down particularly hard on the PRD candidate. Furthermore, while claiming that he’s not encouraging people to abstain, he regularly repudiates the electoral route.

Since the Other Campaign was deliberately scheduled to parallel the election campaign, the Zapatistas will most certainly influence the results by drawing some votes away from the PRD. But will those at the bottom be in a better position to organize if it loses to either the PRI or the PAN?

How to judge this initiative?

The Other Campaign has also been criticized for making very general statements without proposing any solutions, and for simply gathering complaints during the various stops on the tour rather than help people work out solutions to urgent problems. The replies from its organizers are mostly defensive: the movement’s still in its infancy, without a fully formed ideological position; it’s not a question of finding quick solutions, but of creating something for the long term; this is an anti-systemic movement, with a well-defined enemy, that is trying to create a critical mass capable of bringing about real change.

It is true that, unlike other campaigns, this isn’t an effort by leaders to convince people of the merits of an already-drafted program. Instead the aim is to encourage people to shape the movement themselves, through many broad-based discussions. The Other Campaign isn’t about holding meetings that attract huge crowds, but about holding many meetings with many people, and encouraging them to participate in weaving a network of resistance and solidarity. It’s about creating a new kind of politics, where dialogue is an ethical principle and responsibilities are shared.

What to think? This nascent movement can’t be judged by traditional parameters, but only by what is done day by day.
And we still have several months of campaign tours left to see what that turns out to be.

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

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