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Out of the Jungle and Into the Streets
by Christopher Day
Wednesday Aug 3rd, 2005 8:59 AM
On June 19, the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) declared a “Red Alert” throughout the territory controlled by the rebel group in Chiapas, the southernmost state in Mexico. The Zapatistas closed down the operations of their civilian organizations including the autonomous municipalities, the regional centers known as “Caracoles” and the Zapatista Information Center. Over the following days several communiqués and a letter from Subcomandante Marcos explained that the EZLN had completed a reorganization of its political-military structure begun in 2002 and that the organization was now conducting an internal consultation with its support bases to determine the future orientation of the Zapatistas.
On June 26 the Revolutionary Indigenous Clandestine Committee – General Command (CCRI-GC), the leadership body of the EZLN, announced that 98% of the organization’s civilian support bases had approved a new orientation that would be released in a series of texts constituting the Sixth Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle. Since the Zapatistas first rose up in arms on New Years morning 1994 the successive Declarations of the Lacandon Jungle have articulated the changing orientation of the organization in the face of changing conditions.

The conditions confronting the Zapatistas have changed significantly in the eleven years since the Mayan Indian rebels first announced their existence to the world by seizing control of several cities and towns in the Eastern half of Chiapas. Understanding these changes is necessary to appreciating the significance of the latest declaration from the Zapatista leadership.

In January 1994, the political left in Latin America and around the world was at a low point. The years since then saw the emergence of a powerful movement against capitalist globalization, significantly inspired by the Zapatistas themselves, and more recently a surge in popular movements and left-wing electoral gains across much of Latin America. Militant mass movements based mainly among indigenous peoples have brought down governments in Ecuador and Bolivia. In Argentina, factory occupations and other forms of direct action have challenged the power of the International Monetary Fund and U.S. capital. And in Venezuela, the Bolivarian Revolution led by President Hugo Chavez has beaten back a coup d’etat and other U.S.-sponsored attempts at destabilization and has carried out massive reform of education and healthcare and has begun to carry out modest land reforms.

The intervening years have seen significant changes in Mexico as well. The devastating consequences of the North American Free Trade Act (NAFTA) predicted by the Zapatistas have largely come to pass, resulting in an accelerating depopulation of rural areas and migration to the cities and to the United States, and a general worsening of living conditions for all but the very rich. Discontent with NAFTA and neo-liberal policies has begun to explode again in Mexico. In February of this year several hundred labor unions, campesino organizations, student groups and others signed “The Declaration of Queretaro” commiting themselves to a comprehensive fight against neo-liberalism and for the reassertion of the social guarantees of the revolutionary constitution of 1917 that have been all but completely hollowed out by neo-liberal policies. The promises of expanded rights and autonomy for the indigenous peoples of Mexico made in the San Andres Accords signed by the government and the Zapatistas have gone almost completely unfulfilled. At the same time the one-party rule of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) was broken with the election of Vicente Fox of the right-wing National Action Party (PAN).

At the same time the Zapatistas have been trapped in a sort of political-military stalemate. Their declared refusal to engage in offensive military actions and their success in calling forth solidarity across Mexico and around the world has so far made it politically impossible for the Mexican government to crush them by direct military means. At the same time, the clandestine and military character of the organization has made it difficult for the Zapatistas to project themselves politically beyond the areas of Eastern Chiapas where low-intensity counter-insurgency measures have successfully eroded the Zapatistas bases of support in some areas.

The history of the Zapatistas since 1994 can be seen as a series of initiatives intended to break out of this stalemate without reinitiating military operations. There have been two basic thrusts to these initiatives. The first thrust has been to build up the political and organizational capacities of the Zapatistas’ civilian support bases. This has taken the form of the development of the autonomous municipalities and more recently of the regional governing structures based in the five Caracoles.

The second thrust has been efforts to build a national civilian political organization. This has proven difficult. The first initiative in 1994 produced the National Democratic Convention (CND) which was effectively dominated by forces aligned wit the PRD. The second initiative, to constitute a National Liberation Movement, was effectively taken over by orthodox Marxist-Leninists. The third initiative finally produced the Zapatista National Liberation Front (FZLN) in 1996. While the FZLN has organized a variety of interesting projects, it has functioned more as a solidarity organization with the EZLN than as an effective mass organization with any sort of significant base of support among Mexico’s urban or rural poor and working classes. The FZLN’s base has consisted mainly of the intellectuals, professionals, students and youth so fond of the imprecise designation of “civil society.” Earnest and committed though they are, they are not for the most part the urban counterparts of the indigenous campesinos who fill the ranks of the Zapatista Army.

The attempts to build a national civilian political organization have gone hand in hand with a series of actions intended to develop relations with forces outside Chiapas and to establish the Zapatistas freedom of movement around the country. The first of these was a series of “encuentros,” large quasi-conferences of hundreds and thousands of Zapatista sympathizers from Mexico, Latin America and around the world conducted in selected Zapatista communities. In 1997 the Zapatistas organized a March on Mexico City that accompanied the EZLN delegation to the FZLN’s founding meeting. Two years later the EZLN organized a “national consultation,” essentially an unofficial plebiscite on the San Andres Accords that entailed dispersing thousands of Zapatista representatives to every municipality in the country. And in 2001, the CCRI-GC, including Marcos, joined another March on Mexico City culminating in an address to the Mexican Congress.

The failure so far of these initiatives to produce a sustained popular movement let alone real change in the conditions of the people of Chiapas or Mexico has produced some fatigue not just among international solidarity activists but among the Zapatistas bases of support.

The need to chart a new course is made more urgent by the upcoming presidential elections in 2006. While the election of Fox broke the pattern of one-party rule, it did not result in any rupture with the neo-liberal economic policies pursued by the PRI. Massive discontent with these policies and their devastating effects has given the presumptive candidate of the PRD, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, an impressive lead over any likely PRI or PAN candidates. The ham-handed attempt by the Fox government to disqualify Lopez Obrador by bringing trumped up criminal charges against him brought over a million people out into the streets in protest, forcing Fox to retreat.

The problem is that there is little reason to believe that Lopez Obrador, a former PRI official, will deliver on the hopes being invested in him. He insists that he’s a “humanist” rather than a neo-liberal. But he has publicly declared himself a candidate of “the center” and sought to reassure U.S. and other foreign capitalists of his commitment to maintaining Fox’s macroeconomic policies. So there is a real danger that, just as much of the anti-war movement in the U.S. dissolved itself into the campaign of pro-war candidate John Kerry, the popular movements against neo-liberalism in Mexico will submerge their demands in order to ensure the election of Lopez Obrador, with the same sort of paralyzing results. If there is a single purpose to the Sixth Declaration it is to prevent this outcome by building a radical extra-electoral movement of the left against neo-liberalism.

The Sixth Declaration is a long (18 pages) statement divided into six sections. In the first two sections it recounts the history of the EZLN, describing the efforts to de-militarize and democratize the civilian structures of the Zapatista communities, and emphasizing the emergence of a new layer of younger leadership in the organization since the 1994 uprising. For those unfamiliar with the history of the Zapatistas this is a decent introduction

The third and fourth sections, “How We See the World” and “How We See Our country Which is Mexico” present a cogent and compelling critique of capitalism, globalization and neo-liberalism in general and their devastating effects on Mexico in particular. These sections are important because they articulate what the Zapatistas think should be the basis of unity for the reinvigorated Mexican left that the Sixth Declaration calls for.

The fifth and sixth sections, “What We Want to Do” and “How We Are Going to Do It” describe their plans.

The practical plans laid out in the last sections do not depart entirely from the Zapatista’s acute sense of theater. They include promises to deliver a truckload of corn and oil to the Cuban Embassy in Mexico City as material aid against the U.S imposed embargo on Cuba, to send handicrafts produced by women’s cooperatives to unspecified people in Europe and to send non-transgenic corn to “the indigenous brothers and sisters in Bolivia and Ecuador.” They also call for another “Intercontinental Encuentro” in December or January.

The most significant plans announced in the declaration, however, is the EZLN’s intentions to “send a delegation of its leadership … throughout the national territory for an indefinite period of time,” to “establish a policy of alliances with non-electoral organizations and movements which define themselves, in theory and practice, as being of the left” and “to organize a national campaign for building another way of doing politics, for a program of national struggle of the left, and for a new Constitution.” Substantively the Sixth Declaration is a call to the organizations of the non-electoral Mexican left to invite the Zapatistas to meet with them and to form concrete and continuous working relations as part of a larger campaign.

There are several things that are striking in the new declaration. The first is the explicit statement of the Zapatistas intention to fight not just for the Indian peoples “but for all the exploited and dispossessed of Mexico” (including apparently those who have been compelled to seek work in the United States!). The language in the Sixth Declaration is in this sense less indigenist and more broadly anti-capitalist than previous statements, calling explicitly for an alliance with urban workers and rural campesinos.

The second shift is away from the often vague language of “civil society” and towards a much more explicit orientation towards “the left.” When the Zapatistas rose up in 1994 they were able to weave together a broad based opposition to the one-party dictatorship of the PRI with a more specific opposition to the PRI’s policies of neo-liberalism. For precisely this reason the Zapatistas were able to command the sympathy of broad swaths of middle class opinion. The term “civil society” conveyed the breadth of this alliance but also obscured some of the contradictions it contained. The subsequent establishment of multi-party electoral “democracy” combined with the deepening inequality fostered by neo-liberal policies, however, has shifted the ground underneath this alliance. The Sixth Declaration reflects this shift. It doesn’t abandon the language of “civil society” outright but it places much greater emphasis on the themes of capitalist exploitation and U.S. domination that are traditionally associated with the left, and when it uses the term “civil society” it seeks to redefine the term to refer to the forces resisting neo-liberalism.

The third striking feature is the recognition of and expressions of solidarity with the rapidly developing popular resistance to neo-liberalism across Latin America, and in particular the specific recognition of the Cuban and Venezuelan resistance to U.S. interference in their affairs. Previously the Zapatistas have been reticent to align themselves with any foreign governments, and the declaration still speaks only of the Cuban and Venezuelan people, but the proposed delivery of material aid to the Cuban Embassy is a recognition of the importance of state power in the new political dynamic that is developing in Latin America.

The probable election of Lopez Obrador in 2006 is likely to ultimately produce massive disappointment among the urban and rural working classes of Mexico. The question is whether or not they will have the political perspective and organizational vehicle to act outside the control of the existing political parties. The Zapatistas commitment to come out of their jungle encampments and participate in building that independent alternative is a hopeful sign that that question may be answered in the affirmative.

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