Thursday, October 09, 2008

In Unity There Is Strength

MEXICO- On the 87th memorial of Emiliano Zapata’s death, defender of land and hero of the Mexican Revolution, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN in its Spanish initials) and its supporters have proved that the rebellious spirit of justice for the common people is more alive then ever in post-NAFTA Mexico.

On the morning of April 10, in Zapata’s home state of Morelos, a group of ten environmentalists, neighbors, and local kids stood linked arm in arm in front of Willow Gorge, vulnerably facing fifty members of the state police in full regalia. Their mission to save the gorge from road construction did not look promising.

The police, members of the various government departments, along with heavy construction machinery, were waiting for the clock to strike 11 AM, the moment when which a court order blocking the construction would expire. Two ambulances were also on hand, for the history of the Morelos state police is bloody.

From their experience, the activists knew that petitions did not take them far and that in this case the only way to protect the environmentally valuable gorge was to put their bodies on the line.

“We made a barricade of cars and a human chain with our arms. It consisted of people from the neighborhood, environmentalists, really all kinds of people. Everyone was instructed to not respond to violence because our movement is a nonviolent civil resistance,” said lead organizer Flor Guerrero, a well known local environmentalist.

The protesters readily accepted their fate- until Subcomandante Marcos, the baklava clad leader of the EZLN, also known as the Zapatistas, got word of their situation.

Marcos and La Otra Campaña (The Other Campaign), a nationwide listening tour organized by the EZLN, was in Morelos that week to hear and address the struggles of the Morelense people. Since leaving its home state of Chiapas in southern Mexico in January, La Otra has stopped in cities and villages nationwide to hold public meetings in which people have a chance to speak out about their struggles.

At its core, La Otra wants to listen and create solidarity at a local level. It does not offer immediate solutions, but attempts to provide a forum where people can communicate.

That Monday, La Otra was scheduled to commemorate the death of Emiliano Zapata, the inspiration of the EZLN, in his hometown in the east of the state. In fact, the caravan was already on its way there when Marcos called with an order to turn around. They were needed back in Cuernavaca.

Word spread like wildfire and press, alternative and mainstream alike, began showing up at Willow Gorge. The police, too, got word of their arrival and quickly retreated to a nearby police academy. The presence of Marcos was enough to push them away.

“It was like a movie,” said Guerrero. “There were the good guys and then the bad guys arrived. But, then, in a very precise moment, the hero came in and saved the day.”

“It was as if Marcos just showed up and the forces of evil fled, ” said Charles Goff, who spent the day at Willow Gorge. “They did not want a showdown with Marcos. His political power is greater than their power of repression, though he arrived with no weapons at all.”

The police forces waited, but La Otra stayed put, drawing more supporters with each minute.

“La Otra and Marcos said they were going to wait until a new injunction halting the construction project was passed,” said Guerrero.

When those expecting La Otra in Zapata’s home town learned of the change of plans, they came to offer their support to where it was needed. Soon the Emiliano Zapata Union of Communal Farmers from the neighboring state of Michocan showed up, with highly respected leaders from the indigenous and farmer communities. Not far behind were the Party of Communists and the Communist Youth. The worker-owned Pascual Cooperative, producer of the popular Boing! drink, came to show their support and quench the protesters’ thirst, free of charge.

By afternoon, an army of university students from the politically powerful National Autonomous University of Mexico from Mexico City made its grand entrance, shouting colorful exploitive-filled slogans. Perhaps the most dramatic entrance was announced by the sound of clanking machetes of more than 200 members of the People’s Front in the Defense of the Land, a group highly respected for their solidarity, power, and success in past struggles.

Spontaneously, neighbors started appearing with pots of rice, beans, and tortillas to feed the crowd.

“It really was like a Biblical event, with the forces of evil fleeing and the multiplying of the loaves and fishes. There was no food to feed all these people and when word got out, all the neighbors showed up with food. It was completely unplanned. Everybody ate, and some ate twice,” recalled Goff.

Before long, what started as a small hopeless protest had turned into an inspiring manifestation of solidarity of 500 with the EZLN’s support.

“If the Zapatistas had not showed up, the police would be in the ravine right now,” said Goff.

“The words that come from my heart will never be enough to thank you for saving us today from the talons of the state police. You literally saved our lives,” said Guerrero in a speech that day.

And perhaps this is the real power of the Zapatistas, who have put down their weapons to travel and talk to the people of each state of the country about solidarity and resistance.

Fourteen years ago, the EZLN, linking anti-globalization, Mexican revolution and indigenous rights, rose up violently in the southern state of Chiapas on the day North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) went into effect. While politicians claimed that NAFTA would create new jobs and improve the economies of Canada, the United States, and Mexico, the Zapatistas recognized it as “death to indigenous people,” who already were suffering 500 years of exploitation since the Spanish conquest.

What followed was two weeks of fighting in the EZLN’s home state of Chiapas, rich in resources yet of extreme poverty due to the wealthy local oligarchy.

The charismatic, sarcastic, witty, mysterious, and always colorfully described, “Subcomandante Marcos” emerged as the leader of the Zapatistas. His face always covered by a black baklava, he sends out communiqués from the jungle and also poses for the cameras constantly on him. While he has never acknowledged his identity, it is believed he is a former professor and political organizer who traveled to Chiapas to take advantage of a situation that was ripe for revolution, but wound up being changed by 12 years of living in the jungle with indigenous people. Instead of emerging as communists, they retained their indigenous values and emerged as rebels against injustice.

In the most recent communiqué of June 2005, the Sixth Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle, the EZLN describes their roots, their ideas, and their future in language simple enough for their fellow brothers and sisters, many without formal educations, to understand.

“We wanted to fight along with everyone who was humble and simple like ourselves and who was in great need and who suffered the exploitation and thievery by the rich and their bad governments here, in our Mexico, and in other countries all over the world,” they write.

While they originally started as an army, the Zapatistas have, for the most part, been nonviolent since their original uprising in 1994.

“We listened to those brothers and sisters from the city who were telling us to try to reach an agreement with the bad governments, so that the problem could be solved without a massacre. And so we paid attention to them, because they are what we call ‘the people.’ And so we sat aside fire and took up the word,” the Sixth Declaration explains.

Their righteous struggle, humble background, and, not to forget, well choreographed public relations (thanks to Marcos) have made the Zapatistas popular globally. They are more than just another Latin American guerrilla army; the Zapatistas are visited by politicians, rock stars, activists, literary figures, actors, and regular curious folks from all corners of the globe.

“Now we are also being helped by many people from all over the world…we joined together to talk with persons from America and from Asia and from Europe and from Africa and from Oceania, and we learned of their struggles and their ways,” they write in the Sixth Declaration.

Perhaps this is what makes the Zapatistas so popular and enigmatic. Their struggle is bigger their Mexico. Today, the EZLN fights against neoliberlism and for everything that it destructs.

“Neoliberalist globalization destroys what exists in these countries. It destroys their culture, their language, their economic system, their political system, and it also destroys the ways in which those who live in that country relate to each other. So everything that makes a country as country is left destroyed,” declares the Sixth Declaration.

So while the Zapatistas are from a small state in southern Mexico, their struggle is far bigger. They support indigenous peoples, workers of the countryside, workers of the city, students, non-conformists, homosexuals, socially active clergy, social activists, and all the people of Mexico “who do not sell out.” Their struggle is wide and everyone is welcome.

“It makes us quite happy to see resistances and rebellions appearing everywhere, such as ours, which is a bit small, but here were are. And we see this all over the world, and now our heart learns that we are not alone.”

This is the essence and strength of the Zapatistas. The spontaneous act of camaraderie that took place in the small state of Morelos on April 10 is not unique.

Seeing a small movement struggle despite great odds, the Zapatistas, in solidarity, appeared and attracted many more. And while many of the original protesters were not even affiliated with the EZLN, the common struggle for the environment brought them together. The Zapatistas showed once again that in unity, there is strength.

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