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Synthesis/Regeneration 25   (Summer 2001)

Zapatista Caravan Comes to An End

by Andrew Kennis, Independent Media Center
of New York City

As late as a few months ago, it was hard to imagine the Ejercito Zapatista de Liberacion Nacional (EZLN, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation) would be traveling to Mexico City for possible peace negotiations with a newly elected government. Just as hard to imagine was the possibility that a complete transformation of the EZLN could take place, following their uprising seven years ago; the EZLN has gone on record as stating that they're "fighting in order to disappear."

On March 11, 2001 the Zapatista caravan completed its 15 day trip throughout a dozen states in Mexico. The last event of the tour was at the Zocalo, the historic central plaza, in Mexico City, which drew over 200,000 people.

The caravan included a diverse group of people, such as subcommandante Marcos, the spokesperson for the EZLN, 23 indigenous rebel leaders from the Comite Clandestino Revolucionario Indigena which heads the EZLN (CCRI, Clandestine Revolutionary Indigenous Committee), hundreds of indigenous Zapatista civilians, thousands of international supporters and observers, and crowds of enthusiastic supporters.

The purpose of the caravan was to publicize and garner public support for the preconditions the EZLN is demanding for the renewal of peace negotiations: the withdrawal of Mexican armed forces from 7 key military bases in Chiapas (President Fox has withdrawn only 4 of the 7 key bases while 255 remain, in total); for the release of the remaining 9 Zapatista political prisoners; and for the passage into law of the San Andrés peace accords (which President Fox has introduced to the legislature, but has failed to lobby).

While the caravan has come to an end, the Commandancia (Commanders) of the CCRI are not leaving Mexico City. They will remain to lobby on behalf of the passage of the Indian Rights Bill. If passed, the legislation would put into law the San Andrés peace accords, which include the recommendations by the Comisión de Concordia y Pacificación (COCOPA, the Commission for Concordance and Pacification).

Implementing the accords is widely seen as a crucial step in lessening the human rights abuses that occur in Mexico (particularly in Chiapas), at the hands of the US funded and trained Mexican army and their paramilitaries.

Zapatistas Emerge and Human Rights Abuses, Economic Oppression Increase

Human rights abuses against the indigenous peoples of Mexico have long been present. However, they increased markedly after the EZLN first emerged publicly on January 1, 1994. On that historic date, the EZLN had an uprising that resulted in the occupation of over four towns in the impoverished state of Chiapas. The date of the uprising was symbolic, as it coincided with the official date for NAFTA implementation, and as their spokesman subcommandante Marcos explained, the "free-trade" pact was a "death sentence for the indigenous peoples." The uprising lasted for 12 days until, after millions of Mexicans demonstrated for peace, the EZLN and President Salinas agreed to a cease fire on January 12. Thereafter, peace negotiations began in February and a gutted proposal for a peace settlement would wind up being rejected by the Zapatista communities (the communities are seen as the main base for decision making, as opposed to prior armed Latin American movements, which tended to depend upon a more hierarchal model). Eventually, a pact was agreed to on February 16, 1996 by both the government and the Zapatistas in the town of San Andrés, but the pact was never implemented.

The date of the uprising was symbolic, as it coincided with the official date for NAFTA implementation...

In the seven years since the uprising, a massive military occupation has ensued, resulting in denunciations from a plethora of respected human rights organizations, including Amnesty International. In their annual report from the past year, Amnesty reported that in Chiapas, "Human rights abuses, including killings, the torture and ill-treatment of detainees, and the displacement of indigenous communities" occurred alongside "Acts of intimidation directed at indigenous people by 'paramilitary'" groups. Such instances, Amnesty further notes, "were frequently reported." Global Exchange, a non-governmental organization whose mission includes monitoring human rights abuses in Mexico, reports that "the Mexican government first abandoned, and then undermined, efforts at a negotiated solution" and "instead, it relies on military and paramilitary forces to wage a campaign of low intensity warfare" that features "attacks by government supported paramilitary groups."

...the Zapatistas sought to become a different kind of rebel group...

In the same report, Global Exchange reveals US support and complicity, as "US-trained personal and US equipment are used in carrying out attacks on indigenous communities." Such support has occurred "Since 1997," whereby "the US has provided $1.12 billion dollars in military assistance to Mexico. In 1998, Mexico sent more military personal to the US for training than any country in the Western Hemisphere; in 1999, Mexico was second only to Colombia."

Shortly after the uprising, subcommandante Marcos captured the attention and imagination of the Mexican public and beyond. Rumored to have formerly been a professor from Mexico City before coming down to the remote jungles of Chiapas to help organize the indigenous people of the region, Marcos has a penchant for poetic and lyrical writing. That skill, coupled with his charismatic and accessible demeanor, explain why Marcos has quickly become the most popular and recognizable revolutionary in the world.

After the uprising, the Zapatistas sought to become a different kind of rebel group, one that would seek out the assistance and support not only of the "civil society" of Mexico, but of activist groups and individuals from abroad as well. They were able to do as much through a multitude of methods, but it was probably the effective utilization of the internet that helped the Zapatistas reach the outside world as effectively as it did, garnering them a reference as "the first post-modern uprising," in the New York Times.

Thus, as a result of the internationalist character of the Zapatistas, two massive gatherings (encuentros) were convened, both entitled "For Humanity and Against Neoliberalism," which came about in light of important declarations and pronouncements from the Zapatistas (the first meeting, in 1996, was in Chiapas while the second, in 1998, was in Spain; both garnered over 4,000 people hailing from over 50 countries).

For the first world, such encuentros were desperately needed because, despite years of resistance to corporate globalization among poorer countries from the southern hemisphere, such mass protest and resistance were largely absent in the developed north.

As a direct result of the encuentros, the Zapatistas helped create an ongoing network, which was later called the Peoples' Global Action Against "Free" Trade and the World Trade Organization (PGA).

PGA went on to form the organizing base for the protests against the Ministerial Meetings of the World Trade Organization. (WTO) The demonstrations in Seattle would lead to a cancellation of the opening day ceremonies and an inability to forge ahead with any new "investment" agreements, in no small part as a result of the courage gained by third-world delegates to resist such measures.

During the year that has followed the "battle in Seattle," the WTO has for all intents and purposes been impotent and unable to conduct business as usual.

For instance, it has stooped so low as to recently announce its intentions to meet in a secluded country where gatherings of more than five people require a permit (i.e. in the country of Qatar, planned for summer 2001 and an obvious attempt to avoid another internationally attended mass protest).

...Marcos called for the formation of a global network of independent media...

Indeed, after Seattle, one could truly say that mass protest and resistance to neoliberalism and corporate globalization had come to the US, as a number of subsequent mass protests proved (i.e. in DC in April 200 against the IMF and the World Bank and also during both major party conventions). It would be hard to give the Zapatistas too much credit for this development.

Meanwhile, the Zapatistas forged ahead in jump-starting international organizing efforts in yet another realm: independent media. During the second encuentro, subcommandante Marcos called for the formation of a global network of independent media, as he recalled during an independent media conference that was held in New York in 1997:

In August 1996, we called for the creation of a network of independent media, a network of information. We meant a network to resist the power of the lie that sells us this war that we call the Fourth World War [i.e. the onslaught of neoliberalism]. We need this network not only as a tool for our social movements, but for our lives: this is a project of life, of humanity, humanity which has a right to critical and truthful information.

Within a few years of this address, activists who had originally met at the encuentros and beyond, got together to form the Independent Media Center (IMC), which had its debut during the protests against the WTO. In the present, only a little over a year after Seattle, over 40 IMC's have sprung up all around the world on every continent except Asia. Their collective mission is to cover news, and in particular protest and movement activity, in a more accurate manner than the corporate media. The IMC maintains that the business interests of the corporate media result in distorted coverage of important events, while protest activity is often completely overlooked or covered poorly.

The Zapatista Caravan & Beyond

In light of the internationalist character of the Zapatistas, as well as their successful efforts in increasing international networking of both anti-corporate globalization activism and independent media, it should come as no surprise that the Zapatista caravan was attended by thousands of people from all over the world. Further, in light of the popularity of Marcos and the Zapatistas, it should also come as no surprise that they were well received by the indigenous people of Mexico, as well as the many poor working Mexicans who greeted them at nearly every city and town they passed.

Supporters of all ages and backgrounds lined the streets to greet the caravan by waiving at it, smiling at it, cheering for it, flashing peace signs at it so as to express support for the Zapatistas and their plight. Indeed, as a result of such emotional greetings for the caravan, travelling with it was both a moving and chilling experience for the many international human rights observers who accompanied it (myself included).

Marcos began his address to Mexico City by saying,

If the grandstand where we are is where it is, it is not by accident. It is because, from the very beginning, the government has been at our backs ... sometimes with artillery helicopters, sometimes with paramilitaries, sometimes with bomber planes, sometimes with war tanks, sometimes with soldiers, sometimes with the police, sometimes with offers for the buying and selling of consciences, sometimes with offers for surrender, sometimes with lies, sometimes with strident statements, sometimes with forgetting, sometimes with expectant silences. Sometimes, like today, with impotent silences. That is why the government never sees us, that is why it does not listen to us.

Marcos continued, expressing what he deemed to be the thoughts of the government:

Up there they say that you are here to watch in morbid fascination, to hear, without listening to anything. They say we are few, that we are weak. That we are nothing more than a photograph, an anecdote, a spectacle, a perishable product whose expiration date is close at hand. Up there they say that you will leave us alone. That we shall return alone and empty to the land in which we are.

To this, the crowd replied with a chant that had been murmured by many other supportive crowds throughout the caravan: "¡No estan solo, no estan solo!" which means, "You are not alone!"

Zapatista Update

On March 19, the Commandancia announced that it would be leaving Mexico City on the 23rd, but only a few days later, the EZLN then received an invitation to discuss their demands in front of the National Congress. The vote that approved the resolution that called for the initiation of a dialogue with the EZLN was extremely close (220 in favor and 210 against), and as a result, one of the parties (the National Action Party) boycotted the Zapatistas appearance in Congress.

In terms of the three demands that the Zapatistas for a re-initiation of peace negotiations with the Federal government and President Fox, for all intents and purposes, two of them have been met. Nearly all Zapatista political prisoners have been released and just about all of the seven military bases have been dismantled. Nevertheless, the third demand of the Zapatistas has not been met as the COCOPA provisions have not been implemented.

Instead, both chambers of the National Congress passed a watered down version of the Indigenous Rights Bill the Zapatistas had been demanding for passage as their third demand (April 25 and 28). The new legislation was changed to such a degree that hundreds of non-governmental organizations and the Zapatistas themselves consider the measure to be a "counter-reform." Protests against the new gutted legislation have taken place around the country by dozens of indigenous and civil society groups.

It remains to be seen whether or not the measure will be passed, as more than half of Mexico's 33 state legislatures need to pass the bill. Apparently, the results will be close, as just over 11 states are expected to pass the measure, 7 are expected to vote against it, while 15 others remain too close to call.

Meanwhile, the media has been full of declarations and battles of rhetoric about the measure. For instance, senator Demetrio Sodi de Tijera, who is of the center-left Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) and is a member of the COCOPA, staunchly defended his vote in favor of the altered "indigenous law," saying if presented with the opportunity he would "do it again." Sodi de Tijera suggested that the changes made to the indigenous law—and the indigenous law itself—simply were not that important, since "Indian peoples practically do not exist" today, and among those who do, very few are organized in just a handful of "small communities." Mexico has over 10 million indigenous people amongst its 100 million total population.

For more information and/or coverage about the Zapatistas, see the sites: http://nyc.indymedia.org/front.php3?article_id=2762&group=webcast &
http://bari.iww.org/~iww-nyc/CUNY/ &
http://uk.indymedia.org/index.php3?resist=zapatistas &

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