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In Chiapas, A Revolution That Won’t Go Away January 23, 2014

Posted by rogerhollander in Latin America, Mexico, Revolution.
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Roger’s note: William Blake coined the phrase “mind forged manacles,” the shackles we impose upon ourselves that prevent our imagination from envisioning a world other than the shitpot we live in.  When a skeptic alleges that human nature will never allow us to be free or to govern ourselves in a truly democratic way, we can and must point to the Paris Commune and the Zapatista Revolution as living proof that it can be done.  I have read some who insist that the Mexican government will inevitably one day wipe out the Zapatistas.  Maybe so, maybe not.  As Marx said, the lesson of the Paris Commune was its living breathing existence.  Unless we are ready to fall into cynicism and despair, we must never lose faith in these living examples of human freedom and dignity.

Published on Thursday, January 23, 2014 by TomDispatch.com

Now You See Me: A Glimpse into the Zapatista Movement, Two Decades Later

The mantra of ‘democracy, liberty, and justice’ has informed the Zapatista movement for more than twenty years. (Photo: Flickr/David Apellido/Falso Handala3)Growing up in a well-heeled suburban community, I absorbed our society’s distaste for dissent long before I was old enough to grasp just what was being dismissed. My understanding of so many people and concepts was tainted by this environment and the education that went with it: Che Guevara and the Black Panthers and Oscar Wilde and Noam Chomsky and Venezuela and Malcolm X and the Service Employees International Union and so, so many more. All of this is why, until recently, I knew almost nothing about the Mexican Zapatista movement except that the excessive number of “a”s looked vaguely suspicious to me. It’s also why I felt compelled to travel thousands of miles to a Zapatista “organizing school” in the heart of the Lacandon jungle in southeastern Mexico to try to sort out just what I’d been missing all these years.

Hurtling South

The fog is so thick that the revelers arrive like ghosts. Out of the mist they appear: men sporting wide-brimmed Zapata hats, women encased in the shaggy sheepskin skirts that are still common in the remote villages of Mexico. And then there are the outsiders like myself with our North Face jackets and camera bags, eyes wide with adventure. (“It’s like the Mexican Woodstock!” exclaims a student from the northern city of Tijuana.) The hill is lined with little restaurants selling tamales and arroz con leche and pozol, a ground-corn drink that can rip a foreigner’s stomach to shreds. There is no alcohol in sight. Sipping coffee as sugary as Alabama sweet tea, I realize that tonight will be my first sober New Year’s Eve since December 31, 1999, when I climbed into bed with my parents to await the Y2K Millennium bug and mourned that the whole world was going to end before I had even kissed a boy.

Thousands are clustered in this muddy field to mark the 20-year anniversary of January 1, 1994, when an army of impoverished farmers surged out of the jungle and launched the first post-modern revolution. Those forces, known as the Zapatista Army of National Liberation, were the armed wing of a much larger movement of indigenous peoples in the southeastern Mexican state of Chiapas, who were demanding full autonomy from their government and global liberation for all people.

“A popular uprising against government-backed globalization led by an all but forgotten people: it was an event that seemed unthinkable. The Berlin Wall had fallen. The market had triumphed. The treaties had been signed. And yet surging out of the jungles came a movement of people with no market value and the audacity to refuse to disappear.”

As the news swept across that emerging communication system known as the Internet, the world momentarily held its breath. A popular uprising against government-backed globalization led by an all but forgotten people: it was an event that seemed unthinkable. The Berlin Wall had fallen. The market had triumphed. The treaties had been signed. And yet surging out of the jungles came a movement of people with no market value and the audacity to refuse to disappear.

Now, 20 years later, villagers and sympathetic outsiders are pouring into one of the Zapatistas’ political centers, known as Oventic, to celebrate the fact that their rebellion has not been wiped out by the wind and exiled from the memory of men.

The plane tickets from New York City to southern Mexico were so expensive that we traveled by land. We E-ZPassed down the eastern seaboard, ate catfish sandwiches in Louisiana, barreled past the refineries of Texas, and then crossed the border. We pulled into Mexico City during the pre-Christmas festivities. The streets were clogged with parents eating tamales and children swinging at piñatas. By daybreak the next morning, we were heading south again. Speed bumps scraped the bottom of our Volvo the entire way from Mexico City to Chiapas, where the Zapatistas control wide swathes of territory. The road skinned the car alive. Later I realized that those speed bumps were, in a way, the consequences of dissent — tiny traffic-controlling monuments to a culture far less resigned to following the rules.

“Up north,” I’d later tell Mexican friends, “we don’t have as many speed bumps, but neither do we have as much social resistance.”

After five days of driving, we reached La Universidad de la Tierra, a free Zapatista-run schoolin the touristy town of San Cristóbal de Las Casas in Chiapas. Most of the year, people from surrounding rural communities arrive here to learn trades like electrical wiring, artisanal crafts, and farming practices. This week, thousands of foreigners had traveled to the town to learn about something much more basic: autonomy.

Our first “class” was in the back of a covered pickup truck careening through the Lacandon jungle with orange trees in full bloom. As we passed, men and women raised peace signs in salute. Spray-painted road signs read (in translation):

“You are now entering Zapatista territory. Here the people order and the government obeys.”

I grew nauseous from the exhaust and the dizzying mountain views, and after six hours in that pickup on this, my sixth day of travel, two things occurred to me: first, I realized that I had traveled “across” Chiapas in what was actually a giant circle; second, I began to suspect that there was no Zapatista organizing school at all, that the lesson I was supposed to absorb was simply that life is a matter of perpetual, cyclical motion. The movement’s main symbol, after all, is a snail’s shell.

Finally, though, we arrived in a village where the houses had thatched roofs and the children spoke only the pre-Hispanic language Ch’ol.

¡Ya Basta!

Over the centuries, the indigenous communities of Chiapas survived Spanish conquistadors, slavery, and plantation-style sugar cane fields; Mexican independence and mestizo landowners; racism, railroads, and neoliberal economic reforms. Each passing year seemed to bring more threats to its way of life. As the father of my host family explained to me, the community began to organize itself in the early 1990s because people felt that the government was slowly but surely exterminating them.

The government was chingando, he said, which translates roughly as deceiving, cheating, and otherwise screwing someone over. It was, he said, stealing their lands. It was extracting the region’s natural resources, forcing people from the countryside into the cities. It was disappearing the indigenous languages through its version of public education. It was signing free trade agreements that threatened to devastate the region’s corn market and the community’s main subsistence crop.

So on January 1, 1994, the day the North America Free Trade Agreement went into effect, some residents of this village — along with those from hundreds of other villages — seized control of major cities across the state and declared war on the Mexican government. Under the name of the Zapatista Army for National Liberation, they burned the army’s barracks and liberated the inmates in the prison at San Cristóbal de Las Casas.

In response, the Mexican army descended on Chiapas with such violence that the students of Mexico City rioted in the streets. In the end, the two sides sat down for peace talks that, to this day, have never been resolved.

The uprising itself lasted only 12 days; the response was a punishing decade of repression. First came the great betrayal. Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo, who, in the wake of the uprising, had promised to enact greater protections for indigenous peoples, instead sent thousands of troops into the Zapatistas’ territory in search of Subcomandante Marcos, the world-renowned spokesperson for the movement. They didn’t find him. But the operation marked the beginning of a hush-hush war against the communities that supported the Zapatistas. The army, police, and hired thugs burned homes and fields and wrecked small, communally owned businesses. Some local leaders disappeared. Others were imprisoned. In one region of Chiapas, the entire population was displaced for so long that the Red Cross set up a refugee camp for them. (In the end, the community rejected the Red Cross aid, in the same way that it also rejects all government aid.)

Since 1994, the movement has largely worked without arms. Villagers resisted government attacks and encroachments with road blockades, silent marches, and even, in one famous case, an aerial attack comprised entirely of paper airplanes.

The Boy Who Is Free

Fifteen years after the uprising, a child named Diego was born in Zapatista territory. He was the youngest member of the household where I was staying, and during my week with the family, he was always up to something. He agitated the chickens, peeked his head through the window to surprise his father at the breakfast table, and amused the family by telling me long stories in Ch’ol that I couldn’t possibly understand.

He also, unknowingly, defied the government’s claim that he does not exist.

Diego is part of the first generation of Zapatista children whose births are registered by one of the organization’s own civil judges. In the eyes of his father, he is one of the first fully independent human beings. He was born in Zapatista territory, attends a Zapatista school, lives on unregistered land, and his body is free of pesticides and genetically modified organisms. Adding to his autonomy is the fact that nothing about him — not his name, weight, eye color, or birth date — is officially registered with the Mexican government. His family does not receive a peso of government aid, nor does it pay a peso worth of taxes. Not even the name of Diego’s town appears on any official map.

By first-world standards, this autonomy comes at a steep price: some serious poverty. Diego’s home has electricity but no running water or indoor plumbing. The outhouse is a hole in the ground concealed by waist-high tarp walls. The bathtub is the small stream in the backyard. Their chickens often free-range it right through their one-room, dirt-floor house. Eating them is considered a luxury.

The population of the town is split between Zapatistas and government loyalists, whom the Zapatistas call “priistas” in reference to Mexico’s ruling political party, the PRI. To discern who is who, all you have to do is check whether or not a family’s roof sports a satellite dish.

Then again, the Zapatistas aren’t focused on accumulating wealth, but on living with dignity. Most of the movement’s work over the last two decades has involved patiently building autonomous structures for Diego and his generation. Today, children like him grow up in a community with its own Zapatista schools; communal businesses; banks; hospitals; clinics; judicial processes; birth, death, and marriage certificates; annual censuses; transportation systems; sports teams; musical bands; art collectives; and a three-tiered system of government. There are no prisons. Students learn both Spanish and their own indigenous language in school. An operation in the autonomous hospital can cost one-tenth that in an official hospital. Members of the Zapatista government, elected through town assemblies, serve without receiving any monetary compensation.

Economic independence is considered the cornerstone of autonomy — especially for a movement that opposes the dominant global model of neoliberal capitalism. In Diego’s town, the Zapatista families have organized a handful of small collectives: a pig-raising operation, a bakery, a shared field for farming, and a chicken coop. The 20-odd chickens had all been sold just before Christmas, so the coop was empty when we visited. The three women who ran the collective explained, somewhat bashfully, that they would soon purchase more chicks to raise.

As they spoke in the outdoor chicken coop, there were squealing noises beneath a nearby table. A tangled cluster of four newly born puppies, eyes still crusted shut against the light, were squirming to stay warm. Their mother was nowhere in sight, and the whole world was new and cold, and everything was unknown. I watched them for a moment and thought about how, although it seemed impossible, they would undoubtedly survive and grow.

Unlike Diego, the majority of young children on the planet today are born into densely packed cities without access to land, animals, crops, or almost any of the natural resources that are required to sustain human life. Instead, we city dwellers often need a ridiculous amount of money simply to meet our basic needs. My first apartment in New York City, a studio smaller than my host family’s thatched-roof house, cost more per month than the family has likely spent in Diego’s entire lifetime.

As a result, many wonder if the example of the Zapatistas has anything to offer an urbanized planet in search of change. Then again, this movement resisted defeat by the military of a modern state and built its own school, medical, and governmental systems for the next generation without even having the convenience of running water. So perhaps a more appropriate question is: What’s the rest of the world waiting for?

Celebrating Dissent

Around six o’clock, when night falls in Oventic, the music for the celebration begins. On stage, a band of guitar-strumming men wear hats that look like lampshades with brightly colored tassels. Younger boys perform Spanish rap. Women, probably from the nearby state of Veracruz, play son jarocho, a type of folk music featuring miniature guitar-like instruments.

It’s raining gently in the open field. The mist clings to shawls and skirts and pasamontañas,the face-covering ski masks that have become iconic imagery for the Zapatistas. “We cover our faces so that you can see us” is a famous Zapatista saying. And it’s true: For a group of people often erased by politicians and exploited by global economies, the ski-masks have the curious effect of making previously invisible faces visible.

Still, there are many strategies to make dissent disappear, of which the least effective may be violence. The most ingenious is undoubtedly to make the rest of the world — and even the dissenter herself — dismissive of what’s being accomplished. Since curtailing its military offensive, the government has waged a propaganda war focused on convincing the rest of Mexico, the world, and even Zapatista communities themselves that the movement and its vision no longer exists.

But there are just as many strategies for keeping dissent and dissenters going. One way is certainly to invite thousands of outsiders to visit your communities and see firsthand that they are real, that in every way that matters they are thriving, and that they have something to teach the rest of us. As Diego’s father said in an uncharacteristic moment of boastfulness, “I think by now that the whole world has heard of our organization.”

Writing is another way to prevent an idea and a movement from disappearing, especially when one is hurtling down the highway in Texas headed back to New York City, already surrounded by a reality so different as to instantly make the Zapatistas hard to remember.

The most joyous way to assert one’s existence, however, is through celebration.

The New Year arrived early in Oventic. One of the subcomandantes had just read a communique issued by the organization’s leadership, first in Spanish, then in the indigenous languages Tzotzil and Tzeltal. The latter translations took her nearly twice as long to deliver, as if to remind us of all the knowledge that was lost with the imposition of a colonial language centuries ago. Then, a low hiss like a cracked soda can, and two fireworks exploded into the air.

“Long live the insurgents!” a masked man on stage cried.

“Viva!” we shouted. The band burst into song, and two more fireworks shot into the sky, their explosions well timed drumbeats of color and sound. The coordination was impeccable. As the chants continued, the air grew so smoky that we could barely see the fireworks exploding, but in that moment, I could still feel their brilliance and the illumination, 20 years old, of the movement releasing them.

© 2014 Laura Gottesdiener
Laura Gottesdiener

Laura Gottesdiener is an organizer with Occupy Wall Street and a freelance journalist in New York City.

Zapatistas at Twenty January 15, 2014

Posted by rogerhollander in Latin America, Mexico, Revolution.
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Roger’s note: In my opinion the Zapatistas are the most important humanist revolutionaries our time.  They have shown us that the notions of individual dignity and communal responsibility are not in opposition to one another.  As revolutionaries they have avoided the pitfall of vanguard-ism and dogmatism.  From the beginning Zapatista women have struggled for and won equality within the movement.  By all traditional logic they should have been wiped out by the U.S. supported democratically elected undemocratic Mexican governments.  But through determination and having captured the imagination and support of  freedom loving peoples around the globe, they not only have survived but continue to maintain authority over various Chiapas regions.  They are a revolutionary example and inspiration for all of us.

 

By January 14, 2014.  Foreign Policy In Focus

There are two tests of social change movements: endurance and regeneration. After two decades, Mexico’s Zapatista movement can now say it passed both.

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Mexico’s Zapatistas, one of the world’s most unclassifiable revolutionary movements, celebrated the 20th anniversary of their movement with high hopes for passing it on to the next generation. (Photo: Void Network / Flickr)

There are two tests of social change movements: endurance and regeneration. After two decades, Mexico’s Zapatista movement can now say it passed both.

Thousands of Zapatistas turned out this month to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the 1994 uprising of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN). At the New Year festivities in the five Caracoles, or regional centers of Zapatista autonomous government, veterans and adolescents not yet born at the time of the insurrection danced, flirted, shot off rockets, and celebrated “autonomy” — the ideal of self-government that lies at the heart of the Zapatista experience.

Public Re-Emergence

The Zapatistas came out by the thousands for their anniversary parties, surprising some. Their death, it turns out, had been greatly exaggerated. Accustomed to the face of politics as a white man talking, the press and the political class began writing obituaries for the movement when Subcomandante Marcos retired from public view in 2006.

Although Zapatista communities have continued to emit a steady stream of communiqués denouncing military and political attacks, land grabs, and the presence of paramilitary forces in Zapatista communities, the media has ignored them. It smugly predicted that the movement was moribund and would soon merit nothing more than a folkloric footnote in the history of the inexorable advance of global capitalism. The return of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) to power in 2012 seemed to reaffirm the idea that Mexico was “back to normal.”

When nearly 50,000 Zapatistas marched in silence on December 21, 2012, they challenged the official line that their movement had all but died. The EZLN communiqué was brief and to the point: “Did you hear that? It is the sound of your world crumbling. It is the sound of ours resurging.”

The 20th anniversary and New Year celebrations this month marked a second moment in that resurgence. The festivities were a family affair. Press was banned, and although a series of articles by Subcomandante Marcos came out before the events, the organization put out no public documents on January 1st, the day of the anniversary itself. It was a time for Zapatistas to pat themselves on the back, an internal affirmation more than a political statement.

It may have been “just family,” but the Zapatistas have a wide extended family. Thousands of supporters and students, mostly youth from Mexico and abroad attending La Escuelita (the Little School), fanned out to theCarcacoles to join in ceremonies and all-night dancing.

The Little School was launched in August to teach “freedom according to the Zapatistas.” Students paired up with tutors from among movement members and were placed in families throughout Zapatista territory. Classes consist mostly of accompanying Zapatista families during their daily chores and long talks over beans and tortillas.

The experience opened up the Zapatista experience to outsiders, who were encouraged to ask questions of their host families. It also enabled the organization to hold up a mirror to itself — to see itself through the eyes of the students, reflect on the ground covered, and get to know other communities.

On New Year’s Eve, many of the 4,000 students attending the school’s winter sessions went out to Oventic, a foggy village in the highlands close to the city of San Cristobal de las Casas, or remained in more remote communities with their host families to join in the sports competitions, music, speeches, and dancing.

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(Photo: Clayton Conn)

The anniversary sparked a debate on the movement, two decades after thousands of masked Mayans came out of the jungles and mountains in military formation to take over municipal seats in the southeastern state of Chiapas.

Subcomandante Marcos published a series of his characteristic communiqués, weaving meditations on death(“it’s not death that worries us and keeps us occupied, but life”) and biography (“historiography feeds on individualities; history learns from peoples“) with reflections on the organization and a story from a beetle named Durito.

Critics rushed to point out that poverty still exists in Zapatista communities — a fact not denied by the organization and obvious to the many visitors. Journalists and pundits invented and then passed around statistics on the number of Zapatista adherents, or lack thereof, as well as on the extension of Zapatista territory and on living conditions in autonomous regions. Many pronounced the world-famous uprising dead or dying for failing to resolve problems or maintain its high profile.

What reporters missed as they snuck into celebrations closed to the press is the significance of “autonomy.”

Zapatistas say the word with pride, much as you’d talk about your children or grandchildren. These communities have moved steadily off the traditional power grid. Disappointment at the Mexican government’s betrayal in rejecting its own signature on the San Andres Accords of 1996 led to a decision to de-prioritize pressuring institutions and instead build from below.

Imagine communities where local officials rotate to avoid accumulating power, political parties have no role or presence, and state and government programs — long used to buy off advocates for a more equal society — are banned. Much of the food is produced by the community, cooperatives do buying and marketing, and decisions are made collectively rather than being imposed by a state. The Zapatistas have attempted to resurrect this model, practiced for centuries in indigenous Mexico prior to the Spanish conquest.

Comandante Hortensia addressed the crowd in Oventic. “We’re learning to govern ourselves according to our own ways of thinking and living,” she said. “We’re trying to move forward, to improve and strengthen ourselves — men, women, youth, children, and old people.”

She added that 20 years ago, when the Zapatistas first said ¡Ya basta!(“Enough!”), “there wasn’t a single authority that was of the people. Now we have our own autonomous governments. It may have be good or bad, but it’s the will of the people.”

The Zapatistas acknowledge that progress in improving material conditions has been slow and hampered by obstacles and errors. But they express deep pride in what has been built, in “their” organization. Local health clinics — often poorly stocked and precariously staffed — use natural medicines made by community cooperatives and have special areas where trained midwives attend childbirth. Schools with rudimentary equipment teach in the indigenous languages of the communities, focusing on understanding the world the children live in and basic concepts of freedom, equality, and cooperation. The organization of defense and production in the communities shows discipline and commitment.

The anniversary revealed that at 20 years old, this military-political organization that defies easy categorization is what a democracy should be: an ongoing effort at building a better life collectively. When Zapatistas came together from communities throughout their lands to celebrate, the main achievement they marked was the survival of the organization itself — after 20 years of attacks, they’re still there, running their own communities, raising new generations of Zapatistas, and carrying on the dialogue with the outside world that has enriched both sides.

Communities have survived the moment in a long distance race when the runners pass the baton. Youths make up a large part of the Zapatistas’ base, representation, and more and more, leadership. Educated in the Zapatista school system and raised in Zapatista communities, a new generation is beginning to take on positions of authority. Their eagerness to assume the collective identity of their organization is another mark of the staying power of the autonomy experiment.

The role of women has also transformed visibly — not just in the number of women in leadership positions, but also in aspects of daily life, such as increased male participation in housework and childcare, and sanctions against violence towards women. The shift from downtrodden alienation to indigenous self-government makes a huge difference in their lives, even as poverty remains.

In evaluating the two-decade experience, most criteria ignore these subjective factors. By opening up the communities to participants in La Escuelita, the Zapatistas did something governments almost never do: let the people publicly evaluate the experience themselves. Returning studentsrecounted the experience enthusiastically, describing how their hosts revealed a world that wasn’t perfect by a long shot, but a world where each person mattered and each effort, each achievement, and each mistake was their own.

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(Photo: Clayton Conn)

As the Zapatistas celebrated their accomplishments, vowed to correct their mistakes, and honored their dead, they also enjoyed more traditional New Year’s activities like setting off bottle rockets and dressing up in their finest. The solid continuity of Zapatismo was joined by a portent of change, the sense that yet another phase of one of history’s most unclassifiable revolutionary movements had begun.

As visiting students from all over the world joined together with veterans of the movement and younger members of the community, new possibilities shimmered under the moon of a new year. Contact with a new generation of supporters proved that the indigenous autonomy movement continues to attract people from all over. For now, the schools will continue. The Zapatistas have also jump-started the dormant National Indigenous Congress, holding an event in August where hundreds of indigenous representatives described the situation in their lands.

Amid mud, guitars, vivas, fireworks, and embraces, thousands of Zapatistas welcomed 2014. The debate on whether the movement is dead or alive, victorious or defeated, was left behind along with 2013. It wasn’t just the alcohol-free festivities that made people optimistic; it was a feeling of collective accomplishment, under tough conditions. A feeling of finally having a future.

“I know you don’t care,” Subcomandante Marcos noted in a missive to his critics, “but for the masked men and women from around here, the battle that matters isn’t the one that’s been won or lost. It’s the next one, and for that one, new calendars and grounds are being prepared.”

Foreign Policy In Focus columnist Laura Carlsen directs the Americas Program for the Center for International Policy in Mexico City.

Students Leave the Zapatistas’ First School With Homework August 25, 2013

Posted by rogerhollander in First Nations, Latin America, Mexico, Revolution.
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The 1700 students who travelled from across Mexico and the world to attend the Zapatistas’first school last week are leaving with an important homework assignment: to transfer what they learned to their respective collectives and movements.

A man takes notes during the Tata Juan Chávez Alonso Seminar about indigenous struggles, which began directly the Zapatistas first school on liberty earlier this month. (Photo: WNV/Marta Molina)

Some left with blisters on their hands from working in the fields with a machete for the first time. Others told stories of waking before the sun rose to prepare tortillas and beans and pozol (water with corn flour added) for their companions who were going to work in the milpa (cornfields) and to chop and carry wood. As the students prepared these meals, often for the first time, they listened to the sounds of indigenous languages like Tojobal, Chol, Tzeltal, and Tzotzil. As they ate, they shared experiences and began understanding that their sense of resistance came from their own families, from the very beginning of their childhoods.

The focus of the five-day school’s curriculum was liberty according to the Zapatistas, and students grew to understand how the home stays in Zapatista territories were an integral part of the lesson. “They care for Mother Earth because it’s what brings them food,” explained Marcos, a student from Argentina. “In the cities we buy everything in containers, and we don’t even know where it comes from. That [growing one’s own food] is also part of liberty.”

Others said that liberty lies in exercising autonomy without government help. It is the hard daily work that allows the Zapatistas to survive without the government and be free, said the students. Coherence, resistance and responsibility were words they repeated often in describing the Zapatista way of life.

“To be free is to be able to decide for themselves what lives they want to have,” said Marcos.

“What education they want. How they want to raise their children. How they want to organize. We have to go to the supermarket, go to the school that the system offers us to then reproduce that system — at university as well. We have to take the healthcare system that the system offers us and that we don’t understand,” he said.

During the school, Toño from Brazil stayed in the Rosario de Río Blanco in the Caracol La Realidad, close to the city of Las Margaritas. “It was the best school I’ve been to in all my life,” he said. Toño and other students learned how a Zapatista family can live peacefully in communities where the majority of people support the PRI, the governing Institutional Revolutionary Party, and receive money from government projects. “But if one day they lose their government financial support, they won’t know what to do,” said Toño.

Erwin, a student from Cuetzalan, a small town in the Mexican state of Puebla, works to build autonomy for the community where he lives, and he understands how the Zapatistas navigate relationships with their non-Zapatista neighbors.

“They have differences with their neighbors, but they don’t treat them as enemies,” he said. “The system is negatively affecting the everyday life of all, partisan, non-partisan. Even the army has indigenous people in it. And that’s what capitalism wants: for brothers to fight each other.”

Many felt that learning how the Zapatistas live alongside, and assume a non-confrontational attitude toward, people who don’t think like them was an indispensable lesson. Non-Zapatistas can even come to the autonomous clinic when they are sick, and they will be attended to rather than rejected. “In this same community we greet all people who are not Zapatistas with affection, because we are all affected by the system…The real enemy is the same, the system,” said Erwin.

The fact that oftentimes students did not speak the same language as their host families, teachers and guardians, called votanes, was not necessarily a problem. “We wound up understanding each other,” said 17-year-old Camila, who is a student at the College of Sciences and Humanities at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. The texts provided by the Zapatista school were very different than those she was familiar with from college. “They explain through anecdotes, which are reflections of practice.” Camila said she hopes that a second grade will be added to the escuelita, and that, if one is, she will be allowed to attend. She said she learned over the course of those five days that autonomy exists and is possible.

The lesson that most impacted Uruguayan Mónica Olaso was when she asked her teacher why they were summoned and what the Zapatistas expected of the students. The response, Mónica recounted, was, “You know, Mónica, a bullet is not going to reach Uruguay. But our word will.” She is returning to her country, she said, with the mission to insist on organizing with the patience required to realize the commitments they make with people in her communities. She also feels the responsibility to pass along the lessons both in the books she was given by the Zapatistas and those already within her — her experiences.

“The Zapatistas wanted us to hear them, to see them, to share with them their experiences of struggle. Now, we have a mission: that every one of us, in accordance with our ways and places, continue organizing according to our context,” said Mónica from Uruguay. Toño, who is part of the Passe Livre Movement in Brazil, which helped organize the mass protests against the fare hikes earlier this summer, agreed. “Rural movements, urban movements, no matter which. But we have to learn how to be more autonomous, and therefore we will be more free. We will even live alongside the enemy itself, because if you are autonomous and free, then you can live with them,” he said.

 Alex, a student from San Francisco, Calif., stayed at the Caracol La Realidad with Toño during the school. He says that he learned discipline, listening and the importance of having a long-term strategic vision. In his opinion, these are three things that are missing from social movements in the United States. “There are two main lessons,” he said. “First, is the discipline to accomplish what you say you’re going to do. The second is being self-critic and evaluating our mistakes and victories.” He quoted the Zapatista saying — “we walk slowly because we are going far” — as he explained the longevity of the movement: the Zapatistas have already celebrated 30 years since founding the EZLN, 20 years since establishing the municipalities and starting to build their autonomy, and ten years since the creation of the autonomous governing structure, the Councils of Good Government. This long-term view, Alex said, is lacking in the United States.

In addition to organizing the escuelita, the EZLN also brought together representatives of indigenous peoples from all over Mexico to inaugurate the first Tata Juan Chávez Alonso Traveling Seminar. Held directly after the escuelita at the Centro Indigena de capacitación Integral,

The University of the Earth, in San Cristóbal de Las Casas in Chiapas, the seminar was a gathering of members of indigenous communities from around the world. The location for the inaugural seminar was significant because the Zapatistas are organizing — like so many other indigenous communities in resistance — to defend their territories from threats by transnational corporations, narco-trafficking and governments. Some students who attended the escuelita to listen and learn with Zapatista families about the meanings of liberty and autonomy also attended the Tata Juan Chávez Alonso Seminar. Indigenous participants shared their victories and organizational missteps as a way to measure of the strength of the indigenous communities that conform the National Indigenous Congress, and those who still do not belong to it.

The ongoing seminar will continue to re-convene in different regions of the Americas and is intended to create a traveling forum for indigenous voices, while the Zapatistas have announced that they will hold a second escuelita this coming winter.

Marta Molina is an independent journalist from Barcelona, Catalunya. She has written about cultural resistance in Brazil and Palestine, and now she is based in Mexico following the steps of the Movement for Peace Justice and Dignity (MPJD) against the war on drugs.

The Zapatistas’ First School Opens for Session August 13, 2013

Posted by rogerhollander in Education, First Nations, Latin America, Mexico, Revolution.
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Roger’s note: The Zapatistas are perhaps the most important revolutionary movement of our times.  The figure known as Subcomandante Marcos was a Mexico City academic who went to Chiapas to teach revolution to the Indigenous population.  Instead, he himself got his world view flipped 180 degrees, coming to realize that the true revolutionary spirit is indigenous to the Indigenous.  What the Zapatistas have taught us is the prime importance of the notion of “dignity,” self-governance, and that genuine revolution at a given time does not necessarily imply the necessity of winning state power.  I recommend that anyone interested in revolutionary theory and practice look into the Zapatista experience.  I also recommend a work greatly inspired by the Zapatista movement, John Holloway’s “Change the World Without Taking Power.”

 

Yesterday, 1,700 students from around the world enrolled in the first Zapatistas school, held at the University of the People’s Land of Chiapas. (Photo: WNV/Moysés Zúñiga Santiago)

Last December, tens of thousands of indigenous Zapatistas mobilized, peacefully and in complete silence, to occupy five municipal government office buildings in the state of Chiapas, Mexico. That same day, which coincided with the end of one cycle on the Maya calendar, Zapatistas released a communiqué, asking, “Did you hear it?”

It appears that the answer was yes, because this week thousands of people from around the world are descending on Chiapas for the Zapatistas’ first organizing school, called la escuelita de libertad, which means the little school of liberty. Originally the group allotted for only 500 students. But so many people wished to enroll that they opened an additional 1,200 slots for the weeklong school, which begins on August 12.

Just as the Zapatistas have, for two decades, rejected hierarchical systems, the escuelita will also eschew traditional teaching models. Instead, it will be an open space for the community to learn together.

“There isn’t one teacher,” wrote Subcomandante Marcos, the spokesperson for the Zapatista movement. “Rather, it is the collective that teaches, that shows, that forms, and in it and through it the person learns, and also teaches.”

While attending the escuelita, students will live with a family in a rebel zapatista community and participate both in the school and in the daily life of the community. Participants will cut wood, work in the cornfields and cook and eat with their host families.

Subcomandante Marcos acknowledged that attending this type of school requires shifting one’s way of thinking about learning and indigenous communities. As he asked in a communiqué:

Would you attend a school taught by indigenous teachers, whose mother tongue is typified as “dialect”?

Could you overcome the temptation to study them as anthropological subjects, psychological subjects, subjects of law or esoterism, or history?

Would you overcome the urge to write a report, interview them, tell them your opinion, give them advice, orders?

Would you see them, that is to say, would you listen to them?

Leading up to the school, the Zapatistas published a series of seven communiqués entitled “Them and Us.” These essays illustrated the absurdities of “those from above” — those who hold coercive and repressive power — trampling the freedoms of “those from below.” The writings also spoke to the need to learn by observing and listening in order to build an alternative world. But more than abstractions, the seven publications were a collection of lessons about how everyday life in the Zapatista communities, including how people resolve problems and how they organize themselves into an autonomous networks in which the people rule and the government obeys.

The last installation of this manual, published on March 27, also announced the upcoming escuelita and outlined three requirements necessary for any applicant: “an indisposition to speaking and judging, a disposition to listening and seeing, and a well-placed heart.”

The Zapatistas are unique not only for challenging power or maintaining their resistance for nearly 20 years. What sets them apart is their ever-evolving definition of liberty, and this topic — liberty according to the Zapatistas — will be the central focus of the school. According to Subcomandante Marcos, liberty is “to govern and govern ourselves according to our ways, in our geography and in this calendar.” But the definition also shifts from generation to generation, and Marcos explains that new generations must find their own paths through rebellion and dignity.

The experience of living with Zapatistas and other indigenous families will be another central part of the school. Some students will stay with families living in autonomous rebel communities, while others will be with nearby non-Zapatistas, or even anti-Zapatistas families. These hundreds of families have all agreed on a votán, a person who, in the Zapatista movement, represents a guardian and the heart of the community. The votáns will translate for the families and the foreign students, although Marcos acknowledges that translation itself is an imperfect process.

“In legal cases, do cultures translate?” he questions. “In that sense, one understands that what they call ‘equality under the law’ is one of the greatest travesties of justice in our world.”

As for final evaluations, the school won’t, unsurprisingly, have an exam, a thesis, or a multiple-choice test. Rather, as Marcos explained, the school “will make its own reality,” and the results will be “a mirror.”

The school began after three days of festivals in rebel communities to celebrate the 10-year anniversary of the councils of good governance, the Zapatistas’ autonomous governing system in which the community makes decisions and the government carries them out. During the celebrations, one could see empty buses and vans parked along the streets to Ocosingo and Palenque, waiting to transport the 1,700 students from San Cristobal de Las Casas into the rebel communities the following morning.

Earlier this summer, the Zapatistas announced that future escuelitas in the Zapatista communities will be held this coming winter.

Marta Molina is an independent journalist from Barcelona, Catalunya. She has written about cultural resistance in Brazil and nonviolent resistance in Palestine. Now she is based in Mexico following the steps of the Movement for Peace, Justice and Dignity (MPJD) against the war on drugs, and the movement Yosoy132 for the democratization of media and an authentic democracy in the country. She also reports about movements on defense of the land and struggles for autonomy in the South of México and Guatemala. You can follow Marta on Twitter at @martamoli_RR

 

The Zapatistas Return Amid Failed Drug War June 11, 2011

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After Javier Sicilia spoke to the crowd of thousands, he called for a 5-minute period of silence to honor the memory of victims of the drug war. (Photo: Kara Newhouse / Flickr)
Saturday 11 June 2011
by: Michael McCaughan, The Indypendent

 

San Cristobal, Mexico – This nation is caught in the grip of an escalating drug war that has cost 40,000 lives in the past five years. The daily body count varies but is usually measured in the dozens.  Methods of extermination range from decapitation and mutilation to asphyxiation and a bullet in the head. Most Mexicans have become numbed to the extreme cruelty and hope they don’t get swept up in the river of blood.

Once in a while, however, a single incident can trigger a powerful reaction. Juan Francisco Sicilia was one of seven friends found bound and murdered on March 28 south of Mexico City, with evidence pointing to a drug cartel. His killing has sparked a national mobilization and a new movement aimed at shifting government policy away from perpetual warfare and toward an integrated political solution.

Javier Sicilia, poet and father of Juan Francisco, launched “The March for Peace with Justice and Dignity,” a three-day event that culminated in a rally in Mexico City. The idea was simple – a silent march and a single slogan: “Estamos hasta la madre, no mas sangre.” “We’ve had it up to here, no more bloodshed.” This idea captured the popular imagination and on May 8 hundreds of thousands of people marched all over Mexico demanding a radical change to government policy.

In southeast Mexico, the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) answered the call and announced their plan to march into San Cristobal de las Casas on May 7, the town where the Zapatistas first appeared in January 1994. It has been five years since the Zapatistas last mobilized in this manner, and many people remember the movement as a noble insurrection that inspired millions but ultimately fizzled out, victim of a bitter debate over the pitfalls and possibilities of electoral politics.

The return of the Zapatistas to San Cristobal thus seemed like a reckoning. Could the Zapatistas match the years when they could gather more than 10,000 masked rebels to occupy the city, watched by nervous local elite who pulled the shutters down and held their breath till the indios left?

Since 2006 the Zapatistas have consolidated their autonomous rule across five “caracoles,” self-governing councils whose delegates take turns to “be the government,” learning the ropes before passing the torch to delegates from another village. The goal is to allow many people to learn how to “be the government” without giving birth to a professional, bureaucratic political class.

The Zapatistas have also largely severed ties with visiting NGOs and no longer encourage foreigners to visit their communities. Thousands of outsiders, trekking in to jungle communities to learn how to make revolution, came in good faith. They served as an important buffer against army and paramilitary forces in the late 90s, but they also disrupted daily life and generated inequalities and jealousy as gifts and money were left behind.

When May 7 arrived, San Cristobal was drenched in warm sunshine and an air of expectancy filled the main square where TV crews jostled for position in front of an improvised stage. The Zapatistas arrived in a long, winding trail of men and women of all ages, each one wearing a ski mask that bore a number representing the caracole from which they came. The square quickly filled to overflowing, and by the time the Zapatista comandantes opened the event with Mexico’s national anthem, the rebels had already won a major victory by organizing the biggest march San Cristobal has ever seen. Some 20,000 rebels were present, bringing with them the fragrant aroma of corn and wood smoke, and the elusive element of community cohesion, described by one analyst as “the sacred fire of the movement.” Getting that many rebels to San Cristobal was an enormous effort as each community was in charge of its own transport and food at a time when corn, rice and beans are scarce.

The Zapatistas have an ambivalent relationship with the rest of Mexico. “Here we are,” their silence seems to say. “We have territory and self rule in our small corner of the country, what have you done?”

The images of Javier Sicilia, a lone individual leading a march of the indignant and the impotent in Mexico City, contrasted sharply with Zapatismo. The rebels moved as one, arriving and leaving in formation, sharing transport and territory. This cohesion is amplified by the shared “means of production,” the milpa or cornfield that forms the basis for survival across regional and linguistic boundaries.

The 30 comandantes of the Clandestine Indigenous Revolutionary Committee who formed a guard of honor on the stage melted into the crowd after the event, their faces unknown, their words attributable to no one.

Nonetheless, the situation is fragile as the Zapatista communities struggle to survive and withstand the twin pressures of army and paramilitary aggression and state funds used to tempt rebels away from the Zapatista ranks.

Meanwhile, the next day in Mexico City, at least 70 victims of violence took turns to speak out, including Patricia Duarte, whose infant son was burned to death in a crèche in Sonora along with 47 other children. In Mexico today, the state of insecurity covers everything from the village of San Juan Copala, Oaxaca, whose inhabitants were forced to flee en masse last year due to state-sponsored violence and the parents of those children who died in the nursery. San Juan Copala declared an autonomous zone, Zapatista-style, on Jan. 1, 2007 and was immediately besieged by paramilitaries with close links to the state governor. Unlike the Chiapan rebels they had no weapons to back up their claims.

Mexican President Felipe Calderon responded to the march with a televised address in which he equated the call for an end to state violence with surrender to the drug cartels. “We have might, right and the law on our side,” said a belligerent Calderon, insisting that the army would remain on the streets and at the center of his national security strategy.

Mere days after the march, Amnesty International released a report accusing Mexican security forces of torture, disappearances and murder, including charges of disguising innocent victims of army violence as members of drug gangs. Amnesty also criticized Mexico’s justice system for failing to charge a single member of the armed forces with criminal activity despite dozens of well-documented cases.

Juan Sicilia countered, “We are not trying to overthrow the government. We want to rebuild the social fabric of this nation.” Sicilia said that the Mexican people were paying an intolerable price for an unwinnable war that no one asked for, the course of which is determined by politicians “in upscale restaurants and offices paid for by us.” By the end of the three-day march Sicilia’s tone had hardened, recognizing perhaps that Calderon had no intention of paying him any heed. Sicilia called for civil disobedience should the government ignore their demands. “It takes balls to strike back, to refuse to pay taxes, and it will take all of us to surround parliament until our demands are heard.”

Sicilia has launched a citizen initiative that is gathering momentum and which has no affiliation with Mexico’s discredited political parties. In 2006 the EZLN launched “la otra campana,” the other campaign – an attempt to build a popular movement that would eschew elections and challenge the state from below. If there is one lesson learned since 1994, it is that the Zapatistas cannot carry the burden of hope alone and that the rest of Mexico must do its own share of the heavy lifting.

“We know you didn’t understand anything,” joked one Zapatista delegate in San Cristobal, referring to the translation of each speech into several indigenous languages. “But that’s the way it goes, you just had to put up with us. Thank you for your patience.”

The Zapatistas remain the ever-patient outsiders in a country rent by violence and corruption, quietly building an autonomous alternative, a living example of what a disciplined, long-term struggle can achieve. “You are not alone,” said Comandante David during the rally, addressing victims of violence throughout Mexico. The Zapatistas have been alone for too long, and derided for lacking “common sense” and refusing to throw their weight behind the lesser of three evils at election time.

With just a moment in the limelight Javier Sicilia has already concluded that if Mexico’s political system fails to respond to the current crisis of representation, and if a sweeping new security law is approved, the 2012 presidential elections shall be a pointless exercise: A candidate bound and gagged by institutional corruption will be elected to lead a nation edging dangerously close to a politico-military dictatorship.

Michael McCaughan is a writer and researcher based in the Burren, Ireland. He is working on a biography of Mumia Abu-Jamal.

Mexico Unconquered: Reviewing a People’s History of Power and Revolt February 24, 2009

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Written by Benjamin Dangl    www.upsidedownworld.org
Tuesday, 24 February 2009
ImageReviewed: Mexico Unconquered: Chronicles of Power and Revolt, by John Gibler, 356 Pages, City Lights Publishers, (January, 2009).

Carlos Slim, the richest man in the world, calls Mexico home, as do millions of impoverished citizens. From Spanish colonization to today’s state and corporate repression, Mexico Unconquered: Chronicles of Power and Revolt, by John Gibler, is written from the street barricades, against the Slims of the world, and alongside “the underdogs and rebels” of an unconquered country. The book offers a gripping account of the ongoing attempts to colonize Mexico, and the hopeful grassroots movements that have resisted this conquest.

Gibler, a Global Exchange Media Fellow, has been reporting from Mexico since 2006. While writing for dozens of media outlets, he has covered events such as the Zapatistas’ Other Campaign, the teachers’ revolt in Oaxaca and other stories of police repression and popular resistance. These reports form the basis for much of the book. (His articles are collected at the Global Exchange website.)

In the prologue, Gibler writes of Mexico Unconquered: “each chapter bleeds into all the others: they all share the same blood.” It’s true: the chapters flow together smoothly, bonded by Gibler’s steady class analysis and excellent story-telling skills. He breathes poetry and anecdotes into the history, and empathy and prose into the reporting, so these stories can be understood and felt, not just read.

Mexico Unconquered starts off with an engaging people’s history of Mexico. Gibler guides the reader through the country’s various presidencies and popular uprisings. From Oaxaca, Gibler offers a first hand account of the incredible teachers’ revolt, with unbelievable reports on police brutality and people’s solidarity. From Chiapas, Gibler provides a concise overview of the Zapatistas’ history, contextualized with background information on indigenous autonomy and reports on the Other Campaign. The book also tells stories from Mexico’s ghost towns, with numerous interviews with families that bear the burden of immigration to the US.

But the book is more than just an account of neoliberal nightmares and grassroots revolts. It cuts to the heart of the problems ravaging Mexico today, dissecting the roots of the country’s corruption, state repression, drug wars and poverty. In this respect, the book’s approach reflects what the late folk singer Utah Phillips once said: “The Earth is not dying it is being killed. And those who are killing it have names and addresses.” Well, Gibler offers the names and addresses of the people – and companies and ideologies – that are still trying to conquer Mexico.

“I hope that the thoughts and stories presented herein will be of use to others reflecting on similar social conditions in other lands,” Gibler writes. Indeed, harrowing accounts of Mexican police using torture to spread fear and expand power – but not necessarily get information – recall the torture methods employed in the US-led “War on Terror.” The book’s stories of how the drug war in Mexico is used as a pretext for police to murder and repress with impunity is shockingly similar to the drug war in the Andes. Numerous examples are also given in the book of how the law in Mexico – as in so many other countries – works only for those with political power and weapons.

Beyond its analysis, history and reporting, this book is also call to revolt. Readers around the world could learn much from the popular uprisings in Mexico. Just as the tactics of repressive states and exploitative corporations are similar around the world, the strategies of resistance could be also be connected and shared across international borders. Toward the end of the book, Gibler recalls the words of a friend, “[I]f we are all complicit in the damage, then we all share responsibility in the solutions; that is, we are united, or can be united, in taking a stand, in revolt.”

***

 

Benjamin Dangl is the author of The Price of Fire: Resource Wars and Social Movements in Bolivia (AK Press). He is the editor of TowardFreedom.com, a progressive perspective on world events, and UpsideDownWorld.org, a website on activism and politics in Latin America.

The Concept of Other in Latin American Liberation: Fusing Emancipatory Thought and Social Revolt, by Eugene Gogol December 31, 2008

Posted by rogerhollander in Concept of Other in Latin American Liberation.
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(This book review was published in the August-September 2003 of “News & Letters,” the bi-monthly publication of the U.S. Marxist Humanist organization of the same name)

 

Anyone who has lived and/or followed the Latin American experience/reality in the post-World War II era will have experienced a Sisyphean frustration with respect to the rise and fall of liberation movements and the hope for new human relations to which they aspire. In the eight years I have lived in Ecuador I have witnessed two successful “leftist” coup d’etat that have resulted in absolutely no fundamental social, political, or economic change whatsoever – to the contrary, the economic/political crisis deepens.

 

In Ecuador, the 1980s saw intense grassroots organization within the indigenous community that culminated in the formation of a national indigenous organization, CONAIE, whose power was expressed in the 1990s through massive protests against oil exploitation in the Amazon rainforest, privatization of social security, and reactionary agricultural laws.

 

The indigenous revolt of 2000, its contradictions and the reasons for its ultimate failure is taken up in The Concept of Other in Latin American Liberation (Lexington Books, 20002). Gogol points out the contradictions within the leadership of the indigenous movement between those who relied on the creativity of the masses and those who allied themselves with government power. This has come to a tragic fruition with the Gutiérrez government, causing disunity within the indigenous movement that may take decades to repair. These events in Ecuador are in a sense a paradigm of the failures encountered in post-World War II Latin America.

 

In the first section of the book, Gogol argues that the Hegelian-Marxian dialectic is a sine qua non of truly liberatory revolutionary activity that intersects most dramatically with Latin American historical reality. To those who dismiss Hegel, Gogol shows that they do so at the peril of sacrificing the methodology that can keep revolutionary thought and revolutionary activity dynamic and in sync with social reality.

 

He takes us upon a philosophical journey touching upon the concept of Other and consideration of the dialectic in the writings of Latin American thinkers including Octavio Paz, Leopoldo Zea, Augusto Salazar Bondy, Anibal Quijano, Enrique Dussel, and Arturo Andrés Roig. He outlines the unique, important and positive contributions made by each, but concludes that in each one encounters an inability or unwillingness to delve deeply into Hegel’s “voyage of discovery.”

In the second section – “Imprisonment of the Other: the Logic of Capital on Latin American Soil” – we find a review of major Latin American thinkers of the 20th century–like José Carlos Mariátegui, Enrique Semo and Roger Bartra. Again, we encounter a richness in thought and analysis of capital’s stranglehold on the masses, showing us that the work of Marx as well as Hegel has taken root in Latin American soil. But we do not yet see the Other unbound. What we find again is the failure to recognize the second negation, the positive in the negative, the pathway to genuine liberation.

 

In discussing liberation theology’s inability to sustain its momentum in the face of the changing realities and setbacks of movements in Nicaragua, Guatemala and El Salvador, Gogol asks: “If one develops a concept of social change, without such a theoretical labor flowing from a fullness of philosophy of revolution, then what happens to one’s theory when the social movement, the historic moment, has changed?” (p. 115).

 

Referring to Marx’s economics, not as economic determinism, but rather as a “unity of humanism and philosophy;” not a mere sociology but as a philosophy of liberation. Gogol demonstrates how one expression of revolutionary subjectivity after another has fallen prey to the dead end of state-capitalism or reformist accommodation with different forms of capitalism.

The third section of the work is a journey through selected contemporary liberation movements in Latin America. From the Rio Grande to Tierra del Fuego, we see different forms of revolutionary subjectivity in action: urban, rural, indigenous, women, workers, students, and others. In each of these, be it the tin miners in Bolivia, campesinos in Guatemala, labor organizers in Bolivia, labor organizers in Mexico’s maquiladoras, the Madres de la Plaza of Argentina, or the Landless Workers’ Movement in Brazil, Gogol shows us how self-liberation re-creates itself in its own social environment, creating new pathways towards liberation.

 

In the Zapatistas of Chiapas, he finds the freshest and most innovative expression of revolutionary subjectivity. In their rejection of focoism, and in aiming not to take state power for themselves but rather to unify the various expressions of Other in Mexico, the Zapatistas broke new ground. Instead of adopting the dead-end, vanguardist “dictatorship of the proletariat” strategies and philosophies which the original urban radicals had brought to Chiapas, what emerged was a re-creation of the principles of collectivity in decision making, that were already inherent and deeply seated in the ways of the indigenous peoples of Chiapas.

 

As one concerned with understanding and changing Latin America, I see this work as of supreme importance. Although there are a few omissions (the most glaring being a failure to discuss the Colombian situation), the work is comprehensive and probing.

 

The book concludes with a discussion of philosophy and organization, noting, “It is the theoretician-philosopher(s) who catches the mass self-activity from below, and labors to give it meaning by rooting it within the Marxist-Hegelian philosophic expression…Marx was not afraid to speak of ‘our party’ even in the times when it was only he and Engels” (p. 343).

 

As one who lives and observes on a daily basis both the ravages of globalized capitalism and the frustration of liberation movements in Ecuador, I can attest to the urgent need for new beginnings in Latin America.  And in the light of the Bush doctrine of permanent war and his plans to augment existing U.S. military force in Ecuador, Colombia, Peru, Aruba, Puerto Rico, Cuba and Honduras, and with new bases in the Galápagos, Brazil, El Salvador and Argentina, the Marxist-Humanist primary task takes on renewed urgency: “To the barbarism of war we pose the new society.”

 

Socialsim in the Andes? October 30, 2008

Posted by rogerhollander in Bolivia, Colombia, Cuba, Ecuador, Latin America.
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Note to the reader: I am by profession a political scientist and Latin American specialist (BA, Political Science, University of California, Berkeley, 1962), a veteran of the anti-Vietnam War, Civil Rights and United Farm Worker struggles, a former elected Toronto City Councillor, and a long time resident of Ecuador.  For over thirty years I have been a student of the school of Marxist Humanism, founded by Raya Dunayevskaya, Leon Trotsky’s Russian language secretary during his exile in Mexico, who broke with Trotskyism over its continued support of the Soviet Union as a socialist state.  She was also one of the founders of the notion of state capitalism.  My political views and analysis, therefore, is clearly influenced by Marxist Humanist thinking (if you wish to learn more about MH, you can go to www.newsandletters.org).  The piece below is an early draft.  If you should wish to correspond apart from leaving a comment on the Blog, you can write to me at rogerholla@aol.com).  Your thoughts would be most welcome.

 

Roger Hollander

 

The governments of three of the five Andean nations – Venezuela, Ecuador, and Bolivia – under the leadership of Hugo Chávez, Rafael Correa and Evo Morales, are perhaps the most to the “left” in all of Latin America. They use the word “socialist” to describe themselves, and are openly defiant of U.S. influence.

 

North American media in general and much of local media as well have characterized these leaders and governments as dictatorial and anti-democratic.  Since these media are owned and operated by the same corporate interests that are at risk from the policies of said governments, their opinions, while not to be summarily dismissed, need to be taken with vast quantities of granulated salt.  That these three governments are supported by substantial majorities of the citizenry certainly calls into question the allegation that they are anti-democratic; and although I recognize that democratically governments are often autocratic in practice, and I recognize as well that the Chávez, Correa, and Morales governments have been tenacious in driving through what they consider to be necessary structural changes, what I believe we are seeing here is a simple question of the tables being turned.  That is, for the first time in recent memory, the governments of these countries have been wrenched from the hands of local elites, who have acted with near impunity and joined with foreign counterparts to exploit the human and material resources of the country.

 

Some have argued that a certain amount of expedient measures are necessary in order to confront the enormous economic and entrenched political might of those who have traditionally been in power.  While I concur in general with such a proposition, I am not unaware of possible dangers that can arise when governments that begin with progressive intentions begin to sacrifice principle to expediency.

 

I hold it to be true that these governments came to power on waves of popular sentiment that reflect a profound dissatisfaction with the status quo, one in which so-called neoliberal economic policies have exacerbated already serious problems of unemployment, underemployment, poverty, hunger, etc.  While opposition to the status quo per se does not necessarily yield policies that in fact address in a practical manner such historic political, social and economic injustices; in the case of Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia, the three governments in power have demonstrated both qualitative and quantitative differences with previous self declared “populist” governments (such as that of Abdalá Bucaram in Ecuador and Alberto Fujimori in Peru), with respect to the provision of social services and attempts to protect or restore national sovereignty over natural resources.  It can be argued, I believe, that the Chávez, Correa and Morales governments do in fact propose genuine progressive alternatives to the status quo. 

 

Apart from criticisms that have emerged from an even more radical left, I am not aware of constructive criticism coming from the existing opposition to these governments. For example, in Ecuador a new progressive constitution was recently put before the citizenry in a popular referendum (September 28, 2008), where the vote to approve was 64% and the vote against approval was 26% (the balance were null and blank ballots).  The “No” campaign, which was centered in the major port city of Guayaquil (where it did not achieve a majority and only a miniscule plurality over the “Yes” vote), was almost entirely based upon Karl Rovian style negative propaganda that played upon fear and prejudice and which suggested that the new constitution was pro-abortion, pro-homosexual, dictatorial and anti-Christian.

 

To conclude this preamble, I am, in general, favourable though certainly not in an uncritical manner towards these three governments.  For the most part the opposition to them has come from the representatives of the privileged few, who rightly see themselves threatened by what potentially lies ahead.

 

My thesis is that these governments, while for the most part well-intentioned, are not genuinely “socialist” as I understand socialism; rather they are social democratic in nature and nationalistic in outlook.  I want to propose that social democracy, in the long run, does not solve the problems presented by the capitalist economic reality that is universal in our world today; and that nationalism (or anti-imperialism) may be a necessary but not sufficient path to social, political and economic justice.

 

I want to do this by considering both analytic and historic arguments.

 

Although there is more or less a consensus of what the so-called neo-Liberal agenda has been and why it has failed, there is considerable vagueness and misunderstanding about the nature of capitalist economy and how to deal with it.  The major error, which is virtually universal on both the left and the right, is that capitalism and free markets (or market economy) are synonymous.  By defining capitalism solely with respect to the process of distribution we miss its very essence, which is the relationship in production between those who own and manage accumulated wealth (capital), and living labor.  It is axiomatic that only living human labor can add value to what already exists and that in a capitalist economy the relation between capital and labor is hierarchical and despotic (i.e., undemocratic).  As a result of this fundamental disparity between capital and living labor, those who create value receive far less as recompense than what they create, with the balance going to their capitalist overseers (this we refer to as profit or surplus value).  Capitalist production, therefore, is based upon exchange value as opposed to use value (what is socially useful), which is usually referred to in the popular idiom as “profits over people.”

 

As long as this inherent economic injustice prevails in any economy, whether it calls itself capitalist, social-democratic or even socialist, the sought for end of social, political and economic justice is beyond reach.  We have nearly 100 years of post-Russian Revolution history to attest to this fact.      

 

It took nearly twenty years of Stalinist dictatorial oppression of Soviet labor for leftist intellectuals to finally come up with an analytic notion that separates the Soviet experience from philosophic socialism (which is inherently democratic).  This came in the form of characterizing the Soviet regime and subsequently every other regime that called itself either socialist or Communist as being, in reality, state capitalist.  Somewhere between the two poles of capitalism – private and public – lie every single government of the face of the earth.  Nowhere does capitalism exit in its pure form.  The Scandinavian social democracies and to a lesser extent England, France, Germany and Canada have somewhat mitigated the deleterious effects of capitalism through what we call the “social safety net.”  This has been achieved via somewhat progressive taxation and the institution of social programs in the areas of health, education, unemployment insurance, etc.  In no instance, however, have any of these countries been able to eliminate poverty and economic injustice (and on a worldwide basis, these social gains are under ferocious attack and almost everywhere being rolled back, including the U.S. and Canada).

 

The United States, which in recent history has possessed the greatest amount of economic resources to ameliorate the negative effects of capitalist economy, has for whatever reasons achieved far less in terms of social relief than its Western allies, which is perhaps most dramatically symbolized in the area of health care.  Nevertheless, in particular with respect to the institution of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, the United States too has come a long way from pure capitalism.  The recent “nationalization” of the greater part of the world of finance capital takes the U.S. even further in the direction of state capitalism.

 

In Latin America, the two countries that best demonstrate the failure of state capitalism are the two which experienced genuine social and political revolutions (as opposed to mere regime changes) in the twentieth century: Mexico and Cuba.

 

The Mexican Revolution of 1910-1920 brought wide ranging changes to the country including nationalization of its natural resources, oil being one of the most important.  Although the emerging political system allowed for elections, Mexico became, in effect, a single party state.  The Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) ruled virtually uncontested until 2000, when the National Action Party (PAN) finally ended PRI’s total dominance over Mexican government by winning the presidency.

 

Like the Soviet Communist Party, PRI evolved into an elite bureaucratic organization, ruthless in smothering any opposition that arose to challenge it.  Also, as with the Soviet Revolution, many social and political gains were achieved in the early years, not the least of which was the recovering of sovereignty over its natural resources.  But a hierarchical single party state run from the top down is the very antithesis of democracy.  In the Soviet Union during the early years of the Revolution, the notion prevailed that since it was a “worker’s state,” by definition it was a true representative of worker interest.  As Stalin gradually took iron-fisted control of the Party bureaucracy, the political and economic interest of the State soon took precedence and eventually completely over-rode the interests of Soviet workers.  It eventually became clear, as first enunciated by those who developed the notion of state capitalism, that state ownership and control of the means of production and private ownership and control are in effect, no different in terms of the interests of working people.  Where the rule of capital, whether public or private or mixed, continues to dominate the government and the economy, then what Marx called “the law of value” (production for exchange) is not confronted and those who create value (those who work for wages) continue to be exploited.

 

A rose by any other name is still a rose.  Capitalism is capitalism is capitalism no matter what you call it.  Vulgar communists argue that there is a dichotomy between individual and social interests, and that under socialism the imperative if for individuals to sacrifice freedom for the “good” of society.  In practice, of course, “society” always turns out to be the elite party bureaucracy.  Any form of socialism that does not have as its ultimate aim the freedom from exploitation of each and every individual in society, is suspect.

 

The Cuban Revolution, while making significant advances for the Cuban people, especially in the areas of health and education (not to mention eliminating the corruption that, under Batista, had turned the Island into a casino and whorehouse for North American consumption), followed much the same path as had Mexican “revolutionaries.”  A single party state ruled by a dictator and with an elite military and political bureaucracy that characterizes democratic reform as anti-socialist.  Cubophiles argue that Cuba’s problems are a result of the U.S. embargo, which certainly has been a major factor.  However, there is no denying the political Stalinization that has kept Cuba politically underdeveloped and perpetuates class divisions.

 

The simple truth is that capitalist and socialist economies are opposites, mutually exclusive.  Either the law of value dominates, with resultant “surplus value” going to the state bureaucracy and worker inequality/alienation remains firmly in place as it has in countries that call themselves Communist; or the capitalist relation between capital and living labor is destroyed and replaced with a democratic form of socialism, which can be best described as “worker democracy.”  For those who argue that this is impossibly idealistic, for historical precedent one can look to the Paris Commune of 1871 and the early years of the Soviet, Cuban and Nicaraguan revolutions.

 

What Chávez, Correa, and Morales are attempting to do in the name of socialism is “top down,” which always results in ultimate failure.  Genuine revolutionary socialism can only come from the bottom up.  This is something that vanguardists have always refused to recognize.  As I said in the beginning, nationalization of natural resources may be a necessary but certainly not sufficient measure to develop true democratic socialism.  Diverting monies from the hands of foreign private capital and into government treasuries can lead to greater state spending in social areas such as health and education.  But, as is the case with both Venezuela and Ecuador as we speak, when the value of natural resources such as petroleum depends on the volatility of international capitalist markets, this capacity lacks reliability.  This is exactly what we are seeing today with the dramatic drop in the world price of oil.

 

The taking of power in any country basically involves becoming either a minor or major co-manager of economic capital.  Managing a capitalist economy is no way to achieve democratic socialism.  Chávez, Correa and Morales will inevitably learn that they will not be able to erase poverty and hunger and achieve economic justice in the face of staunch opposition from commercial and financial capital, which in turn is backed up by U.S. military imperialism. In addition, given the mutual hostility with the United States, their governments will (and already have) begin to look to authoritarian (anti-democratic) regimes such a China and Iran with respect to trade and diplomatic relations (which mirrors Cuban support for Soviet despotism in the Soviet Union and support for the Soviet Union in suppressing democratic socialist revolt, for example, in Czechoslovakia in 1968).  Forming friendly relations with foreign despots is hardly conducive to democratic socialist solidarity.

 

The Zapatistas in Mexico seem to have learned the lessons of the Cuban and Nicaraguan (Sandinista) Revolutions, and they have consciously opted to work to build autonomous anti-government, anti-capitalist enclaves as opposed to attempting to take over state power.  If I were an advisor to the Venezuelan or Ecuadorian government, I would be telling them that, in addition to providing enhanced social programs, they need to promote community development at the local level in preparation for an eventual struggle to destroy capitalist exploitation in the workplace.  Only then, will the grounds be created for genuine democratic socialism.

 

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