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We Make the Road by Walking

Lessons from the Zapatista Caravan

Rachel Neumann is a Brooklyn based writer and the Assistant Editor at Dissent magazine.

Imagine Times Square filled with more than a hundred thousand people of all ages and backgrounds. Some have climbed telephone poles, others have reserved spaces on balconies. Imagine them waiting there together, peacefully, not to see the ball drop on New Years Eve, but to listen to the words of poor black women from West Virginia talking about the need for dignity and respect for poor people of all colors. Imagine Columbus, Ohio (the rough geopolitical equivalent of Iguala, Morelos in Mexico), the whole town decorated in colorful murals, posters, and flags welcoming the rural poor. Impossible? Okay, let’s say 50,000 in Times Square. Let’s say Detroit instead of Columbus. It’s still a stretch. We’re not even close. To appreciate the recent Zapatista march from San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas to the plaza at the heart of Mexico City—a caravan that drew over 1,500 participants, 100,000 supporters along the way, and over another 100,000 who braved the scorching sun to welcome the Zapatistas on their arrival in the capital—you have to acknowledge the uniqueness of this event, which has no easy parallels in either U.S. or Mexican history.

I describe the caravan to North Americans this way: it had all the frenzied crowds and media of a Beatles concert, except that instead of a band of white boys singing “I want to hold your hand,” there was a group of primarily indigenous men and women—who had seven years ago declared open war on the Mexican government—talking about a constitutional amendment to support indigenous rights and autonomy. And instead of the wide-screen monitors, cell-phones, money, and promotional material of a modern day pop concert, the caravan’s budget and technology was only slightly improved from the camel caravans of the Sahara desert. The caravan had the fervor and transformative power of a big tent religious revival. Except that instead of preaching the gospel, the Zapatistas were resolutely independent and nonsectarian—not once did they mention either God or Marx. Finally, the Zapatista delegates exhibited the same bravery and sense of purpose as the Freedom Riders during the Civil Rights movement, except that they were greeted with a level of support across color and class lines that was unheard of even during the height of the Freedom Rides.

The Zapatistas had two main goals for the caravan: (1) to mobilize popular support for their three conditions for peace talks (withdrawal of seven of the 259 military bases in Chiapas, the release of all Zapatista political prisoners, and the passage of the COCOPA law, a legal version of the peace agreement worked out between the rebels and government representatives in 1997 that was completed, but not signed and sent to Congress until Vicente Fox’s election as president); and (2) to address the Congress directly to make the case for the COCOPA law. The caravan was surprisingly successful in both goals. They received support from hundreds of thousands of people. Fox ordered the closure of the remaining military bases (at this writing, one of the seven still stands) and some, though by no means all, of the prisoners have been released. After initially refusing, the Mexican Congress voted 220-210 to allow the Zapatistas to address them and passed a watered down version of the COCOPA law that does not satisfy the rebel’s demands.

The Zapatista caravan, as a populist strategy, is full of many lessons for those of us in North America. The Zapatistas are still very much a living force, and the future of the movement is unknown. Still, here are five of the possible lessons that are becoming clear:

(1) Don’t compromise on the important things. The Zapatistas have said they would keep to their three demands, and while they did not lessen them, they did not add to them either. Whether speaking to over 25,000 in Oaxaca or to 3,000 in Chinameca, they did not stay away from talking about complicated issues, drawing on history and poetry more than political rhetoric. To a crowd of primarily Catholics, the Zapatistas make a point of welcoming homosexuals, lesbians, and transsexuals as integral parts of the movement. To a crowd of primarily light-skinned people, they talk about the importance of those the color of the darkest earth. To the middle-class, they talk about the poor. “For everyone, everything” they repeat wherever they go, and their actions echo their words.

(2) To make your movement global, keep it local and concrete. The Zapatistas explicitly address the problems of global capital and neoliberalism; they have always encouraged international support, and they consistently acknowledge that the struggle of “those from below” is an international struggle. At the same time, they stay focused on specific, local changes—such as land use and access to health care and bilingual education—that effect the indigenous people of Mexico in general and in Chiapas in particular.

(3) Live your words. The majority of Zapatistas did not travel to Mexico City. They live and work in the five autonomous regions, aguascalientes, making community decisions, working the cooperatively-owned land, training to be health-promoters or teachers, playing basketball, writing, and taking care of children. The majority of Zapatistas don’t necessarily define their lives as political except that they are choosing to live them in a way that challenges the government by not needing it and, for that, they must deal with the constant threat of military and paramilitary aggression.

(4) Rely more on people than technology. Although the words of Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos and the Zapatistas have often found a wider audience through the Internet, the caravan itself was an old-fashioned strategy—speaking directly to as many people as possible. The sound systems were usually terrible. Advance publicity consisted of posters or murals put up around town. People stayed on church and stadium floors, ate what was passed through the windows. Decisions were made by late-night, in-person meetings. If people had questions or comments for the coordinators, they were written down on scraps of paper and passed up to the front. The caravan relied on a few old buses and a huge network of volunteers at each stop, not on cell phones or high speed Internet connections.

(5) Speak from the heart. Perhaps the most important lesson that the Zapatistas have to teach us is to speak personally about what we know, no matter how unpopular it is, and to trust that our own hope and passion can inspire others. Less than seven years ago, most non-indigenous people in Mexico had no awareness or interest in the rights and dignity of the people “the color of the earth” who make up more than 10 percent of the Mexican population. Now the majority of Mexicans say they support some constitutional change and recognition of indigenous rights. At each stop on the caravan, the delegates made a point of speaking of their own personal experience, of acknowledging fear and hope and the intertwining of the two. In an interview with Proceso magazine, Marcos acknowledged that material change was still slow in coming for the poor people in Chiapas. But he asked that people not underestimate the worth of a newfound hope. “And more importantly, hope being passed on to a next generation.”

Poverty continues to kill hundreds in Chiapas each year. The possible concrete results of the COCOPA law are still unknown. The lessons we can learn from the Zapatistas, their mistakes and successes, are still unfolding. It is too soon to write their final story, but not too soon to begin learning from the history they are making.

2001, Volume 53, Issue 02 (June)
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