Zapatistas take a road trip to build a united left platform

Deep in the mountains and jungles of Chiapas, populated primarily with indigenous farmers, a new campaign is seeking to upstage the high-financed drama of the 2006 Mexican presidential election. It emerged out of rebel-occupied territory held by the EZLN, known as the Zapatistas.

The Zapatistas currently control five regions in Chiapas, each including many small villages. Since an armed uprising launched on Jan. 1, 1994, the day the North American Free Trade Agreement went into effect, these communities have been administered autonomously, guided by humanitarian principles and utilizing democratic structures. Their autonomy stems from a shaky ceasefire agreement with the government that more or less has been in effect since the mid-90s, but is guarded by a standing rebel army.

Over the past five years, however, the EZLN, which has political aspirations far beyond Chiapas, has found itself increasingly isolated from the larger, fragmented Mexican left. This has hampered Zapatista attempts to expand their influence beyond their rural strong holds.

To overcome the current limitations, the EZLN General Command issued a communiqué in June called the Sixth Declaration from the Laconda Jungle announcing a national initiative to unite the non-electoral left. Called the "Other Campaign," it centered on Subcomandante Marcos, the most prominent EZLN figure, and other Zapatista leaders traveling to speak with and listen to grassroots organizations and working people across the country.

According to EZLN spokespersons, the basic goal is to begin developing a united platform, strategy, and "bottom up" organization. But the declaration also condemns the left-leaning Revolutionary Democratic Party (PRD), which is equated with the other parties and accused of working against the interests of the people.

Referring to an indigenous rights law that failed to deliver on negotiated EZLN demands, the declaration stated, "The day that the politicians of the PRI [Institutional Revolutionary Party], PAN [National Action Party], and PRD approved a law that does not serve, they killed dialogue, and they clearly said that it does not matter what they agree to or sign because they will not keep their word."

Timed to coincide with the 2006 Mexican presidential race, the Other Campaign has sparked both public excitement and trepidation. Although the EZLN has stopped short of calling for a boycott of the national elections, many liberals fear that its condemnation of the PRD will tip the vote in favor of the center-right PAN, or the PRI, which ruled the country for decades. The PRD’s Andres Manuel Lopez, former mayor of Mexico City, has an 11-point lead over his closest rival, Roberto Madrazo of the PRI.

At the same time, speculation has surfaced that Marcos and the EZLN are trying to transition away from their role as armed revolutionaries, hoping to be ready for an electoral campaign in 2012. The EZLN denies this.

Launching the Other

During a Dec. 31, 2005, interview in the remote mountain town of La Garrucha, located in Zapatista-held territory seven hours from San Cristobal, Lt. Colonel Moises reiterated that the EZLN "is not looking for electoral power." Like other Zapatista leaders, he did not call for a nationwide electoral boycott, but emphasized the EZLN’s lack of faith in the official electoral process.

As for the rumors that the EZLN is turning away from armed struggle or pressuring other Mexican groups to do so, Moises asserted that the EZLN intends to retain armed formations even when engaging in nonviolent social organizing beyond Chiapas. "The Zapatistas began with armed struggle," he added. "Therefore, it is not the Zapatistas’ business to tell anyone else how to struggle."

He was guardedly optimistic about the Other Campaign. There is "no way to tell what civil society will think about it," he said.

The next day, an estimated 1,000 masked Zapatistas embarked from La Garrucha for San Cristobal, a city briefly held by the EZLN in 1994, for the official launch of the campaign. Marcos led the caravan, riding a motorcycle. Thousands more made their way from other EZLN communities. Along the route whole towns turned out to wave, cheer, and sing in support.

As night fell, the travelers converged on San Cristobal, where a march through the streets emptied into the city’s main square. The crowd grew to an estimated 20,000. Zapatista leaders called for Mexico’s workers and farmers to unite and build a new kind of power outside the confines of traditional politics.

One Zapatista speaker bellowed, "The rich cannot continue to put the oppression down onto the small farmers and further down onto the earth, because the earth cannot stand it any more."

And Subcomandante Keli stated, "This struggle is not just for men [but also for women] … The new junta [must] encompass everyone, and at its center it [must be] anti-capitalist."

Ugel, a student from Mexico City, said, "I think this movement is going to make a new political structure for the participation of farmers, students, and workers. That is what the political class has not allowed for 80 or 90 years."

The final speaker was Marcos. "You are our partners," he said. "The left organizations, the anarchists, the groups that are not defined … man or woman … We want you to help us talk with the workers in the city and in the world!"

This article was previously published in the Vermont Guardian, (