A letter from Chiapas - July 17, 2005

18.Jul.05    Análisis y Noticias

San Cristóbal de Las Casas
July 17, 2005

Hi everyone,

I’m writing from the Estación Libre house here in San Cristóbal. It’s Sunday
afternoon, and the day is cool and cloudy, although I did catch a little sun
up on the terrace this afternoon. It rains almost every day, but only for a
while. I’ve learned not to go anywhere without my umbrella!

Yesterday I drove out to Oventik with Jordan, one of the folks from Acción
Zapatista in Humboldt County. He arrived in the morning on an overnight bus
from Puebla. We left San Cristóbal in a downpour, but drove out of it as we
went past Chamula, and on up into the mountains. Once again, I was impressed
by the landscape, so lush and green, with the clouds floating low over the
mountaintops. The corn in the fields and on the hillsides was pretty tall,
and Jordan, who had just been in Oaxaca, commented on the difference between
the two places. In Oaxaca, he said, they were just now planting their corn,
and water was scarce. Here, with water plentiful, the crop was already well
advanced. In some places, the corn was eight or nine feet high.

As we approached Oventik, we seemed to be driving into a fog bank, as a huge
cloud shrouded the mountaintop. But coming down the other side, we came out
underneath, and could see Oventik down below, but not the notched mountain
that lies behind it in the distance. We pulled up and parked just before the
gate, where two indigenous women were on duty. The place looked pretty
deserted. There was only one other car parked on the road, and only a few
people could be seen walking around inside. It seemed a bit odd, as some
other people from San Cristóbal had been there the day before, on Friday,
when the caracol re-opened, and they had told us about a big fiesta, with
lots of people. An article in La Jornada had also told of the festive
re-opening celebration at another caracol, that of Roberto Barrios, near
Palenque. But there was no trace of either festivities or people when we
arrived. Still, the place seemed more organized than other times, more
well-kept and orderly. There were several new buildings, both inside the
fence as well as across the road, most of them covered with murals.

We greeted the women, and they asked us to sign in on a notebook, writing
down our names, occupations, and what organizations we belonged to. The one
with the notebook asked us to wait at the gate, then walked down the hill to
one of the small buildings that line it. After a while she returned and said
that we could come in. She walked down with us to a building that was
entirely covered with murals (I took some pictures later), which was the
office of the reception committee. We knocked, and a man wearing a ski mask
opened the door. We introduced ourselves, and to my surprise, he said, “I
know you. You’ve been here before.” Of course, I couldn’t recognize him
behind his ski mask, and I didn’t think it would be prudent to ask his name.

He invited us into a small room, maybe 12 x 15 feet. It was a new building,
with a concrete floor, wooden walls, and a corrugated tin roof. The walls
were decorated with various posters, art work, and some of the hand-stitched
slogans that the Zapatista women make. There was a table at one end, behind
which sat three masked people, two men and one woman. Facing them were
several wooden benches. We sat down on the first one, and introduced
ourselves again. I won’t go into too much detail, but we had a nice talk
with them, gave them a letter I had written (at Marianna Mora’s suggestion)
asking for permission to interview the Junta de Buen Gobierno (Good
Government Council), and to arrange a meeting with them during the week for
the members of the north American Zapatista network. From past experience, I
expected to wait up to a couple of hours for an answer, but there was no
wait at all! The reception committee said that we could go right next door
and talk to the Junta right then! We asked permission to take a picture, and
they said yes. I hope it turns out!

We actually did have to wait a bit to talk to the Junta, as they were
talking with another group when we knocked. As we waited, we went down the
hill to the next building, which had a sign announcing that it was the
office of the autonomous municipality of San Andres Sacam’chen de Los
Pobres. There were a number of men sitting around in front of it, and we
thought we’d socialize a bit. They were friendly, and we did chat with them
a bit, but when we started asking questions, they seemed to draw back,
saying that we should ask the junta any questions we had. We took the hint,
and went back to wait in front of the junta office, and in a few minutes the
other group came out and it was our turn.

The junta office was similar to the reception office, only a bit larger.
There were seven or eight members present, sitting at a table at one end,
with a couple of members seated at the sides on chairs, because the table
wasn’t long enough for all of them to fit behind it. Centered on the wall
behind the table was a large painting of Subcomandante Marcos, pipe and all.
Again, we sat at the front of a couple of rows of wooden benches, and
started again with introductions. I asked if it would be OK to tape record
the interview, but was told not to, that we should just take notes.

Again, I won’t go into depth, but I do want to share some highlights. The
seven persons present (again, one woman) were representatives of the seven
autonomous municipalities in the region served by the caracol of Oventik,
the “Caracol of Resistance and Rebellion for Humanity.” Each municipality
elects two representatives, who serve a three year term. However, they can
be removed at any time by the community, if they fail to serve as directed
by the community. I asked them if any representative had ever been removed
in that way, and the answer was no. The caracoles have only been functioning
for two years, so I assume that these are still the first junta members to
have been elected, and that they have one year left to serve.

The junta members receive no salary; “ni un quinto,” as they said. I had to
ask what a “quinto” was, and they said it meant “not a cent” or “not a
peso.” We were told that the members of the junta were on duty almost 24
hours a day, but that sometimes they did close for special events. In order
to keep some semblance of a home life going, they take turns, half of them
serving one week, and half the next. In their time off, they return home to
be with their families and to take care of home tasks. The shift is from
Sunday to Sunday, with (again I assume) some overlap on Sundays so that the
outgoing shift can explain any pending business to the new shift.

They told us that they were aware of the federal government’s attempts to
block their programs at all levels, in terms of health care, education, and
commerce. “We see clearly their attacks,” they said, “not with violence, but
with programs.” This echoes what I was told on a previous visit here several
years ago, that the Zapatista communities are under an “economic
bombardment.” The government tries to buy people off with gifts such as
building materials, and aid programs. The Zapatista communities accept no
aid from the government, recognizing it as a weapon used to divide

After concluding our interview, we said goodbye and walked back up the hill
to the little store/restaurant by the gate. We asked if there was anything
to eat, and the man at the counter said, “Wait a minute, I’ll check and
see.” He came back and said that they had quesadillas, so we ordered three
each, and two cups of coffee. While we waited, we browsed over the Zapatista
merchandise they have for sale. I bought two CD’s, some posters and
calendars, and some pens with Zapatista slogans and images on them. After
eating, we headed back to San Cristóbal as the sky darkened into night.

On the way, we listened to the tape recording I’d made of a public forum in
San Cristóbal on the new Zapatista document that has just come out, the
Sixth Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle. This is the latest buzz here, as
in it the Zapatistas announce a major change of course, and everyone is
wondering what it really means, and what they’re really up to. Again, it’s
too much to go into here, but on the tape we listened to a number of people
giving their opinions about it. We would often stop the tape to discuss a
particular point, or re-wind it to hear something again. I was impressed
with Jordan’s knowledge of the Zapatista communiqués and with writings
related to the Zapatista movement. I wish I had taped us listening to the
tape, so that I could have captured more clearly all the comments by the
speakers, as well as our own interpretations! As I was driving, I couldn’t
even take notes.

We didn’t have time to listen to the whole tape, but again, just a few
highlights… One person felt that, by calling for a new program on a national
and even international level, the EZLN (the Zapatista Army of National
Liberation) was abandoning the indigenous communities, and the San Andres
Accords, which had been their major focus for many years. Others raised
concern about their “muddying the waters” during the coming elections (July
2006), and confronting Lopez Obrador, the likely PRD candidate (see the
“Geometry of Power” article by Marcos). They worried that if the EZLN takes
on Obrador, who they said has attained “mythic” status, it might endanger
their credibility, and weaken their “palabra,” their word, which is seen by
many as their most potent weapon. Someone pointed out that when the EZLN
first called for a national effort to reform Mexican government and
politics, it made its call to all Mexicans, but now it was narrowing its
call to the left. But one speaker, the only indigenous person on the panel,
pointed out that what the EZ has been calling for all along is a unified
effort, a mass mobilization that will be strong enough to make the changes
that are needed, and he lamented “the cannibalism of the left” that pits one
group against another, dividing and weakening the movement for social

In another communication that just came out on the 13th, the Zapatistas have
created a commission and set a timetable for a series of meetings with
different sectors of Mexican society to begin planning how to implement the
program set forth in the Sixth Declaration, starting in August. And another
commission is being set up to meet with international groups that want to be
part of the program as well; details on that have yet to be announced.

So the Zapatista kettle is bubbling these days, and there is a lot
happening! I haven’t even tried to keep up with all the articles in the
newspapers, or watch the TV news. Time will tell, and the next few months
will show how much support the Zapatistas can count on in this latest
political offensive. Our new “North American” Zapatista network is eager to
jump in, and some of us will be meeting here in San Cristóbal tomorrow to
talk about how to approach it. I’m writing a letter to send to the Peace
Action board and affiliates, asking them to at least agree to send a letter
of support.

My own thinking on this is that the Zapatistas are doing what has to be
done: building a political power base outside of the political parties,
creating “a new way to do politics.” We all know, I think, that our
political process has sold out to the highest bidder, that it runs on money,
not on the will of the people. Most people (the 60 percent who don’t even
bother to vote) recognize that we no longer have a government “of the
people, by the people, and for the people.” If there’s going to be a change,
it has to come from the bottom up. The people at the top sure don’t want a
change; it would mean giving up their control of the system.

Well, that’s a slice of life, direct from Chiapas, and hot off the keyboard
of your roving reporter! Wish I could cram in all of the details that enrich
my stay here, the conversations with the Chicanada here at Estacion Libre,
all the quaint anachronisms that fill this old colonial city, founded in
1545, like the cobblestone streets and the ancient buildings. Of course, the
modern world is invading here, as everywhere else. For the first time, I
took the new toll road from Tuxtla to San Cristóbal. It was mercifully
cheap, as toll roads go, and bypassed a lot of the winding curves that climb
up into the highlands. It still doesn’t go all the way to San Cristóbal, but
it speeds up the trip considerably! And most shocking of all, when I drove
into town, was to see a huge mall, complete with a 10 screen theater and a
McDonalds, at the entrance to the city. I couldn’t believe my eyes! But now
that I think about it, I realize it was just a matter of time. This is our
world, a mosaic of old and new, modern supermarkets and Indian women
carrying loads of firewood on their backs alongside the highway. I guess we
just have to learn to make the best of it!

So good night… or is it good morning already? …from San Cristóbal de Las
Casas, Chiapas! A big Zapatista hug to everyone!

With love,