Why Chiapas? Why now?

Antonio Garcia de Leon is an historian and author of Chiapas: Utopia and Rebellion, a 2-volume study of the social and economic history of Chiapas state on the southern border of Mexico. After twenty years of studying and writing on Chiapas, Garcia de Leon was donating his book collection to the San Cristóbal de las Casas library and preparing to leave the field of study behind. But the January 1st rebellion of the Zapatistas drew him back into the struggle, and he is now one of the 100 members of the presidium of the National Democratic Convention. This is an excerpt from an interview conducted on August 19, 1994 at the home of Garcia de Leon in Tepozatlán, Mexico by Caitlin Manning. Translated by Chris Carlsson.

CAITLIN: What is “civil society,” and how representative of it was the Convention?

ANTONIO: Curiously, the Zapatistas, in spite of the apparent isolation in which they’ve developed, have a pretty clear diagnosis of what is going on at the national level with Mexican society. The call to “civil society” is a call to many Mexicans who haven’t been able to express themselves. In spite of so many political parties existing, the rainbow of Mexican society is not well represented, but only small fragments. Most parties become small bureaucracies or sects, echoing the larger society. On the other hand the Zapatistas took into account, too, that Mexican society has been moving on its own during the last five or six years. Rising like waves, thousands of civil associations and local groups (that fight for housing, land, health, general improvements, things the parties don’t really deal with, the government even less) have sprung up. Therefore the call to civil society is a call to the bases of the political parties, but above all it is a call to many sectors of society that aren’t considered to be part of political life. Even religious groups, because the same Mexican constitution that until quite recently prohibited or impeded the participation of religious ministers in the government, also blocked their participation in civil groups and political parties. There is a general mobilization in Mexico and the Zapatistas speak to this mass—still very difficult to define, but evidently there—a mass of small associations, things known as cooperatives, civil associations, etc. They are the core of the many diverse people who came to the Convention in Aguascalientes.

C: How was it that this movement arose from an indigenous group?

A: It’s a long story that began at least 20 years ago. Between May and October of 1974 there was a great upsurge culminating in the First Indigenous Congress of Chiapas. It was a taste of democratic organizing, very interesting, and in that moment supported by the Catholic Church, which began to cause problems within the church too. The participants were not exclusively Catholics; some were Protestants and others had no clear denomination. The most interesting part of this process is that since the 1974 Indigenous Congress, nearly all the peasant organizations arose from it. They carried on a big fight between 1974 and 1984. In ’84, 10 years later, this movement was defeated by massive state repression. There were many arrests, prosecutions, assassinations of leaders, police and military attacks on certain villages. Even though the movement was crushed by the state, the people continued organizing themselves. There is a long democratic tradition in the indigenous communities in Chiapas. The tradition of horizontal organization is very interesting in the indigenous communities. It is a system to make agreements, but not to take any action without a broad consultation with the many communities in the hinterlands. This is a tradition going on at least since the 17th and 18th centuries.

C: And Marcos is following this tradition?

A: The jungle, curiously, is one of the most modern places in Chiapas, because it is one of the places where the population moves the most. The rich are more traditionalist here than those in the jungle. The jungle is a place where different ethnic groups are in contact with each other, there is enormous mobility, there is a very young population, people speak two or three indigenous languages, the same as on the local ejidos, they are new communities, they have faced a new environment, they survive the jungle and government repression, they work for the lumber companies, the coffee plantations, the oil fields of Tabasco [neighboring state to the north]. They have varied experiences and a greater tolerance for new situations, and they’re open to having new people move in. Therefore there is movement in the jungle, there is geographic isolation but a lot of contact with national reality, there are locals who have been everywhere.

So a group from outside arrives there, a political-military group, possibly the heir to the guerrillas of the 1970s, they encrust themselves into the jungle, find a good environment for organizing, and begin to transform themselves, too. On one hand they were educating the surrounding communities about military questions, how to defend themselves, organizing the first armed self-defense brigades against the landowners of the jungle, and also undergoing an inverse process. These communities were teaching the guerrillas other ways of doing politics: non-authoritarian, consensus-oriented. So I think that Marcos, including his language, is heavily influenced, by these new conditions in which they found themselves. A new powerful fusion gave rise here to the Zapatista army, in which the majority of the combatants are local peasants with a smattering of outsiders.

C: Since the first of January the much promoted modernization process symbolized by NAFTA has been interrupted. Curiously, this rupture has come from the most forgotten part of Mexico. What do you think of this paradox?

A: Since January 1st there are many paradoxes, which is why we think the Mexican political system has entered an irreversible crisis already. I think the Mexican political system’s language, the discourse of the politicians, has fallen into meaninglessness. It is an exhausted discourse where many words have lost their original meaning, “revolution” being a good example. Suddenly arises this group using a different language, a colloquial language, connected to the land, to fundamental things, and people believe the Zapatistas because they speak to their real concerns. They address basic issues without a lot of rhetoric. So I think the Zapatistas have won the first phase of the war not on the field of battle but in the press, in the broadcasts, in the national and international media, and above all in the way they use language. This is a very important linguistic war, in which the Zapatistas are out in front.

C: You mentioned that these are not the most traditional places. How do they preserve their traditions?

A: The Lacandón jungle is a very multiethnic region, principally occupied by the four most important Mayan groups in Chiapas: Tzeltals, Tzotils, Tojolabals, and Choles, but there are also Soques, and other ethnic groups found in Mexico, like Chontals, some indigenas from Oaxaca, and so on, because this area has been colonized. The jungle was colonized with renewed effort starting around 1960. The oldest ejidos began around then. Many people migrated into the jungle. The peasants who migrated to the jungle entered traditionally cooperative communities that existed in the highlands of Chiapas. They underwent a very interesting process. Some who came were evicted Protestants.

To give an example, there is the case of San Juan Chamula. A group of Protestants expelled from San Juan Chamula went into the jungle. There they had to decide what their own cultural organizing elements were, but also reappropriate and ideologize their condition as indigenous, of which they weren’t so conscious when they were still living in the bosom of more traditional regions. Later it became clear that the young were particularly involved, as were religious motivations, with Catequistic Catholics reading the Bible in the spirit of the Liberation Theology, the word of God as a message of liberation, etc. It is easy to promote these ideas when people live like they do here. Among Protestants the same thing was going on. The indigenous Protestants of Chiapas had reappropriated Protestantism! The ministers and pastors, both Mexican and from the U.S. were expelled along with their congregations, but the local Catholics could not capture the syncretism. So Protestantism in San Juan includes songs in indigenous languages, its ministers are also a bit shaman, they cure, they become ministers by having dreams, revelations. Protestantism is following the same path as the local groups in their search for identity. It is also a reinterpretation of ancient symbols. It’s a living religion, a living culture that is changing constantly, and that wants to change, and is grabbing the most important things from outside for which they can see a use.

Generally the government considers Indians to be backward and marginal, based on a racist, ethnocentric point of view. For them agricultural mechanization and new farming techniques are necessary steps in progress. They see no contradiction between progress and ethnicity, or between progress and belonging to an indigenous community. So I think that this capacity for collectivity, being able to choose elements and so on, has made these people very politically astute: they understand national realities, and where thing are going. The simple fact of posing a political demand that they have adopted, for example “to command obeying,” (one of the orders of the Zapatista army) is something that has been realized in the new jungle communities, “to command obeying” thus is something quite subversive on the national political level.

They don’t understand how a president of the republic can commit errors without being deposed. This idea taken to the national level would result in a democratic modern system, absolutely contrary to the authoritarian regime that rules Mexico. I think that perhaps here is the origin of the paradox, where these people are making proposals for democratization. Apart from this, this is the first time that an armed group, evidently leftist, has posed not what other Latin American guerrillas have sought, but a total revision of the model of power, even the old Marxist conceptions of the vanguard. The Zapatistas are not a vanguard, they do not fight to take power, but to transform it so that it will be more of a process with give and take between governors and governed. The Zapatistas are also putting forth a revolution within the thinking of latin american armed groups.

I think that this new aspect of the Zapatistas took the Mexican government totally by surprise. The government knew that the EZLN existed, but thought they would be just like previous armed groups, calling for a dictatorship of the proletariat, storming the winter palace, etc., a maximalist, fundamentalist political sect. But no, they emerged with an entirely different discourse. If they had had the same old discourse the government would have easily isolated them. I think the government knew this and bet that when they came out with their traditional leftist line it would be easy to isolate and eliminate them. There are sectors of the government that still think the Zapatistas are like the Shining Path [in Peru], but approaching them this way actually weakens the government itself.