The history of the rebel zapatista Autonomous Municipalities is relatively young, it is 7 years old, going on 8. Although they were declared at the time the December 1994 siege was broken, the rebel zapatista Autonomous Municipalities (the MAREZ) still took a while to become reality.
Today, the exercise of indigenous autonomy is a reality in zapatista lands, and we are proud to say that it has been led by the communities themselves. The EZLN has been engaged in this process only in order to accompany, and to intervene when there have been conflicts or deviations. That is why the EZLN's spokesperson has not been the same as the Autonomous Municipalities'. The Autonomous Municipalities themselves have directly communicated their denuncias, requests, agreements, "twinnings" (not a few rebel zapatista Autonomous Municipalities maintain relationships with municipalities in other countries, primarily in Italy). If the autonomous have now asked the EZLN to fulfill the duties of spokesperson, it is because they have entered into a higher stage of development and, having broadened, announcements are not the purview of one, or several, municipalities. That is the reason for the agreement that the EZLN would announce these current changes.
The problems of the autonomous authorities, in the period which is now over, can be divided into two types: those having to do with their relationship with national and international civil society, and those having to do with self-governance, that is, with relations with zapatista and non-zapatista communities.
In their relationship with national and international civil society, the primary problem has been an unbalanced development of the Autonomous Municipalities, of the communities located within them, and, even, of the zapatista families who live there. Those Autonomous Municipalities which are most well known (like those which were the seats of the now defunct "Aguascalientes") or closer at hand (closer to urban centers or with highway access), have received more projects and more support. The same thing has taken place with the communities. The most well known and those along the highway receive more attention from "civil societies."
In the case of zapatista families, what happens is that, when civil society visits the communities or works on projects or sets up a peace camp, they usually build special relationships with one or more families in the community. Those families will, obviously, have more advantages - assignments, gifts or special attention - than the rest, even though they are all zapatistas. Nor is it unusual for those who interact with civil society because of the position they occupy in the community, in the Autonomous Municipality, in the region or in the area, to receive special attention and gifts which often give rise to talk in the rest of the community and do not follow the zapatista criterion of "to each according to his needs."
I should clarify that it is not a bad relationship, nor what someone proudly called "well intentioned counterinsurgency," but rather something natural in human relations. It can, however, produce imbalances in community life if there are no counterbalances to that privileged attention.
Regarding the relationship with zapatista communities, the "govern obeying" has been administered without distinction. The authorities must see that communities' agreements are carried out, their decisions must be regularly informed, and the collective "weight", along with the "word of mouth" which functions in all the communities, become a kind of monitoring which is difficult to avoid. Even so, instances take place of persons managing to get around this and to become corrupt, but it does not get very far. It is impossible to conceal illicit enrichment in the communities. The guilty party is punished by being compelled to do collective work and to repay to the community whatever he wrongfully took.
When the authority goes amiss, becomes corrupt or, to use a local term, "is a shirker," he is removed from his position, and a new authority replaces him. In the zapatista communities, the position of authority is not remunerated at all (during the time that the person is in authority, the community helps to support him). It is conceived as work in the collective interest, and it is rotated. It is not infrequently enforced by the collective in order to punish laxness or indifference of some of its members, such as, when someone misses a lot of the community assemblies, they are punished by being given a position such as municipal agent or ejidal commissioner.
This "form" of self-governance (of which I am giving just the sketchiest summary) is not an invention or contribution of the EZLN. It comes from further back in time. When the EZLN was born, it had already been operating for a good while, although only at the level of each community.
It was because of the enormous growth of the EZLN (as I have already explained, this was at the end of the 80s), that this practice moved from the local to the regional. Functioning with local responsables (that is, those in charge of the organization in each community), regional ones (a group of communities) and area ones (a group of regions), the EZLN saw that those who did not discharge their duties were, in a natural fashion, replaced by another. Although here, given that it is a political-military organization, the command makes the final decision.
What I mean by this is that the EZLN's military structure in some way "contaminated" a tradition of democracy and self-governance. The EZLN was, in a manner of speaking, one of the "undemocratic" elements in a relationship of direct community democracy (another anti-democratic element is the Church, but that's a matter for another paper).
When the Autonomous Municipalities began operating, self-governance did not move just from the local to the regional, it also emerged (always tendentially) from the "shadow" of the military structure. The EZLN does not intervene at all in the designation or removal of autonomous authorities, and it has limited itself to only pointing out that, given that the EZLN, by principle, is not fighting for the taking of power, none of the military command or members of the Clandestine Revolutionary Indigenous Committee can occupy a position of authority in the community or in the Autonomous Municipalities. Those who decide to participate in the autonomous governments must definitively resign from their organizational position within the EZLN.
I am not going to expand much on the operations of the Autonomous Councils. They have their own methods of acting ("their way," as we say) as guarantor, and there are not a few witnesses (national and international "civil societies" who have seen them functioning and who work with them directly).
I do not, however, want to leave the impression that it is something perfect or that it should be idealized. The "govern obeying" in zapatista territories is a tendency, and it is not exempt from ups and downs, contradictions and errors, but it is a dominant tendency. Its having managed to survive in conditions of persecution, harassment and poverty that have rarely existed in the history of the world speaks to the fact that it has benefited the communities. In addition, the autonomous councils have managed to carry forward, with the fundamental support of "civil societies," a colossal labor: the building of the material conditions for resistance.
Charged with governing a territory in rebellion, that is, without any institutional support and under persecution and harassment, the autonomous councils have focused their efforts on two fundamental aspects: health and education.
In health, they have not limited themselves to building clinics and pharmacies (always helped by "civil societies," it must not be forgotten), they also train health workers and maintain constant campaigns for community health and disease prevention.
.One of those campaigns came very close, once, to costing me being criticized in assembly (I don't know if you know what it's like being criticized in an assembly, but, if not, it's enough to tell you that hell must be something like that) and being "looked at" by the community (the people "look" at you, but with one of those looks which make you tremble, in sum, a kind of purgatory). It so happened that, I think I was in La Realidad, I was passing through, and I spent the night in one of the huts the compas have for these cases. The community's "health committee" was going around checking out the latrines in each house (there was an agreement that the latrines had to be regularly blocked with lime or ash in order to prevent the spread of disease). Our latrine, of course, had neither lime nor ash. The "health committee" told me, kindly, "compa~ero subcomandante insurgente Marcos, we're checking out the latrines by agreement of the community, and your latrine doesn't have lime or ash, so you have to put it in, and we're going to come tomorrow to see if it has it then." I began babbling something about the trip, the lame horse, the communique's, military movements, the paramilitaries and I don't remember what all else. The "health committee" listened patiently until I stopped talking and said only "that's all compa~ero subcomandante insurgente Marcos." When the "health committee" came by the next day, the latrine, of course, had ash, lime, sand, but not cement, only because I couldn't find any and seal the latrine up forever...
Regarding education - in lands where there had been no schools, let alone teachers - the Autonomous Councils (with the help of "civil societies," I will not tire of repeating) built schools, trained education promoters and, in some cases, even created their own curricula. Literacy manuals and textbooks are created by "education committees" and promoters, accompanied by "civil societies" who know about those subjects. In some areas (not in all, it's true), they have managed to see to it that girls - who have been traditionally deprived of access to learning - go to school. Although they have also seen to it that women are no longer sold and may freely choose their mate, what feminists call "gender discrimination" still exists in zapatista lands. The "women's revolutionary law" still has a long way to go in being fulfilled.
Continuing with education, in some places the zapatista bases have made agreements with teachers from the democratic section of the teachers' union (those who aren't with Gordillo) that they will not do counterinsurgency work and will respect the curricula recommended by the Autonomous Councils. Zapatistas in fact, these democratic teachers accepted the agreement, and they have fully complied with it.
Neither the health nor the educational services take in all the zapatista communities, it's true, but a large number of them, the majority, now have a means of obtaining medicine, of being treated for an illness and for having a vehicle for taking them to the city in case of illness or serious accident. Literacy and primary education are hardly widespread, but one region already has an autonomous secondary school which, incidentally, recently "graduated" a new generation made up of men and, ojo, indigenous women.
.A few days ago, they showed me the diplomas and school-leaving certificates from the Rebel Autonomous Zapatista Secondary School. My humble opinion is that they should have made them out of chewing gum, because at the top they have "EZLN. Zapatista Army of National Liberation," and then they read (in "Castillo" and in Tzotzil) "The Rebel Autonomous Zapatista Educational System of National Liberation (referring to how it operates in Los Altos, because there are other educational systems in other areas) certifies that student so-and-so has satisfactorily completed the three grades of the Autonomous Secondary School, in accordance with the Zapatista Plans and Programs in ESRAZ, Primero de Enero of 1994 Rebel Autonomous Zapatista Secondary School, obtaining an average of__. Therefore our Educational System recognizes your efforts, your contributions to the resistance struggle and invites you to share with our peoples what the people have given you." And it then says "For a liberating education! For a scientific and popular education! I put myself at the service of my people." And so, in the event of persecution, the student will not only be unable to show it, she will also have to eat it, that's why it would be better if it were chewing gum. There is also the report card (which appears as "Recognition"), and there you can read the subjects (in reality, they aren't subjects, but "areas") which were completed: Humanism, Sports, Arts, Reflection on Reality, Social Sciences, Natural Sciences, Reflections on the Mother Language, Communication, Mathematics and Productions and Services to the Community. There are only two assessments: "A" ("area approved") and "ANA" ("area not approved"). I know that the "Anas" of the world are going to be offended, but there's nothing I can do, because, like I say, autonomies are autonomies...
Education is free, and the "education committees" go to great efforts (I repeat: with the support of "civil societies") to see that each student has his own notebook and her pencil, without having to pay for it.
In health, efforts are being made to see that it is free as well. In some zapatista clinics, they no longer charge the compa~eros, not for the consult, not for the medicine, not for the operation (if it's necessary and able to be performed in our circumstances), and in the others only the cost of the medicine is charged, not the consult nor the medical care. Our clinics have the help and direct participation of specialists, surgeons, doctors, nurses from national and international civil society, as well as from students and assistants in medicine and odontology from UNAM, from UAM and from other institutions of higher education. They do not charge one single peso, and, not infrequently, they pay out of their own pockets.
I know that some of you will be thinking that this is starting to look like a government report, and the only thing missing is my saying "the number of poor have been reduced" or some other "Fox-ism", but no, the number of poor have increased here, because the number of zapatistas have increased, and one thing goes with the other.
That is why I want to emphasize that all of this is taking place under conditions of extreme poverty, shortages and technical and information limitations, in addition to the fact that the government does everything possible to block those projects which come from other countries.
A short time ago, I was talking with some "civil societies" about the suffering they had to go through in order to bring a freezer that worked off solar energy. The project involved vaccinating children, but the majority of the communities do not have electricity or, if they do have it, they don't have a refrigerator. And so the freezer would allow the vaccine to be maintained until it was administered to those who needed it. Fine, it so happened that, in order to bring the freezer, they had to go through an infinity of bureaucratic procedures and, according to their investigation, there was only one organization which could bring what they wanted in from the outside expeditiously: Martha Sahagu'n de Fox's "Let's Go Mexico Foundation." They did not, of course, resort to that publicity agency. They carried out all the procedures, and the freezer will be installed, although late, and there will be vaccinations.
In addition to education and health, the Autonomous Councils look at problems with land, work and trade, where they are making a little progress. They also look at the issues of housing and food. Where we are in our infancy. Where things are doing a bit well is in culture and information. In culture, the defense of language and cultural traditions is being promoted above all. In information, news in local languages is being transmitted through the various zapatista radio stations. Also being regularly transmitted, alternating with music of all kinds, are messages recommending that men respect the women, and calling for women to organize themselves and to demand respect for their rights. And, it may not be much, but our coverage on the war in Iraq was very superior to CNN's (which, strictly speaking, isn't saying much).
The Autonomous Councils also administer justice. The results are erratic. In some places (in San Andres Sacamch'en de los Pobres, for example) even the PRIs go to the autonomous authorities because, as they say, "they do take care of it and resolve the problem." In others, as I will explain now, there are problems.
If the relationship between the Autonomous Councils and the communities is full of contradictions, the relationship with non-zapatista communities has been one of constant friction and confrontation.
In the offices of non-governmental human rights defenders (and in the Comandancia General of the EZLN), there are a fair few denuncias against zapatistas for alleged human rights violations, injustices and arbitrary acts. In the case of the denuncias which the Comandancia receives, they are turned over to the committees in the region in order to investigate their veracity and, when the results are positive, to resolve the problem, bringing the parties together in order to come to agreement.
But in the case of human rights defenders organizations, there is doubt and confusion, because there has been no definition as to whom they should be directed. To the EZLN or to the Autonomous Councils?
And they are right (the human rights defenders), because there is no clarity on this matter. There is also the problem of differences between statute law and "uses and customs" (as the jurists say) or "path of good thinking" (as we say). The resolution of the latter belongs to those who have made the defense of human rights their lives. Or, as in the case of Digna Ochoa (whom the special prosecutor regarded as nothing more than an office worker - as if being an office worker was somehow less - but who was, and is, a defender for the politically persecuted), their death. Regarding a clear definition of whom one should direct oneself to in order to process those denuncias, it belongs to the zapatistas. It will be made known soon how they will try to resolve them.
In sum, there are not a few problems confronting indigenous autonomy in zapatista lands. In order to try and resolve some of them, important changes have been made in its structure and operation. But I will tell you of these later, now I just want to give a brief sketch of where we're at.
This long explication is owing to the fact that indigenous autonomy has not been the work of just the zapatistas. If the process has been carried out exclusively by the communities, its realization has had the support of many and many more.
If the uprising of January 1, 1994 was possible because of the conspiratorial complicity of tens of thousands of indigenous, the building of autonomy in rebel lands is possible because of the complicity of hundreds of thousands of persons of different colors, different nationalities, different cultures, different languages, in short, of different worlds.
They, with their help, have made possible (for the good, because the bad is our responsibility alone), not the resolution of the demands of the rebel zapatista indigenous, but their being able to improve their living conditions a bit, and, above all, to survive and make grow one more, perhaps the smallest, of the alternatives in the face of a world which excludes all the "others," that is, indigenous, young people, women, children, migrants, workers, teachers, campesinos, taxi drivers, shopkeepers, unemployed, homosexuals, lesbians, transsexuals, committed and honest religious persons, artists and progressive intellectuals and____(add whatever is missing).
There should also be a diploma for all of them (and those who are not them), which says "The Zapatista Army of National Liberation and the Rebel Zapatista Indigenous Communities certify that____ (name of the accomplice in question) is our brother/sister and has, in these lands and with us, a dusk-colored heart as home, dignity as food, rebellion as flag, and, for tomorrow, a world where many worlds fit. Given in zapatista lands and skies at such and such a day of such and such a month of the year, etcetera." And it would be signed by those zapatistas who know how to do so, and those who can't would leave their mark. I, in a corner, would put:
From the mountains of the Mexican Southeast.
Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos
Mexico, July of 2003.
(To Be Continued...)
Originally published in Spanish by the EZLN ************************** Translated by irlandesa