Mexico’s Zapatista movement transforming lives 20 years on
Outsiders are invited to visit and see how local autonomy works in practice
Marcelo and Maria, Michael McCaughan’s hosts at the Zapatista village of Moises Gandhi, with their youngest two children, outside their home. The ski masks are worn as the Zapatistas still remain officially outside the law. Photograph: Sergio Chua
Michael McCaughan and his “votan”, or guadian, David, in front of the dental clinic in Moises Gandhi. Photograph: Sergio Chua
On January 1st, 1994, the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) launched an uprising in southeast Mexico, demanding land, democracy and freedom.
The Mexican army responded with bombs and bullets until a series of mass rallies forced then president Carlos Salinas to call a ceasefire. The pipe- smoking rebel spokesman, Subcomandante Marcos, became a global celebrity, his witty missives shifting public opinion in favour of the movement.
The negotiations that followed produced the San Andres accord of 1996, which granted autonomy to rebel villages.
In a historic address to parliament in 2001 EZLN Commander Esther urged deputies to approve autonomy legislation, but Mexico’s political parties diluted the agreement previously signed by the government. The rebels retreated into silence, vowing to construct autonomy on their own.
In 2003 the Zapatistas launched five regional headquarters, covering an area almost the size of the Irish republic. Known as Caracoles (a snail or conch shell, used to summon the community), they represent a political process without a manual. Each Caracol has a Junta de Buen Gobierno, (good government junta), which resolves legal disputes, land registration, births, deaths and marriages and tackles five development goals: health, education, agro-ecology, politics and information technology.
Last year the rebels announced the launch of the “escuelita”, or little school, an invitation to visit rebel territory and get a first-hand look at the autonomy process. The cost of the five-day programme, which included text books, transport, food and lodgings, was €20.
On Christmas Day I found myself carrying a backpack into the Zapatista village of Moises Gandhi, alongside my Votan, a Tzeltal guardian from a distant village, appointed to take care of me. David (23) wore a silver chain and leather jacket, buzz haircut and a ready smile.
He joined the movement at 13, picking up responsibilities along the way. He is currently administrator of the regional Zapatista coffee co-operative, handling emails and money transfers for shipments of coffee to Germany. The rebel project is collective in nature but allows each individual to make the most of their own initiative.
The income from David’s own coffee crop allowed him to buy a dozen pigs last year. My guardian took his duties seriously and each evening prepared notes for his final report. My job was to share in the life and work of the community and study the text books. The 1,500 pupils included teachers and anarchists, home-makers and carpenters.
As we approached the basketball court the entire village (57 families) had lined up to greet us, violins and an accordion striking up Las Mananitas, a traditional song of welcome.
Our names were called out and a villager came forward to claim me; Marcelo took my bag and trudged up a muddy pathway to his home. We arrived at a wooden shack with a few chairs and an open fire where boiling pots signalled dinner ahead. Maria awaited with the family’s six kids, aged two months to 15 years. David and myself shared a small room, sleeping on wooden slats, a blanket each to ward off the cold. We were summoned to the kitchen for beans, tortillas and coffee.
King of the jungle
At 6am the next morning Marcelo woke me up and after another ration of coffee and beans we headed off to work, machete in hand. This work tool is the king of the jungle, used for cutting, clearing, planting and building.
My family, like the others, farmed a small allotment, or milpa, planting coffee, beans and corn. They also had chickens of their own along with a share in the village cattle. The latter served as emergency cash in times of crisis or a shared feast in times of celebration.