Mexico’s Zapatista movement transforming lives 20 years on

Outsiders are invited to visit and see how local autonomy works in practice


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.

Little school
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.

David walked beside me, urging me to be careful as we headed out to clear weeds on land where the cattle graze. After an hour spent swinging at the bush, my hand bleeding, David discreetly took the machete and effortlessly eliminated every unwanted plant. The daily tasks are divided along gender lines, with women in charge of the home and men in charge of the milpa. Marcelo and Maria’s home was remarkable in that, apart from light bulbs, there wasn’t a single electronic device: no cooker, fridge, TV, computer, radio or phone.

Each afternoon I spent time reading my books, written by the same indigenous men and women, outlining their experiences of self-rule. The anecdotes offered an insight into a project where “everyone is the government” as community assemblies pick candidates, pool resources and rotate representatives, putting an end to the notion of career politicians.

Each representative spends two weeks at a time in the Caracol, while family and friends mind their cornfield at home. No one is paid for their work on behalf of the community, which is part of a shared responsibility. Money is regarded as problematic and divisive and financial transactions are reduced to the absolute minimum.

The days followed in quick succession as we visited the primary and secondary schools where local teachers educate children in their native Tzeltal tongue. At the health clinic we met a dozen workers who combine antibiotics with homeopathy, while a fully kitted out dentist’s clinic is open 12 hours per day. Attention is free but medicines must be paid for.

Constant challenges
None of the jobs bring a salary but volunteers spoke of their pride in serving their people. The autonomy project faces constant challenges, notably government welfare programmes that offer cash and building materials to those who abandon the rebel ranks.

The Zapatista population ebbs and flows, but while some villages lose members, others take up the challenge, and I observed seven new autonomous communities that had sprung up since my last visit in 2008.

There was a sense of wellbeing and harmony in Moises Gandhi that contrasted sharply with the stressful lives of my peers in Ireland. Come early afternoon Marcelo and Maria settled down in their kitchen, one child in a hammock, gently rocking, another infant napping happily in his father’s arms.

No crime, no fear
The sound is of contented laughter and low tones of idle conversation. There is no crime and no fear, the armed rebels project a sufficient barrier to the drug gangs that have turned large swathes of Mexico into a bloody war zone. Alcohol and other drugs are prohibited while women enjoy, in theory at least, 50 per cent of jobs in the autonomous government.

As I hugged David and said farewell, I asked him how we might keep in contact. He had no phone number, no email address, not even a street address, as the rebels remain outside the postal system. Instead he gave me the name of his village. “Everyone knows me there,” he said, as I contemplated the strangest of beings; a man without an online life or a street address, with no bills or mortgage to pay, happy with his life, and apparently secure in his future.

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