By Armando Chaguaceda
Behind the gates, masked individuals guard Oventic, one of the autonomous municipalities controlled by Zapatista rebels in southern Mexico. We find the tension floating in the air just as we get out of the van that took us to the entry of the Caracol II encampment, 20 minutes from San Cristóbal de las Casas.
As we approach the entry, one of the ski-masked men requests our identification and begins posing questions… then we pass through a second checkpoint, where other guards wear relaxed smiles and let us enter the town.
After 15 years of high and low intensity war, these are part of the day-to-day safety measures taken when any stranger tries to enter one of the autonomous municipalities.
Despite that hostile context, the Zapatista communities today have an autonomous primary and secondary school system, self-managed clinics offering basic services (blood pressure checks, pharmacies, injections), and cooperatives in which all types of products are traded: coffee, typical crafts and even revolutionary posters.
Following the initial reception by the Explanation Commission, we are sent to the Good Government Board, the administrative body of the autonomous municipalities, which are made up of about 20 members.
There we were met by two men and a woman, none more than 30 years old. Members hold these positions-revolving and honorary-for three years, except in instances of poor administration, in which cases people can be removed by the townspeople.
The Board members explained that since autonomous municipalities do not receive resources from the federal government, their maintenance comes from international organizations and resources generated by the cooperatives themselves, especially through the sale of coffee.
Although Sub-commandant Marcos was not present in the community, for the Zapatistas his presence is sustained even in his absence. “He represents us, it was chosen to be like this,” they say, speaking in a room adorned with posters of other emblematic leaders (Emiliano Zapata, Che Guevara…).
This social movement is palpable. With the establishment of the Good Government Board, women became able to go before that administrative body to complain if their husband hit them or were alcoholics.
The Board, an entity of popular justice, first gives a warning; but if the misconduct persists, it can apply sanctions that range from field work, general labor, helping neighbors or even being thrown in the Zapatista jail. As a last resort, the offender can be expelled from the community.
The consciousness of Zapatista women has changed, as has their level of activism in community decision making. They are integral members of the Caracoles Good Government Board and are responsible for the “Tiendas de Mujeres por la Dignidad” (Women Stores for Dignity), craft cooperatives made up of around 30 women each. Moreover, there are women who are commandants in the Zapatista Army.
In 1993, one year before the public emergence of the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN), female Zapatistas promulgated their first Revolutionary Women’s Law. These “ten commandments” of rights include participation, equality and the eradication of common practices like battery and abusive domestic labor. Soon after entering a Zapatista community, signs concerning the prohibition and consumption of alcohol and stimulants catch one’s attention.
Oventic seems like something out of a fable…a kind of utopian world. Hardly entering the camp (named “Resistance and Rebelliousness for Humanity”), one hears radio station “Amanecer de los Pueblos” (Dawn of the Peoples) in local dialect and your also hear songs by Cuban artist Pablo Milanes. These are accompanied by the town’s colorful murals with images of Emiliano Zapata, Che Guevara, Marcos, women guerillas wearing black ski-masks, and indigenous peoples, as well as sayings that illuminate houses, schools and hospitals. And in the plaza they play baseball.
A dozen indigenous Tzotzile, Chole and Tzetzales men and women who belong to the Zapatista municipalities are rotated every week to assist camp Oventik.
Even with its missteps and mystification, the Zapatista experience makes one aware of the dreams and challenges. You become cognizant of organizations and a consciousness in search for “another possible world,” despite their confrontation with the existing system. It is a world where “ordering while obeying” leaves less room for authoritarianism, corruption and commercialization and offers coherent hope for freedom.
– With this text, I close a trilogy that embraced, in addition to the Zapatista experience, the accompaniment of the Brazilian Landless Peoples Movement and the Costa Rican anti-Free Trade Agreement Movement. I have been, without a doubt, a privileged witness and by no means impartial to these processes. I have seen the glimmer of a multicolored and unfinished plot on the new directions of a popular struggle determined to defend life in front of capitalist pillaging and state dominance in our lands of the Americas.
Visiting the Zapatistas in Mexico was taken from excerpts from a chronicle written along with colleague Amigzaday Beltrán, based on our stay in Chiapas in December 2008 and January 2009, published in www.kaosenlared.org.