<i>"The Name of Our Country is América" - Simon Bolivar</i> The Narco News Bulletin<br><small>Reporting on the War on Drugs and Democracy from Latin America
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Wagers and Risks in the Sixth Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle

Zapatistas Take the Next Step in Their Struggle… Will Mexico Follow?


By Neil Harvey
Translated from La Jornada

July 18, 2005

Once again, the Zapatistas have taken the political initiative in the struggles for democracy, freedom, and justice. The Sixth Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle reaffirms the central proposals of the political position they have held throughout the last eleven years. These are: the defense of memory against oblivion, the construction of a new country against neoliberal destruction, and the exercise of new forms of politics against the dominant party model.

As in the five previous declarations, the Zapatistas propose a series of concrete actions to move forward in these objectives: the realization of new intercontinental encuentros (gatherings) against neoliberalism and for humanity, a national campaign to build a program of the left and a new Constitution, as well as the promotion of new political practices like those the Zapatistas themselves are driving forward in Chiapas in their “good government committees” and autonomous councils.

One could say that these proposals are a product of the evolution of Zapatismo itself that began with the First Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle. The “¡Ya basta!” (“Enough already!”) of that December 31, 1993 had three principal targets: the federal Army, the “essential pillar of the dictaturship that we endure,” against which the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) declared war; the legislative and judicial authorities, who it asked to dismiss the illegitimate occupant of the executive office; and the Mexican population, with the invitation to join in the insurgent struggle.

As we know, the official war lasted twelve days, the president was not dismissed, and a large part of the population accepted the demands, but not the methods, of the EZLN. Nevertheless, several elements from this first declaration remained, which have characterized Zapatismo up to today. For example, the reclaiming of memory (the communiqué begins with the reminder that “we are a product of 500 years of struggle”), the connection between their social struggle and Mexican patriotism (which serves to avoid that their demands be reduced to merely local ones), and the affirmation that the application of the law should reflect the will of the people and not the arbitrariness of the State (the reference to Article 39 of the Constitution was repeated in several of the later declarations). For its part, the call to war from the first declaration did not appear again in any of the following ones and, in fact, was surpassed by the way in which civil society reacted.

Peaceful struggle was clearly favored in the second declaration, released in June of 1994 in the context of that year’s electoral process. In this document, the Zapatistas reject the government offer that had come from the first peace talks in February, due to the lack of response to their demands at the national level. At that time, the EZLN invited all the social and political organizations to participate in a new National Democratic Convention (CND in its Spanish initials), with the goal of writing up a new constitution through the election of a constituent assembly.

In this same declaration, the Zapatistas began to formulate their alternative concept of power, saying that “the problem of power will not be the question of who the incumbent is, but rather of who exercises the power. If the majority of the people exercise the power, political parties will see themselves as obliged to confront the majority instead of each other.” Nevertheless, the CND was unable to congeal, due in great part to disputes over its direction, but also because of the adverse situation that opened up with the Army’s offensive in February 1995. Just a month earlier, the EZLN had released the third declaration, in which it called on the CND and those who sympathized with left-wing political leader Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas to form a new front (with Cárdenas at the head), called the National Liberation Movement (MLN). Once again, this declaration emphasized the defense of the nation, the centrality of memory, and the necessity to push forward the transition to democracy, which explicitly included the rights of indigenous peoples to govern themselves according to their own “reason and will.”

Just like the CND, the MLN was unable to consolidate itself, although on more local levels these two initiatives had a more positive impact, especially when a more concrete and short-term objective presented itself. I am referring to the first national consultation that the EZLN organized in August and September of 1995 on the path that their struggle should follow. One of the results of this plebiscite was the organization and consolidation of more than 200 Civil Dialog Committees across the country, demonstrating that local and regional organizations were capable of responding to the Zapatista call. This grassroots mobilization turned out to have a very important impact in legitimizing and defending the EZLN during the negotiations with the government in San Andrés, in October of 1995 and February of 1996.

It was on this base and this experience of approaching the people that the Zapatistas, in the fourth declaration (published on the first of January, 1996), called for the formation of the Zapatista National Liberation Front (FZLN). The novel aspect of this declaration was the proposal that the Front should make itself into a political force “that does not aspire to take power. A force that is not a political party… A political force given birth by the Civic Dialog Committees.” Although the MLN was still spoken of, in the next two years the division between the path of electoral democracy and the path of Zapatismo became obvious. The electoral reforms of 1996 and the PRI’s losses in the elections of 1997 brought great numbers of Cárdenas supporters into the ranks of the PRD, while the voters began to believe that to was possible that the PRI could finally lose the presidency in 2000. The San Andrés Accords on Indigenous Culture and Rights were not applied, creating a context of abandonment in which the paramilitaries attack Zapatista sympathizers with impunity. The Acteal massacre of December 1997, and the police/military actions of the following months, required a new response from the Zapatistas.

In June 1998 the EZLN broke its silence with its Fifth Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle. Once again the Zapatistas committed themselves to peaceful struggle and dialog with society. Affirming that “it is time for peace to speak,” this declaration announced a new initiative to support indigenous rights. In contrast to the previous declarations, the fifth made no call to create a new national front, but rather put its emphasis on social mobilization through a popular plebiscite, the method that had produced positive results in 1995. Once again, this call was widely heeded and gave rise to the National Consultation for the Recognition of Indigenous Peoples and for the End of the War of Extermination, carried out in March 1999. The same document still expressed the hope that the legislators on the Agreement and Pacification Commission (shortened to COCOPA in Spanish) could achieve consensus to validate the San Andrés as part of a constitutional amendment.

However, not even the change in power in the presidency in 2000 was able to achieve said reform. Although the Zapatistas maintained the capacity to mobilize thousands of people in their march on the capital, in March 2001, the Mexican Congress approved a very limited reform, which had the effect of canceling out the possibility of moving forward on a solution to the conflict in Chiapas. From that moment on, the Zapatistas dedicated themselves more to the construction of their own forms of government, culminating in 2003 with the formation of the five autonomous regions and their respective good government committees. Meanwhile, the separations between Zapatismo and all the political parties became very evident. The growing skepticism of the voters, together with the video-scandals and corruption, formed part of the context in which the EZLN once again searched for ways to resist oblivion and reclaimed the necessity of linking themselves to the struggles of other national and international sectors.

In the sixth declaration, the Zapatistas recognize the risk present in their new initiative. It is a wager on the unity of people that share the same necessities and see no options in the existing political parties. The decision was made so that the indigenous struggles might have a better possibility of developing themselves toward uniting with other groups against the prolongation of neoliberalism. The unity that is achieved must serve to strengthen both Zapatismo and the other groups and people that decide to enter into the alliance. It is a big wager, without a doubt, but such risks have been consistent in Zapatismo since its origins. If the national campaign is able to open spaces for dialog with the rest of society, it will be more difficult for the political parties to ignore the discussions and proposals that arise from that process. Picking up again what was expressed in the second declaration (in June of 1994), the national campaign will represent a positive contribution if the parties feel pressured to confront the popular demands instead of busying themselves with their images and disputes among themselves.

Like any bet, this entails various risks. Taking the history of the Zapatistas’ previous wagers into account, we can point at least two principal dangers. First, what are the implications of this campaign for continuing to move forward with the consolidation of the autonomous regions and good government committees? These structures of autonomy are Zapatismo’s most important achievements. However, as Subcomandante Marcos recognized last year in his text “Reading a Video,” there are two great flaws that deserve attention: the place of women in the leadership of the committees and autonomous councils, and the relationship between the political-military structure of the EZLN and the civilian authorities in the Zapatista regions and municipalities. The national campaign must search for ways to help overcome these two problems. In order for that to happen, it is important that the comparison of diverse experiences in social struggle be included in the dialogs, to learn about how women move on from grassroots participation into positions of political leadership. At the same time, it is necessary to discuss existing lessons on the challenges of practicing that “new way of doing politics,” which often run into the same authoritarian practices that have served the State and political parties greatly, but served the “simple and humble people” very poorly. The campaign must serve not only to prepare a new national program of struggle, but also to find practical solutions to that same struggle’s problems and contradictions.

The second risk has to do with the campaign’s direction and the experiences already had, especially that of the CND in 1994-1995. The sixth declaration seeks another organizational model, and the most positive of the previous initiatives has been the experience of the national plebiscites carried out in 1995 and 1999. The local committees and regional coordinating councils left may lessons in their wake about the advantages and problems of this form of national organization “from below.” The results were much more positive than the attempts at unified national organizations and should serve as a basic point of reference for the new campaign. A national initiative with these characteristics would help reduce the risk of wasting time and energy that could be better spent on more local projects.

The sixth declaration is, like the five previous ones, a manifesto against forgetting and for a future with peace and dignity. It reaffirms the Zapatista’s commitment to peaceful struggle and invites the population to participate in the construction, from the left, of economic and political alternatives for the country. Its principal challenge is not to create a new front with a national name and leadership, but rather to weave together a new network of people and groups that can contribute their own experiences of struggle so that this initiative’s risks may be minimized while its bets are won.

Neal Harvey is a British historian and professor at New Mexico State University, Las Cruces. He is the author of The Chiapas Rebellion: The Struggle for Land and Democracy.

This article originally appeared in Spanish in La Jornada of Mexico City.

Translation: Narco News

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The Narco News Bulletin: Reporting on the Drug War and Democracy from Latin America