Sunday, June 25, 2006

The Orphans of July Third - The Zapatistas Challenge the Sanctity of the Vote by John Gibler


When the Zapatistas launched the Other Campaign in San Cristobal de Las Casas on January 1, 2006—exactly twelve years after they took that city by force—they made clear that the stakes would be high.

“We are putting everything we have into the Sixth [Declaration from the Lacandon Jungle] and the Other [Campaign],” Subcomandante Marcos told the crowd of 20,000. “Our lives are the least of what we have—our moral authority, our prestige, everything we built is in this effort.”

Now, after four months on the road, four hundred Other Campaign meetings held across twenty states, and two hundred and twenty political prisoners taken during the brutal police raid on San Salvador Atenco on the morning of May 4, the Zapatistas have cast their “everything” against the most sacrosanct day of the Mexican political calendar: election day.

At a national Other Campaign gathering in Mexico City on May 29, Subcomandante Marcos called on members of the Other Campaign across the country to gather in Mexico City on June 30 for two days of debate and, on election day, Sunday July 2, to “interrupt into the calendar of the elite [los de arriba] with civil and peaceful organizing and mobilizations.”

A thousand people exhaled simultaneously, filling the old Venustiano Carranza Cinema with the “sssss” sound of worry.

“If the elite now want to pretend as if nothing is going on and have their party without freeing our comrades,” Marcos continued, “then we must step into their calendar and place the demand for liberty there.”


Since the beginning, the Zapatistas' Other Campaign has been unashamed to demand the quixotic, to aim for the highest standards of economic and social justice, calling out the roots of exclusion and violence in Mexico with utter disregard for whom they might offend or isolate with their explicit and unyielding description of Mexico's entrenched system of oppression.

The Other Campaign's founding document, the Sixth Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle, and Subcomandante Marcos' numerous communiqués and speeches over the past months leave no doubt as to how the Zapatistas define responsibility for Mexico's back-breaking poverty, marginalization, and political violence: these social ills, they say, are the necessary results of capitalism, coordinated and protected in Mexico by a small class of political elite.

The snowball effect of the Other Campaign—pulling small grassroots struggles into a national political context, and gathering momentum and numbers with each stop along the road—has been completely ignored by the press, political parties, and most intellectuals. Nearly everyone on the outside of the campaign reduces the entire effort to a failed display of Marcos' enormous ego. They compare the Other Campaign to the Zapatista march from Chiapas to Mexico City in 2001, and conclude that the Other Campaign has been a flop simply because it has pulled fewer people to the public speaking events in town squares. This measurement of social value by the sheer summation of numbers shows how little the critics understand of the political project behind the Other Campaign.

The 2001 march, a caravan through 14 states known as the March of Indigenous Dignity, sought to gather support for an indigenous rights bill based on the 1996 San Andres Accords that were widely supported by indigenous communities across Mexico and signed by both the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) and the government of then-president Ernesto Zedillo. The public events along the march mixed social outcry and political analysis with cultural fair and rock star like appearances by Marcos and the EZLN commanders. The march was informally dubbed the “Zapatour,” half-mocking the more entertainment like aspects of the trip.

The media pundits and intellectuals now call the 2001 march a success (they did not then) in order to show that the Other Campaign is a failure. Time and time again they repeat that in 2001 there were so many more people, the plaza was filled, one could barely move, and this is their measure of success, plazas filled with people.

But the 2001 march had a specific political objective: incorporating the indigenous rights protections from the San Andres Accords into Mexican law. And here, the march failed. The legislators passed a gutted version of the law that led the Zapatistas to file back to Chiapas and cut off all relations with the government and the major political parties. All those people who filled the plazas went back to their daily grinds, they did not take to the streets to demand the implementation of the San Andres Accords, nor did they vote the offending legislators out of office in the following 2003 elections. The supposedly left-leaning Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) turned their backs on the indigenous rights law, failing to put up even a theatrical fight in the Mexican Senate. They voted for the gutted version, didn't vote, or simply didn't show up for work that day.

While more people came out for the March of Indigenous Dignity than the Other Campaign, much less was being asked of them.

The Other Campaign is not a Zapatour. It is a call to action, a call to participate in a national organizing effort with the impossible-sounding objective of uprooting capitalism in Mexico along with the corresponding concentration of political power in a small elite class. Whereas the March of Indigenous Dignity called for support within the electoral political system—support for a piece of legislation presented to the legislative branch of government—the Other Campaign calls not only for a sharp split from that very system, but to overthrow it.

The challenge of the first phase of the Other Campaign is not whether it can fill plazas, parks, and auditoriums—which it mostly has, though not as tightly as in 2001—but whether it can pull people into a new, national social movement that overcomes the deep and historic divisions amongst the left. The early results are positive, though not euphoric: since the Other Campaign paused its nationwide road trip to fight for the liberty of the political prisoners taken during the police raid on San Salvador Atenco, thousands of people have answered the call for solidarity, taking to the streets in marches and protests across the country, and on May 28 and 29 bus loads of Other Campaign participants from every state in the country drove into Mexico City for a national march and assembly.


It comes as no surprise that the right wing political parties who have always sought to delegitimize the Zapatista struggle would sling mud at the Other Campaign. What is new, since 2001, however, is the number of left-leaning sympathizers from middle class and academic circles who have turned their backs on the Zapatista initiative.

For the first time in Mexican history a presidential candidate who openly describes himself as a leftist has a good chance of winning the elections. Andres Manual Lopez Obrador, the PRD candidate and former mayor of Mexico City with an activist background in his home state of Tabasco, is running neck-and-neck against the far right, social conservative candidate from President Vicente Fox's Party of National Action, Felipe Calderon.

There is little that is leftist about Lopez Obrador or the PRD. They plan to follow the same macro-economic model as the previous right wing governments, promising only to “put the poor first” by flooding state money into infrastructure programs, many of which—such as the planned shipping corridor across the Isthmus of Tehuántepec, Oaxaca, a spin off project from the Fox administration's Plan Puebla Panama—face serious national and local opposition by indigenous groups, small farmers, and environmentalists.

During the past six-years the PRD has become something of a half-way house for disenchanted politicians defecting from the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), the dinosaur that ruled Mexico for over 70 years until its defeat by the PAN in 2000. Many of the politicians that aided PRI president Carlos Salinas de Gortari (1988-1994) as he eviscerated the indigenous rights and land reform protections in the Mexican Constitution in order to pass the North American Free Trade Agreement, have fled to the PRD, and found a home in Lopez Obrador's campaign team. Mexican historian Adolfo Gilly writes in a recent issue of Latin American Perspectives that former Salinas administration officials such as Manuel Camacho, Marcelo Ebrard, Ricardo Monreal, Federico Arreola, Socorro Diaz, and Leonel Cota, are now “the pillars of the presidential campaign of the PRD and its candidate, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.”

Many are able to ignore the uncomfortable details of Lopez Obrador's candidacy and economic program by focusing on the overall leftist framing of his campaign: the way to fight crime is by fighting poverty, creating employment opportunities, creating a just economy. One of Lopez Obrador's strongest points, however, is that he is not Felipe Calderon, who presents himself as an iron-fisted protector of the “rule of law,” which in Mexico is code for a regime of violent repression and corresponding impunity.

It is very likely that Lopez Obrador's administration would be less corrupt and less bloody than Calderon's. In the context of 7 decades of PRI dictatorship and 6 years of the PAN's special blend of ineptitude and cartel market economics, a Lopez Obrador victory would be a serious shake-up in the power struggles of the elite in Mexico. Add in the celebratory mood over recent left-wing victories in Latin America and it is easy to understand the combination of hope and delusion that accompanies Lopez Obrador's candidacy.

Thus Subcomandante Marcos' pointing out all the ugly particulars about Lopez Obrador, his campaign team, and the PRD has incurred the unique spirit of wrath reserved for spoilers. It is highly likely that a Calderon victory would unleash a tide of fury and resentment against Marcos and the Zapatistas, not criticism of Lopez Obrador's economic program, his ex-PRI campaign team, or his stilted, clumsy, and facile campaign (in the past few months Lopez Obrador refused to attend the first debate, called Vicente Fox a loud bird (chachalaca), failed for months to answer Calderon's smear campaign against him, did not say a word about the atrocities in San Salvador Atenco, and came out in the second debate unveiling a ready made corruption scandal implicating Calderon).

Few are those who are able to walk the middle path between the Other Campaign and the PRD, agreeing with the Zapatista analysis, supporting the Other Campaign, and planning nonetheless to wake up on July 2nd and vote for Lopez Obrador. In the grand tradition of the left, most have chosen sides and curse their opponents as egoists and traitors. And the divisions are now deep.

Although there is reason to believe that Lopez Obrador would lean more to dialogue than Calderon (read: not send in the riot police or the army in the first five minutes of conflict), there is also reason to doubt the depth and sincerity of his commitment to human rights protections and seeking peaceful solutions to social conflicts. Lopez Obrador has refrained from denouncing the massive human rights violations—sexual violence, mass beatings, torture, arbitrary detentions, killings—carried out by local, state, and federal police in Texcoco and San Salvador Atenco on May 3 and 4. Rather than taking on the most calculated and brutal state repression in Mexico in decades, Lopez Obrador has focused the energy of his campaign on bringing out documents linking Calderon to a corruption scandal involving his brother-in-law, Diego Zavala.

During the scripted presidential “debate” on June 6th, no one mentioned the violence in Atenco, though Calderon made reference to the iron-fist (mano dura) necessary to beat back the unruly machetes of protesting farmers. Instead, the three major candidates paraded through the two-hour debate reciting their slogans and general promises and showing their props. Lopez Obrador brought copies of the documents incriminating Calderon's “uncomfortable brother-in-law” in corruption and tax-evasion, as an example of the kind of government for the rich that he would do away with. Calderon brought a full-color PRD flier for Arturo Núñez, a former PRI leader who helped secure a multi-million dollar tax-payer bailout for politicians near bankruptcy in the 1994 peso crisis, the very same scandal that Lopez Obrador uses to smear Calderon and the PAN.


The Zapatistas launched the Other Campaign challenging the legitimacy of the vote in the context of a repressive economic system controlled by a single political class. There are no choices for us, the underdogs of the left, they said. The challenge, however, was more than anything else, an invitation. The Zapatistas did not call for abstention; they called for reflection, for analysis. Take a close look at all these ugly details in the plans and histories of the three parties and the three candidates, and think: do any of these options address the social forces that push me down? Do any of these candidates offer a program of social change?

Think for yourselves, the Zapatistas reiterated throughout the Other Campaign, but we think you will find that the answer is no, that the answer is: the only change, the only hope for a program of social change that uproots the culture of state corruption, repression, and cartel market economics will come through grassroots organizing, from below, and from the anti-capitalist left. This has been the call of the Other Campaign: it does not matter whom you vote for on July 2nd, if you place your hope and your faith in any of those options, you will be an orphan on July 3rd.

The Zapatistas planned to hold a national Other Campaign assembly in Mexico City on June 24 and 25, and then return to the jungle in Chiapas to spend the days surrounding the presidential elections at home, away from the polls and the television cameras.

No more.

In response to the brutal repression in Atenco, the government's continued denial of the extent and nature of the violence, and the continued incarceration of 31 people detained arbitrarily in Texcoco and Atenco on May 3 and 4, the EZLN and the Other Campaign, are betting everything on taking to the streets in protest on election day.

The risk is extreme. Any act that could be viewed as impeding the vote—a highway or bridge blockade, or even a march—could not only bring down the wrath of the State—police units, the army, clubs, machine guns—but could turn millions of supporters across Mexico and the world against the Zapatistas and the Other Campaign. A highway blockade on July 2 could give the federal government the pretext to once and for all rid themselves of Marcos and his closest supporters.

If done well, however, the Other Campaign could create a mass mobilization of social protest that does not physically threaten or impede voters, that draws from the Zapatistas' world famous sense of humor and artistic creativity, to expose the fallacy of electoral options in Mexico, to mock the sanctity of the vote in a country with 50 percent abstention, a deeply entrenched culture of electoral fraud, and an elite political class with a monopoly-control over government and the resources of the State.

The participants in the Other Campaign will define and agree upon plans for the mobilization on July 2nd during a two-day assembly in Mexico City on June 30 and July 1. It is impossible to know what they will decide, and thus how great the risk will be, beforehand.