Moros and Zapatistas

While lecturing at the National Autonomous University of Mexico early this year, I had the rare chance of witnessing the signing of the first peace accord between the Mexican government and the Zapatista Army of National Liberation or EZLN.  That historic event reminded me of the Moros’ own negotiations with the government.  I began to wonder what impact the MNLF would have created had Nur Misuari conducted these talks the Zapatista way.

It is just a little over 2 years since the indigenous people in the southern state of Chiapas took up arms to protest  violations of their rights to their ancestral lands.  No one took notice at first.  The foreign press echoed the Mexican authorities’ definition of the Chiapas uprising as an isolated local rebellion.  This perception drastically changed when this “local Indian uprising” became unexpectedly the focal point of a popular nationwide anti-government movement.

The reporting of movements like the Frente Zapatista has always highlighted the role played by individuals.  The press has the habit of reducing what is in reality a broad and complex movement into a face or a name.   It is as if  events must first be personified before they can be assimilated in the public mind.

The media found one among the Zapatistas — Subcomandante Marcos, and he made good copy.  He was not Indian, but white;  not a peasant leader, but a former philosophy professor in his late thirties or early forties.  Underneath the black ski mask he constantly wore, only his bright eyes, a long nose, and a ubiquitous pipe would serve as clues to his identity.  The government tried unsuccessfully to demystify him by publishing the picture of an ugly man and passing this off as the true face of the masked Marcos.

He communicated with the people through outrageously funny tales about a fictional gentleman and his commonsensical squire named Durito. Everybody calls him Marcos – el buen Marcos, adoring Mexicans sometimes say, in oblique reference to the other Marcos we all know.

I was looking out for him at the accord signing in the mountain community of San Andres Larrainzar, just outside the beautiful city of San Cristobal de las Casas.  But he was nowhere to be found.  The negotiating team of the EZLN was led by a very articulate young Indian, equally mysterious and stunning in his ski mask, named Comandante Tacho.  Marcos, I was told, was somewhere in the vicinity, in charge of the guerrilla detachment assigned to provide security to the Zapatista negotiators.

Despite his popularity and influence, Marcos takes orders from the comandantes who are mostly Indian.  His masked face is emblazoned on T-shirts, pins, and posters sold everywhere in Mexico, conferring upon him a celebrity status nearly equal to that of Che Guevara.  Yet he is content to be a lieutenant, the personification of a philosophy of struggle founded on the disavowal of  political power.

“For the people, everything.  For us, nothing” read one poster I saw in San Andres Larrainzar.  At the last election, where they were challenged by the government to propose their own candidates, they said they were not after positions and would be happy if the government  simply conducted honest elections.

But the effectiveness of the Zapatistas has been largely due to their essential unpredictability.  When they agreed to negotiate with the government, everyone thought they would confine the agenda to the rights of the indigenous people and of landless peasants.  As it turned out, what they wanted to discuss was nothing less than the entire national situation of Mexico.

They asked for the services of asesores or experts who could advise them during the negotiations.  The government thought they were referring to a few policy analysts and economic planners who could help them draw programs.  No one was quite prepared for the invitations they issued through the media to about 150 individuals drawn nationwide from all disciplines and political persuasions.  The EZLN invited them to come to the forest for an initial meeting, but had let it be known there were no funds to bring them over or much less to pay their services.  The advisers came on their own, and no one demanded an honorarium.  That initial conference and the others that followed became virtual forums for the analysis of what ailed the country as a whole and what needed to be done.

I met some of these asesores during the accord signing last February. Most of them are university professors, artists, writers, and political activists.  They are spread out among 6 workshops or mesas, as they are called.  One look at the agenda of these mesas would impress anyone that this is not at all just an indigenous people’s movement.

The 6 workshops are: (1) Cultural Rights of Indigenous Peoples, (2) Democracy, (3) Social Justice and Development, (4) Women, (5) Reconstruction of the Social Fabric (tejido social), and (6) Withdrawal of the military from the communities.  Each workshop in turn consists of smaller working groups.  The list of the working groups  under Democracy gives us an idea of current concerns:  electoral democracy, direct democracy, political parties and civil society, federalization and municipalities, justice, human rights, democracy and communications, and democracy and justice in the globalization process.

The global aspect is prominent in Zapatista discourse.  I was told that in July this year, these guerrillas of the Lacandon forests are convening an international conference against “global neo-liberalism”. Their struggle has long claimed a place in cyberspace;  the EZLN maintains an address in the Internet.

I thought of the Moro struggle and felt sad about the way it had become, in contrast, so local and even parochial.  Misuari has the charisma of an indigenous Comandante, but unlike the revolutionaries of Chiapas, he holds a tragically limited view of the nation.


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