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<nettime> The Zapatistas at Ten - reflections by John Ross
Ricardo Dominguez on Mon, 19 Jan 2004 23:47:06 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> The Zapatistas at Ten - reflections by John Ross

Hola todos, 

Happy New Year.
Below, 'The Zapatistas at Ten - Gracias para la Memoria', looks back at
the figures and personalities that have played a role in the 10 years
since the EZLN uprising and a first hand account of the activities this


OVENTIC CHIAPAS (Jan. 8th 2004) – Just about every January 1st since that
star-crossed New Year's Eve in 1994 when they startled the White House and
the world by rising in armed rebellion in the very first minutes of that
beacon of globalization, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA),
the Mayan Indian base communities that support the Zapatisata Army of
National Liberation (EZLN) have partied into the dawn to mark the
anniversary of their on-going insurrection.  All except this New Year's,
the one that commemorated a decade of their debut on a public stage.    

On New Year's Eve, we drive into the craggy mountains above the old
colonial city of San Cristobal de las Casas up to Oventic, the hillside
village that has become the Zapatistas' most popular "caracol"  
(literally "spiral") or cultural and political center in southeastern
Chiapas. Whereas on most such occasions down the turbulent decade since
their apparition (1997-98 after the dreadful massacre of 46 Tzotzil
neighbors was the exception), the Zapatistas have speechified and cumbia'd
(they love this herky-jerky Colombian dance step) long past midnight, but
on this cold and crystalline evening, few locals take to the dance floor
(actually the basketball court) to bounce to the pinging marimbas. 
Indeed, most participants are of the international persuasion: North
Americans, Italians, mestizo students from Mexico City – a sparse crowd
when Oventic is usually crammed to capacity for the party.

Around 11 PM, 60 members of the regional autonomous authority, the "Juntas
de Buen Gobierno" (literally "Good Government Commissions") in their
ceremonially be-ribboned sombreros and short "Chujs" (serapes)  
embroidered with the secret insignias of their home villages, take the
stage to broadcast a political message which posits that ten years is not
such a long time and that the Zapatista struggle to win justice for
Mexico's Indians goes on and on and on and on ("La lucha sigue y sigue y
sigue y sigue..") And when they are done, everyone embraces and goes to
bed. It isn't even midnight yet.

 So here ten years after they had rocked the world with their determined
"Ya Basta!" ("literally, "Enough Already!"), and 20 years after they had
first established a base camp down in the damp Lacandon jungle – twin
opportunities that more conventional observers consider should have
triggered a big blow-out, the rebels curled up with their partners and
caught some well-merited shut-eye. But then the Zapatistas have never
really trusted in round numbers anyway – they once sent 1,111 delegates up
to Mexico City to campaign for an Indian Rights law. 

In 40 years of covering and causing trouble in Latin America, I have
rarely encountered a more unpredictable bunch of revolutionaries than the
Zapatista Army oif National Liberation..

"They always do what you least expect when you least expect it" smiles my
colleague and compadre Hermann Bellinghausen, who has spent what sometimes
must feel like a lifetime cruising the jungle and highlands of Chiapas for
La Jornada, Mexico's most left-leaning newspaper (but not left enough for
many), "I gave up guessing what comes next a long time ago." 

I am seated at table in the well-tended patio of La Casa Vieja 
(literally "the Old House", the elegant hotel in the center of San 
Cristobal which has served as host to journalists and luminaries since 
this quirky rebellion first exploded into the daylight.  If these stone 
walls could talk, the true history of the rebellion would find 

I flip through the registry reviewing the signatures of all the key actors
in this real-life docu-drama, each with a pithy word of praise for the
kindnesses of the Espinosa family who have tended the premises for the
past decade – the hotel itself is celebrating its own tenth anniversary
having opened its polished portals on the eve of the insurrection. 

The legendary Subcomandante Marcos and a dozen members of the Clandestine
Indigenous Revolutionary Committee, the Zapatista General Command, sign in
with a flourish – "everyone should share in the comforts of this hotel"
the Sup comments. 

Don Samuel Ruiz the now-retired Bishop of San Cristobal who tried so
valiantly to bring peace with justice to the Indian highlands and jungles
of Chiapas was a frequent visitor here, often on his birthday.

Manuel Camacho Solis, the government's first peace negotiator who first
found the Casa Vieja after all its guests had fled into the night in the
wake of the initial explosion of violence on the streets outside. It was,
in fact, Camacho, a press savvy politico, who first installed the Fourth
Estate here, mostly to cover his own blunted efforts to achieve a solution
to the conflict.

And behind Camacho, one finds the Juan Hancocks of an all-star parade of
bigwigs: Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, the moral leader of Mexico's electoral Left;
Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, the mayor of Mexico City, and probably the
nation's next president; Rosario Ibarra de Piedra, Mexico's most fearless
human rights advocate; three Chiapas governors (most of them bad guys);
phalanxes of senators and congressional representatives who came to add
their two centavos to the mix. 

The Portugueses Nobelist Jose Saramago who has visited several times,
appears on these pages, as does Danielle Mitterand, France's former first
lady, and Regis Debrey who fought with Che in Bolivia. A delegation of
North American Indians, old South American guerrilla leaders, a group of
swamis and imans and Christian clergymen who had guested in these rooms in
quest of peace – not to mention Cafe Tacuba, the rollicking Mexican

In the midst of this hurly-burly, a writer for the Lonely Planet Travel
Guide pauses to compliment "a remarkable hotel" and a lost California
surfer notes "dude, you run a chillin' place here." But who mostly slept
in these soft beds were representatives of the national and international
press – I count three Pulitzer winners, the crew from "60 Minutes", the
magnificent Brazilian photographer of work Sebastian Salgado.  Reporters
drank deeply here in the gelid midnights and some met and married at the
Casa Vieja – Pepe Olmos (now of Proceso Magazine) and La Jornada's Rosa
Elva not onlv got hitched on the premises but returned three years later
for an anniversary bash, the hangover from which still throbs in my

 I sit here leafing through the pages, fingering an imaginary Bohemia (the
waiters still ask if they should bring me my breakfast beer although they
know full well that diabetes has forced me to toss in my bar towel) and
muse upon ten years of covering this living hunk of history. Really, the
world would never have cared as much about these Indians, their rage and
their dreams, without a Casa Vieja to house us.

Signs of our times: "Zapatista rebellion marks ten years in Chiapas" – 
CNN crawl at the bottom of the screen this past New Year's Day. 

"Gora Euskadi!" ("Long Live the Basque Homeland!") – spraypainted on a 
white-washed wall in the heart of San Cristobal. 

"Long Live Kurt Cobain" – scrawled on another wall a few blocks away. 

"You are now entering the Zapatista Autonomous Zone" – signboard posted 
by the side of the two lane blacktop winding up towards Oventic. 

"We do not use genetically modified corn in our tortillas" – neatly
lettered notice above the register at the Casa del Pan, San Cris's
favorite organic breakfast nook. The defense of Mexican corn – the sacred
Popul Vuh tells us the Mayans are made from maiz – remains at the kernel
of this rebellion as millions of tons of corrupted grain flood this
country every year, muchissimo gracias to NAFTA, that nefarious trick
Washington has played on the Indians.

Hermann (despite his Teutonic name – his grandfather was dictator 
Porifirio Diaz's cordon bleu chef – Hermann is a red,white and green 
Mexican) and his daughter Ana head down to the Ejido Morelia on New 
Year's Day to show the spanking new video "The Fire &The Word" 
(literally the stuff from which the Zapatista rebellion is fashioned.)  
It is an odd documentary, pieced together from forgotten footage by 
Ana, her companero Arturo Sampson, movie-maker Alberto Cortes, and 
reporter Chuchu Ramirez, all veterans of the cinematography wars in 
Chiapas, as a birthday present to the rebels. 

"El Fuego y La Palabra" has little context and idiosyncratic narration by
quixotic Zap mouthpoiece Marcos. Scenes from distinct seasons and
struggles keep filling the screen in an unrelenting time capsule of ten
years of bitter resistance. When it was shown at the Cafe' Museo, the
usual venue for Zapatista solidarity in San Cris, dozens of Italians who
had flown in for the big party, seemed genuinely dazed and confused.

But down on the Ejido Morelia, on the edge of the jungle where some of the
cruelest battles were waged, the compas don't need a scorecard to know who
is who and what is what. They see themselves marching defiantly down the
river valley fleeing the Mexican military in February 1995. They see the
women fearlessly confronting the black dog soldiers in the Spring of '98,
the comandantes leaving for Mexico City to defend the Indian Rights law in
2001, the ski-masks and the fists punching into the heavens in a permanent
"Basta Ya!", the eternal "baile" whether it be cumbias or more traditional
Indian moves for, indeed, this is a rebellion that has never stopped

Despite their loyalties to this on-going insurrection, the Zapatistas down
on the Ejido Morelia view the video in silence. A group of elders actually
sits behind the screen watching the events therein depicted in reverse. 
And when the final scenes have flickered to fade, they linger in place,
staring at the blank screen and asking the movie crew to show it all over

We leave the celebration before midnight in Bea's fancy new truck and 
lose the brakes between Oventic and San Andres, the magnet town in this 
part of the mountains, a key Zapatista autonomous municipality. 
Navigating hairpin turns on icy highland roads without brakes makes 
journalism a particularly risky profession but thanks to the pilot's 
driving skills, the contours of the land, and just blind luck, we glide 
uphill into the San Andres plaza with no loss of life.  

San Andres Larrainzar (Larrainzar was a European geographer) is of course
not really so named. On the Zapatista map, the town is known as Sakamch'en
de los Pobres, in reference to the caves in the white hills above where
the "Tzotzes" or People of the Bat were born. It is, in fact, a Tzotzil
power spot – the most powerful spot – and the Mexican government made an
awful mistake siting 22 months of negotiations with the EZLN here,
essentially because it was close enough to San Cristobal to permit their
negotiators to sleep in its swank hotels. On that April day in 1995 when
talks were to have begun here, 15,000 Indians showed up in Sakamch'en and
the surprised government men nearly called off the negotiations before
they began. for fear of being ambushed while huddled at the table.

Yet the talks did go forward and a year after they had commenced, the
adversaries arrived at agreement on a landmark Indian Rights law that
would have guaranteed autonomy to Mexico's 57 distinct Indian peoples. 
The San Andres Accords as they were known, became the touchstone for the
Zapatista struggle thereafter when both congress and the president refused
to honor the document they had signed on to. 

Tonight, the meeting house constructed on one corner of the tiny plaza
where the rebels and the government had gone nose to nose for nearly two
years, seemed a sullen ghost haunted by memories of what might have been,
its windows boarded up to keep out the burglers and the rats, its
once-smooth fac,ade chipped and stained with illegible graffiti. 

Across the street, the lights were still on in the offices of the
autonomous authorities of Sakamch'en de los Pobres, living testimony to
the EZLN's persistence in building autonomy. Now the rebels do not ask the
government for permission to create autonomous institutions – they just go
ahead and do it. 

Suddenly, the old church on the other corner of the plaza detonates in a
shower of dazzling light. Bottle rockets flair and thud against the New
Year's heavens. Inside the flower-filled, saint-stuffed, incense-swirling
sanctuary, the soft sweet voices of Indians at prayer cushion the clatter
outside, and on the church's lintel, the "imoles", the spiritual leaders
of the community, chant in Tzotzil to the four directions for guidance in
the coming days of struggle. The Zapatista year has begun again.

For more reports on the passing of the 10 year anniversary, visit:  

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