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From Below and to the Left…

RJ Maccani
Date Published: 
June 01, 2006
    Joined by a team of Mexican, gringo, Brazilian, and French journalists, R.J. Maccani reported on the Zapatista’s new national initiative in Mexico from the southwestern state of Oaxaca in the first months of 2006. Here he gives Left Turn an insider’s view into the beginnings of a national movement building popular power beyond the state.

The Zapatista rebels of Mexico’s southeastern state of Chiapas are taking their boldest step since they rose up in arms twelve years ago. Continuing a twenty-two year journey of growth and transformation, they are spreading out beyond their autonomous communities to join with and build a Mexican and global movement for democracy, freedom, and justice.

Following an internal consultation with the over 200,000 members of the Zapatista communities in June of 2005, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) released their Sixth Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle. The declaration is essential reading as it tells their story in their own words and will be the guiding document for their future work. Also, an invitation to join the EZLN in building a movement against capitalism “from below and to the left,” can be found online in at least eight languages.

The Zapatistas have been the most popular reference point for the radical left in the past decade with hundreds of books, and hundreds of thousands of articles by and about them, translated into dozens of languages. However, the Zapatistas have often been misunderstood, as they practice a way of doing politics that is quite distinct from the one to which the westernized world is accustomed.

Since their emergence in the public eye on New Years Day of 1994, the Zapatistas have unfailingly put into practice the principle that leadership is a position of service. They have prioritized listening, accountability, and consensus-building. The Zapatistas put ethics before pragmatism, moving “at the pace of the slowest.” Their political practice has given the Zapatistas a nearly unrivaled level of moral authority in Mexico and the world.

In launching the Sixth Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle, they are putting this moral authority, as well as the lives of their leadership, at risk. The Sixth Declaration is distinct from the five that precede it because this time the Zapatistas don’t just intend to inspire or convene those fighting for humanity and against capitalism, but to defy arrest warrants and death threats by leaving their autonomous territories. They literally plan to join with “the humble and simple people who struggle” in Mexico and throughout the world. The moral authority of the EZLN will soon be held not just in their own hands, but also in the hands of all those who build new initiatives with them.

That being said, the EZLN will remain accountable to their Mayan indigenous support base. The majority of the army will stay in Chiapas and continue to defend the over 1,100 Zapatista communities which are grouped into twenty-nine autonomous municipalities and five regions known as “caracoles.” With massive support and solidarity from Mexican and international civil society, these Zapatista communities are innovating with political and judicial structures and educational, health, communication and economic development programs that put the Mexican government to shame. They have accomplished all of this while being surrounded by 50-60,000 troops—roughly one-third to one-fourth of the Mexican military.

Civil society

Two new groups have recently formed out of the EZLN: the Sixth Commission and the Intergalactic Commission. The Sixth Commission is composed of fifteen indigenous comandantes of the EZLN and its iconic mestizo spokesman, Subcomandante Marcos, and is responsible for carrying out the national objectives of the Sixth Declaration. These objectives are to join with Mexican civil society to create or recreate another way of doing politics “from below and to the left,” to build an anti-capitalist national plan of struggle, and to form a new Mexican constitution.

The Intergalactic Commission is currently headed by Lieutenant Colonel Moisés and is concerned with building closer links with movements around the world. This includes sending material aid to resistance groups and to groups participating in the creation of more convergences such as the legendary “Encounter for Humanity and Against Neoliberalism.” Convened by the Zapatistas in 1996, this gathering laid the groundwork for what would become known as the Global Justice Movement.

In August of 2005, less than two months after releasing the Sixth Declaration, the Sixth Commission began convening meetings to build a national political force beyond the electoral parties. Over consecutive weekends, Mexican civil society came to the Zapatista territories of Chiapas in sectors: first—political organizations of the left, second—indigenous peoples and organizations, third—social organizations, fourth—collectives, non-governmental and artistic organizations, and fifth—families, communities and individuals with no organizational affiliation. A sixth meeting was held for all those who could not attend the previous meetings.

Each meeting was a listening party in which everyone who came and publicly adhered to the Sixth Declaration was encouraged to speak for as long as they liked about their lives, struggles, and wishes for the new movement that they were building together. For six weekends in a row, the Sixth Commission listened and took notes while their new compañeros introduced themselves. Subcomandante Marcos acted as a mediator and his opening and closing remarks generally framed each weekend.

In mid-September, following the conclusion of these six meetings, participants from previous meetings were invited back to Chiapas for a plenary in which they launched “The Other Campaign.” They discussed in-depth what it means to practice another way of doing politics and build a national plan of struggle. This continuing discussion is being structured around six points or themes: 1) characteristics, 2) who is invited, 3) structure, 4) treatment of differences, 5) other forces, and 6) work.

One aspect of this other way of doing politics is that these six points are intended to be discussed by all adherents, but not so that some people’s positions will eventually dominate others, or that there will be winners and losers. Rather, a process of communication will begin that allows them to create a movement together, understanding each others’ perspectives while respecting the autonomy of each organization and individual. However, most understand that it will be through shared work that they will ultimately develop the Other Campaign.

Neoliberal parties

The Other Campaign is a clever title for this new civil society initiative when understood in the context of the June 2006 Mexican presidential elections and the massive electoral campaigns being launched by the three dominant political parties. The political landscape includes the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) who ruled Mexico for over 70 years until one-party-rule was finally broken in the 2000 elections. Current president Vicente Fox of the National Action Party (PAN) won the presidency in 2000 as “the candidate of change," but has followed in the footsteps of his PRI predecessors. The Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) is expected to win the presidency this year is the. Founded in 1989 as a party of the left, the PRD’s candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrado is known simply as “AMLO."

What perhaps makes the Other Campaign most challenging for Mexican civil society are Subcomandante Marcos’ blistering verbal attacks on the PRD and their candidate, AMLO. This concerns AMLO and the PRD as a great deal of their base listens to and highly respects the words of the EZLN. While some on the Mexican and international left have scoffed at the Zapatistas for publicly attacking a left candidate poised to win the presidency, it should be understood that the PRD and AMLO have justly earned the Zapatistas’ suspicion and disdain.

After working beside each other in prior years, the PRD betrayed the Zapatistas in 2001 by joining the PAN and PRI in ratifying a mutilated version of the Law for Indigenous Rights and Culture. This constitutional amendment closed the door on the hopes of Mexico’s indigenous for achieving justice through the existing political structure.

AMLO himself has continued to surround himself with former members of the PRI and even signaled that he does not have substantive objections to the Pact of Chapultepec. Created by Carlos Slim—the richest man in Mexico and, according to Forbes, the fourth richest man in the world—the Pact of Chapultepec aims to secure the commitment of all three leading candidates to continue pursuing neoliberal economic policy. Meanwhile, members of the Zapatista Front have been spending time in Brazil documenting the devastating effects that popular “left” president Lula’s tenure has had on that country’s social movements and people.

The Sixth Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle and the Other Campaign arrive in part as the culmination of various experiences in which the political class of Mexico has attacked, lied to, and betrayed the Zapatistas. The EZLN have broken all dialogue and relationships with the political class and are successfully organizing to bring the vast majority of Mexicans with them.

For the first time in their history, the Zapatistas celebrated this New Years’ day not with “Long Live the Zapatistas” but with “Long Live the Other Campaign.” They celebrated by taking over the city of San Cristobal de las Casas in Chiapas just as they had done twelve years earlier. However this time they were not two thousand armed rebels but rather tens of thousands of unarmed indigenous and mestizo Mexicans poised to launch a peaceful, civil movement to, in the words of Subcomandante Marcos, “… shake this country up from below, lift it up, and stand it on its head.”

Delegate Zero

On New Years’ Day 2006, at the center of San Cristobal de las Casas, the indigenous comandancia who comprise the Sixth Commission handed over Subcomandante Marcos. Marcos will tour the Mexican Republic promoting the Other Campaign and, most importantly, meet with, listen to and speak with those adherents to the Sixth Declaration who could not make it to last years’ meetings in Chiapas. Unarmed and with the civilian title of “Delegate Zero,” the safety of Subcomandante Marcos is in the hands of those adherents who are hosting him across the country.

Marcos will conclude the six-month tour with an informational plenary in Mexico City at the end of June before returning to Zapatista territory just days before the country’s July 2nd elections. In September, the next delegates of the Sixth Commission—members of the indigenous comandancia—are scheduled to fan out across Mexico, taking up longer term residencies in their own states or regions, to build the Other Campaign.

Delegate Zero has just completed his tour of Puebla—the eighth state in his route. So far over 1,000 organizations have publicly joined the Sixth Commission to build the Other Campaign, including: political organizations of the left; indigenous groups and organizations; social, and non-governmental and artistic organizations and collectives. The goals are to build another way of doing politics, an anti-capitalist national plan of struggle, and a new constitution. In the backyard of our overextended empire, a revolution “from below and to the left,” has already begun.

Go to to read and adhere to the Sixth Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle and to communicate directly with the Sixth and Intergalactic Commissions of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation.

This article is dedicated to Comandante Ramona who passed away on January 6 of this year after a ten-year struggle with kidney cancer. A fierce organizer for women’s rights within the Zapatistas, Ramona led the EZLN fighters in taking San Cristobal de las Casas in 1994. Two years later, she broke the military encirclement of her communities and defied the arrest warrant issued against her to be the first Zapatista leader to leave Chiapas to speak with her Mexican brothers and sisters. On that visit, Comandante Ramona promised to them that she was just the first of many more to come. As usual, the Zapatistas are keeping their word.

R.J. has been doing a lot of childcare lately and can be reached at [email protected]. He sends thanks to the Ricardo Flores Magón Brigade and the Narco News team, Ra, Steve Akron, and everyone he interviewed in Oaxaca: Omar Olivera Espinosa, Heidy and Chucho, Gilberto Canseco, Elena, Alejandro Cruz, Laloó, Gustavo Esteva, Donaciana Antonio Almaráz and the Oaxacan State Coordination of the Other Campaign.