The general public first noticed the Zapatistas when, on 1st January 1994, the indigenous guerrilla Zapatista Army for National Liberation occupied seven municipalities in the Southern Mexican state of Chiapas. They protested against the implementation of the North America Free Trade Agreement, and against neoliberal Capitalism more generally. After several weeks of battle with the Mexican army, the insurgents withdrew into the jungle and the mountains of Chiapas.
After the 1994 Uprising, the Zapatistas entered into negotiations with the government. One of their most important demands was autonomy for the indigenous communities. They wanted the right to self-determination, which includes their own, grassroots-based practice of democracy, control over education and other services, and control over the natural resources in their territory. The government was not willing to grant them control over their natural resources, and peace negotiations failed.
Since 2001, the Zapatistas started to build the autonomy the government denied them. They implemented their own civilian administrative structure. Zapatista communities are now run by the good government councils. The members of these councils come from the communities, and they rotate. Zapatista communities have built up their own health service, an education system, and they are currently working on building up a development bank.
The other campaign seeks to build up a network of resistances in and beyond Mexico, as an alternative to party-politics and following the points outlined in the 6th Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle. In 2006, representatives of the Zapatistas initiated the campaign by travelling through Mexico. They met with people and groups all over the country, to share with each other their concerns, grievances, and ways of struggle, in order to connect their various resistances. ¡Viva México! documents these encounters.
What is their project about? Why are the Zapatistas doing what they’re doing?_
The Zapatista project of social and political change does not aim at ‘taking Power’, and the Zapatistas do not accept the notion of any one person or group leading others to a cataclysmic moment of resolution. Instead of ‘making the revolution’, the Zapatistas ‘build resistances’ and ‘construct projects of autonomy’. Resistance can start to happen here and now, even in the most adverse of circumstances. When a community is in resistance, it can still start to construct projects of autonomy in the context of the adverse circumstances that surround the community. For this reason, it is difficult to measure the impact or the ‘success’ of a resistance project. Resistance is not something that flares up and breaks down when it doesn’t have immediate success; it’s a long-term project and it can continue even under difficult and adverse conditions.
A project of resistance has to be build through consensus-based democracy, certainly on the civilian level. The Zapatistas use encounters and the dynamic of speaking and listening to develop a basis for action that does not bracket minority groups, but that respects their differences. A useful platform for action and for change has to be able to accommodate these groups. This cannot be achieved on the basis of making one group submit to another on the basis of a majority decision; it is only sustainable when reached through agreement (or consensus). The other campaign is an attempt to initiate the conversations that can lead to such an agreement: a group of the Chiapas Zapatistas travelled through the country to listen to other groups and to talk with them, with the aim of building up a platform for action.
The people we encounter in ¡Viva México! talk about the moment when they decided that enough is enough, a moment which the Zapatistas express with ‘¡Ya basta!’- ‘Enough is enough!’ Each of the communities has come to this point in a different way, but each of them got there because the political situation affected something that they could not compromise on, and that makes them who they are: the land they feel connected to, their sexuality, social exclusion that was taken too far. For the Zapatistas in Chiapas, this moment came when the North America Free Trade Agreement was about to turn communally owned land into private property. The indigenous communities view land as territory which cannot be owned. Land sustains the communities, and the communities look after the land. The suggestion to have it turned into private property and sell it to developers or others who only wanted to exploit the land rather than look after it, was such a profound offence to their notion of who they are that they decided to first articulate their protest and then engage in a sustained collective project of resistance and the construction of an alternative.
This moment of saying ‘Enough is enough!’ is the moment in which a person or community start to publicly recognize and to defend their dignity. In a Capitalist context, a person is ‘dignified’ when they live in conditions that make them so. The problem with this is that in order to get the means to lead a ‘dignified existence’, people might have to comply with the rules that are made by those who can grant them ‘dignified’ material conditions. The price for this might be that one has to give up something that is crucial to who one is: one’s sexuality, one’s guardianship of land, control over the conditions under which one works, etc.
An alternative view would be that dignitiy cannot be bestowed on a person or on a community; and it is not brought about by the quality of living conditions. Dignity can lie in the ways in which a human being does justice to her- or himself (for example, through rebellion and/or resistance); if this is the case, someone’s dignity does not depend on exterior people or institutions. Living conditions can be inhumane; they can even be offensive to, or they can violate a person’s dignity – and this is a profoundly violent act against another human being or a community – but living conditions cannot take away a person’s dignity. Conversely, someone might live in very good conditions and has bestowed on them what appear to be political rights – but if this comes at the price of them denying themselves as an individual or as a community, or at the price of depending for these rights on the benevolence or the approval of someone other than themselves, the dignity of this person is still offended, violated, or even lost. Good government has to ensure material living conditions that correspond to the peoples’ dignity, and it must never disrespect peoples’ dignity and autonomy.
Such an approach to democracy, justice and dignity makes the Zapatistas very difficult to control by outside forces. This is why the Mexican government has taken recourse to counterinsurgency strategies such as the support of paramilitary groups, harassment of Zapatista communities and their supporters, bribery, imprisonment without due process, intimidation, threats, harassment of the communities; and intimidation and harassment of legal representatives and independent media.
The Role of Culture and Art*
Viva México captures people who articulate their own stories. There is no voice-over – the film provides the people with a space where they can speak, instead of advocating for them. Sometimes the people in the film might use strange language or strange expressions. They are the type of people who we are used to seeing as victims, if we see them at all. But here, we as viewers are invited to engage with them and to realize in that moment of engagement that we have limitations in our understanding and liberate ourselves when we broaden our horizon of understanding.
Cultural work and the media can function in several ways for the Zapatistas:
– they make public their demands and their reasons for doing what they’re doing
On one level, this is a fairly straightforward aim: public relations. However, this also means that independent media and cultural work have to develop a way of projecting themselves and of looking at others that always and under all circumstances respects and transmits the principles of justice, dignity, democracy. Zapatista media or cultural production cannot treat others as their object; this would subsume the resistant subjectivities of the people and the communities under the overarching agenda of the filmmaker or writer, who becomes their advocate.
– they establish a connection to other communities in resistance and translate between these different communities
– they make visible an invisible or denied reality
Art and cultural production have to make visible an invisible reality, one that does not fit into the conventions and rules that usually inform the way we look at others or at ourselves. This can be challenging to the reader or the viewer. Like most Zapatista cultural production, the film asks us to view and to listen in different ways than we usually do.
– to create and sustain resistant subjectivities and communities in resistance
This means that art and cultural production have an important role in weaving together individual stories into one bigger story of resistance. It means that communities can recognize themselves in the stories of other communities or people, and that they might be able to identify their own capacity to resist by recognizing this capacity in others who are in a similar situation.
– to document the struggle