June 18, 1996: Aguascalientes in La Realidad, Chiapas

The following excerpted interview -- the full text of which can be found on the Chronicle's web site, / -- was originally broadcast on the radio in Chiapas, Mexico. KOOP Radio 91.7 FM will rebroadcast this interview in Spanish on Sunday, July 21 at 4pm, and in English on Tuesday, July 23 at 5pm.

Eduardo Vera: In January 1994, the armed uprising of the indigenous people of the Chiapas seems to have been used to create a political space and a voice for those who suffer here, and for all poor people in all of Mexico. Has this political space been crushed -- have these political avenues ended?

Subcommander Marcos: What happened January 1 of 1994 is the culmination of a conspiratory process -- secret -- which involved tens of thousands of indigenous people, to, as we say, knock down the doors in the house of history. It was above all the culmination of a slow but decisive "Enough!" which had been in gestation, and led to a howl to the world on January 1, saying "Here we are," which is the voice of the Zapatista indigenous people. A desperate situation in communities with a high mortality rate, especially among children, with bad health conditions and nutrition, land problems, repression [is] the ideal framework for an ethnocide of huge proportions. Facing that situation, the indigenous communities decided to say "Enough!" and make themselves known, and make their situation known.

[This] coincided with a period of political crisis in Mexico, or rather it unleashed it, or made it evident, and also with a crisis at the world level in respect to ideologies, in respect to hope, and the ways to fight, or the willingness that allowed this howl of the indigenous people, "Enough!," to acquire reverberations or repercussions that had not been foreseen by us, that we hadn't even imagined, as if before in an apparently tranquil sea, or a pond, we threw in a rock, and the ripples it produced upon touching the water's surface became waves, huge waves... [The] Mexican people suddenly remembered that they have a history, and that within that history, the indigenous people are very important. So in that sense, the first reaction of national public opinion was one of turning to see their indigenous past, recognizing that it had been forgotten and that it was being sacrificed in honor of [Mexico's] hypothetical entry into the first world. At the international level, the first reaction was comparable, for the same reason. What happened in that country which had become a model of Neoliberalism, of the globalization process, of modernization, was suddenly shaken by an indigenous rebellion, with all its consequences. A lot of people expected to see the indigenous people carrying bows and arrows, not surfing the Internet or communicating via satellite [as we do]. The political space that had been opened for the indigenous movement in particular is sort of an accordion -- sometimes it expands, sometimes it closes, depending on repressive policies that it faces in each of the places it appears.

A second wave, perhaps less intense, that put the political language in crisis was the whole concept of national values, which the party in power had been using, the system of the party of the state, and which forced professional politicians to revise the use of words. Politics is suddenly naked and confronted in the place where it is the most vulnerable, which is in the meaning given to words.

A third wave that the reverberation produced, an even less intense one, is that which forced the nation to recognize that the spaces for democratic struggle were not wide enough, so much so that it has been necessary for a group of citizens to rise up in arms in order to be heard, and that it is necessary to open the spaces of political participation, even though it is still understood that political participation is electoral participation. That caused the last reform of 1994, in February or March of that year as well as the talks which we have now to reform the electoral process in Mexico, one which supposedly will guarantee clean elections.

EV: Is it true that the EZLN [Zapatista Army of National Liberation] is organized based on traditional indigenous community democracy, and what does this mean?

SM: Well, yes, in fact. There are two levels, and let me remind you that EZLN was born as a political-military organization, similar to the political-military organizations of the Sixties and Seventies. For its political and organizational work, the EZLN follows the tradition of community democracy -- a direct, horizontal democracy, which permeates all aspects of everyday life. The military side follows the organizational ways of a regular army, with chains of command, with military units, uniforms, with all that. What I am trying to say is that the fundamental base, the one who makes the decisions, is that of community democracy, and it is the one who subordinates and who gives its raison de etre to the military structure, the EZLN properly speaking.

EV: What is the current situation of the EZLN?

SM: Well, right now we find ourselves in a dialogue with the [federal] government, which deals with three aspects: One is to demand and obtain a new pact between the nation and the native inhabitants of these lands. I am talking about a solution to the indigenous question at a national level. I am talking about their political, social, cultural conditions, their way of life, all of which have to be solved. A second level is that of the opening of democratic political spaces so it becomes possible to fight through civil and peaceful means, so it is not necessary to take up arms. I am saying that the State must guarantee, for the EZLN, and for any citizen, that it will respect peaceful civil struggles in politics. And the third track, or aspect we are looking at, is the destruction of the State Party System, meaning the end of the party dictatorship we have in Mexico, and the transition to a political model where political forces can compete in equal circumstances but, above all, where power is at the service of society, where power limits itself only to govern and not to direct society. That is what we mean by "to rule by obeying."

EV: Could you please explain the significance of the Zapatista National Liberation Front, which you just alluded to, and its proposal for a peaceful transition toward democracy in Mexico?

SM: The proposal of the Zapatista National Liberation Front (FZLN) was born as a meeting "place," or as a way to try to build a meeting place where the Zapatista civilian society could walk towards a meeting with the EZLN, while the EZLN walked towards meeting with the civilian society. We had had several other attempts, that of the Democratic National Convention in 1994, where we told the civilian society to take command, to direct the transition toward democracy. That was not successful. Before that, in January 1994, the EZLN attempt to spearhead the transition toward democracy failed. So now we say that the EZLN cannot do it by itself, and the civilian society who sympathizes with Zapatismo also cannot do it on its own either. So it becomes necessary to try to see if together we can accomplish it. The [FZLN] is, above all, the effort to create a meeting space among these two forces.

EV: In what ways is the government of the United States and the interest of business, of capital, in the United States affecting Mexico, affecting the struggle of the EZLN?

SM: The most evident is the military meddling in the Mexican government's position towards the EZLN. The United States government has not been satisfied with sending weapons, equipment, ammunition for the Federal Army to chase, harass, or attack indigenous communities, it has also sent advisors who can be seen in the San Quintin community in the Lacandon jungle or in the Guadalupe Tepeyac community, now occupied by the Federal Army, and also in what used to be the Las Margaritas municipality. In addition to that, the United States government has forced an ever greater dependence of the Mexican Federal Army regarding its initiatives, regarding its strategy and even tactics. Now they speak without any shame of joint maneuvers. This coincides with the globalization process, and with the intention of the United States to homogenize this globalization process, the intention to make the National Armies disappear and make them policemen and that there is only one armed force, based in the United States armies, in the American hemisphere above all, and specifically in the countries who make up the North American Free Trade Agreement -- Canada, the United States, and Mexico. Besides... the domination of the United States financiers, of the United States capital in Mexico is clear, the pressure they exercise so that Mexico gets rid of and cheaply sells natural resources such as oil, electricity, railroads.

EV: To what extent has the United States military been directly involved, militarily, in trying to destroy the movement toward democracy in Mexico?

SM: Well, there are antecedents to that. What we know, what we have endured as the Zapatista Army of National Liberation, is the participation of military advisors who have been seen even in the armed columns which maneuver through the communities -- U.S. advisors wearing the U.S. uniform, outright directing military units in the operations they carry out... You know well that U.S. espionage has the trait of spying on itself. There is a rivalry between the FBI, the CIA, the State Department, the embassy. But even so, they are more united in Mexico... They face a country which is next door to the country which considers itself the owner of the world... I don't think they are very interested with the democratization movement. They consider it to be divided, defeated, ugh, too small, and with too many defects to consider it an enemy worthy of combat... It is evident that their greatest efforts are directed to knowing very well what is happening within the Institutional Revolutionary Party and within the National Action Party and the whole political class who decides, or supposedly decided the destiny of this country.

EV: What is your opinion of Bill Clinton, Bob Dole, and the coming election in the United States? How could it affect the EZLN?

SM: There is not a well-defined policy in the United States -- not even in the right wing in the United States -- particularly during the pre-electoral process in the United States. One of the most sensitive issues, of course, is Mexico. Other foreign policy issues would be Cuba and the European Economic Community. These are handled by politicians based on what market of votes they are interested in capturing. So it is very hard to determine if that is going to be the position of the government elected or if they simply manipulated electoral positions in order to get ahead. According to our analysis, it seems that the people of the United States are facing a decision between the right or the right, whether it is with one party or the other.

Whatever the victorious government is, whether Democrat or Republican, in the coming Presidential elections in the United States, the decision about support to the EZLN will have to do with calculating the economic interests that the United States has, mainly its interest in oil. The greatest part of the area where people who sympathize with the EZLN live, or which -- like the government says -- is under control of the EZLN, is rich in oil deposits. Evidently, the power in the U.S. will be interested in how to extract it without any hindrances.

We know that the great business powers in the United States are willing to sacrifice not only the EZLN, but all the indigenous communities, and erase them from the face of the Lacandon jungle in order to extract the oil without any hindrances. But they will have to, of course, face many forces. One of them, and a very important one, is that of the democratic movement in the U.S., in which I would include not only Chicano organizations and Latinos but also the black community, intellectuals, members of the left, progressive groups, all those movements who see a very large social cost to this globalization process, and who are not willing to continue living, or continue building their well-being based on crime, based on the suffering of millions of people in other parts of the world.

EV: What can the people of the United States do instead to support the Zapatistas' struggle?

SM: We ask them to keep informed of what is happening because we already know that mass media does not distribute a lot of news. There are networks in the U.S. -- mainly Latino organizations, but not only Latino organizations -- which have continuous information about what is happening in the indigenous movement in Mexico, and specifically with the EZLN and Chiapas. And we ask them this because information -- information which is true and timely -- is that which power fears the most. [Power] is not worried about killing people, [but rather about the knowledge] that they are killing people. For those who can go beyond this, who could become organized, maybe they could gather food, medicine or clothing, or money, which is directed not to the combative force of the EZLN -- because we are not fighting for us -- but which is directed to the indigenous communities, to men, women, and children. During the months of June, July, and August, there is a lot of death and a lot of scarcity on the indigenous tables. And lastly, to invite them to get organized and come to the Intercontinental Encuentro... to try to discover how this common enemy, that now has the name of Neoliberalism, but could have had other names in a different historic time -- or could change its name but not its way of killing -- affects us.

We would ask [the young people in the U.S.] not to let themselves be deceived, to always keep that freshness and the capacity to wonder in order to recognize that the world deserves another chance. Not just because of them, but also for children and other generations who deserve a chance, a chance which is not going to come from the ones in power. That chance can only be given to them by us, by our fighting in our own place, in our own medium. And I am not talking about running to the mountains and taking a rifle, or going to Chiapas. I am talking about each one, with their own weapon. Sometimes it is words, sometimes it is a pen, sometimes it is the hands, a machine. In their own place, in their country, in their own medium, they can fight for giving this world the chance to become a better one... Regardless of what has happened and everything that has happened, we deserve another world. We don't have to settle for, nor endure or suffer from the world which Power has passed on to us. That is my message.

Eduardo Vera is a writer and photographer who has spent several years in the Chiapas of Mexico reporting on the Zapatistas and their struggle. Thanks to Felipe Perez for translating this interview.
Copyright © 1996 Austin Chronicle Corp. All rights reserved.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for almost 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

New recipes and food news delivered Mondays

Eric Goodman's Austin FC column, other soccer news

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle