The Politics of Alliances

An Interview with Zapatista Subcommander Marcos

I was in the middle of organizing the Nahualli Festival in Austin, when I suddenly received an invitation to travel to Chiapas where I was to conduct a radio interview with the Sup, as people have affectionately nicknamed the Insurgent Subcommander Marcos of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation. My departure date came at the end of the exhilarating cultural festival of Mexican, Puerto Rican, Tejano, and African-American music, spoken word, and performance in Austin's Palm Park. It seemed an appropriate and kind farewell for my journey back to the Chiapas when Mexican troubadour composer Guillermo Velazquez -- who had brought much of the Mexican immigrant community from the states of Guanajuato, San Luis Potosi, and Queretaro together in this park -- momentarily stopped the crowd dancing a vigorousZapateado under a glaring Texan summer sun, to wish me well on "the important mission [I am] flying away to."

I land in Tuxtla, Chiapas, and drive deep into the interior of the Lacandon Jungle. Along the way, I pass the deserted town of Guadalupe Tepeyac. Its original inhabitants have not returned since the Mexican Federal Army invaded the indigenous villages in February, 1995, forcing thousands of people up into the mountains. The jungle has reclaimed the empty houses, taken over by the uncontrolled vegetation around them. The only sign of human life is the presence of Federal Army soldiers and the prostitutes they bring with them. The town is dominated by an impressive modern hospital complex, built by President Salinas under the Solidaridad program, purportedly to serve the community and counter the effects of his neoliberal policies. Today, this building is swarming with federal soldiers.

Next, I pass by the original Aguascalientes, where I interviewed Capitan Maribel of the Zapatista Army in 1994 (The Austin Chronicle, Nov. 4, 1994, Vol.14, No.10), and where 6,000 of us, in August of the same year, survived the storm in that grand "ship" -- an enormous, colorful tent, which Marcos dubbed a hybrid of Noah's Ark and Fitzcaraldo's boat. It was conceived by the Zapatista rebels as a vessel in which they, in partnership with civil society, would embark upon the creation of a new world, where rebellious forces and organized civilian peoples would together bring an alternative to the federal government's New World Order, one in which governments obey and follow the people's demands, not the other way around. Unfortunately, like Guadalupe Tepeyac, Aguascalientes is now also a military barracks occupied by the Federal Army.

As I continue on my way to La Realidad, Chiapas, military convoys pass by, each one stuffed to capacity with federal soldiers, thought to be equipped and armed by the U.S. government. These signs on the way to La Realidad are a reminder of the reality that the indigenous people in Chiapas face daily -- a low-intensity war and the accompanying destitution it brings: flight, death, rape, terror, starvation. As Marcos states in the interview below, what matters to the monied forces in the United States and Mexico is not whether indigenous people are dying in Chiapas, but that the rest of the world does not find out about these murders and the U.S. support of the Mexican government, including the most recent donation of 73 Huey helicopters.

Finally, I arrive in La Realidad, a Zapatista Center of Resistance, one of five such centers built to replace that original Aguascalientes now occupied by the Mexican military. La Realidad was the site of the April American Continental Encounter against Neoliberalism and for Humanity, and will be one of five sites in Chiapas for the world-wide Intercontinental Encounter this coming July. The Zapatistas' dream of providing a meeting place to dialogue with civil society has not been crushed, despite the heavy deployment of Mexican federal army tanks, helicopters, troops. In fact, quite the opposite has happened. Last December, the indigenous people of Oventic, Chiapas, as they were constructing a new Aguascalientes, faced the federal tanks, unarmed, and forced them to retreat. Caught on video by Carlos Martinez (in a scene reminiscent of the Chinese uprising in Tienanmen Square, but without the worldwide attention accorded that event), the Oventic people rose up against the soldiers, placing their bodies between the tanks and their homes. In April of this year, in San Andres Larrainzar and El Bosque, the indigenous communities also confronted the soldiers and forced them out the area with the sheer force of their demands for justice and peace.

The military threat remains an ever-present force, however, on the outskirts of these small Chiapas towns. Life here in La Realidad is disrupted every two days as the military convoys parade on the road next to town, sometimes all day long. There is a marked fear among the people of making the daily trips to their fields and to nearby markets, due to past incidences of detention, rape, and harassment by the soldiers. There are more than 50 reported cases of rape carried out by the federal army and the paramilitary forces in Chiapas since 1994, and on the average one peasant or indigenous person is murdered every three days by the same military forces. The planting and harvesting of crops, altogether disrupted last year by the federal army's offensive, continues to be severely curtailed. It is the dry season now, and due to the invasion, there are no stores from last year. From where I sit, I can see small bags of corn brought in from other parts of Mexico and the world to meet the growing need for food.

Comandante Tacho and Mayor Moises of the Zapatista Army approach me on their horses. They want to know whether I am the one who is to interview Marcos. We have all met before -- Moises during an interview, and Tacho after a presentation of his that I recorded. I see Marcos walking towards me, and after we shake hands, he suggests sitting beneath the shade of a nearby Ceiba tree. We do the interview, which lasts about an hour, talking mostly about the philosophy of the Zapatistas, the role of the U.S. in the rebels' struggle for independence and democracy, and the coming Intercontinental Encuentro "symposium" being held July 27-August 3 here in La Realidad, and in four other Zapatista resistance centers.

Around 4,000 participants are expected from Europe, Africa, Asia, Oceania, and the American continent to discuss new forms of resistance and struggle against Neoliberalism, defined as the restructuring of policies to benefit multinational corporations at the expense of humanity. In Austin, several people have been invited to the Intercontinental Encuentro, including Maria Loya of PODER (People Organized in Defense of Earth and her Resources), Huston-Tillotson professor June Brewer, singer/songwriter Lourdes Perez, cultural organizer Annette D. Armata, artist Ana Luisa Rincon, poet Raul Salinas, and local activists Juan Antonio Montemayor and myself. (For more info about the Encuentro event, and news on Chiapas, call the National Commission for Democracy in Mexico at 915/532-8382, or email:

The key to the Zapatistas' future success seems to be in its ability to create such alliances of supporters -- particularly within Mexico -- and the inherent socialist trends among these community-based alliances no doubt gives the current administration in Mexico cause to worry. Last week, for instance, 1,000 participants gathered at a forum on the "Reform of the Mexican State" called by the Zapatistas and the most important political forces of the people of Mexico, including Cuauhtemoc Cardenas of the Revolutionary Democratic Party (PRD) -- the opposition party. After intense discussions, the Zapatistas arrived at political agreement with the PRD, the Workers Party (PT), and the independent union network called the Coordinadora Intersindical, which has more than a 1.5 million members.

Regarding the Forum on State Reform, Cecilia Rodriguez, the representative of the Zapatistas in the U.S., puts it best: "There are Tzeltal indigenous people, presenting position papers, as well as human rights workers, teachers, students, housewifes, and intellectuals. They are discussing the construction of a new type of political organization, the transition to democracy in Mexico, a new Congress and constitution, culture and mass media, the project for humanity and against Neoliberalism. As the governing party crumbles, the Zapatistas have move quickly to the politics of alliances..."

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