Letter to Our Compañer@s of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation
Sergio Rodríguez Lascano
Almost 20 years ago, we awoke to the news that the indigenous Mayans from the state of Chiapas had rose up in arms against the evil government of the ineffable Carlos Salinas de Gortari. Since then, great mobilizations and a not always easy dialogue have been developed with the Zapatista Army of National Liberation.
In a fundamental manner, a new generation went out then to the streets and identified with the Zapatista rebellion. They were those who made up a good part of the mobilizations that were developed in that first phase of the Zapatista struggle.
The Zapatista insurrection of January 1st has shaken national consciousness. Effectively, as José Emilio Pacheco said: “We closed our eyes to suppose that the other Mexico would disappear upon not seeing it. On January First of 1994 we woke up in another country. The day that we were going to celebrate our entry into the first world we went back a century until we again found ourselves with a rebellion like that of Tomochic. We believed we were and we wanted to be North Americans and our Central American destiny stepped up to us. The blood spilt cried out for an end to the killing. It is not possible to put an end to the violence of the revolters without putting an end to the violence of the oppressors” (José Emilio Pacheco, La Jornada, January 5th).
The Mexican and worldwide left was to be found in that moment in an apparent dead-end street. On November 11th, 1989, like bowling pins, the so-called “popular democracies” began to fall (Democratic Republic of Germany, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Bulgaria, Poland, Romania, Albania). In 1991, the Union of Socialist Soviet Republics “came undone” and, regardless of what each one of us thought of that process, what cannot be denied is that, in practice, its collapse made way for the arrival of a savage capitalism lead by a criminal mafia.
In Latin America, on February 25th, 1990, the Sandinistas lost the elections and not only did the process of plunder against the Nicaraguan peasants start, the same as the end of cooperativism, but also a dynamic of corruption was developed among the Sandinista leaders. It still weighs heavy that one of the founders of Sandinismo and an emblematic figure of the revolution, Tomás Borge, had realized a libelous-praise-book—disguised as an interview with Carlos Salinas de Gortari—titled “Dilemmas of Modernity.”
January 16th, 1992, the Chapultepec agreements were signed which put an end to the war in El Salvador, without a series of the poor people’s central demands having been conquered, in particular, the right to land. Amid that process, Mr. Joaquín Villalobos (FMLN “leader”), who already carried on his shoulders the terrible decision to kill the great poet Roque Dalton, turned over his AK-47 to Carlos Salinas de Gortari.
After this, it was sought to locate everything within the institutional framework, of representative democracy. Everyone advocated for a left that limited itself to being an insolent client of the capitalist State.
Amidst the anticommunist euphoria and the dialogues that proclaimed the end of history and the arrival of a new world order, someone described well the period in which we lived and made an affirmation that gave meaning to our foolishness: Eduardo Galeano, who wrote a memorable text: “In Bucharest, a tow truck carries away the statue of Lenin. In Moscow, an eager crowd lines up at the doors of McDonalds. The abominable Berlin Wall is sold in pieces, and East Berlin confirms that it is located to the right of West Berlin. In Warsaw and Budapest, the Ministers of Economy speak the same as Margaret Thatcher. In Beijing also, while the tanks crush the students. The Italian Communist Party, the most numerous in the West, announces its upcoming suicide. Soviet aid to Ethiopia is reduced and Coronel Mengistu suddenly discovers that capitalism is good. The Sandinistas, protagonists of the most beautiful revolution in the world, lose the elections: The Revolution in Nicaragua Falls, the newspapers headline. It appears that there is no longer a place for revolutions, except for in the displays of the Archeological Museum, nor is there room for the left, except for the reformed left that accepts a seat to the right of the bankers. We are all invited to the worldwide burial of socialism. The funeral procession includes, they say, all of humanity.
I admit that I do not believe it. These funerals are dead wrong.
(Eduardo Galeano: El niño perdido a la intemperie).
The Zapatista insurrection on January 1st opened a new cycle of social confrontations. The ability to transmit their message, which was and is that of the damned of the earth, opened a gap to be able to rewalk the path in search of an emancipatory practice.
The libratory Zapatista thought opened a great hole in the apparently solid ideological building of capital’s power, and allowed old good ideas and new good ideas to be expressed.
Amidst the great euphoria of the dominant class; when the glasses of champagne were lifted to toast for our entry into the first world (on January 1st the Free Trade Agreement would come into force); when priísmo was more secure, as it had managed to reveal its candidate without great fissures in its interior occurring; when the 15 richest families in the country celebrated the ability that the control mechanisms had had for dominating the “screwed” (as the Czar of private television, Emilio Azcáraga Milmo, likes to call the poor); the uprising of the Zapatista people occurred. They chose that date as if to show that memory had not been defeated by an exclusive modernity.
Nor the government and the right-wing parties, nor the left or the democratic sectors, had the least idea that something like this was going to happen. We knew of the resentment that had been accumulating on the chest in a concealed manner, but we did not think that it could be expressed in this manner.
We began to try to understand. Of course, not only did we not always understand perfectly the collection of the Zapatista rebellion’s new grammar, but rather many ideas were foreign to us and, many times, we misinterpreted them.
The most important thing is that January first was a breath of fresh air. We went out to the streets not only to demand that the government stop the war, but to prove that all the chants on the end of history were, before all else, empty ideological discourses.
The idea that everything was NOT lost was key to understand that, in the end, that rebellion was but a crack through which we could see that there still were many struggles ahead. That history not only had not ended, but was, still, many pages in blank.
Now we can add that, for us, the Zapatista insurrection is not an anniversary, an event that runs the risk of being swallowed by the omnivorous character of capitalism. That, in spite of the attempts carried out by the media, Zapatismo does not form part of the society of spectacles.
Zapatismo has been a process, effectively, full of various bright moments but, before all else, has been an uninterrupted process of struggles, actions, experiences which, chained together, have constituted a new practice of the left from below.
So, in spite of the times that the pundits and analysts—who confuse their illusion with reality—have given up Zapatismo for dead, it not only has continued but has gone on generating new social processes.
Internally, with the development of autonomy (authentic process of self-organization without parallel in history, at least in such a profound and prolonged manner) and the construction of new social relations, that is to say, of new forms of life. And toward the exterior, by not seeking to hegemonize or homogenize nor direct other social movements.
Locating itself always at the side of the persecuted, humiliated, and offended, in particular, of the most persecuted, most humiliated, and most offended.
Not with the basis of defense in abstract of the homeland or of the nation, but rather with the basis of the human beings which, living below and further below, are considered as the expendable or as simple cannon fodder who deserve nothing else but going behind their leaders always so willing to tell them when to raise their hand. Those human beings who are the fundamental essence of the homeland or of the nation.
If someone were to ask a Zapatista: What have been your best years? He would respond: “those which are to come.” Because some of the most important things that Zapatismo has shown us is its permanent will to struggle, it organizational ability and its conviction—put to the test of everything, including the incomprehension of many—that we are going to win.
If the Zapatista rebellion—of which we want to be collaborators—is not a date, nor a birthday, nor an event, nor something petrified, dogmatic, or finished, then, it is something which is put together, is constructed, is cemented every day.
If others want to give themselves up for defeated because they think that the “mother of all battles” has already been lost, that is their right. We prefer the vision that, as the French students of May 1968 said: “this is no more than the beginning, the combat continues.”
Much water has run under the bridge since January 1st, 1994. And many the attacks of the lords of money, the political class and its groomers, junk “intellectuals” who from the first day were hired for an impossible mission: vilify with a certain credibility the Zapatista peoples and their army. The olive green feathers were offered to the highest bidder, from the libelous Nexos up to what today is its mirror: La Razón. All of them have taken in various inclined penpushers to exhibit themselves as what they are: mercenaries who write with their right hand and charge with their left.
The vital impulse that came from below was heard and understood only by a part of all the Mexican left. That which does not suffer from that sickness that is a stiff neck, the result of having one’s head and one’s glance always turned toward above, longing for a power that—although none of them has realized—no longer exists, that is a hologram.
On our side, those who maintained the rebellious approach of the Other Left decided, with the help of the Zapatista peoples’ example, to remain below and to the left. Determined to construct another reality, where the communitarian mechanisms of self-organization are the motor of practical and theoretical transformations. Beside those who live in the basements and on the ground floor of the capitalist building.
To achieve that construction it was necessary to be willing to relearn many things, as we will see below.
In that process in which “the educator must be educated” relearning has been fundamental.
Of course, the path has not been easy. Several theoretical paradigms of left-wing thought were put into question:
a) The idea of a vanguard which leads the movement from outside.
b) The idea that theory is something exclusive to university thinkers.
c) The idea that the working class is the only revolutionary class.
d) The idea that what matters in the concept of class struggle, is the first element and not the second.
e) The idea that diversity and difference is a hindrance for struggling together.
f) The idea that the State is the only instrument which can be used to change in an enduring manner the living conditions and the social organization of the people.
g) The idea that we struggle for a socialist revolution to which a blank check must be signed, leaving aside the misnamed minoritarian struggles (indigenous people, women, homosexuals, lesbians, other loves, punks, etc.).
h) The idea of the left—which also has a unique thought—that those who do not fit in its vision are enemies.
In the face of that crisis of paradigms we have begun to construct a very Other thought. The first thing has been to break from that vision that politics is a task that only specialists can undertake. That it is a discourse full of arcane secrets not suitable for the population in general.
We discover little by little that another theory exists: that which is born from within true movements, those which are not swallows that do not make a summer. That it is there in the communities, the neighborhoods, the ejidos, the towns, where people begin to reflect on the significance of taking control of their destinies into their own hands and, from there, making a theory produced by they themselves.
That eruption of the “pedestrians of history,” as the Zapatista compañeros say, has put into crisis more than one of those who think of themselves as the possessors of political thought, of those who have “answers” for everything that happens in the world, the result of a profound reading…of the newspapers. Of course, as always happens, the people pay no attention to them.
The undocumented of politics, those who have no papers nor university degrees are those who, for a number of years now, are making true political theory.
The great question for those who claim to be vanguard organizations and for those who consider themselves “opinion formers” is to know if they are going to have the modesty to listen to those voices. If they are going to be able to lower the volume of the clamor that their theories produce, almost always the result of analogical designs, that are valid for any moment in history, that is to say, for no moment.
Learning to listen is only achieved when one becomes quiet. Will it be possible that after so many years of talking, the left will have the ability to be quiet and listen? The voices that come from below, although being a few decibels, are clear and sharp. It is only necessary to lean in a little and pay attention.
And, then, we will realize that from the most profound part of Mexican society, which stream, are flowing such a level of ideas and thoughts like those which we today see in the Escuelita Zapatista. If we prick up our ears to look we will have to recognize that yes, it is true, the new generations of Zapatistas are much more splendid and capable than those who made the insurrection. The multiple voices of the Zapatista support bases confirm that, in spite of the important effort of their military leader and spokesperson, he only managed to transmit to us a pallid reflection of what was happening in Zapatista territory.
The richness of that experience has given us new practical and theoretical tools. It is our responsibility for its use to be fruitful. We know that it has not been easy, and we are far from having achieved it, but we are trying it, really trying it. And today we can say that here we are.
That we do not give up, that we do not sell out, that we do not renounce. That, without a doubt, we have mistaken, but we have managed to preserve the fire and separate the ash. That that fire is today just a flame, perhaps a little flame, but that every day it is fed with two things: the destructive actions of an exclusive and rapacious neoliberal power that forces us to continue with the express imperative of eliminating it, and the unbreakable will of what we are.
Every day with our practice and thought we look after that flame or little flame, which represents our will to struggle against exploitation, plunder, repression, and contempt, that is to say, against the essence of capitalism.
That we make ours the following words, which you annunciated in the festival de la Digna Rabia:
“Allow us to tell you: The EZLN had the temptation of hegemony and homogeneity. Not only after the uprising, also before. There was the temptation to impose ways and identities. On Zapatismo being the only truth. And the peoples were those who prevented it first, and later taught us that it is not like that, that it is not over there. That we could not replace one dominion with another and that we had to convince and not conquer those who were and are like us but are not us. They taught us that there are many worlds and that mutual respect is possible and necessary…
“And so what we want to tell you is that this plurality so much the same thing in rage, and so different in being felt, is the course and destination that we want and propose to you…
“We are not all Zapatistas (a thing which in some cases we celebrate). Nor are we all communists, socialists, anarchists, punks, skaters, darks, and however each one names their difference…”
(Fragments of Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos’s speech: “Siete vientos en los calendarios y geografías de abajo”).
That conception implores us to go formulating a response. In continuation we will give a few ideas, which of course only are an initial reflection.
“In the Sixth Declaration we do not say that all the Indian peoples should join the EZLN, nor do we say that we are going to lead workers, students, peasants, young people, women, others. We say that each one has their space, their history, their struggle, their dream, their proportionality. And we say that then we should lay out an agreement to struggle together for everything and for that of each and every one. By laying out an agreement among our respective proportionalities and the country that results, the world that is achieved is formed by the dreams of each and every one of the dispossessed.
“May that world be so multicolored, may there be no room for the nightmares that any one of us from below live.
It worries us that in that world born from so much struggle and so much rage women may continue to be viewed with all the variants of contempt which patriarchical society has imposed; different sexual preferences may continue to be viewed as strange or sick; that it may continue to be assumed that the youth must be domesticated, that is to say, forced to “mature”; that we the indigenous may continue to be despised and humiliated or, in the best case, confronted as noble savages which must be civilized.
“Well, it worries us that that new world is not going to be a clone of the current one, or a GMO or a photocopy of that which today horrifies us and we repudiate. It worries us, well, that in that world there may not be democracy, nor justice, nor freedom.”
“So we want to tell you, ask, that we not make from our force a weakness. Being many and so different allows us to survive the catastrophe that approaches, and will allow us to raise up something new. We want to tell you, ask, that that new thing also be different.”
(Fragments from Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos’s speech: “Siete vientos en los calendarios y geografías de abajo”).
What would we write if today we had the intention to say what it is that the Zapatista experience shows us.
Each time that a man, a woman, a child, or an elderly Zapatista support base speaks of their struggle, of their autonomy, of their resistance there is a word that is repeated with insistence: organization. But, how do you get there? The problem is not resolved using the word like a sort of “open sesame,” good for everything.
Nor can what they themselves tell us is not a model simply be held up as a model. That they have done it like that, but that there will be other ways.
If we reject the single thought of the right, it is impossible to think that now we are going to implant a sort of single thought of the left from below.
No, what it is about is learning from the daily experiences that we go on working. And those experiences although similar will not be the same. But, would there be something that allows us to orient ourselves on that winding path?
Yes, there are several things, at least that is what we believe.
a) Locate ourselves always at the side of the damned of the earth.
b) Not to look above, but nor look below. Seek always to cast glances of complicity to the side, that is to say to where we belong, below.
c) Privilege listening to speech. Give opportunity for the below to speak and tell us what it knows.
d) Understand that it is inevitable that from power and its media tasks of lynching are going to be realized against those others who sing out of tune, who do not fit in: against the rebellious.
e) Avoid the temptation to direct movements. This always causes vertigo. The question always arises on how those who struggle, the population that inhabits below, are going to express themselves, if there is not someone who leads them. Well the answer being simple has great complexity in being accepted: by they themselves.
f) Respect the organizational forms that each one gives, even if they appear torturous and hopelessly slow to us. For each their own.
g) Not peruse the circumstances that they impose upon us from above, but work to create our own circumstances. Moving the board of politics means not respecting the rules of the “politically correct.” We aspire to be “politically incorrect.”
h) Work and build in difference. Generating habitable spaces where women are not harassed for the simple fact of being women. Where different sexual preferences are accepted. Where a religion is not imposed but nor is atheism. Where the encounter of the diverse, of the others is promoted.
i) Where we do not self-limit because the city is much more complicated than the jungle. Many have said that the Zapatistas are able to do what they do because their society is not complex. But that in the great metropolises we live in a complex society which hinders the possibility of the people taking control of their destiny. That has been theorized, as much from the right as in the left. This “argument” contains two stupidities: thinking that the Zapatista peoples make up a simple society. Those who say that never have set foot in Zapatista territory, where almost every compañer@ is an autonomous municipality. It simply must be remembered that in a Junta de Buen Gobeirno compañer@os who speak up to four different languages come together. The other stupidity is to belittle the peoples of the great cities and expropriate from them their ability to decide, for a technical problem: the difficulty of communication. I say, those same ones are those who sing the glories of the Internet and social networks.
In the end, these are only some ideas. Nor are they all of them and quite probably they are not the best.
The question is that if as some say: history bites us in the back of the neck, we should turn around and eat the back of history’s neck. Of course, all of this done with great serenity and patience.
In that process many experiences will arise from which to learn. Here indeed “one hundred flowers bloom,” which represent one hundred or more forms of varied organization. There are no limits aside from those which we ourselves put.
In the words which we remember from the compañer@s of the EZLN during the festival de la Digna Rabia, the fundamental is located of what will be that new good new: Yes, it is true that the people united will never be defeated, but provided that it is understood that it will be in diversity that the great We that this country and the world need shall be constructed.
On our side, finally, we want to say that since January 1st, 1994 we decided that our future was next to our Zapatista brethren and compañer@s. That we were not of those who sought simply to take a photo in the moment in which the media, and those who always pursue style, lied in wait for the Zapatista leaders, in particular Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos.
And today, almost 20 years after their great insurrection and 20 years after we knew that their rebellion was also ours, we tell the Zapatista compañer@s: here we are, here we will remain, seeking to walk with you, shoulder to shoulder, as part of the Sexta. We tell you that, effectively, we also have a very modest objective: change life, change the world.
For the aforementioned and for many other reasons and injustices, a group of men, women, children, elderly, others, have decided to organize ourselves, because we have understood that organized rebellion is one of the paths, for us the most important, that indeed takes us where we want to go.
To not construct a single and obstacle-free path, but one where we find ourselves with many others and can work together without that meaning that we tell them: “come to this one, the good one is this one.” Because after twenty years we are learning that the paths are made walking, in action and not in theoretical debates without practical roots.
From the Zapatista visions of the world, of Mexico, and of life, we seek to generate a common frame, a refuge habitable for our rebellion, a casemate that is a point of support to be able to continue with our work of the old mole (or better: of a beetle called Don Durito de la Lacandona) which corrodes the foundations of capital.
Therefore, we, rebellious and unsubmissive, manifest our will to walk together with the Zapatistas and our desire to be their compañer@s. We tell them that we are going to put all determination into it and that, effectively, in the long night that has been what some call day, sooner or later “night will be the day that will be the day.”
Outside it is no longer midnight…we now look to the horizon.
Mexico, December 2013.
Translated from Spanish by Henry Gales.
Originally published on Dec. 20th, 2013.