Word is Our Weapon
Subcomandante Marcos on NAFTA in September of 1995: "In the first half of this decade, The U.S. government made a mistake backing Carlos Salinas de Gotari [then Mexico's president]. It made a mistake signing NAFTA, which lacked the support of the majority of the North American people, and which spelled a summary execution of Mexico's indigenous people...The U.S. government decided, once more, to back a man who continues the politics of deceit of his predecessor, who denies the people of Mexico democracy, freedom, and justice."
Divided into three sections, Our Word is Our Weapon, Seven Stories Press; 2001, is a big book with the annoying characteristic of forcing the reader to pause and consider questions that have the potential to disrupt the day, break into the pattern of not thinking about the political shape of the world. Specifically, globalization; a policy generated by and for huge, largely American, corporations concerned with trade and the bottom line--profit. You and I have very little to say about a policy that daily affects our lives. Unless, of course, we happen to be CEO's or suited corporate employees, and, granted, there are plenty of those.
So what is Subcomandante Marco's big grief? Section I of the book, entitled UNVEILING MEXICO, gives a brief history of Mexico from the overthrow of colonial Spain to the overthrow of the dictator Porfirio Daiz by Poncho Villa's men during the revolution of 1911; to the framing of a constitution in 1917 due largely to the efforts of Emiliano Zapata, a peasant revolutionary; to the dictatorship of the ruling party, the PRI, which governed Mexico in a corrupt single party system disguised as a democracy for seventy years. (This past year Vicente Fox broke the back of the PRI by winning the presidency with the conservative PAN party.)
Throughout the book is the theme of resistance: "Enough is enough!" or, "Ya basta!" Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos's voice is Gandhi crossed with Che Guevara; a humanist willing to bear arms. He is the spokesperson for the Zapatista National Liberation Army (or EZLN), representing the indigenous population of the state of Chiapas in the Lacandon Jungle of Southeast Mexico. On January 1, 1994, the first day of the implementation of NAFTA, the EZLN declared war on the Mexican government, "...not to usurp power, but to exercise it." The forgotten indigenous, first oppressed and enslaved by Spain five hundred years ago, had had enough. The impact of the global world market, they understood, would not bring benefits to the world's indigenous population, but would in fact be a "death sentence."
Six large towns and hundreds of acres of ranches were occupied by 3,000 EZLN members in an armed uprising. Marcos is careful to point out that many women were leaders in that first act of revolt. Within twenty-four hours the Mexican Army reacted by bombing the indigenous communities, killing 145. The reaction to this among the overall Mexican population was one of massive shock and protest, and on January 12th the Zapatistas declared a unilateral cease fire. Peace talks and treaties, new elections and further protests have changed nothing in seven years since. In February of 1995, 60,000 troops moved into the region creating a siege effect on the indigenous communities, surrounding, harassing, disrupting EZLN villages, and still the people have not given in.
A few statistics: The state of Chiapas; only 2/3 of the municipal seats have access to paved roads. Most transportation and communication is by jungle path. Seventy-two out of one hundred children do not make it to a third grade education, but are put to work supporting the family by cooking, washing clothes, carrying corn and fire wood and so on. Of the 16,058 classrooms in 1989, only 96 were in indigenous zones.
94% of Chiapan industry is micro-industry. 1.5 million have no access to medical facilities, there are 0.5 doctors and 0.4 nurses per 1,000 people, one half the national average. Chiapas has the highest mortality rate in the nation, the causes of death are eminently curable diseases like respiratory infection, malaria, parasites, amoebas, salmonella, pulmonary tuberculosis, scabies, dengue, measles typhus, cholera and enteritis. 54% suffer malnutrition. The campesino diet consists of coffee, corn, tortilla and beans.
Of products shipped out of Chiapas; oil, coffee, hardwood, corn, honey, cattle, sorghum, avocados, cacao, tamarind and etc., nearly all are exported at no profit to the indigenous population. 55% of the national hydroelectricity comes from Chiapas, supplying 20% of Mexico's electricity, but only one third of the population in Chiapas have electricity in their homes.
NAFTA has been in place since 1994 and with it the guarantee of humane labor practices, environmental responsibility and democratic principles. Right?
Wrong. The pay scale in Chiapas is at sweat shop levels. If PEMEX, the government-owned oil company, for example, cuts trees for oil extraction it is okay, if a Chiapan Indio cuts a tree to clear land to grow corn or to burn for fuel, he is thrown into jail. So much for fair labor practices and environmental protection. As far as democracy goes, I suppose a Chiapan native is free to complain, even if no one hears. Ya basta! begins to make sense.
How long would it take the average American to revolt under such conditions? Oh, but we did that already, back in the 1770's when we were being taxed without representation by Colonizing England, then the most powerful nation in the world. About the democratic right to live as, say, a Mayan with a Mayan view of the creation of the universe, in other words freedom of culture and custom and religion? That is okay, if you don't mind starving and dying young.
Marcos's words don't stop at the jungle's edge. He sends his message around the world, to Chile, and Kosovo, to the Kurds, the Chinese peasant, and other suppressed populations. The brown people of Chiapas are seen as having little monetary worth, their life style is quaint and, well, un-commodifiable. Get rid of it, suggest the banks.
So where do people who want to be different fit? Who want the right to an education, to roads, to medicine and electricity, but who do not want to join a marketplace mentality? Ya Basta! also refers to dignity, to differences of approach. Marcos: "A global decomposition is taking place--we call it the *Fourth World War--through neo-liberalism, the global economic process to eliminate that multitude of people who are not useful to Power, the groups called "minorities" in the mathematics of power, but who happen to be the majority population in the world. We find ourselves in a world system of globalization willing to sacrifice millions of human beings...The problem is not only to know what is occurring in the world, but to understand it and to derive lessons from it, just as if we were studying history, not of the past but of what is happening at any given moment in whatever part of the world. This is the way to learn who we are, what it is we want, who we can be and what we can do or not do." *(the Zapatistas consider the Cold War to have been The third World War)
Remember the World Trade meetings in Seattle, 1999? Former President Clinton was apparently able to tune the protests out. Now read the words of George W. Bush in Quebec, April 21, 2001, "In other words, a free trade agreement focuses on commerce. While I understand that some unionists are interested in making sure there's labor protections, I don't want those labor protections to be used to destroy the free trade agreement."
Of the many voices protesting a variety of concerns and fears on the streets of Quebec over this Third Summit of the Americas, a Bush senior administrator is quoted in the N. Y. Times as having said, "We expected this. You can't have a trade summit these days without tear gas; it would be like having a cheeseburger without the cheese." How unfortunately put. One wonders how many Chiapans know what a cheeseburger tastes like, or even what one is? Never mind, democracy protects your right to protest--up to a point, and as long as it is understood that you will be ignored. Carry on.
Which is just what the Zapatistas are doing. Fifteen years ago Marcos entered the jungles of Lacandon, a mestizo joining the indigenous to shape a war against the mostly foreign corporations and a corrupt government servicing them, and for the rights of the people, those that do not want to live asleep. "That we will make a collective network of all our particular struggles and resistances, an intercontinental network of resistance for humanity. This intercontinental network of resistance, recognizing differences and acknowledging similarities, will strive to find itself in other resistances around the world. This intercontinental network of resistances will be the medium in which distinct resistances may support one another. This intercontinental network of resistance is not an organizing structure; it has no central head or decision maker; it has no central command or hierarchies. We are the network, all of us who resist," Subcomandante Marcos.
All one can say is, good luck. Here, in America, we vote, and we decide, right? We are free. But who is really shaping our world, locally? Chase Bank? Citibank? Donald Trump? Verizon? Con Ed? Time-Warner? Your local HMO? Your local drug maker (as in medicine)? Your local drug maker (as in crack cocaine)? Your local artist? Your local hip hop rapper entrepreneur? Your local landlord? Your local government? You? As democracy moves closer to becoming the hand maiden of capitalism, the question arises if we are the best suited messengers of hope for the so-called third world countries. Not to mention our own charmed past, killing and maiming the lives of North America's own indigenous.
Subcomandante Marcos wants government to be for and by the people. Sound familiar? Justice, liberty and democracy for all, for real. I am tempted to ask, if the government is tied hand in glove to corporate America, whistling to the tune of almighty trade, who is running the corporate world? Mickey D?
Acteal, Chiapas, Mexico, December 22, 1997: A paramilitary group affiliated with the Mexican ruling party, the PRI, attacked the community killing 45 indigenous, mostly women and children. Ongoing peace talks were suspended and the Zedillo government tried to expel all foreign observers from the "conflict zone."
The Zapatistas are still there. Marcos is still talking, "We chose not to sell ourselves [to government offers, promises broken before], we chose not to surrender. Because it so happens that we are indigenous and we are also fighters, and fighters are fighters because they fight for something. And we, the Zapatistas, are fighting for good homes, good health, a good price for our work, good lands, good education, respect for the culture, the right to information, liberty, independence, justice, democracy, and peace. That is why we Zapatistas are fighters, because we want, ÔFor everyone everything, nothing for ourselves.' If we had surrendered, if we had sold ourselves we would no longer have been poor, but others would have continued to be so."
I was in Mexico a few weeks ago, blithely unconscious of the Zapatistas. I hadn't thought much about the struggle in Chiapas since the papers had stopped featuring them in the news. Anyhow, I was in Baja, a frontier state different in some ways from other parts of Mexico that I am familiar with. We were down towards the middle of Baja, an area rich in valleys growing grapes, vineyards, olive trees, flowers and more mundane items like lettuce that are shipped North to many of us. The fertile valley, surrounded by desert mountains, ends in flatlands and on to the sea. Deep sea fishing, clams and oysters abound. The town was dusty and had nothing to attract tourists. Dirt roads, except for the main highway, Mexico 1, that goes all the way to Cabo San Lucas with one lane in either direction.
In the town zocalo was a group of Indian women with their children. They had crafts to sell, hung on ropes strung between short, dusty trees. Mostly useless goods from a city dwelling gringa's point of view; pouches and blankets, sarapes in colors I did not like. I bought some beady things that were pretty. I felt badly, children were sleeping right on the red dust ground; poverty made manifest. The woman I dealt with knew only so much Spanish. She wrote numbers for peso amounts in the ground with a stick. I didn't bargain. Black shiny hair, black eyes, tiny children. So poor. Yet proud. I am ashamed, back here in New York, that I did not buy more to give them the business. I touched a child on the cheek, an infant in the dust. One woman tied a string bracelet around my wrist. A wizened old woman came over, signaling that I buy her wears. I shook my head after looking her things over. No. She smiled at me, it was alright. Was it that I hadn't bargained with the other woman, had paid full price, that I had looked carefully? I was trying to find a reason for that wonderful smile. I stood up from kneeling on the ground, to go back to my rented car, and what do you think that old Indian lady did? She laughed and slapped me lightly on the butt. It felt, along with her smile, like a blessing. I wish I had spent all my pesos on her trinkets, and yet, she didn't want my damn charity.
In the next installment, Sections II and III of Our Word is Our Weapon. Another side of the Subcomandante's writing; musings, his humor and odd bits of lyricism. A revolutionary's love affair with the moon. And always, Ya basta!
©J Stefan-Cole April, 2001
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