Oventik lies in rebel territory about 20 kilometers to the north of San Cristóbal de Las Casas, the traditional capital of the state of Chiapas. It was here, in San Cristóbal, on January 1, 1994, that the Zapatista Army of National Liberation rose up in arms against the Mexican government declaring democracy, liberty, and justice for Mexicos poor and an end to the notorious political corruption that had plagued the nation for decades. The insurrection coincided with the implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement, the latest in a series of free market reforms and privatizations that had been pushing the culture and livelihood of the indigenous farmers in Chiapas towards extinction. In the words of the pipe-smoking guerrilla leader of the Zapatista Army, Subcomandante Marcos, NAFTA had spelled a death sentence for the Maya of southern Mexico. And it was the proverbial last straw.
Taking the whole world by surprise, the Zapatista uprising named after the Mexican revolutionary hero, Emiliano Zapata swept through the streets of San Cristóbal during the early hours of New Years Day, rudely awakening the citys hung-over occupants while brusquely introducing itself to the Mexican state, international civil society, and television viewers the world over. Quickly becoming a cause celebre for frustrated liberals and leftists everywhere, Mayan farmers carrying hunting rifles and sporting black ski masks adorned international headlines. For the press, the insurgency had all the trimmings of a fanciful David and Goliath story: a group of oppressed, rag-tag Indian peasants, many without arms, challenging the well funded and U.S.-backed Mexican military. Just about every journalist, anaylist, pundit, expert, etc. predicted the imminent demise of the undersized and under-equipped insurgents.
That was 11 years ago and despite various attempts by the Mexican government to wipe them out, the Zapatista resistance has not only survived, it has grown. Withstanding massacres and political sabotage, it has blossomed into an impressive social movement that for over a decade has been building an alternative to a world dominated by the ravages of unfettered capitalism. Although the novelty of the rebellion has waned for much of the media as the Zapatistas have been locked in a political stalemate with the Mexican state and their guns have been silent, the movement that was born on that New Years Day in 1994 has since been busy setting an example, in 27 declared autonomous communities, of how to resist with dignity the Wal-Martization of the global economy.
Oventik is one of five regional centers that link the 27 autonomous Zapatista communities. It is referred to as a Caracol (spiral conch shell, important in Mayan mythology) and although it is geographically small just one road, maybe 200 yards long it makes up for its size with what it is trying to create, neither with the permission nor the aid of the Mexican authorities. As a Caracol, Oventik is home to a Junta de Buen Gobierno or a seat of Good Government which was established to assist in the resolution of internal disputes, facilitate the equitable distribution of solidarity contributions received from civil society, and monitor for human rights abuses within the autonomous communities. It is staffed by community members who are obliged, on a rotating basis, to serve a short governing term. They are farmers, not politicians. And they are not paid for their service although the community which they represent contributes to the well being of their families during their term. This decentralized political framework has been structured in such a way as to prevent, as best it can, the kind of cronyism, corruption, and Machiavellian politics that has been, sadly, the standard throughout the history of the modern world.
Moving beyond the Junta de Buen Gobeirno, Oventik is also home to a free health clinic for near-by residents. There is a free secondary school where young adults study their native language and culture along with mathematics and history. Numerous textile cooperatives have been established which attempt to provide indigenous craftspeople with a fair price for their work. And lastly, Oventik is the site of a language school which welcomes progressive foreigners to study either Spanish or Tsotsil as well as Mayan and Zapatista culture.
It is by studying at this language school, behind the guns and the masks of the rebellion, that gringo activists such as myself may begin to grasp how the Zapatista movement has defied the odds, mustered so much popular support, and continued to grow. It is because the Zapatistas are not your standard Marxist guerrilla army. They do not hurl fundamentalist polemics at their opposition and they are not attempting to establish a dictatorship of the proletariat. They do not screech diatribes but are intent on listening. And when they do speak, it is often in confounding Mayan riddles which refer to the intersubjectivity of all things. They say they are not interested in seizing power but rather creating a world where many worlds fit. And as much as they are militant, they are philosophical and artistic. They paint murals, sing songs, and play basketball. They build health clinics and schools.
These are the characteristics of Zapatismo an enduring social movement that has been unfurling behind the consciousness of many an activist in the global north; yet unfurling, nevertheless, with a unified ideology of solidarity and struggle. They are characteristics that the sickeningly obsequious left in the United States has only briefly exhibited at certain moments over the past thirty years. Unlike the left in the United States and elsewhere, the Zapatistas have been actively constructing, through a process of trial and error, what the possible solutions to the global mess we call neoliberalism might be. This is a process that has been born, fundamentally, out of the courage to break with the status quo and to challenge the legitimacy of corporate and political power. They did not ask for permission nor consider the polls before they reached for their weapons. And unlike much of the left in the United States, the Zapatistas are not hiding their fears behind the promises of sycophant politicians. Neither are they are opportunistically building bureaucracies nor searching for compromises with those who have been working to eliminate them. They are doing for themselves singing, dancing, and fighting the whole way.
But perhaps, like a postcard from Palenque or Chichén-Itzá, this picture is too romantic. Certainly, there are many problems that still plague the indigenous of Chiapas. Poverty remains as a dark cloud hovering over the lives of too many, be they Zapatista or non-Zapatista. Access to health care and education, despite initiatives like the ones mentioned above, is still very limited. This is especially true in the more remote communities of the Lacandón Jungle. Womens rights, although receiving more attention now than in the past, are still far from being universally respected.
And there are other problems as well. Although the Zapatista movement has grown, the heart of their resistance is still limited to the rural state of Chiapas. They have made clear their intention, in the Sixth Declaration of the Lacandón Jungle, to build a united front of the left in Mexico, but questions remain: Can the Zapatista project be exported to more populated and more complex industrial areas or countries? Can the regional indigenous identity that has been the hallmark of the movement be expanded to include a more national or international consciousness of class? Perhaps not. Perhaps the entire Zapatista edifice, dependent upon mainstream civil society for much of its funding, will one day succumb to the immense weight and pressure of international capital, compounded by the prevailing complacency of the left.
This is certainly a possibility. And it is for this reason that Zapatismo can not be seen as the world's salvation from the sordid apocalypse that is free market capitalism. No doubt, the Zapatistas themselves will be the first ones to make this point. As they have said before, they are only one small house on a street called Mexico, in a neighborhood called the world. They are one piece of a international puzzle whose construction has barely begun to be considered by the great diversity of societies and communities everywhere.
Indeed, Zapatismo is only one small piece of a much larger puzzle. But more than anything, it is a profound example of what can happen when the strength and the courage to stand in solidarity with your brothers and sisters becomes a cultural institution. Through their militancy, the Zapatistas have demanded respect and attention. Through their word and their art, they have given their struggle a life and humanity of its own. The left in the United States and elsewhere still have much to learn from this example. It as if from the rugged landscape of Chiapas there is a chorus of strong, beautiful voices bellowing, ¡Ya Basta! Enough! We are not commodities in a global market! We will fight because we are human and we will win! And it is not until millions of others workers, activists, academics, students around the world hear this call and join in, that a place like Oventik will perhaps one day cease to exist as a mere etymological utopia in the mountains of Southern Mexico.
for more information regarding the language school in Oventik please visit http://www.serazln-altos.org/eng/celm.html 11 years later, the Zapatistas are still showing the left how its done
By Edward Ellis
In the Highlands of Chiapas, Southern Mexico, nestled between cornfields and draped along a steep mountain ridge, there lies a utopia. It is not a utopia in the sense that we might normally use the term a society of selfless denizens living in harmony with each other and absolved of avarice, malice, and aggression. Neither is it an eco-utopia that is at one with nature. Rather, this utopia, called Oventik, is a utopia in the etymological sense of the word only. It is a no where or a place that does not exist.