On October 13, the 500 delegates of the National Indigenous Congress (CNI) reached complete consensus on the proposal presented by the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) at the opening of the fifth Congress three days earlier: the CNI will collectively enter the 2018 Mexican presidential race with an indigenous woman candidate at its forefront.
The Fifth Congress is now in permanent assembly while the delegates return to their communities and hold consultations to decide to either approve or reject the proposal.
This decision represents a major shift in strategy of the Zapatista movement which in 2003, after nine years of betrayed negotiations with the Mexican government, cut off all communication with the political system. In the subsequent thirteen years they have not looked back, focusing instead on constructing autonomy in their own communities. The proposed presidential campaign will not, however, be a return to engagement with the political system, but rather a takeover and, if successful, dismantling of that system.
“We confirm that our fight is not for power, we do not seek it; rather we call all of the original peoples and civil society to organize to detain this destruction, to strengthen our resistances and rebellions, that is to say in the defense of the life of each person, family, collective, community, or neighborhood. To construct peace and justice, reconnecting ourselves from below,” stated the CNI and EZLN in a communiqué released at the closure of the assembly.
The Indigenous Council of Government will be made up of representatives from CNI communities from all states and regions of Mexico, with the individual candidate serving to “make their [collective] word material.”
THE FIGHT FOR RECOGNITION
The CNI was formed in 1996, nearly two years after the indigenous Zapatistas of Chiapas famously rose up in arms and declared war on the Mexican government. Earlier that same year, the EZLN and federal government signed the San Andrés Accords, which agreed to recognize indigenous autonomy in the constitution, increase indigenous political representation, and guarantee access to justice.
In October of that year, thousands of indigenous people from communities all over the country gathered in Mexico City for the first National Indigenous Congress, agreeing that their primary objective would be to defend the San Andrés Accords. It was at this first Congress that the late EZLN commander Ramona declared what soon became the slogan of the CNI: “NEVER AGAIN A MEXICO WITHOUT US.”
When the EZLN and government met to finalize the Accords one month later, a familiar pattern of denial began to re-emerge: The government refused to sign the Accords. Simultaneously, then president Ernesto Zedillo launched a bloody militarization campaign throughout Chiapas climaxing in the Acteal Massacre in which paramilitary troops massacred 45 members of Las Abejas, an indigenous Catholic pacifist organization.
The primary focus of both the EZLN and the CNI, then, became an effort to push the Mexican government to pass the Accords. In 2001, the third National Indigenous Congress was held in the Purépucha community of Nurío in Michoacán. Representatives from 40 of Mexico’s 57 Indigenous Peoples created a list of demands including constitutional recognition of indigenous rights and autonomy, and the recognition of indigenous systems of justice and ancestral territory.
That same year, Comandanta Esther addressed the Congress of the Union: “When indigenous rights and culture are constitutionally recognized in accord with the [San Andrés Accords], the law will begin joining its hour with the hour of the Indian peoples.”
The following month, Congress unanimously approved a constitutional reform concerning indigenous rights and culture that ignored all demands for autonomy and recognition, completely undermining the San Andrés Accords and cementing the betrayal of Indigenous Peoples by the entire Mexican political system.
It was after this ultimate betrayal that the Zapatistas and CNI decided to turn their backs on the Mexican political system which refused to include them. Instead, they decided to take matters in their own hands and implement the San Andrés Accords themselves in their communities and territories. What the government refused to give them, they would build.
For the next thirteen years, the Zapatista communities of Chiapas and indigenous communities throughout Mexico worked to construct their own autonomy from the ground up.
ACHIEVEMENTS AND LIMITATIONS OF AUTONOMY
In this Fifth National Indigenous Congress, which also celebrated the 20th anniversary of the CNI, delegates shared the immense achievements of autonomy in their communities:
They have rebuilt their traditional farming structures using organic fertilizers and native seeds.
They have reconstituted their traditional governments, replacing the corrupt government authorities with elder councils and community assemblies.
They have built their own community police and self defense forces, ousting organized crime and replacing the similarly corrupt official police who often work with narcotraffickers.
They have created community radio stations to broadcast the truth, drowning out the lies and silence of corporate media which, in Mexico, is monopolized by the media empire Televisa.
They have recuperated territory that was violently expropriated by the government and large landowners.
They have created their own bilingual indigenous schools where students learn about colonialism, capitalism, and the history of their people.
They have revived their traditional medicine and built clinics where before people had no healthcare, fighting dependence on western medicine.
However, they have also faced extreme repression, plunder of their territories, and human rights violations. There was not a single community that did not speak of their fight against what they call ‘death projects’— mining, fracking, hydroelectric dams, gas pipelines, airport construction, highway construction — operated by foreign corporations which do not consult their communities before destroying their land.
They are fighting against agroindustrial chemicals and pesticides contaminating their land and waters, the destruction of their forests, the invasion of genetically modified seeds, and the privatization and expropriation of their sacred water and collectively-held territory.
They are fighting supposedly ‘green’ development in the form of wind farms and conservation reserves that expropriate their territory and farmland, often for the production of monocrops like African Palm.
They are fighting against cultural death— the tourism industry that pillages their sacred sites and perverts their traditions as attractions for foreigners, and the disappearance of their languages and clothing.
And they are fighting against literal death—the murder, disappearance, kidnapping, rape, imprisonment, and psychological warfare that all indigenous communities in resistance face at the hands of the military, police, and organized crime.
The nation is also on the brink of total privatization of the public sector with the 11 structural adjustments passed by President Enrique Peña Nieto in 2013. Though the the CNI can prevent these reforms from entering their communities on a certain level, they can not, through autonomy alone, halt the devastating impacts of the privatization of public healthcare, education, communication, energy, and housing, among others.
In this Fifth Congress, the delegates recognized that walking the path of autonomy, though remarkably successful on a local level, has not allowed the Indigenous Peoples of Mexico to truly unite. Building coalitions on statewide and even regional or municipal levels has proved exceedingly difficult with most communities remaining relatively isolated. Though they all face the same repression by corporations and the government, each community fights the same enemy from its different corner of Mexico, thus allowing what the Zapatistas call ‘the capitalist hydra’ to divide and conquer. As one delegate from Jalisco said, “they’re continuing to screw us.”
The proposal of the EZLN for the CNI to run a collective presidential campaign is an effort to halt the hydra. At first, nearly all of the delegates were doubtful. They expressed their concerns about sacrificing their autonomy to embark on the electoral route. All, however, also expressed their deep trust in the EZLN as their guide in the struggle and their willingness to be convinced. Throughout the three-day assembly this is exactly what happened.
One of the fundamental principles of both the CNI and the EZLN is that they do not aspire to take state power, which they view as inherently corrupt and oppressive. The delegates spoke of their commitment to this principle and their concern of sacrificing it. Through their discussions, however, they clarified that they would not aim to take power, but rather dismantle this power from below and to the left, from the poor and marginalized indigenous communities fighting for their dignity, freedom, and autonomy.
Another fundamental principle is their opposition to all political parties, which they view as the same elite oppressor class dressed in different colors. They clarified that they would not create a new political party, but rather an Indigenous Council of Government which, Subcommander Galeano (formerly Marcos), urged us not to confuse with an Indigenous Government Council, meaning that they are not trying to indigenize the current government, but rather build a new indigenous government that governs according to the principles of the EZLN and CNI:
- Serve, don’t self-serve
- Represent, don’t supplant
- Construct, don’t destroy
- Propose, don’t impose
- Convince, don’t defeat
- Go below, not above
- Govern by obeying
The EZLN is demanding that we disrupt our basic notions of what a government is and what a government can do. In indigenous communities throughout the country as well as in Zapatista territory, the CNI has expelled government officials and revived their traditional systems of self-governance. The EZLN is asking us to envision this happening on a national level: a Mexico that is governed by a council of hundreds of indigenous people from all nations and tribes guided by the wisdom of their ancestors.
Central to the proposal is that the candidate who will represent the Indigenous Council of Government be an indigenous woman. Galeano, in his explanation, continually emphasized this point. He said that both mestizos (non-indigenous) and men have proved incapable of governance, and that this point was not up for debate. He also reminded us that this will not be a government run by any and all indigenous people, because there are of course indigenous landowners, paramilitary, and police, as well as indigenous communities that have been bought out by the government. It will be a CNI government, running not with a political platform, but rather a program of struggle that is explicitly anti-capitalist.
Galeano also emphasized that it must be the CNI that approves and constructs the campaign, not the EZLN. In 2006 the EZLN ran ‘the Other Campaign’ parallel to the presidential race to spread the word of autonomy and urge the people of Mexico to organize their communities outside of the electoral sphere. In his speech at the Fifth Congress, Galeano explained that in the Other Campaign, the EZLN led and the Indigenous Peoples of Mexico followed, and that it needed to be the other way around, with the Indigenous Peoples in resistance leading the nation.
The aim of the presidential campaign will be not only to win, but to fortify and unite the CNI and, as one delegate from Michoacán said, to “force the people of Mexico to turn and look at us”. In his opening speech, Subcommander Moisés repeated the urgency of uniting the people of the country and the city:
“Now is the time to remind the Ruler and his managers and overseers who it was who gave birth to this nation, who works the machines, who creates food from the earth, who constructs buildings, who paves the roads, who defends and reclaims the sciences and the arts, who imagines and struggles for a world so big that there is always a place to find food, shelter and hope.”
ANOTHER GOVERNMENT IS POSSIBLE
Some may question the possibility or efficiency of a collectively run indigenous government. The assembly itself refuted these doubts. Over 500 people from all different cultures and contexts discussed the proposal for three twelve-hour days without a single moment of disrespect. Instead of arguing based on ideology or political views, they truly listened to and, in the face of doubt, convinced one another. Most importantly, no delegate spoke from personal interest, but rather the collective interest of their community.
The consensus, then, that the proposal be brought back to their communities for consultation, was based on a true and complete agreement that the presidential campaign would benefit them all. Compared to the disrespect, corruption, corporate control, and political deadlock that we are used to in our current federal governments, the CNI was an example of the power of traditional governance.
This campaign will be unlike any other in the history of the world. In this moment of global political despair, particularly in the midst of the US presidential elections, the EZLN is once again challenging us to imagine outside of the defined realm of possibilities. After being denied a space in Mexico for over 500 years, they are deciding to construct a new Mexico and eventually, Galeano said, a new world.
In the words of the General Command of the EZLN:
Now is the hour of the National Indigenous Congress.
With its step, let the earth tremble at its core.
With its dreams, let cynicism and apathy be vanquished.
In its words, let those without voice be lifted up.
With its gaze, let darkness be illuminated.
In its ear, let the pain of those who think they are alone find a home.
In its heart, let desperation find comfort and hope.
In its challenge, let the world be seen anew.