Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 278 | Septiembre 2004



Caracoles: Happy Birthday to You!

“If bad government won’t pay attention to us, then it can just stay away with all its nonsense,” challenged Comandante Rosalinda on August 9, 2003, ushering in the Caracoles and Good Government Committees established in Zapatista territory in Chiapas. Now, a year later, on their first anniversary, they have attracted not just government attention. “Civil society in Mexico and around the world,” explained Subcomandante Marcos, “is working for us and with us.”

Ximena Antillón

On January 1, 2004, people in Chiapas as well as other parts of the world celebrated the tenth anniversary of the Zapatista uprising and the twentieth anniversary of the founding of the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN), and there was much to celebrate. This armed movement was dedicated from the start to the search for dialogue with national and international civil society and for a political solution to the conflict, the peak moment of which was the 1996 talks in San Andrés Sakamch’en de los Pobres. The EZLN is characterized by its lack of interest in political power, at least as we know it up to now in the system of representational democracy.
The very first Declaration from the Lacandon Jungle laid out the Zapatistas’ demands for work, land, housing, food, health care, education, independence, democracy, freedom, justice and peace. Ever since then, the Zapatistas have sought autonomy as the political framework in which they could live and develop as a culture distinct from western culture and achieve their demands based on respect for the specificity of their indigenous culture.

The “law” and the vultures

The San Andrés Accords on Indigenous Rights and Culture were signed in February 1996 as the result of the government-EZLN talks, to which the Zapatistas invited indigenous groups from all over Mexico. These agreements formed the basis of a bill put forth by the Legislature’s Peace and Harmony Commission (COCOPA), made up of legislative representatives of the country’s various political parties. The government, however, failed to fulfill its commitment to establish the collective rights of indigenous people recognized in this bill as a law with constitutional rank. Instead, it pushed through an “indigenous law” in 2001, a propaganda measure in response to the Zapatista commanders’ march to Mexico City. This law, riddled with ambiguities, fails to recognize indigenous peoples as legal subjects and denies indigenous communities the right to exercise control over their lands and natural resources, as if the self-government it grants them could be practiced in thin air. What lies behind this refusal? Transnational companies circle over Chiapas like vultures, looking for the strategic resources that the indigenous communities have long protected and preserved, among them water and biodiversity.

While the Zapatista indigenous communities have continually sought to establish their collective rights in the Constitution, they have not been sitting still, waiting for official recognition before exercising them. For the past eight years, they have been building and consolidating Zapatista Rebel Autonomous Municipalities, each of which has an Autonomous Council made up of authorities elected in an assembly by each community in the municipality, often with the support of civil society. The Councils are in charge of promoting food, education, health, housing, culture, information (via autonomous communications media) and the administration of justice. The innovative part of this is that it is all being done “in resistance,” without accepting any government resources.

Autonomy and the Caracoles

In late July 2003, the EZLN announced changes in its organizational structure. It disbanded its five “Aguascalientes,” named in honor of the Aguascalientes Convention of 1914, where the leading revolutionary factions, including followers of Zapata, Villa and Carranza, met to discuss how they would govern the country. These sites had served as political and cultural centers and meeting places between the Zapatistas and the outside world for nine years.

When the Aguascalientes died, the Caracoles were born as a new kind of governing and organizational structure. The word means snail or conch shell, a symbol among Mayans for “the opening to the heart.” They serve as a two-way opening. From them the Zapatistas can look outside, to the worldwide process they are a part of that is resisting globalization’s current form and direction. And they can also look within, to their own Zapatista communities, to find ways of organizing themselves and making decisions.

When the Zapatistas announced the birth of these new convergence points, they also announced the formation of Good Government Committees to coordinate each region’s autonomous municipalities. They are headquartered in each of the five Caracoles, along with the autonomous administrative entities and offices of cooperatives, clinics and schools.

This new level in the autonomous organization of the indigenous communities is not aimed at achieving independence for Mexico’s indigenous peoples, as manipulatively charged by some political sectors who view recognition of indigenous rights as a threat to their own interests. It is instead a way to exercise autonomy within the framework of the state. “We don’t see autonomy as the fragmentation of the country or as separatism, but rather as the exercise of our right to govern and be governed, as established in article 39 of the Mexican Constitution,” Subcomandante Marcos explained in July 2003.

The Committees and democracy

The Good Government Committees—so named, said Marcos, “not because they are already good, but rather to distinguish them clearly from the bad government”—cover all of the rebel areas, including some 30 autonomous Zapatista municipalities. They are made up of one or two delegates from each Autonomous Municipal Council in their area. Positions in the Committees rotate, with the delegates serving weeklong periods.

The Committees represent one more step in the construction of self-government, the highest level of autonomous organization thus far. They also signify the autonomy of the civilian authorities and Zapatista base support communities from the EZLN’s military structure, which Marcos recognized last year “has ‘contaminated’ a tradition of democracy and self-government to some extent. The EZLN was, you might say, one of the ‘anti-democratic’ elements in a system of direct community democracy.”

Tasks and challenges

Marcos explained the work of these Committees in a communiqué issued on July 29, 2003. They are responsible for counteracting imbalances in the development of the Autonomous Rebel Municipalities and communities, and for mediating conflicts among those municipalities and between them and government municipalities. He recognized that, for the time being, the autonomous normative system based on indigenous community uses and customs would have to coexist with the western normative system.

Another important recognition was that autonomous authorities might commit human rights violations. For this reason, the Committees are also responsible for dealing with charges made against the Autonomous Councils for such violations, as well as other protests and disagreements.

Other tasks include promoting community projects in the municipalities; ensuring that laws established by common agreement among the communities within the rebel municipalities are obeyed; and attending to and guiding national and international civil society when they visit the communities, implement productive projects, set up peace camps, conduct research and all other activities permitted in the communities. There are also dispositions to help the Committees ensure that development projects are evenly distributed among the Zapatista communities and supervise their implementation.

First steps

It was October 2003. A sign on the wall of the La Carrucha Oversight Committee’s office in the “Resistance for a New Dawn” Caracol read: “Compañeros, compañeras, please don’t spit, the office has a floor now.” A small sign of big progress. To meet with a Good Government Committee, the first step is to speak with the Oversight Committee, made up of autonomous authorities who check visitors’ identification and patiently listen to the issues they want to raise with the Committee. They must be patient, because they have to listen to any number of people with all kinds of ideas, every day of the week. The Oversight Committee then gives some practical instructions to the visitors as they wait to be received by the Good Government Committee.

The Good Government Committees in turn channel the petitions and proposals from local, national and international civil society. They must evaluate each one and usually ask people to return for an answer some time later. But since positions on these Committees rotate, it sometimes happens that when people return, the new members are not informed of their issue, which can delay projects and test people’s patience. This is part and parcel of the job of exercising self-government in such a large region and in accord with the Zapatista principle of “governing by obeying.”

Health, education and human rights

In their first year of operations, the Committees have had to deal with another kind of problem, related to the fact that they are exercising autonomy in a context of war and government harassment. They have issued a series of charges of human rights violations committed against individuals and communities under their jurisdiction.

The most important such case occurred in the Chiapas highlands communities of Jechvó, Elambó Alto and Elambó Bajo, municipality of Zinacantán, in which local PRD cadres deprived dozens of Zapatista families of drinking water for months. The conflict boiled over in April 2004, when Zapatistas marching to support the communities’ demands and commemorate the anniversary of Emiliano Zapata were attacked by a group armed with sticks, stones and guns. Some thirty people were wounded, two seriously.

One of the most important and visible achievements of the Zapatistas’ autonomous government has been the guarantee of quality health care to all people, Zapatista or not, who come to their clinics. Important progress has also been made in bicultural education. A few days before the first anniversary celebration, an autonomous school was inaugurated—with a dance that lasted three days—in the remote community of La Culebra in the Ricardo Flores Magón Autonomous Municipality. The school was built thanks to Greek cooperation with the Tseltal, one of the main indigenous groups in Chiapas.

Given both the lack of confidence and the corruption in the government’s justice institutions, particularly their ignoring of indigenous customs and practices in the resolution of conflicts, dozens of people, both Zapatistas and non-Zapatistas, have turned to the Good Government Committees with a wide range of problems needing resolution. And the Committees have resolved them.

Radio and women

Autonomous communications media are already in operation. Radio Insurgente—“the slippery one on the dial”—can be heard all over Chiapas. A number of community communication projects are also underway, with the participation of indigenous communities and trained promoters in each region.

Women’s rights are an “obligatorily obligatory” issue, as both male and female Zapatista leaders have stressed numerous times. Although the Zapatista Revolutionary Women’s Law is still far from fully respected, visible efforts are being made to promote and guarantee compliance with it.

On Radio Insurgente a woman’s voice is heard: “Brother, you don’t have the right to control or limit your wife’s movements... We need a world in which women have positions and responsibilities. A world where only men make decisions is not a just world.” This is followed by a socio-drama on women’s right to organize and participate in cooperatives. At the end, the woman’s voice is heard again: “If you still don’t know how to do it, you’ll learn, little by little.”

Dancing and celebration

On August 9, President Vicente Fox celebrated the International Day of Indigenous Peoples at his official residence of Los Pinos under the banner, “Never Again a Mexico without Indigenous Peoples,” a pathetic paraphrase of the slogan first used by the Zapatistas and taken up by the National Indigenous Congress: “Never Again a Mexico without Us!” In southeastern Mexico, thousands of miles away from this prefabricated celebration with its packaged, officially endorsed indigenous representatives, thousands of Zapatista supporters danced under the rain and in the mud to celebrate the first anniversary of good government in the five Caracoles that are gradually building autonomy in Chiapas.

The party in the “Resistance and Rebellion for Humanity” Caracol at Oventic was joyous, despite the rain and intermittent electricity cuts. At dawn, marimbas played “Las mañanitas” outside the Committee’s office. The party was transmitted on FM and short wave by Radio Insurgente and over the Internet by the Independent Media Center in Chiapas. The Zapatista grass roots weren’t fazed by all the technology, and to the surprise of visitors who came expecting a solemn “government report,” there was only partying.

No one bothered to step before the microphones and cameras to sum up the achievements of this first year of autonomy: the remodeled and expanded autonomous clinic, the Zapatista Autonomous Rebel Secondary School, the offices of the coffee and craftspeople’s cooperatives, even a cyber cafe! They simply partied, as though their indifference was a way of telling us, “Get used to this, you’re in autonomous territory. Here the people command and the government obeys.”

Words and joy

The same attitude was apparent in both the content and the brevity of the speeches by the authorities of several autonomous municipalities and the “Central Heart of the Zapatistas Before the World” Good Government Committee during the official ceremony, in which no EZLN military leadership was to be seen.

The Good Government Committee began its short speech following a greeting to a long list of people in attendance: Zapatista supporters, autonomous municipal authorities, local and regional authorities, insurgents, educational authorities, cultural and religious authorities, and visitors from national and international civil society.

“Today, August 9, 2004, we are gathered together to celebrate the first anniversary of the formation of the Good Government Committees and Caracoles that now exist in several regions of the state of Chiapas and Mexico. For this reason, the “Central Heart of the Zapatistas Before the World” Good Government Committee, today commemorating one year of humble service governing the Zapatista and non-Zapatista people who live in the region of the “Resistance and Rebellion for Humanity” Caracol, would like to share with you our happiness but also our concern over the situation of the peoples in resistance.

“This anniversary demonstrates that the autonomous municipalities can govern ourselves alone as peoples. This is why the anniversary is not to be forgotten, but rather celebrated every year. We want to say to all Zapatista peoples that we’re not afraid to continue building our autonomy. All indigenous peoples can and should organize and govern themselves on their own, in accord with their way of thinking and understanding, and their own interests as peoples, taking into account their cultures and customs. All of this is a right we all must have.”

Struggles and service

Later, instead of a report, they offered recognition of the resistance by the Zapatista support bases. “Compañeros and compañeras: we are quite clear about our situation and our suffering as Zapatistas, because our fight takes the form of resistance and rebellion, because we have to bear all the blows from our country’s bad governments. They have brought our people even more hunger and misery, our children more sickness and death, more insecurity and fear, because thousands of federal soldiers, police, and paramilitaries still threaten and persecute us when we fight to defend our rights.

“We members of the Good Government Committees will strive to continue fulfilling our duty at the service of our peoples, but you must also continue to organize so we can move ahead together in building our autonomy.”

Finally, the Committee members expressed their thanks for the accompaniment of national and international civil society, and invited us to organize in our states and countries “so we can all fight together.” They concluded with a formal, “That is all we have to say. Sincerely, the Good Government Committee.”

The “bad government”
and some small, big steps

After failing to fulfill the indigenous peoples’ demands for full recognition of their rights in the Constitution, the various levels of the Mexican government have been clumsily maneuvering to deal with this autonomous government. President Fox and his Cabinet, refusing to recognize themselves in the description of “bad government,” have tried to come out of it well by displaying a tolerant and respectful attitude ever since the Zapatistas publicly announced the establishment of the Caracoles and Good Government Committees. In July 2003, Government Minister Santiago Creel said that the “Zapatista Good Government Committees are not necessarily incompatible with the Constitution.” And despite the EZLN’s publicly reiterated break with the federal and state governments and the political parties, Xóchitl Gálvez, head of the National Commission for the Development of Indigenous Peoples, persisted in seeing the Caracoles and Good Government Committees as proof of a rapprochement and dialogue between the Zapatistas and the federal government. State-level government officials have reacted similarly.

Now, a year later, the federal and state governments have had to tacitly recognize the Committees’ jurisdiction in their territories. A small but telling example was the case of three people from the autonomous municipality of Miguel Hidalgo, in the Caracol of Morelia, who were detained and accused of “ecocide”—a federal offense—for transporting firewood. But after showing that they had a permit issued by the autonomous authorities, they were set free. The Committees have also assumed other administrative tasks such as issuing road permits for vehicles within their territories, which thus far, the federal police have respected.

Two errors and the
“third shoulder” of support

In a series of statements assessing the first year of the Good Government Committees’ operations, Subcomandante Marcos described them as “islands of resistance,” at the same time identifying two persistent errors that contradict Zapatista principles. One has to do with the situation of women, since the rights recognized on paper are not yet being respected in many cases, and the other with the Zapatista political-military structure’s continuing influence on the Committees.

He described the rotating nature of the Committees’ authorities as “a mistake made on purpose,” and explained the Zapatistas’ objective in deciding to make it. “It had to do with the idea that the task of government shouldn’t belong to any one group, that there shouldn’t be ‘professional’ politicians, that as many people as possible should have a chance to learn. We wanted to get rid of the notion that government can only be run by ‘special people’... This approach has made it harder to carry out some projects, but on the other hand, we’ve created a school of government that will result over the long term in a new way of doing politics.”

Referring to the support of international civil society, which he described as a “third shoulder,” Marcos reported that individuals and organizations from over 43 countries had approached the Committees with productive projects and donations during the first year of autonomous government. In their first year, the Committees managed approximately $1,100,000.

The year’s multiple tasks

In one of his statements, Marcos summed up the multiple tasks carried out by the five Good Government Committees in their first year. They received visitors from national and international civil society, investigated alleged marijuana plantations and robberies, supervised the work of education promoters, monitored productive projects, channeled denunciations to human rights organizations, gave talks on how to exercise the principle of “governing by obeying,” and mediated agrarian disputes and conflicts among Zapatistas, between them and non-Zapatistas and between individuals and public officials.

He gave one striking example of this mediation, describing how the Committee in La Garrucha got involved when a taxi driver was detained by traffic police in the municipality of Ocosingo: “The Committee sent a representative to talk with the police chief and the state government official in charge, asking them to free the taxi driver immediately. The Committee member pointed out that if they don’t respect honest work, people are going to turn to crime or politics, or rise up in arms together, like the Zapatistas did on January 1, 1994. So they’d better respect his work as a taxi driver.”

Experience and hope

Thus, with no fuss, the Zapatistas celebrated the first anniversary of their Good Government Committees, one experience of resistance and of an effort to build alternatives among so many others that make up humanity’s resistance to the reign of the transnational companies. It is one local response to the loss of national sovereignty that is leaving millions of people unprotected as they see social and political rights they and their predecessors have struggled so hard for disappear.

The Committees represent a community’s self-affirmation in response to the paternalism of NGOs and international funding agencies, which too often deny them a leading role and convert them into “beneficiaries” and objects of assistance. They are a form of organization based on the idea that access to public posts is a service to the community and not an opportunity to enrich oneself.

Although the Zapatista experience is neither the only nor even the first experience of indigenous autonomy in Mexico, its “dangerous” example is beginning to spread to other states in the country and even to places far beyond Mexico’s borders, which are now forming sister relationships with the rebel autonomous municipalities in an effort to establish their own autonomy. It is, as people around here say, a path you make by walking. And the Caracoles are walking it, slowly but surely.

Ximena Antillón is the envío correspondent in Chiapas.

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