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Beginning the New Year in Reality, Chiapas, Mexico

A description of the new year's events in La Realidad, and how movements in the US need, now more than ever, to try and learn from the examples set by the Zapatistas.
Beginning the New Year in Reality
by Jennifer Whitney

"That we are not a collection of individuals dispersed by the world, but rather a living harmony of colors and voices, a constant shout of desires and thoughts that are born, that grow, that lovingly fertilize in one heart and one will, woven of hope. We call this existence and form of harmonic and collective thinking communal. That we don't resign from being who we are. That we will continue defending our autonomy and defending it. We will also defend everyone who is like us, who want to live differently for their color, their song, their vision of their own lives and freedom, with dignity."
- Declaration of the Indigenous National Congress in Nurio, Mexico, March 2-4, 2001

Reaching the place called Reality is daunting. We were on a mission, 16 of us piled into a van really meant for 12, pulling away from the San Cristóbal zócalo long before breakfast. Most of us were Mexican, but also Chicana, Italian, Quebecois, and from the US. We came from different backgrounds: writers, musicians, photographers, videographers, anthropologists, a biologist, and representing three different collectives. It was the first time for all of us to visit the community known as La Realidad.

We were on our way to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the founding of the Zapatista Army for National Liberation, and the tenth anniversary of their emergence from the jungle and descent from the mountains to declare war against the Mexican government and neoliberalism, bringing the masked face of indigenous dignity to the world. I suppose we were each looking for something - a small piece of reality, a breath of inspiration, a clue about how to move forward in an increasingly war-ridden and repressive world.

After five hours on the road we reached the end of the pavement and there began the arduous journey along the rutted muddy road cut through the semi-tropical jungle. Although we all piled out of the van every 50 meters or so to lighten the load, we got stuck repeatedly.The sun blazed down on us as we crawled around in the mud building ramps of rocks and wood and bamboo, pushing together while the engine roared, and running with laughter as each time we freed the van it sprayed us with mud and flying rocks. The good nature of our group was astonishing; we mostly rotated the work, and once, after spending an hour and a half of digging, jacking up, pushing, and constructing bizarre rock formations only to have it move forward a meter and get a flat tire, all we could do was laugh.

As we struggled to jack the van up in the slick mud, the sun began to set and the mosquitos emerged for their dinner; a light rain fell on us and dark clouds rolled around the horizon. Various proposals were tossed around to send most of us ahead to walk the last kilometers. Yet no one wanted to leave - we had begun the adventure together and we intended to finish it together, even if it meant that we would welcome the new year still stuck in the mud on a road on the outskirts of Reality.

At last we came to the sign welcoming us to La Realidad. "You are in Zapatista territory. Here the people command and the government obeys." We piled out of the van, breathlessly handed over our credentials to the community's welcoming committee, hung our hammocks, and went for dinner. When the tinkle of marimba drifted up from the plaza below, I rushed off, impatient to see that for which we had traveled so far - the ceremony and the celebration, the poetics and the militancy, the performance and the spectacle for which the Zapatistas are known.

The plaza where the ceremony was held had a stage at one end, a covered area with benches to seat around 500 at the other, and a large grassy field in between. The benches were filled with Zapatistas dressed in their finest. Everyone milled about, giving half an ear to the speeches from the stage while catching up with friends and family, many of whom had walked several days to reach La Realidad.

As the moon rose, a member of the newly-formed autonomous government, called the Junta de Buen Gobierno, requested that we all come forward to the foot of the stage, with those of us from civil society on one side and those from the "commmunities in rebellion" on the other. An altar was constructed at the foot of the stage, and we were invited to come forward and light candles, both to honor those who died during the uprising, and to light the way forward on a pathway to peace. The marimba played on.

Suddenly, fireworks leapt out of the darkness from the four corners of the plaza, swooshing through the air, sending comet trails of sparks arching across the sky. The midair explosions reverberated back to us moments later, bouncing off the surrounding mountains, sounding as though there were another celebration in a nearby valley. In the moments between the explosions came the words of an anonymous Zapatista, a representative of the Junta de Buen Gobierno: "The flashes of the cameras and the booming of the fireworks represent the gunfire exchanged ten years ago, when we declared war against the extermination of the indigenous."

Not the Old World, But Something Better
"This is a movement about reinventing democracy. It is not opposed to organization. It is about creating new forms of organization. It is not lacking in ideology. Those forms of new organization are its ideology." - David Graeber, The New Anarchists

Although the Zapatistas are not the anarchists to whom Graeber referred, the two groups share the same desire to innovate, to develop something new to replace the old, to create political openings in which people and communities can express their diversity and exercise their autonomy, and, as the Zapatistas say, to create a world in which many worlds can fit. Last August they announced the creation of the Juntas de Buen Gobierno, also called caracoles, which are five autonomous municipal governments taking on the mantle of power that the Zapatista Army is ceding. The birth of the juntas is the culmination - and the beginning - of putting into practice the egalitarian ideology expressed through years of communiques and gatherings, years of subordinating the military to the political and the social struggles, years of developing a new politics through actions, of asking questions while moving forward, constantly creating while simultaneously reflecting, caminando preguntamos.

As the fireworks criss-crossed the sky, I also thought about the anniversary that we weren't celebrating: the ten year anniversary of the North American Free Trade Agreement, which has sent Mexico's indigenous, campesinos, workers, and students into a downward spiral which shows little sign of reversing direction. Wages are lower now than they were ten years ago, despite an increase in production; schools are privatized and tuition fees are on the rise; rampant deforestation and the haphazard dumping of toxic wastes along the border are resulting in regular mudslides, flooding, and an alarming rise in birth defects; and there is a mass exodus from the countryside to the cities, as farmers have not only lost their subsidies but also are having to compete with the importation of agricultural products from the US which are much more heavily subsidized. And with the negotiations to bring Mexico into Mercosur - the "free" trade agreement which encompasses Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, and Chile - it is difficult to imagine the situation reversing.

With these thoughts, I looked at my watch and realized that it was actually only 11pm according to "la hora de Fox," that is to say, the presidential time, that of the rest of Mexico. La hora Zapatista is a different hour, Zapatista time, a different time, and so the new year came early to us in Reality. Later, as the marimba played and people clustered around the altar to light candles, the New Year began again, when a group of visitors from civil society began jumping up and down, kissing each other, and celebrating midnight with the rest of the country, and outside of the present reality.

Two realities, two new years, two commemorations. In celebrating the EZLN's emergence, which began the resistance against contemporary neoliberal globalization, we are also celebrating ten years of intense growth and development for resistance movements around the world. We have seen the global capitalist system - once believed to be inevitable - thoroughly examined and questioned, not only by activists working to destroy it, but by economists and CEOs alike. We have seen the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank go from being the darlings of the global fight to reduce poverty to having to scramble to integrate working groups who investigate the impacts that their projects and policies have on their client nations. We've watched the World Trade Organization suffer repeated humiliating defeats, first in Seattle, then when they retreated to the dictatorship of Qatar with their consensus-driven tail between their legs, and then in Cancún, where ministers had difficulty getting any work done despite having effectively sealed themselves off from the "bad protesters." We've seen the global movements making connections and building autonomy like never before, as Indian farmers trade tips on destroying genetically engineered crops with British activists, and South Africans resisting privatization compare tactics with unemployed Argentinean workers; US independent media makers exchange technology, stories, and contacts with their counterparts in Bolivia, Ecuador, and Palestine, and international peace activists from around the world insert themselves between war machines and civilian populations in Iraq, Colombia, and Palestine. It is for these efforts, these successes, these visions of a better world that the state is now doing its best to destroy us.

Divergent Realities
"...the terrorism of the state is put into action when the dominant classes can pursue their business by no other means. Torture wouldn't exist in our countries if it weren't effective; formal democracy would continue if it could be guaranteed not to get out of the hands that hold power. In difficult times democracy becomes a crime against national security--that is, against the security of internal privilege and foreign investment.... The whole society is militarized, the state of exception is made permanent, and the repressive apparatus is endowed with hegemony by the turn of a screw in the centers of the imperial system.
- Eduardo Galeano, Open Veins of Latin America--Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent

Being in La Realidad has set me thinking about reality in the United States, and what the year ahead has in store for those of us living there and resisting from the inside of the greatest threat to peace the world has ever known. The upcoming year in my country looks grim, and this journey to another culture helps me see my own more clearly. This is one reason why people go to Chiapas - for all the jokes about "zapatourism," visiting the autonomous communities is invaluable to my own sustainability. The Zapatistas have opened a space from which we can see our own realities more clearly, a space which gives energy and inspiration, a space in which to learn and reflect. In the US, 2004 begins under many dark shadows - the early launch of George W. Bush's reelection campaign with the capture of Saddam Hussein, the White House announcing even further cuts to social spending, and the incredible repression of dissent as seen in Miami during the recent protests against the Free Trade Area of the Americas - repression which was applauded by the mayor, who proudly called it "the model for Homeland Security," repression which has been carefully analyzed by police forces around the country for its brutal efficiency and its total disregard for constitutional law - using tactics that will never hold up in court, but which completely suppress nearly all forms of dissent.

And most ominously, as the Zapatistas are developing new forms of government with the Juntas de Buen Gobierno, the US military is also making noises about restructuring government systems. Retired General Tommy Franks, who headed up the most recent Iraq invasion, spoke candidly about that which has long been whispered in the corridors of power: that in the event of a mass casualty terrorist attack, "... the Western world, the free world, loses what it cherishes most, and that is freedom and liberty we've seen for a couple of hundred years in this grand experiment that we call democracy."

After heralding the end of "democracy," he continues describing the potential results of such an attack, "that causes our population to question our own Constitution and to begin to militarize our country in order to avoid a repeat of another mass, casualty-producing event. Which in fact, then begins to unravel the fabric of our Constitution."

It is the first time that such a statement has come from a military official, and there have been no attempts to backpedal, no embarrassed press releases attempting to explain what General Franks really meant. In its silence, the White House expresses its agreement and complicity with the statements of this man who is currently facing a class action lawsuit in Brussels for crimes of war.

The phrasing Franks utilized is interesting: "...that causes our population to question our own Constitution...." It assumes that the population will gladly accept the dissolution of democracy in the name of "security," which, we are told, can only be guaranteed by the state, despite all evidence to the contrary.

Security, in a country with a collapsing economy, increasing unemployment, criminal health care policies, drastic education cuts - this is the "security" we live with every day; this is the security that they offer to expand through a militarized form of government. And this is the security being imposed in Iraq - security for US and European corporations to make enormous profits in the "rebuilding" (and potentally, the redrawing of the borders) of Iraq. As Hendrik Voss, of School of the Americas Watch, said, "Economic oppression and military repression are flip sides of the same globalization coin. The economic rape of the poor that accompanies globalization could not stand without the repressive military apparatus that brutalizes people who rise up to resist." For when the government speaks of "security," we know that they mean security for corporations, for profits, for capital; we know that they mean security from people like us. It is against this security that the Zapatistas declared war, against the security to die, forgotten, of curable diseases, the security of extermination, of the slow genocide of neoliberalism.

Back in Reality
"All of the third world countries are the most forgotten, but the light we brought from the first of January, 1994 touches us all."
- representative of the Junta de Buen Gobierno of La Realidad, 1 January, 2004

I awoke in my hammock on New Year's Day to the distant sound of crowing roosters and the peep-peep-peeping of baby chicks who had surrounded a nearby tent and were investigating its perimeter. Just meters away from the porch of the tienda where we were ensconced was a giant tree, which must have been hundreds of years old. Under its shady branches, two women paused briefly for a chat before one heads down to the river to do her laundry and the other takes her bundle of firewood back to her home. It's 7 am. The marimba fell silent just a few hours ago, and now the lilting rhythm of Zapatista poetics drifts up to me from the plaza below.

The sun is slowly burning through the clouds, and again I feel the weight of the history I'm here to celebrate through remembrance. Imagining ten years ago, when some of the people who are here today were holding possession of seven towns, announcing their existence, their refusal to accept the pathetic crumbs occasionally offered to them by the government, burning property records, releasing prisoners from the jail, and all the while, carefully following the rules of war as set out by the Geneva Convention.

After breakfast, I head back down to the plaza for the continuation of the events - more singing, more music, more speeches. I was sitting in the grass, the blazing sun baking my back as I whispered translations of the speech of a member of the Junta de Buen Gobierno, when the menacing rumble of an engine cut into the soundscape, drowning out the compañero's words. A biplane passed high overhead, then swooped around out of sight behind a nearby mountain. The compa continued his greeting to us, welcoming us, those who had made the improbable journey to the heart of the jungle, the heart of the coracoles, the village known as Reality. He continued explaining to us exactly what the Junta does, how he is merely a representative who takes orders from the people, mandar obedeciendo, leading by obeying. And then the plane returned, flying low enough that I could see the pilot peering down at us through his dark glasses, see his lips set in a tense grimace below his clipped mustache. The sound was near-deafening, the sound of surveillance, of imminent danger, the sound, I imagine, of the last ten years of low-intensity warfare waged against the indigenous here in southern Mexico, the indigenous who have been named as terrorists by the Mexican government for exerting their right to a future.

After the plane tilted its nose back skyward and vanished, the compa implored us "Don't be distracted by the little airplane. It only came here to join in celebrating the new year with us." The Zapatistas who lived in Reality, and those who had come from surrounding communities, some of them having walked four days to get there, smiled, and he resumed his discourse.

The day concluded with more music, dancing, and speeches, and with no appearance by the insurgents, the soldiers, or comandantes. There was no show, no spectacular performance, no luminous appearance by Subcomandante Marcos, not in La Realidad, nor in any of the five caracoles. By throwing community events in which the community was the star of the performance, they demonstrated their commitment to the ceding of power from the Zapatista Army to the Juntas de Buen Gobierno, that is to say, to the people. This was a celebration of autonomy, where everyone is a participant, everyone a protagonist, where the people rather than the army are in command. From the beginning, the Zapatista Army has called themselves an army that wishes to disappear, with weapons that wish to be useless. With the creation of the autonomous forms of government, they are closer than ever to realizing this goal. If only the same would happen to the US Army in Iraq....

A Thorn in the Side
"Every act is assimilated into the struggle, if it furthers the revolt...We must find new forms for massing and moving in the street at the same time as we create alternative modes of actions when street action is impossible.... We have our own struggle. We are fighting for ourselves, for our community, for our very lives. The issue is not something other than ourselves, we are the issue. It is the liberation of our lives that we are fighting for...." - from a text by the anarchist collective Up Against the Wall Motherfucker

The Zapatistas are entering 2004 with a new political project, their new government in place, exercising a new experiment in democracy, an experiment which differs greatly from that which General Franks wishes to conclude; theirs is a democracy which is ultimately in conflict with that which we call "democracy." Their democracy is an everyday practice, that of ruling while obeying, a practice which surges from below, from the will of the people, who should be the foundation of anything called "democracy." In contrast, democracy in the United States has been reduced to having the opportunity to vote every four years, and nothing more.

The same difference exists between our forms of resistance. The Zapatistas seem to have turned their backs - at least for now - on the spectacle in favor of the long term, the creation of new forms in order to replace and ultimately destroy the old. As usual, we have a lot to learn from them.

This year, activists in the United States are scrambling to prepare for three major actions the G8, and the national conventions of the Democratic and Republican parties. After what happened in Miami, where only a few thousand showed up to do direct action - an action which seemed divorced from any particular objective or possibility of success - we would do well to learn from the example set by the Zapatistas. We need to do some serious reflection on what it is that we want to build, on how it is that we want to resist, how our actions will move us closer towards accomplishing our goals. These are important questions to ask, and with each solution, we'll find a better question. Many communities in the US engaged in a Zapatista-like consulta process leading up to the actions in Miami, others have held regional or national gatherings to dialogue and strategize with other communities - these are steps in the right direction, the direction of walking and asking questions.

The Zapatistas are the masters of innovation and also the masters of silence. The two are closely entwined. It is often only during those periods of silence that new ideas can be born. If we in the North continue to chase summits without pausing to reflect, to reconsider, to critique, and to brainstorm, we will continue dwindling in numbers, in strength, in effectiveness, and in relevance. Without retreating from street action, we must also be developing our autonomy, practicing disobedience and refusal on a daily basis, and not only in the hot spots of confrontation with the police, where we will always be fenced out and met with the brutal "model of Homeland Security."

The reality in which we live, whether in the mountains of southeast Mexico or in the concrete jungles of the United States, requires endurance. As the anonymous representative of the Junta de Buen Gobierno said on 1 January, 2004, "We are the thorn in the side of neoliberalism. We are here. We have always been here. We will continue being here. We will always continue to stab them."

@@@@@for photos from La Realidad, please go to

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