A Day in the Life of the Other Campaign

by Teo Ballvé

NACLA Report on the Americas, Feature, Mar 01, 2006

“We did not come here to invite you to die or to kill; instead we came here to invite you to live—to live by fighting—but no longer alone, apart from each other. That way, there won’t have to be another January 1, 1994, and no one else will ever have to cover their face in order to be seen.” With these words, Subcomandante Marcos on January 14 addressed a crowd of about 700 people in the city of Chetumal, the state capital of Quintana Roo. In what was his first public appearance outside of Chiapas in years, the masked rebel spokesman explained to the enraptured audience that the recently launched “Other Campaign” is an organizing effort to create “one big struggle out of many small ones.”

In the first leg of the campaign, which is slated to end just shy of Mexico’s July 2 presidential elections, Subcomandante Marcos, or “Delegate Zero”—his civilian moniker for the campaign—will travel the 31 states of Mexico and the federal district. After the elections, several other Zapatista leaders will simultaneously fan out across Mexico and pick up where he left off. The Other Campaign began on New Year’s Day of this year and is charged with fulfilling the objectives laid out in the Zapatistas’ Sixth Declaration of the Lacandón Jungle: “We are going to listen to and speak directly … with the simple and humble people of Mexico, and according to what we hear and learn, we will construct, together with these people who are like us, simple and humble, a national program of struggle.” This program, states the declaration, “will be clearly of the left, which is to say anti-capitalist, or anti-neoliberal, or which is also to say in favor of justice, democracy and liberty for the Mexican people.” Other stated goals of the declaration include the creation of a new Constitution and a new way of taking political action.

After leaving Chiapas, Marcos’ first stopover was the state of Quintana Roo on the Yucatán peninsula. With the depth of yearning for social change and equally visible reactionary forces, Quintana Roo reflected in microcosm the great hope and difficulty that the non-electoral Other Campaign will encounter as it snakes its way through Mexico. On the one hand, there’s what Marcos has referred to as the “rebel Mexico,” which has enthusiastically embraced the campaign. But as the stories he heard here make abundantly clear, there is also the Mexico of corruption, of repression and of entrenched political parties—with their machineries firmly in place to buy or silence those who would join the Zapatistas.

The states of the Yucatán peninsula are historically among the most restive of the Mexican republic. The indigenous Maya of the peninsula fiercely repelled Spanish attempts to colonize the region, and it was not until well into the twentieth century that the Mexican government was able to definitively subdue a Maya rebellion and establish control. But since Quintana Roo gained statehood in 1975, it has been under the firm grip of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI).

“I’m a priísta,” said one woman, as she craned her neck forward for emphasis, claiming unwavering allegiance to the PRI. Standing outside her home in the neighborhood of Colosio in Playa del Carmen, she added, “I have been a priísta since I was a child, since my grandparents and my parents were priístas. I’m still a priísta as if it were my religion.” Asked to comment on the Zapatistas’ proposal to create “a new way of doing politics,” she replied, “Well, I don’t know, I think one gets used to what politics is, for better or worse.” And politics in Colosio, as elsewhere in Mexico, revolves around clientelism.

In fact, in 1994, the neighborhood itself was established by an unofficially PRI-backed land invasion under then–state Governor Mario Villanueva of the PRI. But Villanueva—currently in jail awaiting trial on drug trafficking charges—and his successors failed to follow through with promises of distributing legal titles and infrastructure. Although some households have gained deeds to their land, others are stuck in endless legal limbo and risk being evicted, and in some cases, government officials have colluded with wealthy developers to strip residents of their land. During the electoral season, however, it’s an entirely different story: land titles miraculously emerge and electricity, water and sewage hookups finally materialize.

Throughout his tour of the state, Marcos railed relentlessly against Mexico’s main political parties in all his public speeches. At the soccer stadium in Colosio, he said it took President Vicente Fox’s National Action Party (PAN) only six years to do what took the PRI more than 70: “the sale of the country, the destruction of Mexico’s dignity, and the embarrassing handover of our history, our land and our people to foreigners.” On the presidential candidates of Mexico’s other main parties he was no less scathing: “And just like the PAN are the other political parties: from that shameless thief of a criminal that calls himself Roberto Madrazo Pintado of the PRI, to Andrés Manuel López Obrador of the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), which is the same as the PRI but only with different colors, painting itself black and yellow” (a reference to the left-leaning PRD’s party colors).

Before Marcos’ arrival, Genoveva Batún, a petite Maya schoolteacher, was hopeful that his visit would shake things up: “Seeing how politics works right now, indigenous people aren’t involved, because it’s certain death. If we try to intervene, the government stamps us out. It’s like you don’t even exist. But the Zapatistas have support and they have systems in place that are trying to lift up indigenous peoples.”

She added, “What the Zapatistas are fighting for is just. They’re fighting for their rights as indigenous, fighting for support for their cause outside of politics.” When asked specifically about what she expected from the Zapatista visit, Batún remarked, “If we are to enter into politics, the first thing that needs to happen is that we need to be listened to, because if they don’t, then nothing will happen.”

As it turns out, Marcos got an earful. On a typical day, he would hold an intimate meeting with formal adherents to the Sixth Declaration, followed by a larger meeting with “sympathizers,” then end the evening with a public rally. The recurring themes of these meetings were local land disputes and the political party machinations surrounding these conflicts.

The first adherents to speak with Delegate Zero were two campesinos from Nicolás Bravo, a small farming community outside of Chetumal. More members of their ejido (communal lands) were expected to attend the meeting but trailers sent by the PRI arrived in their town that morning to distribute food, clothing and despensas, or monetary handouts, to entice the farmers to stay put. Determined not to miss face-time with Marcos, the elderly campesinos came to Chetumal to explain the problems faced by the people of their ejido.

The younger of the two campesinos began: “My particular worry is about Article 27 of the Constitution and the reformed agrarian issues. Here, in Quintana Roo, many ejidos have been holding meetings to see if we’ll enter into the PROCEDE (the government’s program to manage communal land privatization), and many indigenous don’t want to enter into it. And not all the ejidos are accepting the government’s proposal. So I wanted to ask you: what would this project do to our community?”

Marcos responded, “Since the reform by (former President) Salinas, and then followed by Zedillo and Fox, the state has been putting an end to the ejido and communally held property … by converting it into land that can be bought and sold. And so begins the economic offensive that impoverishes campesinos until they have nothing left other than their land. And the reform allows people to buy and sell it, but campesinos are poor and they can’t buy, which only leaves them the option to sell. So the people sell.”

Huddled around a small table, the exchange about PROCEDE continued for more than 20 minutes. The two campesinos jumped in at times to ask questions, nodding their heads in agreement with the Delegate’s response. They explained that every time the community has tried to organize itself independently of the political parties, the government swoops in to suppress them or to hand out despensas.

“Are you Marquitos?” asked another, much older campesino. “Yes,” replied the Zapatista. “Good. Well then, for thirty years we’ve been fighting, and we’re tired. And there’s no help.” The old man complained how, no matter the government in charge, his community remained mired in poverty and hopelessness. He grew more and more frustrated as he spoke about the politicians who have solicited his community’s support over the years. Finally at his breaking point, he fished into his pocket and, spitting out the politicians’ names, angrily began throwing their business-card-sized campaign propaganda one by one, onto the table in front of the Subcomandante.

In the meeting with sympathizers later that day, another heated land conflict was brought up, this one over the planned expansion of the Chetumal international airport. In the 1940s, the government illegally seized 229 hectares from the Chetumal ejido to build the airport, displacing the farmers. Since then, the campesinos have not stopped demanding compensation for their land. What’s more, the government recently moved to take more land from the residential area surrounding the airport. And once again, the state completely disregarded the proper proceedings, forcing the residents to accept a token payment.

The expansion of Chetumal’s airport is being undertaken under the auspices of the Plan Puebla-Panamá (PPP)—a World Bank–funded initiative for Central America and southern Mexico. The PPP airport expansion only emboldened the campesinos’ demands. “Plan Puebla-Panamá is nothing more than a perfect definition of the interests of a few foreigners in our country,” said Alvaro Marrufo, who came to speak with Marcos as a representative of the Chetumal ejido. “In an unmasked effort to take our lands,” he continued, “this land is being illegally commercialized by the state agency, which is the very authority that should, by law, be fighting for our rights as ejidatarios.”

Facing a similar problem, families from the beachside town of Mahahual, just north of Chetumal, banded together to fight against land grabs by resort developers as the region’s tourist boom continued its creep southward from Cancún. A swath of coastal land in Mahahual was sold from beneath their feet to Isaac Hamui Abadi, a wealthy developer with ties to former PRI Governor Joaquín Hendricks Díaz (the same governor who colluded with developers in Colosio to take settlers’ lands). Already, Abadi has built a wall around his property to prevent Mahahual’s residents from accessing the beach near his land.

One of the community’s leaders, Sergio Carvajal, handed Marcos a stack of letters he sent to state authorities asking the government to step in and resolve the conflict. The stack also had a smaller number of dismissive responses. One letter, this one penned by Carvajal, denounced the campaign of violence and intimidation against opponents of the land rush. He addressed the audience of the meeting, saying local struggles needed modes of communication or media that can alert the rest of the country and the world about the “load of reprisals, the load of injustices that the government sends our way.”

“When you all leave,” he said, nodding to the press and to the table where Marcos was sitting, “when the press is gone, when all of this is over, and everyone goes back to their houses, we’ll be left here to receive the repression that the government, political operatives or those in collusion with the government will surely hand out.”

After the speakers, the rebel spokesman stood up to address the meeting. He declared that the job of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) was to be a “bridge” between the different struggles taking place in Quintana Roo and those in the other states of Mexico, adding that the small group of local organizers now in place would keep holding meetings and spreading information through a soon-to-be launched Web site that will serve as the permanent lines of communication between all the participants in The Other Campaign. “Because right now we all have fears and they are individual and dispersed,” said Marcos, “but when our fears join with those of others, they turn into courage, as happened with us in the EZLN.”

Toward the end of his tour of Quintana Roo, Marcos summed up the Zapatista visit: “What we’ve seen in these days in your state are rebellious, dignified struggles. We have not found conformism or resignation. What we are proposing, and inviting, is for that organized rebelliousness and dignity to be known not only in Quintana Roo but in all of Mexico, and for your voice to join our voice, so that they become one—a movement of the left.”

Against all odds, the Zapatistas have once again ventured out of the jungles of Chiapas to propose a radical transformation of Mexico by, in their words, listening to and learning from “the simple and humble people who fight.” The shape and strategy of that transformation will be determined in the months to come as the organizing drive continues. The movement they are building has only just begun, as Marcos reminded his audiences, “but we already know that we are going to win. It may take a while, but we will win.” If Marcos is right, then that victory will not come with a dramatic bang like the one that ricocheted across the globe on January 1, 1994. In today’s world, as the Zapatistas have demonstrated, victory does not arrive as one definitive event; rather, it is constructed by many small ones.

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