Zapatista ethics: the difference between justice and vengeance

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Photo: Tim Russo

Angél Luis Lara

“What they did to Galeano pains and saddens us, but we will not stain our hands with blood for blood”, explains Subcomandante Insurgente Moisés. His words do not communicate a strategy; they express a true ethics.

I. The voice of Subcomandante Insurgente Moises sounds clear and sober. The Zapatista leader journeys through the Spanish language rolling the “s”, with the same singular cadence with which the Tzeltal, Tzotzil, Zoque, Mam or Tojolabal tongue climbs a hill or ensconces itself in a maize field. “Through my voice speak the pain and the rage of hundreds of thousands of indigenous men, women, children and elders of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation”. They murdered Galeano and the pain of the Zapatista peoples makes another entry in their file of centuries of cruel offences. Political and economic powers order, and paramilitary criminality obeys.

They ambushed Galeano and murdered him with three shots and a machete to the mouth, as if with those bullets and the criminal blade of that machete they hoped to stop the Zapatista heart of rebellion and silence the Zapatista word. Nothing else.

“If they could not finish us on the dawn of the first of January, 1994, they won’t now. Because it is our commitment to free this country, happen what may, whatever the cost.” The words of Subcomandante Moisés illustrate a journey from serenity to determination. It is the upside-down journey of someone who has already been there, and is now coming back.

“We come to resurrect Galeano”, Moisés says. Zapatismo always has its way back, and its upside-down world. In a planet put in line by the powerful, heading towards devastation and catastrophe, living backwards is not just a question of dignity and rebellion: it is, above all, the only possible path toward sanity. They killed Galeano for precisely that reason, for being Zapatista, in other words, dignified, rebel, and sane.

II. Vengeance and justice come from different roots. The first derives from the Latin word “vis”, which means strength and is also the root of words like violation and violence. The second is related to the Sanscrit term “yoh”, which means “heal and save”. Paramilitary practice associated with the war of counterinsurgency which Zapatista peoples suffer pursues the conversion of justice into vengeance. Paramilitary action has a double purpose: the production of fear and the reproduction of their mirrored image in the heart of the emancipatory project that they are trying to repress. Their objective is to cause the rebel they fight to become poisoned by his or her own sad passions. “To become like them”, said the other Galeano, called Eduardo.

Nonetheless, the Zapatista project consists of a systematic escape from all spectacular images of power and of the bad governments. Its conception and practice of justice emanate from a worldview that is radically other. Since they rose up in arms in January, 1994, Zapatista peoples have suffered a constant aggression that has sought to provoke a reaction in the form of vengeance. But the Zapatistas are very other. They have responded to war with peace. They have always opposed vengeance with justice. "What they did to Galeano pains and saddens us, but we will not stain our hands with blood for blood", explained Subcomandante Insurgente Moisés. His words do not communicate a strategy; they express a true ethics.

5-24-2014-La-Realidad-Galeano-II-238-582x450III. Galeano was a teacher in the Little School ["Escuelita"] in which in the past year the Zapatista peoples have shared their ways of life with the world. Thousands of students arriving from different corners of the planet have had the opportunity to participate in a process of co-learning in which they were accompanied by a Votán, a Zapatista teacher with whom they lived, day and night. Galeano was one of them.

Each student of the Little School carries like a treasure their stories and their own account of the intense experience they had. Mine has to do with learning about the deeply decolonial character of Zapatista practise and worldview, and with a revolutionary project that is rooted primarily in the fabric of the emotions and in the transformation of habits: more in the immanent territory of the body than in the impenetrable dream of consciousness.

A substantial part of my learning had to do with the relevance of joyful passion in Zapatista ways of life, fundamentally with the central role that the practice of friendship plays in the constitution of social relations, normative structures, and forms of politics.

The profundity of intersubjectivity and of friendship in the praxis of the Zapatista peoples reaches a rare intensity in the relation with the Other, with the different, with that which is not Zapatista. "We came back to the community and there was nothing left, because all of the brothers that stayed, who are priistas [PRI supporters], took advantage", says Miriam, a Zapatista support base from Morelia. "(…) but that recuperated land is in the hands of the priistas, who are the brothers from Agua Clara", Floribel, ex-member of the Autonomous Council, continues. "That paramilitary brother killed, not because of his brotherly being, but because he has been confused by the bad government and the landowners. I lose my dignity if I do the same thing that he did to me", notes Aníbal, the Votán who taught me during my days in the Zapatista Little School. When the enemy is defined as a brother, and the cause of the crime is distanced from the individual, it leads into a dialectic of conflict that is very other, and an openly diverse practice of justice. In Zapatista territory, criminality possesses eminently social roots, and does not result from a particular quality of the individual. "We do not look for vengeance, we will avenge ourselves, but against capitalism", Subcomandante Insurgente Moisés has said about Galeano’s murder.

IV. Does all this mean that in Zapatista territory, crimes are not paid for or punished? No. "For the tricked murderers, justice will be made", said Moisés. What he means is that justice, for the Zapatistas, is opposite to vengeance, and something quite different from Law. The reality of justice for the Zapatistas marks a distance from the punitive rationality of the State. In Zapatista territory punishment consists less of separating the person that commits a crime from spaces and times of sociability through imprisonment, and more of the intensification of social integration through community work. "Our law is to prevent and to give life to our peoples. For us, justice is the reason, how we are going to help the brother or sister become whole again. What we want is to put them back together", Aníbal, my Votán in the Zapatista Little School, taught me.

Iván Illich said that every time someone tries to use the Law as a tool for the transformation of society, the powerful make the same objection: not everyone can be a lawyer. Justice for Zapatista men and women is something else. "It is a justice from below, controlled and overseen from below [underseen] and carried out by everyone", Aníbal told me. The profoundly democratic character of the normative Zapatista regime relies on the participatory nature of the administration of justice: from below to above. Neither does the military wing of the movement operate differently: "But we cannot do what we want, but must respect and obey our peoples, concerning what is the path we have to take and what we have to do as the EZLN that we are", Moisés explains.

Through centuries of rebellion against the imposition of the status of objects, the Zapatista peoples ended up not knowing how to conceive of anybody as an object. The Zapatista agent of justice is a mediator who imposes a frame of dialogue and negotiation to resolve issues. Whilst the Law places accused and accuser before the State, that Zapatista mode of making justice tries to recompose the relationship between both: accused and accuser do not enter into a relationship of delegation and dependence on a higher authority, but participate in an attempt to restore the relationship between both. In this way, the dialogic character of the administration of justice converts those affected themselves into the subjects of the enactment of justice. If the judicial system of the State always constitutes an exercise of hetero-determination, Zapatista justice is related to the exercise of self-determination mediated by the community and the authorities.

What underpins the Zapatista modes of politics, government and justice is a displacement from the universal, conceived of as that which exists in each one of us, towards the common, which is always founded in the relation between us. It is, perhaps, the difference between a universal law and a justice of the common. Certainly, it is a rationality that is very other, ultimately obsessed with the restitution of relationships and social ties, until the gravity of crime imposes the harshness of sanction and punishment.

Translated by Andrew Green

For Dorset Chiapas Solidarity posted 20/06/2014


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