Raúl Zibechi: Latin America Today, Seen From Below
Mexico and the Zapatistas
Here Raúl Zibechi offers a wide-ranging look at the geopolitical reality of the continent from the perspective of social movements, touching on the organizing model of the indigenous Chilean Mapuche and Mexican Zapatistas, conflicts occurring over the extraction industries in many countries, and the increasingly dominant role of Brazil in the region.
Raúl Zibechi is a Uruguayan writer, professor and analyst whose newest book “The New Brazil: Regional Imperialism and the New Democracy” was just published in English by AK Press.
Original interview published in the June 2013 issue MU Magazine, from the La Vaca popular media collective in Buenos Aires. Translated by Margi Clarke.
I am pro Zapatista. And from that sympathy, I am enthusiastic that they have gone into hiding in the last 6 years, disappeared according to conventional media. But in those 6 years of silence they have become ever more autonomous: they have their health system, their educational practices, their own production, their power, their own armed forces. They are their own society, their own world. Last December  they decided to demonstrate this with a march: forty thousand participants with hoods marching without saying a word. Forty thousand people who had to come from very long distances, some having to walk 2 or 3 days to get to the nearest county seat. And they did it. Their level of logistical organization has no precedents and it clearly shows their level of organizational development: forty thousand people doing the same thing at the same time. All walking in silence, their fists raised, the only sound their boots marching on the paving stones, without speaking and the men carrying the children. This was the evidence of what they have been doing for the past several years.
MU: So what is Zapatismo at this time, in terms of social organization?
In the state of Chiapas there are 5 “caracoles” (snails), which are areas controlled by the Zapatistas, each with slightly different levels of development. The most well-known are Oventic and La Realidad deep in the Lacandon jungle near the border with Guatemala. In these zones of control they have Good Government Councils, production cooperatives, primary school and secondary school and a hospital. They are truly autonomous communities. A special aspect of the health system is that nearby villagers, even if you are not a Zapatista you can be seen for free. All this they have done without money and without the State and without international cooperation: they have support of some Mexican civil society groups who are in solidarity and from their own labor. The caracoles in this way have built everything they need to live and their own power structures to administer it all. At the community level the ruling body is the assembly. A gathering of 30 communities is an autonomous municipality. The network of municipalities makes up the Good Government Council, which controls the caracol. The caracol is thus the physical zone of autonomy, and the Good Government Council is the political space.
MU: How does the Council function?
Through the elected representatives from each autonomous municipality. The interesting thing is that these representatives change every 15 days or every month. The Councils have between 10 and 20 members, with men and women in equal numbers. Acaracol can include up to 200 communities, which means we are talking about 20,000 people or more. These people participate in a rotating political system: there are no permanent representatives. Every 15 days or every month, the governing body’s composition changes. Imagine what this means in real terms: calculate how many people over all these years who have had a concrete experience of what power and representation means.
MU: What is most inspiring to you about the Zapatista experience?
I would not say that it is a general tendency (in Latin America) but I do say that there is a growing political tension that puts in question the role of the State, and among the Zapatistas this is true in way not seen in any other popular movement. And now they have gone another step further: they have created a Zapatista political school. It is only be invitation and they invitation says: ”Well, you who never spoke against us when that was the fashion, can come to this school. We are not going to pay your way here, but once you are here you can share our food and our home with us.” When you get to the school you find that the villagers are the professors. The students come to listen and learn. These special invited students are intellectuals, unionists, social movement leaders, we who are more accustomed to speaking and being listened to, not to learning and much less going to school to listen to others. How could I not be inspired by an experience like this?