Democratic and Participatory Production in the Zapastista Areas of Chiapas

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Antonios Broumas:

"On January 1, 2003, and after having exhausted all means of dialogue with the government, the EZLN chose to abandon the politics of demand and concentrate on building institutions of participatory self governance and economic management in oppositional autonomy vis a vis the Mexican state.

With its Sixth Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle, dated June 28, 2005, the EZLN sided with non - electoral politics and a new political culture of horizontal autonomy, in a continuous struggle to build from bottom up ―a world where many worlds fit. Along these lines the indigenous zapatista movement has constructed self–governing communities in its territories, which are confederated in five autonomous municipalities, called the ― Caracoles. Each Caracol is governed by a Council of Good Government, which rotates every two weeks so as for every citizen within its jurisdiction to serve in self–governance. The Councils of Good Government take decisions on local issues of food, health, education and taxation, allocate resources, build social infrastructure and also enact communal laws. In addition, production and economic management in the zapatista communities is organised through social cooperatives and communal property. Whilst the EZLN with its political clout and military power acts as the ultimate guardian of the communities' well–being, it recognises the right of the people to possess arms and defend against the Mexican state or even EZLN and is under its own acts of constitution explicitly forbidden to intervene to communal matters within the Caracoles. The Mexican state, having never officially recognized the political and economic institutions of the zapatista movement, constantly mobilizes its state and paramilitary armed forces to reportedly wage low intensity warfare against the communities. Yet, the zapatista territories, although the most prominent, are not the only regions of Mexico, where communities of struggle have constructed non–state institutions for their collective survival. Almost ten years after the Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca was crushed by the State, the city is again in turmoil because of massive social mobilisations with the most recent incident being the mutiny of part of the local police force on labour demands and its open clash with the federal police for days. Furthermore, long before but, especially, after the kidnapping and assassination of 43 students from the local college of Ayotzinapa, while they were protesting against the mayor of Iguala, self - organised citizen militias in several parts of the region of Guerrero have been formed to defend their communities from the state and the drug cartels. All in all, Mexico may be one of the most illustrative cases of neoliberal creative destruction, where dualities of power emerge in the ruins of state disintegration at the same time with drug mafia enclaves and territories of capitalist domination / exploitation unleashed." (


Fascinating updated (2013) description of the movement and its achievements by Francois Houtart:

"Up until now we have concentrated on the general context of the development of the Zapatista movement, but what about its internal practices? As we saw, Chiapas is one of the poorest regions of Mexico, where the land tenure system had excluded and marginalized the indigenous populations, pushing them into the mountains and the forests. They received no benefit from the oil revenues or the large plantations, particularly those producing agrofuels. Natural wealth benefited Mexican private and international interests. Tourist activities form an economic enclave, while the ‘development projects’ and the construction of infrastructures are part of counter-insurrection strategies. Meanwhile, as we have seen the levels of infant mortality and illiteracy remain high. Health and educational facilities are lacking. Numerous indigenous peoples rub shoulders with each other but they seldom really mix. Their languages are despised and their traditional beliefs folklorized. It is true that they are juridically recognized as being human beings, but what does that mean in actual fact?

A society that needs to be built on another basis rather than capitalism

It is clear for the Zapatistas that the capitalist organization of the economy is socially perverse. It has destroyed the very foundations of life in common, favouring individual property over common needs and transforming the country and its various regions into ‘domains’ of international capital. The movement has evoked the long history of the indigenous peoples and a return to the collective memory of how the original peoples of the continent had been reduced to slavery as from the end of the 15th century. They were forced to produce the precious metals that were to serve as a base for the primitive accumulation of European capital. They also had to work as agricultural labour in the plantations until they became almost extinct and the survivors were obliged to take refuge in the mountains and the forests. The independence movements of the 19th century, promised by the creole elites, never recognized the history and identity of the autochthonous peoples while the expansion of agrarian capitalism transformed them into cheap agricultural labour.

In Mexico, in spite of the revolutionary efforts at the beginning of the 20th century, which had reconstituted the collective land of the indigenous peoples (the ejidos) and recognized part of their traditional social organization, the original populations were unable to make their presence felt as a constitutive part of Mexican society. It is important to know this to understand the meaning of the Zapatista revolt. Neoliberalism, which has been dominant since the end of the 1970s, has succeeded in sweeping away the conquests of the revolutionary past. Little by little, the whole country has become embroiled in the logic of a deregulated market, external debt is groaning under the weight of interest payments, the oil income has been monopolized by a minority, unequal relations with the economies of the North have grown, and finally the last vestiges of agrarian reform have been suppressed. The PRI, the party that emerged from the revolution, has gradually put it itself at the service of the capitalist project and, deeply corrupt as it is, organizes its political reproduction through election after election.

The ceremonies organized in 1992 for the 500th anniversary of the ‘Encounter between Civilizations’, as the Spanish Government called it, or ‘The Conquest’, as most Latin American peoples see it, heightened the awareness of the indigenous peoples all over the continent. It was an opportunity to come out of clandestinity, to affirm their cultures as a way of life, to make the structure of their collective organization known, as well as their traditional leaders, the value of their religions and their cosmovision. Gradually an identity was revealed which, although it had been repressed, had never completely disappeared. In various places, as in Ecuador, Bolivia and even in Guatemala from the 1980s it has turned out to be a political force.

And yet, in Mexico as elsewhere, the awakening of the indigenous peoples never appeared as separatism. In Chiapas, the different Maya peoples clearly state that they are Mexicans. What they are demanding is their place in the national society. In the Zapatista municipalities and in the caracoles, all public functions take place under the national Mexican flag. The ‘separatist danger’ of the indigenous movements was once a slogan of the Mexican urban bourgeoisie who were evidently afraid of losing their hegemony over the political system. It analyzed the movement in cultural and political terms and did not realize that the Chiapas ‘indigenism’ was gradually becoming a socio-economic force which, while obviously criticizing the political system as the institutional guarantee of the economic system, never questioned the national identity. That there are still nostalgic desires for a return to a past that has been idealized among the original peoples is more than probable, but this is the last reproach to be levelled against the Zapatistas, who have succeeded in making a synthesis between the affirmed indigenous identity and the critique of capitalism as a system of exclusion within Mexican society.

The whole problem therefore consisted in putting the declared principles into action. According to their original orientation, the Zapatistas have acted at the level in which they were able to control, that is the local, their territories. Reorganizing production of the material basis of human existence (the economy) outside the logic of accumulation was one of their first objectives. For this it was necessary to abolish private property of the land as the basis of agricultural production. Thus the recovering of the collective lands of the Indian communities was undertaken, together with the democratic organization of exploiting them. Cooperatives have been organized for the production and marketing of products and the surplus utilized to finance equipment for common usage. Other cooperatives have also been set up which, among other things, contributed to mobilizing so many people for the demonstrations of 21 December 2012.

In the first of three communiqués issued at the beginning of January, Sub-Commander Marcos, in the name of the Clandestine Revolutionary Indigenous Committee and the Zapatista National Liberation Army, emphasized that the manner in which they had responded to the needs of the communities had had positive results over the last 19 years. Agricultural productivity (strictly organic, i.e. without using chemical or transgenic products) has been greater in the Zapatista groups, compared with the other communities. According to local witnesses, this is especially the case of coffee destined for exportation. This has made it possible, in spite of the absence of any public subventions and violent and recurrent attacks, to finance common services. (Between 1995 and 1999 there had been many attacks and forced displacements of people; in June 2012 there were numerous victims in the mountains in the centre of the country.)

Returning to Marcos’s communiqué, he said that in some areas non-Zapatistas came to use the movement’s health services, considering them more efficient. It should also be added that international solidarity had played a non-negligible role by financing part of these services. However the crisis being what it is and the fact that the Zapatista experience has been going on for nearly two decades, it was logical that this assistance would diminish. It thus had to be compensated by local efforts.

The production initiatives, as in all collective social and political organization, need appropriate forms for the basic philosophy of the movement, that is, the participation of everyone, or direct democracy. Of course, the traditional social practices of the indigenous peoples could be a source of inspiration. But they too were not exempt from ‘caciquismo’ and ‘machismo’. It was therefore necessary to redefine the exercise of power and this was one of the fundamental tasks of the movement, as the writings of the Sub-Commander bear abundant witness.

To avoid power becoming an objective in itself, thus losing its function of serving an end, the communities are constantly consulting among themselves, for example, selecting those to be responsible for the management of various degrees of power, while those holding responsibilities for municipal tasks and the Councils are elected by the communities as a whole. Also there is consultation, in the case of important decisions, to obtain the views of the grassroots. The regular presentation of the management accounts by all those responsible became systematic and, to avoid the institutionalization of power, a rotation system was set up. In the caracoles, for example, this is done every fortnight and the service is voluntary, with no payment. The basic needs (food, lodging) of those designated by the communities and the municipalities are taken care of – at a simple level. Thus it is not a privilege. Equality of the sexes is strictly respected.

All this could seem to be somewhat utopian or, as Bernard Duterme has written, inspired by a ‘libertarian spirit’ (B. Duterme, 2011) and it is well that it is so. However, this experience has been going on for over 20 years. There is no doubt that it is a question of ‘learning by walking’, as they say and one should not idealize a social organization of collective management as though it is above reproach, or as though they were ‘people born before original sin’ (as Franz Hinkelammert, the philosopher of German origin, said, with such sympathy, in referring to Nicaragua). Fidelity to participatory and direct democracy comes at a price: nothing is done quickly. This also connects up with the traditional indigenous conception of time which is cyclical and not linear. The symbols of the caracol and the spiral embody this perfectly. But, at least, what is constructed is built on solid ground.

Achieving the equality of sexes in exercising the collective tasks is also a principle that sometimes seems to work against efficiency because the behaviour of the women has been affected by so many centuries of submission. Having participated in numerous meetings in municipalities and the caracoles, I could not help noticing it. Even if the numbers of men and women are mathematically the same, the former leave little time for the latter to speak, while the latter are not always very keen to come forward. The heavy weight of culture cannot be corrected by decrees. It is true that the Popol Vuh, the great Maya mystical narrative, described creation as the result of the joint action by a double divinity, male and female, and that the categories opposing so-called ‘Occidental’ thinking are expressed in terms of complementarity. But in all societies, myths stem more from theory or utopia, rather than from reality.

Some people have concluded that the Zapatistas despise power. Their attitude towards national politics reinforced this belief. Hence the idea that they were faithful disciples of John Holloway who, in his book that became famous, put forward the idea that it was possible to change society without taking power (J. Holloway, 2001 ). Nothing could be further from the Zapatista position, as has been shown by authors such as Carlos Antonio Aguirre Rojas (2010,181-184) , Jérôme Baschet (2009,31) and Bernard Duterme (2009). In fact there is no contempt at all for politics among the Zapatistas that exercise power, but rather the desire to ‘do politics in another way’. How useful is it to govern, dispossessing the population of their capacity to act in order to concentrate power in the hands of interests who are not concerned about the people? Thus it is necessary to reconstruct society from below, taking whatever time this requires.

The Sixth Declaration of the Lacandona Forest clearly states: “Do we say that politics are of no use? No, we say that it is this kind of politics that is useless. And this is so because it does not take the people into account, it does not listen or take any notice of them, only contacting them at elections … (For this reason) … we are trying to construct, or reconstruct, another way of doing politics” (cited by Carlos Antonio Aguirre Rojas, 2010,177).

The basis of the organization of power is therefore self-government. This functions at the levels of the communities, the municipalities and even the Good Government groups within the caracoles. But what will be the relationships with the Mexican states, not to mention with the national Mexican federation? Is the geographic and demographic dimension not a factor that changes the very quality of the exercise of power? Obviously the Zapatistas have not been able to experiment in the field and their practical attitude in this respect has been to reject the existing forms, which seems to bring them close to anarchist theses. But looking more closely, and not excluding a certain sympathy for these positions, one can see that they have a dose of realism which does not exclude the possibility of a political formation at the national level, at the service of the people, which is not corrupt but which is effective. However, it is clear that in the present circumstances, the movement wants to concentrate on building up another power where it is possible to do so, namely at the local level.

As the Zapatista municipalities spread out to join with others over half the territory of the state of Chiapas, a question also arises about the relationships between such different bodies. The former are all self-governed, but without any support at all from the regional or federal authorities and so they must create their own tax base. The latter receive official contributions and subsidies, but they are strictly controlled: it is essential that they remain within the tutelage of the state for the political project of counterweight to the Zapatistas, the attraction being better services. The two jurisdictions co-exist in the municipalities and in the case of the small town of San Andrés, for example, this works out fairly well. An agreement was reached to share certain tasks: the Zapatistas are responsible for rubbish collection and public hygiene.

On the other hand there is no possibility of establishing a modus vivendi between the two different systems in fields such as health and education, because the basic philosophy is very different. Preventive health care is the organizational basis of the Zapatistas while the content of their education, at different levels, has been adapted to the basic needs of the communities, their history, their situation in the country and in the world. And this is valid both for the primary schools which have multiplied over the last few years and for the secondary schools whose pupils are sent and financially supported by the communities. The Earth University (CIDECI-UNITIERRA) is no exception, in spite of its autonomous status. It is situated, by a happy chance, in the Colonia Nueva Maravilla on the outskirts of San Cristobal de las Casas and built entirely by Zapatista volunteers. Its buildings stretch right to the foothills of the mountain and the main auditorium can hold over 1,000 people in simple conditions. It teaches both technical and humanist knowledge. Its director, Dr. Raymundo of the Gregorian University of Rome, keeps a discreet, but authoritative control over the whole establishment. His office is situated in the centre of the campus and it emits classical music all day which inspires his work and thoughts.

The municipalities and above all the Good Government Councils at the level of the caracoles also resort to traditional justice. This is one of the demands of all the indigenous peoples of the continent. They believe, in fact, that certain causes are best defended at this level because they are not taken into consideration by modern law, particularly in the field of land tenure. In addition, they also think that the compensation penalties (to work for the family of the victim or for the community) are much more effective socially speaking than punishments like prison or fines.


The socio-political organization

The Zapatista institutions function at three levels. The first is that of the communities, based on the traditional structures and roles, both for exercising organizational tasks and at the symbolic level. The basic principles are autonomy and direct democracy. The second level (marez) is constituted by the autonomous communes and the municipalities, of which the authorities are elected by the communities. They correspond, while transforming them, to the administrative bodies introduced by colonization and reproduced by independence. As such they carried out classic administrative tasks and shared the territory with non-Zapatistas.

The Good Government Councils, organized since 2003 in the form of caracoles, form the third level, coordinating the two other levels. This is where the common services of administration, health, education and justice operate when they cannot be dealt with by the two lower levels. All the decisions of these Councils have however to be approved at the grass roots, by the communities, in accordance with the principle “command by obeying”. A collective that exists at three levels makes it possible to ensure a constant flow of information. All this enables the Zapatistas to claim, in their communiqué of 30 December (of which more later): “Not without many mistakes and numerous difficulties, we already have another way of doing politics.”

The Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) has its own particular structure. It was created in the Lacandona Forest during the 1980s, run by Marcos and composed essentially of indigenous people from different Maya nationalities up to the highest grades. It was the EZLN that launched the operations in 1994 that occupied the main towns of Chiapas, Since the ceasefire, they have withdrawn to the forest in the south-east of the state and no longer undertake military actions, although they have not disbanded and will not do so until the Agreements of San Andrés have been applied. To keep it operational, each community annually provides a certain number of young men and women, to do their military service. The army is above all composed of permanent insurgents and reservists who have to update their training from time to time."