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San Cristobal de las Casas: NAFTA Theme-Park PDF Print E-mail
Justice News
Sunday, 23 January 2005 03:44
San Cristobal de las Casas: NAFTA Theme-Park

11 Years After the Zapatistas Took San Cristobal de las Casas, This Colonial City Has Become a NAFTA Theme Park.
John Ross's BLINDMAN'S BUFF incorporates and expands on his
weekly report from Mexico, MEXICO BARBARO, focusing in on global
hotspots from Bolivia to Baghdad. Copyright 2005 by John Ross.
Period: Jan. 15-22, 2005, #54


It has been 11 New Years now since ski-masked Mayan Indian rebels marched into this colonial citadel in the very first hour of that beacon of corporate globalization, the North American Free Trade Agreement, and declared war on the Mexican government. But on New Year's Eve 2005 this majestic highland city where the Zapatista rebellion was born is looking more and more each day like a NAFTA theme park.

In the past year, San Cristobal city officials have inaugurated a sprawling mall (a monster Wal-Mart is contemplated) replete with the highlands' first McDonald's and a 10-plex Cineopolis movie palace (a threat to the city's flourishing network of cine clubs). Holiday Inn has come to Los Altos, morphing San Cris into just another branch office tourist town, and Coldwell Banker, the international real estate cartel, sells the picturesque homes that line the city's narrow, gleaming cobblestone streets to well-heeled foreigners.

Just to make the global makeover a fait accompli, two maquiladoras (foreign-owned export assembly plants) are doing business north of the city under the logos of KN Knitwear and SpinTex, taking advantage of the cheap pool of Indian labor in Los Altos to turn out knockoff sportswear for Target and other US retail titans.

This past New Year's eve the now-historic Jan. 1, 1994 rebellion of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) was not being celebrated at the Cafe Revolucion, a (mostly) European tourist hangout on San Cristobal's popular pedestrian promenade-- a commercial zone literally trashed by the Zapatistas when they marched 21,000 strong into the city on New Year's Day 2003.

To the great relief of the good burghers of San Cristobal, this year the rebels were content to stay home, nestled into the mountains and jungles of southeastern Chiapas, where they marked the 11th anniversary of the EZLN's breakthrough into public consciousness (the Zapatistas have actually been around for 21 years now) at the five "caracoles," or cultural-political centers, the rebels have constructed throughout their zone of influence.

Up at Oventic, an hour's drive from San Cristobal into the chilly, scalloped mountains, several thousand Tzotzil Indian villagers and a gaggle of internationalists (less of a gaggle than last year for the Zapatistas' 10th) welcomed in a new year of struggle with spirited speeches and pinging marimbas. On a stage ringed by a hundred highland village elders in be-ribboned sombreros and short chujs (serapes), Leticia, a young member of the Oventic "Junta de Buen Gobierno," or "Good Government Committee," spoke of the Zapatistas' prolonged struggle for autonomy: "It has been 11 years of war against the mal gobierno ["bad government"], 11 years of war against hunger and every kind of injustice, 11 years of war against oblivion and death," she lamented, "but also 11 years to build and strengthen our autonomy as Indian people living upon this land."

All of the New Year's Eve speakers were drawn from the ranks of civil Zapatismo, members and past-members of the Juntas de Buen Gobierno, which now administer the Zapatista infrastructure. It has been many years since EZLN military commanders have spoken at the Oventic ceremony--but behind ski masks and bandannas, out in the shifting night fogs that blanket this mountainous terrain, the legendary guitar-playing Comandante David and Major Ana Maria, who led the assault on San Cristobal Jan. 1, 1994, were no doubt auditing the proceedings.

And at least one sighting was reported of the late crusading newspaperman Amado Avendano Figueroa, the Zapatistas' great friend and Chiapas "governor in rebellion," whose ghostly presence was seen prowling the slippery slopes of Oventic this past New Year's Eve. Amado Avendano was cut down by a cerebral hemorrhage last April thought to have been caused by an assassination attempt during his maverick campaign for the Chiapas governorship 11 years ago--Avendano always accused the mal gobierno of orchestrating the attempt.

Oventic is only a 45-kilometer drive up from the Valley of Jovel, but it sometimes seems to be whole solar systems removed from San Cristobal. The gap between the communitarian autonomy the rebels are building and the garish, franchise-driven commercialization of that colonial nexus grows more painful each year, a sad meditation on the ever-expanding distances between the decapitalized Mexican countryside and the magnet provincial cities now swollen with impoverished refugees from the nation's rural villages.

Halfway through the first decade of the new millennium, campesinos have become an anachronism in a Mexico that now depends upon the global food chain for its sustenance, and the struggle of indigenous peoples for control of their own destinies no longer seems pertinent to a national agenda obsessed with "free trade," and which is subordinated to the infinite squabbles between venial political parties for power. In a very real sense, the Zapatistas are building not only an alternative state in southeastern Chiapas but also a parallel reality.

It is fashionable on the Left these days to critique the EZLN for having abandoned national politics for a narrow and even separatist vision of indigenous autonomy. But the Zapatistas defend their focus on constructing the infrastructure of autonomy--schools, clinics, organic coffee coops, the Juntas de Buen Gobierno--as essential stepping stones to controlling their own lives without accommodating the mal gobierno and its military, the political parties and the churches, the
anthropologists and the NGOs. Such autonomy, they are convinced, will guarantee Indian survival in the face of the brutal corporate globalization of the planet.

To do business in the Zapatista zone these days, national and international NGOs are required to develop their projects in collaboration with the local Juntas de Buen Gobierno, anthropologists seeking access to Zapatista villages must now count with an endorsement from the JBGs, and even a reporter soon to launch his fourth chronicle of the Zapatista rebellion has to work hand in hand with the local Junta. 

Education has become a galvanizing issue for civil Zapatismo, with nearly 300 rebel schools up and running in EZLN territory, a teacher training center turning out young education promoters in the most remote Zapatista geography at La Culebra, and even a "Universidad de la Madre Tierra" (University of Mother Earth), to be financed by organic coffee sales, on the drawing board. "Thousands of Indian kids who never dreamed of going to school are taking classes every day," marvels Arturo Lomeli, a filmmaker who has been recording the Zapatista rebellion for the
past decade. 

Although the Zapatista educational system was first seeded by NGOs like the US-based Schools for Chiapas, the rebels are quick to exercise dominion, disputing press claims that the charismatic "Pedro Cafe" (Peter Brown), an avuncular San Diego bilingual teacher whose Schools for Chiapas financed the first projects, controls rebel curriculums--Brown has reportedly been barred from Oventic for six months, and his absence was conspicuous at this year's anniversary ceremonies.

"Our educational initiative is the result of the hard work of Zapatista men, women and children and not that of someone who does not come from our culture, speak our language or understand our history," the EZLN's highland educational commission affirmed in a recent communique distributed by Enlace Civil. "We are seeking to rescue our own history, and only we can do that for ourselves."

On New Year's Eve 2005 the Zapatistas' fierce dedication to building a viable autonomy found a distant echo in the far-off sierra of Michoacan state 750 miles to the northwest when Purepecha Indian militants took a page from the EZLN book and declared the town of Paracho an autonomous municipality--several majority-Indian towns outside of Chiapas, notably Tepoztlan,
Morelos, and Suljaa', Guerrero, have similarly declared themselves autonomous of the state and federal governments emulating the Zapatista model.

Building autonomy in the Indian countryside that surrounds the cities of Mexico has resonance with both the writings of Chinese revolutionist Lin Piao and the contemporary resistance in Iraq, where the insurgency now controls the countryside between the urban centers. In the EZLN's own gestation, the struggle between local communities against a municipal (county) government that controlled all commerce, government funds and political power led to the formation of 29 autonomous municipalities with distinct county seats that and the rejection of all government aid.

Now, in the 11th year of the EZLN's unique rebellion, as the divide between the NAFTA-ized cities and the abandoned countryside becomes more critical in Mexico, the Zapatista model of autonomy is increasingly pursued as the moat viable guarantee of survival for the nation's 20 million indigenous peoples. 

John Ross is at home on the Aztec island of Tenochtitlan nursing a bum back. Pray for him--and buy his latest instant cult classic, Murdered by Capitalism--A Memoir of 150 Years of Life &
Death on the US Left.

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Last Updated on Sunday, 23 January 2005 03:44

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