Digging In Chiapas (Mexico)
Shaymus King is a member of the Easton Cowboys, a team of football-playing activists from Bristol. He sent this dispatch from the Chiapas jungle during a recent away fixture with the Zapatista guerilla's of Mexico.
The young kid welcomed us and steered the canoe over the river to his village on the other side. We had arrived in the autonomous community of Nueva Libertad (New Freedom) in the Zapatista heartland of Chiapas. This community is one of seven in this valley, occupied three years ago en masse by dispossessed indigenous people of the Zapatista organisation. All the communities have names from the history of 500 years of indigenous struggle. Twenty three young families live here now, with barely enough to eat, no access to health services, no school, and a lack of clean drinking water. In Chiapas, up to 80 per cent of indigenous people suffer from malnutrition, 50 per cent have no portable water and the average life expectancy is 44 years. This is the poverty which has created the Zapatista Army of National Liberation, or EZLN.
After a community assembly in which we presented ourselves, work began on installing a new water system to bring clean water to the village. Over the next two weeks we worked alongside the community, digging trenches, connecting pipelines, mixing cement, building a water tank, and got a brief insight into the grueling life of an indigenous peasant in Mexico. Sand, cement, gravel, rocks, piping everything had to be hauled across the river and carried, sometimes over two km, and backbreaking digging was not made any more easy by the blazing midday sun. But the companeros were clearly enjoying themselves, chuckling at our efforts to speak their language and to dig as fast as them. The jungle was filled with the whoops of collective work, as the Zapatistas kept digging like berzerkers, seemingly powered only by a tasteless drink made from maize and water! Their real strength, though, comes from years of struggle and a solid sense of autonomy and pride. This is the dignidad rebelde, or rebel dignity we'd heard so much about. It would be so much easier to accept a government water system, with all the strings attached, renounce the EZLN and get paid off. The Mexican government has always sought divide the indigenous people, and the politics of water are a clear example. In another community we worked in where there were serious divisions, we found the pipelines of an autonomous water system hacked open, undoubtedly by a government supporters machete.
The enemy within is the hardest thing to deal with, but the Zapatistas just persevere and carry on building. They have a determination borne of years of struggle; as I read on one mural: 'They want to exterminate us, but we wont let them'. No one gives in here. And after eight hours of exhausting work, everyday, the same question: "So are you up for playing football now then?" So follows four hours of relentless football, some momentous goals, and a further understanding of how this lot run rings around the Mexican army on their home ground. As the saying goes, ZAPATA VIVE. LA LUCHA SIGUE....ZAPATA LIVES. THE STRUGGLE CONTINUES.
Despite the declarations of the new Mexican president about new democracy and opportunities for all, and the efforts of the government to claim the movement for peace as its own, there is still a low-intensity war being waged against the indigenous people of Chiapas. There remain over 250 military in the state, and military intimidation and harassment of Zapatista communities continues. Right wing paramilitary groups still threaten Zapatista supporters, while some 15 Zapatista prisoners remain in jail. The Zapatista response to the new government was to inform President Fox that, with the indigenous communities of Chiapas, he was starting from zero. They demanded the fulfillment of three signals to show the government's willingness to meaningful dialogue, and to resolve the conflict in Chiapas.
So far five army bases have been withdrawn and Zapatista prisoners released amidst much media fanfare, but none of the demands have been fully met. Fox once declared that the problem in Chiapas could be solved in 15 minutes, by giving the indigenous a car, a TV and a little shop, but clearly, these insurgents are not so easily pacified. With such statements, Fox (previously a Coca-Cola executive) has shown his true colours, exposing both his neoliberal roots and intentions. He is widely regarded as a stooge for business interests, and none of the people we spoke to had any faith in the new government and regard Fox with extreme mistrust. Five hundred years of murderous trickery and broken promises are not quickly forgotten.
On 24th Feb this year the commandantes of the EZLN, headed of course by Subcommandante Marcos arrived in San Cristobal to begin the march for dignity, a 3,000 km long journey through 12 states to Mexico City. With them came hundreds of men, women and children of the autonomous communities; the bases de apoyo, or support bases, which have sustained the Zapatista uprising. This was the first time in 5 years that the Zapatista command left the Lacandon jungle, and a massive crowd was there to greet them. For the next two weeks, as civil society mobilised, the huge level of support for the Zapatistas throughout Mexico became clear. Everywhere thousands of people greeted the caravan with cries of No estan solos! You're not alone!. Despite three death threats, the commandantes arrived in Mexico City on 11th March, welcomed by the world's second largest square filled with over 100,000 people there to welcome them. The president was shut in his palace, and had nothing to say. It was clear who held the real power in Mexico.
The indigenous struggle for respect with Peace, Justice and Democracy looks set to continue in the face of powerful business interests and a compliant government, which in the words of Marcos is only interested in una paz mentirosa, a false peace, with a dove as an advertising logo. Confronted with overwhelming odds, the determined resistance of the Zapatistas has given inspiration to millions worldwide. Likewise, the Zapatista movement has been strengthened in many ways by an impressive show of international solidarity, which must go on. As they say in Mexico, Nuestra lucha es vuestra Our struggle is yours.
VIVA ZAPATISTA! - In Mexico for the Zapatista march to the Mexican capital in March 2001, Shaymus King interviews a young Zapatista guerilla in La Morelia - 11-April-2001