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Report Back from Final Sexta Encuentro
Article written by Rachel Wallis
Rachel writes about attending the final meeting of The Other Campaign on September 16th.
The weekend of the 16th of September, I traveled by bus and by truck through the mountains and jungles of Chiapas. I was traveling to the final meeting of the Sexta, or Sixth Declaration of the Lacondon Jungle. For the past six weeks, the Comandancia of the EZLN had been meeting with members of national and international civil society, political organizations, indigenous groups, women’s' and GBLT organizations, and individuals, to draw up a plan for a broad new leftist movement in Mexico. This final meeting was a space to begin to agree upon and concretize the character of what is being called "The Other Campaign". In the declaration that sparked these encuentros, it is described as “a national front that is peaceful, anti capitalist, and leftist. That creates another form of politics. That listens, and recognizes the limits of individual action and the need to unite in struggle. That will create a National Program of Struggle, and a new constitution. That will know and understand the multiplicity of struggles underway in all parts of the country, work in solidarity with them, supporting and learning from them, respecting their different ways of working, making decisions, strategizing and taking action. That will always be based on the search for mutual respect, growing organizations and struggles, and understanding and supporting the fight for humanity and against neoliberalism.”
This is not the first time that the EZLN has called for a national leftist movement in Mexico. In 96 there was the National Democratic Convention, which was to be headed up by PRD leader and former presidential candidate Cuauhtemoc Cardenas. When relations with the PRD soured, that idea was dropped. Later came the Frente Nacional Zapatista, a popular organization pushing Zapatista political aims from outside the structures of electoral politics. The Frente is still active in many parts of the nation, but it never grew into a truly popular movement. Despite these and other failures, thousands of people and organizations signed on to the Sixth Declaration. They did so for many reasons. First and foremost, after more than ten years of survival in Chiapas, the alternative project of the EZLN has the respect of many in Mexico. The current political climate in Mexico also has a lot to do with the response. Next year, the people of Mexico will be called upon to vote for one of a number of presidential candidates with little new to offer the nation. After the election of Vicente Fox four years ago, there was widespread hope that a new epoch of electoral democracy had begun in Mexico. After four years of more corruption, repression, and privatization, many in Mexico are willing to put their hopes in an electoral savior. Finally, the EZLN are not just repeating the mistakes of the past. While many of their earlier attempts at national movements were marked by a tendency towards centralized leadership, the Sexta seems to indicate a real willingness to listen, to follow, and to belong to a truly collective effort.
And so, for these and other reasons, more than two thousand representatives, press, Zapatistas and observers gathered to hear the Comandancia speak. At eight o clock, or seven, or nine, depending on whether you were counting by la hora de Fox (daylight savings time) la hora de dios, (rural community time, who have refused to adopt daylight savings) or la hora militar (zapatista army time, which will always be an hour ahead of the Mexican government) the proceedings began. Everyone squeezed into the community auditorium, sitting on benches or the floor or standing along the wall, as the press in the front scrambled to take pictures of the Comandantes as they entered.
First the Comandantas spoke, led by Comandanta Ramona, who greeted the crowd who were thrilled to see her, after her long absence and illness. Comandanta Esther spoke next, giving a powerful speech about the multiple oppressions of indigenous women, who faced the triple challenge of being poor, women, and indigenous. She also spoke about the need to fight for the dignity of Mexican women who migrate to the US, and are exploited both as laborers and as women.
After the rest of the Comandantas were introduced, the Comandantes spoke. Zebedeo touched on the economic power of the campo, through whose labor the riches of the country are produced. David discussed the history of oppression in Mexico, and how those oppressors, from the conquest forward, fed the fury of the indigenous, and taught them how to resist. Tacho ripped apart the political parties, speaking about their history of betrayal and enrichment, and that none of them hold any hope for the Mexican left. And finally Colonel Teniente Moises spoke about his formation as a member of the EZLN, the decision to rise up in arms, and the losses suffered in the uprising. Turning from the history of the struggle to the future of the movement being built at the meeting, Moises presented the term "vanguard", not as a political vanguard, but as a military term: the people who go out first to survey the terrain, search for threats, and report back to the rest of the army. He announced that Sub Comandante Marcos would be leaving Zapatista territory on the second of January, 2006, not as a political vanguard, to tell the movement what actions would be taken, but rather as a military vanguard, to survey the terrain of the Mexican left, and to compile that information, so it could be used to formulate "The Other Campaign."
With that, the Sub himself took the stage. He announced that starting on the second of January, he will be traveling to nearly every state in Mexico, taking with him only his words and his pipe, (and his computer). At each stop on his journey, local organizations will be responsible for providing food and housing, transportation and security. At each location, he will hold meetings to learn about the actions and struggles being taken by groups in the state, and to find out what they want from the Other Campaign. He will return to Chiapas at the end of June, just before the Mexican presidential elections, and the process of building the movement will truly begin.
The next morning the real work began. The agenda for discussion had six points:
• Did the assembled agree to the broad platform of The Other Campaign, as presented in the Sixth Declaration of the Lacondon Jungle, or did they have anything to add to it.
• Who should be permitted to join the national coalition?
• How should the coalition be organized?
• What should be the role of "differences" within the campaign (i.e. women, gblt people, the indigenous, children and elders etc...)
• How should the Other Campaign relate to other national coalitions and movements
• And finally what were the immediate tasks to be performed before the Sub's journey began.
Representatives of the groups who had already signed on to La Sexta were given five minutes to speak, as long as they remained on topic and presented concrete proposals.
The crowd was interesting and diverse, and would probably be nearly impossible to assemble in the US. It ranged in age from children to seniors. Probably more than half of those assembled were over the age of thirty five. There were representatives from unions, indigenous communities, feminist anarchist collectives, students, glbt groups and about twenty members of the Mexican communist party (Marxists-Leninist) complete with red flags and giant pictures of Marx, Lenin, and Stalin (that's right, Stalin.) There were all of the punks, hippies and internationals you would expect, but they were seriously outnumbered by normal, middle aged members of Mexican society, who had traveled for days to camp out in an indigenous community in the backwaters of Mexico and plan a broad national coalition to fight against capitalism, neoliberalism and privatization, racism sexism and homophobia, and to create an alternative to voting for the same political parties that have sold out their interests year after year. It was amazing. There has not been, and probably could not be, a similar meeting in the US.
The discussion of the first point of the agenda was the longest, and probably the most frustrating of all of the discussions at the meeting. Many of the speakers veered off topic, to present the aims and struggles of their group, or to insist that their particular battle be included in the platform of the Sexta, rather than just the broader actions of the campaign. But there were also a number of great points made. Mariana Mora, speaking for a group of awesome activists in San Cris, pointed out that making "diversities" a point on the agenda was in itself limiting and belittling, and that there should rather be concrete structures throughout every aspect of the campaign, to insure that the voices of the traditionally oppressed and marginalized are heard and represented. Many people expressed a concern that the focus of the movement be explicitly anti-capitalist, rather than using the broader language of "against neoliberalism and for humanity" because that language has been used by a number of supposedly "progressive" politicians and political parties in Latin America, who have nonetheless sold out the interests of the poor in their own countries. A Mexican American activist took the microphone to insist that the campaign include Mexicans living in the US. For too long the political decisions of the country have been made without their input, bi-lateral agreements supposedly in their interest have been negotiated without their presence, and their remittances have been used to enrich individuals, invest in speculative ventures, and support the machinery of capitalism, rather than building movements for social change. "Never again a Mexico without us" he ended, to copious applause.
At the end of more than four hours of discussion, the Sub took the mic to point out that reaching consensus at a meeting this large would be nearly impossible, particularly since many representatives would need to consult with their organizations before taking a stand on positions. Instead, he carefully read back each of the positions, pausing to make sure that each speaker agreed with his interpretation, and announced that they would be distributed for discussion among organizations, which would then be able to vote by way of a website being produced.
The rest of the points of the agenda went more rapidly. On of the key topics of discussion was the PRD (the supposedly leftist Mexican party, which is running Mexico city mayor Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, or AMLO, for president.) Some people insisted that any member of the PRD or supporter of AMLO should not be permitted to participate in the Campaign, but many more argued that a distinction should be made between the individuals who vote for the party, and the party officials. As one woman explained, many people still believe that AMLO represents a real possibility for progressive change in Mexico. Eventually they will become disappointed and disillusioned with the betrayals of the PRD, and when that moment comes, the Other Campaign needs be there to welcome them home.
Another major point of contention was the presence of sectarian leftist groups at the meeting. One of the first speakers to take the stand argued that Stalinism was a tumor on the leftist movement, and it needed to be exercised before its cancer spread. Many other presenters ended their speeches with "no a la Stalinismo!" People also debated the values of vertical vs. horizontal organizational styles.
It was the fourth topic, "differences" that was the most moving and interesting for me. I've always noted that most EZLN discoursed have included a call for solidarity with GLBT people and their struggles, but I mostly passed it off as lip service. That's why it meant so much for me to see speaker after speaker get up to the podium, identify as Gay or Lesbian, and express their support for the Other Campaign and demand for a place within it. One of the representatives mentioned that he has a drag persona he calls Brenda. He hoped that there would be a place for Brenda in the struggles to come. During the thundering applause that followed his speech, Simon shouted out "Viva Brenda!" A middle aged Mexican man sitting in the row in front of us, with a handlebar mustache and a straw hat, joined in with a cry of "Todos somos Brenda!" or "We are all Brenda!" We all laughed at the beauty of the moment, but then he turned around, his smile suddenly falling away. "No," he insisted, "I mean it seriously though."
As the fourth topic came to a close, I wandered off to bed, but the discussions of what other movements to ally with continued on until two. The next morning, as people began packing to begin the long journey home, the suggestions for immediate actions begin, albeit with a much smaller audience. During the closing presentations, Marcos reminded people that more than half of the signatories to the Sexta declaration were not present at the meeting. The work ahead would be to make sure that their voices were heard, and that they felt included in the plans and proposals. He also reaffirmed that the EZLN was also a signatory to the agreement, nothing more and nothing less. That their voice was only as important as the other voices in the coalition, and that neither the Comandancia nor the Sub would act as the spokesperson for the movement. Because of the number of people who left before the immediate actions could be discussed, the EZLN would put out statements in support of the most urgent actions, campaigns by the electrical and social security workers, but as an individual organization, and not as the Other Campaign. They encouraged signatories to the Sexta to support these actions in whatever way they could.
The work is only just beginning for the Campaign. The representatives will return to their communities and begin to discuss and debate the proposals. There is a long fight ahead to insure that women, queer folks, young people and the indigenous are truly represented in the voices and the leadership of the movement. Even as I write, communities are beginning to prepare to receive Marcos in a few short months. In San Cristobal, and throughout the Mexican Left, people are talking about the Sexta, proposing alternatives, and imagining what could be possible in the future of Mexico.
More than anything though, it was that sense of possibility that will stay with me from the meeting. Not the starry eyed, breathless, "another world is possible" possibility of the big US protests I’ve been to, but something meatier. Here were two thousand people, representing the more than seven hundred organizations that have signed on to the Sexta. These are experienced community, political, and union organizers, with years of struggle under their belts, who are ready to create something more. They are tired of empty political promises, tired of betrayal, tired of their country being sold out from under them by corporate interests and neo liberal agreements. They are tired of military and paramilitary violence. They are tired of racism and sexism and homophobia. And they are willing to work together to create a broader vision of what is possible in Mexico. There were no illusions that everyone's vision of the end goal of the movement would look the same, or that everyone had they same way of working. But there was a sense of understanding that the need was so great, and that enough spaces would be created for people to travel their own paths, that it was worth it to try. The Other Campaign won't begin its real work this year, and its struggle won't come to fruition for many years to come, but I hope to still be working to support the Zapatistas and other movements for justice in Mexico when it does.