EZLN supporters use their silence as a sign of protest — Photo by Victor Camacho
By Luis Hernandez Navarro
Translated from the original Spanish by Joe Keady
Originally published in: La Jornada, December 22, 2012
Nothing can reappear that never went away. By silently and peacefully occupying five cities in Chiapas this December 21, the Mayan Zapatista rebels did not reappear but rather reaffirmed their existence.
The EZLN has been here for more than 28 years. It never went away. It grew discreetly for its first ten years, then publicly announced its own existence more than 18 years ago. Since then it has sporadically spoken and remained silent, but it never stopped existing. Its disappearance or irrelevance has been declared time and again, but it has always resurfaced powerfully and meaningfully.
The start of the new Mayan cycle was no exception. More than 40 thousand Zapatista supporters marched in the rain in five cities in Chiapas: 20 thousand in San Cristóbal, 8 thousand in Palenque, 8 thousand in Las Margaritas, 6 thousand in Ocosingo, and at least 5 thousand more in Altamirano. It was the largest mobilization since the rebels first emerged in southeastern Mexico.
The scale of the protest is an indication of its internal power: far from declining in recent years, it has grown. It shows that the opposing strategy of counterinsurgency, carried out by the various governments, has failed. It demonstrates that their project is not only a genuine expression of the Mayan world but of many poor mestizo campesinos in Chiapas as well.
The EZLN has never left the national scene. Guided by its own political calendar, true to its own ethical consistency, and with the power of the state against it, it has strengthened its own forms of autonomous government and sustained its political authority among the indigenous villages within the country and its active solidarity networks internationally. If it does not always appear in public, that does not mean that it is not present in many significant struggles across the country.
Its supporters govern themselves, administer justice, and resolve agrarian conflicts through the five Boards of Good Government in the autonomous municipalities of Chiapas. In their territories, the rebels have established their own health and education systems independently of the state and federal governments, organized production and commerce, and maintained their military structure. They have successfully addressed the challenge of transferring leadership from one generation to the next. Moreover, they have effectively avoided the threats posed by the drug trade, public insecurity, and migration. The book Luchas muy otras. Zapatismo y autonomía en las comunidades indígenas de Chiapas [Other Struggles: Zapatismo and Autonomy in the Indigenous Communities of Chiapas] is an extraordinary window into some of these experiences.
This December 21, the Zapatistas staged a march that was orderly, dignified, disciplined, cohesive, and silent – and that silence resounded far and wide. Just as they have had to cover their faces to be seen, they were now refusing to speak in order to be heard. It was a silence that expresses a fertile capacity for other horizons of social transformation and a tremendous power from below; a silence that communicates the will to resist in the face of power from above: As Ivan Illich once said, “He who remains silent is ungovernable.”
One cycle of political struggle came to an end in Mexico this first of December at the same time that another began. The EZLN has a lot to say in the nascent map of social struggles that is starting to appear in this country. Its mobilization may have a strong impact on them.
Amid the contours that define the new stage of social struggle, we find: the return of the old PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party) dinosaur to the president’s office, with its Salinismo leadership style and its authoritarian use of state power; the pretense of social-conflict management based on an agreement among the elites that excludes the ranks of the subaltern; and the crisis, decomposition, and reorganization of the parliamentary left and the emergence of new social movements.
The EZLN is a new player that, without being invited, has taken a recently available seat at the national political table.
The Pacto por México, which was signed by the PRI, the PAN (National Action Party), and, individually, by the president of the PRD (Party of the Democratic Revolution) claims to establish a program of reforms without broad segments of society. The EZLN mobilization makes it clear that a very broad part of Mexican society has not been included in that agreement and that what its signatories have agreed upon does not necessarily have the citizens’ support.
The party of the Aztec sun (the PRD) is mired in an internal struggle that could fracture it. The New Left’s aspiration to yoke its destiny to the Peña Nieto government mortgages off any possibility of maintaining critical distance from power.
The National Regeneration Movement (known as Morena for short) has been jumping through organizational hoops to register as a party; the Organization of the People and the Workers (OPT) will probably follow suit. Nonetheless, there is a great deal of political and social territory that the parliamentary left has left vacant and the Zapatistas have undeniable political authority among its inhabitants.
In the past year and a half, social movements that question power have emerged outside of the political parties. They do not feel that they are being represented by any of them. The Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity, #YoSoy132, community struggles against public insecurity and ecological devastation, student protests in defense of public education, and others are not on the same paths as the institutional politicos. The sympathy toward Zapatismo among those groups is real.
But beyond this moment, the marches of the thirteenth Mayan baktun are a new ¡Ya basta! similar to the one that was spelled out in January 1994. They are a renewed way of saying ¡Nunca más un México sin nosotros! (Never again a Mexico without us!), as expressed in October 1996, that opens up new horizons. They ask for nothing and they demand nothing. They are demonstrating the power of silence. They are announcing the collapse of one world while another is being reborn.