Zapatista Democracy

by Brian Miller, ’01

The Zapatista movement as I experienced it through my time in Chiapas Mexico struggles to foster a system of decentralism rather then the more common mainstream political discourse of decentralization of power. In the latter there inherently must be a central power from which power is distributed, whereas in a model of decentralism organic autonomy flourishes through place-appropriate political and social structures emerging independently of a central dominant power.

This model of autonomous governance and social structure is exemplified socially in the social structure of the Zapatista movement and politically in the creation of the juntas de buen gobierno, or “meetings of good government.”

The social structure is a bottom-up model that facilitates the inclusion of all members of society by allowing local social structures to be included in the framework of the larger Zapatista social structure. Harry Cleaver, in the book Zapatistas (1994) writes that the “Zapatista communiqués are signed by the Clandestine Revolutionary Indigenous Committee-General Command (CCRI-CG), apparently a council of indigenous leaders. But behind the general command there are an unknown number of clandestine committees- and behind them the communities.”

Insisting that the communities are the backbone of the social structure ensures that the demands of the people are those that dictate the direction of the struggle. This social structure has proved frustrating during the various processes of dialogue between the EZLN (Zapatista National Liberation Army) and the Mexican government. Rather than compromising the values of their movement to facilitate dialogue on the government’s terms, the EZLN has insisted that it must report back to communities before making decisions. The EZLN’s putting ultimate decision-making authority in the hands of the people can be seen in several examples: from the implementation of the cease-fire; to the 2nd Lacondona Declaration, which stated that the communities unanimously declared all government agreements inadequate; to the multiple national consultas or “consultation votes” conducted independently of any outside power, whose results showed the will of the people and directed the course of the movement. Paraphrasing Subcomandante Marcos, “This is a slow-moving form of democracy, but at least it moves.”

The community representative in Nuevo Yibeljoj viewed the social and political structure of the Mexican government’s chain of command as being opposite to that of the Zapatistas. He remarked, “ We saw that the governor of the state gave orders to the municipal president who gave orders to the paramilitary… We couldn’t believe in the government. We had no government.” As the Mexican government’s frustration with the dialogue process shows, the Zapatista´s form of democracy is an alternative democracy to that of the mainstream model. It is a democracy which consciously disconnects itself from an outside system which has been disastrous and has not represented the indigenous communities.

The creation of the Junta de Buen Gobierno is the political manifestation of the same philosophy articulated on the street sign outside of Oventic, which read, “The people order and the government obeys.” The Junta de Buen Gobierno is an alternative government created with a mandate from the community rather than from an outside power. The Junta de Buen Gobierno allows the community to disconnect from a dependency on an outside system of justice and replace it with a model developed en sitio. This model challenges the Mexican government and their justice system by creating an alternative, which gives people a choice to choose a system that will represent them fairly.

I struggle to find a way to implement the lessons learned from the profound feeling of experiencing Zapatista autonomous municipalities into my own life. The philosophy of these areas seems to be to “create a world in which many worlds can be embraced.” In our society it seems that there is increasingly less space for “other worlds.” This can be seen in the seven companies that control most of our media, the few restaurant chains that control most of our food, and the few companies that provide our agricultural seeds. Starbucks pushes out local café shops, and the disappearance of local markets removes people from having the option to choose to have a connection to the place from which their food comes.

The Zapatista struggle is about having a choice: a choice of government, education, social structure, livelihood, and freedom of dependence on an outside power. At home in the U.S., in a two-party system, disappearance of family farms, addiction to education, and the creation of a culture of needs, we too have our own struggles. The Zapatista model of disconnection in some cases can be borrowed as a tool for social and political change in the U.S. Some examples of this are community supported agriculture (CSA´s), intentional communities, and alternative energies and waste disposal which allow users to disconnect from a central provider. These are small initiatives but they can have a ripple effect that keeps alive the spirit of a world in which many worlds can fit.

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