The other night I was chatting to someone who had written a book about the Zapatistas a few years ago and had kept up an interest in Zapatista affairs. She told me that she had heard many Zapatistas had 'gone north' (left for the US) in recent years like millions of other rural people from Latin America. This surprised me, not having heard this during my three months in Chiapas, most of which was spent living in a Zapatista community in the lowland, tropical, ethnic Tsetsal area. One guy from the community who spoke better Spanish than the others (proficiency in Spanish in Zapatista villages is patchy) and had spent time as a seasonal worker in the tourist resort of Cancun, spoke to me of his desire to learn English so he could work in the States but this was the only time I heard Zapatistas referring to their northern neighbours, and he didn't push the English study, preferring instead to chat with his friends or play football or cards in his freetime.
The Zapatistas have come in for criticism from many sources in recent years, including some previously sympathetic ones for 'selling out', and not remaining true to their original ideals of self-sufficiency based on working the land they managed to recover from feudal landowners. It has been said by those previously supportive, that most of their income is now generated from seasonal work in the tourist resorts of the 'Mayan riviera' or the oilfields of the Gulf, the proceeds from which are used to buy the corn given to the Zapatista administrative centres as a kind of tax, as this can be earned much more easily than from the land. While undoubtably true that some source of income is derived from such work, it is a gross exaggeration to suggest that the proceeds from such seasonal work unable them to kick back and take it easy the rest of the year on their reclaimed land, given the low wages in Mexico, especially for seasonal workers. More likely it means they can afford a few new clothes and vary their corn-based diet somewhat. It is hard to take Western city-based lefty anarchist types begrudging the Zapatistas a few luxuries, as if they should stay in poverty in their communties all year to satisfy some externally imposed high moral standards or expectations. From my limited experience there are enough committed Zapatistas willing to suffer the hardships of not taking from a state that is waging a low-level counter-insurgency war against them, and living largely off the land to make sure they will be around for at least another 14 years. How many other movements have lasted this long?
Years after they were considered fashionable and feted in left-wing circles, both at home and abroad, they continue to consolidate their structures and resist the divisive politics of the big political parties in Mexico's poorest state. One only has to look back to the invisible poverty suffered by the indigenous Chiapanecos prior to the 1994 uprising to see how far they've come. Although life for the Zapatistas is undoubtably better despite the continuing hardship and political repression in some areas, access to services in indigenous areas has improved as the Mexican state has been forced to invest in Chiapas. Perversely the Zapatistas have not been those to benefit most from their own sacrifices, living as they still do with limit access to health and education.
Before arriving in Chiapas my knowledge was limited to the iconic video footage of unarmed Zapatistas taking on the Mexican army in the 90s, chats with friends who had visited 5 years ago and some of Marcos' speeches from the mid-late 90s, which gave a useful insight into the origins of the uprising and the subsequent counter-insurgency operations. It seemed that in recent years the Zapatistas had faded from the 'scene', and I was told that most of the work for volunteers in Zapatista communities now revolved around 'development', such as providing health clinics and education.
It came as a surprise then to hear their spokesperson Subcomandante Marcos ('el Sub') talking at a conference last December in almost apocalyptic tones of the threat the Zapatistas were now facing, the most serious since the 1994 uprising, and berating the 'left' for an almost total lack of support. True, in recent months a few Zapatista communties had faced aggressions from state-sponsored paramilitary groups, particularly in the community of Bolon Ajaw near the tourist resort of Agua Azul where some members had been badly beaten and houses burnt. Also in August a community had been evicted from the Montes Azul area of the Lacandona jungle so Marcos did have some justification for his statements and attempt to rally the 'left' that turned up to the conference, which Marcos promised would be the last for some time. These aggressions had also been cited as the reason for cancelling the tour of Mexico the Zapatistas were on as part of 'La Otra Campana' ('The Other Campaign), a few months previously.
Having read of some of the massacres and massive repression suffered by the Zapatistas in the 90s I was sceptical of Marcos' remarks. Despite the comparitively low profile of the struggle in the international media there was still too much international awareness and too many human rights groups in Chiapas for the Mexican state to get away with any large-scale repression. There are two organisations that provide protective accompaniment in Zapatista communities that have been attacked or threatened with eviction and other groups document the situation. Marcos' words and the international response did have some effect as the community most under siege, that of Bolon Ajaw, saw scores of supporters visit in December and January and unsurprisingly the aggressions and threats against the Zapatistas largely stopped. In February volunteer numbers dropped off as most of the earlier visitors had been in Chiapas for the conference and the New Year encuentro anyway. However there was still a permanent international presence in the community into March and despite provocations including armed state police entering the community with a member of the intelligence services, creating a siege mentality, the villagers are holding out. Inevitably the local paramilitary transferred their attentions to the international volunteers with frequent threats at the gate where volunteers enter the track leading to the community.
Despite the cessation of physical attacks the community has been unable to go about its daily work in the cornfields furthest away from the centre of the community for fear of encountering unfriendly, local paramilitaries and accompaniment has to be provided for anyone leaving the community or fetching water. This is no doubt the desired result of the harrassment and threats designed to grind down psychologically and restrict physically the Zapatistas until they leave the land they have been working for the last 5 years, so it can be turned over to tourist development and the politicians at local, state and federal level make a tidy buck. Unlike in other developing countries where resistance movements have less of an international profile, the Mexican counter-insurgency operations have to be imaginative to deal with the Zapatistas who persist on hanging on to prime real estate. That said, there was nothing subtle about the arrest and torture of two Zapatistas from the community of Betel Yochip at the start of February. Fortunately a human rights delegation from Europe was visiting Chiapas at the time which may have helping in securing their release after a week.
Foreigners, mostly students, continue to visit Chiapas attracted by the Zapatista allure although I was told that the numbers of volunteers are far down on years past. This surprised me initially given the numbers staying at the hostel for volunteers in San Cristobal de las Casas, but many turned out to be students doing research on the Zapatistas and some were just travellers passing through. Indeed, most of the 'volunteers' staying there spent far more time in San Cristobal than roughing it in indigenous communities and were more interested in each other than in the Zapatistas.
The organisation I was with said that most volunteers couldn't spend more than a week in the community because of the basic conditions, despite the latest camping equipment many took along with them to ease their stay. The Zapatistas, living in simple wooden structure with earth floors and sleeping on wooden boards with blankets for protection, looked on with curiosity at the volunteers' comforts, sometimes asking how much such items cost. Most of the gear and the food brought into their community would have been way beyond their purchasing power, which was one problem I had with the international presence. The Zapatistas, especially the children and youth, would see this high-tech, quality, equipment and comfortable clothing which would only make them more aware of their own material discomfort. Likewise with the food brought in, the children would sometimes hang around the kitchen (the volunteers had their own kitchen in the community), looking wide-eyed at the volunteers eating in the hope of being offered some. Whilst the international presence offered the Zapatistas some kind of security it could have been done by many volunteers with more sensitivity. This is often the case with solidarity work where foreign activists spend or week or so in Palestine or Chiapas for the experience and to take a few photos so they can tick it off their adventure tourist list, without a real awareness of the effect their behaviour has on the community they are supposedly protecting or showing solidarity with. I could see why one organisation in Chiapas ensures their volunteers live separately to the Zapatistas - the danger of 'contamination' is a real one.
The determination and dignity with which the Zapatistas I had the privelege of living with, dealt with state-sponsored harrassment and an influx of foreigners was a humbling experience and made me aware how so much more real their struggle is than our 'struggles' in the West where activists rough it for a week or two in the summer whilst enjoying the benefits of living in the developed world the rest of the year.