Caravan Of Hope, A Zapatista March (05/01)

On February 24 – Mexico’s Flag Day – twenty-three leaders of the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) and the famed Subcomandante Marcos prepared to depart the highland colonial town of San Cristobal in Chiapas on an historic caravan to the capital. Called the March for Indigenous Dignity, the caravan captured the imagination of every sector of Mexican society, from illiterate peasants to national politicians, and occupied the front page of nearly every major Mexican newspaper and many international papers throughout the month-long journey. The attention continued during the additional two weeks the Zapatista delegation spent in the city, while negotiating to speak in front of the national Congress.

Over 3000 Mexicans, foreigners, teachers, peasants activists, and others (including myself), accompanied the delegates on their journey, exemplifying Marcos’ words the night before departure. “With us go the steps of all the Indian peoples and the steps of all the men, women, children, and elders of the world who know that in the world there is room for all the colors of the earth,” he said. Seven years after the EZLN rose up and took over six highland towns in Chiapas, the caravan demonstrated the growing support for the Zapatistas throughout Mexican and international society. It also signaled a renewed hope that, as Mexico changes, it will finally find a place for her indigenous peoples, and their unique customs and cultures.

The end of 2000 had brought massive changes to Mexico. After 71 years of rule by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), vote-buying, money laundering, and murder had become accepted as commonplace in Mexican politics. But on December 1, 2000, genuine hope arose as conservative National Action Party (PAN) leader Vicente Fox took the presidential oath of office, ending the PRI dynasty. Shortly afterwards, the EZLN broke a long silence and expressed its own cautious hope that the new president would make good on his campaign pledge to reinitiate the peace process with the rebels, stalled since 1996.

The EZLN demanded that the government offer three “signals” indicating its seriousness about working with them for a just peace. These were removal of seven specified military bases in Chiapas, release of all Zapatista political prisoners, and implementation of the San Andres Accords, which call for reforming the Mexican constitution to include indigenous rights to autonomy and free determination. The accords were signed by the government and the Zapatistas in February 1996, but were never implemented by then-president Ernesto Zedillo.

Three of the seven bases in Chiapas were removed within two months, and troops began to leave the conflict zone. The outlook looked positive. Then the process slowed down, however, and the EZLN and its supporters became suspicious that Fox was perhaps only throwing a few bones to placate them while inflating his concessions via the media.

After five years of stalled negotiations, increased militarization of their communities, and unfettered paramilitary activity in Chiapas, the Zapatistas weren’t about to let their issues fade into the background of Fox’s agenda. Thus, the Zapatista caravan – the March for Indigenous Dignity – was born.

Arriving in San Cristobal de Las Casas on the night of February 24, I found the usually empty plaza in front of the central cathedral packed with a restless crowd. There was a bizarre mixture of heavily-equipped cameramen and well-dressed news reporters, curious gringo tourists, groups of Latino Zapatista supporters toting banners and cheering at the top of their lungs, plus thousands of silent, patiently waiting, masked Zapatistas. Pick-up trucks full of EZLN civil society members, all wearing black ski masks or red bandanas to cover their faces, had been arriving all day from various parts of Chiapas. Young men wearing high plastic work boots and women with babies slung on their backs formed security belts along the route Zapatista leaders would take from their bus to the speaking platform.

Finally, hours after dark, the long-awaited bus pulled up to the plaza and 23 comandantes, followed by Subcomandante Marcos, stepped off amid the chants and cheers of their supporters. For many of the comandantes, it must have been a first taste of the star status they would experience throughout the caravan. They didn’t look like typical stars: short and squat, unidentifiable in their black ski masks, some dressed in the traditional clothing of their communities, some in plain, field worker’s clothes, jeans and baseball hats, old boots and sandals. These rebel commanders would occupy the attention of a vast nation as they journeyed to the capital.

The farewell party continued until dawn. Babies slept in their mothers’ arms in the plaza or on the sidewalks. The next morning, more than 50 buses and other vehicles met in the fog-choked outskirts of San Cristobal. Hundreds of Zapatista peasants filed by and shook our hands, saying “adios” and “gracias.” But what thanks did we deserve? We could afford to drop our jobs for two weeks and fly to Mexico to be part of an historic journey, while people who had been fighting for basic rights their whole lives returned to their communities and daily struggles.

As we set off, nearly half the caravan was foreigners, mostly from Europe and the US; Mexicans, both indigenous and non-indigenous, made up the rest. The media was quick to focus on the foreign half as a way to discredit the event and claim – as many have all along – that the Zapatista movement is controlled and manipulated by non-indigenous and non-Mexican forces. This theory has been angrily denied by the Zapatistas themselves, and torn apart by intellectuals, human rights organizations, and left-leaning media.

The large foreign presence can be attributed to three factors, including economics. An average Mexican salary – around $5 per day – barely pays the daily grocery bill, so it’s not difficult to understand why there weren’t more Mexicans. The second factor is the sophisticated communication network the Zapatistas have used to make their struggle known around the world. Since the original uprising in January 1994, the EZLN has used the Internet extensively to send out communiquŽs from mountain hideouts and remote communities in Chiapas. Finally, the international presence is a testament to Zapatistas’ success in making their struggle appeal to all sectors of society, both on the national level and internationally.

Ya Basta!, an Italian activist group based on Zapatista principles, has spread throughout Europe and the US, and been highly visible in many of the anti-global capitalism protests over the last few years. Zapatismo has also captured the attention of such well-known intellectuals as Mexico’s Nobel Prize-winning author Jose Saramago and MIT professor Noam Chomsky. In a March 8 interview with La Jornada, a major Mexican newspaper, Chomsky said that the Zapatista caravan was “one of the most important popular movements that has developed in the whole world during what has been, essentially, the neoliberal period.”

Much more important than the makeup of the caravan itself was the support it attracted along the way. Enthusiastic crowds lined the sides of the road, clapping, waving white flags, and flashing the peace sign. Schools emptied and children ran to the roadside, cheering as the caravan passed. Walls along the route, once painted with advertisements for PRI political candidates, were covered with Zapatista slogans and colorful murals of Subcomandante Marcos and Emiliano Zapata, the peasant hero of the Mexican Revolution from whom the present-day Zapatistas take their name.

People packed the plazas of every town and city where the Zapatistas stopped to speak. Locals hung out of the surrounding balconies, and perched in trees around the plaza. The crowd ranged from barefoot peasants to middle-class urban families. Banners sponsored by unions, indigenous organizations, gay rights groups, and the municipalities themselves hung from buildings.

Besides coming to hear the Zapatista leaders speak, local organizations used the events to network and spread the word on local struggles. People passed out literature and sold local newsletters at every stop. Activists weren’t the only ones taking advantage of the caravan’s journey. Entrepreneurs were also present at every stop. Homemade periscopes, made from stacked mini cereal boxes and reflecting mirrors, were hugely popular. Marcos’ image was sold on hats, capes, and T-shirts in various styles. The Zapatista signature red bandanas, black ski masks, and even pipes were hawked by vendors everywhere you looked.

Often, at the end of an exhausting day, we had no idea where we would sleep. But this only made the sugar and cinnamon spiced coffee at our destination that much sweeter, and the smiles of the local support group handing out plates of food that much warmer. Sleeping arrangements for the caravan ranged from stadiums to schools, parks, and plazas. In Puebla, the Autonomous University put up the entire caravan in its gymnasium. Around 100 volunteers, mostly students and professors, prepared and served food around the clock, took turns on security, and kept the area clean.

At every stop, the support of the local people was both touching and inspiring.

On March 3, halfway through the trip, we arrived in the tiny mountain town of Nurio in Michoacan, where delegates from communities and organizations representing 40 indigenous tribes from across Mexico met for the Third National Indigenous Congress. The event was held on a vast open slope overlooking pine-covered valleys and ancient craters. As we walked past clusters of tents and rows of latrines, I couldn’t help but laugh at how much it resembled a mountain music festival somewhere in the western US. The diversity of the people, however, quickly reminded me where I was. Groups of men in white pants and shirts embroidered with bright red and orange flowers laughed and chatted in their ancient language. Women with twin black braids falling down their backs over identical dark blue, patterned shawls shuffled through papers, preparing for the women’s discussion table.

The National Indigenous Congress (CNI) was born out of the National Indigenous Forum, convened by the Zapatistas in January 1996. The idea was to give indigenous peoples throughout Mexico a voice in the proposal on indigenous rights and culture that the Zapatistas would bring to the negotiating table with the federal government at San Andres. The objectives of this year’s Congress were

fulfillment of the San Andres Accords, demilitarization of indigenous regions, and consolidation of the National Indigenous Movement. After two days of discussion groups and workshops, a series of declarations and demands was presented to the entire Congress.

On our third day in Nurio, the buses crawled down the dirt road out of town in the chilly predawn mist. We were off on the second leg of the caravan, an inward spiral toward Mexico City that took us past dry, cactus-covered plains studded with shabby tin-roof shacks, rich green farming valleys, sophisticated modern cities, and urban slums.

The last stop before the march into the zocalo, Mexico City’s central plaza, was Xochimilco. There, in 1914, Emiliano Zapata and Pancho Villa, the leader of northern Mexico’s revolutionary forces, met for the first time before their triumphant entrance into Mexico City. History had come full circle.

By Xochimilco, the caravan had swelled to twice its original size and included over 500 representatives from the National Indigenous Congress, plus thousands of other Mexicans who joined the Zapatistas for the final march.

That night, we plopped down our blankets and sleeping bags on a hard, concrete pavilion amidst the sprawl of other bags and blankets, tents and hammocks. Though completely exhausted, I couldn’t resist the sweet, musty smell of burning incense. Spotting a cloud of rising smoke, I found a line of people waiting to be blessed by a shaman with a chalice full of burning copal. Later, a crowd gathered around several Huichol Indian men playing traditional music on handmade wooden instruments.

Excitement mounted the next morning until civilian security teams finally escorted the comandantes to the flatbed truck they would ride into the zocalo. We scurried to the buses as the drivers maneuvered to get in line. People packed the sidewalks and pedestrian bridges spanning the streets along our route. Inching toward the zocalo, I caught a glimpse of a field-sized Mexican flag, towering over a waiting crowd of more than 200,000.

As the Mexican national anthem echoed off the stately colonial buildings surrounding the packed square, the Zapatistas took the stage. Four comandantes spoke before Marcos put down his pipe and took the microphone.

“Mexico City,” he said, “we are the National Indigenous Congress and Zapatistas together who greet you. Where we stand [in front of the national palace] is not an accident. From the beginning, the government has been in back of us, sometimes with war tanks, sometimes with soldiers, sometimes with lies … and sometimes, like today, with impotent silence.” The crowd roared.

“We are, and we shall be, one more in the march for dignity for the indigenous who are the color of the earth; that which unveils and reveals the many Mexicos which are hidden and suffer under Mexico.”

Two weeks later, the country watched on national TV as the tiny Tzotzil indigenous woman known as Comandante Esther climbed the steps to the high tribunal of the National Congress to deliver her speech through a black ski mask. She acknowledged Fox’s efforts in removing the remaining three military bases in Chiapas, thereby complying with one of the EZLN’s demands. She then began a passionate speech emphasizing the hardships faced by women, and implored Congress to approve the Law of Indigenous Rights and Culture.

It was the culmination of a long and triumphant journey, for this woman and for indigenous peoples all over Mexico. As cameras panned the crowd of suited politicians, masked Zapatistas, and delegates from the National Indigenous Congress displaying a mosaic of distinct regional dress, it seemed that Mexico had, at least for one day, found a place for all of her people.