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A letter from Mexico World / Links / On the beach / The Consulta
Thursday, 25 March 1999, from our correspondent in the mountains of northern Morelos, Mexico:

This past Sunday (The 21st) the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) held their nationwide "Meeting for the Recognition of the Rights of the Indian People and for the End of the War of Extermination," a.k.a. "The Consulta."

Basically what this entailed was sending 5,000 representatives from the EZLN in Chiapas to cover the whole republic of Mexico. They'd been spreading the word for a while, and had set up a system through which cities and towns that wanted to receive the Zapatista delegates could register with a coordinating committee. A crazy mix of non-governmental organizations - students, unions, farmers, environmental activists, etc. - organized to receive the delegates from Chiapas. Something like 1500 municipalities registered. Then last Monday, the delegates began to arrive.

That day, the newspapers were full of tiny articles about the arrival of the Zapatista delegates - in Tijuana, Monterrey, Guadalajara, Mexico city, Acapulco, Oaxaca, and a ton of smaller cities and towns in between. The ski-mask wearing comrades arrived in busloads everywhere.

In Tijuana, the Zapatistas organized a cross-border protest, where they pushed up against the south side of the fence, as supporters (including a few Americans who had been deported by the Mexican government) came down from LA/San Diego to push against the fence from the other side.

In Mexico City, the Zapatistas played soccer against a group of ex-professionals. They wore custom made jerseys that had a red star and the letters EZLN as they played soccer in their ski-masks. They lost 5-3, but stated that because of the publicity, "Even when we lose, we win."

In Acapulco, they wandered around on the beach.

As the week progressed, the activities changed. The delegates sat down to talk with whoever wanted to take a meeting with them. Beyond meeting with the usual left-wing coalitions, the Zapatistas sat down and spoke with groups of investors, students in elementary schools, coalitions of housewives....

The week wrapped up on the 21st, when the Zapatistas took a nationwide vote, entirely organized through the network of volunteers and independent organizations. Citizens were invited to vote on 4 questions:

  • Do you agree that the Indian people should be included with all their force and richness in the national project, and participate actively in the construction of a new Mexico?
  • Do you agree that indigenous rights should be recognized in the Mexican Constitution, conforming with the Agreements of San Andres and conforming with the Commission of Peace and Harmony of the Congress of the Union? (The question refers to two gov't agreements relating to indigenous rights that have never been complied with.)
  • Do you agree that we should reach a true peace through the route of dialog, demilitarizing the country with the return of the soldiers to their barracks as the constitution and the laws establish?
  • Do you agree that the people must organize themselves, and demand that the government "mandate obediently" over all aspects of the national life?

Almost 3 million people voted on the questions. Not surprisingly, 95% voted 'Yes' on all 4 questions. By comparison, 3 million also voted in a recent nationwide referendum organized by one of the official political parties with a massive budget, and television, radio, print promotion, plus more extensive news coverage.

To me the most interesting dimensions of the Consulta were not the votes. The EZLN, I believe intentionally, simultaneously realized a large-scale model of a participatory democracy, and fortified the networks of already existing non-governmental groups.

In a grand gesture of trust, the EZLN threw themselves out of Chiapas, all over the country, and asked to be received by somebody - anybody who wanted them. The delegates I spoke with had never left Chiapas before.

Simply organizing lodging, food, transport, security etc for 5,000 delegates was obviously a tremendous task. It seems like the job was accomplished with practically no money, and through already existing 'left-wing' coalitions. The EZLN, different than practically all other revolutionary guerilla armies, has wide and diverse support throughout many dimensions of society. Unions, popular health centers, celebrities, students, peasant farmers, advocates for clean water, punks, all seemed to share in the burden of simply managing the logistics of the Consulta. Through this process, no doubt, new relationships were formed, and existing relationships were strengthened.

Again, I'm not really sure about any of this, but I believe part of the EZLN strategy is to develop these civil society networks to a point at which the Government, and other top-down structures of authority and governance, become practically obsolete. Or more acurately are pushed to obey the loud and strong network of independent, local, participatory organizations. This is a complete inversion of the strategies of past 'revolutionary armies,' that aimed to seize the state, and build new revolutionary societies from the top down.

The Consulta, officially the 21st of March, actually lasted a week. Through the course of the week preceding the vote, the EZLN spent time - lots of it - answering questions and listening to the thoughts of the wild assortment of people surrounding them. The care and patience with which this process was carried out seemed to be a living refusal and mockery of the kind of democracy that exists today in Mexico (And in the US for that matter). Democracy as practiced by the Consulta is slow, participatory, fragile, and happens in small cells of people. The majority of functions I attended were groups of less than 20 people conversing with 4 representatives.

Through the week, images of the Zapatistas were spread all over the newspapers. The front page images of the EZLN playing soccer, eating at Sanborn's, and walking on the beach in Acapulco seemed to be attempts to deliberately expand the meaning of the Zapatista logo - the skimask.

When the EZLN began fighting in 1994 the skimask did more than simply hide the identity of the soldiers. The skimask was also spoken of - by the EZLN itself - as a comment on "the indigenous face," and that in terms of national recognition, the indigenous have no face. The skimask also was a refusal of the use of indigenous people and cultures as objects of tourism. Simple but brilliant, poor but happy, the indigenous face before 1994 was symbolically linked to passivity, silence, and submissive yet aesthetic lives.

The skimask ruptured that visual history in 1994 and constructed a new indigenous face, one linked to aggression, organization, noise, fused with complicated economic and political critiques, and a vicious sense of humor. In 1999 through the Consulta, the EZLN once again remade "the indigenous face." This time, reworking the meaning of the skimask. By playing soccer and walking on the beach, by taking the skimask out of the Lacandona Jungle, by disassociating the skimask with guns, and reassociating it with dialog, the EZLN are trying to visually demonstrate that their battle, is - or could be - everyone's battle.

Through the ski mask they remade the indigenous face from a symbol of silence to a symbol of noise, and are now sharing that symbol with as many sectors of society as possible. In the same ways that people identify with the Nike logo as a symbol of achievement, fitness, and general "Just Do It"-ness, the Zapatistas have created a brand, a logo, and through the Consulta brilliantly expanded its meaning and its omnipresence.

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