Gustavo Esteva: It is very pertinent to talk associating this with the Zapatistas. You know, we are in the twentieth anniversary, twenty years ago in January 1st, 1994, we had the beginning of the Zapatista uprising. And to understand it we need to see what was happening with these people before the uprising, how they came to that terrible decision of starting an armed uprising.
In the 70s we were saying that in the highlands of Chiapas we were committing genocide in Mexico. In this area of Mexico, in the south of Mexico, next to Guatemala, is an area where the people were suffering like mad. All the kinds of suffering that you can imagine. In the 70s, in the 80s, they were dying like flies of hunger, of horrible diseases. One day, the now-famous Subcomandante Marcos said that in the villages there were no children because all of them were dying. You were talking with a woman and she will tell you, “You know, I had eleven children but only two are alive.” That was the normal situation. They had a very primitive power structure killing them, oppressing them. Most of them were becoming alcoholics because they were getting their pay with some salary and posh, a terrible kind of liquor that really poisoned them.
They tried everything. They tried political organization, economic organization. They had that incredible march, 3,000 people marching to Mexico City 2,000 miles to present their claims. And nobody heard. Not the government, and not the civil society. Nobody heard. When they came back after this march and in 1991 they took the decision of declaring war to the Mexican government, from the very beginning, they said that they were not guerrilla. The definition of the guerrilla in terms of Che Guevara is a fish that swims in the sea of the people. This fish, the group of revolutionaries that started the guerrilla, and then the people supporting that group of revolutionaries.
They said, “We are not the fish, we are the sea.” But it is literally true. It was hundreds of communities in public assemblies taking the decision, “We have no other option. We need to declare the war to the Mexican government.” The main purpose perhaps was not to defeat the Mexican army but to be heard, because they were really dying. And when, on top of this, because of the signature of the North American Free Trade Agreement, they canceled the option—the constitutional protection for the land. The constitutional right of the campesinos, of the people, to have access to land. They became disposable human beings.
It is very clear in the case of Mexico what NAFTA represented. It meant basically that in the past, capital, or landowners, or different kinds of people, were using them, were hiding them in terrible condition as semi-slaves, in very bad conditions. But they were using them. After NAFTA, because of NAFTA, because of the conditions of the free trade and neoliberalism and all these policies, they will become disposable—they had no use for them. And they will be doomed to die. And instead of dying in those terrible conditions, they considered that the only thing they still had was their dignity. And then they used that dignity to start first their military training, and then to start the uprising.
I would say immediately that in this uprising, the Zapatista Army [of] National Liberation had 40% women. How this army was constituted? Every community sent a few, five, ten, twenty people to the army to get the military training. And they’d take care of the families, etc. And then 40% of them were women. But we discovered later that the women occupied 60% of the positions of command. Positions of command obtained—the ranks were defined in the training because of their merits in the training. And then the women occupied 60%, and perhaps it is the only case in which women were overrepresented. I will talk more about this because the question of women is a very central thing when you talk about the Zapatistas. In a sense we are saying that the Zapatistas by nature is a kind of feminine movement.
Anyway, because they were becoming disposable human beings, this terrible expression, because they were doomed to have a terrible destiny, then they started the uprising.
I must tell you that that first week of January 1994, I was in complete perplexity. For thirty years I had been absolutely convinced of non-violence. I had embraced non-violence, after trying something of this kind in the 60s. Then I was asking myself, Gustavo what’s happening with you? You are very happy and very enthusiastic about the Zapatistas. You are in the streets with them. But what about violence? That they are killing each other in Chiapas right now. What is happening with you?
Then I [read] my Gandhi. And I think what I found is a way to understand the Zapatistas and what is happening today with violence in Mexico. Gandhi is asked by his son—he suffered an attempt, and then his son asks him, “What should I do if someone comes and tries to kill you? Should I preach non-violence?”
And then Gandhi smiles and he said, “What you never should be is a coward. Cowardice is the worst kind of vice that you can have. You must not be a coward. But, violence is for the weak. If I am preaching non-violence, it’s because I don’t see any reason why 300 million people in India are afraid of 150,000 British. Because they are strong, they should use non-violence. It would be criminal [?],” said Gandhi, “if I am preaching, I am telling non-violence to a mouse at the point of being devoured by a cat. This is not for him. We need to consider that violence is the last resource of the weak.”
And I think this is a very good story to illustrate what happened with the Zapatistas. They were the weak. Nobody heard. They tried everything and they were really dying. And they decided to have this very limited amount of weapons—they they were just a few weapons in their hands—to start their uprising. The last resort of the weak.
But then they became the strong. In a few days we were by the millions in the streets, trying to tell them, “We are with you, you are not alone. We love what you are saying, but we don’t want more violence in Mexico. Please stop the violence.” And then in January 12th, 1994, twelve days after the beginning of the uprising, there was a unilateral ceasefire, and the Zapatistas not only carefully respected the ceasefire for twenty years—they’re not using their weapons, not even for self defense. They are clearly the champions of non-violence in Mexico. This is because they became the strong. Because they got the support not only in Mexico, but out of Mexico, of many people that were listening to what they were saying.
And one very important thing in discussing the Zapatistas is their first important contribution was hope. Before 1994, until 1993, we had globalization as a kind of reality that you need to adapt to it. For some people it was a threat, for some other people it was a promise, but for everyone it was a reality. You need to accept it, things are like that, the world is like that. The Zapatistas were the first saying, “No, reality is not like that. We cannot accept this policy, this orientation, this general vision of the situation in which we are just disposable human beings. We cannot accept that.” All the anti-[?] movements after that acknowledge that the Zapatistas were the first. It was like a wake-up call.
And they came with an opening, a wake-up call, and at the same time the hope. We are suffering, clearly, a crisis of hope. And it is the Zapatistas that in a very difficult situation, when the world is falling apart, when truths and institutions that governed us for 200 years are literally falling apart, when Mother Earth is really in a very serious condition and the survival of the human species is in danger…in that terrible moment, in the moment of horror, the Zapatistas brought a light of hope. A possibility of hope. When they were accused by someone of being professionals of violence, they immediately reacted, “No, we’re not professionals of violence. We are professionals of hope.” They had been cultivating hope. And hope, in this Zapatista tradition is not the conviction that something will happen in a certain way. It’s the conviction that something makes sense.
I want to read some things that illustrate one very important point for me. Zapatistas are unique, are singular, and at the same time are typical. They clearly illustrate a kind of insurrection that is happening all over the world. People are reclaiming their dignity, and with that dignity they are trying to create something different. They are now mobilized. And what Ana María said, let me read what [she] said. As you know, the Zapatistas used these ski masks to present themselves. And then she said,
Behind our black mask, behind our armed voice, behind our unnameable name, behind what you see of us, behind this we are you. Behind this we are the same simple and ordinary men and women who are repeated in all races, tainted in all colors, speak in all languages, and live in all places. Behind this, we are the same forgotten men and women. The same excluded, the same intolerated, the same persecuted, the same as you. Behind this, we are you.
This is a very very important statement for the Zapatistas. I would say that this is complemented with something that defined their position. At some point, many people were sending things to them. Were sending money or were sending objects of different kinds. And even they were coming and they organized that they called the Zapatour because it was kind of “revolutionary tourism.” They wanted to come and touch the Zapatistas and be there with the Zapatistas.
But this was also very humiliating. Then at one point, Subcomandante Marcos came with a communiqué and said, “Now I am forced to include in my backpack something that came as charity,” to one of the communities. It’s one red high heel. Not the pair, just one. And for the jungle, a high heel? Can’t you imagine? Can you imagine the humiliation of these people when they get a box with things that someone took from the closet and sent to these poor people. And then Subcomandante Marcos declared, “If you want to offer your help to these poor indigenous people struggling against a bad government, thanks but no thanks. We don’t want your help. If you think that our struggle is also your struggle, please come. We have plenty of things to talk.”
I think this is the point. I think we are in the same struggle. I think we can see it is not the Zapatistas out there in the south of Mexico, in the jungle, la selva la caldona, struggling against a bad government, trying to create a small piece of paradise in the jungle. It is their struggle. It’s also our struggle, everywhere. In every city in every country over the world. We are in a very difficult moment, in a terrible moment of humankind. But there is hope. The Zapatistas illustrate that hope, and then we can build something different with that hope in our hands.