Article on Zapatismo in Russian magazine “Vlast” featuring GIAP

Read it on Vlast  


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In the day of the 30th anniversary of the EZLN, Russian magazine “Vlast” has published a report on the Zapatistas featuring GIAP. Below you can find a selection of answers to the editors’ questions.

Hoy, el mismo día en que se celebran los 30 años de EZLN, la revista rusa VLAST publica un reportaje que cuenta con nuestra colaboración de GIAP.

Many thanks to Tanya Dvornikova

(Non-edited text. We apologise for any mistake)


Vlast: Please, tell us your story connected with the Zapatistas. When did you meet them for the first time?  What do You do now and what have You done before? In Your opinion, what is your role – are you researchers or activists?

GIAP: Since February 2013 we form GIAP, an independent militant research group focusing on political and esthetic aspects of specific social and revolutionary movements of the present, which are developing ideas of “autonomy” in their own theory and praxis. In the last few months our main focus has been the EZLN, especially after witnessing the 21st of December 2012 demonstration where 45.000 zapatistas pacifically occupied the 6 municipalities of Chiapas, which they had taken with the weapons the 1st of January of 1994 – and after reading the communiques that they have issued between December 2012 and March 2013. Since the creation of GIAP we have produced a number of articles of various types and presented our work at different events like the Biennale of Video and new Media and the School of Autonomy organized by sections of the Mapuche movement in Temuco, Chile. As GIAP we have also taken part to the recent Zapatista School for Freedom which has gathered more than 1000 activists from all over the world in EZLN-controlled territories of Chiapas. Our activities are constantly reported and updated in various languages on our blog.

None of us was born in Mexico (Alessandro is Italian and Natalia is Chilean) but we have followed the Zapatista movement since its first “public” appearance: the 1st of January 1994 uprising. Since then the Zapatistas have been of great inspiration for both of us, strongly influencing the way we perceive the world and our own lives. We find their political proposal particularly original and innovative since it develops ideas of equality and social justice, which, to some extent, go beyond the failure of 20th century’s attempts.

Despite having been to Chiapas before, our first real experience in a Zapatista community has been the “Escuelita”, which allowed us to spend a week in a small town of to the Municipality Francisco Gomez in the Caracol 3 “la Garrucha”. Here we have been guests of a Zapatista indigenous family, sharing their day to day life, working on the fields where they grow mays, collecting wood and edible plants in the forest, baking tortilla and constantly discussing their (our) politics.

It is not easy – we should say impossible – to access a Zapatista community without being invited or “approved” by them. And when you are allowed to stay, it is just for a while: the time of developing a small project (in health, education, engineering, human-rights watch and so on) or participating to an indigenous language course, for example. Any project needs to be approved by their autonomous government boards, and to achieve that it needs to be extremely relevant to the movement. Also the invitation or approval to participate to a language course for example follows a careful revision of the person who wants to participate, his motivations, attitudes etc. Of course it is impossible for external people to stay and eventually live in a Zapatista community. What the Zapatistas ask you is to learn from them and develop forms of autonomy and emancipatory politics in your own living context. Their aim is not just to constitute a sort of exception but to be part (or the engine) of a worldwide transformation process.

Thus we think we were lucky to be admitted in the Zapatista Little School, which is probably the first event of this type in the history of revolutionary movements. We hope that our participation in the little school will make it easier for us in the future to go back to EZLN-controlled territories, eventually to develop a small project, which we see as a further opportunity to directly interact with the movement and keep learning.

We think that there is no contradiction in being at the same time researchers and activists. On the contrary, committed activists are always good researchers who constantly confront themselves with concrete realities and people, and do not just blindly follow prefabricated ideas. During the Chinese Cultural Revolution president Mao once argued “no research no right to speak”, confronting those party leaders and activists who were completely disconnected from the masses of students, workers, and peasants – which is where politics was actually taking place. We also believe that virtuous political processes take always shape in the horizontal interaction between diverse subjectivities like workers, migrants, intellectuals, ordinary people, students etc., and research is usually a good way to bring such subjectivities together (the history of Zapatismo constitutes a good example of that).

After taking part in the Zapatista little school we think that our role in relation to Zapatismo is to spread its seed as wide as possible, getting other people and movements inspired by their experience. Our contribution to the School of Autonomy organized by sections of the Mapuche (native people living in parts of Chile and Argentina) movement in Temuco, Chile, has followed this idea. This movement is currently developing ideas of autonomy and the Zapatista experience can be of great relevance to them.

V: What was your first impression when you met the zapatistas for the first time in their own living context? Do You agree with their ideas and values? What has changed after the meeting them?

G: Our first impression was that the Zapatistas possess incredible organizing skills. This is something that we already witnessed with the Great March of Silence of the 21st of December. However, at the “Escuelita” we directly experienced their peculiar determination and discipline in organisation. For example, consider that they managed to transport and accommodate hundreds of people based exclusively on their own means and capacity. Of course this is also evident in the way the Caracoles (the 5 main administration centers of the Zapatista autonomous government) are organised – with autonomous clinics, schools and many other services. Their day to day life is also shaped by a great degree of commitment and organization. Each member plays a role, be it in the collective agricultural work, in the cooperative shops, or in the areas of health and education. We observed that their houses are very basic, no unimportant or superficial objects –like decorations- are present. We could understand the deep meaning of the slogan “para todos todo, nada para nosotros” (everything for everyone nothing for us).

Certainly we share their ideas of dignity and rebellion, and we admire the way they have developed  their autonomy from below through the horizontal work of women, man, children and elderly . To put it simply: after living with them we are even more fascinated and imbued with the Zapatista autonomy.

V: How do those living in zapatista communes share their income? Who is responsible for local and international communication and economic development? What more do the people do to provide themselves an autonomous existence?

G: It is important to highlight once again that Zapatismo is an anti-capitalist movement. And money as a means of organizing social relations in capitalist societies plays a secondary role in territories controlled by the EZLN. Indigenous Zapatista peasants do not receive any wage for the agricultural work they perform, and their eventual participation in the local government, health, education, and so on is also voluntary. Agriculture is the main activity, and it is performed according to traditional methods (they don’t use machines or chemicals).

The EZLN, as an organization, owns money, which comes from donations and the sale of locally produced food (mays, coffee, livestock etc.) which exceeds their needs. This money is used to develop local infrastructures and provide help to local areas which are affected by any type of problem.

V: Is it difficult to stay in a village and offer any help? Are the people open or closed to new guests?

G: According to our experience, the zapatistas are very open people. They are extremely curious and willing to interact with outsiders – with different forms of life one could say. Also, the fact that there are international observers in the most troubled communities is a way to reduce attacks and violence by the Mexican army and the paramilitaries. Of course, as we said previously, it is not that simple to be approved as a visitor or project developer, and if that happens it is just for a short time.

V: In Russia (Bashkortostan, a village Shaymuratova) there is a project based on economic autonomy within the village – the inhabitants abandoned the ruble and have made their own money, allowing them to increase productivity and to equalize incomes. Certainly, in different parts of the world, transition to self-government is the desired model nowadays.

From this point of view – are impressed by the experience of being in a Zapatista settlement? Do you consider such an experience to be possible in other regions of Mexico, or in other countries with similar problems and socio-economic indicators?

G: The Zapatista project is highly impressive, even more after you get the opportunity to spend some time in their territories. Impressive is their capacity to develop a counter-power which is completely autonomous and independent from the state. They clearly show us that the state, its parliamentary structure, and the capitalist system it supports are something superfluous. People can organize themselves and live without them. However, the Zapatistas also tell us that their experience does not correspond to a “model”, which one can eventually take and just apply to his own context. Their politics is an experiment historically shaped by very singular, often contradictory, events and processes. People should take it as an example, as a source of inspiration to experiment with independent forms of politics in their own living environment. For example, a question that has wrecked the head of many activists is related to how to translate Zapatismo in urban context, for example, where capitalist exploitation permeates all aspects of human life. As John Holloway has argued, we, as people living in the city, are not indigenous peasants. Our experiences are far removed from those of the Zapatistas of Chiapas. “Our living conditions are very different from those of the Zapatistas, and our forms of struggle too. And yet the resonance of the Zapatista uprising in the cities has been and can be enormous.


There have been two forms of reaction in the cities – Holloway says -. The first is a reaction of solidarity: the struggle of the indigenous of Chiapas is a just struggle and we give it all the material

and political support possible. Solidarity defines the struggle as being the struggle of a “them,” and “they” are indians who live in Chiapas. We do not dismiss this reaction, but it is not what interests here. The second reaction goes much further. Here it is not a question of solidarity with the struggle of others, but of understanding that the Zapatistas and we are part of the same struggle. The Zapatistas of Chiapas do not give us a model that we can apply to our part of the struggle, but we see their forms of struggle as an inspiration for the development of our forms of struggle. In that sense we can speak of the spread of Zapatismo to the cities, the development of an urban Zapatismo, for which the EZLN is not a model but a constant point of reference”[i].

V: Can anyone migrate for work in the city ? Have you ever met such stories?
G: Yes there are such stories, but they are not the norm. As a Zapatista person you need a special permission from the EZLN to work somewhere else. And the leave time does not usually exceed the 3 months. So you may do seasonal work, but then you need to get back to your community. This is because of different reasons. The main one is that the Zapatista autonomy –economically speaking- is strongly rooted in the collective working activities (in crops, farms, handcrafts workshops and small shops) to which each and every member has to participate. When a young man or woman leaves his community, there is obviously a loss of working force. Also, Zapatista territories are surrounded and constantly threatened by the Mexican army and paramilitary groups: resisting to this pressure is a collective task, which needs everyone’s contribution. Finally one should consider that the Zapatistas are proposing and practicing a non-capitalist type of path. If you want to live and work in a capitalist society, under capitalist rules, then why should you keep being part of the movement?
V: The economy within the community: A) Can You tell us about the system of local banks? B) Who sets the prices in the villages? Do they use a special currency C ) What is their budget?
G: Well, the Zapatista banking system is not very developed. This is due to the anti-capitalist perspective and their approach e to develop “another possible world”. Nevertheless, in some areas some prototypes of bank have been created, like BANPAZ, which serve, for example, to help women who intend to collectively start new projects. They are also used to offer loans to sick people, who need to get through expensive treatments outside the autonomous territories. If one of these people dies, his or her family is not forced to pay back the loan. Loan payments hold a very low interest tax, and the community makes sure that the debtor just pays when he is able to. If his economic situation does not allow him to pay, his case is discussed collectively, and he might be allowed to pay back in form of voluntary work for in his community.
V: In Your opinion what needs to be done in communities for best conditions? (in terms of education, health , economic autonomy )?
G: The Zapatista autonomous project is not to be seen as something static or concluded. It is constantly evolving and trying to deal with -and eventually resolve- its own contradictions. Over the last 30 years they have done huge steps forward in terms of health and education, setting up many clinics where they also perform surgery (and which many non-zapatista people prefer to state-managed clinics), appointing health and education promoters in each small town as well as schools. Of course resources are limited and we should also consider that the Zapatistas are fighting a daily struggle to resist the aggressions of the state and the capitalist system, who do not tolerate their existence. So, of course there is still much to be done in terms of health and education, as well as in terms of gender equality (the movement is currently updating their “Revolutionary Law of Women”, which was one of the first regulations to be implemented). However the Zapatistas have their own conception of time and development which should always be taken in consideration when thinking about their advances. As they often repeat “we walk slowly because we have got a long way to go”.
The Zapatistas use the official Mexican currency (Pesos). Since their autonomous project is not focused on capital, they are not interested in producing their own. For the same reason the price of goods in cooperative shops are very low. Usually in Mexico 20 liters of water cost 30 pesos, but they sell the same amount for just 5.
*** more to come up soon

[i] Holloway, John. 2006. “Zapatismo Urbano”. Humboldt Journal of Social Relations, 29,1: 168-178.




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