EZLN: 37 years of dignity and autonomy

By: Raúl Zibechi

In these fierce times there is little to celebrate. While the darkness of the system becomes routine, when those above dispossess us with death and violence, the lights from below shine with all their brilliance, tearing the night, illuminating the trails and slopes. The 37th anniversary of the Zapatista National Liberation Army (Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional, EZLN) is, surely, the most powerful light in the Latin American firmament.

The EZLN celebrates its 37th anniversary facing one of the largest military offensives in a long time, encouraged by the “progressive” government of Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the governments of Chiapas and of several municipalities in the state that launched a war of attrition against the autonomous territories, in order to dispossess and destroy the EZLN and the bases of support.

But, concretely, what do we celebrate? We celebrate the continuity and perseverance of a revolutionary movement different from all previous ones, something that we must value in all its transcendence. Not only did they not give up, not sell out and not surrender, rather they did not repeat the vanguardist scheme, which reproduces the dominant culture to convert its leaders into new elites.

We celebrate coherence, but also how much they taught us in these almost four decades. So as not to speak in general, I want to refer to what I have learned, either in the “little Zapatista School,” or in the different gatherings and exchanges in which I was able to participate.

The core of Zapatismo is autonomy. Not theoretical or declarative, but rather living practice of the peoples, in each and every one of the moments and spaces in which they make their lives, from the ejidos and communities, to the municipalities and the good government juntas. Autonomy is a way of life, it’s the dignity of the peoples; collective autonomy, not individual autonomy like certain Eurocentric thought transmitted to us.

We need autonomy to continue being peoples and social sectors that practice other ways than those above. Autonomy can be practiced in all spaces, in the barrios of cities, among campesinos, native and black peoples, in the most diverse collectives and communities.

Autonomy is that immense umbrella of dignity that we all hold together. It is not an institution; it consists of living human relationships, woven with the dignity that allows us to harmonize.

The support bases and the EZLN also teach us that autonomy must be complete, comprehensive, or at least tending towards it, encompassing all aspects of the life of the peoples. That’s why they construct schools, clinics, hospitals, cooperatives and all that rich web of production and care of life.

Autonomy is combined with self-government and autonomous justice; the engine of autonomy is collective work.

Defense of territories and communities is another of the EZLN’s teachings. But another feature of autonomy appears here, unprecedented in the field of revolution: the defense of our spaces cannot be a mere reaction to what those above do, to us. Choosing how, when and in what way we act is also a feature of autonomy, not falling into provocations, because they want war, because war benefits capital.

At this point, the EZLN has taught us not to respond to aggression with aggression, death with death, war with war, because there we stop being autonomous, that is, we stop being different. And that has nothing to do with pacifism.

We learned that there is no single mode of autonomy, valid for all peoples at all times. They have taught us that each one who walks his own way and according to his times, and that is what the pueblos of Latin America are doing.

I can testify to the way in which the autonomies are expanding across our continent. Dozens of Mapuche communities in southern Chile and Argentina are reconstructing themselves autonomously, confronting the politics of the states that present them as terrorists.

The Indigenous Regional Council of the Cauca, in southern Colombia is a notable expression of construction of autonomies. The indigenous guard is expanding to the black and campesino peoples, who have starred in the recent Indigenous, Black and Campesino Minga that culminated in Bogotá after walking 500 kilometers (https://bit.ly/2IMRFQk).

In Peru, the Autonomous Territorial Government of the Wampis Nation has been formed, a process that three other Amazonian peoples in the north are following. In the Brazilian Amazon, 14 peoples are moving towards autonomy to defend themselves from mining and agribusiness, as the militant geographer Fábio Alkmin has shown in an ongoing investigation.

It would be abusive to give the impression that all autonomies follow the paths that the EZLN is traveling. But I want to emphasize that the EZLN’s existence is an impulse, a reference, a light that tells us that it’s possible to resist capital and capitalism, that it’s possible to construct other worlds, resisting and living with dignity.


Originally Published in Spanish by La Jornada

Friday, November 29, 2020


Re-Published with English interpretation by the Chiapas Support Committee




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