An interview with Raúl Zibechi
29 years after the EZLN Uprising, the journalist and popular educator Raúl Zibechi evaluates the validity of the Zapatismo of Chiapas in the social and indigenous movements of Latin America and the processes that they experience before the progressive governments today.
Text: Daliri Oropeza Alvarez
Photos: Pedro Anza and Isabel Mateos
MEXICO CITY – Raúl Zibechi is a popular educator, journalist and writer who lives in Montevideo, Uruguay -where he has his library – when he isn’t traveling in Latin America. He is part of the Desinformémonos team, and collaborates in several media such as La Jornada, in Gara or Brecha, a media created by Mario Benedetti and Eduardo Galeano.
Zibechi is a referent for the analysis of anti-capitalist movements. For him, what’s important about the Uprising of the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN, Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional) in 1994 and what has been constructed in these 29 years in Chiapas is “showing that it’s a possible path,” to talk about autonomy.
He takes stock of the Zapatista Journey in Europe, the solidarity and horizons it opens up in Latin America for social movements. At the same time, he talks about the social context for indigenous movements with progressive governments, “they embody a possibility and in turn a risk,” he says in an interview.
He gives an overview of how progressive governments have people from the struggles in their ranks and this implies a risk for social or indigenous movements.
The journalist has closely followed the process of Pueblos Unidos, Nahua communities that united for water from the Cholultec region in Puebla, who closed a Bonafont plant and managed to recover water from their own wells.
There, in the closed Bonafont plant, he gave workshops and presented books. Although they were evicted, Zibechi returned this 2022 to present his book Other Worlds and peoples in movement. Debates on anti-colonialism and transition in Latin America.
In an interview he describes how the processes of dispossession, whether by corporations or States, cause division in indigenous peoples or social organizations, and talks about avoiding confrontation, given the difficulty of recovering the social fabric.
He assures us that we cannot forget that the subjects of decolonization are the peoples. He emphasizes that it’s important to think collectively and Zapatismo has stood out in that, in the simultaneous doing-reflection.
He participates in the interview from Montevideo, where he participates in a movement called Popular Subsistence Market, a collective of 53 nodes in networks dedicated to the community purchase and distribution of food that they buy from recovered factories, from peasants directly, or from production cooperatives.
The uprising and its contagions
—A 29 years later, why is it important to remember the Zapatista Uprising?
—It’s important because it marks a watershed in Latin America and the world. But we are going to stay in Latin America, at a time when real socialism had fallen. Between 1989 and 1991 there was an implosion of Soviet and Eastern European socialism and no social changes were in sight.
There was a complete triumph of neoliberal capitalism in the world. ‘The Commodity Consensus’, as an Argentine sociologist calls it. That on the one hand, and on the other hand, the vociferous advocacy of native peoples, in this case the peoples with Mayan roots, marks a turning point in what previous struggles used to be, they placed autonomy in a prominent place. The construction of autonomies instead of the struggle for state power.
Already in 1994, these two elements mark the irruption of a revolutionary force and in turn the collective subjects that sustain them: the original peoples.
How does the Zapatista uprising affect or favor social movements in Latin America today?
In Latin America, Zapatismo had a very strong imprint in the early years, logically. Then that imprint changed in intensity but today as almost 30 years have passed since “Ya Basta!” we have in Latin America, including Mexico, a large number of autonomous experiences … that I would not describe as daughters of Zapatismo but traveling similar paths.
We see the Mapuche People or different variables of the Mapuche People in southern Chile, in southern Argentina; the Nasa in southern Colombia, in Cauca; the birth of two autonomous territorial governments of the peoples in northern Peru: Wallmapu and Wampis, which are formed in the last six, seven years, in 2015 the Wampis, in 2021 the Wallmapu.
Twenty, up to 28 autonomous processes in the Brazilian legal Amazon of autonomous demarcation of territories; processes such as those experienced by Cherán in Mexico; processes such as those of Guerrero and those of Oaxaca, which some already came from before as the community autonomies of Oaxaca, but that are strengthened in this period of the 90s and take their own paths, naturally.
Zapatismo impacts the autonomous processes, it doesn’t direct them at all, because that’s not its objective, and also autonomy does not admit that others direct you, right? Autonomy is autonomy, so totally. Then everyone takes their own paths.
We also have autonomy and urban autonomic construction processes more or less known in different parts of the world and Latin America. And this seems to me to be very important: to create and confirm that we are in a process in which there is not only a part of the left and the movements that bet on the conquest of state power, but there is another part that sometimes collaborates or not, or are distanced. But there is another part of that left, from below, that fights for autonomy.
Something similar happens in the women’s movement, in one part they are more attached to state initiatives and another part more than linked to autonomy projects or autonomy processes. A similar thing happens among campesinos, among the black peoples who are at this moment, both in Brazil and Colombia, in processes of expansion of their initiatives.
It could be said, then, that the EZLN Uprising in ’94 and what was built as a result of Zapatismo, is a kind of detonator to make visible or proclaim these autonomies, which in themselves were already there, to infect them…
“Yes. Those that already existed and infect others that did not exist and show that it’s a possible way.
I do want to emphasize that what you call a detonator or a driver of these processes, is not in relation to direction. There is no one to direct these processes because autonomies are naturally self-directing, right?
Looking at Latin America
—It’s been a year since the Zapatista Journey for life where two delegations, one maritime, one by air traveled to another geography that is Europe. What horizons does this experience open in Latin America?
—I participated in exile in the 80s when the Uruguayan dictatorship in Europe, in the Spanish State, in processes of international solidarity.
What the Zapatista tour does is bring about a change in the political culture of solidarity. Not to provoke. To show that another culture of solidarity is possible because I remember in my life leaders, especially of the Central American guerrillas, who visited Europe; commanders, to meet with European political leaders. It was always mediated by fundraising, right, material support.
In this case what there are: women, above all, men, girls and boys from the communities and peoples with Mayan roots who visit another continent and meet with other people from the Europe of below.
It shows that another type of bond is possible, another type of relationship that does not go through the styles of the old political culture and is, to put it in some metaphorical way, an embrace between people and peoples from below. This is important because it also sends a different message that it is possible and necessary to carve out another political culture even in international relations.
This was left there, which people then pick up. I find it interesting to note that there are other ways and that they were shown. Other ways of doing solidarity, I call it political culture but there is no reason to call it that. Everyone calls things as they see fit.
—Now there are more countries with progressive governments in Latin America, what does it mean for indigenous movements on the one hand and for social movements on the other?
Well, you know that I am very critical of progressive governments. The ones I know the most, logically, are those from the Southern Cone: Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Chile… They embody a possibility and at the same time a risk.
The progressive government of Gabriel Boric sent more armored vehicles and more soldiers to Wallmapu, Mapuche territory, than the neoliberal government of Piñera, and militarized Wallmapu. That shows the risk, right? of the militarization of indigenous territories.
In turn, Lula, in his first two governments, advanced the enormous infrastructure work of Belo Monte, the third largest dam, an initiative that not even the military of the Brazilian dictatorship of 64 to 85 could carry out due to the opposition of the peoples of the Amazon, of the native indigenous peoples of the Amazon.
One says: Is Lula or Bolsonaro better? Obviously, I prefer Lula to be there than Bolsonaro, but that cannot obscure the enormous risks that the existence of progressive governments that are thriving represent for the movements. For the movements they have a risk, because many of them have been with the peoples, many of their cadres, especially in the media, have participated in the struggles of the peoples and when they go to the government, they take that knowledge to the government, then they can work better with them.
Now Lula is going to create the Ministry of Indigenous Peoples, of Original Peoples, because they were the spearhead of the struggle or resistance to Bolsonaro. There is already a whole mechanism created so that the leaders of a good part of these peoples are inserted into the ministerial structure, with which the struggle and organization of the peoples will undoubtedly be weakened.
There are lights and shadows, and the shadows for movements, for indigenous peoples, are very great risks because once a people, an organization is inserted into the institutions and co-opted by them, it is very difficult to recover autonomy.
Recovering social fabrics
“What a panorama! There is a concern expressed in several indigenous peoples about the division caused by voracious capitalism or governments, about dispossession. What alternatives do social or indigenous movements have in the face of what you were talking about, the use of codes of struggle by progressive governments, in the face of division?
—I have no alternatives. What I see at the more macro level is that the world’s ruling classes and international corporations have learned a lot from the people.
There we have the case of Soros and the Color Revolutions, which are found in many places to such an extent that one doubts. We won’t know if it’s a legitimate movement or if it’s a movement that started out legitimate, regardless of whether it agrees or not, but then was manipulated by the media and the right. Something like this happened in Brazil in June 2013.
A mining corporation, for example, arrives in Peru or Ecuador, or in any country: Argentina, Chile, regardless of the government, it arrives in a community and that community is offered “aid” for schools, for sports centers, for a number of initiatives. It neutralizes criticism of this mining venture.
So, the result is what you mentioned: a division is promoted in the communities, by that intelligence acquired by the big corporations: the mining companies, Monsanto, the soy companies, etc. and a process of division of the struggles begins because there are always people from the communities who, even without bad intentions, see that the presence of this mining company or this international company is favorable to their interests.
This division inevitably weakens the struggle, the resistance. So, what I believe is that we are facing a period in which capitalism, the knowledge of capitalism, has managed to generate widespread confusion among the popular sectors and communities and in this confusion the extractive projects deepen and accelerate, and this is very difficult to reverse.
The only way to reverse it is with a lot of patience. With a lot of acceptance that the community is divided and that they are not good and bad. Sometimes there is someone bought by power, of that there is no doubt. But you can’t simplify it between good and bad. What ends up happening is a situation in which the collective fabric of communities ends up being hurt, torn.
And repairing those tissues is not easy. Sometimes you can’t. Sometimes it takes a lot of time. But we must avoid confrontation in any case, because except for a minimum, a very small minority of people who obtain positions or money, that division cannot be judged because what is acting are very strong powers.
—In your recent book, “Other Worlds and Peoples in Motion,” you place peoples as collective subjects of knowledge and critical potential, as a subject within history with an emancipatory potential.
—In this book I try to show, to know one: that decolonization or decoloniality, as academia maintains, has subjects that are the peoples, who are collective subjects.
Because sometimes it would seem that there is a lot of confusion in academia, like everywhere, which is not something special. But what one can see is that it’s not clear from the writings of scholars who the subjects of decolonization are. And they are the peoples.
That is a first theoretical and important question, because otherwise the peoples would be the object of study and I believe that they are collective subjects in thought and action.
And the second thing is to show how in this completely new period, Immanuel Wallerstein says that we are navigating seas for which there are no maps because we are in a systemic crisis of capitalism, of neoliberalism, and before a civilizational crisis that includes environmental and other facets.
The peoples, unlike the old labor movement, are in turn resisting the model but creating new things in health, in education, in justice, and not only in Chiapas.
I believe that Zapatismo does both: create a new world and reflect on it. It has both facets and in that sense it shows an important plus because, although I believe that the creations of a we are already the heritage of many native peoples, blacks, peasants and even urban peripheries in Latin America, the deep reflection on this is not yet the heritage of all movements.
But yes, Zapatismo has excelled in this: in doing and reflecting, in reflecting on what is done and this is a very important thing because we need to think collectively in order to continue growing.
Originally Published in Spanish by Pie de Página, Saturday, December 31, 2022, https://piedepagina.mx/el-zapatismo-impacta-en-los-procesos-de-autonomia-de-america-latina-raul-zibechi/ and Re-Published with English translation by the Chiapas Support Committee
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