Foto above: Acteal at night.
Alright folks, it’s time to close this round of updates. In a couple of weeks I’m going back to England. Before then I have to carry out an extensive round of interviews with NGO personnel, academics and activists who have worked with the Zapatista movement here in Mexico. I’m also going to stop in Puebla for a seminar and a meeting with my favourite academic, John Holloway whose books on social change has perhaps influenced my thinking more than any other single person. I very strongly recommend Change the World Without Taking Power to anyone interested in the theme of social change and social movements.
Anyway, I thought I’d give you a bit of a closure since I’m not sure if I’m going to keep writing here. I’ll be going back to England where finishing the dissertation awaits me.
Okay, since the period of solidarity work I’ve naturally done a couple of things. Unfortunately things haven’t gone just as smoothly as I would have wished. The plan was to get permission from the Juntas, the Zapatista civilian authorities, to move into one of the communities for the rest of the time, to teach English and in that way to be able to get to know the daily life of the membership of the movement. However, as we returned from the community, the movement was very occupied with running the Escuelita (‘Little School’) and hosting the 1,400 visitors – activists, academics and supporters of the movement from around the world. Here is an article by Raul Zibechi about the school here. I also found his reflections about the movement following his time in the Escuelita very well placed, although maybe somewhat romantic.
Thus my friend and I who developed this plan, were forced to wait for the termination of the school before proposing our project. In the meanwhile we had the unique chance to attend the 10th anniversary celebrations of the establishment of the very Juntas in one of the Caracols, Oventic. We slept in hammocks, covered with tarpaulin due to the heavy rain typical of these parts. We were lucky for having the hammocks, as many people got all of their clothes and belongings completely wet sleeping in makeshift tents. Despite the rain, the four days we spent in the Caracol were truly an impressive and memorable experience. Never in my life have I met so many people from all over the world that share similar hopes and ideas for social change.
After the celebrations and the week of the escuelita that followed we returned to Oventic to propose our idea to the junta. Twice we were told that the Junta was not there, and since they aren’t there, they cannot receive our proposal letter as they need to be present themselves. After the second time we concluded that this is probably a polite rejection as the movement, despite my hopes, is still maintaining a somewhat closed and secretive approach towards people that don’t work within the organizations with whom they have an established working relationship.
Thus we had to proceed to our alternative plan, which for my friend meant moving on, and for me going for a second round of human rights observing.
As I write this, my time as a human rights observer in the village of Acteal is coming to a close. My fellow observers and I are here to accompany and provide, I suppose, mainly psychological and moral support to a group of displaced people from a community in the same municipality. The majority of those displaced belong to a civil organization called Las Abejas (Bees). Abejas are a pacifist organization sharing more or less the same aims as the Zapatista movement in terms of building autonomy and constructing a more just society. However, they are a pacifist organization and thus not in agreement with some of the practises of the Zapatistas, namely the armed uprising of 1994. The Abejas are often known due to a very unfortunate event that took place on December 22, 1997. Paramilitaries of the same village came to the Abeja community, proceeded to enter the church where the movement’s Catholic members were holding mass. Forty-five people were killed that day, including four pregnant women with their unborn babies and many children. Mexican army troops, stationed 300 meters away, did nothing. The government still maintains that this is an internal community affair that has nothing to do with politics. The aggressors were members and supporters of the ruling PRI-party.
During our time here we’ve gotten to know some of the survivors of the Massacre of Acteal. Juan, for example, was two years old during the time of the massacre. Both of his parents were killed, and he himself only barely survived the AK-47 bullet wound that tore his two year old body. Despite the horrible events, the Abejas remain convinced that pacifism is the right way for social change.
As difficult the situation in Acteal itself is – especially since those who carried out the massacre have been set free and have returned in the very same village – we are not here because of what is happening here in Acteal, per say, but because of the displaced people that have taken refuge here.
The people are from Colonia Puebla, a community sharply divided according to religion. Abejas practise Catholicism, whereas the majority of the village are Evangelics. The authorities are controlled by the latter. There had been tension in the village for a long time. However, the displacement itself is the culmination of a chain of events that begun on the 18 of July. On that day, the non-Catholics of Colonia Puebla destroyed the rebuilding site of the Catholic church. The Abejas of Colonia think that this is because they want the land that the church lies on, for a construction of a market place and a secondary school for the other groups.
The destruction of the building site was denounced by the Catholic authorities and came out in the radio and newspapers. To justify their actions, or to divert attention away from them, the authorities of the village accused two Cacholics and a Baptist of the village of poisoning the water. The two Catholics were supporters of the Zapatista Movements (BAEZLN). The accused were taken to San Cristobal where on the same day they were deemed innocent and set free. However, during this time the situation in the community had spiralled out of control, with the authorities inciting the non-Catholic youths to the point of rage. Shortly after, fearing for their lives, the Catholics (Abejas and non-Abejas alike) decided to leave the community due to the increasing harassment and intimidation.
At this point the people of Colonia Puebla are at Acteal without knowing when they’ll be able to return. The situation is very uncomfortable as the community here does not have the capacity to host the 95 displaced. They sleep in the office of the Mesa Directiva (Abeja authorities) and in a large tarpaulin tent outside. Sicknesses are common and medicine is running short. Fortunately due to solidarity collections in Catholic churches around Chiapas, the displaced still have enough food for the moment, although if the situation persists, they will undoubtedly start having problems with food too.
There was a solidarity caravan to return the people to Puebla, but the human rights activists and the displaced people were met with intimidation, threats and youths throwing rocks at them, and were unable to get the people back home. At the moment, the situation is very much up in the air. Without guarantees of justice and security, the people will be unable and unwilling to go home. The Abejas feel that the state authorities lack a willingness to solve the conflict and are not too hopeful. Any support for the displaced will undoubtedly become vital in the days, weeks and months to come. If you wish to support, have a look at this website.
This aside, for the research, the time in Acteal wasn’t perhaps the most useful, for the obvious reason that these people are not members of the Zapatista movement, but Abejas which have some significant differences with the ZM. They, for one, don’t seem to challenge as actively as the Zapatistas the traditional roles of men and women in the movement and their project seems to rely quite heavily on Catholicism. The Zapatistas, on the other hand, seek to break the old family roles and, although allowing for religion in the movement, do not base their project on it. However, it has been interesting precisely for these reasons, to be here as it allows for me to contrast among Zapatistas, Abejas and other communities.
I think that should be all for now. Thank you for following this blog for all this time, and my apologies for being quite inactive with it most of the time. I think this might be it for the blog as a whole as well. Although I have a plan of going on a five-or-so year tour of Latin America after my doctorate, to do a sort of ‘topography of resistance’. My plans tend to change rapidly though, so no guarantees about that. But if I do end up doing that, I would undoubtedly use this space to publish on the movements that I meet along the way. But for now, thanks again and I hope you’ve enjoyed this.