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The story behind the EZLN’s decision to enter Mexico’s presidential race

Indigenous Peoples

by Ryan Mallett-Outtrim

For two decades, Mexico’s leftist Zapatista rebels have shunned electoral politics – but not anymore. On Friday, 21 October, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) announced plans to field a candidate in Mexico’s 2018 presidential election. The move immediately took many political commentators across Mexico by surprise, though the decision itself was the result of a week of negotiations between the EZLN and representatives at the 2016 National Indigenous Congress (CNI) in San Cristobal, Chiapas.

Few details of the possible candidate have been released, though the EZLN and CNI have confirmed the individual will be indigenous, and a woman. However, in a joint statement, the two organizations argued that their presidential bid won’t be an ordinary campaign. Instead, they said they will use the office of president to dismantle the Mexican government from the inside out.

‘We confirm that our fight is not for power, we do not seek it; rather we call all of the original peoples and civil society to organize to detain this destruction, to strengthen our resistances and rebellions, that is to say in the defence of the life of each person, family, collective, community, or neighbourhood. To construct peace and justice, reconnecting ourselves from below,’ they said in a declaration released at the end of the CNI talks.

The 2016 CNI: Celebration and Reflection

The talks were the 5th national gathering of the CNI, which was founded by the EZLN in 1996 to bring together indigenous communities from across Mexico to collaborate on social and political issues.

During the first day of this year’s gathering of the CNI, indigenous leaders held closed door talks about the future of their movement. Media outlets including the New Internationalist were barred from observing the talks on the first day, though there were rumours that many indigenous leaders felt the EZLN’s uprising had failed to achieve many of its initial goals.

During the 1990s, the EZLN waged an armed insurgency against the Mexican government, though today armed confrontations between the Zapatistas and army are rare. Instead, in recent years the EZLN has focused on developing its own political system of direct democracy within the territory it controls, while the CNI fostered links between other indigenous movements.

Speaking at the opening ceremony, EZLN spokesperson Subcomandante Insurgente (Insurgent Sub-commander) Moises called for reflection and self-criticism after two decades of indigenous organizing.

‘We’ve got TV programs, sure, but as for water. Well, we have no pipes, no nothing’

‘To talk amongst ourselves as the original peoples [of Mexico] was and is very important, now more than ever, because the destruction wrought by the capitalists on mother earth is extensive and that means that we will also be destroyed, because it is from and through her that we live,’ he said.

Around 500 indigenous representatives from more than 30 ethnic groups joined the talks, along with dozens of other observers.

Filo Zitlalxochitzin travelled from the Mixtec village in Puebla state, where he said his people have long been fighting for environmental conservation.

‘This is why the CNI is important, to stop the destruction of the environment. We can’t do anything alone, but together we can,’ he said.

Another attendee, Nayor Hernandez, said he came from a Wirarriki speaking community in Jalisco state. Hernandez lamented many Wirarriki villages lack basic infrastructure, including access to running water.

‘We’ve got [access to] TV programs, sure, but as for water. Well, we have no pipes, no nothing,’ he said.

Hernandez added, ‘The government should implement basic services, like drinkable water, and access to the health system.’

The second day of the conference was largely devoted to cultural exchange, with the EZLN inviting CNI participants to one of their bases of community organizing, Oventic. Often considered the EZLN’s de facto capital, in recent years Oventic has become largely inaccessible to outsiders except during official events. This time, visitors were treated to performances from various EZLN communities across Chiapas, all with political themes.

One play began with a stylised dance depicting male performers tilling fields, while women engaged in domestic chores. As the dance went on, one woman gave up her domestic chores, and started working in the fields, while a man took her place in the kitchen. By the end of the play, the men and women were equally divided between agricultural and domestic work, while performers praised the destruction of the traditional gendered division of labour.

In another play, a group of EZLN guerrillas were depicted saving two women from being sexually abused by police. Actors used small fireworks to illustrate a shootout, which ended with the police fleeing, and the EZLN fighters shouting, ‘death to capitalism!’

Related photo gallery: Two decades of struggle – Mexico’s Indigenous Congress

‘Long live the EZLN, we’re retaking out land,’ another guerrilla yelled.

A third play exhorted the values of community-run stores, such as those common in EZLN territory.

The crowd laughed as a child actor dressed as a farmer approached the mock store, and commented, ‘Aaaaah, what great prices for materials, boots, machetes – everything you need to work in the countryside!’

Then a drunk customer entered the store, and asked for alcohol.

‘Sorry, we don’t have that here; we’re Zapatistas,’ the shopkeeper said.

Back in San Cristobal

The final day of the CNI conference took place back in San Cristobal, where the public was invited to join discussions with indigenous representatives. At this point, it became clear the most controversial proposal of the 2016 talks had divided many conference goers. Already, many indigenous representatives had expressed scepticism of the suggestion to appoint a presidential candidate for 2018.

The EZLN itself has long opposed political parties, though it was their most well known spokesperson, Subcomandante Insurgente Galeano, who emerged as one of the strongest advocates for joining the presidential race. He argued an indigenous candidate could bring renewed national attention to the plight of indigenous peoples, though he said the EZLN itself shouldn’t be in charge of the campaign. Instead, he and others suggested an indigenous council manage the electoral campaign, under the authority of the CNI.

An indigenous candidate could bring renewed national attention to the plight of indigenous peoples

This position was later reflected in a joint communique from the EZLN and CNI, which stated, ‘We’ll consult throughout our territories in order to create an indigenous government council.’

Galeano also argued against allowing a male candidate, stating there were already enough men in politics who had failed to represent the interests of the people.

If the CNI/EZLN candidate wins the 2018 elections, they’ll be Mexico’s first female president, but not the first indigenous person to hold the office. Two of the country’s most famous presidents identified as indigenous: the partly indigenous Porfirio Diaz served seven terms as president in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, while the Zapotec Benito Juarez’s rule dominated much of the 19th Century.

Mexico’s outgoing President, Enrique Pena Nieto currently has an approval rating around 23 per cent – making him one of Latin America’s least popular leaders. Pena Nieto is barred from running for office again due to term limits, though recent polls suggest his ruling centre right party, the PRI, is expected to lose the presidency to another major right wing party, the PAN. An EZLN/CNI candidate will also have to compete with the left wing Morena party, which is supported by around 17 per cent of voters, according to a poll by Buendia & Laredo in July. The party is currently led by leftist political veteran Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.

Obrador and the EZLN have had a fickle relationship since the Zapatistas refused to endorse his 2006 presidential bid. Instead, the EZLN ran its own ‘Other Campaign’ to demand broad changes to the Mexican constitution. At the time, critics accused the EZLN of dividing the Mexican left, and contributing to Obrador’s loss in the elections of that year. This time, the EZLN and CNI say their next foray into federal politics has the potential to galvanise Mexico’s left.

‘This is the time for rebellious dignity, to build a new nation by and for all, to strengthen the power from the bottom and to the anti capitalist left,” the two organizations said.

They added, ‘The words of all will materialise in an indigenous woman.’


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