Vermonters Offer Solidarity To Zapatista Rebels

On December 31st, 2005, I drove seven hours outside of the city of San Cristobal, deep within the Chiapas mountains into EZLN held territory. The remote village of La Garrucha (lying at the far end of two hours of rugged dirt roads) was the site of a large Zapatista New Years Eve celebration complete with music, dancing, and political speakers. There, several thousand rebels mingled with two hundred or so foreign supporters. Among those supporters, I met seven people with Vermont ties. Their reasons for being there and supporting the Zapatista struggle were diverse; some described themselves as revolutionaries and anarchists who support the armed struggle, others as liberal Ralf Nader supporters. What they all held in common was the belief that the Zapatista cause is fundamentally a just one, that it is grounded in democracy, and that the struggle in Chiapas has ramifications well beyond these few isolated villages.

The Green Mountains Of Chiapas:
Vermonters Offer Solidarity To Zapatista Rebels

By David Van Deusen

San Cristobal, Mexico, January 1st 2006
Five thousand miles south of the Green Mountains is another range that serves as the heart of another rural community--Chiapas. Chiapas, a remote rural Mexican state that borders Guatemala, has been the stage for a low intensity revolution for the last 12 years. According to rebel Spokespeople, the 1994 uprising began as an attempt to secure indigenous rights and control over local resources. Since then, its supporters contend that it has grown into a broad struggle against neo-liberalism and capitalism with ramifications across Mexico and beyond.

The rebels, who are primarily an indigenous farming people, call themselves the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) and are often referred to, in short, as the Zapatistas. For the last 12 years dozens of Zapatista held villages have been administered autonomously, guided by humanitarian principles, and utilizing directly democratic decision-making structures at a local level. Their basic political model can be understood as a kind of greatly empowered Town Meeting system, backed by a standing rebel army estimated to be in the thousands. The EZLN and Mexican government both currently observe a shaky seize fire agreement signed in the mid-nineties.

On December 31st, 2005, I drove seven hours outside of the city of San Cristobal, deep within the Chiapas mountains into EZLN held territory. The remote village of La Garrucha (lying at the far end of two hours of rugged dirt roads) was the site of a large Zapatista New Years Eve celebration complete with music, dancing, and political speakers. There, several thousand rebels mingled with two hundred or so foreign supporters. Among those supporters, I met seven people with Vermont ties. Their reasons for being there and supporting the Zapatista struggle were diverse; some described themselves as revolutionaries and anarchists who support the armed struggle, others as liberal Ralf Nadir supporters. What they all held in common was the belief that the Zapatista cause is fundamentally a just one, that it is grounded in democracy, and that the struggle in Chiapas has ramifications well beyond these few isolated villages.

Jeremy Ripin, an archeologist employed by UVM, and resident of Moretown, explained why he supports the EZLN. "Any movement [such as the Zapatistas] that tries to change the balance, [to defeat] what people would call neo-liberalism, to bring power back to the people in the communities where they benefit from what gets done, is a movement that I can support."

Henry Harris, a 27-year-old carpenter who calls the Northeast Kingdom his home, spent several months working directly with the Zapatistas, volunteering labor where they requested. He explained that the conditions in Chiapas make for a challenging place for Vermonters to help organize.

"Things are totally bizarre down here. Things that we [Vermonters] consider totally normal have all kinds of consequences… For example, in Vermont everyone does compost, kitchen compost, to put in your garden. Down here [in areas not controlled by the EZLN] composting is a very revolutionary activity… Some people from the states came down here. They were teaching people how to compost because they [the Mexicans] have this corrupt system where the traditional ruling party, the PRI, would go out into the county side and trade chemical fertilizer for votes. They would do that every year. The fertilizer would poison the soil and make it so they became dependant on the same fertilizer. So every year they would have this trade for this crapy fertilizer for votes."

Henry continued, "People came down here and were trying to teach these people how to compost, and how to fertilize their own soil with garden waist… They [the folks from the states] were chased out of [Chiapas] by paramilitaries for doing that."

Ben Rockefeller, a 29-year-old stone mason from Lyndon, also observed differences between these two mountain communities. "One of the differences I see between here and there is… [Chiapas] has a cohesive unity… instead of just being separated, cloistered up [like many Vermont communities]."

While there may be many real and perceived differences between Chiapas and Vermont, some Vermonters I talked with also reflected on the similarities. Jessica Culeny, a long time Rural Vermont volunteer and anti-genetic engineering activist talked with me about the some of these.

"There are an enormous amount of parallels to be drawn both between rural society in Vermont and the campansino [small farmer] movement here in Chiapas and throughout Mexico. I live in Cabot which is a huge dairy region, and I feel that with the campansino movement here there are all sorts of parallels to be drawn between this place and the gentrification of Vermont farmland. [In Vermont and Chiapas] people are being pushed off their land… [In Vermont] property taxes are being raised by folks who have more money moving in... Our small town way of life is being demolished and it’s something that we all need to get together to protect."

Jessica went on to say, "Abenakis are truly native Vermonters… The struggle here with the Zapatistas is similar and I think the Abenakis could draw many many parallels and many many points of solidarity with the Zapatista struggle."

However, despite such similarities, the particular modes of struggle in Vermont and Chiapas are (at least for the time) radically divergent. "The indigenous people here have taken it upon themselves-–they’ve put their own bodies on the line taking up arms against an oppressive force, against colonialism, imperialism, neo-liberalism, and all of these things, and they’ve put themselves in a place where they are willing to take up arms against their oppressor," said Culeny.

Not since Ethan Allen and the Green Mountain Boys have the majority of Vermonters embraced armed struggle as a means to combat the forces of oppression. Even so, it was hard not to mentally make such comparisons when told that the Zapatista fight was against colonialism, and for control of local resources & democracy; all issues that motivated farmers in the 1770s to rebel against the royal governor of New York, and later the British Empire. And of course that rebellion in the 1770s is the only reason why today Vermont is its own state, and not simply a poor outlying county of New York, or for that matter a British colony.

Another group of Vermonters I talked with came to Chiapas as part of a tour sponsored by a "fair trade" company that imports coffee from a Zapatista cooperative. The first I spoke with was Jacob Park, a professor of business and public policy at Green Mountain College in Poultney.

Jacob asserted, "Its great that you and I are able to meet in Chiapas and think about what is going on down here, but also how that links back to the U.S. and even Vermont."

In a reference to the Zapatista practice of direct democracy in their communities Jacob mused, "[although] Town Meeting is only held once a year, I’ve always [thought about] the issues that cannot be tackled in one night in a Town Meeting… What the Zapatistas and… the Other Campaign is signifying is that it is a much longer process… It will require more than one night of consultation even if it is a small town."

The Other Campaign is a new initiative launched by the Zapatistas seeking to build a direct alliance with workers, farmers, and students all across Mexico. Timed to compete with the 2006 Mexican presidential election, it hopes to forge a united (non-electoral) left that is capable a delivering a new form of power into the hands of the people themselves. To achieve this, EZLN leaders are planning to tour the entire nation over the course of the coming year where they will listen to and talk with thousands of common people and community leaders.

Park elaborated on the Other Campaign expressing admiration and optimism, "The real lesson here, in terms of what [the Zapatistas] are doing, is a sense that 'we are listening'… The people who truly believe in this are the left in Mexico, and I think that is going to transform politics in Mexico."

Chris and Jody Treter the co-organizers of the fair trade tour, and both graduates of the School for International Training in Brattleboro, both expressed strong support for the Zapatistas and the Other Campaign. "It is very hopeful when you see people [like the Zapatistas] organizing when they feel that they are not part of their electoral process, and come up with an alternative solution… [It is] especially [hopeful] for people in the United States who feel marginalized by our own electoral system," said Jody.

Chris added, "We found a lot of hope and inspiration and means of organizing a community, a lot of hope for organizing your community against whatever you are resisting."

As for what lessons these Vermonters intend to bring back with them, all claim to have learned practical lessons, even if they have different local organizing objectives. For some their experience in Chiapas will affect the basic ways in which they live their lives. For others, the hope is to import a more radical politics into the social movement in Vermont.

Ben Rockefeller reflected, "It’s our responsibility when we are traveling to bring something back that you don’t buy at a market… If you can apply something to your own rural community where you live, as best you can, then you haven’t wasted your time."

Jeremy Ripin told me, "[The Zapatistas] are letting the people speak for themselves. They say what they need and what they want and they don’t need some politician, who is out for power, to say it for them… A big lesson [I'll bring home] is… when you get a community and people behind what you are trying to organize… when you get that grassroots type of organization, that really makes a difference… Also, one should never give up. [The Zapatistas] have been beaten, killed, jailed, almost to the point where they were powerless, but they still manage to exist and they still manage to win victories."

Jessica Culeny, for her part, asserted, "I want to bring back the things that I have learned here both to my community, and Rural Vermont, and also the Abenaki Nation in the hopes of inspiring a revolution where we live."

Professor Park concluded by articulating, "Despite the distance and difference in culture between Vermont and Chiapas there is a connection between the two areas that, perhaps, is much greater than meets the eye."

Reprinted From Catamount Tavern News, Vermont