Bill Shankley, Manager of Liverpool, said, "Football isn't everything, but it almost is."
We're playing a game of soccer at the April 10th fiesta of in the Zapatista village of Diez de Abril. The Irish Mexico Group has had a participation and presence in this rebel community born of the Zapatista uprising since 1996. If football is life, or almost life, things are not a bed of roses. The solidarity volunteers are playing Diez youth and it is a brawl; the Diez youth have gone on strike refusing to play any more over a perceived bad referee decision, and lads, its only a game, but the score is 2-2 and they really want to win. Our star striker, a German Anarchist is covered in bruises from their persistent fouling, and I'm not a prude, but the language they are using amongst each other, or at each other, is appalling! Punches are thrown and the game dissolves into a free-for-all.
We are all here to celebrate the 7th anniversary of the communities' tenacious formative existence, and specifically, the arrival of piped water into the village from a clean spring 7km away. It is the accumulation of the years of our international solidarity presence that has resulted in the completion of the water project, at a cost of $25,000, all of the money raised amongst people and groups involved in Diez over the last six years. The engineering and construction was overseen in solidarity and indeed, the backbreaking work shared day in day out with the community. You would think it is a call for celebration and camaraderie, but no, the melee on the soccer pitch suggests otherwise.
International Solidarity is a very complicated process.
Lets start at the beginning. In February 1995, the army launched a statewide offensive against all Zapatista-held territory: approximately 1/3 of the rebel-zone was lost. Hundreds were taken prisoner; there were a handful of deaths. In response, the Zapatistas called for an International presence to witness and monitor Military and State Human Rights abuses. 'Peace-Camps' were set up in strategic locations throughout the conflict zone and were populated and run by volunteers from all over the world.
The Irish Mexico Group (IMG) set up camp in Diez in January of '97. As a front line Zapatista community on occupied land, it was a target for military or paramilitary intervention. With a permanent International presence, the hope was to deter this. The stated mission of the Peace Camps was to monitor the situation as neutral observers. But the aims of the IMG went beyond a 'Peace-camp' with a human rights agenda. The group was predominantly Anarchist influenced and the individuals set their sights beyond the UN Charter of Human Rights. We were not neutral observers, we were in full support of the Zapatista struggle and this struggle was to live in peace and dignity without military or state interference. Generally the activities of Chiapas Peace-Campers were restricted to loitering around the designated Camp area while awaiting military intervention. In Diez, the IMG, with the agreement of the community, attempted to build direct links with the Zapatistas and allow a cross-cultural political and day-to-day solidarity to develop. It was clear that the most urgent thing was to defend the gains of the Zapatista uprising against military encroachment, and our privileged status as first-world passport holders perhaps collectively contributed to a purely military solution not being an option in Chiapas.
Being in direct solidarity meant taking responsibility for the reality that this was an armed revolt, that violence was an everyday fact, and it was dangerous. Not being 'neutral' observers meant that the international companer@s would possibly have to actively defend themselves alongside the community, as they have throughout history, from the Spanish revolution, in the world-wide anti-imperialist struggles, and closer to Chiapas, as foreigners had done in Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala.
This was discussed and accepted. In Acteal, December 1997, the paramilitaries shot dead 45 people, many as they prayed for salvation. In Diez, it was decided not to pray, but all would fight. Paramilitaries from the nearby PRI-ista (pro-government) community of San Miguel trained at night and we could hear shots in the mountains. Several times Diez mobilised with arms and awaited invasions that thankfully never materialized.
But the armed tactic was not the way in Chiapas, as the Zapatistas skillfully navigated an unarmed strategy of resistance that was an inspiration for the gathering global movement against Neo-liberal Capitalism.
International volunteers busied themselves working alongside the villagers in the field, building dry latrines, basic literacy training and sharing day-to-day activities
Villagers commented - "How come you caxlanes can't even work well in the fields yet you get paid 10 times more wages than us? How come you travel the world and we cant afford to leave Chiapas?" As 'Caxlanes' (an indigenous word to describe people from outside, be they from other parts of Mexico, the US or Europe; anybody not part of the indigenous culture), we try to address these fundamental injustices but often the rage and despair felt by these wretchedly poor campesinos would be directed, in the absence of any other outlet, at us.
Nevertheless, there is a simple rebel joy garnered from the intercambio (interchange) of caxlanes and Zapatistas. Whether it is simply sharing a cup of coffee and stories, or indeed sharing the work of planting some coffee trees and some years later tasting the produce, or, more vitally, helping in the release of an incarcerated companero. Or the happiness when the water flows new out of a water pipe in the village and a compa says "Its beautiful" and the shared solidarity work has all being worthwhile. To be invited into a village that really is a community, not the pale shadow of intentional or constructed 'communities' or any of these shibboleths of our dispossessed worlds. The privilege of being welcome into a very different world, to share space and time with the people of maize and the ultimate rebels.
As International Volunteers in Chiapas we witnessed an array of embarrassing and poorly conceived national and international involvement in the Zapatista zones. Well-intentioned NGOs (Non Governmental Organisations- the mendicant orders of late capitalism) and solidarity initiatives flourished and failed to produce results on the ground. Apart from the tension between the more institutionalised, money-driven NGO's and the more idealistic, solidarity driven activists, this animosity cloaked a greater problem of their joint representation in the communities. A question: how many Italians does it take to set up a hydroelectric machine in La Realidad to give light to 100 houses? Answer- about 160. And does it work? Occasionally. Another question &endash; how many thesis, academic papers and video documentaries have been produced about the Zapatistas by activists and NGO's using their privileged access to the people? Answer- how many stars are there in the Chiapas night-sky? A lot of people are climbing on the backs of the Zapatistas to make their own careers.
Back in 1995, the then coordination of Chiapas-based NGO's 'CONPAZ' promised that an important priority of these organisations was to train and empower the indigenous people from the base communities to take control of these intermediary posts between the Zapatistas and national/international society. It was understood that these positions filled by 'civil society' were provisional and the ideal was to 'render themselves unnecessary' in their positions. This was a lauded and clearly understood objective, but it was not realized. (CONPAZ fell apart amidst accusations of administrative disarray and corruption; some of the leading lights went on to work for state institutions, (one for bio-piracy multinationals!), and the organization dissolved, rending itself quite unnecessary- reprehensibly. The new organization set up in its wake, Enlace, has fared better, but remains wholly run by Caxlanes.)
The rebel communities are haunted by the ghosts of failed NGO projects and the paradox of good intentions. In Diez, people remember the failed Rabbit rearing NGO project of '96, the failed candle making NGO project of '97, the delivery of 50 gas stoves which were thrown out a month later when the gas ran out- who could afford to buy bottles gas?, and of course the stalled potable water project of '97. Sometimes it is more than badly executed good intentions. Villagers wonder how one Chicano NGO operative had a big house, 2 trucks and multiple foreign holidays yet the Cooperative store he was overseeing went to shit due to lack of funding and administrative ineptitude.
San Cristobal, the local tourist and administrative centre, became a hive of industrious NGO offices and organizations living comfortably off the back of the Zapatista communities. It goes without saying the standard of life in the Autonomous Municipalities has fallen in the last 7 years as a result of military strain and government counter-insurgency operations, while the lecherous NGO industry has flourished.
The mountains of cash donated and raised through international organizations and individuals for the Zapatistas have often been channeled through a network of intermediaries who take their cut, administer the rest, and finally, to add insult to injury, often proceed to speak on behalf of the Zapatistas internationally. (It goes without saying that these organisations would be run very differently if the compas were in control. NGO's tend to be less radical than the movements they attach themselves to.)
So back to the football match, the ultimate metaphor. The youth are showing great disrespect for their 'benefactors', the folks who brought them the water amongst other projects And I think, paradoxically this is a good sign. There is no preferencial treatment for the caxlanes. There is a healthy resentment here. They are still dirt poor and we are still rich enough to be able to leave and go as we please, back to San Cristobal, Mexico City, New York or Ireland. Most of these indigenous youths have never and will never visit any of these places. And that pisses them off.
So this reveals the inherent contradiction of Caxlan solidarity. To be truly in solidarity with the wretched of the earth, does this mean living like them, becoming one of them? This would involve leaving behind the old world, learning primitive agriculture and indigenous tongues, and occasionally working for $3 a day as a peon. No activist has, as far as I know, taken this track in Chiapas. A handful of activists have attempted to live in Diez as fully-fledged villagers over the years, but none lasted more than a year or two. (Diez has now decided they want no more outsiders coming to live with them, as it causes too many internal problems. Short-term volunteers are still welcome.)
Politically, International solidarity is about giving voice to the Zapatista struggle beyond Chiapas. Of course, if you are attempting to assimilate into a community you can't logistically do this work, for it involves using the global communication networks. There are no telephones or email in the communities. So the body of this kind of externally based solidarity work is disseminating information, raising awareness, raising money and mobilising other people. In this, international solidarity in Chiapas has been very, very successful. The cause of the Zapatistas resounds around the world, and inspires a generation of anti-Capitalist protesters.
The problem with this kind of Solidarity work is that, years after the initial uprising, this work is still done by outsiders and not the Zapatistas themselves. The International Solidarity apparatus in San Cristobal should have rendered itself unnecessary a long time ago. Instead of focusing on training the Zapatistas to take over the work, people feathered their own nests, made themselves indispensable and often, set up a cosy paid-job positions for themselves. An example of this is Global Exchange, a US-based Travel Agency and crafts importer, who with their office in San Cristobal with its ever-changing body of caxlan staff , have institutionalised their position as the source of facts and figures for the Zapatista movement, vis-à-vis, they have elbowed their way into the space of representing the movement to the press and internationally. This is a space that should be occupied by the Zapatista rank and file.
Another example is the spectacle of Media and Communication NGO's globetrotting the continents on speaking tours and fund-raising missions. (To pay for these trips and the staff wages?). None of the employees of these NGO's are from the communities Zapatistas should fill these roles. A good example to follow is the Sem Terra Movement of Brazil, which staffs its own international outreach operations.
While some of the blame lies with the Zapatistas for not seizing control of these spaces, the caxlanes should prioritise the responsibility of empowering the local companer@s to take control. Encouragingly, a couple of Chiapas-based NGO's (one trafficking in water systems, the other in Video training) have begun the careful process of turning over administrative control to the Zapatista Municipalities.
What does this all mean in terms of possible strategy after Seattle? How does this relate to the struggle against the WTO, IMF, World Bank, Nafta, GATT, major corporationsnot to mention the usual old straight forward enemies like governments and armies? , and new ambiguous enemies like the NGOs?
Hakim Bey - Spiritual Warfare.
As the threat of direct military intervention into the communities recedes, so the role of the International volunteer in Chiapas changes. This is not to say that the struggle is over - state counter-insurgency tactics currently focus at disrupting the Zapatista organization internally, dividing base communities and sowing seeds for internecine battles. The role of the caxlan in this scenario is less clear. A more constructive or development-orientated role may be demanded on the ground. There is some debate in the Zapatista communities as whether to maintain the Peace-camps or change the structure of this kind of solidarity. It is unquestionably accepted that the intercambio has, over the years, benefited both parties. The question now is how to re-orientate and consolidate the international presence.
So how can we best help the Zapatistas? An old Zapatista said "More Seattles." And ultimately it is true- the best international solidarity is attacking the institutions that oversee and implement Neoliberal Capitalism wherever they are. As the Plan Puebla-Panama becomes a reality, (a business plan to set up a vast corridor of maquiladoras from below Mexico City as far as the Panama Canal, including series of Mega-Dams which will displace multitudes of people and destroy the fabric of life for the whole region), we as international or Global activists should focus on fighting the architects and bosses of globalization.
As the drums of protest and rebellion resound around the world, the front line is where you are. In this new globalised phase of the struggle, the role of international solidarity has being renovated: no longer is it about the Ist World helping the 3rd World, it is about the 3rd World being brought to the first world, and in this 'clash of cultures', only Capitalist Globalisation has something to lose. We are not in the least afraid of the ruins.