Observation & Solidarity with the Zapatista Communities of Chiapas
Richard Vallejo / Brigade to La Realidad, Caracol 1

During the Caravan’s meeting in 24 de Diciembre, compas or comrades, explain their recent struggle to take back their land and difficulties they continue to face such as the contamination of their water by an adjacent military base. Zapatistas cover their faces to highlight the fact that indigenous struggle in southeastern Mexico has remained invisible to governments for hundreds of years. Photo: Brigade to La Realidad, Caracol 1

The PNL is privileged to have had a local activist, Richard Vallejo, participate in the National & International Caravan of Observation & Solidarity with the Zapatista Communities of Chiapas. Following is part of the full report collectively written by the Brigade to La Realidad, Caracol 1. The full report is available here.

The Brigade of the Caravan destined for the Zona Selva Fronteriza (Zone of the Border Jungle), with participants from the US, Germany, France, Iberian Peninsula, Iran, Oaxaca, Chiapas and Mexico City, left on July 30 from San Cristóbal de las Casas for the Caracol “Mother of All the Caracoles of the Sea of Our Dreams.” Following a six-hour journey, we were received by the compas, or comrades (the compañeras and compañeros collectively).

After accommodating us in the school buildings, the first meeting took place with the Junta de Buen Gobierno (JBG), or Good Governance Council, in which they revealed the objectives of the Caravan. There we showed our intention to stand in solidarity with their struggle, and to observe the situation of the communities.

The JBG noted that it would be interesting to come to know the achievements of Zapatista autonomy through interviews and visits to communities. At the next presentation to the JBG, we asked if there was some work we could do, and they informed us that we could help by making banners and painting murals.

On July 31, some caravanistas decided on the questions to bring to the Zapatista compas. These were divided into four themes: autonomy, health, education and women.

The following day, the interview was celebrated with the Good Governance Council, the promotoras and promotores of education and health (from now on, referred to as “promoters”) and the compañeras. All made a great effort to bring themselves from the different communities to the Caracol to bring us their word and experience. The discussion lasted over five hours and addressed the four themes, and others that arose during the conversation, like the organizing of the young people.

On August 2, we transferred to the community of Santa Rosa del Copán, in the municipality of Libertad de los Pueblos Mayas (Freedom of the Maya Peoples), to visit the health clinic and interview the local health promoters. The reception was very warm, and the whole community was present.

First, a discussion took place with the education promoters from the community. Later, the health promoters took us on a guided tour of the community clinic, in which they showed us the various spaces which they provide. We also interviewed them and were able to go into more depth. Next, the students of the school performed a cultural event with poems, stories, riddles and a little parade. At night there was a dance in which all the community participated.

The next day we returned to La Realidad, and for two days continued the work with the murals and the banners, along with discussions among the caravanistas with the goal of presenting our realities and knowing one another’s struggles.

On August 5, we traveled to the Zapatista hospital of San José del Rio and then arrived at 24 de Diciembre (December 24), a community of the municipality of San Pedro Michoacán with a particular problem: the lands were recuperated by the Zapatista compas just one year ago. There we were received by the community, and planned interviews and tours of the nearby military installations.

After two days we returned to La Realidad to enjoy the anniversary celebration of the Caracoles and to present our report to the JBG, with which we ended the Caravan.

To share all that has been discussed in these days in the different communities and in the Caracol, we have decided to divide the report into the following parts: autonomy, women, education, health, and harassment of the Zapatistas. (For the purposes of this article, only autonomy and health will be covered.)

In the interviews with the Good Governance Council (JBG), the autonomous councilors, and the promoters of health and education, we heard that autonomy is a legitimate right of the indigenous peoples, but the government has never recognized it. They remarked that they exercise autonomy every day in their communities, in that their ancestors had their own way of organizing themselves and making agreements, their usos y costumbres (practices and customs).

After the Zapatista uprising, when the Dialogues of San Andrés were initiated, the recognition of indigenous rights and culture was demanded of the government. Although agreements were signed between the representatives of the EZLN (Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional or Zapatista Army for National Liberation) and the federal government, these were not reflected in the constitutional reform of 2001.

From then on, the Zapatista communities unilaterally reinitiated the exercise of autonomy, creating Good Governance Councils. With them, they seek to coordinate the existing relations between the various autonomous municipalities, thus creating a balance among them.

During a meeting with the Junta, a compañera speaks about issues Zapatista women continue to face in and outside their communities. For example, they discussed the risk of being attacked by paramilitaries and soldiers on the way to meetings in other communities as a way to further hinder Zapatista autonomy. Photo: Brigade to La Realidad, Caracol 1

The JBG of the Caracol of La Realidad is made up of four autonomous municipalities, each of which has its own municipal council. The representatives of the autonomous municipalities are elected by the communities that form them, and each community also has its own local autoridades, or council members.

According to the JBG: “The structure of autonomy begins with the people, because from the people comes the organization of work.” The positions are rotating. The communities elect 12-16 autoridades for three years, and the JBG of this zone varies every 15 days. The autoridades do not receive a salary, but rather are supported by the community according to the community’s means.

The autoridades of various levels – community, municipal, JBG – exercise what they define as “Mandar Obedeciendo,” or command by obeying: “The peoples choose us according to our activities and understandings. In the communities and municipalities, they make their own laws, which we apply. It is not discussed, it is just fulfilled. The people commands. It is autonomy.”

They also spoke to us of the respect and the coordination among Zapatista and non-Zapatista communities and families, commenting that “We maintain solidarity between communities and respect for agreements, and those that are not Zapatista are also respected.” There are people who are not Zapatista who go to the JBG looking for a different form of justice, since in the unjust apparatus of the government, the one who has more money always wins.

In Caracol 1, they provide health microclinics in the four municipalities, a central clinic and health promoters in all of the communities. The Caravan was able to see the microclinic in the municipality of Santa Rosa del Copán and interview the health promoters in La Realidad and the community of 24 de Diciembre.

Before 1994, there were already health promoters, but many people died of diseases like dengue, tuberculosis, malaria or even more preventable illnesses like diarrhea. Many children died under five years of age, and deaths during childbirth were also very common.

After 1994, the system of health care came to be more organized, together with the construction of Zapatista autonomy. With the recovered knowledge of their traditional medicine, the system of education of promoters and the collective construction of clinics, the cases of mortality have diminished drastically.

Today, in all the communities, the health promoters use herbal medicine as the first recourse to curing illness. For example, in La Realidad there is a center of herbal medicine with its own creams, tinctures, teas, ointments, etc. made from local plants.

In the microclinic of Santa Rosa, they treat the people of the municipality who cannot be attended by the promoters of their communities. They provide various spaces – like a doctor’s office, pharmacy and dental care room – though they cannot currently use it due to a lack of materials.

The hospital of San José – for more serious health problems that cannot be cured in the microclinics – is equipped with an emergency room, doctor’s office, surgeon’s room, delivery room, dental care room, ultrasound, laboratory for analysis and pharmacy. We found “conventional” medicines and natural medicines they produce.

The promoters are also trained in areas of analysis and water quality. For example, in La Realidad, the promoters developed a system of producing biodegradable chlorine, and they train in areas they deem necessary from courses given by other promoters or by solidarity doctors.

They seek equity between promotores and promotoras, male and female promoters. In the municipality of Santa Rosa, 15 promotores and seven promotoras are now working, but they are training 15 promotoras and seven promotores so there will be equity.

The autonomous health system is collective community work, since all the communities of a municipality decide where to install the microclinics, and all the municipalities decide where to install the central hospital. We see this community work also in the construction of the clinics, in which members of all the communities participate. The Santa Rosa clinic took two years to complete, and the materials for its construction – like stones and sand – were brought by hand from many kilometers away.

Autonomous healthcare is not exclusively for Zapatistas; those who are not Zapatistas can also go to these clinics. The difference is that, since the Zapatistas contributed to the construction of the clinics and the training of the promoters, they do not have to pay anything for health assistance.

Richard (vallejo@riseup.net) is a local activist who traveled with a group called Solidarity Without Borders and participated in the Caravan with the help of the Caribbean-Latin American Coalition. Oral report backs from this trip will be held locally in October.