Autonomy Under Siege in the Zapatista Zones

by Gloria Muñoz Ramírez, CIP Americas Program

Autonomy Under Siege, a series of reports on the five Zapatista autonomous centers, or caracoles, by Gloria Muñoz RamĂ­rez was first published in Spanish as a special section of the Mexican national newspaper La Jornada, Sept. 19, 2004, following a series of on-site reports by the author. On the 15th anniversary of the Zapatista uprising, the Center for International Policy’s Americas Program presented the first full authorized translation to English, by Americas Program director Laura Carlsen. Last year, much of Muñoz RamĂ­rez’s work was published as a book, The Fire and the Word: A History of the Zapatista Movement, by City Lights Books of San Francisco.

The Caracol founded in La Realidad—the first autonomous center built by the Zapatistas—is still celebrating its first anniversary. The rains have flooded the land, mud has washed out the roads, the maize has been harvested, and the indigenous people have doubled their stores of maize seed. Maybe there isn’t less hunger than before, the situation is still difficult in these jungle lands, but a journey through the region today shows something that didn’t exist 10 years ago when we reporters first entered this territory.

At the entrance to the community that is home to the Good Government Board (GGB) “Hacia la Esperanza” (“Toward Hope”), there’s a small wooden clinic painted green with dozens of people standing around it. A white cardboard sign advertises different methods of contraception and vaccination campaigns for kids and adults. “We are fighting diphtheria and tetanus,” a middle-aged indigenous man who works as a health promoter says proudly. In the line, women carry vaccination cards issued by the autonomous government for their children.

Doroteo, a member of the Good Government Board, states, “Before our uprising, the Zapatistas had begun to organize their healthcare, because health is one of the main demands of our struggle—we need it to live, and our struggle is for life.”

This place, now called “Madre de los caracoles del mar de nuestros sueños” (the literal translation from Spanish is “Mother of the Sea Snails of our Dreams”) is famous in the world of resistance because in 1996 one of the founding acts of the anti-globalization struggle took place here—the First Continental Encounter for Humanity and Against Neoliberalism. Most recently, the biggest achievement in health has been the inauguration of an operating room. The community had the operating room for three years but couldn’t use it because there were no doctors and also, they admit, due to a lack of organization in the four autonomous municipalities of the region: San Pedro de Michoacán, General Emiliano Zapata, Libertad de Los Pueblos Mayas, and Tierra y Libertad.

“We’ve only operated on two men—one with a hernia, the other with a tumor—and on one women with a cyst where we even did a salpingo [removal of the fallopian tube], but at least now we’re operating in this zone,” says Doroteo. Meanwhile, the woman who recently had the operation is recovering well. “How many indigenous women with cysts are waiting for an operation in this zone?” The reply is cause for concern, but as they say, “Now we’ve started.”

Health is one of the areas where the most progress has been made here in Zapatista territory. This jungle area on the Guatemalan border is not without its problems, both internal and external, but preventive medicine campaigns are multiplying. For example, health commissions in many communities now clean latrines with lime on a weekly basis. In some areas, however, there are communities that “still do not understand the importance of cleaning, and we have to explain that health is the most important and precious thing you can give to the struggle.”

This zone has one of the two largest autonomous hospitals in rebel territory. It is called “Hospital la primera esperanza de los sin rostro de Pedro” (Hospital “The First Hope of the Faceless Ones of Pedro”) in honor of Subcomandante Pedro who was killed in combat in January 1994 and was a leader and compañero of the people of these villages.

The hospital stands amid dense vegetation and is separated by a bridge from the village of San JosĂ© del Rio. It serves the four autonomous townships but, like all resistance projects, it has caused plenty of problems for the Zapatista communities. Local inhabitants note that it took a lot of work to organize the rotating shifts of the thousands who helped build it over three years, they admit that they faced many obstacles to get it going—they haven’t had and still don’t have doctors of natural medicine, they have only recently started using the operating room, once they had to close for an entire month, they spent a lot of money supporting health promoters, plus a long list of other predictable problems and unimaginable obstacles.

But the hospital exists and now competes with the big state hospital in Guadalupe Tepeyac that was established in 1993, just before the Zapatista uprising, by then-President Carlos Salinas de Gortari. This white elephant was run by the Red Cross until February 1995, when it was scandalously taken over by the Mexican Army (without any action by the Geneva Convention) before eventually being handed back to the state health authorities.

The Zapatistas say that in the Guadalupe Tepeyac hospital, “Sometimes they don’t want to give us medical attention if we say we’re Zapatistas, or they ask us a lot of questions to find out about our organization, or they treat us like the government treats us, which is with contempt, like they treat all indigenous people. Because of that, we don’t want to go there and now even the PRI members prefer to come to our hospital or micro-clinics because we treat everyone there—Zapatista or not—and we treat them with respect as human beings.”

It is common to find members of the PRI and other organizations in the autonomous hospital. They have chosen not to go to the huge hospital in Guadalupe Tepeyac because, “being indigenous, they, too, are treated very badly, or they tell them they don’t have any medicines.” In the autonomous clinics, those who are not Zapatistas pay only 10 pesos (less than a dollar) for a consultation, and “if we have donated medicines we give them that for free, and if we only have medicines we had to buy, then we charge what it cost us. We don’t make a commercial business out of health,” Doroteo says.

The challenge of providing healthcare not only to members of the base communities, but to all the population in the area is gigantic. Members of the GGB say, “We have a lot of work to do because the need is so great. Sometimes it seems like we need to do a lot more, it feels like we need to do twice as much, but other times it seems like we’re getting there.”

The hospital at San José is also a school for health promoters. It was built with the support of an Italian organization and has dental and herbal clinics and a clinical lab. In addition, there are three municipal clinics—one in Tierra y Libertad, one in Libertad de Los Pueblos Mayas, and another in San Pedro de Michoacán.

In the entire zone there are 118 health promoters dealing with primary illnesses in the same number of community health houses. In the main hospital, in the three municipal clinics, and in the community health houses, the base communities are provided with free consultations and, when available, free medicine.

The health promoters explain that up until several months ago the hospital functioned with health promoters who were economically supported by the four townships. They were given 800 pesos a month each to stay at the hospital full time. In total, the communities spent more than 100,000 pesos over three years. The money came from a warehouse project in the zone.

“But now when the Board was established, we decided to ask the villages for volunteers who would work full-time to care for people’s health in the hospital. Three men and three women answered the call, and they left their families and are now working as interns. The Board supports them with food, travel, shoes, and clothes. We buy them what they need, but they aren’t paid a wage nor given money. These interns are conscientious and working for their people and benefiting from the opportunity to learn about health.”

Midwives, Bone Healers, and Herbalists Strengthen Traditional Medicine
There is a new building nearly ready in La Realidad. It is an herbalist lab and center for preserving foods, and it forms part of a health project that is the pride of this zone. The project has meant the empowerment of more than 300 women herbalists, bone healers, and midwives.

“This dream,” they explain, “began when we realized that we were losing the knowledge of our old men and women. They know how to cure bones and sprains, the use of herbs, and how to deliver children, but all this tradition was being lost because of the use of pharmaceutical medicines. So we agreed in the villages to make a call to those men and women who know traditional healing. It wasn’t easy. At first many didn’t want to share their knowledge. They said it was a gift that could not be passed on because it comes from within. We then started discussions on health in the villages to raise awareness, and as a result many people changed their minds and decided to participate in the courses. There were 20 men and women, great people from our villages, who were appointed as teachers of traditional medicine with 350 pupils, most of them women. As a result, the number of midwives, bone healers, and herbalists in our communities has multiplied.”

The new herbalist laboratory has a story behind it. “An Italian soccer player who died left in his will money to build a soccer field on Zapatista territory. This field was only going to benefit the people of Guadalupe Tepeyac, so we talked with the community and explained that we had other more urgent needs that would benefit all the communities, like a place where compañeros could work on traditional health. The village understood and agreed that it was fair to use the money for the health of everyone. The second step was to talk to the donors. At first they didn’t want the money to be used for anything else, but later they said it was okay.”

More Than 300 Education Promoters Give Classes in Their Villages
Another area that the communities have been working on, despite all odds and overcoming internal obstacles and governmental counter-insurgency campaigns, is education. “For us, the education of our children is the foundation of our resistance. The idea came about because most of us have not been educated, or if we have, it was a very bad official education. There were no schools in the communities, and when there were, they didn’t have teachers, and if we had teachers, they usually didn’t show up and so there were no classes. That was before,” explain the autonomous authorities in the region. “In 1997, we began to work on our plans and programs of study. And seven years later we now have three classes of education promoters able to give classes in their villages. In our schools we teach the history of Mexico, but real history—what has happened to those who struggle in this country. We also teach children about the Zapatista struggle, the struggle of the people,” says Fidelio, an education promoter.

“Most of the villages now have education promoters. Only 30 communities don’t, and we have them in all the villages of the four municipalities,” the Board says. “In this region, in La Realidad, we organized the first Zapatista education in 1997. In 1999 and 2001 we taught other groups of promoters and finished with more than 300 indigenous people able to teach classes in their villages.” Nevertheless, “we have a problem that some single promoters lose interest when they marry, or the village does not give them much support; or there are some who go to work in the United States. We’re trying to resolve this because there is desertion, with promoters leaving.”

While the interview with the Good Government Board was taking place, a course with more than 70 promoters was coming to an end in La Realidad. “Those you see walking around the Caracol are taking a course needed to bring everyone’s knowledge up to the same level. Then they will go through a second course, like a secondary course, although we don’t call it that,” explains Doroteo.

In the four rebel municipalities in the jungle zone there are 42 new community schools: 10 in Libertad de Los Pueblos Mayas, four in General Emiliano Zapata, 20 in San Pedro de Michoacán, and eight in Tierra y Libertad. The schools have cement floors, wooden walls, and laminated roofs. They all have a blackboard, desks, the Mexican flag and, of course, the Zapatista flag, and some have tape recorders and other teaching tools.

To provide for the educational needs of the 30 communities without promoters, the Board asks those in charge “to raise awareness of the importance of this work. We will not force this; the villages need to understand the importance and apply this in their villages because they are convinced it’s worthwhile.”

Most of the communities in this region have two schools—one official, the other autonomous—and the Zapatistas say that in their schools, “Our children learn to read and write first, and they are more hard-working. We do not blame the government teachers, but they leave their classes a lot because they say they have to attend meetings. Our promoters don’t take breaks or get paid.”

Only One Woman is Part of the Autonomous Government
The Good Government Board is composed of seven men and only one woman. Three out of the four autonomous councils do not have a woman member and only one autonomous township—Tierra y Libertad—has a woman member. Out of over 100 education promoters, only six are women (five from Tierra y Libertad and one from San Pedro de Michoacán). The other two townships in this zone, General Emiliano Zapata and Libertad de Los Pueblos Mayas, do not have any women responsible for education.

The area of health is no better for women. There are only seven female promoters in the four municipalities—five in Libertad de Los Pueblos Mayas and two in Tierra y Libertad. “We are aware,” the Board states, “that in this zone there is still very little participation of women, but we see a small improvement because in the past it was unthinkable that even a single woman should participate. We need more women to participate, but the change must begin in the family.

“We need to do more political work in the villages with families. Unfortunately, there is still a belief that if daughters leave the village they will get up to no good. Because of this we need to strengthen discussion and work. On the Board we have a woman compañera, and she goes with us everywhere, and we have never had a problem because we respect her and she respects us. Many women in the villages still think that women could encounter problems if they go and work with men, but that’s not the case. And so we need to raise awareness more among husbands and fathers. They need to get it into their heads that men and women have the same rights.”

Fighting the Coyote: Another Challenge
In the community of Veracruz, the Zapatistas run a warehouse that supplies hundreds of small community shops, both Zapatista and non-Zapatista. This store, named “Todo para Todos” (“Everything for Everybody”), exists so that the shopkeepers in the villages are spared the trip to get supplies from Las Margaritas or Comitán. After the success of this store, another one was opened in Betania and another in Playa Azul. The stores supply the villagers throughout the zone with oil, soap, salt, sugar, beans, maize, and coffee.

During the past three-and-a-half years, the profits from the Veracruz store—over 100,000 pesos—have gone to support the health promoters in the main hospital. The profits also go to support the travel of the autonomous councils and other parts of the organization. In total, 116,614 pesos were spent to support various activities. In these stores, maize bought by the Board is traded in a project aimed at stopping intermediaries (coyotes) from buying up maize at low prices and selling at high prices. Profits from sales go to support the Board’s work and the activities of the four autonomous townships in the region.

“This first year, we bought more than 500 bags of maize—around 44 tons. We’ve already sold half of it, and the rest has been stored in the warehouse, and we are trading it,” explains Doroteo.

There is a big red vehicle just in front of the Board’s office in the Caracol. It’s called Chompiras. It’s the truck the Board recently acquired to transport their goods. Chompiras crosses the jungle and goes as far as the coast and Los Altos to distribute their products. They also have a passenger truck that travels from Las Margaritas to San Quintin. Its first profits went toward the creation of a regional food store.

“The difficulties never end… However, now we even have the Internet, and we are learning to use it to directly manage our communication. What we feel most is that we have a lot of responsibility. Sometimes we feel like the world is on our shoulders because it is difficult to govern, and above all to carry out what the people ask, to govern by obeying, and we don’t have resources. Sometimes it’s as if we’re addicted to problems or that we like them, but we go on learning to overcome them,” conclude the three members of the Good Government Board interviewed.


This piece first appeared Dec. 12 on the Center for International Policy’s Americas Program.

Gloria Muñoz is a Mexican journalist that has lived with and written extensively on the Zapatista movement. Her most recent book is The Fire and the Word, a history of the Zapatista movement translated by Laura Carlsen, director of the CIP Americas Program.

From our Daily Report:

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Reprinted by World War 4 Report, Feb. 1, 2009
Reprinting permissible with attribution