April 28th, 2010 by robert

San Cristobal is a hub of political activity in southern Mexico. Many non-profits are based in the town, working for all kinds of causes. The Zapatista rebellion of 1994 was directly felt in San Cristobal and the surrounding region spreading eastwards to the Lacondon forests. Although the Zapatista army is demobilized, it has catalyzed a vibrant political movement called La Otra Compaña. Spreading throughout Mexico, especially in indigenous communities, is the simple concept that the current government is bad government (mal gobierno), a government that is structured to support the interests of business and the wealthy. This is a worldwide concept. Its logical conclusion is that the political system does not work in the interests of the poor, and that an entirely new system needs to be built.

I decided to dig a little deeper, so I traveled to Oventik, one of five Zapatista autonomous caracol communities that are recognized by the federal government. Recognized by treaty, but also by the Mexican military, which has built a comprehensive network of military bases surrounding each of the communities.

Zapatista Council Greeter

When I arrived at the gate closing Oventik to traffic, I was asked why I was there by a person in a ski mask, and when I told him, he requested my passport. I handed it over, and waited as he went to a small building and entered. After fifteen minutes the door opened, and he came over with my passport and told me I could enter. He led me to another shack, where three Italians and a Mexican were seated on benches outside. I joined them to wait for our interview with representatives of the Oventik council. The Italians were discussing with the Mexican the questions they would ask of the council, which seemed to me to be rather rhetorical. Forewarned by Peter, I had questions ready about the health care system and about deforestation. So I drifted away, scanning the shrubs and treetops for birds, and I took some pictures of the ubiquitous murals. There were hardly any people to be seen, except for some women opening the three cooperative handicraft shops.

A young Mexican couple arrived, and that seemed to tip the momentum. We were admitted to a small room with three long benches facing a desk, behind which sat two men wearing the Zapatista trademark balaclavas. The room was dim and the floor was dirt. The walls were covered with solidarity posters from all over the world.

One man stood up and welcomed us, introduced themselves as representatives from the village’s currently seated council, and asked why we had come to visit. I wondered, but not aloud, if women are among those seated in the rotating council leadership positions. We each asked our questions and he slowly wrote them in a notebook. Since my questions were written in my notepad, I gave him the page to save time. When he was finished the second man stood (the one pictured). His role was to give the party line and to answer our questions. To simplify a rambling discourse, the compañero explained that the current role of the community and the Zapatista army is to resist the increasing pressure the government and its allies are bringing to bear on all things Zapatista. Simply existing and sustaining themselves as an independent community, he said, was serving as an inspiration for other communities. Oventik is a seed sprouting a new social system.

Having passed many trucks filled with federal soldiers on the road to Oventik, as well as several heavily fortified army bases, I wondered what the Zapatista defense strategy is with that imposing force. Nobody I’ve asked seems to know, and the EZLN (Ejercito Zapatista de Liberación Nacional) has been silent, so I did not expect answers beyond platitudes from the councilors. The interview came to a cordial conclusion, and we were invited to amble through the community.

The Mexican guiding the Italians seemed to know a considerable amount about Oventik and the Zapatista movement in general, so I stuck with them and asked him a lot of questions. We did amble through a mostly deserted compound, and we visited the clinic and a small boot factory, before eating lunch at the community restaurant. They offered me a ride back to San Cristobal in their van, and the conversation continued all the way there.

Visiting Oventik was an extremely interesting excursion, though it raised more questions than it answered. But isn’t that an important component of travel, to fertilize the brain through exposure to others’ realities?

You may have noticed I am posting at a furious pace. Sorry. I am in Oaxaca, preparing to fly back to Alaska, and have unlimited access to a computer here. So I am trying to catch up. . .

I just figured out how to embed a slide show. Obviously.


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