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An Analysis of Evolving Zapatismo
Deduced from the Four Declarations of the Selva Lancandona

From the "Join Us" of January 1, 1994
to the "Let's Construct" of 1996

by Javier Elorriaga
Translated by Beto Del Sereno
San Cristobal de Las Casas
Chiapas, Mexico

Even from the First Declaration of the Lancandon Jungle, the characteristics and forms of the Zapatista-conceived struggle for a transition to democracy, had already started to take form. This document contained the traditional "Declaration of War" against the Federal Army as the "maximum support" of the Federal Executive, but it also already contained elements that distinguished it from the classical revolutionary proclamations of the 20th century. For example; at the same time that the First Declaration of the Selva Lancandona makes its declarations against the executive power, it calls on the legislative and judicial powers to assume responsibility and destroy the executive "usurper." What is even more paradoxical is that this obviously insurgent position is established and based on constitutional right, evoking Article 39 of the Mexican Constitution. A revolution that is based and supported by the constitution; nothing more and nothing less.

Military-political struggle is not for power

It is not unusual then that from this first declaration one of the most important particularities of Zapatismo comes to surface; its military-political struggle is not for power. Although (there is always an although in everything that is said about Zapatismo) they do not want to assume the self-elected vanguard role in the conquest for political power, we are left with doubts as we read that in liberated territory the revolutionary forces will implement the Zapatista Revolutionary Laws and then at the end of the same declaration, we read the classical: "join the insurgent forces." All this, as though, from the call to the legislative and judicial powers the Zapatistas didn't expect much but instead mainly prepared for a struggle where they would be imposing their will through the force of arms.

And even when we began to hear and see the Zapatistas in action, we also began to understand that the First Declaration of the Lancandon Jungle did not explain the movement in its totality. The "you can question the methods but never the causes"; "lead by following"; "everything for everyone, nothing for ourselves"; "we are soldiers so that one day soldiers are not necessary"; as well as the cease fire after the twelfth day of January, all demonstrated a guerrilla group that didn't fit the stereotypic mold.

It was so that a popular army prepared to fight "until (it) reached the capital of the country," an army primarily made up of indigenous, the not seen or heard of for centuries, had the virtue of not only seeing and hearing but of listening and, strangely enough for an army, of obeying the civilian population. The clamor on the part of civil society was loud and clear: we understand the reasons and we agree with the demands but you must look for another way to accomplish them. And the Zapatista answer was equally clear: May the arms be quieted so that words can be heard. It was at this moment that an even bigger challenge than confronting the Federal Army presented itself: fully participate, as an indigenous army, in the national political struggle.

From that moment on, also come the encounters and disencounters with civil society and the political society. Zapatismo began to construct alliances, to weave a relationship with society, to search for a way to maintain its identity and not be assimilated or devoured by political groups, en fin, to find and start to tread that long term road that would begin to dilute it as an army and nurture it as a truly political force. This change becomes perfectly obvious in the Second Declaration of the Lancandon Jungle. In this one as well as in the First Declaration, once again the country's history plays an important distinguishing role between the EZLN and civil society, but now the principal message that guides Zapatista action is: the EZLN, through the call for the National Democratic Convention, puts the political struggle baton squarely in the hands of civil society. During the Convention the Zapatista word resonated: Defeat us, never will a defeat be so sweet as when it comes from you, that is, when political victory by civil society makes the Zapatista arms unnecessary. Show us that there is another road than the armed one, said the Zapatistas to civil society at their rendezvous in the jungle's the Aguascalientes.

We are not here going to examine the history of that attempt by the conventionists for which we would need an entire volume. The important thing to bring out here is that in the EZLN-Conventionists relationship old habits and forms of making politics continued to outweigh the hopes of something new. What is important to note is that, even though the Convention's aims were not fully accomplished, Zapatismo continued to receive and read the invariable message: don't use arms, let's continue the attempt at democratic transition through peaceful means.

Third Declaration of the Lancandon Jungle

It is in this context that the Third Declaration of the Lancandon Jungle appears with a format that is very similar to the previous two, that is, an analysis of the particular juncture contextualized and intercepted by national history, but this time with a different Zapatista posture. If in the First Declaration the message was "join the insurgent forces," and in the Second; "civil society organize yourself and demonstrate to us that there is another road other than armed struggle," in the Third it was acknowledged that the movement was not able to make the advances planned and hoped for and that now the EZLN was searching for a place in the organization of the political struggle together with all that which comprised Cardenismo and with the National Democratic Convention. The idea was: Cardenismo + CND + EZLN = National Liberation Movement.

It was no longer a situation where the EZLN was by the sidelines waiting for civil society to organize itself, but one where the EZLN asked for a place together with the two other movements which it considered of a non-party nature, and significant in the accomplishment of the construction of a transition. This positioning was important because it marked the Zapatista decision to continue building itself as a political force. That is, the EZLN didn't flirt with the idea of armed struggle in a situation where the organization of civil society didn't advance, but instead in view and recognition of the slow and painful process that this entailed the EZLN involved itself intricately in political tasks that would leave to one side armed struggle.

However, this intent didn't completely work either, especially because of the military offensive launched by the Federal Government in February of 1995. With the Zapatistas held-up in the southwestern mountains, Conventionists and Cardenistas decided to relate to each other with past resentments and were not able to walk together. Zapatismo then had to start from ground zero, because it first had to break the military-political barrier that the Army had put them in, then it had to reestablish alliances and planes etc. It was clear that the Democratic National Congress experiment had for the most part failed. On the other hand it was also clear that civil society had responded effectively to the February Government offensive and in the same manner that it had a year earlier: strongly supporting Zapatismo but at the same time imposing a peaceful solution and not an armed one.

The Zapatistas decided to consult civil society

What can be done then in a situation where on one side we have a Federal Army that wants to finish you off and on the other a civil society that insists that we keep on struggling but without arms? The way out was very Zapatista: Ask and listen. And obey. It was then that the Zapatistas decided to consult civil society and ask what road should they take from then on. The response of the majority was: continue struggling without arms and to do that organize yourself as a new type of political force without joining any of the ones that already exist.

And the EZLN obeyed, and responded, to this consultation with the Fourth Declaration of the Lancandon Jungle whose main message was a call for the construction of the Frente Zapatista de Liberacion Nacional, that is for a political-organizational option which was uniquely Zapatista. The EZLN was no longer waiting for that sweet defeat from civil society but decided to organize itself together with all of those forces willing to organically work with the southern rebels. This was a new type of organization whose guide lines was to organize those that had no organization and to maintain the Zapatista principal of "not struggling for power but for construction," together with other social and political forces, from a place that was truly democratic which would strongly advocate a democratic transition.

What is interesting about this call is that the Zapatistas maintain the idea that they have to construct, that they have to walk together and not in front of civil society. The call is not to join a Front that is already structured with a Program, with by-laws, and all the rest of party paraphernalia, but to construct, civilians and insurgents, an organizational space in which in the near future, Zapatistas will be able to participate without the use of arms.

Zapatismo insists on being an Army that wants to stop being one

The historical approach of putting out a Plan, a Manifesto, or a Program to which you invite others to join a perfectly delineated and structured project, now and for ever is in the past after the Fourth Declaration. Zapatismo insists that it be this way, not only because it does not have the answers to all the social and political issues affecting society, nor because it wouldn't like to but because it cannot. Zapatismo insists on being an Army that wants to stop being one and on making its slogan of "leading by obeying" not only a goal for the future but a present organizational principle.

The practice of "leading by obeying" and of "not struggling for power" as guiding principles together with periodic and historical analysis, have allowed, from the "join us" of January 1, 1994 to the "Let's construct" of 1996, to mature Zapatismo as a new political force and for it to win a place in the struggle for democracy in Mexico.

Jorge Javier Elorriaga Berdegue was born on May 13, 1961. Initially a student at Colegio Madrid, Elorriaga completed his education in the College of History, Department of Philosophy and Letters, at the Universidad Nacional Autonoma in Mexico. He received "honorable mention" for his thesis on geopolitics and the conflict in Central America, with a focus on Nicaragua.

Between 1984 and 1988, Elorriaga worked among the communities of Chiapas, initially as an educator in literacy and later as a professor of history. During this time he met his compañera, Elisa Benavides. They worked together in graphic design, as editors of alternative publications in Mexico City, and, beginning in 1993, as journalists for Argo Servicios Informativos in Mexico. Both were imprisoned in February of 1995, accused by the Mexican government of being members of the EZLN (Zapatista National Liberation Army) leadership. Elisa was released from prison on July 14, 1995, after having been cleared of the charge of terrorism, and in November of that same year all charges were dropped against her. Javier was released on June 6, 1996, when the Mexican judicial system absolved him of all charges of terrorism and rebellion.

While imprisoned, Elorriaga wrote "Ecos de Cerrohueco" (Echos of Cerrohueco), a forceful and convincing account of the irregularities committed against him by the Mexican judicial system. Beyond an in-depth, first hand description of the Almoloya de Juarez high-security prison in the state of Mexico, Elorriaga, in words that flow from the conscience, gathers up and presents to the reader the collective "echos" of prisoners of Cerrohueco Prison (Chiapas) and the testimonies of other presumed Zapatistas captured in Mexico City, Cacalomacan (state of Mexico), and Yanga (state of Veracruz). Readers concerned with the future of Chiapas and Mexico will follow these writings into the labyrinths of prison, taste the unintentional humor of Mexican "justice," and share the vicissitudes of a historian embedded in the Chiapan conflict.

Since his release, Elorriaga has devoted himself to the cause of the Zapatistas and alleged Zapatistas who remain imprisoned, and to all political prisoners in Mexico, as an issue of human rights. In August of 1996 he presented statements on Detention and Indigenous Rights at the United Nations Subcommission on Human Rights in Geneva, Switzerland.

Published in In Motion Magazine January 6, 1997.