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Empowerment for Profound Structural Change

A universal option for structural empowerment

by Roberto Flores
Los Angeles, California

Autonomy, a concept usually associated with indigenous movement or national minorities is today resurfacing as a universal option for structural empowerment and as a direct response to residual negative impact of Transnationalism. Over the last 10 -15 years the globalization of finance capital, its investment and exploitive ventures has developed a set of complex global supra-structure which includes the IMF, the World Bank, GATT and NAFTA.

The economic package that transnationalism offers a country is usually replete with stringent austerity programs which focus on the solvency and stability of macro-economies at the expense of the micro economic collapse and disaster and the increase in poverty and human suffering. In Mexico, this austerity plan was coined neoliberalism because of its emphasis on "liberalizing and opening Mexico's consumer and investment markets." Over the past 8 years the number of people under the poverty went from 24 million to 50 million while the number of billionaires went from 11 to 24. In addition the global superimposition of the supra-structure of transnationalism has usurped the nation-state authority and deteriorated its decision-making ability. This displacement of authority has caused further abandonment of the State's social service functions.

On January 1, 1994, In response to the devastating effects of Transnationalism and Neoliberalism, a relatively small group of Mayan Indians from the Tzotzil, Tzeltal, Tojolabal, Mam and Chol people, took up arms and in their First Declaration of War specifically targeted Neoliberalism and the globalization of economies as the source of their suffering and uprising. This poorly equipped army, proudly self-named Ejercito Zapatista de Liberacion Nacional (EZLN), introduced a novel and unorthodox military method, one that reveals an organic and subordinate relationship with its community bases and these as the main part of the revolutionary force, and participatory democracy through its autonomous structures. The hardly bellicose EZLN had declared itself an Army who would love nothing better than to be defeated by the peace process insisted upon by the intervention of civil society. It is an oxymoronic Army that does not want to use arms and in their words have called for a "callar las armas para escuchar las palabras.."It is an army that used military arms as a tactical tool and not as a strategic mean. So effective was their non-military military strategy that it prompted the internationally famous Mexican writer and poet Carlos Fuentes to point out the "even the mock rifles hit their mark."

On January 13, 1994, the Mexican government under the leadership of Carlos Salinas de Gotari under national and international pressure declared a unilateral cease-fire. On February 16, 1995, after of a year of on and off peace talks, the Mexican government signed the famous Agreements of San Andres on Indigenous Rights and Culture. The centerpiece of this agreement was the recognition of the Indigenous Autonomy for more than 10 million indigenous people in Mexico. Under World Bank and Transnational pressure the government reneged on its position and refused to recognize its signature and the Agreements of San Andres. Because of the open and inclusive method of the EZLN in the development of these agreements, (by including over 100 assessors from throughout the country) the PRI government is the one suffering the major losses for not honoring its given word. Globally they are increasingly loosing respect and prestige and worse yet, locally, they are loosing constituencies and voting power.

Within the law of the nation or outside of it, the indigenous Zapatista base communities are continuing, with what seems to be irreversible growing strength, to develop the Autonomous communities, regions and states. There now exists 6 autonomous regions, but only 3 have been officially constituted. Each region has an average of 6 municipalities and each municipality can have as many as 120 communities. These are parallel alternative governments; structures of self-empowerment that not only allow them to force "official" government to do what is correct for the majority of the people on the short term but will serve as models and basis to structurally change the "official" government in the future. Each autonomous community has its own government councils which traditionally have included an Elders council, a Productive Projects Council, an Education Council, a Health Council and many have now included a Women's Council. Autonomous communities are non-partisan entities that deal with the problems facing them as indigenous communities. The policy on electoral varies from case to case. If they feel that their autonomous communities would benefit from the election of a certain candidate they will hold the appropriate assemblies and make the decision to either vote or not vote for the candidate. The "legal" parameters of the official Local, State and Federal governance and the extra legal structures of oppression seem to be such that they restrict "legal" and ordinary efforts of and for empowerment particularly those carried out through official electoral channels.

Autonomy then, is self-empowerment with dual short- and mid-term purposes of taking care of immediate needs that have been neglected by "official" government as well as to develop the grass root base. This strong united base then would pressure the "official" government to act responsibly and attend to their needs (during the period that "official" government still exists). Most importantly, Autonomy is also the long-term empowerment process through which communities develop themselves to bring about an eventual total displacement or redefinition of government as we know it today.

Because of vast and growing similarities between the socio-economic situation of indigenous people in Mexico and the Chicano Mexicano Latino pluriethnic communities within the U.S. (Latinos are now the poorest of the poor). I believe that the Zapatista Autonomy process has invaluable revolutionary resources and should be looked at as a possible model for structural empowerment. I am here proposing, that a thorough study of the Autonomy model, as it is being carried out in Chiapas be made to enrich and enhance the efforts for democracy and justice in the U.S. Autonomy then is an indispensable and central process for the bottom-up transition to democracy.

Roberto (Beto) Flores has just returned from Chiapas where he did research on the "Feminine Factor Within the Zapatista Movement." Beto, a life-long activist for human rights, is now working with others on facilitating and developing the concept of "autonomy" as a method of rebuilding through structural development of oppressed communities. Beto's work on autonomy is aimed at supporting the development of a strategic alliance with the Zapatista communities and the development of a long term strategy for social justice through infra structural change.

Published in In Motion Magazine August 24, 1997.