The Israeli Activist Trying to Help the Zapatista Struggle

Shahaf Weisbein, an Israeli human rights activist, went to Mexico to help the Zapatista movement in its fight for rights and services for indigenous peoples and was caught up in a confrontation with invading forces

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Shahaf Weisbein.
Shahaf Weisbein.
Ayelett Shani
Ayelett Shani

Tell me about yourself.

What I do in life, in general, is being a human rights and animal rights activist. I grew up with the animal liberation movement, I was active in the Free Jerusalem rights group and I coordinated a project on behalf of the Coalition of Women for Peace. But after years of activism, I felt really worn out, both from the reality in Israeli and also personally: I felt like I was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. The lockdowns during the coronavirus crisis were an opportunity to think about what I wanted to do. I was finishing my master’s degree in criminology. I decided to change course and go to Mexico for a few months to write my thesis, but after a month and a half I realized that I was here to stay.

For good?

Possibly. At the moment I’m mainly hoping to get residency and to remain here at least for the near future. Chiapas, the state I’m living in [Mexico has 32 states under local and federal rule], is the closest to Guatemala, and has the largest population of indigenous communities in the country. Most of the communities in Chiapas are peasants, simple farmers who work in corn and bean fields. The soil here is very rich and fertile. Everything is green.

Chiapas is also known as the base of the Zapatista struggle. What did you know about the Zapatistas (aka Zapatista Army of National Liberation), before you got there?

I knew more or less who they are: indigenous peasants descended from the Maya who are fighting a government that wants to dispossess them of their lands and their rights. I knew that they live a separate and independent life, while battling the authorities. But to see that from the inside is something else altogether. In recent months I have come to know the tremendous depth of the alternative they are proposing. Every aspect of their communal and personal life is the result of careful thought and a particular worldview. There is truly an educational method that is present in all things – the struggle is present in all things.

Until the Zapatistas turned to an armed movement, in 1994, they were under the radar of the international community: a local organization with universal values, struggling against corruption, neoliberalism, globalization.

Throughout the 20th century in Mexico, indigenous peoples organized frequently, because they felt they were being exploited by the government, which was deliberately leaving them in a backward, impoverished situation due to its own interests. They started to band together, in different ways, as early as in the 1950s and ‘60s, but tensions with the authorities only grew more acute. The Zapatista organization was originally established in the 1980s, when they realized that the government intended to deny them their rights and to sell the lands and natural resources of Chiapas to the highest bidder. In January 1994, the activists forcibly seized municipal offices, military bases and lands in Chiapas, reclaimed them and announced: They are ours. They took back the public land the government had plotted to sell to corporations and mining companies. They are safeguarding these lands to ensure that they will remain solely in the hands of the peasants who till the soil, so that they will no longer be exploited, as they were for years under the feudal regime that existed before the uprising. They set up their own autonomous organization, an independent government, independent centers of power. By the early 2000s, they became a completely civilian movement that advocates nonviolent resistance and is focused on preserving the communities’ local character.

Describe what this looks like on the ground, how it works.

At the moment there are more than 1,000 communities here – comparable, perhaps, to something like kibbutzim. Each community is managed democratically, they share everything, in an all-inclusive way and they work the land together. It’s a somewhat complex structure. Each community is amalgamated in a council, which makes more serious decisions, and several councils are amalgamated at an upper level, which they call the “juntas of the good government.” They effectively draw an absolute distinction between themselves and what they consider the “bad” government – the Mexican government, local and federal. They have a completely separate education system and also a fully independent health care system, which draws on both Mayan tradition and Western medicine.

They created an alternative community government model, with clear laws and clear hierarchies. They actually invented a type of regime.

Yes. The regime is based on many of the original traditions of the Maya and on knowledge and experience picked up along the way. Their leaders went from village to village, from community to community over a period of years, and engaged in building these models. The government simply missed the fact that the Zapatista people had penetrated these locales years ago, meanwhile accumulating political capital and weapons, along with anti-capitalist values. It’s absolutely amazing. Rules of conduct are internalized in a way that’s actually much more powerful than laws. For one thing, it’s recommended not to drink alcohol or to use drugs. Why? Because Zapatista women believe that alcohol and drugs cause domestic violence. It’s not a matter of a rigid law that carries sanctions, but it’s clear to everyone that this is how they should behave. For another thing, they don’t believe in ousting people from the community. They also supply their own needs. That means they don’t leave the communities to go to university.

Let’s say there’s a young local woman who wants to study gynecology. The council she belongs to will send her to one of their own administrative centers, which are called caracoles, where she will meet people from other communities who have the same ambition, and they will undergo training in gynecology sponsored by the communities. The same holds true, whether it’s studying law or music. Every sort of profession, actually.

And what they call the “bad” government is silent?

No. From the start, it confronted them in all kinds of ways. Government officials understood that the Zapatistas had broad public support, so they ostensibly tried to cooperate with them, signed agreements and made promises. But in parallel came arrests, persecution, violence, oppression. Today, because the officials know that sending tanks into indigenous communities looks bad, and that the international community is watching, they have found a different way to suppress the communities: The officials fund and train their own paramilitary groups – right-wing groups and even people involved in organized crime – which continue on their own and do the work for the government.

You were a witness to activity that targeted one of the local communities.

I arrived in a village called Nuevo San Gregorio through an organization that sends international supervisors into the communities, at their request. The idea comes from their belief that an international presence, especially of white people, makes members of the Mexican army or of the paramilitary groups feel that someone is watching them and that they can’t just do as they please.

Members of the Zapatista movement in Mexico. Credit: Eduardo Verdugo / AP

Like United Nations observers, say.

Totally, although in our case it’s clear that we are not neutral, but on the community’s side. The community invites the supervisors, does the groundwork, sets up a kind of camp to accommodate them. The supervisors’ goal is to be present, to document, to file complaints in the event of violence and to display solidarity. Nuevo San Gregorio consists of six large families; its residents have a highly developed political awareness. It’s a totally Zapatista village: They work shared land, make all the decisions together, are closely involved in the communal leadership in the area. The lands on which they live are those they reclaimed and took from the government. They define themselves as defenders of the territory. They are there so that the mining companies and corporate monopolies will not seize control of the land and the forests, so the river will not become polluted.

It sounds like there is profound identification with the movement’s goals and that they are also implemented in everyday life. There is no real gap between declarations and deeds.

Absolutely. They actually say, “The corn is our life.” They are engaged in purely sustainable agriculture – only what they need. They don’t grow crops in order to sell them. If there’s surplus produce, they do all kinds of barters with the neighboring communities. They live a quiet life.

Until one day…

Until one day, in October 2019, early in the morning, a group of armed men, carrying machetes and pistols, appeared on their land in Nuevo San Gregorio and said: Now it’s ours. It came as a complete surprise. The invaders took over the land, built fences around the fields, herded all the community’s cattle and oxen to a place the residents couldn’t get to. For 18 days the locals were so terribly afraid that they just locked themselves in their church’s center. When we arrived, the whole community, from children to the elderly, turned out to welcome us. They cried when they told us the story. They said they were afraid, that they were threatened. From our camp we could see the invaders entering the village at 6 o’clock every morning. They also knew that we were there. While these outsiders were in town, community members tried not to go out. They were afraid. There were also all kinds of rumors that frightened them – for example, that the invaders were about to seize a certain area and cut down all its trees; when there are rumors like that a few villagers simply have to stand and guard the area all the time. The invaders also threatened them that “blood will flow,” which is terribly scary for these people. They are farmers, people of the land; they’d never experienced anything like that before and didn’t know what to do.

Were you frightened?

We were quite emotional. I myself arrived there with a Mexican girlfriend from the north, and she was very fearful. Many times in cases like this the difficulty is simply not to respond, not to intervene – to remember that I do not come there from a neutral place but am still not really supposed to get involved.

The invaders were violent and armed, but despite that the community did not respond with violence. That’s an ideological thing, I imagine.

They think the outsiders are not their enemies. Most of the invaders come from neighboring locales. The villagers say, 'they are our brothers. We know them by name.'

Weisbein

Yes. From their point of view, they think the outsiders are not their enemies. Most of the invaders come from neighboring locales. The villagers say that even though they are armed and violent, “they are our brothers. We know them by name, some are even distant relatives.”

But they understand that that’s not really the case.

They understand well that this is not just some dispute between neighbors, but an operation being directed from above. Because they sometimes know the invaders, they also know that they have lands of their own, and that the outsiders’ leader has even more land than their whole village put together. The people in Nuevo San Gregorio closeted themselves, took stock of what was happening and started to work with their own community government to launch some sort of dialogue. First they informed the invaders that if they didn’t leave, certain measures would be taken against them. Afterward they simply offered them some of their lands. They said: If you need food, please, let’s share, there’s enough for everyone, these are public lands, we are all brothers.

Unbelievable.

Absolutely. Afterward, the villagers offered large tracts of land to the outsiders but they refused that, too. The final offer was to divide the land 50-50: Half would remain in the community’s possession, the other half would be transferred to the invaders in return for a commitment that they would work it and not sell it. That was turned down, too. The invaders eventually did cut down trees, and that truly broke the heart of the Zapatista community. At the moment there is no dialogue underway. It’s stuck. But it’s a dangerous precedent.

Because if this community ultimately gives in, the same will happen in others?

Yes. And people understand that very well.

The community chose to remain faithful to their values and not resort to violence. In fact, their values are also their Achilles’ heel.

Displaced Tzotzil Indigenous people attend a mass in in Pantelho, Mexico last month.Credit: Emilio Espejel/AP

It’s a weak spot, but it’s also a strength. By any standard, the Zapatista communities are the most advanced among indigenous peoples in Mexico, while other locales that have not banded together under Zapatism are worse off than ever. The Zapatista communities see to the welfare of their members, to education, health. It’s not that they are ready to become martyrs for humanistic values. They simply understand that what they are doing is working, and working in their favor. That’s the reason that the young people in the communities, who are more exposed to the world and have many more options than the previous generation had, also choose to stay put.

It’s so hard to imagine, within the framework of Western thinking, that anyone would offer their land to an assailant. That generosity is so foreign to ultra-capitalist reality, to materialist culture – I can’t think of anything similar.

Hmm. Jesus?

Definitely. But I’d like to see a pious Christian town in the American Corn Belt, say, behave like that.

True. They really are special. And it’s important to understand that the Zapatistas are not naïve. They get the fact that what’s happening is part of a strategy being used against them and that they must look after themselves – again, collectively. They have also established cooperative ceramics, carpentry and embroidery workshops, since there are sometimes problems keeping and tending their lands.

Since they were farmers, some underwent vocational retraining?

Yes. For the young it was easy, but for the older ones, who have been used to farming their whole life, it has been extremely tough. In Nuevo San Gregorio they still want their lands back, but they say: We have other possibilities; the invasion only strengthened us. They believe deeply in God; they mention God often. A year ago they found, next to the river, five black candles and one white one, half burned and arranged in a circle. A black candle symbolizes wishes for death, and the community inferred from it that the invaders wished for the death of five of the six families in Nuevo San Gregorio. But the villagers told me that the invaders won’t get what they want, because God is more powerful than witchcraft, and in any case, if someone wishes for ill and their heart is not at peace, the wish will rebound on them – and the fact is that the leader of the invaders has a heart condition.

Makes you feel like kissing them.

Absolutely. The people I met are really lovely. They work the land and speak multiple indigenous languages, there are pictures of Che Guevara everywhere in their village, they have jam sessions with drums, and each structure they’ve built has a name. For example, the cooperative store they founded is called “Marching to a New Dawn.”

From what you describe, it really is a picture of innocence, of naivete, of a very sheltered life.

There is naivete, there is a very protected life, and on the other hand, one must be careful not to romanticize the whole movement, which is, after all, a national liberation army. The women create all kinds of embroideries in praise of the Zapatista army. There is a mural in the school with images of pistols.

And the Zapatista communities still have weapons. The army still exists. Humanists – but there’s Plan B.

Ostensibly what has happened is that the decision making is disconnected from the military arm of the movement; the decisions are being made democratically. But these people do have an army. And yes, they have arms caches. They are still there. Officially they haven’t dispensed with the weapons to this day, but to their credit, already in the initial days of the rebellion, in 1994, they decided to look for alternatives. They believe that their strength comes from within. The revolution arrives from within. During my stay in Nuevo San Gregorio, I made all kinds of attempts to help, to see what I could do to further their struggle. They told me very politely, “Fine, we’ll call if we need to.” That stunned me. What I was used to from the activism I’d experienced until then was that if someone offers help, you pounce on it for all you’re worth. Here what’s important to them is their autonomy. They believe that this is the only way they will triumph.

In many countries we find a clash between the desire to preserve indigenous traditions and powerful economic interests aimed at maximizing the exploitation of natural resources that still exist in the underdeveloped regions. The governments cooperate with the big corporations, sell them the resources and allow them to subjugate indigenous communities.

We see that all across Latin America: In Guatemala, Brazil, Peru – the governments respect the rights of the indigenous peoples only at the cultural level, but leave them in poverty and thus enable the corporations to seize control of their lands. They come up with all kinds of development plans that are supposedly meant to help the natives, but in practice are solely aimed at intensifying their dispossession, carrying out extensive deforestation and creating mines and quarries.

What do you intend to do now?

In the meantime, we are experiencing tensions rife with violence across Chiapas. Right-wing paramilitary forces and organized crime groups are attacking and marking out territories. Thousands of members of the indigenous communities lost their homes abruptly and fled from the severe violence and the threat of death. At the moment the town I’m living in is flooded with local DPs – people who live here in a kind of refugee camp at the edge of town. I am trying to help them in all kinds of ways. I raised money through crowdfunding to buy them vegetables and dry food. I also intend to go back to Nuevo San Gregorio soon, to see what’s happening there. Maybe I’ll even get back to writing my thesis someday. We’ll see.

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