After Mexico’s Tlatelolco Massacre: Coping with Political Tragedy

Book Review: Calling All Heroes, A Manual For Taking Power by Paco Ignacio Taibo II, Translated by Gregory Nipper, (Heroés convocados © 1982 by Paco Ignacio Taibo II), Published by PM Press.
Written by Ramor Ryan   
02 October 2015
On the night of October 2, 1968, 10 days before the Olympics in Mexico, Mexican security forces opened fire on a student demonstration in Tlatelolco plaza, killing and wounding hundreds of protesters. Over a thousand were detained, many of them tortured and disappeared. The powerful protest movement was crushed and the Tlatelolco massacre covered up by the government as quickly as they washed the blood from the streets. In a state of complete impunity, nobody from the ruling administration or the military was ever held accountable.

Paco Taibo’s brilliant novel Calling All Heroes is placed in the aftermath of the massacre and is about coping with political tragedy. Taibo was an activist in the huge civil and student movement demanding democratic change in a country ruled then (as now) by the authoritarian PRI (Institutionalized Revolutionary Party), later described as “the perfect dictatorship.” In a previous book, entitled ’68 (Seven Stories Press, 2004), Taibo presented the events in non-fiction form, but in this volume, the writer employs his creative imagination to pen an absurdist novel merging the melancholy of the defeated participants with a preposterous but satisfying revenge fantasy. Taibo describes the work as “a vendetta, dealing with Power by other means.”

While there is much discourse on the tactics and strategy of uprisings and revolutions, and plenty of literature produced in the wake of successful social movements and popular insurrections, the aftermath of defeat is often neglected. Taibo’s novel, then, dwells in the psychogeography of the space-time of the vanquished.

Thus, two years after the massacre, our protagonist Nestor, like the moribund political movement, lies prostrate on a hospital bed. His mind moves deliriously upon the insurrectionary events of 1968, trying desperately to reconstruct and comprehend all that has happened. Through correspondence and bedside visitors, we learn the fate of Nestor’s former comrades: the political prisoners languishing in the dungeons of Lecumberri, the exiles that fled the ensuing repression, the ones that went crazy, the suicides. And then there are those that went underground, continuing to organize in clandestinity - more of them later.

Nestor recalls the euphoric heights of the student movement—then in the 123rd day of a strike, supported by workers’ and farmers’ unions— when “hope for future fulfillment” seemed immanently possible. And then how the sudden crushing violence of the state forced the activists to “take refuge inside ourselves and in a bleak militancy.” Nestor notes how a few of the students “persist in behaving as if nothing had happened.” Deluded and in denial, they continue “in acting as if things were not in decline. A small militant division has taken over The Movement, and a handful of cadres have dominated a once-broad militancy.” Others are lost and confused: “I am tired of chasing the wind” writes one burnt-out activist. The general mood is despondent and bleak.

All Power to the Imagination

At this forlorn juncture, Taibo’s novel takes off. How to combat despair? Nestor invokes the ‘68 slogan, Be realistic: Demand the impossible! by conjuring up a pantheon of heroes from his youth to put things  right. Soon enough, characters like Sherlock Holmes, Doc Holliday, the Four Musketeers and the Kenyan revolutionary Mau-Mau are arriving in Mexico City and creating havoc for the authorities. This exhilarating leap into the absurd has echoes of the magical realism of other Latin American writer luminaries such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Isabel Allende, a genre that can be hit or miss according to the tastes of the reader. Nevertheless, there is no denying the atavistic sense of satisfaction felt as justice is meted out to the perpetrators of the massacre. Torturers get sliced by Byzantine scimitars, and the antiriot police fall under the hooves of the insurrectionary Light Brigade from the Battle of Balaclava. The Mau-Mau lose themselves in the maze of Tenochtitlan to later emerge and take Lecumberri prison, releasing all the prisoners and hanging the guards. Women don’t figure much in Taibo’s Boy's Own imaginary revolt, but a female hospital assistant does get to heroically save the day as she takes down two secret police attempting to apprehend Nestor.

All this rip-roaring adventure and revenge fantasy serves not only to titillate but also to fill the space of what lies in-between: in-between the defeat, and the resurgence. Nestor recovers, puts on his jacket, and filled with the phantasmagoria of his cast of pantomime heroes, takes off.

Where are you going? they ask him.

Casablanca, he replies.

Why Casablanca?

To return someday, he says.

What Is Left Unsaid

Readers may notice the striking similarities in the prose style of Calling All Heroes with writings of the illustrious scribe of the Zapatistas, Subcomandante Marcos. Marcos is a fan of Paco Taibo, and employs similar literary devices and absurd inventiveness; indeed the two co-penned the political thriller The Uncomfortable Dead (2006). Not one of Taibo’s finest moments, the book nevertheless represents one more intellectual link between the ’68 generation and the contemporary Zapatistas. In Calling All Heroes, Taibo mentions comrades who removed themselves to the city of Monterrey to organize clandestinely. By 1971, the presence of the new guerrilla nuclei, the FLN (Forces of National Liberation) was registered in the city. The origins of the Chiapas-based EZLN (Zapatista Army of National Liberation) lie in the FLN and--we may extrapolate--the ‘68 generation. As Nestor had promised, they would return someday, and this is one manifestation of that.

The themes of revolutionary defeat and redemption in Calling All Heroes resonate strongly with contemporary struggles from Occupy to the Arab Spring, perhaps most poignantly in the aftermath of the Tahrir Square uprising. Within Mexico itself, one can’t help but think of the 43 students from the Rural Teachers School in Ayotzinapa, disappeared and presumed murdered in September, 2014. Like Tlatelolco, it was the state that perpetrated the violence in Ayotzinapa. And like Tlatelolco, the hope is that new powerful social movements will emerge from the carnage.

In between, as Paco Taibo teaches us in this invigorating book, there remains the space for the imagination to take control.


Mexico Independence Day: El Grito a Whisper in Chiapas

Source: TeleSUR English

As Mexico celebrates El Grito amid internal turmoil, the Chiapas rebels quietly organize.

by Ramor Ryan 

On Sept. 16, 1810, the rebellious Catholic priest Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla delivered the Grito de Dolores ("Cry of Dolores") in the town of Dolores, as a proclamation of Mexican independence from the Spanish crown. Hidalgo urged resistance to the “bad government” and ignited a revolutionary war leading to the “Declaration of Independence of the Mexican Empire” on Sep. 28, 1821. Mexico celebrates its independence from Spanish colonial rule on the anniversary of El Grito every Sept. 16 with an outburst of patriotism and general revelry.

But while El Grito is now mere pageant as government officials across the nation take the stage to lead the renditions of “Viva Mexico!” many also have in mind Hidalgo's urge to resist the “bad government.”

Last year, hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets in the wake of the disappearance of 43 student activists from the Ayotzinapa teacher’s college by security forces, demanding justice and railing against impunity and corruption. The response of the government of President Enrique Peña Nieto was to ignore the protests, and attempt to block independent investigations into the atrocity. In a damning indictment of the government’s handling of the worst human rights atrocity in recent memory, the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights released their report this month, roundly dismissing the government's official story.

Throughout 2015, the killings, repression and impunity have continued, with the assassinations of photojournalist Rubén Espinosa, activist Nadia Vera and three associates in Mexico City creating an international scandal and bringing people out onto the street once more. In July, notorious drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán escaped from prison (again), with suspected official complicity, as the links between top ranking officials and drug criminals become ever more apparent in what many call a “Narco State.”

As Mexico's institutional crisis intensifies – alongside increasing levels of economic precarity – Mexico seems poised for another “grito” of resistance to the "bad government." And who better positioned to deliver a new rallying call than the long-standing Chiapas-based rebels, the Zapatistas?

Where Are the Zapatistas Now?

Contrary to their detractors who say they are no longer a player on the national agenda, the Zapatistas have been keeping themselves very busy, albeit with a low profile. Twenty-one years since the 1994 armed uprising, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN), remains intact and has consolidated a large swathe of territory under de-facto autonomous control. Its local support base has grown over the two decades, as witnessed by their largest yet public mobilization in December 2012, with 40,000 masked Indigenous rebels marching on San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas, representing the thousand-plus rural villages and communities affiliated with the movement.

“But where are the Zapatistas now at this moment of national crisis?” ask the critics. As ever, the Zapatistas are doing it their own way and in their own time. They are not issuing a new “Grito,” no grandstanding, but instead engaging in a meditative process of critical thought with other social movements. The current strategy is based around promoting education among the base of support through regional-wide Zapatista “Escuelitas” or Little Schools, and secondly, convening seminars around critical thinking with the participation of a wide array of Mexican and international social and protest movements. They also continue to draw thousands of outside supporters into their autonomous territory through their anniversary celebrations, the last being the year-end Festival of Resistance and Rebellion Against Capitalism.

A new Zapatista publication Critical Thought Versus the Capitalist Hydra (July 2015) outlines the analysis occurring within the movement. The book is the product of an activist seminar by the same name held in San Cristóbal de las Casas in May 2015 and attended by a couple of thousand participants, including families of the Ayotzinapa students, and many leading left intellectuals. While recognizing that Mexico is entering into a stage of unprecedented crisis – or, "a storm is coming," as one prominent Zapatista, Subcomandante Moises, noted – heading inexorably into systemic breakdown, the Zapatistas are engaging in critical thought as a means towards finding solutions. "Critical thought is not the thought that speaks of catastrophe," pointed out renowned intellectual John Holloway, a participant in the seminar, "but the thought that looks for hope inside the catastrophe."

Identifying global neoliberal capitalism as the problem, the historic rebel leader, Subcomandante Marcos (now re-named Galeano in honor of the Zapatista teacher murdered by paramilitaries in May 2014) explained the use of the term “hydra.”

“This capitalist system is not dominant in only one aspect of social life, but rather, it has multiple heads, that is, many forms and ways of dominating in different and diverse social spaces," he said. And with his inimitable wit, the masked rebel commander added, "I’m sorry, but this thing of ‘the State’ is much more complicated than the twisted lines in Game of Thrones.” True to form, the Zapatistas do not provide ready-made answers, but ask questions, insisting that their role is not to give instructions, but to provoke thought. “There is no single answer,” according to Subcomandante Moises, “there is no manual. There is no dogma. There is no creed. There are many answers, many ways, many forms. And each of us will see what we are able to do and learn from our own struggle and from other struggles.”

It is a process that is about bringing people who resist together under a “one no, many yeses,” and of creating a “seedbed” of ideas from which solutions to the crisis will blossom. The only directive given by the Zapatistas is that people must organize collectively.

Against All Odds

The Zapatistas have been pushing a similar message for many years and organizing various initiatives. In 2006 they launched The Other Campaign, advocating participatory democracy and criticizing the electoral process. That campaign began on Sept. 16, to coincide with El Grito, and managed to mobilize hundreds of thousands in mass events held across the country before petering out after a few months as the country was gripped by an overwhelming wave of narco-related violence. Nine years on, the Zapatistas are taking a different approach.

Critics may insist that the Zapatistas have become irrelevant, but 21 years after the initial uprising, and against all odds, they are still here, the embodiment of resilience and implacable rebel determination. They haven't been defeated, co-opted or sold out. More poignant still, their ideas have currency not just in global social movements but also in front-line struggles as witnessed in Kobanê, Syria, as the Kurdish defenders embrace a similar practice of direct democracy, forging direct links with the Zapatistas.

Leading Latin American analyst Raúl Zibechi, talking recently, places them in a wider historical perspective: "The Zapatista experience is a historic achievement that had never existed before in the struggles of those below, except for the 69 days that the Paris Commune lasted and the brief time of the Soviets before the Stalinist state reconstruction." It would be folly to underestimate the Zapatistas at this point in time.

Mexico: A Lesson in Defiance Amid the Carnage

Written by Ramor Ryan   

Review: "La Lucha: The Story of Lucha Castro and Human Rights in Mexico," by Jon Sack, Edited by Adam Shapiro, Verso, 2015

It is difficult to extract anything positive from the carnage that is the recent history of the Mexican border state of Chihuahua and its city Juárez, but “La Lucha: The Story of Lucha Castro and Human Rights in Mexico” attempts to do just that.

It does so by focusing on the bravery and resilience of a few determined Mexican women -- some living, some dead -- who refused, in the words of the eponymous Lucha Castro, "to cooperate further with a patriarchal and unjust system." These women, coming from diverse backgrounds, confronting a variety of horrifying situations, rise up "through acts of love and justice," and proclaim, ya basta!, enough is enough. And thus, as Lucha eloquently describes, "they offered their hands, arms, lap, voice [...] so that other women could learn that another world is possible, another world without violence."

Writer and illustrator Jon Sack relates their stories through the bold medium of the graphic novel. The words may read like a human rights fact-finding report but the images are lucid and dramatic. There are no fictional super-heroes in this comic book, only very real, humble and fragile humans coping with unimaginable horror. "Our voices are sometimes lost or silenced," says Lucha. "The strength in our legs sometimes falters, and fear can paralyze us." But have no doubt, these women are very heroic.

The Failed War on Drugs

Cuidad Juárez (and the surrounding valley of Juárez) came to international attention in the late 1990s/early 2000s as "the capital of murdered women" as hundreds of women were disappeared and murdered - many of them young migrant workers drawn to the cities' grim maquiladoras. This veritable femicide gave way to increased levels of violence in the late 2000s as drug cartels, army and police factions fought over local drug markets and smuggling routes to the U.S. In 2008, Mexican president Felipe Calderón sent thousands of soldiers onto the streets, effectively militarizing the situation, creating a state of siege, and leading to an increase in the general level of violence. As Lucha Castro points out, "under Calderón's 'War on Drugs,' at least 100,000 people were killed, 20,000 disappeared, and over 200,000 fled their homes."

In a zone where "there are more murders annually than in war torn Afghanistan," described rather luridly as the most violent place on earth, we learn that due to a culture of impunity, "over 97 percent of killings in Juárez go unsolved." In one town alone in the Juárez valley, Guadalupe, we are told that 75 percent of the population has fled, been killed or disappeared, leaving the town practically in ruins.

Despite the wanton destruction and massive suffering, there is nothing familiar about this form of carnage. "We are in the middle of a 'war', which is a war and isn't," explains Alma, another embedded activist. "We don't know what the warzones are or who the enemy is ..." This adds another level of terror to the Juárez theater - the war is itinerant, de-territorialized and below the surface. The battlefield, then, is everywhere, all the time.
A Collective Voice of Resistance

How to be human, or to defend human rights in such terrible scenario? Lucha Castro is an activist lawyer working to identify the killers and their official enablers through the Chihuahua Women's Human Rights Center. The Center provides legal and support services for families and communities affected by the violence. Her work is, without doubt, vital, but despite the title of the book, this is not about just one individual. Lucha's story is the gateway to introducing a series of vignettes about extraordinary women and their families caught up in the violence. Thus La Lucha is a collective testimony, like a memory of a movement of people who resist.

Each of the vignettes repudiates the official narrative -- embraced by the mainstream media -- that the problem is inter-cartel violence, a turf war between highly armed drug criminal gangs. The reality is much more complicated, and insidious: the business of illegal drugs permeates every level of society involving police, military, government officials, the justice system, and banks, all hellbent on getting a slice of that hugely lucrative trades' cake.

And so we learn the heart-breaking story of Marisela Escobedo who in her attempts to bring the killer of her daughter Rubi to justice, is in turn murdered as she protested outside the capitol building in Chihuahua. Complicit in her murder are both crime lords and local security forces, as well as the justice system that protected the perpetrators. We learn about the death of the prominent social activist Josefina Reyes, murdered outside a restaurant on her way to work in a military-style ambush. Her masked killers were heard taunting Josefina as they shot her, "You think you are so cool because you belong to the [human rights] organizations?," sending a chilling threat to other activists. Josefina's extended family, the Reyes-Salazar, have been virtually annihilated due to their involvement in the social movement. Targeted because of their work in organizing the community against the violence, and exposing official collusion with crime, the few remaining members of the family took refuge in El Paso, where they refuse to remain silent about the ongoing campaign against their family.

Another vignette tells of Norma Ledesma, founder of Justice for Our Daughters, whose 15-year-old daughter Paloma was disappeared and murdered in 2002. Her attempts to work with authorities to find justice for her daughter have led her to conclude that "from the experiences I have had, there really are negligent, corrupt people [in authority] who are working with the drug gangs."

Lucha Castro shares this analysis: "Human rights defenders have always faced up to political and economic powers. However, there is a new player that has increased the risks: namely organized crime working hand in hand with the police and military to implement mega-projects, with no qualms about threatening, torturing or murdering activists."

In effect, under the auspices of the Mexican government's War on Drugs, Juárez has been militarized and social organizations, humans rights groups and activists who get in the way of business are targeted and eliminated by paramilitary forces colluding with law enforcement agencies and military, operating with complete impunity.

Front Line Human Rights Defenders

With nowhere left to turn, human rights activists like Lucha Castro look further afield for some kind of support. This brought her into contact with the Front Line Defenders, a globally-focused organization based in Ireland. Raising awareness and providing practical support for human rights workers in the firing line, they campaign to increase their visibility and recognition. This book came from that collaboration, with the support of the publisher, Verso.

Although its focus is on human rights and its defenders, Front Line Defenders don't -- as evidenced from this graphic novel -- shy from the political issues underlying the human rights abuses, or refrain from pointing fingers at the rich and powerful enablers behind the violence. La Lucha promises to be the first in a series of graphic novels focusing on human rights defenders around the world. As a tool for raising consciousness, the graphic novel as a form certainly makes the information very accessible, and perhaps opens up the field to a new kind of readership. The series is off to a deft start with the publication of “La Lucha: The Story of Lucha Castro and Human Rights in Mexico.”

Zapatista Women Explain Things

Written by Ramor Ryan   
April 2015
Review: Compañeras: Zapatista Women's Stories by Hilary Klein (Seven Stories, 2015)
You think you have read everything you need about the Zapatistas, and then something else comes along that is wholly indispensable to fully understanding the Chiapas rebellion. Hilary Klein's new book Compañeras is the product of the author's years of work on the ground in Mexico involving the participation of dozens of Zapatista women and is a much needed study focusing on the rebellion from a women's perspective. It is impeccably researched, narrated in a direct and unpretentious manner, and tells a marvelous story. Compañeras, which presents for the first time in the English language in such a comprehensive manner the voice of grassroots Zapatista women speaking out directly, is unique as a document of women in struggle with a scope reaching far beyond Chiapas.
The genesis of the work began when Klein — a US-born social organizer based in Chiapas for a number of years around the turn of the century — was asked by the Zapatista women with whom she was working to compile a series of women's testimonies to be circulated within their own rebel villages. Building on this popular project, the Zapatista leadership then suggested that Klein compile a similar book for people beyond Chiapas. The project gathered momentum and after a few years Klein had gathered the testimonies and interviewed dozens of Zapatista women of all ages from around the rebel area. For most of the interviewees, it was their first experience talking 'on the record' and thus we are given the privilege of hearing the voices of those rarely heard, but quintessential to the whole narrative.

We learn from these first hand accounts of just how appalling was the experience of an indigenous woman in the isolated rural backlands of the southeast of Mexico before the 1994 uprising. The women explain the circumstances that led them to joining the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN). Not only were they poor and indigenous, but the women were also positioned at the lowest tier of this marginalized society. A Zapatista called Celina explains:

"I used to think that only men have rights. I just did my work and was completely manipulated. I didn't know anything. I was always at home and I thought the only thing women were good for was working in the house. When the organization [the EZLN] arrived, we began to wake up. I began to realize that life doesn't have to be how I was living it. We heard that women can participate too."

Considering the almost insurmountable challenges facing these women — existing under the triple oppression of class, race and gender — this could so easily have ended up an intersectional tale of caution. But instead it is an inspiring story of hope, accompanied by profound victories along the way.

The Before and After January 1, 1994

Klein focuses in on the period around the time of the uprising, which kicked off spectacularly on New Year's Day 1994, as "a watershed moment" when "a tremendous amount of change was compressed into a very short period." With women's participation in the uprising — a reputed 40 percent of the front-line rebel forces were female — as well as a backbone of tens of thousands of women in the communities, the cause of women advanced exponentially in just a few years before and after the rebellion. Zapatista women explain how it seemed that several generations of change seemed to take place in a condensed time of revolutionary upheaval. From this period the “The Women's Revolutionary Law” emerged, a document that captured Zapatista women's demands. Isabel, an insurgent, explains the process that occurred among the indigenous women in opening up this space in their own society. It is worth quoting at length, as her words perfectly capture the dynamic agency of the women themselves in this accelerated process of change:
“We gave women a space to talk, to express their feelings, and how they wanted to change all this: life in the family, with their husbands, with their children. That was where the ideas came from: if things are this bad, we asked ourselves, why not change it? Change men's ideas as well and find a way, as an organization to turn these ideas into a law. And that is how the Women's Revolutionary Law was born: talking, venting, analyzing. It is not something from outside — it came from our own ideas, our experiences in our families, and communities, with our parents, our husbands, our children.”
The book follows the development of the women's struggle within and as part of the Zapatista trajectory over the ensuing 20 years. The women tell of the exciting years in which zapatismo flourished (developing regional autonomy, providing a wake-up call for Mexico, inspiring activists globally), as well as reflections on the lean years (the dejection arising from futile peace talks with the government, the failure of the nationwide Zapatista Other Campaign to ignite Mexico from below). Compañeras provides an exceptional array of unique material as well as behind-the-scenes insights, like when Susana recalls how Comandanta Ramona — the most well-known female Zapatista up to her death in 2006, lamented how "it made her sad to see people selling her photograph because, she said, 'I'm not fighting so they can sell my photo.'”

A theme emerges of women fiercely proud of their organization, the EZLN, but also aware that while "the Zapatista movement has done much to promote women's rights — as Klein points out — changes do not always come easily, inside or outside the organization."

Zapatista women are very careful about sharing their concerns they may have with outsiders, explains Klein, "understandably, they feel protective of their organization." Nevertheless, Compañeras has space for protagonists to express their criticism of the movement. In a key section, one (ex-) compañera criticizes the attitude of men she encountered within the EZLN.

"Most men are not willing to see a woman surpass him. He is afraid of a woman giving him orders, afraid of a woman who is smarter than him. And even at the highest levels, they're not willing to ...". Such sentiments seems to permeate the experience of Zapatista women as their deep loyalty to the EZLN, explains Klein, "brushes up against their frustration with a commitment to equality that has yet to be fulfilled and a vision of liberation that has has yet to be realized."

Balanced with such misgivings, other compañeras talk of remarkable transformations. A group of Zapatista women give voice collectively during a regional women's gathering in the rebel zone in 2001: "Thanks to the organization, we have opened our eyes and opened our heart. [...] Thanks to the organization, we have found compañerismo and unity. We have also found respect between men and women. Our struggle is our liberation, because it gave us courage to participate and defend our rights [...] Today there is hope and freedom in our lives.”
What Is Left Unsaid
We owe Hilary Klein our gratitude for the service of bringing the word of the compañeras to an English-speaking audience. Her selfless endeavor, the years traversing the arduous territory of Chiapas, interviewing, transcribing, translating and writing drafts — ten years labor of love — have allowed the flower of the word to be shared with us. Here is something that is not apparent in Compañeras but can be detected between the lines: the fun that accompanies Hilary Klein as she is embraced into the everyday life of the indigenous communities. A work, then, informed by joy and laughter amongst the compañeras.

John Holloway, Crack Capitalism and Latin America

Written by Ramor Ryan   
November 2010
Radical sociologist and anti-capitalist writer John Holloway's latest work Crack Capitalism (Pluto Press 2010) continues to explore the fundamental themes of how best to combat capitalism and change the world anew. Following on from his widely read and contentiously debated book Change the World Without Taking Power: The Meaning of Revolution Today (Pluto Press 2002), Crack Capitalism explores the key question - what now is to be done? Upside Down World's Ramor Ryan talks to John Holloway in Mexico about social movements in Latin America and the ever-present potential for revolutionary change.

Ramor Ryan: Your previous book, Change the World Without Taking Power: The Meaning of Revolution Today quickly became one of the quintessential texts of the new anti-Capitalist milieu. In it you contend that the possibility of revolution resides not in the seizure of state apparatuses, but in day-to-day acts of abject refusal of capitalist society, and ask how we can reformulate our understanding of revolution as the struggle against power, not for power. Ultimately, you assert that revolution today must be understood as a question, not as an answer. How do you build on this thesis in your latest work Crack Capitalism?

John Holloway: To my delight, Change the World stirred up a lot of discussion, both horrified criticism and cries of delight. But the reaction that made most impact on me was the one that said “Great, we know you’re right, we don’t want to take power, we don’t want to enter into the dirty logic of political parties, but then what on earth do we do?” In the new book I propose an answer – crack capitalism, create cracks in capitalist domination in as many ways as possible and let them expand and multiply and flow together. But of course it’s an answer that is really a question: still the question is how do we do it and do these cracks have any chance of survival? The important thing is to look around and see where we are already, to see the millions and millions of different ways in which people are already creating cracks, breaking with the logic of capital and creating spaces or moments in which different social relations prevail. The Zapatistas are the most obvious example, or the movement in Argentina in 2001/2002 or the MST in Brazil, but there are millions of examples of people just walking in the opposite direction, against the stream, individually or collectively. So many dignities. What the book tries to do is think from those many dignities, to think how we can understand them as the starting point for revolutionary change.

RR: You focus on social movements, not political parties or political leaders, as the place where the answers will emerge to the question of what a revolution will look like today. You have asserted that "At the heart of the social movements of recent years, at least in their more radical variants, is a drive against the logic of capitalist society." Can you elaborate on this idea with particular focus on social movements in Latin America?

JH: Yes, I think there is an almost universal and highly contradictory drive against the dynamic of capitalism. Anti-capitalism is the most common thing in the world, though people do not necessarily think of it in those terms. The problem with political parties is that they channel anti-capitalist anger back into a capitalist form, the form of the state. I think it is important to give this anti-capitalist anger an anti-capitalist form of organisation, a form of organisation that helps people to express their anger and their desires, that is based on the mutual recognition of people’s dignity. This is an extremely important tradition in the anti-capitalist movement, from the Paris Commune, the soviets in Russia, the anarchist councils in Spain, the asambleas barriales in Argentina, the communal councils of the Zapatistas with their mandar obedeciendo, the cabildos in Bolivia, and so on. When the organisation gets turned towards the state, as in the case of Bolivia or Venezuela or Cuba, it is not that the revolutionary push just disappears, but it is difficult to maintain the momentum, simply because the state is a form of organisation that was constructed to subordinate social conflict to the dynamic of capital, it is a form of organisation that separates leaders from led, and that excludes people. The state may be the adequate form for bringing about change on behalf of the people, but it cannot be the organisational form of change by the people, and that is what a real break with capitalism requires.

RR: Born in Ireland and raised in Scotland, you have lived in Latin America for the last 19 years, based in Mexico. How has the lived-experience of Latin America impacted your work?

JH: It’s hard to know. I moved to Mexico three years before the Zapatista uprising and I think that for me, as for many others, the uprising was like a flash of lightning that made things fall into place, that gave a new sense and force to what I had been feeling and thinking already. It was the great Zapatista announcement that here was a new way of organising against capitalism, of talking against capitalism, a new grammar of anti-capitalist revolution. And then the argentinazo of 2001/2002 was enormously important in being a sort of urban zapatismo. And of course the constant interaction with colleagues and students who are immersed in memories of revolutionary struggle and in trying to find new ways forward. It is often horrifying, but always an extremely stimulating place to live and think.

RR: Your work has spawned considerable debate in Latin America, particularly irking supporters of the regional left-leaning governments (for example, Chavez in Venezuela , Evo Morales in Bolivia or the FMLN backed government in El Salvador). They argue that by taking political power they are more effectively 'changing the world'. Do you think there is a conflict of interest between social movements
and political parties? Is the electoral victory of left parties impacting negatively on the grassroots social movements?

JH: I’m all I favour of combining with people and going together as far as we can. I certainly don’t think we should start off with definitions and exclusions and “we’re not going to work with them because they’re members of a political party”. Left-wing parties include all sorts of people who are there because they genuinely want to change things. And on the whole (though not always) I think it’s probably better for the left to win elections (I would rather have Chávez or Evo or Dilma or Christina Kirchner to the right wing alternatives, and I think AMLO would have been less disastrous than Calderón here in Mexico).

That said, that is not our politics, that is not where important anti-capitalist change is going to come. There are just too many forces that pull governments back in to the logic of capitalist accumulation and that means that their interests are opposed to ours. The real issue is that progressive governments are progressive governments and we, on the other hand, are the left that dare not speak its name but must and are beginning to: we are the anti-progressive left. Not of course in the sense of being against change or the emancipation of social creativity, but in the sense of being opposed to the destructive Progress that is at the core of capitalism. Nearly all the great struggles of recent years, perhaps especially here in Latin America, have been against

Progress – the extension of the línea 12 of the Metro in Mexico City, the construction of the paper mills in Uruguay, the building of Walmarts in Cuernavaca and Puebla and lots of other places, the mining of lithium in Bolivia, the destruction of the Amazon in Peru, and so on. Left-wing governments champion Progress, that is the problem.

RR: You have argued that the "social movements are not organized as parties: their aim is not to take state power." During the 2009 coup d'état in Honduras and more recently in Ecuador, social movements have come out strongly in support of the Presidents under attack. What do such mobilizations reveal about the relationship between social movements and state power?

JH: (You might add Kirchner’s death a few days ago, and what does that tell us?) Of course it’s a very complex relationship. Right-wing attacks on left-wing governments, as in the case of Honduras or Ecuador or the coup attempt in Venezuela a few years ago are very clearly attacks on the people those governments claim to (but do not) represent, so that it makes a lot of sense to mobilise to defend them, but not uncritically. The response of the CONAIE in Ecuador to the attack on Correa a few weeks ago seemed to me excellent, where they used their defence of the President to criticise his failure to really implement measures of change.

RR: The Zapatistas have served as one of the most poignant examples of a movement that created a thriving autonomous zone without forming a political party or seeking electoral mandate, existing outside and beyond the established political scenario and creating a 'crack' in the capitalist system. But the Mexican State appears to have managed to contain and wear-out the Zapatista initiative. Critics (from the left) argue that considering the failure of the Zapatista example, to effectively expand or multiply in Mexico 16 years after the initial uprising of '94, that this must this be now understood as an example of the impossibility of attempting to build a revolution without deposing the existing state power. Could you comment on this?

JH: I don’t think the Mexican state has outworn the Zapatista initiative. The appearance that that is the case is generated to some extent by the shift in direction of the Zapatista movement after the final failure of the San Andrés agreements a few years ago, the decision that the time had passed for making demands and that they just had to get on with building their own autonomous zone. But yes, the resonance of the movement is not as strong as it used to be and yes there is a failure to expand and multiply. I think this can be explained in many ways – the growth of a climate of fear in Mexico, the impact of the narcos and the growing militarization of the country, the ebb of the global anti-capitalist movement for the moment. I don’t see taking state power as being an answer, for all the old reasons, but that does not mean that the idea of changing the world without taking power, or cracking capitalism, gives us easy answers either. I suspect that there may be a spread of people, collectively and individually, just getting on with things, working on their own projects of change, of alternative living (by choice or necessity) especially in the face of the current crisis. But precisely because these movements are subterranean, it is hard to be sure. The question you ask is certainly not to be closed by an easy answer. Preguntando caminamos – I don’t think we have any choice.
Ramor Ryan is a Chiapas-based Irish writer, and author of Clandestines: the Pirate Journals of an Irish Exile (AK Press 2006). His next book, Zapatista Spring, will be published by AK Press in Spring 2011.

Solidarity and Rebellion in Chiapas: Reviewing Zapatista Spring

  Written by Dawn Paley   
Zapatista Spring: Anatomy of a Rebel Water Project & the Lessons of International Solidarity; By Ramor Ryan, AK Press, April 2011.  

So you’re hiking through the Lacandon jungle in Chiapas with a backpack full of plumbing supplies. There’s a half dozen solidarity activists tagging along, ranging from an orthodox anarchist from Poland to a Chicana researcher set on reconnecting with her roots. The group dynamics are unpredictable, as are relationships with the Zapatista base community when the group finally arrives. ‘Damn,’ you think to yourself before passing out exhausted in your hammock, ‘if I could just remember all these details later, it would probably be really useful.’

With his newest book Zapatista Spring, Ramor Ryan does us all a favour. After more than a decade participating in radical solidarity projects in Chiapas, Ryan has opened his notebook and shared his candid -and often humorous- reflections on working alongside the Zapatistas. The result is a unique and fun to read mix of narrative journalism, historical fiction, activism, documentary photography, and popular philosophy.
Zapatista Spring takes us to a tiny Tzeltal-Mayan village at the dawn of the 21st Century. Roberto Arenas, as the village is dubbed, was created through land occupations after the ‘94 uprising, and lacked a fresh water supply. The book chronicles Ryan’s experience digging ditches for pipes alongside Zapatista community members and international compañeros who are there to provide concrete support for the Zapatista uprising.

Ryan positions water projects such as that carried out in Roberto Arenas as “a favored occupation in solidarity work, particularly among the more direct-action oriented, anarcho crowd.” These projects, according to Ryan, attempt to push past paternalistic interpretations of solidarity into the domain of revolutionary mutual aid.
On his first hike into the community, Ryan admits he’d sooner dump the metal water valves in his backpack than the books he’s stowed inside: Heart of Darkness, a Chiapas classic by B. Traven, and Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus. Alas, the entire project would fail without the valves, so he holds onto them, and he manages to hang onto the books too: turns out they factor heavily into the writing of Zapatista Spring.
From questions from the community about how project volunteers get paid, to marriage proposals, insect bites and rickety bridges, Ryan invites readers to navigate the intense physical and social terrain that comes along with international solidarity. The book’s strength is that it’s rooted in a series of lived experiences at the local level, but instead of being written by a tag-along-academic, our straight shooting narrator speaks from the trenches, and from the heart.

Throughout Zapatista Spring, Ryan pushes readers beyond the delicate issue of solidarity, touching on controversial realities connected to the Zapatista uprising that are often ignored. He talks about the impacts of sub-comandante Marcos’ “rose-tinted prose,” which he says brought many U.S. and European radicals to Chiapas, “only to be disappointed by the authoritarian, patriarchal, and conservative movement they encountered at the base.”

The complicated reality of working in a Zapatista base community is brought into stark relief as the water workers pair up with the community in Roberto Arenas to bring water to centre of the village.

But it’s not just within the Zapatista movement that these kinds of contradictions exist. To wit, Ryan dutifully documents internal dynamics between his own crew of water warriors. From an international romance born over early morning coffee and tacos to the constant sparring of an NGO worker and an insufferable book-smart anarchist, we’re invited to reflect on these interpersonal experiences as integral components of solidarity efforts.

In a narrative twist that speaks to the political complexity of Chiapas seventeen years after the Zapatista uprising, Ryan and his crew are foiled as they attempt to return to Roberto Arenas a couple of years after completing the water system because of shifting political allegiances on the ground.

Zapatista Spring doesn’t read like a history book, and Ryan stops short of producing a personal memoir. Instead, it feels like cracking open an undated personal diary, which, thanks to the author’s revolutionary sensibilities, storytelling skills, and sense of humor, translates into a hard-to-put-down read.

Territories in Resistance: A Cartography of Latin American Social Movements - Excerpt From Book

Written by Raul Zibechi, Translated by Ramor Ryan   
Excerpt from: Territories in Resistance: A Cartography of Latin American Social Movements by Raul Zibechi; Dawn Paley (Foreword); Ramor Ryan (Translation) Published by AK Press.

Chapter 3
A community has an emancipatory approach to health care when it recovers its own healing powers, which have been expropriated by the medical industry and the state, and liberates itself from the control that capital exercises over health care through multinational pharmaceuticals. Zapatista health care practices, as well as those of many indigenous peoples and piqueteros groups, share many commonalities despite their enormous cultural differences.
Indigenous peoples often recover their ancestral knowledge, which goes hand-in-hand with recognizing the wisdom of traditional health practitioners while not discarding modern medicine. In fact, they attempt to combine the two. Much like when communities decide to construct a school, so too the first step in community health care is constructing a local dispensary capable of dealing with those emergencies that cause the highest mortality rates.

But Indian peoples have their own long tradition of health care.

In the traditional indigenous cosmovision, there is no separation between health and lifestyle or, that is, the community. Therefore, “the health of individuals as physical bodies, depends, at root, on the health of the community” (Maldonado 2003). The concept of healing in indigenous medicine is identical to the concept of healing in that society and it is based on a dense network of reciprocal social relations: minga (community work), community assemblies, and collective fiestas. These are spaces for “harmoniously liberating the subconscious, both of the individual and the collective” (Ramon 1993, 329).
In indigenous societies, the capacity to heal emerges from self-generated structures, unlike Western society, which has medical bodies that are separate from society as a whole and that control and monitor health care. Indigenous health practitioners have organized in various regions to recover and enhance indigenous medical knowledge. (Acero and Dalle Rive 1998; Freyermuth 1993). This is part of the emancipatory process of the indigenous peoples of our continent and part of the lengthy process of constituting these peoples as political subjects. In some cases, indigenous organizations (such as CONAIE in Ecuador and the Regional Indigenous Council of Cauca in Colombia, among others) have created their own health programs, with the support of doctors and nurses trained in Western medicine, and with some support from the state (CRIC 1988).

The Zapatistas have set up a system of health care in the five Caracoles that cover all rebel communities. Some eight hundred of casas de salud [community health centers] are operating, served by a similar number of health promoters, alongside a dozen municipal clinics and two hospitals that perform surgery (Muñoz 2004). The San Jose hospital near La Realidad was built in three years by thousands of indigenous locals working in shifts. There is also a training school for health promoters there, as well as dental care facilities, an herbalist center, and a clinical laboratory. Several volunteers hailing from the communities work full-time in the hospital; they do not receive a salary but are supported by the Good Government Council, which “provides them with food, travel expenses, footware, and clothes”(Muñoz 2004). The Zapatistas have set up an herbal laboratory there as well:
This dream started when we realized that the knowledge of our elders and our elderly was being lost. They know how to cure bones and sprains, they know how to use herbs, they know how to oversee the delivery process for pregnant women, but all of that tradition was being lost with the use of medicines purchased in the pharmacy. So we came to an agreement among the people and brought together all the men and women that know about traditional healing. It was not easy to bring everyone together. Many compañeros [comrades] did not want to share their knowledge, saying that it was a gift that cannot be transferred because it is something they carried within them. But then a sense of awareness and understanding grew among the people, the heath authorities held discussions, and they convinced many to change their way of thinking and to participate in the courses. They were some twenty men and women, older people coming from the communities, who acted as teachers of traditional health and about three-hundred-fifty students signed up, most of them Zapatista compañeros. Now they have increased the amount of midwives, bonesetters, and herbalists in our communities. (Muñoz 2004, 319)

In the autonomous regions, there is a functioning network of community health centers and clinics, dental consultants, clinical analysis and herbal laboratories, where eye and gynecolological services are available, and pharmacies. Consultations cost a nominal fee for the Zapatista base and are often given free of charge. Anybody in the communities, Zapatista or not, can avail themselves of the medical services; the medicines are dispensed without cost if they have been donated and sold at cost if they were purchased; traditional medicines are free. In some Caracoles, infusions and ointments are made from local medicinal plants. All this has been accomplished through the work of indigenous communities as well as through national and international solidarity efforts. Significantly, the Mexican state has not been involved at all.

Autonomous piqueteros groups organize health care around the same principles, despite the differences between Mayan cultures and popular sectors in a huge city like Buenos Aires, birthplace of the Latin American labor movement and a showplace of global consumerism. During the health workshop held at the Autonomous January gathering in 2003, groups concluded was that “the cure is within the movement itself.” The MTD has organized preventative health clinics in many of the neighborhoods where they have a presence, staffed by professionals working in solidarity. This is true of other piquetero groups as well. The MTD Solano in Buenos Aires and MTD Allén in Neuquén supply their members with free medicines and eyeglasses. This illustrates what can be accomplished beyond the market: Thanks to a sympathetic optician, discarded or out-of-style frames are paired with lenses bought at cost and now all the movement’s members in need have affordable glasses.
The MTD also mixes, packages, and distributes medicinal herbs purchased directly from local producers. Now the movement is proposing to take it a step further by developing homeopathic tinctures from plants cultivated in small community plots. The result is that piquetero families are discovering the advantages of alternative medicine and using conventional medicine less frequently, or doing so only in emergencies. In some neighborhoods people have begun working with Chinese therapies such as acupuncture and have organized workshops dealing with native herbs in order to broaden the use of alternative cures (Salud Rebelde 2004).

The movement has also set up “reflection groups” in every neighborhood “to deal with personal problems, relation- ships, feelings, and collective growth.” In these groups, according to one participant, “one learns to lose fear; that fear is a sickness.”
Indeed, with respect to dependency on doctors and specialists, these groups believe that “verticality induces sickness” and that “wellness is finding ourselves” (Enero Autonomo 2003). The story of one of these groups’ meetings, as told by a social psychologist who participates in the movement and who coordinated their first meeting (which was held in a very poor neighborhood under MTD Solano influence), speaks for itself:
After the presentations, we began the meeting with an open question: Does anybody want to say anything? It was like turning on a tap. Almost immediately an anguished woman began telling us that she had been sexually abused as a girl by her father. Between sobs, she told a story of overcrowding, promiscuity, males and females sleeping in the same room, and the subsequent violations as part of family life, a situation all too common for poor households in the townships spread through the peripheries of big cities.

When she had finished her painful story, the silence in the room was powerful, a silence made from seventy-odd, quieted people, the silence of not knowing how to react together when so much deep pain was exploding forth in the room, seeking a response forty or fifty years after the event, a resonance, or some kind of understanding or forgiveness or just simply to be heard. Those assembled seemed uncertain how to express the compassion they felt toward the companera. In the end, the group focused on the most basic fact: that the companera had shared her pain with them and now they must begin to consider what can be done about it. Really it was just a simple notion, but one that opened the way for the participation of other voices. Words of comfort flowed out, understanding, hugs, gestures of solidarity, in many instances from others who recognize in themselves a similar kind of suffering. (Ferrara 2004)

Certainly, as indicated by the indigenous and piqueteros, it is the movement and community itself that has the power to heal. But the paths were different for each.
Indigenous peoples are recovering their traditional medicinal practices, which had been suppressed by the conquerors; the ex-workers and unemployed, molded by the culture of consumption, have had to de-institutionalize work, space, time, and politics to reinvent their lives. In summary, this has included:

• self-managed productive projects, or production “for itself.”
• opening up spaces in the “galpones” and in movement territories in order to have permanent and free meeting places in which new relations are practiced.
• “the integration of the various temporal spheres of everyday life and respect for time itself,” meaning an attempt to reunite time fragmented and parceled up by the system.
• and practices of horizontality, autonomy, collective participation, dignity, cooperation-based solidarity, and direct democracy as opposed to representation, hierarchy, and the instrumentalization of the traditional political practices (Sopransi and Veloso 2004).


Interview with Danish Journal

Short Interview with some Danish Magazine
Thanks to Mikas Larsen.

Author:  Ramor Ryan
Book: Zapatista Spring (AK Press)

What did you do before coming to Chiapas (live, study, work)? 
 Lived in an autonomous squatting community in  East Berlin after the Wall came down.

When did you leave for Mex?  
1st January, 1995.

Inspired by the Zapatista uprising in Chiapas, by the new language of emancipation they spoke and embodied, and for the similarities with autonomous idea of the Zapatista municipalities and the seed of which we had been trying to create in Europe with our autonomous communities in squats etc.  Frustrated by the lack of hope/radical potential in an increasingly neo-liberal and hostile-to-migrant Europe.

How would you describe the situation then?
A revolt blossoming, brimming with possibilities. It really seemed that a new world was not only possible but just around the next corner.

How was the Zapatista movement back then?
Exuberant. Overflowing with indigenous people wanting to join up and internationals enamoured by the writings of subcomandante Marcos. There was a real sense of of changing history, of being part of a revolutionary moment, of transformation. Anything seemed possible. 

How would you describe the development of the movement? (and when did the foreigners get thrown out?)
Too broad a question, it would take a book to answer! The foreigners got thrown out (1997-98) because of the appalling strategy of the PRI government of the time who seemed to be saying that the indigenous of Chiapas were not capable of organising their own revolt, that they must be directed by 'foreign agents' and therefore the Chiapas problem was foreign interference -- not institutionalised injustice, deep racism and the exclusion of a whole strata of society.  

What was your role in the events? What is it today?
 See my book Zapatista Spring! Today, things are more complicated: the Zapatistas say they don't need direct solidarity in the communities from internationals like in the 90's with the peace and solidarity encampments which brought thousands of global activists in contact with the 
grass roots Zapatistas. The situation is changing, now they are focusing on their own internal development and building everyday, practical autonomy in their communities. Be a Zapatista wherever you are, they say, now more than ever.

How would you describe the present situation in Chiapas? And what is the movement like now?
It is a period of subterranean springs, where the Zapatistas instead of being prominent political actors in Mexican society, are moving quietly in the shadows and fortifying their position. Interestingly, the biggest single manifestation of their numbers occurred this year (2011) in San Cristobal, when more than 20,000 base indigenous emerged onto the streets to raise their voice against the Drug War ravaging Mexico.

Which are the most important recent changes and events (the state)? 
The main story for the whole of the Presidency of Calderon (PAN) has being the catastrophic drug war which is devastating the social fabric of the country and in turn, the potential of the previously massive and powerful social movement.  The drug war is a consequence of the US market for a (proscribed) product and involves vast segments of the Mexican state collaborating with criminals to supply that demand. In a nutshell: Raw, ferocious capitalism and the unmitigated pursuit of profit. 

How do you see the future of the movement?
After the winter must come spring. In a bleak almost hopeless scenario, the social movements - and the Zapatistas as part of that - hold the key to returning Mexico into a place of hope once more, beyond the horror of the narco-state.