Wednesday

We Want to Change Everything: Catalonia Fights for Independence

http://www.telesurtv.net/english/opinion/The-Clamor-for-Catalan-Independence-20160127-0009.html
by Ramor Ryan 

On a recent night in Barcelona’s emblematic football stadium, Camp Nou, a clamor began at minute 17.14, unrelated to the action on the pitch between FC Barcelona and Athletico Bilbao. A wave of chanting began as most of the 70,000 fans broke out into a loud call for “In-de-pen-dèn-cia”, independence, in Catalan. The chant was followed by rapturous clapping, joined by the visiting Basque fans, many of whom also share the Catalan desire for secession from the Spanish state. 1714 marks the year in which Catalonia lost its independence in the War of the Spanish Succession.

High up in the Executive’s box, guest of honor Carles Puigdemont, the new leader of the pro-independence Catalan Parliament, acknowledged the cheering stadium with a stately nod. On the north terrace, a large group of fans wearing shirts of the distinctive red and yellow Catalan flag, chanted boisterously, expressing their profound dislike for “Madrid.” Repeating a comment made by Puigdemont a few days previous to the Spanish press, they too vowed to “chase the invaders out of Catalonia.”

Building a Catalan Republic

Catalan nationalism is nothing new, but the recent upsurge is both surprising and unprecedented. Catalonia, the northeastern region of Spain with 7.5 million people and its own distinct language and culture, currently enjoys constitutional autonomy with limited regional powers, invested in the Catalan Parliament.

Last September’s regional elections gave pro-independence parties a slim majority in a vote that was billed as a plebiscite on independence. “Twenty years ago only 15 percent were for independence,” explains Antonio Baños, journalist and deputy for the People's Unity Candidacies — Constituent Call (CUP). “And now there are 48 percent of us in favor of the country's independence.”

The anti-capitalist CUP is part of the governing separatist bloc, along with Junts pel Si (Together for Yes), a coalition of the center-right CDC party and left-wing ERC. Unlikely partners in government, the parties have little in common except the aim to make Catalonia the latest new state of the European Union.

“The institutions we have,” explains Baños, “are the seeds of the Catalan republican institutions. What we have now is formally a regional government, but we have to think that it is already more than that.”

Early in January, the Catalan Parliament swore in the conservative and former mayor of the city of Girona, Puigdemont, as the new leader.

"We begin an extremely important process, unparalleled in our recent history,” announced Puigdemont, “to create the Catalonia that we want, to collectively build a new country.” In order to implement the separatists’ declared “180-day roadmap to independence,” he resolved that Catalonia would need to begin negotiations with the Spanish state, the European Union, and the international community.

Spain’s Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, of the rightwing People’s Party (PP), has made his government’s total opposition clear. “Nobody will break up Spain in any way,” he responded. “Nobody is going to steal from Catalans their triple status as Catalans, Spaniards and Europeans,” warning that his government and Spain’s courts will strike down any Catalan decision that violates the Spanish Constitution. 

The situation is leading toward a head-on collision between the Catalan Parliament in Barcelona and the central government in Madrid, as the Catalan authorities lay the groundwork for their own constitution and start building institutions necessary for an independent state - such as a central bank, judicial system and Catalan army.

A Progressive Nationalism?    

The most obvious explanation for the recent upsurge in Catalan nationalism is the economy.  Spain’s financial crisis and protracted recession has led to a long period of painful austerity. But as one of Spain's richest and highly industrialised regions, Catalonia contributes more to the national budget than it receives. Catalonia registered a higher growth level (2.5 percent) in 2015 than the rest of Spain. Catalan independence can easily be seen as a desire to decouple itself from its poorer neighbors, and the dire Spanish economy.         

It is, of course, more complex than that. Sebastian Balfour, Professor Emeritus of Contemporary Spanish Studies at the London School of Economics, points out that “the main drivers are the economic crisis, the loss of legitimacy of Spanish political institutions and elites, the attractions of identity politics, and comparative grievances.”

Nor is Catalan nationalism – unlike other nationalisms in Europe – characterized by xenophobic or anti-migrant sentiments. Catalonia is considered the most progressive, secular and inclusive region of Spain (typified by the election of radical anti-capitalist activist Ada Colau as mayor of Barcelona) and thus Catalan separatists assert progressive social policies. In the words of CDC leader Josep Rull, an independent Catalonia will be “a home for everyone.”

History is the key. The date 1714 venerated by the FC Barcelona fans commemorates the defeat of Catalonia during the War of the Spanish Succession, and September 11 – the actual day of surrender – is the national day of Catalonia. A political and cultural renaissance in the 19th century led eventually to the renewed proclamation of a Catalan Republic in 1931. Subsequent negotiations with the Spanish Republic led to a wide-reaching autonomy. General Franco’s fascist victory in 1939, however, gave Catalonia its “second great defeat.” Franco’s forces destroyed Catalan resistance, dismantled its autonomy, banned the native language, and executed Catalonia’s President Lluís Companys.

More than anything, the invasion of Franco’s fascist army consolidated the Catalan feeling of being occupied by an outside force. The Franco regime’s subsequent repression reinforced the sense of national oppression and unified the people against a common enemy in Madrid. The Camp Nou stadium became a haven for nationalism and FC Barcelona a symbol of Catalan resistance. Upon Franco’s death in 1975, democracy returned to Spain and the Catalan parliamentary institution, the Generalitat, was restored, accompanied by a strong renewal of pro-independence sentiment. Mirroring the ferocious Basque struggle for independence, resistance took an armed direction during the 1980s with the activities of the small, militant Terra Lliure (Free Homeland) group. However, the main thrust of the independentistas remained the effort to gain Catalan national recognition through constitutional means, although implying civil disobedience. 

Each subsequent separatist initiative has been swiftly put down by Madrid; a 2006 statute of autonomy – agreed by referendum in Catalonia and passed by the Spanish Parliament – was thrown out by means of a controversial court ruling; a September 2014 non-binding referendum with the participation of 42 percent of the Catalan electorate giving a resounding 81 percent in favor of independence, was deemed unconstitutional. Right up to the recent September 2015 elections – considered a “de facto” referendum on independence from Spain, delivering 48 percent pro-independence, 11 percent for a constitutional referendum to let the population decide, and 39 percent opposing. Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s response was duly uncompromising: “National sovereignty will not be broken and there will be no independence for Catalonia.”

Although lacking a clear majority, the separatists claim the election as a victory for the “sovereignty process.”

“The mandate we have been given by the people is to create our own framework,” says Puigdemont, “and our own framework is ours, not the one the Spanish Constitution determines; it will be the one we create."

An Alternative Vision 

The cause of Catalan independence is contested on two fronts: one with Madrid, and the other within the Catalan camp. Internally, the pro-Catalan camp is an uneasy alliance of conservatives, social democrats and leftists, of pro- and anti-austerity parties – and then there is of course the approximately 35 percent in Catalonia who are opposed to independence.

There is a another position, one assumed by the left-wing anti-capitalist Podemos, a political newcomer to the Spanish scene that grew out of the recent mass anti-austerity street manifestations. Winning over 20 percent of the vote in the 2015 Spanish elections, Podemos has opened up a new space on the political spectrum, fighting against the endemic corruption within the Spanish political body and opposing austerity policies.

Podemos has offered an alternative vision of Spain as a plurinational state, a “country of countries,” to be refounded through democratic constituent processes and negotiation among its different nationalities, including Basques and Catalans. In the recent Catalan elections, Podemos’ local affiliate Podem united with the radical anti-capitalist Barcelona en Com, a local platform that won the Barcelona mayor’s office. The grouping – En Comú Podem – takes a conditional stand on independence, supporting Catalonia’s “right to decide,” while criticizing the conservative and austerity policies of the majority separatist party, CDC.

Barcelona Mayor Ada Colau of the Barcelona en Comú, for her part, stated: “This municipal government will always side with the democratic decision of the people of this city and of Catalonia, whether in these elections, in a referendum or in any other democratic consultation.”

Catalonia’s Historical Moment, or Business as Usual

The clamor for independence is certainly the pulse of the region, from the football stadiums to the red and yellow flag bedecked balconies in every working class neighborhood. Such aspirations may seem archaic and quaint from the outside, but on the ground appear to be careering inexorably towards a dramatic collision with Madrid. If the separatists carry through on their proposals – the “180-day roadmap to Independence” – how tough will Madrid’s response be? As the situation intensifies, will resistance and repression increase accordingly?

The path to independence is complex and fraught with difficulties. Many observers doubt that the fragile and uneasy pro-Catalan alliance in Parliament will survive long; others charge that the main separatist party, the CDC – conservative and pro-business – will quickly buckle and settle for a new fiscal/tax arrangement with Madrid. One thing is certain though – the Catalan separatist movement has surprised everyone, even themselves it seems, to get this far. It would be folly to underestimate the will toward Catalan independence. 

As CUP leader Antonio Baños insists: “We want to change everything and have a Catalan Republic … If we've come this far, this can't go wrong.”

Ramor Ryan is author of Zapatista Spring (AK Press 2011) and Clandestines: The Pirate Journals of an Irish Exile (AK Press 2006).

From the football stadiums to the red and yellow flag bedecked balconies in working class neighborhoods, the clamor for independence is striking.

On a recent night in Barcelona’s emblematic football stadium, Camp Nou, a clamor began at minute 17.14, unrelated to the action on the pitch between FC Barcelona and Athletico Bilbao. A wave of chanting began as most of the 70,000 fans broke out into a loud call for “In-de-pen-dèn-cia”, independence, in Catalan. The chant was followed by rapturous clapping, joined by the visiting Basque fans, many of whom also share the Catalan desire for secession from the Spanish state. 1714 marks the year in which Catalonia lost its independence in the War of the Spanish Succession.

High up in the Executive’s box, guest of honor Carles Puigdemont, the new leader of the pro-independence Catalan Parliament, acknowledged the cheering stadium with a stately nod. On the north terrace, a large group of fans wearing shirts of the distinctive red and yellow Catalan flag, chanted boisterously, expressing their profound dislike for “Madrid.” Repeating a comment made by Puigdemont a few days previous to the Spanish press, they too vowed to “chase the invaders out of Catalonia.” 

Building a Catalan Republic

Catalan nationalism is nothing new, but the recent upsurge is both surprising and unprecedented. Catalonia, the northeastern region of Spain with 7.5 million people and its own distinct language and culture, currently enjoys constitutional autonomy with limited regional powers, invested in the Catalan Parliament.

Last September’s regional elections gave pro-independence parties a slim majority in a vote that was billed as a plebiscite on independence. “Twenty years ago only 15 percent were for independence,” explains Antonio Baños, journalist and deputy for the People's Unity Candidacies — Constituent Call (CUP). “And now there are 48 percent of us in favor of the country's independence.”

The anti-capitalist CUP is part of the governing separatist bloc, along with Junts pel Si (Together for Yes), a coalition of the center-right CDC party and left-wing ERC. Unlikely partners in government, the parties have little in common except the aim to make Catalonia the latest new state of the European Union.

“The institutions we have,” explains Baños, “are the seeds of the Catalan republican institutions. What we have now is formally a regional government, but we have to think that it is already more than that.”

Early in January, the Catalan Parliament swore in the conservative and former mayor of the city of Girona, Puigdemont, as the new leader.

"We begin an extremely important process, unparalleled in our recent history,” announced Puigdemont, “to create the Catalonia that we want, to collectively build a new country.” In order to implement the separatists’ declared “180-day roadmap to independence,” he resolved that Catalonia would need to begin negotiations with the Spanish state, the European Union, and the international community.

Spain’s Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, of the rightwing People’s Party (PP), has made his government’s total opposition clear. “Nobody will break up Spain in any way,” he responded. “Nobody is going to steal from Catalans their triple status as Catalans, Spaniards and Europeans,” warning that his government and Spain’s courts will strike down any Catalan decision that violates the Spanish Constitution.  

The situation is leading toward a head-on collision between the Catalan Parliament in Barcelona and the central government in Madrid, as the Catalan authorities lay the groundwork for their own constitution and start building institutions necessary for an independent state - such as a central bank, judicial system and Catalan army.

A Progressive Nationalism? 

The most obvious explanation for the recent upsurge in Catalan nationalism is the economy.  Spain’s financial crisis and protracted recession has led to a long period of painful austerity. But as one of Spain's richest and highly industrialised regions, Catalonia contributes more to the national budget than it receives. Catalonia registered a higher growth level (2.5 percent) in 2015 than the rest of Spain. Catalan independence can easily be seen as a desire to decouple itself from its poorer neighbors, and the dire Spanish economy.   

It is, of course, more complex than that. Sebastian Balfour, Professor Emeritus of Contemporary Spanish Studies at the London School of Economics, points out that “the main drivers are the economic crisis, the loss of legitimacy of Spanish political institutions and elites, the attractions of identity politics, and comparative grievances.”

    Catalonia is considered the most progressive, secular and inclusive region of Spain. 

Nor is Catalan nationalism – unlike other nationalisms in Europe – characterized by xenophobic or anti-migrant sentiments. Catalonia is considered the most progressive, secular and inclusive region of Spain (typified by the election of radical anti-capitalist activist Ada Colau as mayor of Barcelona) and thus Catalan separatists assert progressive social policies. In the words of CDC leader Josep Rull, an independent Catalonia will be “a home for everyone.”

History is the key. The date 1714 venerated by the FC Barcelona fans commemorates the defeat of Catalonia during the War of the Spanish Succession, and September 11 – the actual day of surrender – is the national day of Catalonia. A political and cultural renaissance in the 19th century led eventually to the renewed proclamation of a Catalan Republic in 1931. Subsequent negotiations with the Spanish Republic led to a wide-reaching autonomy. General Franco’s fascist victory in 1939, however, gave Catalonia its “second great defeat.” Franco’s forces destroyed Catalan resistance, dismantled its autonomy, banned the native language, and executed Catalonia’s President Lluís Companys.

More than anything, the invasion of Franco’s fascist army consolidated the Catalan feeling of being occupied by an outside force. The Franco regime’s subsequent repression reinforced the sense of national oppression and unified the people against a common enemy in Madrid. The Camp Nou stadium became a haven for nationalism and FC Barcelona a symbol of Catalan resistance. Upon Franco’s death in 1975, democracy returned to Spain and the Catalan parliamentary institution, the Generalitat, was restored, accompanied by a strong renewal of pro-independence sentiment. Mirroring the ferocious Basque struggle for independence, resistance took an armed direction during the 1980s with the activities of the small, militant Terra Lliure (Free Homeland) group. However, the main thrust of the independentistas remained the effort to gain Catalan national recognition through constitutional means, although implying civil disobedience.  

Each subsequent separatist initiative has been swiftly put down by Madrid; a 2006 statute of autonomy – agreed by referendum in Catalonia and passed by the Spanish Parliament – was thrown out by means of a controversial court ruling; a September 2014 non-binding referendum with the participation of 42 percent of the Catalan electorate giving a resounding 81 percent in favor of independence, was deemed unconstitutional. Right up to the recent September 2015 elections – considered a “de facto” referendum on independence from Spain, delivering 48 percent pro-independence, 11 percent for a constitutional referendum to let the population decide, and 39 percent opposing. Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s response was duly uncompromising: “National sovereignty will not be broken and there will be no independence for Catalonia.”

Although lacking a clear majority, the separatists claim the election as a victory for the “sovereignty process.”

“The mandate we have been given by the people is to create our own framework,” says Puigdemont, “and our own framework is ours, not the one the Spanish Constitution determines; it will be the one we create."

An Alternative Vision 

The cause of Catalan independence is contested on two fronts: one with Madrid, and the other within the Catalan camp. Internally, the pro-Catalan camp is an uneasy alliance of conservatives, social democrats and leftists, of pro- and anti-austerity parties – and then there is of course the approximately 35 percent in Catalonia who are opposed to independence.

There is a another position, one assumed by the left-wing anti-capitalist Podemos, a political newcomer to the Spanish scene that grew out of the recent mass anti-austerity street manifestations. Winning over 20 percent of the vote in the 2015 Spanish elections, Podemos has opened up a new space on the political spectrum, fighting against the endemic corruption within the Spanish political body and opposing austerity policies.

Podemos has offered an alternative vision of Spain as a plurinational state, a “country of countries,” to be refounded through democratic constituent processes and negotiation among its different nationalities, including Basques and Catalans. In the recent Catalan elections, Podemos’ local affiliate Podem united with the radical anti-capitalist Barcelona en Com, a local platform that won the Barcelona mayor’s office. The grouping – En Comú Podem – takes a conditional stand on independence, supporting Catalonia’s “right to decide,” while criticizing the conservative and austerity policies of the majority separatist party, CDC.

Barcelona Mayor Ada Colau of the Barcelona en Comú, for her part, stated: “This municipal government will always side with the democratic decision of the people of this city and of Catalonia, whether in these elections, in a referendum or in any other democratic consultation.”

Catalonia’s Historical Moment, or Business as Usual

Citizens in Catalonia rally in the streets for independence. Photo: AFP 

The clamor for independence is certainly the pulse of the region, from the football stadiums to the red and yellow flag bedecked balconies in every working class neighborhood. Such aspirations may seem archaic and quaint from the outside, but on the ground appear to be careering inexorably towards a dramatic collision with Madrid. If the separatists carry through on their proposals – the “180-day roadmap to Independence” – how tough will Madrid’s response be? As the situation intensifies, will resistance and repression increase accordingly?

The path to independence is complex and fraught with difficulties. Many observers doubt that the fragile and uneasy pro-Catalan alliance in Parliament will survive long; others charge that the main separatist party, the CDC – conservative and pro-business – will quickly buckle and settle for a new fiscal/tax arrangement with Madrid. One thing is certain though – the Catalan separatist movement has surprised everyone, even themselves it seems, to get this far. It would be folly to underestimate the will toward Catalan independence.  

As CUP leader Antonio Baños insists: “We want to change everything and have a Catalan Republic … If we've come this far, this can't go wrong.”

Ramor Ryan is author of Zapatista Spring (AK Press 2011) and Clandestines: The Pirate Journals of an Irish Exile (AK Press 2006).

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Friday

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.
 

Sunday

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.