Zapatismo, solidarity and self-governance: a conversation

  • March 23, 2022

Autonomy & Authority

In this interview, Ramor Ryan reflects on his time organizing alongside the Zapatistas, the often “messy” practice of international solidarity and more.

Constructing a water system in a Zapatista community in Chiapas. Photo: Francesc Parés

Ramor Ryan is a writer and translator who was based in Chiapas, Mexico for almost two decades, where he witnessed and participated in the Zapatistas’ revolutionary struggle. His first book Clandestines: The Pirate Journals of an Irish Exile (2006) — a collection of writings from the late 1980s up to the early 2000s — was praised as a rare document of dissent, refusing the prevailing cynicism and amnesia during the early days of the so-called end of history. This was followed in 2011 by his second work Zapatista Spring: Anatomy of a Rebel Water Project & the Lessons of International Solidarity, which offered an account of his experiences constructing a water supply system — one of numerous such projects he was involved in during that period — with a motley crew of international solidarity volunteers in a remote Lacandon jungle village. The book is one of the more realistic accounts of the Zapatistas’ everyday struggles and the attempts by international radicals to engage with and support the movement. It offers numerous insights into the tensions, contradictions and occasional absurdities of international solidarity work; in this case, the material and cultural chasm between the mostly western solidarity activists and the local community in Chiapas.

While the conversation later turns to the Kurdish freedom movement, counter-power in Europe, social movement politics in Latin America and community self-defense initiatives in Mexico, the main focus is on Ramor’s experiences in Chiapas and elsewhere in Latin America throughout the 1990s and 2000s and his ideas about the practice of international solidarity. The task of generating revolutionary struggle across divisions of global inequality is more pressing than ever and the challenges and lessons of Zapatismo are ongoing.

Introduction and interview by Liam Hough.


Liam Hough: Could you give a short account of how you became involved in writing and politics and what led you to Chiapas?

Ramor Ryan: As a young person I was a veracious reader, from Camus to Orwell, which informed my response to material conditions: both my parents died of illness in the wake of years of economic hardship during my teen years — and I was set on a path of rebellion. In university I was heavily involved in student politics and became editor of the Trinity College Student’s Union newspaper, which I somehow managed to convert from a serious political organ into a kind of punkzine. I suppose being part of a crowd of mourners attacked by loyalist Michael Stone with machine gun fire and grenades in a Belfast graveyard in 1988 focused my mind on the seriousness of political commitment. Later that year, I went to live in West Berlin and was completely drawn by the autonomous movement, with its squats and alternative community. I returned to Berlin throughout the ‘90s after the Wall came down, living in the vibrant East Berlin squatting scene.

I caught the last six months of the Sandinista Revolution in Nicaragua, before they were voted out of power in February of 1990. Picking coffee on a rural co-op and teaching English at a Sandinista university, I cut my teeth as an international solidarity volunteer. The early ’90s saw me traveling further into the tumultuous political space of Latin America, involving myself in anti-capitalist campaigns against multinational exploitation in Colombia and for banana workers’ union recognition in Belize. When the Zapatistas emerged in 1994, I was ready and primed and threw myself into the struggle for the next two decades.

How would you describe the impact of the Zapatista’s sudden emergence in 1994, both for the Western left in general and for you personally? What was the political context?

The context was the collapse of the Soviet Union and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989-’90, and the supposed end of history and revolutions and this was it — capitalist neoliberalism had won. And then on January 1, 1994, the Zapatistas rose up in Chiapas, Mexico and suddenly, history was in movement again.

It quickly became clear that this was a new kind of Latin insurgency that superseded the ideological straitjacket of the Cold War era and embraced a whole new formulation of how to start a revolution. Subcomandante Marcos was standing in the plaza of San Cristóbal talking a more enlightened form of liberation than had been articulated before. Gone was the old Leninist language and, as we learned soon enough, ways of organizing. An apparently anti-authoritarian-leaning peasant guerrilla army rising up against an international neoliberal trade agreement — this was a revolution that I could be part of. Their emancipatory politics, horizontalism and struggle for autonomy echoed with the political projects in the European autonomous scene and it seemed there was a direct political line from the Berlin squats to the Lacandon jungle.

The Zapatista revolt back then was blossoming, brimming with possibilities. It really seemed that a new world was not only possible but just around the next corner. Thousands came to Chiapas from other parts of Mexico and all over the world to participate. There was a real sense of changing history, of being part of a revolutionary moment, of transformation.

Subcommandante Marcos during a public meeting of the EZLN, La Realidad, Chiapas 1999. Photo: cesar bojorquez / Flickr

After ‘94, huge meetings, encuentros were organized. First of all in the Lacandon jungle of Chiapas and later in different places around the globe; for example in Belém, Brazil, which brought together thousands of people from around the Americas. It was a phenomenal experience, the mood was electric and a rare sense of unity among the radical left was forged.

The Zapatista movement fed into the various other initiatives like People’s Global Action, a worldwide coordination of radical social movements which was key to organizing the wave of alter-globalization protests and uprisings from Seattle in ‘99 to Genoa in 2001.

I remember jubilantly marching down the hill into Genoa. There were more than 100,000 protesters there that weekend; all around were people I knew from Chiapas and the spirit of Zapatismo predominated. I was thinking: “We are winning.” Of course, that is when the authorities started shooting.

How do you view the Zapatista movement today? What do you consider to be their main achievements? Most recently, they have been the ones traveling to see their faraway comrades with their “Journey for Life – European Chapter.”

Materially, the greatest impact of the Zapatista uprising was in land distribution, as the old aristocratic estates were divided up and the old order in the Chiapas hinterlands disintegrated. New radical property and social relations replaced the old order and against all odds, the new radical vision is holding up. That is impressive. Land and freedom realized — albeit on a local level.

Beyond the material, the Zapatista rebellion encouraged people to do things for themselves. When you talk to Zapatistas on the ground, there is always the before and after of becoming Zapatistas — the before of obedience and passivity and the after of being aware of their real power and capabilities. This is concretely manifested in the region-wide self-government. The Zapatistas can organize their own autonomous territory, education and health needs, economy and self-governance because of the active participation of tens of thousands of people in Chiapas, working collectively together.

This is perhaps the greatest achievement of the Zapatista uprising — to still exist and to hold territory that they can genuinely say they are in control of, that it’s their autonomous region. Despite everything that has been thrown at them, they survive and prosper, even so much as sending emissaries around the world to talk of their achievements. It’s not utopia, it’s got many problems but it’s something worth celebrating and something worth defending. It demonstrates in its own small way, however remote and unique it appears, that other models are possible, that things can be different.

I loved the audacity of their “re-conquest” of Europe and their resilient cry of “We are still here resisting!” after 500 years of European colonization. Organizing a tour during the COVID-19 era was always going to be a bureaucratic and logistical nightmare but the Zapatista “Journey for life, European chapter” was very successful, serving to consolidate their bases of support around Europe, increasing their international profile and sending a message to the Mexican state that the Zapatistas can still count on global backing.

On the ground in Chiapas, the Zapatistas are facing increasing paramilitary threats, alongside the ubiquitous pressure from regional authorities. The Mexican military is still dug in all around the autonomous zone and now there is a new wave of drug cartel encroachment in the south of Mexico that is generating more violence and challenging Zapatista control in some areas. By effectively breaking the encirclement in Chiapas and getting a large contingent of Zapatistas out around the world acting as grassroots ambassadors, they change the correlation of forces; that most of the young Zapatistas who came to Europe as part of the delegation had grown up their whole lives in a liberated zone is also inspiring.

You got involved in Chiapas very early on in terms of solidarity work. Could you talk about the different models or phases of international solidarity that were part of this experience?

First of all, there is international solidarity from above and that from below. From below means revolutionary solidarity with the oppressed. It’s not virtue-signaling, it’s hands-on and about walking the path with comrades. In many ways, “international solidarity” is not a useful term as it is often used for any kind of large-scale state or UN intervention, so some prefer the term internationalism, or sometimes intercommunalism.

Secondly, in theory, the international solidarity we strive for is a strategy or a set of political practices that attempts to radically transform power relations between people across national and state borders. For anti-authoritarians, this entails a horizontality of relationship that is both the means and the objective. So, it’s not charity, it’s not about providing a safety net in the absence of government infrastructure. It is about political and social transformation.

Thirdly, the process of international solidarity is, like revolution, a question and not an answer and becomes an exploration in the creation of dignity. Understood in this way, practicing solidarity is not only supporting a cause but also an attempt to continually forge and re-create a notion of shared humanity, a basis for common survival.

Constructing a water supply system in Chiapas, Mexico. Photo: Francesc Parés

As the Zapatistas say, “walking we ask questions,” and in the book Zapatista Spring I explore a series of questions while digging a seven-kilometer-long trench with the comrades. In terms of international solidarity in Chiapas, it has been primarily about consolidating the autonomy of the Zapatista project and supporting their revolution. It is about working together, side by side, in common purpose. We try to reach a sense of reciprocity — we work towards the world we want to see together. This implies that solidarity is not a one-way exchange, but a more equal relationship — and we each bring to the table what we can. The concept of reciprocity moves away from the more paternalistic connotations of solidarity and towards a practice of mutual aid. Solidarity is not measured in terms of the work done but, at its best, it is about relationships and becoming comrades, equals, people who actually care about each other.

In reality, solidarity is a messy and exasperating exercise. I was involved in solidarity work in Chiapas for the better part of 15 years and witnessed dozens of projects and hundreds of volunteers going about their business. There were countless brilliant initiatives and projects that were a credit to national and international solidarity, from introducing potable water systems, solar energy supply, technologically appropriate means of communication, pirate radio, organic horticulture, as well as — what the majority of volunteers ended up doing — staying at peace encampments in rural villages and hamlets to monitor Mexican military attacks on the indigenous communities.

And of course, there were a lot of unsuccessful and failed ventures, because it was a learning experience and sometimes solidarity came in a form that wasn’t useful. Among those volunteers who came to help were the ones who couldn’t let go of their ego and made it about themselves, the white savior types, and this was a problem. Other well-meaning people came and they brought with them the baggage of their own societies and the autonomous zone became a theater for their own dysfunction.

The Zapatistas decided, after about 10 years, to change the paradigm and take control of all aspects of the international solidarity coming into the region. They recognized and lauded the involvement of international solidarity within the rebel zone — “those born on other soil who add their heart to the struggle for a peace with justice and dignity,” according to Subcomandante Marcos — and said, thank you, we will take it from here.

The basic principle was that nothing would be imposed, and no decisions concerning solidarity would be taken without their direct involvement. All outsiders — including NGOs and development groups — were henceforth directed to the Good Government Committees, based in regional centers of rebel administration called caracoles. There they presented their proposals and projects to indigenous self-management commissions composed of a group of two men and two women from rotating communities.

Beyond solidarity, the Zapatistas were planting the seed of Zapatismo and encouraging people to, instead of simply supporting them, “Be a Zapatista wherever you are.” Solidarity as movement building. When asked what the best contribution was that internationals could make to the Zapatista struggle, an old Zapatista back then said, “More Seattles.” A more contemporary version would be “More Black Lives Matter Uprisings.”

On top of unnecessary or imposed solidarity projects, there was also the fact that solidarity activists were in far less vulnerable position than the Chiapas population in terms of the risks posed by the Mexican state, the military and other forces. Can you talk in more detail about the recognition of those differences of positionality and efforts at challenging colonial assumptions and behavior on the activists’ part?

It depends on who is calling the shots, who has power in the relationship. In Belize I was involved in a campaign to gain union recognition for exploited banana workers. The union organizers were threatened and attacked by the local banana plantation bosses. We — some Irish visitors — spent time in their villages and asked how we could help. Back in Ireland, we were able to get a meeting with the banana company owners, who realized this exposure was bad for business and went about addressing the issue. In a broad sense, the union organizers were calling the shots, we were responding, and there was a positive outcome. Of course, in reality it was much messier than that, but in and of itself, the relationship between the actors on the ground and international solidarity was one of mutual aid.

In Chiapas, it was far more complicated because the Zapatistas were overseeing a revolution of land and freedom and thousands upon thousands of well-wishers descended upon the region. In the early years, international solidarity was in a bit of a Wild West territory in terms of anything goes, and all sorts of inappropriate projects and initiatives were imposed on the Zapatista communities by both NGOs and activist types. The baggage the international solidarity activists brought with them — in terms of unreconciled neo-colonial attitudes or just simply first world mental health issues — created challenges that demanded different strategies. But the communities were strong enough and robust enough to counter the onslaught and as I explained above, took control of solidarity through the rotating Good Government Committees.

In terms of privilege, protracted struggles such as that in Chiapas have a tendency to last for many years, and international solidarity activists come and go. “Campamentistas are the people who leave,” lamented one Zapatista, “and we can never leave.” This is just one more privilege of those who can step into a dangerous conflict zone for a finite time and then leave as the mood dictates. It is a poignant reminder of the inherent and inescapable inequalities involved, of the almost insurmountable contradictions there within and a cause for understandable resentment for some at the coalface of a life and death struggle.

You were also part of a solidarity delegation that briefly visited Kurdish regions in Turkey and Iraq in 1994, which you describe in Clandestines. This was a time of severe violence in the Turkish state’s suppression of the Kurdish revolt and not long after the Halabja massacre in Iraqi Kurdistan at the orders of Saddam Hussein. You seemed very affected by your encounters on this trip, but still quite distant to the type of Marxist-Leninist politics of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). How do you view the movement’s development since the time of that short visit? Do you see many parallels between the Kurdish movement and the struggles you saw up close in Latin America?

I don’t think anybody anticipated the extraordinary ideological switch from a top-down organization with a fixation on the leadership, to a more contemporary feminist and ecological democratic confederalism with much less emphasis on Abdullah Öcalan. It is an absolute credit to the leadership and base of the movement that they could effectively embrace and implement the changes during the 2000s while simultaneously fighting on all fronts. And there is no doubt in the sincerity of striving to achieve these participatory democratic aspirations — the evidence of Kurdish communalism is there on the ground not just in Rojava, but also in the Kurdish territory of southeast Turkey.

Guerrillas of the PKK. Date and location unknown. Credit: Kurdish Struggle / Flickr

I don’t have too much to say that would be of relevance today as it was in 1994, when we were walking with comrades up in the mountains in Northern Iraq, but I do want to make one point. Cynics say the Kurds over-emphasize the role of women in the armed struggle to appease the “western” liberal/feminist gaze — Hilary Clinton is a fan — but back then, when nobody was looking at the Kurds at all, we came across the same women’s battalions on the front lines. In that sense, elements of today’s evolved ideology were already nascent 25 years ago, as is well documented.

Many anti-authoritarians on the other hand see a problem with the Kurds’ reverence for imprisoned PKK leader, Abdullah Öcalan. While the idolatry of Öcalan is disconcerting, in terms of real power, it is clear that he no longer directs such a top-down organization and decision-making has devolved. I like to think that the iconic representation of Öcalan is in flux, moving slowly away from Stalin and closer to Durruti.

The Kurdish struggle — and Rojava in particular — represents firstly, a community and people daring to prefigure another world, another society based on equality and justice; and secondly, like the Zapatista autonomous zone, a territory in resistance that allows us to imagine the impossible. I fully support the campaign to defend the Rojava revolution in north Syria. The International Working Brigades, organized by The Internationalist Commune of Rojava, is an admirable example of international solidarity in action. Their working slogan — “We come here to learn, support, organize” — synthesizes good solidarity practice.

What do you see as the main challenges or opportunities in the west in terms of building and sustaining internationalist struggle today? I mean being able to critically engage with and support movements elsewhere, while building power where we are.

Within Fortress Europe there are various territorial bases of what might better be described as counter-power. The best example would be in Athens, where the rebellious neighborhood of Exarchia is home to a large community of Greek and international radicals. Here they bring international solidarity to another level. The people have created a neighborhood-wide structure to offer support to refugees and migrants and there is no separation — they live together, they eat together and they struggle together. Activists have squatted buildings to provide shelter for those that needed it, food is distributed from various social centers run by anarchists and autonomists, there are free health and education initiatives and resources are shared within the community.

Walking around Exarchia or speaking with the comrades there, you get a palpable sense of everyday solidarity — not just with the refugees and migrants, but for global social and political movements based in the neighborhood, from Kurds to Palestinians. Thousands can be mobilized for antifascist manifestations and police are never welcome in the barrio — generally they only appear in intimidating gangs on motorcycles.

For years, Exarchia has been a living, breathing center of counter-power in the imperialist core committed to supporting developments in the periphery in a reciprocal manner. And it’s the threat of a good example, which is why they are faced with unrelenting state repression. Now, because of the rapid gentrification of the area – spurred on by plans for a new metro station right in the heart of Exarchion Square – and the rampant commodification of living spaces via Airbnb, it can feel like a territory under siege. But Exarchia resists, and despite the evictions of several squats since 2019, the fundamentals remain in place.

Exarchia is not exceptional, there are bases of anti-systemic alternatives all across Europe albeit on a smaller scale and in different forms. I’ve witnessed comparable autonomous projects in, for example, the Connewitz neighborhood in Leipzig, or Vallekas in Madrid. Christiania in Copenhagen is something else — more of an intentional community — but shares similar traits. The common factor is the desire to create communal, non-capitalist initiatives that bring people together and foster mutual aid.

The Zapatistas’ Journey for Life last year served to weave a tapestry of rebellion as they rallied and brought together collectives and organizations all across Europe. These are dark days in Europe with the rise of the far right, the climate crisis, the pandemic and gross inequality. What the anti-systemic nodes represent is a radical alternative and a ray of hope. Paraphrasing Che, we need one, two, three, a hundred rebellious territories like Chiapas.

As well as living in Latin America for many years, you have translated several books on social movements from different countries there; three from Raúl Zibechi and most recently one from Luis Hernández Navarro. To start with Zibechi, what do you think are the key lessons from reading his work and the movements he is engaged with?

Raúl Zibechi is one of Latin America’s foremost political theorists and was active against the military dictatorship in Uruguay in the 1970s. As a militant investigator, he has spent his life struggling alongside and analyzing social movements in new and emancipatory formations — what he refers to as societies in movement — in conflict with the neocolonial, neoliberal state.

In Territories in Resistance: A Cartography of Latin American Social Movements (2012), he focuses on anti-systemic, non-state actors across the continent from the Zapatistas in Chiapas to the Mapuche in Chile, where emancipation is not just the goal but the process of everyday struggle. These are uniquely new social formations based in the countryside like the Landless Workers Movement in Brazil, or urban indigenous communities like in the city of El Alto, Bolivia, which he explores in detail in Dispersing Power: Social Movements as Anti-State Forces (2010). They are characterized by non-capitalist social relations and exist de facto in resistance to the neoliberal state.

Zibechi views the state in Latin America as a neo-colonial construct and inherently oppressive. In The New Brazil: Regional Imperialism and the New Democracy (2014) he critiques the left-leaning administration of Lula and the Brazilian Workers’ Party. Despite some political reforms, the Lula government’s reliance on extractavist policies, mining, monoculture and mega-dams reveals its fundamental capitalist and neo-colonial logic which he describes as a form of regional sub-imperialism.

His unswerving critique of the state and particularly left-leaning administrations — the so-called Pink Tide in Latin America — included Evo Morales and the Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) government in Bolivia. For Zibechi, Morales’ extractavist policies and betrayal of grassroots social movements indicated it was time for him to go after 14 years in power. He supported the mass popular mobilization in 2019 to depose Morales but condemned the ensuing military-led right-wing coup.

However, his anti-state position led to erroneous accusations from Morales’ left-wing supporters of backing the right-wing coup. Zibechi argued in support of anti-systemic movements against the institutionalized left, but made a clear distinction between those movements hailing from below and to the left, and those, like in the elite-backed Bolivian coup, from above, i.e. between the oppressed and the oppressor. The incident exposed a major rift on the left between statists and anti-authoritarians in Latin America and beyond.

Zibechi’s critique of left-leaning parties in power can also be applied to the European context with the failure of the Syriza government in Greece or the disappointing performance of Podemos in the Spanish state. Similar to what occurred in Brazil with Lula and the Workers’ Party, the co-optation of rebel social and political forces was a strategy employed by left administrations to neutralize strong grassroots social movements.

Your most recent translation was the book Self-Defense in Mexico: Indigenous Community Policing and the New Dirty Wars (2020) by Luis Hernández Navarro. I know this is another work that you’re very enthusiastic about. Why is this such an important work in your view? At a time where more people are becoming interested in abolition and alternative models of justice, what lessons can be found in this book?

Luis Hernández Navarro is one of the most well-known left writers and journalists in Mexico and in Self-Defense in Mexico he covers the response of Mexican social movements to the threat of narco-terrorism. Various regions of the Mexican state have been overrun by powerful drug cartels and engulfed in violence and terror. Social movements in these territories take the form of self-defense in time of war.

Luis Hernández brings the reader into rural, often indigenous communities in the states of Michoacán and Guererro and elsewhere in Mexico where the narco war is prevalent and presents the conflict from their perspective. These isolated towns and villages get rolled over by the cartels in collusion with state officials and security forces and if they stand up and defend themselves, they risk getting annihilated. It is a dismal scenario but with tales of great communal courage and resilience.

Popular self-defense group practices for yearly Independence Day parade in Cheran, Mexico. November, 2016. Photo: Tim Mansel / Flickr

In terms of lessons on police abolition and alternative forms of justice, Luis Hernández first of all points out the different forms self-defense takes in these communities. There are distinct differences between citizen or community police and vigilante self-defense groups. Community Police are anchored in indigenous communities and appointed by self-governing bodies within the communities. Community Police are accountable to the community and are generally rotated posts — part of a traditional system of communal work. On the other hand, self-defense, or autodefensas, are a reaction to an armed threat coming from outside and are formed by individual armed elements coming from different strata of society — from rich ranchers to fruit pickers. They are not governed by the communities they protect.

Models like the Guerrero-based Regional Coordinating Committee of Communitarian Authorities (CRAC), a self-organized policing organization spanning dozens of small marginalized rural villages and hamlets are useful in learning from experiences of community policing and imagining a different form of social contract. Such autonomous networks are part of the process taking place all over Mexico of Indigenous communities reclaiming their traditional customs and practices.

While these models may be specific to the Mexican situation, there are some striking similarities to police abolition and alternative forms of justice in other contexts. Historically, the Black Panthers for example, were set up as a self-defense group and assumed a kind of community police structure. The theoretical writings of Huey Newton on intercommunalism anticipate the praxis of not just Guerrero’s Indigenous community police but the Zapatistas as well.

An important part of Luis Hernández’ work exposes how the state uses the pretext of the drug war to attack social movements, as in the infamous case of the disappearance and murder of the 43 protesting students from Ayotzinapa, Guerrero, in 2014. Initially portrayed as a cartel massacre, human rights defenders proved the complicity of Guerrero politicians and security chiefs.

Similarly, he gives us an insight into the life and death of social movement activists like Rocio Mesina, who rose to prominence in the wake of the 1995 Aguas Blancas Massacre, when security forces opened fire on peasants on their way to a demonstration in Guerrero, killing 17. Rocio survived but lost several family members in the attack.

As part of our international solidarity initiative, Rocio came to Dublin in 1996 to raise awareness about state repression in Guerrero. Luis Hernández tells the story and context around Rocio’s murder in 2013 at the hands of a hired killer as she defended her Indigenous community. It was passed off as another narco-related death but investigation by human rights defenders uncovered evidence of the state governor ordering the assassination.

Finally, on lost comrades, Liam you mentioned you are part of a reading group for David Graeber and David Wengrow’s The Dawn of Everything. Do you mind if I mention something about David Graeber in Genoa, 2001, a eulogy of sorts?

Please do.

David and I found ourselves at the very front of the massive demo the day after the police murdered Carlo Giuliani. As the march swung around into a wide promenade by the seashore, the amassed ranks of riot police blocking the route started firing volleys of tear gas. Amongst the panic and chaos, David busied himself picking up the smoking tear gas canisters and flinging them away from the multitude. Not having a great throwing arm, he knew he could not fling them back into police lines, but he figured out he could safely throw them to the side, into the ocean and away from people.

I lost him when the police charged and I know David had a traumatic time exiting Genoa as the authorities hunted down demonstrators, but that is how I like to remember him — shuffling around on the front lines, tossing tear gas into the ocean. There is some kind of metaphor in that I’m sure, certainly it reveals a side to his character that people may not be familiar with.

Source URL — https://roarmag.org/essays/ramor-ryan-interview/

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