By Neville Spencer
From July 27 to August 3, the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) hosted one of the most unusual international conferences ever. The EZLN, in spite of not being able to operate freely and legally, invited people from around the world to participate in the First Intercontinental Meeting for Humanity and Against Neo-liberalism, held in the jungles and mountains of southern Mexico. Three thousand people from 44 countries accepted the invitation to attend, including eight of us from Australia.
Delegations of several hundreds came from France, Italy, Spain, Germany and the United States as well as from Mexico. Amongst delegations from numerous other countries were 50 from Euskadi (the Basque country) and small delegations from the Philippines, Japan and Cuba. The progressive activists who attended were from a wide array of backgrounds and political perspectives.
All 3000 delegates converged on the town of San Cristóbal de las Casas in the southernmost state of Chiapas. The local paper reported the influx of people coming for the conference as a major boon for the local tourist industry. Most of the town's hotels and hostels were full in the days before the conference, while the hawkers who sell hammocks around the main square did a roaring trade.
Most of the first day of the conference involved registering the participants and transporting them to the conference site. Convoys of buses, about 90 in all, carried us to Oventic, about one and a half hours' drive away.
At Oventic was one of five of what the Zapatistas called "aguascalientes", named after the town where a convention of revolutionary forces took place in 1914 during the Mexican Revolution. Like the other aguascalientes, it is an open air conference venue located near a Zapatista indigenous community. Amongst the cloud-shrouded mountains of Chiapas' highlands, a dirt path led down to a square where thousands of chairs were set out in front of a large stage decorated with banners and flags. Lining the path on the way down were a series of huts and a conference hall where people could either sleep on the floor or string up a hammock.
Like the other aguascalientes, Oventic had been constructed by Zapatista combatants and the local community. Although primitive compared to most conference venues, the site included enough shelter for all the participants to sleep under, a media room, small shops, a medical and dental clinic as well as toilets and even showers. Volunteers from electrical trade unions had worked to provide some of the sites with electricity for the lights and sound equipment since electricity is not readily available in many of Chiapas' indigenous communities.
As we arrived, a line of Zapatistas in balaclavas performed the necessary security checks, examining the identity cards we wore around our necks, frisking everyone and carefully searching our bags for anything that could be used as a weapon. The whole community, also wearing masks or bandanas to hide their identities, lined the path and the square to welcome us, clapping and chanting, "Long live Zapata, the struggle continues". From the stage bands, also wearing balaclavas, played songs to welcome us.
The indigenous communities seemed to have largely given up their normal lives for the week in order to help organise the conference. The communities were responsible for much of the work involved, including the mammoth task of cooking and serving 9000 meals each day.
All the participants gathered at Oventic for the inauguration of the conference, where EZLN leaders such as Comandante David and Major Ana María gave welcoming speeches. The following day the conference split up into five groups, each to discuss a particular aspect or effect of neo-liberalism and how to fight it: politics, economics, culture, indigenous issues and social issues. Each was held at one of the five aguascalientes.
Most of us from Australia attended the discussion at La Realidad in the Lacandona jungle. This is where the EZLN began and where it still controls much of the territory. The indigenous farmers who once farmed the fertile plains near the Pacific had been progressively forced by wealthy landowners into the poorer lands of the highlands and then subsequently pushed even further eastward toward the lower-lying Lacandona Jungle region, where the soil is even poorer.
With slash and burn farming techniques, the soil can support crops for just two or three years before becoming infertile. The tenuous existence which the indigenous communities are forced to live in this region made it the place where the determination to fight back grew the strongest.
La Realidad is an ejido, one of the parcels of communal land given out in the agrarian reform which resulted from the Mexican Revolution. The increasing adoption by the Mexican government of neo-liberal economics led it in the last few years to overturn the land reform laws, now allowing the sale of ejido lands.
The poverty and indebtedness of many of those who farm these lands — and the hired thugs employed by wealthy landowners — are set to force many off their lands. The incorporation of Mexico into the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) will force increased compliance with the dictates of neo-liberal economics. The Zapatistas, who began their uprising on the day on which NAFTA came into effect, have called it a death sentence for the indigenous people.
Many of the struggles around the world are against the selling off of public enterprises, the cutting of social services and welfare, against unemployment and wage cuts, in short against neo-liberalism. The theme "against neo-liberalism and for humanity" united the struggles of those of us who came from all over the world with those of the poor indigenous communities of Chiapas.
The journey to La Realidad involved passing an immigration checkpoint where the convoy of buses was held up for three hours while immigration officials checked passports and photographed people on the buses. The journey also passed through Guadalupe Tepeyac, where the first aguascalientes was built for the 6000 people who came to the National Democratic Convention hosted by the EZLN in 1994. Since the Mexican army's offensive in February 1995, this has become its last post before the beginning of Zapatista territory, and the aguascalientes has been destroyed.
It was only half an hour's drive further into the jungle along a fairly good dirt road to La Realidad. It was clear how easy it would be for the army to retake the area if not for the political costs involved in what would be a bloody exercise.
We arrived at about 4am. The aguascalientes was similar to that constructed at Oventic, though the frequent rain in this region meant that the site was everywhere ankle deep with mud. The Wellington boots which the shop had stocked up on were sold out quickly.
Workshop discussions each day took up a variety of issues and made numerous proposals on means to fight neo-liberalism. The EZLN saw its role as to initiate and listen to the discussion rather than to direct it, deliberately playing a low key role. Zapatistas attended the workshops simply to listen to the discussion without contributing. The EZLN's military commander and main spokesperson, Subcomandante Marcos, gave the EZLN's few inputs into the discussion, giving a paper and visiting each workshop.
International solidarity with the Zapatistas made it difficult for the government to act against the Zapatistas when the eyes of the world were upon them. Also making appearances at the conference were Danielle Mitterrand, widow of French president Francois Mitterrand, and the well-known French sociologist Alain Touraine. The Zapatistas accepted their gestures of solidarity even thought the French delegates at the conference objected to their presence because of their previous support for neo-liberal reforms.
The conference obviously irked the Mexican government. Though it kept its distance, the military made various manoeuvres probably aimed at intimidating the conference. Military planes swept low over the aguascalientes, and troop movements in the region caused the Zapatistas to take precautionary action.
One proposal was the holding of a demonstration, which many of the participants attended in San Cristóbal the day after the end of the conference, to protest both the harassment by the military and the militarisation of Chiapas generally. In the weeks before the conference 30 people had been killed in Chiapas by paramilitary violence.
For the last two days of the conference, all the participants met together at La Realidad to present the results of the discussions from each group. Those of us already there were moved into the homes of the community in order to make room for the others arriving.
A number of concrete proposals were made to fight neo-liberalism. These included an international day of action against the payment of international debts and the formation of an international network to join all the separate struggles against neo-liberalism.
In his closing speech to the conference, Subcomandante Marcos reiterated the call for a "collective network of all of our particular struggles and resistances". He also proposed an international consultation similar to that organised by the EZLN in Mexico last year — an independently organised plebiscite in which more than 1 million people took part in deciding the aims and organisation of the movement. The proposed consultation is to be held around the world in December.
Marcos also proposed that a Second Intercontinental Meeting for Humanity and Against Neo-liberalism be held next year somewhere in Europe and promised that the EZLN would attend.