EZLN encuentro: listening and seeing from the heart

Past midnight in the first hours of the new year, the Zapatistas outlined a triple focus for the coming year: to have another Intergalactic Encuentro in July; to have an Encuentro for indigenous people from Alaska to Patagonia in October; and to continue building La Otra Campaña (the Other campaign) in Mexico. The announcement came to an alcohol free crowd of about 4,000 people in Oventik, a small village in the highlands of Chiapas. People from over 40 countries gathered for four days “to listen and see from the heart,” as subcommandante Marcos suggested. The themes for the four days included — in this order: (1) the struggle for autonomy; (2) the other education; (3) the other health; (4) women; (5) the other media; (6) the other economy; and (7) land.

On January 2, the last of the four days, the Zapatistas listened to hours of proposals from the participants. Listening — giving empathy — is an impressive Zapatista quality. It is the prerequisite to their politics of dialogue. Every session started with about 90 minutes of reports from each different Zapatista federation, then the masked men and women on stage proceeded to field questions from the audience. Zapatistas ended every session with at least a half hour of suggestions and stories from the audience. The Zapatistas’ attentiveness rubs off. The whole Encuentro was a classroom, teaching the participants the practice of listening.

Participants in the discussion about the meaning and scope of autonomy were curious about what the Zapatista governments do when there is a conflict with non-Zapatista communities. The answer came naturally: we listen to the facts, have a dialogue with all involved, and fix the problem. As Marshall Rosenberg teaches in Non-Violent Communication, conflicts dissolve in dialogue that contains empathy. As Vipassana Buddhism teaches, tensions arise and pass away with pure observation. The Zapatistas practice this in their revolutionary politics of listening, observing, and dialogue.

There was a romantic side to the Encuentro — the visuals that any reporter on the Zapatistas is somehow obliged to include. We were on Zapatista time, one hour ahead of the local time zone. The fog was thick, really thick. There are many smoky fires to add to it. Many men and women walk around in black masks. Awaiting a speaker, you would see masked men playing with their digital recorders, and masked women laughing at jokes in the local dialect.

The Encuentro largely took place on a drizzling, foggy, muddy slope. Tents and tarps barely kept people dry. At the bottom of the slope a large stage with a characteristically Mexican trumpet recording played at the oddest moments: late night, early morning, after a speaker. There was a festival atmosphere with the music, food, and camping — a dijorido and aboriginal dreamtime storytelling — all mixed with a revolutionary spirit and occasional military tone.

New Year’s Eve featured cultural events — songs, dance, and theater performances — before a sudden call for all Zapatistas to go to the front, and outside participants to move to the back. The maneuver took about a half hour. The moon, almost full, peaked through a hole in the clouds. As the speaker started speaking the local dialect, none of the participants knew what was going on. Rows of Zapatistas moved swiftly to their positions. Eventually, we welcomed the new year with a salute to the Mexican and Zapatista flags and a dramatic introduction of subcommandante Marcos. He delivered a 30 minute speech in dialect.

The whole Encuentro showed an understanding of how important it is to be understood. If the EZLN are truly understood, it will be hard to oppose them. Nevertheless, this deep understanding remains a struggle even among the outside participants in the Encuentro. The Zapatistas are farther along the path of autonomy than most (if not all) communities enmeshed in Capitalism. Most immediately, the Zapatista communities aspire towards a better quality of life. Better education, appropriate technologies, agro-ecology, better health treatment and prevention, fair compensation for their work, and better land for farming. They are actively pursuing these goals by building more schools; training more volunteer teachers and agro-ecology promoters; envisioning a Zapatista University; forming buying, baking, weaving and coffee cooperatives; and recuperating idle land.

Yet they are far from ending what Marcos called the common problem: Capitalism. They are no model of perfection nor do they claim to be. They will not bring the revolution to anyone´s doorstep, but they invite you to be revolutionaries in your struggle for autonomy. They are not a vanguard. They drink Coca-Cola. And they are struggling to banish Coca-Cola just like we are struggling to banish Philip-Morris from our communities.

What the Zapatistas are doing is impressive. They have changed the lives of thousands of Mexican villagers. It is hard to ignore their growing momentum. This year the Otra Campaña helped rock the Mexican political boat. 2007 will see the Otra Campaña continue, intergalactic connections widen, and indigenous connections develop. The Zapatistas seemed excited by these possibilities. In July, there will be the second Intergalactic Encuentro in Chiapas. This Encuentro in July will last two weeks and tour several communities. If you are interested in the revolutionary activity in Mexico, I suggest getting in touch with the Chiapas Support Committee in the East Bay, and I highly recommend saving money now for that summer trip to the next Encuentro.

Leaving the Encuentro, my sense of hope was nourished — making revolution seemed possible. I wondered, how can I move my community at Aprovecho in Cottage Grove, Oregon towards autonomy? How can you move your community towards autonomy?