March of the ants

MEXICO CITY (March 7th) — Civil War in Iraq! Riots across the Islamic World! Coups and killer mudslides! The Bush administration sinking daily in the quicksand of corruption and lies!

When played against the backdrop of incipient cataclysm that darkens the globe from east to west and south to north, “the Other Campaign” of the largely Mayan rebel Zapatista Army of National Liberation seems more like a march of ants across the Mexican landscape than breaking news.

The Other Campaign is, indeed, a campaign of ants.

This March 1, La Otra Campana marked the start of its third month on the road since the Zapatistas’ charismatic mouthpiece, Subcomandante Marcos, now doing business as “Delegate Zero,” roared out of a jungle camp in the EZLN’s Chiapas sanctuary zone on a silver and black motorcycle January 1, the 12th anniversary of the Zapatistas’ 1994 rebellion. In the past 60 days, Delegate Zero has traveled thousands of miles through ten states, a third of the Mexican union. The jaunt now constitutes the longest road trip the rebels have taken in their 12 years on public display.

The ski-masked spokesperson plans to visit all 31 states in the Mexican union (he will be on the U.S. border in June) and the federal district (where he will take part in the May 1 International Workers Day march) before Election Day July 2, when Mexico selects a new president and congress. The Other Campaign is staunchly anti-electoral, arguing that the political parties and the electoral system are hopelessly corrupt and unrepresentative.

La Otra Campana contrasts sharply with the opulent campaigns of Mexico’s three major political parties — the right-wing National Action (PAN) Party of President Vicente Fox, the once-ruling (71 years) Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), and the leftish Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) and its front-running candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO.)

Traveling close to the ground in a muddy white van, Marcos whistle stops a Mexico rarely visited by the “presidenciales,” huddling with the most pissed-off and marginalized Mexicans in down-and-out rural communities and ragged “popular colonies” in provincial cities, “the ones no one else is listening to.” The Sixth Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle, which gave birth to the Other Campaign, instructs the Zapatistas to “walk and question” rather than deliver the answers.

The idea of the Other Campaign is to build a new Mexican left from the bottom, an anti-capitalist, anti-electoral alliance that does not depend upon the political parties to bring about social change. “I am not a candidate — I am an anti-candidate,” Marcos tells audiences after hearing out their frustrations. “I cannot change these things, but we can do this together, because together we have the power.”

Nonetheless, the anti-candidate seems to be working twice as hard as the candidates — the PAN’s Felipe Calderon, the PRI’s Roberto Madrazo, and AMLO — in getting the word out. In stump speech after stump speech, Delegate Zero lambastes the political parties and their candidates, with particular emphasis on Lopez Obrador, who seems destined to become Mexico’s first president from the left since Lazaro Cardenas, and Latin America’s latest leftist head of state come July 2. The Other Campaign is, after all, a battle for the hearts and minds of the Mexican Left.

Delegate Zero’s withering attack on AMLO has led to charges by the PRD that he is fomenting absenteeism and handing the election to the right. The Other Campaign ran into angry PRDistas during a recent pit stop in Juchitan Oaxaca, once a stronghold of EZLN sympathy. Scuffling during a visit to teachers’ union offices in Oaxaca City was also a sign of PRD resentment at the Zapatista spokesperson’s pronouncements.

Delegate Zero adamantly refutes allegations that he is telling constituents not to vote in July — “each person must make his own decision.” Marcos is an inviting target of PRD fury because AMLO’s campaign has not yet ignited much interest. Aside from a 100,000-plus drummed out in Mexico City, where he was a wildly popular mayor, Lopez Obrador, as well as the PRI’s Madrazo and the PAN’s Calderon, have thus far not generated much buzz. The registration of only 57,000 Mexicans living in the United States out of a potential expatriate electorate of 3.4 million is an ominous signal that the 2006 presidenciales have not triggered much enthusiasm amongst a citizenry that voted for change in 2000 and was bitterly disappointed by six years of Vicente Fox’s empty promises.

But the butt of Delegate Zero’s on-running rap is not always AMLO: The Subcommandante expends equal dollops of time roasting Mexico’s last three neo-liberal presidents, Carlos Salinas, Ernesto Zedillo, and Fox, often calling for their imprisonment. In this sense, the Other Campaign is a significant test of free speech in Mexico. Thus far, Delegate Zero has not been clapped in jail for attacking the powerful and preaching class war, although he has been allowed to enter prisons twice so far to visit political prisoners in Tabasco and on the Tehuantepec isthmus of Oaxaca.

Although the Fox government professes that it’s not listening to the Other Campaign, its plainclothes intelligence agents monitor every meeting. The events are often patrolled by machine-gun toting police, and local organizers have been harassed and jailed for such crimes as posting notice of the rebels’ arrival in town.

The Other Campaign moves cautiously in convoy on the road, cognizant of possible assassination attempts or “accidents” — in 1994, the Zapatistas’ candidate for Chiapas governor, the late Amado Avandano, was nearly killed in a highly suspicious head-on crash with a license-less 18 wheeler on a lonely coastal highway. Earlier that same year, the PRI presidential candidate, Luis Donaldo Colosio, was gunned down in Tijuana.

Marcos’s audiences are the “simple and humble” people that the Other Campaign seeks to recruit — “those who have never held a microphone in their hand,” writes John Gibler who is accompanying the odyssey for the San Francisco-based NGO Global Exchange. At such meetings, Delegate Zero takes copious notes as he listens intently to the outrage of the locals, always counseling the attendees that they themselves, in alliance with other “simple and humble” Mexicans, have the power to alter the equation between rich and poor, justice and injustice. The EZLN is proposing the writing of a new Mexican constitution to achieve this end.

This was the message Delegate Zero brought to a pink-doored Casa de Citas (house of prostitution) in the tiny Tlaxcala town of Apaxio. After three hours of conversing with the sexoservidoras (sex workers), the Sub called for the formation of a national union of sex workers (“not prostitutes — the prostitutes are the politicians who sell themselves to the highest bidder.”)

Other Other Campaign venues have found the quixotic rebel spokesperson tilting at windmills in La Ventosa Oaxaca, the site of a transnational wind farm that impacts local Zapotec Indians; in Oaxaca’s Juarez Sierra, talking the evils of transgenic corn with campesinos; speaking to a few thousand protestors at a new airport site in Hidalgo; hobnobbing with transvestites in Orizaba Veracruz; straddling a tricycle (poor peoples’ transportation in southern Mexico) with the Union of Triciclistas in Merida Yucatan; promising a thousand ex-braceros who have been cheated out of moneys due them by both the U.S. and Mexican governments that he will march with them May 1st; and encouraging Mayan artisans barred from selling their wares at the Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza to take matters into their own hands.

Humor is a Zapatista weapon, and Marcos has armed the Other Campaign with a satiric edge. He is accompanied on the tour by his pet beetle Don Durito of the Lacandon (representing “the autonomous municipality of Charlie Parker”) and in Merida, the Sup actually removed his mask to the gasp of hundreds of admirers. Of course, he had his summer mask on underneath.

The steady grind of the Other Campaign is gaining “traction” in the eyes of Narconews founder Al Giodorno, who has been accompanying the adventure as it wends its way through Mexico. Narconews is just one of dozens of alternative media that file daily reports on the Other Campaign. The EZLN has extended preference to alternative rather than corporate media — only two national newspapers, La Jornada and Milenio, cover the Otra, and international attention has been short-lived (although Al Jazeera headlined the campaign’s first days.)

In mid-February, hundreds of alternative journalists and writers from all over Mexico convened in Tlaxcala to pledge allegiance to “the other journalism,” which focuses on reporting social change from the bottom up.

The traction that Giodorno senses the Other Campaign is gaining comes at the expense of the PAN, PRI, and PRD. As their presidential candidates fail to stimulate enthusiasm and the opulence of their campaigns elicits the dismay of the nation’s 70 million poor, the Other Campaign wins adherents.

On a continent that has elected the left to high office in important numbers and where the citizenry has been frequently disenchanted by government’s failure to improve daily lives, the Zapatistas campaign to build change from down below is bound to have an echo.

Invited to attend new Bolivian president Evo Morales’s all-star inauguration January 22, in La Paz, the EZLN responded “it is not our way to meet with the great leaders.” Addressing a few hundred indigenous farmers in rural Campeche state, Delegate Zero explained “we have come instead to listen to you because no one ever does.”

Bolivia’s new president heard the Zapatistas’ message loud and clear, pledging to mandar obedeciendo — to serve by obeying the will of the Bolivian people, the EZLN’s leadership ethos.

John Ross is sleepless in Seattle. These dispatches will continue at 10-day intervals until he returns to Mexico in mid-March. His latest opus, Making Another World Possible — Zapatista Chronicles 2000-2006, will be published this fall by Nationbooks (if he ever finishes it.)