A World Where Many Fit: Reflecting on Zapatista Resistance and the TPP

A World Where Many Fit: Reflecting on Zapatista Resistance and the TPP

Report-back from Cassidy Regan, Organizer with Flush the Trans-Pacific Partnership

 *Note: this post in no way reflects or speaks for Zapatismo, or any of those I met during my time with the Centro de Español y Lenguas Mayas Rebelde Autónomo Zapatista in Oventic.

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As the Trans-Pacific Partnership and other agreements under negotiation threaten to further expand the reach of corporate colonialism, the task of building alternatives to and deconstructing a system set on privatizing the world is daunting.

But as much as those in power would like to bury them, there are many living examples of resistance to learn from in the fight against neoliberal trade – examples rooted in local economy, community autonomy, sustainability, and more. This summer, I had the chance to spend time with one of them, as a student at the Centro de Español y Lenguas Mayas Rebelde Autónomo Zapatista in Oventic, Mexico.

Twenty years ago this January, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation rose against the Mexican government, fighting for “work, land, housing, food, health care, education, independence, freedom, democracy, justice and peace” as indigenous people who’d been subject to centuries of colonization and marginalization. Timed to coincide with the implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the Zapatistas called the treaty a “death sentence” for indigenous communities, whose resistance was “a product of 500 years of struggle.” Since then, the now-autonomous Zapatista zones within the southern state of Chiapas have become home to participatory democracy, health clinics, elementary schools, credit unions, and more.

“Not only back then were they a unique voice on the continent saying ‘enough is enough, we won’t take this sitting down,’ the Zapatistas continue to be an inspiration in terms of how they go about fighting for social justice,” said Tony Nelson of the Mexico Solidarity Network, a Chicago-based organization which organizes for fundamental social change on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border and can accredit students who want to study in the Centro de Español y Lenguas. “The lesson the Zapatistas show us about how to organize from below and to the left is that we have the responsibility of interpreting and carrying that out in our context, which can be radically different from place to place.”

Having spent just a short amount of time in Oventic – and knowing that many others, especially the Zapatistas themselves, have and will continue to share deeper reflections on what they have built – this report-back is a chance to ask each of you, as part of Flush the TPP, to help me think and follow through on bringing what I learned to bear on our context as a network fighting against unjust trade. Here are a few principles of Zapatismo I feel inspired by when it comes to the TPP, and here’s a link to share your own reflections on how we can learn from the Zapatistas and what resistance means to us:

Construct, Don’t Destroy

If you look at one of those studies the governments make, you will see that the only indigenous communities which have improved their living conditions – whether in health, education, food or housing – were those which are in zapatista territory… As if all of these people have made ‘another world is possible’ a reality, but through actions, not just words. – The Sixth Declaration of the Lancandon Jungle, by the Clandestine Revolutionary Indigenous Committee–General Command of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation, June 2005

This is why we rose up against this system at dawn on January 1, 1994. For 30 years we have been constructing what we think is a better way to live, and what we have built is available for the people of Mexico and of the world to see. – Editorial, Rebeldía Zapatista (Zapatista Rebellion), Subcomandante Insurgente Moisés, January 2014

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A mural on the walls of the school for secondary students in Oventic.

Time and time again, those in power claim that trade agreements are necessary for our jobs, for our economy, for our ability to interact with others and to sustain ourselves. But over the past twenty years since the North American Free Trade Agreement began – and the past thirty years since the Zapatistas began organizing their resistance – they and other communities have proven how possible local, autonomous alternatives to free trade can be. They’ve also proven how powerful it is not only to speak out against the system that exists, but to work, every day, at making their own world better. (Read more coverage reflecting on the anniversary of the Zapatista uprising and what they’ve built since here and here.)

As awful as the Trans-Pacific Partnership and free trade agreements like it are, they’ve given us the chance to come together across different issues facing our communities: economic injustice and unjust wages, environmental devastation, digital freedom, and more. And while we work to defeat an agreement that would cause so much destruction at home and abroad, we also have the opportunity to think through and share with each other how our own alternatives to a corporate-run world can (and do) look. (Here in Baltimore, where I live, Red Emma’s is a local worker cooperative bookstore, coffeeshop, and family of projects dedicated to “autonomy, sustainability, participatory democracy, and solidarity.” It’s also home to Thread Coffee, a collective committed to transparent trade and direct relationships with small coffee farmers. What do alternatives to unjust trade look like in your community?)

We Want a World Where Many Worlds Fit

 …We know that you are fighting also, and we want to learn more of your ideas and practices. And we want to tell the world that we want to make you large, so large that all those worlds will fit, those worlds which are resisting… And we are going to support, even if it’s but little, those struggles. And we are going to exchange, with mutual respect, experiences, histories, ideas, dreams. – from the Sixth Declaration

While studying at Oventic, the commitment to building local autonomy alongside solidarity was a constant refrain. As Zapatistas work to strengthen and grow the world they believe is possible, they simultaneously create space to exchange with others growing and resisting in the same global system. Over the past year with Flush the TPP, I’ve gotten just a small glimpse into the range of communities similarly working to build local power in a larger context of global resistance (including during last year’s Global and Inter-Continental Days of Action).

"Everything for everyone, nothing for us" -- a sign marks the autonomous Zona Zapatista.

“Everything for everyone, nothing for us” — a sign marks the autonomous Zona Zapatista.

As we organize against the TPP and all it represents, I’m grateful for the chance to continue learning from the many people who fight unjust trade locally, nationally, and internationally – in Peru, Chile, Mexico, Japan, Malaysia, Canada, the U.S., and more. I’m grateful to continue understanding how the TPP connects to so many struggles, from that against the U.S.’s larger military “pivot” to the Asia Pacific to those resisting the impacts of mining and free trade in the Americas to the fight for immigrant rights here in the U.S. And finally, I’m grateful to learn more about how we can better support and work in solidarity with each other as we fight for each of our worlds to fit.

(One example I’ve learned about is the Mexico Solidarity Network mentioned earlier, a group based in Chicago that not only builds local community and autonomy at its Centro Autónomo – home to ESL programs, cooperatives, computer classes, youth art programs, women’s groups, writing workshops, and more – but also has strong relationships with social movements in Mexico, including the Zapatistas. Their website reads: “In Chicago, the Albany Park Autonomous Center is building strong community through innovative education and organizing processes directed by immigrants.  In Mexico, the Network works in solidarity with communities struggling for housing, land, democracy and human rights.”)

Walk by Asking Questions

And when all the waling and hollering was over, they [the gods] came to an agreement…they came up with the answer for walking all the time. Since then the gods have walked with questions and they never, never stop – they never arrive and they never go away. – The Story of Questions, Subcomandante Marcos, Dec. 1994

Before arriving at Oventic, I hadn’t realized how much I’d hoped to find answers: answers about the systems of colonization and neoliberalism; about how they operate within me and the work I do; about how to build alternatives to them personally, locally, and in solidarity. While conversations I had delved into all of this, one of the most central answers shared was that of questions, and of the importance of continuing to act with a commitment to reflection. Zapatista communications in no way claim perfection, or a goal of being a token answer to the world’s struggles; instead, they speak to a dedication to learning while doing, to thinking while trying, to walking while asking questions.

In preparing to continue our action this fall, we can both reflect on what we’ve done so far and ask new questions of our work – from those focused on the next steps for our fight against the TPP to those that connect our resistance with taking on corporate power and injustice at large. (One recent example of walking with questions comes from our allies at United Students for Fair Trade, who undertook a Movement Connection Project to reflect on their own hopes for building student power as part of larger resistance to unjust trade.)

Since returning from Chiapas, here are some of the questions I’m walking with:

– What does just trade mean to us as Flush the TPP? How can we make examples of just trade part of our work in fighting the TPP and corporate colonialism?

– What do you think we can learn from the Zapatistas, and other communities of resistance you know of locally, nationally, and globally?

– How are members of your community working at home to build alternatives that put people and the planet before profit, and how can we stand in solidarity with the Zapatistas and others building these alternatives around the world?

“Whether it’s for NAFTA or the Trans-Pacific Partnership, it’s a given that [the international

A view of the world that's possible in Oventic.

A view of one world made possible in Oventic.

capitalist class] is going to continue to try to move these forward, they’re going to continue to try and do them in secret, and to leave no option for any sort of democratic space to contest that,” Tony Nelson continued. “We believe at the Mexico Solidarity Network that the Zapatista example is very important to continue to learn from, to interpret locally. We have a lot of work to do, and that’s the burden that we must take seriously.”

Take a minute to share your thoughts on the questions above with us, to post on the Flush the TPP Facebook page, or to reflect on what you’re “walking with.” (Once we’ve heard your responses, we’ll report back in future updates and keep the conversation going.) Together, we can continue to learn and build our vision of the world we know is possible – and I’m grateful for the chance to learn and build with each of you.