CHIAPAS, Mexico - At the opening of the 2006 presidential campaigns in Mexico, one man stands out in front. He faces crowds of thousands in downtown plazas and town-hall meetings. He makes three stops a day, traveling up to eight hours in the backseat of a long, white van trailed by a caravan of over thirty cars. Scores of reporters and photographers from the national press corps follow him in a swarm of cameras and microphones held high.
But this man does not want votes, and he does not accept campaign donations. Sub-comandante Marcos, a balaclava-clad guerrilla rebel who has been in the jungle for over twenty years, wants to listen.
Over a decade after launching the armed rebellion that paralyzed Chiapas and captivated millions across the world, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation—EZLN in Spanish—has jumped again into the center of national politics with the Other Campaign, an attempt to mobilize the millions of disenfranchised indigenous and working class people in Mexico to abandon the country’s political parties and take matters into their own hands.
“Every three years, every six years they come to sell us the same lie,” Marcos said of the major political parties. “They have nothing to give us, and there is nothing of use to us that we won’t build ourselves with our own strength. Things will only change from below and from the left.”
On January 1, Marcos—astride a black, EZLN motorcycle—lead thousands of masked Zapatista rebels from the village of La Garrucha to the colonial city of San Cristobal de las Casas to initiate the Other Campaign, a political odyssey that will take Marcos through all 31 states and the federal district of Mexico City during the next six months.
The Other Campaign has many of the makings of an old-style political romp across the country: the loudspeakers, camera flashes, and interminable road-trips to small towns that few bother to visit in the long years between elections. But the medium and the message of the Other Campaign is the antithesis of the traditional politician’s. Marcos, the anti-candidate, begins every stop by sitting down, taking out pipe and tobacco, pen and paper, and listening to hours of testimony.
In abandoned movie theatres, under thatched roofs, teachers and farmworkers, students and retirees, approach the microphone to address the masked rebel, the national press, and the ubiquitous government
spies who film and take note of all who speak. Many decry in general terms the government’s neglect and corruption and urge people to pull together and demand their rights. Others unfurl the particulars of local politics: retirees waiting for years for their social security payments; coastal villagers threatened by a flooding river after a government engineering mess-up; students fighting to protect a rural university the state government wants to close.
At the end of the testimony, when Marcos speaks, he takes up the stories and complaints and weaves them into a call to reject the promises of candidates and their parties and build a social movement to oppose the corruption and exploitation of the ruling political class.
During the past week of campaign stops across the state of Chiapas, the birthplace and home of the Zapatistas, the most recurrent and emphatic of complaints have been about the exorbitant electricity
rates in small towns and rural villages. Hydroelectric projects in Chiapas generate the majority of energy consumed in Mexico, but residents here pay some of the highest rates in the country.
In the coastal village of Joaquin Amaro, Santiago Lopez Trinidad is one of 200 people in civil resistance against the high rates. He has not paid his electricity bill in over two years.
“All of a sudden they started sending fifty dollar electricity bills when they had been charging five dollars,” he said.
Trinidad has been a fisherman for fifty years. Under the scorching sun, he and a co-worker gather about four pounds of shrimp a day, earning each just over three dollars for their work when the market is good. He has a refrigerator and three light bulbs in his house. While many who participate in the resistance to high rates do so on principle, most are like Trinidad who does not pay his electricity bill because he simply can’t afford it.
In Joaquin Amaro, Marcos gave Trinidad and over a hundred other residents a demonstration of how the Zapatistas deal with their electricity bills: taking out a sheet of paper he tore it in pieces, dropped it on the ground and buried it under his black combat boot.
“That’s how we turn out the light bill,” Marcos said, punning on the verbs “turn off” and “pay” in Spanish.
After the camera shutters and applause died down, Marcos encouraged those in resistance to ignore the politician’s pledge and seek alliances with other towns in resistance across the state.
As Marcos spoke, a loudspeaker mounted on the roof of a car down the street announced the delivery of social aid from the municipal government. Residents said that no social aid packages had been delivered in months.
This was the first point where the Old and the Other campaigns came together: the Other creating a platform for people to voice their problems and concerns and to hear suggestions from a world-famous, masked rebel urging social resistance and unification, and the Old handing out boxes of rice, cooking oil, soap and toilet paper.
"The message is that there are two ways of understanding the same political reality we are living in," said Gilberto Lopez y Riva, a well-known anthropologist, newspaper columnist and former member of the Mexican House of Representatives who traveled on the first few stops of the Other Campaign. “And it should be clear that they are not compatible.”
Marcos, for his part, has been clear that he is not interested in the old way, running for office or creating a new political party.
“We are not going to become a new party, or—the worst thing there is in the world—a senate or house of congress,” he said at the first campaign stop in San Cristobal.
The Other Campaign seeks to ignite a social revolution that transcends political parties, a revolution where microphones replace assault rifles.To this end, the EZLN is opening spaces for people to talk and listen, building from nothing, starting from zero.
Marcos, who now calls himself "Delegate Zero" to symbolize the Other Campaign’s intention to begin with nothing, told the thousands who filled the plaza in San Cristobal on January 1 for the campaign launch that he could make two guarantees about the Other Campaign: “it won’t be over soon, and everyone will have a place within it.”
John Gibler is a Global Exchange human rights fellow in Mexico.
For information about the Other Campaign see: