Mexico: Waiting for the Land

By Michael Slate

Revolutionary Worker #1092, February 25, 2001, posted at

The following excerpt is from the RW series "Report from Chiapas: Campesinos with Guns" by Michael Slate, which appeared in 1994.

Mornings were busy in the small town inside Zapatista-controlled territory. By the time the sun came up, many of the women in town had already been up and working for hours. Later, children took care of the animals while men and women trudged off to work in their tiny plots of rocky dirt on the hillside way off in the distance.

I had taken a walk straight through the town that morning, past all of the one-room wooden and adobe huts down to a large dirt plateau on the edge of the town. The townspeople had carved a little stage area on the side of the plateau and used it as a place to hold celebrations for religious festivals and other holidays.

From the top of the plateau I could see for miles in all directions. A barbed wire fence ran behind the plateau as far along as I could see. An ocean of pasture and farm land stretched out to the horizon behind the fence. I was told that this land belonged to a finca owner who left the area immediately after the uprising began. As I stared out at all of this abandoned land I thought of an earlier conversation I had with Ricardo, a Zapatista soldier whose parents had once worked as peons on the now abandoned finca.

"There is no justice in Mexico," Ricardo said, as his arm swept out toward the pasture. "That land right over there, it's 4,000 hectares owned by one finca owner. For 18 years we have asked for land, we have asked to be able to buy land. I have no house, I have never had a house. I live in my grandfather's house. I only finished grammar school. I wanted to be a teacher but it was impossible. Why couldn't I study? I had to work because there was no money and if I didn't work there would be no life. Do you think my father didn't work? My father worked very hard, but whatever crops he could produce were bought from him for a very low price. But we could not go to Ocosingo and buy pants or other necessities for the same low price. No peasant in this town has ever become a teacher. No peasant here has ever become a lawyer or a doctor. The children of the ranchers are these things. We have to fight even for the freedom to study."

Ricardo spoke bitterly about the oppression the campesinos face in their daily lives. Like most of the people in the town, he supported the general demands of the Zapatistas and could explain the ten points that make up the general program of the Zapatistas--including demands for land, work, housing, nutrition, health, education, liberty, independence, democracy and justice and peace. But he returned often to the land as one of the most important concerns of the campesinos...

Ricardo joined the EZLN army more than eight years ago. He told us of the early days and how people came to realize that they could never change the land situation without fighting and how the need to wage war required a different sort of organization. "We had open organization in our areas for 20 years but we never achieved anything. We had commissioners and officers but we never achieved anything. We began to organize clandestinely. We even organized inside these open organizations. Then we went to war. We need a war to really make a change, to put in a government of the peasants..."

"Our whole organization is based on the people. We have our base meetings and they are the most important things. It is only in war that there is the military command structure. Our base meetings are where we decide what is needed and what to do. The subcommandante comes and checks with the people. The subcomandante and others, they are the ones that go and present the decisions and analyze things but we are the ones who decide. They come and check with us."

But while democracy for the peasants is stressed in the areas controlled by the Zapatistas, the EZLN does not aim to establish the rule of the peasants and workers in all of Mexico. And while they have mobilized the peasants in armed struggle, the EZLN does not have a strategy for fighting through a protracted people's war--surrounding the cities from the countryside.

These contradictions were reflected in my conversations with Ricardo and other peasant fighters in the town in many ways--including about what was happening with the 4,000 hectares of abandoned land.

The Puzzle of the Abandoned Finca

Once the New Year's rebellion broke out and for months afterwards, peasants all over Chiapas--and often in other parts of the country too--were inspired to rise up themselves, seize government-owned land, privately owned estates, and abandoned property, and redistribute it among themselves. In Chiapas many of these areas became part of the Zapatista territory. But as the Zapatistas actually began to openly control and administer territory, many difficult contradictions came up. In some of these areas the EZLN had issued a directive restraining the campesinos from seizing and redistributing the land.

This was the case with the 4,000 hectares of land on the edge of Ricardo's village. The landowner abandoned it after the January 1 uprising and still no one had made a move to seize, redistribute or even plant a stalk of corn on the land. This was a puzzling situation. In Ricardo's town there was no formal vote about holding back on the land seizures and the land question was still a subject of debate and discussion. People continued to talk about how much they needed land but then went on to develop all sorts of explanations for what was happening.

According to Ricardo, "The Zapatistas are not permitted to just take the land--not even in our areas, not even these 4,000 hectares right over there--even though we know that this finca owner has left and will never be allowed to come back. We are not permitted to just take the land because the land that will be divided up among the campesinos is not just in one state. If we wanted the land here or just the land in Chiapas, sure we could just decide to take it. The government would probably give it to us just to stop us. If we hadn't studied war and what we are fighting for we would do this. But we are fighting for all of Mexico. Things have to be totally changed. The land has to be divided equally among all who need it. Even if it is only 4 or 5 hectares apiece, it is like the bread I talked about--it has to be divided equally among all peasants in Mexico."

Despite Ricardo's explanation, the issue of the abandoned land raised many questions to me about how the EZLN saw the relationship between the agrarian revolution, the revolutionary base areas, and continuing the war.

In discussing the role of the base areas in the Chinese revolution Bob Avakian wrote, "The establishment of base areas was, of course, not an end in itself, but the means and the foundation for waging revolutionary warfare. It was a question of establishing the political power of the masses through armed struggle and then using this as a support and rear area for engaging the enemy in revolutionary warfare." In the course of the Chinese revolution, the revolutionary forces had to sacrifice some of their base areas to advance the struggle. Mao paid a lot of attention to "contested guerrilla zones," areas in which the rebel forces could not yet establish political power but where they had enough support among the masses to enable them to operate against the enemy in guerrilla fashion. And in many countries like Mexico, the revolutionary forces may not be able to establish base areas as a first step in beginning a people's war--but will have to engage in a period of guerrilla warfare with enemy troops prior to establishing base areas.

The Zapatistas, on the other hand--having won control of these areas with relative ease--seemed to attach a lot more importance to maintaining these areas as concrete displays of their strength and increasingly as sort of backups for their political struggle with the government.

More than anything else, the EZLN hesitancy about redistributing the land seemed bound up with their attempts to avoid a confrontation with the regime and the Mexican army and to hold on to the territory they controlled. One Zapatista soldier told me straight up that they were holding off on the land redistribution in his area so that they did not provoke the regime into launching a military attack on their territory. Others indicated that this restrained land policy may be more a matter of not antagonizing middle forces and potential liberal bourgeois allies nationally.

Meanwhile, day after day, people in the town stared at the huge ranch on the border of the town. And as I looked out over the land, the words of a young campesino we met at the entrance to the town came back to me: "The Zapatistas began a process. It is not over yet, and no one knows how it will end."

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