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Visiting the Zapatistas

Fifteen years after declaring war, the Mexican rebels are inviting tourists into their territory

For years, visitors to San Cristóbal de las Casas, the colonial capital of the Chiapas Highlands in southern Mexico, have been offered the same set of outings by local tour agencies: mountain gorges, gem-like lakes, the Maya communities of Chamula and Zinacantán with their colourful textiles and disconcerting mix of pre-Hispanic and Catholic traditions. Now you can find a new option: “Visit Oventic and San Andrés,” signs say, “the heart of the Zapatistas.”

Mexican critics of the predominantly Mayan Zapatista rebels, who grabbed world attention by taking over San Cristóbal on 1 January 1994, have long enjoyed the wisecrack that their sole achievement has been in “revolutionary tourism” – the flow of NGOs, international volunteers and alternative types into Chiapas to help out and to soak up the aura of this most simpático of modern radical movements. Ex-volunteers commonly rage at any suggestion that the Zapatista villages are another backpacker destination. In the past few months, however, the Zapatistas themselves have begun to invite in not just the committed, but also casual visitors to see what they are up to. A Comité de Explicación or Explanation Committee – a homespun PR department – has been set up to present the movement’s case to tour groups.

On a bright mountain morning our guide César and six of us, from the UK, US, Australia and New Zealand, got into a minibus to head out of town on roads that climb, twist and climb again, through a labyrinth of giant ridges and pine-shrouded ravines. Our first stop was San Andrés Larraínzar, site of the 1996 signing of the San Andrés Accords between the Zapatistas and the Mexican government, which appeared to guarantee the movement the right to land and to set up self-governing communities, but which have never been fulfilled. The town also has a roadside army post, with neat military flower beds.

More hairpins on, and beyond a sign announcing that “You are in Zapatista territory. Here the people command and the government obeys,” we dropped down into Oventic, a collection of wooden and corrugated iron huts around a few more solid buildings, with a central core ringed by a fence. In 2003 the Zapatistas decided that, rather than wait for the long-promised settlement, they would put their communities on a permanent footing by themselves. They linked each of the 2,000 or so often tiny villages they controlled to hub villages known as caracoles (“conch” or “snail”), the concept being that contacts and ideas could spiral – in the manner of a snail shell – between the centre and the villages. Each caracol has a Junta de Buen Gobierno or “Good Governance Committee”, and the whole network operates outside conventional authority. Oventic is the most prominent caracol, and even has a sign declaring it the “central heart of the Zapatistas before the world”.

At the fence we met the Vigilance Committee, three young men in balaclavas. As usual in this area, their first language was Tzotzil Maya and they handled Spanish with stiff precision. We were asked our names and occupations; passports were checked, but without any noticeable tone of suspicion. There were no weapons on view, in the hut or anywhere else in Oventic.

César knocked at another hut, and we waited until a balaclava-clad head popped out, looking a little flustered. This was Alonso, from the Explanation Committee. He apologised for keeping us waiting, and sat behind a table with pen and notebook as we arranged ourselves on benches.

Since 2003, he told us, the Zapatistas “have put their weapons to one side”. Zapatista phraseology makes much of the contrast between mal gobierno, the bad governance of the normal Mexican authorities, and their own buen gobierno in the caracoles. Only the mal gobierno still wanted a fight, Alonso claimed; Zapatista communities are more interested in building their own parallel world of participatory democracy.

He was keenest to stress practical achievements: health clinics, more than 60 schools, with students taught there now going back to teach others, and coffee co-operatives, which aim to work with fair-trade organisations abroad. I asked whether they are not concerned that this fragile network still requires a settlement with the government to survive. “We’ll see what happens,” he replied, rolling his eyes inside the mask. Over 15 years they have made mistakes, he went on, but “we’ve been learning, and moving forward, and that’s what’s important”. Most disarmingly, he said that the snail also refers to the pace at which the Zapatistas are prepared to go.

We were invited to take each other’s picture with the still-masked Alonso, and then we wandered unescorted around Oventic to look at the clinic, the schools and the emphatic murals, mixing Maya motifs, hippie-ish imagery and revolutionary heroes such as Che and Zapata. We finished up at the souvenir shop, where potential must-haves include Zapatista balaclavas.

As a PR exercise – and a tourist trip – it’s amiably low-key. The Maya are customarily reticent with outsiders, and extremely courteous, and the same applies at Oventic. This shy style contrasts with the pitch of the Zapatistas’ loquacious non-Maya frontman, Subcomandante Marcos, who began the latest of his enigmatic withdrawals from public view in December 2007 and reappeared only briefly in January, at the Festival of Dignified Rage to celebrate the Zapatistas’ 15th anniversary.

The Zapatistas’ new welcome to curious tourists is partly aimed simply at reminding the world they exist. It’s a long time since 1994, and recent news from Mexico has been dominated by the drug cartels. In San Cristóbal, it is easy to think the Zapatistas have become part of the scenery as you browse through co-operative shops or mingle in a buzzing bar called Revolución. However, there are still nearly 80 Mexican army bases around Chiapas, and during 2008 human rights groups actually recorded an intensification of military activity. The Zapatistas’ great fear is that once they are completely forgotten, army and government will take the opportunity to end this unfinished business with a minimum of fuss. Staying visible, when you don’t stage violent gestures, is a hard task.

This article first appeared in the 16 March 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The year of the crowd