Revolutionary Tourism_zocalopress

Revolutionary Tourism

Marietza is three years old. She is screaming at the top of her lungs from the seat behind me as our bus rumbles through the cornfields. It’s 6 a.m.

“Zapata vive!” screams Marietza.

“La lucha sigue, sigue!” bellow the bus’s 30-odd adult passengers in reply.

Zapata lives. The struggle continues. And we Zapatourists bounce on through the hills of Michoacan, a curious collection of Mexican university students, Mayan farmers, Canadian human rights activists and journalists. In a bus not far ahead of us are the masked leaders of the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN). We are all headed for Mexico City and a date with history.

It has been seven years since the Zapatistas launched their indigenous rebellion in the hills of southern Mexico. The government at first blamed the rebellion on the corrupting influence of foreigners; bleeding-heart Marxists who filled the Indians’ heads with Utopian dreams–and then gave them guns. The security of the republic, according to one official at the time, was being shattered by “revolutionary tourists.”

Despite a cease-fire, hundreds have died in fighting since 1994, mostly victims of government-sponsored paramilitary groups. But in December, Mexico’s new president, Vicente Fox, promised to make peace with Zapatistas. Two weeks ago the rebel leaders put down their guns, emerged from the forests of Chiapas and embarked on a 17-day tour which will end outside Fox’s offices in Mexico City’s National Palace. The Zapatistas have been joined by hundreds of foreigners: human rights activists, students, Christian groups, anarchists, pierced punk rockers and media with satellite trucks in tow.

For the most part, we are having a whale of a time. The dread-locks, Hacky Sack games, T-shirt vendors and tortilla stands all give the caravan a kind of moveable folk-festival ambiance. That, along with the rock-star adulation directed at sub-comandante Marcos, the Zapatistas’ pipe-smoking spokesman, has led Mexican media to dub this the Zapatour. I caught up with the caravan in the mountain state of Michoacan, intent on figuring out just what business the foreigners thought they had here in the revolution.

I had my suspicions, especially after a stopover in Mexico City.

“Those Zapatourists are pacifying their own guilty consciences on our soil,” a lawyer friend in the Mexican capital had complained. “They are following a script invented in an entirely different culture. They aren’t even seeing our reality, which is that violent guerrillas are marching to our city, masquerading as superstars.”

He said the foreigners had little idea of the complexities of the struggle, or the implications of the rebels’ demands for autonomy.

According to a New York Times report, the motivation for revolutionary tourism is simple: The rebel’s story tugs at the heartstrings: a rag-tag band of idealists fighting a violently oppressive state for the rights of thousands of beleaguered Indians. The foreigners are bored with politics in the US, Canada and Europe, and they are attracted by the romanticism and excitement of the Zapatista cause–of which there is plenty.

GUNS VS. CAMERAS

There is certainly danger on the road: The 24 comandantes at the head of our caravan–still disguised in ski masks–are fugitives in unfamiliar territory, despised by much of the Mexico’s power elite. The state governor of Queretaro declared that the comandantes would be arrested and hung if they entered his jurisdiction. In the state of Morelos, a legislator promised that the Zapatistas would be met by sharpshooters.

There is altruism, too: The caravan is being likened to the 1963 March on Washington by members of the American civil rights movement. Here, finally, is a chance for Mexico’s 10 million impoverished Indians to be heard. Thousands upon thousands of well-wishers have greeted the caravan in town squares across southern Mexico. In Oaxaca, indigenous people lined the streets, showering the busses with flowers.

There is also good reason for foreign accompaniment: “Don’t forget the Zapatistas are still considered guerrillas. The presence of foreigners in the march makes it both stronger and safer,” Guadalupe Martinez, a human rights activist from Tabasco tells me as we rumble towards Toluca. “Sure, we know that some of the foreigners are here as tourists, taking pictures and coming along for the ride. But many more are serious supporters. All of them, just by being here, are protecting the comandantes with their eyes.”

Word gets around the bus that I am writing about the foreigners. One by one, the Zapatourists squeeze into the seat beside me and tell me their stories.

“We are simply here to witness and to take orders,” a soft-spoken filmmaker from Vancouver named Velrow Ripper tells me. Velcrow Ripper. I scribble his name into my notebook, in capital letters. He watches me silently until he can catch my eye again.

“Two days before you came on board, we were blocked by three truckloads of soldiers in riot gear, just outside Queretaro. We didn’t know what they were going to do, but they wouldn’t let us pass. Well, we foreigners jumped out of our busses and confronted the soldiers with our flash bulbs and video cameras. We let them know the world was watching. The soldiers backed off alright, and I then knew we weren’t just along for the ride,” says Ripper. “That’s why we’re here.”

None of the foreigners seem to see the caravan as an isolated cause. That would be to miss the Zapatistas’ place in the emerging movement the Mexican activists call globalifobico: a rising tide of anti-globalization action.

GLOBAL RESISTANCE

It was no coincidence that the Zapatistas launched their war on the day that the North American Free Trade Agreement was enacted. In the years leading up to the treaty, Mexico shifted its agricultural policies towards export production and animal feed. Labour laws and environmental regulations were adjusted to benefit foreign investors. According to Marcos, who issues ongoing communiqués on the ills of neo-liberalism, NAFTA was a gift to the rich and “a death sentence for Indians.”

“Marcos had his finger on it right from the beginning, long before the Battle in Seattle woke people up. The central issue for all of us is neo-liberalism, which is, in fact, a new form of global colonization,” says Ripper (who leant his video camera to a group of street youth during the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation conference in Vancouver. The kids returned his camera doused in pepper spray, and then cut an indie documentary they called “Fuck APEC Sucks.”

Judging by his Internet communiqués, Marcos is quite aware that the Zapatistas’ struggle represents the human face of the globalifobicos’ concerns. His revolution–fought as much on the Internet and TV as in the forests of Chiapas–has fostered a sense of common struggle among people from around the world. That’s why on this march there are representatives of indigenous groups from Ecuador, Spain and the US, not to mention union leaders and activists who simply feel that democracy is being undermined by the quasi-governmental structures that build and govern free trade agreements.

This was predicted shortly after the Chiapas uprising. In “First World, Ha Ha Ha,” a collection of essays about the rebellion, Iain Boul wrote that as international borders crumble under the might of economic globalization, the resistance to it will be as trans-national as capital.

“The faces here are the same ones we saw at demonstrations against the World Economic Forum in Davos in January, in Nice at the European Union congress, and three years ago at the WTO meetings in Geneva,” says Damien, a French activist following the caravan in a rented car. Like many of the more militant types here, Damien won’t give me his full name. But he says he and his girlfriend will be in Quebec City to agitate at April’s Summit of the Americas.

The biggest foreign presence on the caravan are the Tutti Bianchi, Italian activists famous for their style–white painters’ suits–and their aggressive confrontations with riot police in Europe. Nearly 150 of the Italians are here to form a protective cordon around the unarmed Zapatista comandantes at every stop on the tour.

THE TREMBLING EARTH

On Monday we spend 17 hours on the road. We pass graffiti on telephone poles, bridges and buildings, declaring, “This is Zapatista country!” or “EZLN, you are not alone!” Often the caravan slows to a halt, its route buried under adulating crowds. The comandantes stop for brief speeches, frequently thanking the foreigners for their support. Local women hand us bags full of chicken, rice and tortillas.

One night, as we roll into a dusty plaza in the Toluca valley, our bus is greeted by a handsome member of a local actors’ school. He guides us to the school’s dormitory in a former Jesuit monastery, where dinner, hot showers and beds await. It is, the actors say, the least they can do for the movement.

The so-called revolutionary tourists are a sober, serious bunch. They remind me, more than anything, of the idealists who I imagine were drawn to the Spanish Civil War and the fight against fascism. They insist that this struggle represents a pivotal moment in history, a moment of recognition that the enemy is not another nation, but a wave of trade deals, crashing across the hemispheres.

Of course the poetry of revolution is infinitely more lyrical than the rhetoric of profit maximization. And nobody delivers a barn-burning speech like sub-comandante Marcos.

The caravan pulls into downtown Toluca. We dash from our bus to the centra plaza, but already 20,000 supporters have gathered to hear Marcos. There are cowboys and businessmen with their fists in the air. Mohawked teens selling Marcos T-shirts and bandanas. Two middle-aged women hoist a cardboard sign proclaiming, “Marcos, Mexico needs more men like you.” No presidential candidate in recent memory has garnered such crowds.

“Sisters and brothers,” Marcos tells us. “We can feel the earth trembling. But its not trembling from fear. The brown earth is trembling because it feel our footsteps, the footsteps of thousands of brown people marching upon it together.”

Marcos, widely believed to be a former philosophy professor from Mexico City, is no Indian, despite his years in the jungle. But his prose and his masked anonymity allow us all to claim the revolution as our own. Some activists fantasize that Marcos will take off his ski mask when the caravan arrives in front of the National Palace in Mexico City on Sunday. Others, the globalofobicos who won’t give me their names or let me take their pictures, insist that would only put a star’s face on a philosophy grounded in anonymity.

Todos somos Marcos–we are all Marcos–reads the graffiti in Mexico City. It is a reference to the days when Marcos could easily have disappeared amid the fray of war-torn Chiapas, and a warning to the government that the movement will survive without him. It suggests, by default, that we could all be the poor, the disappeared, the disenfranchised, and that we all have the power to witness the world and to change it. We all own the revolution, if we choose to embrace it.

I am aware of the manipulative power of words, of the dangers of romanticizing politics or war. I suspect that globalization is far more complex an issue than the activists seem to believe. I know that far from being used by the anti-globalization movement, Marcos has coaxed us here for the Zapatista’s own benefit, just as he rallies the children of Mexico’s rich to join him in front of the National Palace. But there is an utter lack of cynicism in the aspirations of the crowds chanting for Marcos, the schoolchildren shaking EZLN banners by the roadside and the Mayan women who wave shyly from the seat in front of me as the caravan rolls down into the brown haze of Mexico’s central valley, to the resort town of Cuernavaca.

Marietza is screaming like never before, the students are whooping and howling and I forget myself for a moment. I lean out towards the sidewalk, raise my fist in the air and yell a the top of my lungs, “Zapata Vive! La lucha sigue, sigue!”

My voice is lost amid the roar of the street side crowd, but an old woman on the sidewalk puts her fingers to her mouth and blows me a double-handed kiss.