THE PUNCH CARD AND THE HOURGLASS
Interview by Gabriel García Márquez and Roberto Pombo
Seven years after the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) declared that one day it would enter Mexico City in triumph, you are in the capital and the Zócalo is completely full. What did you feel when you climbed the dais and saw that spectacle?
In keeping with the Zapatista tradition of anti-climax, the worst place to see a demonstration in the Zócalo is from the platform.  The sun was fierce, there was a lot of smog, we all had a headache, and got very worried as we counted the people passing out in front of us. I commented to my comrade, Commander Tacho, that we should get on with it, or by the time we began to speak no one would be left in the square. We couldn’t see all the way across it. The distance we had to keep from the crowd for security reasons was also an emotional one, and we didn’t find out what had happened in the Zócalo until we read the newspaper reports and saw the photos the next day. But yes, in our view and in the assessment of others, we do think that the meeting was the culmination of a phase, that our words on that day were appropriate and our message the right one, that we disconcerted those who expected us to seize the Palace or call for general insurrection. But also those who thought that we would be merely poetic or lyrical. I think an effective balance was struck and that, one way or another, on 11 March the EZLN could be heard speaking in the Zócalo, not so much about 2001, but about something that is yet to be completed: a conviction that the definitive defeat of racism will be turned into a State policy, an educational policy, into a feeling shared by the whole of Mexican society. As if this has already been settled, yet it still remains a short way off. As we soldiers say, the battle has been won, but a few skirmishes still remain to be fought. Finally I believe that the meeting in the Zócalo made it clear that it had been the right decision to put our weapons aside, that it was not our arms which brought us into dialogue with society, that the gamble on a peaceful mobilization was sensible and fruitful. The Mexican State has still to understand this, the government in particular.
You’ve used the expression ‘as we soldiers say’. To a Colombian, accustomed to the way our guerrillas talk, your language doesn’t sound very soldierly. How military is your movement, and how would you describe the war in which you have been fighting?
We were formed in an army, the EZLN. It has a military structure. Subcomandante Marcos is the military chief of an army. But our army is very different from others, because its proposal is to cease being an army. A soldier is an absurd person who has to resort to arms in order to convince others, and in that sense the movement has no future if its future is military. If the EZLN perpetuates itself as an armed military structure, it is headed for failure. Failure as an alternative set of ideas, an alternative attitude to the world. The worst that could happen to it, apart from that, would be to come to power and install itself there as a revolutionary army. For us it would be a failure. What would be a success for the politico-military organizations of the sixties or seventies which emerged with the national liberation movements would be a fiasco for us. We have seen that such victories proved in the end to be failures, or defeats, hidden behind the mask of success. That what always remained unresolved was the role of people, of civil society, in what became ultimately a dispute between two hegemonies. There is an oppressor power which decides on behalf of society from above, and a group of visionaries which decides to lead the country on the correct path and ousts the other group from power, seizes power and then also decides on behalf of society. For us that is a struggle between hegemonies, in which the winners are good and the losers bad, but for the rest of society things don’t basically change. The EZLN has reached a point where it has been overtaken by Zapatismo. The ‘E’ in the acronym has shrunk, its hands have been tied, so that for us it is no handicap to mobilize unarmed, but rather in a certain sense a relief. The gun-belt weighs less than before and the military paraphernalia an armed group necessarily wears when it enters dialogue with people also feels less heavy. You cannot reconstruct the world or society, nor rebuild national states now in ruins, on the basis of a quarrel over who will impose their hegemony on society. The world in general, and Mexican society in particular, is composed of different kinds of people, and the relations between them have to be founded on respect and tolerance, things which appear in none of the discourses of the politico-military organizations of the sixties and seventies. Reality, as always, presented a bill to the armed national liberation movements of those days, and the cost of settling it has been very high.
You also seem to differ from the traditional Left in the social sectors that you represent. Is that so?
Broadly speaking, there were two major gaps in the movement of the revolutionary Left in Latin America. One of them was the indigenous peoples, from whose ranks we come, and the other was the supposed minorities. Even if we all removed our balaclavas we would not be a minority in the same way that homosexuals, lesbians, transsexuals are. These sectors were not simply excluded by the discourses of the Latin American Left of those decades—and still current today—but the theoretical framework of what was then Marxism–Leninism disregarded them, indeed took them to be part of the front to be eliminated. Homosexuals, for example, were suspect as potential traitors, elements harmful to the socialist movement and state. While the indigenous peoples were viewed as a backward sector preventing the forces of production . . . blah, blah, blah. So what was required was to clean out these elements, imprisoning or re-educating some, and assimilating others into the process of production, to transform them into skilled labour—proletarians, to put it in those terms.