Salvador Castaneda, born in 1946, was a founding member of the 'Movimento de Accion Revolucionaria' (MAR), a political-military organization which organized a guerrilla struggle in Mexico in the 1970s. After the defeat of the MAR, he spent several years in prison. In 1990, he and other former guerrilla founded the Centre for Historical Studies of Armed Movements (CIHMA). Juan Chicoy interviewed Salvador Castaneda on December 5, 1994 in Mexico City. We are translating this interview from issue #373 of the German-language magazine analyse & kritik.
Mexico is a country where political-military organizations have had little success in the past. None of the armed groups in the 60s and 70s managed to become a political force at the national level, unlike the guerrilla movements in El Salvador and Nicaragua for example. Today, as one phase of the Latin America guerrilla comes to an end, and in which many former guerrilla organizations have bid farewell to the revolution (ERP, M-19), the EZLN seems to be introducing a new phase of armed revolutionary struggle. How could this organization develop so quickly - in a war lasting less than two weeks - into a political force of such significance?
Before January 1, 1994, there were ten years of clandestine work. In principle, that's the same thing we did, but under completely different geographical conditions. Because the region is so isolated geographically, the EZLN were able to build up their organization without being noticed. There were not confronted with a whole variety of security risks which our urban guerrilla or the groups of Lucio Cabanas and Genaro Vazquez in the Sierra or Guerrero had to deal with. There were no military confrontations for ten years, they did not seek out the federal army and fight them. When they took over five towns on January 1, they did not encounter any resistance. The army simply wasn't there. It can be hardly be considered a military victory to state they were able to defeat the local police forces.
In May 1993 there was a clash with the federal army...
That was the only one. Afterwards the EZLN retreated, and the federal army retreated as well, but not because they couldn't militarily deal with the EZLN, but rather due to political factors: The government did not want to risk the passage of the NAFTA accord and the August election.
The retreat of the EZLN forces after the January 1 occupations was also orderly because they hadn't had any major problems with the federal army. The only military confrontation was the struggle around the Rancho Nuevo barracks. They weren't able to seize the barracks. They have certainly examined these experiences and prepared for future confrontations. But it's difficult to assess the military strength of the EZLN, because other than the fight at Rancho Nuevo, they haven't really been in any real fights.
The present conditions all favour the federal army. They have been able to expand and strengthen their ring of defenses with military advisors and modern weapons. They have unloaded four shiploads of weapons from the harbour at Veracruz. The federal army is in a position where they have many opportunities to inflict blows on the EZLN.
Don't you think that the jungle provides a tactical advantage for the EZLN?
Yes, it won't be easy for the federal army to advance into there. They could only do this if they take heavy losses, and even then they would only find the EZLN in limited areas, and they are well prepared. But the federal army has many possibilities, because the EZLN units are now effectively localized. The federal army can call in fighter jets and helicopters. The EZLN can't leave their zones. In that sense, they are trapped.
The EZLN claim to be organized nationwide.
Who knows? Up until now, they haven't shown much to prove this. What's clear, however, and this is a big mistake, they don't have their own press system with a nationwide distribution. They don't have a radio station, by means of which they could coordinate civil resistance. Apart from the three normal newspapers which publish their communiques, there's nothing. And the rest of the media is firmly controlled by the government.
Why can't the Democratic National Convention (CND) provide this type of logistical and political structure?
The CND was created in a climate of peace. If the ceasefire collapses, the convention will cease to function. If things get really serious, then the leaders and the radical elements of the CND will be imprisoned, because they are perfectly localized.
When Marcos, in his most recent statements, began taking on a more radical tone and hinted at the resumption of the armed struggle, some CND leaders started to criticize him. The CND exists because of the conditions of the ceasefire, but when the ceasefire is over, the CND will disappear. It cannot be an effective support for the EZLN. When the state opts for a "military solution", the CND will not be able to offer logistical and political support and the media will be silenced. The EZLN forgot one important thing: to create bases of support outside of their zone. Now they say, yes, we have a group called 'Soundso' in Sierra Gorda/Querotaro, but you don't see any evidence of this. So why did they tell us this? Their statements are staring to lose their effectiveness. They once said: If the PRI uses fraud during the elections, there will be an uprising. They said the same thing about Zedillo taking office on December 1. But nothing happened. And when the PRI governor takes office in Chiapas on December 8, nothing will happen.
But the situation in Chiapas is different. Unlike the rest of the country, the situation is really explosive, and unlike the CND, the Council of Campesinos and Indigenous Organizations (CEOIC) is a real force.
But they aren't armed.
Well, they haven't shown any arms up until now. They are civil resistance, something which is much easier to control.
That problem isn't one of procuring weapons. The problem is firepower, the military preparedness of these people (something they don't have), a united military command (which doesn't exist). They are not in a position to defeat a well-trained and well-armed professional army. Only the EZLN could do this - eventually. The CEOIC wants to achieve a peaceful transition. This is completely impossible. Even if they can achieve this in their own state, they can't do this at the national level, therefore the state apparatus still has all of its options open.
The EZLN continually state that they are not the avant garde. But that's just confusion. Of course they're the avant garde, even if they say they don't want to be. The decisive factor isn't what you say, it's what you do. If you are the first to take up the struggle, you polarize things and you have to assume the responsibility of organizing all the resistance and coordinating all of the civil forces which arise during the offensive. I think it was a mistake to go to the negotiations table after only two weeks of struggle. They should have carried out many more military actions, to prove that they are capable of inflicting serious blows against the federal army. Then they could have entered into negotiations in a stronger position.
What are the EZLN's military options, if war breaks out once again, which is not unlikely? What do think their major weaknesses are?
Not having carried out more military actions was a big mistake. The second mistake was immediately going to the negotiations table, thereby giving the state the option of introducing a low-intensity war, meanwhile their hands were tied by the negotiations. The state had already declared a general amnesty for all the inhabitants of the EZLN zone. All of that is tied to a continental plan for fighting uprisings.
Yes. The negotiations and the amnesty gave back the initiative to the state, something which it had lost at the beginning of January, meanwhile the EZLN's position was wearing out. It's a war of attrition. Simply the fact that there has been a state of emergency for an entire year, and that their army of 6,000 cannot produce anything because they must always been ready to fight. Sure, something like that is going to create internal difficulties. It means exhausting their bases of support. How long can something like that last? The federal army can wait for as long as it wants to. It has all the advantages, economic resources, fresh troops, etc.
What's more, there are internal differences within the EZLN regarding the conception of the struggle. The statements released by Mayor Moises and Tacho are fundamentally different that those from Marcos. Marcos always insists that they are not trying to seize power. But Moises says: We are going to seize power and carry out a socialist revolution. But in general, only Marcos is taken seriously in the media. Why? He's a good speaker, an author, a poet. Moises and Tacho don't speak good Spanish. Marcos is counting on support from sectors who, when things get serious, won't want to have anything to do with the Zapatistas. The first intellectuals are already starting to bail out. The convention is just designed to fill in a gap which exists, where they should have been working in the past to build up a political and logistical structure. They organized this convention two weeks before the election! After the elections, this is supposed to mobilize the society. But how? The so-called society is factionalized, the remains of the left are splintered. They put their faith in the PRD. But that didn't work. Today the PRD are entering a government which tomorrow will attempt to eliminate the EZLN. They are in an extremely difficult situation.
Besides, the state has been able to capitalize on the nice demand for "peace" to suit its own needs. "Peace" is good for the ruling class, it has always lived in peace, and that's why they're still in power. And the intellectuals in the CND use this formula in the same abstract way. In the end, the majority of the population voted for "peace" on August 21, namely the state apparatus, because this sort of "peace" is managed by the state. The Zapatista Army for National Liberation cannot rely on such people. These people cannot offer real, effective, consistent support.
But those are the objective resources. How can they change this situation?
Those are the resources at the moment. But this can't last. The CND wants to see a peaceful transition to democracy, a transitional government. What kind of government? Who will create it? The CND will reply: Not us. Apart from that, they don't have the political power to do so anyway. In my opinion, the EZLN are trying to buy time in order to build up bases of support outside their zone, which is something they don't have. But at the same time, this delay is working to the advantage of the government. The mistake was to start to war without having already done all of that. That is the same mistake which we in the MAR made in the 70s. Some of our comrades discussed this with Marcos in August. We just don't fit into your scheme of things was his reply.
The entire politics of the EZLN since January seems very improvised and voluntary to me. On the first of January, they release a communique stating: Vamos, let's march to Mexico City and take it over! I thought to myself, What was that all about? And less than two weeks later they were negotiating. What does an army of national liberation have to negotiate about if its goal is to seize power? Can you make deals with the state about taking power?
Yes, that was also the idea behind the convention. But that was a mistaken assumption. We can see the results. I think that now they are trying to organize their own structure. But that's not easy and it takes time. There is the danger that this decisive mistake has fundamentally changed their political concept. The EZLN is moving towards the position of becoming a pressure group for negotiations. In fact, that's the exact position they are in now, and it's not clear how they can get out of this. That is something which has happened to several armed movements in Latin America, in Columbia for example. They sit in the mountains, but they never seize power, they inflict some blows on the state, but only to win a better position for negotiations. In Columbia they've been there for 40 years, and their chances are getting worse year by year.
I also believe that the EZLN thought that they could bring about a peaceful transition to democracy. But these possibilities have been exhausted: the negotiations, the PRD, the CND.
But it was not necessarily false to enter into alliances, including democratic sectors of the bourgeoisie.
Of course not. These alliances are necessary and useful. But the point is, they haven't functioned as they should have. One of the most important lessons from the Cuban and Nicaraguan revolutions in the necessity of building a political front which is able to seize power, one in which the revolutionary forces are predominant.
But don't you think the CND can be the starting point for such a front?
One of its most important tasks was to mobilize the civil society. But they didn't mobilize anybody. It remained without results. In northern Mexico, there's no activity whatsoever. The largest mobilization outside of Chiapas was in Mexico City: 5,000 people on December 1, in a city of 25 million. And even at this level, nothing will last if a higher level of confrontation is not reached. The mobilizational capacities are limited, due to a variety of factors. The political consciousness of the goals is limited. But there are several day-to-day factors as well: People can't just take a day off work, etc. That's just the way things are at the moment, but such things are decisive factors in tasks such as this.
But the situation in Chiapas is different. How do you view the future?
Maybe they can prevent the inauguration of the PRI governor on December 8, and push through Avendano as governor and set up a parallel government. But then what?
At the moment, a genuine process is underway to replace bourgeois state power in Chiapas, with the autonomy movement of the 'munizipios', which is practically controlled by the radical indigenous organizations...
But still, it's always the state, the central government, which has the ability to intervene, to buy 'fincas', to negotiate, then dam up problems and to isolate them. And if the movement doesn't spread to other states outside of Chiapas, then it won't have any future. They can't just keep demonstrating, marching, and taking over 'fincas' and town halls. That won't provide a radical solution to the problem, so long as things stay regionalized. This regionalization of the conflict is a government strategy, one which says: Chiapas is not Mexico. The forces in Chiapas will become exhausted if they aren't able to go over to a higher phase of struggle. A few days ago, three campesino leaders were murdered, something which has happened a lot. And what was the reaction? There was none. And the others, the death squads, the White Guards, are all armed. There's no doubt about that. They also haven't yet opted for a general military strike, because they too are waiting for the state to solve things in a "civil manner". That's the same reason why the federal army are just waiting. But just like everywhere in America, the certainly have a plan for the military option all worked out and ready to go. In other Latin American countries, this option of intervention doesn't exist, whereby the army can just pull back and allow the state to solve things politically. In the long run, the government's position will become more consolidated, whereas the EZLN's position will continue to erode.
How do things look for the EZLN with Ernesto Zedillo as president?
Things are going to get worse. Zedillo will carry out reformist politics, which he has already shown in his dealings with the opposition parties PAN and PRD. The moderate wing of the PRD and part of the PRI, the 'Democracia 2000' group around Camacho Solis, will form a new reformist party in a few years, and this will bury the Cardenistas, the PRD leftists. Things are going be difficult for the EZLN, to keep themselves going and to launch a new offensive.
Arm The Spirit
PO Box 6326, Stn. A
M5W 1P7 CANADA