Social Movements Ignite Across Borders

By Kent Paterson

Ciudad Juarez, Mexico

In a fitting episode for the times, Subcomandante Marcos of Mexico's Zapatista Army of National Liberation recently stood down a US Border and Customs Protection helicopter on the Stanton Street Bridge between Ciudad Juarez and El Paso, Texas. Arriving to the border as part of the Zapatista's Other Campaign, a political initiative aimed at forging a new Mexican left and somehow peacefully transforming the nation "from the bottom up," Marcos spoke on the same day as Zapatistas in Chiapas state on the other side of country were shutting down highways in support of the uprising against Oaxaca Gov. Ulises Ruiz. Erected by Mexican and US supporters of the Other Campaign, a makeshift barricade in honor of the Oaxaca rebellion stood behind the Sup, as Marcos is known.

Dressed in his trademark military fatigues and mask, Marcos was denouncing Washington's planned new border wall, which immigrant rights activists have christened the "The Wall of Death," the treatment of Mexican migrants in the US and the murder of young women in northern Mexico, when a huge US government helicopter flashing a camera buzzed low over the bridge and stirred dust into the faces of protesters. Briefly drowned out by the helicopter, Marcos shot back defiantly: "The Other Campaign doesn't recognize this border. The Other Campaign considers our friends on the other side as part of Mexico, as part of ours, as part of our blood ..."

Regrouping at a local high school, hundreds of Zapatista supporters from both sides of the border heard speakers decry femicide, migrant abuses, land evictions, and unequal development in a city that was once promoted as the poster child of the North American Free Trade Agreement. Many like Violeta Kangas, a student at the Autonomous University of Ciudad Juarez and a member of the University Left Committee, are building up a new left in an increasingly polarized and politically-charged atmosphere. "We have a problem at the university," contended Kangas, "in that many professors try to indoctrinate (students) with fascism."

Only days before Marcos's visit, Ciudad Juarez was the scene of another multinational gathering. Modeled after the World Social Forum, the first-ever Border Social Forum assembled nearly 1,000 delegates from Mexican, US and other non-governmental organizations.

In several action-packed days, delegates partially shut down another international bridge on two separate occasions in protest of the "Wall of Death," attended presentations on everything from the US immigrant rights movement to border ecocide and toured Ciudad Juarez neighborhoods that still resemble shantytowns almost 15 years after the NAFTA was supposed to encourage economic development and an upward push in wages.

Ruben Solis, the director of the San Antonio-based Center for Justice and a BSF organizer, said the event tapped into years of previous cross-border mobilizations directed against the NAFTA and environmental pollution. Bursting with new political energy, the BSF followed this year's massive immigrant protests in the US, the contested Mexican presidential election and the upheaval in southern Oaxaca state. "It's creating a new wave, but it recuperates and brings together all that's happened before in a phase of new development," Solis mused.

In a series of resolutions, the BSF delegates urged profound changes in human rights, environmental, labor and other policies that impact communities across borders. Veterans of the gathering intend to take their message to upcoming meetings in the Americas and Africa. Next year, they plan to hold an "alternative people's summit" outside the official US-Mexico Border Governors' Conference scheduled for Nogales, Sonora. In Solis estimation, the BSF created a "convergence between movements."

Supporters of the BSF and the Other Campaign express solidarity with another movement that's inspiring activists worldwide: Mexico's Oaxaca revolt. Now six months old, the movement has evolved from a teacher's strike to a mass uprising against the state government to an incipient political revolution that combines grassroots democracy with centuries-old indigenous uses and customs. Political parties, which are increasingly discredited in Mexico and many parts of the world, are noticeably on the margin of this movement.

Consolidating its forces, the broad anti-Ruiz coalition known as the Assembly of the Oaxacan Peoples (APPO) has declared itself a permanent organization with an ambitious agenda of reforming the state constitution and institutions, cleaning up government corruption and promoting indigenous autonomy. Some APPO members want the organization to replace the state altogether, and comparisons are being made with the Paris Commune. The movement's goal is nothing less than a "peaceful, democratic and humanist" revolution, in the words of APPO leader Flavio Sosa. Groups modeled after the APPO reportedly have spread to at least 12 Mexican states in recent weeks, setting the stage for a national organization .

Support for the Oaxaca rebellion is spreading rapidly in the United States, Europe and Latin America. Marches, blockades of Mexican consulates and other actions are taking place in Los Angeles, El Paso, Albuquerque, Kansas City, and many other cities. The new unifying slogan "We are all Oaxaca," recalls the "We are all Marcos" chants heard in Mexico after the Zapatistas rose up on January 1, 1994, the very day that the North American Free Trade Agreement went into effect.

Kent Paterson is a freelance journalist who divides his time between Mexico and the US Southwest.

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