Tag Archives: Zapatismo

Yesterday Rebellious


The city of Santiago de Cuba’s motto was coined by its native son, rum distiller extraordinaire, and beloved mayor Emilio Bacardi: Rebelde ayer, hopsitalaria hoy, heroica siempre. Rebellious yesterday, hospitable today, heroic forever. Kinda makes Winnipeg’s One Great City feel a whole new kind of inadequate.

More than an inspiring motto, however, these words provide a vey necessary framework on which to hang the tapestry of Cuban politics. It’s a complicated tapestry, and even the bit we’ve seen on this trip is full of holes, but I hope it at least gives an impression of the reality here and the unique lessons it offers. Of course, critique and discussion are always welcome.

And so let’s begin this narratively-convenient trilogy with Cuba’s rebellious yesteryears:

Nearly every Latin American nation follows the same story arc: colonization by brutal Spanish conquistadores, revolution and independence from these arbitrary powers, and finally (and presently) decades of instability brought on by ruthless U.S. political/military intervention. Examples of this include Pinochet in Chile, the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, and of course the Zapatistas in Mexico.

America wasted no time in meddling with Cuba, even getting involved in their war for independence from Spain. Cuba’s struggle for independence has become widely known internationally as part of the Spanish-American War, even though it was instigated by a heroic anti-slavery act by a Cuban farmer and fought almost entirely by Cuban soldiers. When Cuba finally won its nationhood and began writing its constitution, America refused to withdraw their troops until the fledgling Cuban government included the infamous Platt Amendment, which essentially granted America the right to intervene in Cuban politics whenever it deemed necessary. Thus began the cycle, typified by so many Latin American countries, of coups and rigged elections that favored leaders who would serve Washington’s interest.

The spark that finally ignited Cuba’s war for independence was provided by Manuel de Cespedes, a wealthy farmer who freed his slaves, telling them “You are free regardless, but if you want true freedom, you should take up arms with me against the Spanish Empire”

Cuba’s cycle was dramatically broken, however, by a few scruffy idealists who would later become some of the most controversial political figures in the world. It was to find the courageous roots of this now-complex revolution that Sara and I followed the footsteps of Fidel Castro, his brother Raúl, and Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara into the jungled mountains of eastern Cuba, to an abandoned guerilla camp known as La Comandancia de la Plata.



Castro’s movement against the brutal American-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista had already gained some popular momentum after he lead an ill-fated attack on the Moncada in Santiago de Cuba. Batista had turned these former military barracks into a prison for political dissidents, and the artifacts and photos now housed in its museum are a testament to the horrific torture and execution that was commonplace here throughout the 1950s.

Castro’s bullet holes riddle the entrance to the Moncada. Though the invasion was unsuccessful, the act of defiance inspired the people of Santiago to support the revolution.


But I digress. The revolution truly put down its roots here in the Sierra Maestras, where the rebels spent nearly a year training, recruiting more soldiers from local communities, and sending representatives to garner financial and public support from Mexico, Venezuela, and even pockets of the U.S. From their camp under the jungle canopy, they frequently saw Batista’s planes blindly bombing the mountains in hopes of smoking the rebels out.

Sara gazes out at the jungle from the camp’s kitchen/dining area.

Looking out from Fidel’s spartan bedroom. Its height is due to network of trapdoors and ladders below it, so attackers would never know which door he was going to come out of.

Radio Rebelde. At the very top of the mountain sits a little hut, still filled with dusty, antiquated radio equipment. It was from here that news of the struggle was broadcasted to the masses, preparing them for the insurrection that was to come. As a result, Castro’s revolution had the people’s support throughout the country, making it possible for them to sweep the country from east to west once they had the manpower to take on Batista’s army. This objective was completed on January 1, 1959.


Perhaps the most interesting part of La Comandancia de la Plata, however, is the reason it was built in the first place. The original plan did not include camping for nearly a year while training an army in mountain enclaves with literally no infrastructure except that which could be made from palm trees (though it certainly adds to the romanticism that now surrounds the story!). The original plan was for Fidel to invade Batista’s strongholds in Sanitago at the exact moment that rebel sympathizers in the city took up arms on the inside. Santiago would have become a rebel-controlled city, a well-equipped base from which to launch a nation-wide attack.

But that’s not what happened. The rebels were to arrive in Santiago from Mexico (where the Castro brothers had been exiled after the Moncada incident) in a yacht, but they were several hours late because a man had fallen overboard during the night. According to first-hand accounts of Fidel’s own fighters on the yacht, they started pressuring Fidel to leave the man for dead, knowing that timing was crucial for the invasion to succeed. Fidel insisted, however, that their revolution would not begin by abandoning one of their own, and ordered them to drive the yacht in circles for hours until, miraculously, the man was rescued.

As a result, the rebel sympathizers in Santiago launched their attack from the inside at the prearranged time, but didn’t stand a chance without the support they were expecting. Batista was alerted to the plan, and had heavily armed troops waiting on the beach when the yacht finally arrived. Of the 81 men that Fidel brought with him on his yacht, over half were killed. The survivors fled into the mountains, where they did the only thing they could: build a camp and start over.

Ultimately, through sheer determination and strength of character, La Revolución did succeed. And it did so with its ideological integrity intact, as Fidel promised it would that night in the yacht as they searched for a single drowning soldier. In hindsight, though, I wonder what the survivors of the ensuing massacre (Fidel among them) felt as they counted the number of lives that those hours spent searching had cost.

That, it seems, is the theme of La Revolución: heroic idealism versus pragmatic results. Every step towards justice requires sacrifice, but at what point does the sacrifice become a whole new form of injustice? Cuba offers no easy answers.




Finding the Zapatistas was no easy task.  For two days in San Cristobal I felt like a pinball, bouncing between shop-owners/bus-drivers/fellow-travelers asking the same question in different ways, and this was after having exhausted Google of all possibilities weeks earlier.  Finally, after many raised eyebrows and “why would you want to go there?”s, I had found myself the name of one of the five Zapatista communities, and the one driver in town who went there on a daily basis.

I met the driver at the pre-discussed 7:00am, and by a very Mexican 8:30 we were off.  My three fellow passengers wore traditional Mayan garb and seemed genuinely happy about the foreigner in their midst, which was encouraging.  They even let me have the front seat after gawking at my height for a few minutes.

We passed the hour-long winding jungle drive in silence, my head a mess with questions:  What was I doing here?  What right did I have to go poking around a foreign country looking for one of its most marginalized people groups?  What if it wasn’t at all what I expected?  What did I hope to accomplish?

To which my head responded:  In 2007, when Mexican media moved its focus from the indigenous struggle in the south to the drug cartels in the north, the Zapatistas turned to the public in order to stay present in the world’s consciousness.  They actually invited foreigners to visit and to take word of their situation back home, thus maintaining the public support that prevents the Mexican government from quietly selling off their land to foreign companies.  I’m not sure if scruffy Canadian backpackers were who they had in mind, but that’s what I had to offer.

As for what I expected?  The Zapatistas are a shining success story of indigenous self-determination and fair trade enterprise, both things that I truly believe have the power to change the world.  I wanted to learn from them, or at the very least pay my respects to an inspiring people.

We crested a hill and were quite suddenly greeted by this:


In retrospect, I think this sign serves a double purpose.  It intimidates, certainly.  But for those inside, who have experienced horrific violence at the hands of the government, it is also a comfort.  And a reminder of hard-won battles.

Besides the sign, a locked iron gate is all that can be seen from the highway.  In a little brick kiosk at the end of the gate stands a man wearing a black balaclava.  Despite being a tad unnerving, the black balaclavas are worn in all Zapatista interactions with the outside world as a sign of solidarity with each other.

The faceless guard asks me for my passport.  I give it to him.  He looks it over and writes my name in his log book.  “¿Organización?” he asks.

Shoot.  I had heard that visitors were rarely admitted without being part of an explicitly Zapatista-supporting organization (of which there aren’t any in Canada).  He sees me bite my lip in hesitation.

“Why are you here?” he asks.

“To learn about fair trade coffee and indigenous autonomy.”  This is true, but I’m also totally going for the buzzword approach.

He looks at me suspiciously, then says in Spanish, “it’s pretty early in the day, how did you get here?”

“Uhh…that guy,” I respond, pointing down the highway where the car has long disappeared.

The guard raises his eyebrows then, assuming a person with malicious intent would have come better prepared, swings open the gate for me to enter.

I am brought down a steep hill to what seems to be the Main Street of a regular village: houses, school, general store, a mechanic, and a ‘town hall’ sort of building.  The only difference is that each building is extravagantly painted with Zapatista imagery, explaining their history and declaring their independence.  I ask if I can take pictures, and am told, “Yes, please take pictures of our story,” (motioning to the murals), “but we do not take pictures of people.”

So, as promised to my balaclava-clad guide, the art of the Zapatistas:

Zapatista Autonomous Rebel High School
Language centre, classes in Tzotzil (local indigenous language) and Spanish

“The United States seems destined by providence to plague Latin America with misery in the name of freedom.”  
-Simon Bolivar, South American revolutionary leader

Talk about identifying with the land (also, the sheep is a key source of food and clothing) 
“This is my people, a brave race who with a stone will bring down castles” and “There is no weapon more effective than truth of thought.”  It is immediately obvious that positions of strength in Zapatista art are just as regularly depicted as feminine as well as masculine.

Head office of the coffee co-op that serves as the community’s main income

Despite many attempts to categorize them as Marxist, the Zapatistas have always maintained that their philosophy is derived from their own Mayan culture rather than any Western political camp. I think the strongest evidence of this is the gender equality that exists within this world apart. I have visited isolated agrarian communities before, and one of their hallmarks is a sharp gender divide. Not so with the Zapatistas. From the brief time I spent there, men and women interacted (with me and with each other) on level ground.  They also frequently apply the use of the @ symbol at the end of words, a combination of the ‘o’ and ‘a’ that signify gender en español.  This was not an attempt to be ‘progressive’ or ‘feminist’ (as it would be under Marxism, or any Western order for that matter), but rather an uncontested fact of life inherent to Mayan culture and preserved in this community. This is not to say that the Zapatistas have created some kind of utopia, but rather to illustrate how much would be lost if cultures did not have the autonomy to preserve themselves on their own land.

So did I get what I came for? I can attest to the fact that there are communities in southern Mexico that have schools and hospitals with no government assistance whatsoever, thanks to the Fair Trade movement that they helped instigate. So yes, in that regard I did. I had fantasized (and even prepared some questions for) a sit-down interview with some community elder, and that will obviously have to be saved for another visit. But as I sat on the porch of the town hall, watching a regular family of four wash their truck (parents jokingly reprimanding their kids for being lazy and spraying them with the hose until an all-out soap fight broke out), I felt truly honoured to have witnessed a glimpse of life behind the Zapatistas’ gates.

How Fair Trade Changed My Life


(and more importantly, the lives of thousands of indigenous Mayan people living in Chiapas)

In 2008, I took a nap in the UofM arts’ lounge, only to wake up and find myself in the middle of an Engineers Without Borders planning meeting for a fair trade coffeehouse.

(Why on Earth they didn’t stay in their own swankier, lice-freer lounge is a mystery to me, but it worked out well nonetheless).

I got involved with the planning meeting, even asking Sara to help me despite the fact that we were just friends at the time (she agreed because she was secretly deeply in love with me).  Through some kind of butterfly effect, that coffeehouse turned into many years of studying political science and economics in an effort to better understand the barriers that developing countries face in maintaining self-sustainability.  Also, Sara and I got married as a result, so bonus.

(Quick explanation of fair trade: free trade is great between ‘peer countries’, like Canada and the States.  When a developed country forces free trade on a developing country, however, it’s like Sidney Crosby insisting on playing hockey against a 10-year-old.  By charging a price that is technically higher than the international market requires, fair trade provides time and support for the developing country to build their own industries in their own way and thus beat Sidney Crosby at hockey.  For more explanation and less mixed metaphors, see Kicking Away the Ladder by Ha-Joon Chang.)

(Quick explanation of Sara being secretly deeply in love with me:  She wasn’t.  Apparently.)

What does any of this have to do with Chiapas, Mexico?  Simply put, fair trade started here. Since finding out that Sara would be spending a month here, I have researched the dramatic origins of this movement with the hopes of actually meeting the people behind the product. What follows is the super-condensed version of how the Zapatistas started fair trade:

In 1994, Canada, the U.S., and Mexico signed the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).  One of the stipulations of NAFTA was that no land could be communally owned, as this was seen as an economic inefficiency.  In direct defiance of their own pre-existing laws, the Mexican government then started selling indigenous land to the highest bidder.  Enter the Zapatistas, a well-organized indigenous movement named after the people’s revolutionary hero from almost a century earlier, who to this day have protected the Mayan (Tzotzil) land from government and corporate encroachments.

Though the initial uprising was armed, the EZLN (Spanish for Zapatista National Liberation Army) has been a peaceful occupation of their own land for 21 years.  They have withstood bribery, false treaties, and horrific government-backed violence.  Furthermore, the Zapatistas have gained international support and recognition for their transparency and the gender-equality that exists within their communities.

The Zapatistas have one goal: la autonomía.  To protect this autonomy, visitors are carefully screened and rarely admitted.  To support this autonomy, they have developed a sustainable coffee industry and have reached out to businesses in the developed world, asking them to buy their product for a few pennies more than the Nestles and the Folgers of the world are offering, thereby funding their schools and hospitals without any assistance from the government.  This idea has spread worldwide, and is commonly known as the Fair Trade movement.

Employees at Maya Vinic coffee shop here in town show off their siphon skills with some local fairly-sourced brew.  
And so, with a belly full of coffee, I set out in search of this incredible success story.