The War Against Oblivion: The Zapatista Chronicles: by John Ross, paperback, 350 pgs. By Sean Carswell

“This war is always a matter of the corn patch vs the World Bank, the hoe against the stock market, the poorly armed guerrilla band against a military armed to the teeth by the Pentagon, the village against the World Trade Organization, the smallest of the small against the Fortune 500, the local against the global, the many against the few…”  -John Ross

 

Every now and then, I read a book, and I enjoy it so much and feel it is so important that I wish I could convince everyone to read it.  I felt that way with Emma Goldman’s autobiography of anarchy and resistance, Living My Life.  I felt that way about Philip Gourevitch’s narrative about the Rwanda Genocide, We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families.  And, right in between those two, sharing Goldman’s spirit and fight and Gourevitch’s ability to balance the tragic and absurd, is John Ross’s chronicle of the situation in Chiapas, Mexico, The War Against Oblivion.  First, a bit of history for the uninformed.

On January 1, 1994, the first day that the North American Free Trade Agreement was in effect, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) marched into San Cristobal and five other municipal seats in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas and declared war on the Mexican government.  The military presence in San Cristobal was minimal.  Most of the soldiers had been given leave for the holidays.  The rebels quickly took control of the town and issued the First Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle, a document explaining the rebels’ position.  Essentially, the EZLN were fighting for indigenous rights in Mexico.  Specifically, they took issue with the Mexican government’s re-writing of Article 27.  Article 27 was one of the most important results of the Mexican revolution, pushed by Emiliano Zapata to give communal lands to the Indians in Mexico.  Carlos Salinas, then-president of Mexico, essentially took away those communal lands and offered them up to big businesses “to buy, rent, or enter into association” with.  The re-writing of Article 27 was one of the conditions of NAFTA.

Delivering the First Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle was Subcommandante Marcos, an eloquent, ski-masked mestizo (a person of mixed blood, not indigenous to Chiapas).  The press immediately latched on to Marcos as the commander of the EZLN.  But no, Marcos assured everyone, he was not in charge.  He simply spoke for the Indians from whom NAFTA had stolen land.

Rebels in the five other cities didn’t fare quite so well. The Mexican Army rallied pretty quickly, and for the next twelve days, a shooting war broke out.  On January 12, 1994, Carlos Salinas declared a cease fire.  What followed has been six years of  low intensity warfare: a series of negotiations between the EZLN and the Mexican government; the formation of paramilitary groups (otherwise known as Mexican and US armed death squads); the formation of guerrilla armies; the massacres and rapes of random civilians and farmers; sporadic battles for land; increased military presence; agreements made and broken; and basically the Mexican government following the example that the US government set in the Indian Wars last century.  This is the subject of The War Against Oblivion.

Prior to reading The War Against Oblivion, I didn’t know too much about the situation in Chiapas. I knew that there had been a short shooting war.  I knew that people were starving.  I knew that different educational groups had been soliciting money for schools in Chiapas.  I noticed a lot of references to Chiapas in reports of protests of the WTO in Seattle and the World Bank/IMF in DC.  I’d read a handful of articles in both mainstream and leftist magazines, and most of the articles I read had that Sally Struthers, these-children-are-starving,-won’t-you-please-help kind of tone. Or else they had the one-dimensional, hysterically politically correct tone.  I’d meant to inform myself more on the subject, but I’m probably like most people in the sense that I can only take so much of that.  I guess I have a finite amount of empathy and articles that take dramatic or horrific events and just hit you over the head with them overwhelm me.

That said, John Ross does a fantastic job of transmitting a dazzling amount of information on the Zapatistas and the general political climate of Mexico.  He lets the drama stand for itself and covers the low intensity warfare with a subtle but stinging wit. John Ross basically sounds like your favorite political science professor after he’s had a few beers and decided not to hold his tongue.

Of course, The War Against Oblivion is not an objective book at all.  Ross is an unapologetic supporter of the Zapatistas as well as a vicious critic of the Mexican government, the PRI (the ruling political party in Mexico), Bill Clinton, NAFTA, the World Trade Organization, the World Bank/ International Monetary Fund, and big business in general.  Ross’s subjectivity doesn’t bother me at all, though, because nothing is objective.  The mainstream American press wasn’t objective when it chose to ignore guerilla warfare in Mexico prior to the signing of NAFTA (a choice which, incidentally may have lead to the passing of NAFTA). The mainstream American press isn’t objective when it chooses to ignore the fact that our neighbors to the south have been actively engaged in a revolution for the past seven and a half years.  And the mainstream American press certainly isn’t being objective when it chooses to ignore the fact that most of the Indians being shot in Chiapas are standing on US oil and are being shot with US bullets coming out of US guns by soldiers led by US trained-commanders who drive US trucks to their US helicopters.  Ross, on the other hand, wears his point of view like a press pass, yet rather than choosing to ignore information, he presents everything he seems to know about the subject and relies on his readers to make up their own minds.  Certainly, Ross assumes that his readers will agree with him, but he gives enough information to make the book worthwhile for someone with a completely different point of view.

For example, Ross is an unwavering critic of Ernesto Zedillo (Mexican president from 1994-2000).  Ross criticizes Zedillo’s means of ascent to the presidency, nearly all the acts passed by Zedillo’s presidency, and even most (if not all) of the people Zedillo appoints to various governmental positions.  Still, Ross gives you enough information to understand key factors in understanding Zedillo’s point of view.  Specifically, NAFTA was already in effect when Zedillo became president; shortly after Zedillo took office, the Mexican economy collapsed and Zedillo wasn’t really to blame for that; and in order to rescue the economy from collapse, Clinton forced Zedillo to deposit Mexico’s “oil export revenues in the Federal Reserve Bank at the foot of Wall Street as collateral.”  Underneath the floor of the Lacandon jungle, which is the heart of the Zapatistas’ territory, is a huge reserve of oil.

Until this information was revealed, Zedillo seemed to be one-dimensionally evil – a greedy man making his money by killing Indians.  But where, I asked myself, is the profit in killing Indians?  Knowing the three aforementioned factors helped me to understand that, yes, Zedillo was greedy and brutal, but he was also trapped.  In order for his country to survive at all in the global economy, Zedillo had to abide by NAFTA, which requires him to keep the Indians from reclaiming their land.  In order for the Mexican economy to survive in the global economy, they have to keep giving the US the profits of the Mexican oil reserve.  In order to get that oil, they have to dig under the feet of the Indians, and the easiest way to do that is to kill all the Indians.  Considering this, Zedillo doesn’t come off as the next Hitler (and I’m always wary of Hitler comparisons).  Instead, Zedillo is shown as what he really is: a pawn to globalism.

Ross’s subjectivity is actually enjoyable, also, because he does a good job of comparing press releases to his first hand observations.  Unlike the mainstream American press that bases nearly its entire content on press releases from the government and big business, John Ross actually gets off his ass and acquires the information himself.  He reports what he has seen at the site of massacres and in the middle of the fighting.  He reports what he actually hears from Marcos and the other Zapatistas when Ross himself goes into the Lacandon jungle to speak to them.  He reports what happened when he witnessed the dialogue between the Mexican government and the Zapatistas, then how he lived through the Mexican government’s abandonment of all they agreed to do.  He witnesses masked “Zapatistas” turn their weapons in to the PRI while Mexican television cameras conveniently look on, then Ross hunts down the “Zapatistas,” finds out who the are (members of the PRI with no affiliation to the Zapatistas), and even finds out who paid them and how much.  By doing this, Ross very clearly shows how political spin works and how big-business news companies suck it up.  All the while, Ross’s wit allows you to laugh at things that really shouldn’t be funny.

In the end, The War Against Oblivion is really about much more than the Zapatistas in Chiapas.  It’s about how the global economy destroys towns, villages, communities, and people in the name of profit.  It’s about how information is distorted by media conglomerates – The War Against Oblivion  works as a case-in-point for Aldous Huxley’s “Propaganda in a Democratic Society” or Noam Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent.  The War Against Oblivion is a glaring spotlight on the fact that the US and Mexican governments continue to kill the indigenous people of this continent.  And, just when your empathy for the Indians starts to overwhelm you, Ross paints the beautiful picture of Marcos, Commandante Ramona, and the other Zapatistas, of how a group of poor Indian farmers from the jungles of southern Mexico learned from the mistakes of a thousand failed rebellions and managed to stand off an army that outmanned and outgunned them, take on a global economy, and take down the longest ruling party in the known universe. -Sean Carswell (Common Courage Press, PO Box 702, Monroe, ME 04951)