Until the Rulers Obey: A review by Staughton Lynd in Z Magazine

Until the Rulers Obey: Voices from Latin American Social Movements

By Staughton Lynd
Z Magazine
May 27th, 2015

The title of this book is drawn from the Zapatistas’ Second Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle: “We will resist until the rulers govern obediently.” The underlying principle is, in Spanish, “mandar obediciendo”: to govern in obedience.

In the First Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle, on January 1, 1994, the Zapatistas projected themselves as rulers. They said: “we give our military forces of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation the following orders: First, Advance to the capital of the country, conquering the Mexican federal army.”

Clearly, between the first and second declarations the Zapatistas changed their strategy. Henceforth, their posture would be one of looking to the democratic forces of the people as a whole for changes in the Mexican national government but devoting their own energies primarily to building up the liberated villages of Chiapas.

It is important to understand that, at different moments in their history, the Zapatistas imagined themselves both as rulers (the First Declaration) and as participants in the rank-and-file population that gives the rulers direction (the Second Declaration). This unique perspective reflects the historical fact that by the mid-1990s the guerrilla movements of Latin America had (with the exception of Colombia) made peace with the armies they confronted, and in several cases social activists, even former guerrilla commanders, were elected as presidents of their countries. That is why Evo Morales, in his inaugural address as president of Bolivia, could say that he too intended to “mandar obediciendo.”

Until the Rulers Obey cannot be understood without recognizing this dialogic or dialectical context of Latin American leftism. It is as if Barack Obama, besides having once been a community organizer, had throughout his presidency been obliged to encounter grassroots organizations of varying character and strength but all intent on reminding the president what he had advocated before his election.

Mexico and Central America

The book is made up of interviews, with an introduction for each country. It moves North to South, beginning with Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and El Salvador. Many readers will recall trips to one or more of these countries. My wife and I used vacations to make five short trips to Sandinista Nicaragua between 1985-1990. We visited Mexico several times, once when our daughter Martha was teaching in a remote village in the mountains of Oaxaca, and twice to attend a labor school associated with the Authentic Workers’ Front (the FAT). We have been to Guatemala more than half a dozen times where Martha and her family live in a village bordering Lake Atitlan.

A remarkable interview in this first part of the book tells how, during the Zapatista uprising, large landowners in Chiapas fled and the Zapatista army took over vast tracts of land. When the landowners tried to return, “each time the army or the police entered the village, the people took refuge in the mountains and then returned once the attackers left.” The two women who tell their story explain: “[We] began to build our houses, and then the soldiers kicked us out. We were afraid, and we went back to the villages where we had lived before. We started coming back little by little. At first, just for a little while: for a day, then for a week, then for a month. When we left, we took all our things—our chickens, our tables, everything—because we didn’t want the soldiers to take them. But our houses were still here. We stepped to one side, but we didn’t leave altogether.”

In Guatemala, as in so many Latin American countries, the essential struggle is with North American mining companies and associated hydro-electric projects. The people respond with a systematic effort to retrieve the memory of how it was in the past and with “community consultations…as it has been practiced for hundreds of years in the communities.” Similarly in Honduras, the 2009 coup led to “more horizontal and consensus-based forms of organizing.” Nurses who had previously not been political became part of the resistance when “patients started pouring in by the dozens, bloodied and beaten.” In both Guatemala and El Salvador the accords between guerrillas and government armies that ended the civil wars are said to have provided protection for the social movements but, at the same time, also to have legitimized the counter-insurgency. In El Salvador the FMLN ran as a candidate for president a journalist from outside its ranks. He was elected, made progressive cabinet appointments in the education, labor and health ministries, but also continued the neo-liberal economic program.
The neo-liberal agricultural program featured the development of monoculture, producing commodities for export rather than food for the domestic market, and favoring the use of genetically modified seeds that must be purchased anew for each planting.

Capitalist agriculture also involves the use of harmful pesticides. Bananas are grown in Nicaragua, and are sprayed with a substance called “Nemagon.” All sorts of cancers and other chronic diseases abound among the banana workers.

Luisa Molina, a Nicaraguan, may speak for many of her Central American comrades. She took part in the struggle to overthrow Somoza. She has become increasingly disillusioned with Daniel Ortega who she perceives to be “without a vision for the country,” and part of the “authoritarian, patriarchal, machista culture” of the political parties. She says that she doesn’t “know what ‘revolutionary’ means anymore because two years ago a law approving therapeutic abortions dating back to 1860 was overturned.” She concludes: “the only thing we know for sure is that we have to build collective projects by consensus and maintain our autonomy.”

Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Brazil, Peru

In Colombia, the contest for state power continues but, in the words of Jesus Tuberquia, “we can live life differently within an unjust system.” He goes on: “We’re trying to be a model of a different world…. We’ve learned it’s possible to build an alternative… where life will be different.” And this is so because we’re not a theory written on paper, we’re human beings who walk, live, and feel. We’re not fables, because on paper you can put anything, theoretically I can invent anything, but reality can’t be invented; it’s made. And we, as an experience, we’re a reality.”

In Colombia, nonviolent struggles have unfolded alongside “seemingly endless leftist armed insurgencies.”  There has been a superficial fascination with constitutional reforms, but without structural changes. As in Nicaragua, the Left has been insensitive to the deep peasant desire for individual ownership of the land on which one sweats out his or her life. Some popular efforts in Colombia have achieved an admirable ecumenical inclusiveness, with members who belong to different churches.

Turning to Venezuela, this is the place where the editors (who were for the most part also the interviewers and translators) found the most disillusionment. I have never been to Venezuela, I know no one who lives there, so I cannot judge. But the accusations are consistent with my experience in my own country.

The Venezuelan state, it is alleged, builds parallel institutions where long-standing indigenous networks already exist. The people “don’t identify with socialism” so for socialists there is a need to “deepen the revolution.” What must happen is for militants to “respectfully accompany the communities.”

Discontented interviewees ask, How can you oblige a candidate to follow a party line? “That won’t work.” Maria Vincente Davilas observes: “It’s cement for the sidewalk…but no work done in forming people.” People are told, “You’re not Chavista.” But if the person thus admonished does not agree, there is a “criminalization of protest.” Perhaps most disturbingly for one who sought to maintain production in Youngstown steel mills, what is advocated by the government is said to be not “workers’ control” but “controlled workers.” Orlando Chirine, an oil industry worker, says: “Venezuela isn’t a socialist but a capitalist country.” I leave it to readers to find their own way through these conflicting perspectives.

Ecuador companeros and companeras repeat words heard in many other places. “They evicted us and we returned and built again.” And: We need to educate not with words but with “concrete things.”

Brazil offers the strongest validation of the perspective of social change from below. Brazil is the site of the movement of landless workers (MST).

In the MST, decisions are made by consensus. But this is not because of some petty-bourgeois deviation. On the contrary, participants believe that “This is a class struggle.” The ultimate goal is socialism. Socialist anticipations created by the MST include the We Shall Overcome cooperative. The struggle seeks to eliminate the intermediaries between producer and consumer. Communities formed by the MST are permitted to grow to no more than thirty workers. Beyond that number, communication becomes difficult and it is time to form a new community.

Bolivia, Paraguay, Uruguay, Argentina, Chile

Bolivia, together with Venezuela, is probably the Latin American regime most celebrated by international supporters. It does not come off very well in these interviews. To begin with, and most generally, the Bolivian government is said to talk about a “development that doesn’t destroy nature.” But in practice the government promotes, for example, a highway that will damage the area through which it proceeds, but will encourage trade with Brazil.

An internal movement that raises questions about such projects is thought to be regarded as “a little rock in the shoe.” The democracy permitted by the Morales government is said not to be a “democracy of participation.” As perceived by Morales’s former comrades in the local movements, the transnational corporations are considered to be using the state rather than the state restricting the corporations.

The Uruguayan interviews bring out two points perhaps not sufficiently emphasized elsewhere. The first is the degree to which the Amazon rain forest is being laid waste to make possible the growing and exportation of soy beans. The second is a profound challenge to the UN campaign to banish child labor. The counter-theory eloquently advocated is that from the beginning of time the labor of children alongside their fathers and mothers is the way that human beings have learned to become adults.

The Argentinian interviews suffer from the delay required by book publication. We have all heard about the ceramics factory, the butchery, and other enterprises where the owner abandoned production and the workforce intervened to keep the factory open. But, in fact, how effective and resilient have been these new enterprises? The experience of the United States is that, historically, worker-owned companies appear either to have failed or, under pressure from the market, to have shed their indicia of worker ownership and control and to have become typical capitalist enterprises.

Nonetheless, we can stand beside the Argentinian interviewee who says: “Collective construction is the challenge of our time.”

In my opinion, it is good for this book and speaks well for its editors that Chile is the last nation discussed. I believe this because there are readers who may feel that the book is unduly critical of Chavez and Morales (and also of Lula in Brazil). If so, I urge them to persevere to the chapter on Chile at the end.

The government of Chile elected in 1938 is said to have been one of the three Popular Front governments in the world. The others were the government of France headed by Leon Blum during years when French workers occupied their plants, and the Spanish republic on behalf of which young men from all over the world came to Spain to form “international brigades” in its defense. (One such brigadista carried me on his shoulders on May Day 1936, went to Spain, and was mortally wounded at the battle of Belchite in September 1937.)

The economic strategy the Popular Front government used to lift Chile out of the Great Depression shaped the country for the next 35 years. The government supported industrial growth to diversify the economy, adopted steep tariffs to protect homegrown industry, and participated directly in several economic sectors: electricity, petroleum, iron and steel, transportation, communications, and banking.

The government of Salvador Allende, elected in 1970, tried to carry this inheritance forward. Rekindling the fire after his government’s overthrow and Allende’s murder has faced special challenges.

Unlike the headlines of the morning newspaper, this book leaves one filled with hope. I believe that is its most important message.

It is beyond me, and I should think would be beyond most North American readers, precisely to weigh the book’s more than 50 interviews on the scales of historical truth. But certain conclusions seem to me solid.

First, there is very little reference to religion in these testimonies. Good news in Latin America is commonly associated with the influence of liberation theology.  Perhaps the causal sequence is the reverse: enormous stirrings from below in country after country find an echo in the emergence of a people’s church.

Second, these witnesses offer evidence of a synthesis between Marxism and anarchism. It is not a doctrinal synthesis but a coming together of traditions in action. Indeed, what it is tempting to call “anarchism” may be better understood as the practice of living together in small indigenous communities stretching back hundreds of years.

Third, one must not forget that terrible things can happen in Latin America, like the apparent massacre of students in Ayotzinapa, Mexico last September. However, these days, with new circles of hell surrounding us in all directions, for me Latin America is the most hopeful place on earth.

Finally, the tumultuous variety of experiences presented in these pages is itself an important fact. We have for too long sought a single Emerald City, in the Soviet Union, or People’s China, or Cuba, or Nicaragua. There is no point in trying to decide which person, or party, or nation, is “mas linda” (most lovely), as we used to sing of Nicaragua, little Nicaragua. There is no “final conflict.” But there may well be a series of springtimes.

Staughton Lynd is a conscientious objector, peace and civil rights activist, tax resister, author and lawyer. Lynd’s contribution to the cause of social justice and the peace movement is chronicled in Carl Mirra’s biography, The Admirable Radical: Staughton Lynd and Cold War Dissent, 1945–1970, published in 2010 by Kent State University Press.

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