The grandson of a Zapotec Indian, Gustavo Esteva found himself enlisted as a young man in the project of “Americanizing Mexico.” But he would opt instead to help Indigenous peoples, campesinos, and marginalized urban dwellers follow their own paths. Esteva found his political home when the Zapatistas rose up, and he would go on to establish the Universidad de la Tierra in Oaxaca, a place where he explored with indigenous people how best to build communities of health, dignity, and peace. Esteva passed away earlier this year, at age 85, and the interview he gave us nearly two years ago, in one of our earliest issues, remains an excellent introduction to his work and thought.
US-style “democracy” — government “of, by, and for the people” — has always been the biggest US political export. Does the real product match what the advertising promises?
Gustavo Esteva: What has been happening in the US since Trump’s election offers a dramatic lesson for millions of people around the world. The US gave modern shape to the political form of capitalism, the “democratic nation-state.” Today, it is impossible to believe that government “of, by and for the people” is consistent with a capitalist economy. Instead, we see the perpetuation of the power of a self-appointed elite, now requiring increasingly authoritarian control over the people.
Elections have become the centerpiece of this US model of “democracy.” The Zapatistas and other indigenous peoples reject electoral politics. How then do they choose their leaders?
Indigenous communities have never seen the electoral process as an appropriate way to express the collective will. They don’t believe the elected officers in México really represented them. For centuries, these communities have viewed assemblies as their supreme authority.
These assemblies appoint municipal officers, chosen only from among those who have performed well in serving the people of their villages, without payment, for most of their lives. The procedure can evolve in different ways. One example: In January, those qualified are identified. Informal discussions over the next few months will eliminate candidates for various reasons. By October, the village will have arrived at a consensus on the person most suitable to serve. A final assembly will ask that person to lead the village.
Custom holds that those chosen must demonstrate their humility by first protesting before finally giving in.
Individuals don’t decide to run for office. The community imposes leadership. And the leader/servant can be removed by the assembly at any moment.
Do women have an equal voice?
The combination of old patriarchal traditions with modern sexism became unbearable for women. Their courageous actions have been transforming political life in many regions. Over the last ten years, that transformation has opened to women assemblies and positions of government that had been closed off for centuries.
In one community, Lachatao, the men in government called the women and told them: “We, the men, have been doing many wrong things in our community. We now want you, the women, to take all the political power to do something else.” And the women have led impressively.
Many of us have heard about the Zapatistas in Chiapas and their autonomous government. Have these self-governing units extended beyond Zapatista territory?
The Zapatistas’ First International Gathering of Women Who Struggle in 2018 brought together thousands of women from each autonomous Zapatista caracol, 27 Mexican states, and over 50 nations to learn, play, and dance!
The Zapatista regime includes hundreds of communities and has introduced many improvements in the course of its 26 years of existence. We can describe hundreds and even thousands of communities in Oaxaca — and some in other provinces —as caracoles, with no political parties, no elections, only governing assemblies. One measure of their success has been their response to Covid. These caracoles have focused on healthy local foods and banned junk food, closing their communities to outsiders, and giving special attention to the old and those with health issues. These communities have had lower death rates than the rest of the country.
Can these caracoles — networks of resistance and autonomy — grow within the belly of capitalism and birth a new world order?
Even in the US, social experiments aimed at going beyond the very undemocratic “democratic way” — without falling into new forms of despotism — have been taking place. They’ve taken inspiration from the example of Indigenous communities in countries like México. These indigenous communities don’t oppose change, but they do oppose imposing changes that do not grow from a people’s experience. We shouldn’t see the Zapatista form of government as “the” model, since this form grows from their own local traditions.
The Zapatistas envision, as they say, “a world within which many worlds can be embraced.”