Monique J. Lemaitre interviews Dr. Jan de Vos about the San Andres talks

Feb 1996


See the end for a brief biography of Dr. Jan de Vos

ML.-As a start, Could you tell me what your role is, and has been as a guest-advisor to the EZLN during the Peace Dialogues, and now here at the Forum?

JdV.-I have tried to keep a very, very low profile because, from the start, I felt that this forum had to be a gathering of Indigenous people, and not of Mestizos specializing in Indian cultures. As a result of that, then, I have hardly taken an active part, personally. I have done some work, helping around, supporting, gathering proposals, ideas...That's what I have been doing. I have, above all, used this opportunity to talk, outside of the formal meetings, with the Indians, in order to establish contact with them. This has proven to be very beneficial for me, personally, and that's where I can say that I have learned an enormous amount at this Forum, and also during the last two jobs we did, during the first two phases of the Dialogue, in which I also participated.

For me, the richest experience was during the second phase, in San Andre's Larrainzar, where, for some reason, in our group, which is the table on Promotion and Development of Indian Cultures, we were only 10 participants. Five Indigenous people, and five non-Indian. We could then divide the work by pairs, and each Mestizo could work with his Indigenous counterpart on a given problem, and during several days, which ended up being very interesting for everyone.

ML.-Were all of the five non-Indian participants professionals like you?

JdV.-No, not really. When we began phase one there was a much richer group of guests, but many of them could not come later because of their professional responsibilities. Now, take my case, I am working on a book about the recent history of the Lacandon Jungle, which would be a sort of third volume of a trilogy...Well, in my case, I can always solve my problem by saying that I am doing field work.

ML.-You don't teach?

JdV.-Not really. I accept to direct a few seminars, precisely in order to have alot of free time, and fortunately I can more or less manage my own time, and that's why I can be here.

ML. Up to now, are you satisfied with the consensus you have reached in your table of Indigenous Cultures?

JdV.-No...not really. In the first place, I believe that it has to do with the very little time we had to prepare before the Forum started. One cannot improvise such an important national forum in only ten days, and that's a little what happened. Why the hurry? Well, because the Zapatistas needed, I believe, this forum to be able to present very clearly in front of the Government, before the State Department's Delegation, the concept that what is being discussed is a national, and not a local set of problems.

ML.-Especially when it comes to the problem of the autonomy of Indian communities...

JdV.-Precisely. Then that explains the haste, the hurry to invite Indigenous representatives from all over the country. Then of course, the Indians also have other problems, because many have to work, and then there is the economic problem which prevents them from travelling this far, because for them it is extremely expensive to come here. Now, within all those limitations, I believe that the forum was a success. If we accept that in all the groups, I believe, especially in our group, which is the only one I know very well, that we haven't had enough time to arrive at a consensus, or even to understand fully all the demands and worries of the Indigenous participants. Again, in our group there was a lack of balance between the Indigenous presence, and the Mestizo presence. We still have that problem, aside from the fact that the language in which we are discussing all of these problems is Spanish, a language the Mestizos are much more fluent in, since it is their language, while the Indians have to make twice that effort in order to express themselves. Also, most of the Indian delegates are farmers who have had little contact with formal education. Then, these are disadvantages that they must surmount on the spot; that's why much more time would be needed to both prepare for, and participate in a forum.

Our group has already decided. We have to do something more serious and more thorough for October 12 of this year. We have 9 months to prepare for that event, and having enough time it will be easier to find ways to finance the trips of those who cannot afford to pay for their own travel expenses.

ML.-Going back for a moment to the consensus reached during the plenary session of this forum. The resulting documents are meant to serve as the basis for the eventual, and partial, first agreement which might be signed sometimes during the next few weeks in San Andre's Larrainzar, right?

JdV.-Well, yes, but it will also help document the petitions which the Senators who are members of the COCOPA will take before the two Chambers to try and amend the Constitution. The Indians are requesting that there be a new Constitution, but I think the Senators of the COCOPA are thinking more in terms of amendments...

ML. This whole process of democratization from below still puzzles an important segment of the population which sees it as a very utopian endeavour. How would you summarise the formidable achievements of the EZLN up to now?

JdV.-In the first place there is the shaking. A shaking at all levels. That is to say, that the government was shaken in its security. Civil society was also shaken, because suddenly utopian spaces were opened again, and these are so necessary to keep on going. The Indigenous people from around the country were also shaken into awakening, as they themselves have said it several times. Thanks to the Zapatismo a movement searching to establish links between the different Indian groups was started. A network of contacts between them, much stronger than the one which existed previously, is now being built.

And obviously, the shaking was also felt here. At the state level it was extremely strong. A shaking of the social and political sectors in power, and also of all the marginalized sectors.

All this had its ups and downs during the past two years, because it is very difficult, I believe, to keep up the worry, the interest, the level of tension...Then, and because of that reason, I see that there appear, on the part of the Zapatista Army, various intents to recapture the people's attention, their interest. They, of course, had to react before several disappointments, no?

For instance, they had figured that, in the 1994 elections, the opposition would be much stronger. Then when this political, but also psychological "downer" occurs, comes the National Convention, which is an intent to capture again, to win again the people's participation, and I also see this forum as one of those intents. They always come back with something new in order to give new life to,to reanimate the people's participation, first of all that of their own people, and then that of those from the outside.

ML.-Which explains the erection of the new "Aguascalientes"...

JdV.-Exactly. By spreading the idea that every Mexican state should have its own "Aguascalientes." Another very positive point which developped during these past two years is the changes which have taken place among the Zapatistas themselves. From some very Indigenous demands they have moved towards the admission that the Mestizos also have a place in those changes. From the beginning they spoke of a new motherland for all, no? but I think that they were very focused on Indian demands. After seeing the support which was coming from many well meaning Mestizos, they learned that they had to include their participation. In this phase, this is difficult for them...They haven't yet come to the phase where they can see all that unites them to their Mestizo brothers and sisters. They are emphasizing that which separates them, that which makes them different, and structuring their demands in that sense.

By organic necessity, the moment in which they will be able to, and will be forced to, see everything the two groups have in common, will come. Beginning with an important part of their culture, like their religion. And talking about religion, I believe that a common ground can be found in traditional Catholicism. The devotion that both Indians and Mestizos have for the saints, and the Virgin of Guadalupe, the church, the religious festivities...All this makes up a universe where Indians and Mestizos are very close to each other.

ML.-Switching to the concept of "New Man/Woman" so central to Che' Guevara's philosophy, and a concept Subcommander Marcos and the Zapatistas use constantly, do you think that such a concept could become a reality in today's world. In a neoliberal world dominated by transnational interests and ruled by the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the few countries which own them?

JdV.-I find it very difficult to speak of a "New Man/Woman" within the framework of the urban universe. But, somehow, when it comes down to the rural world, yes, it can be achieved. In some way it is already taking place. They truly, I believe, feel that they are part of new communities, with new people. It is a very religious language, very Biblical, and when one hears it, well...one immediately associates it with a religious concientization. I don't mean by this that they only had a religious concientization in their communities, but probably that was the most important element of change. We cannot understand or explain the "Can~adas" of Ocosingo and Las Margaritas without the religious accompaniement the pioneers had when they left to colonize the jungle. In the first place the Catholic church's accompaniement. The Protestant churches also received support, and accompanied their followers but many times towards a "New Man/Woman" very individualistic in style. On the other hand, the Catholic church's great achievement in their Pastoral Action in these regions was that they were able to connect the ideas of Liberation Theology, which in the end, are some very old Biblical ideas, from the New Testament, of the first Christian communities...to connect all this with the ancient Indigenous tradition of doing everything in common. And at the same time trying to eliminate all that, within that tradition, was in a process of corruption, like the hierarchy of command ("cargos")which can degenerate in "caciquismo" (system of political regional bosses.)

ML.-Like what is happening in San Juan Chamula...

JdV.-Exactly. Since these were new communities which were being settled by people coming out of the haciendas and the traditional communities, it was a unique opportunity for the Catholic church. In some way it is reminiscent of what happened in the XVIth Century with the first missionaries who also had this utopia of forming Christian communities with the Indians. They were able to set up these new communities, and when now the Indigenous people use or say the word "common" one does not know very well whether this concept comes from a very very ancient Indian tradition, from the Colonial tradition, when those communities were formed around the image of a saint, or from Liberation Theology. Also, many left wing movements, especially the Maoists, were stressing the weight of the assembly over individual decisions and over possible leaderships, and all of this sort of came together...

So, what I see is a reinterpretation which isn't finished yet, it's a very creative process, coming from the Indigenous farmers who take and learn from different schools, and then decide to create something very new, very much their own...

ML.-And where and when does Marcos come in?...

JdV.-Marcos and his guerrilla companions come in in 1983. They first come, I believe, to the North of Chiapas, and then to the Jungle, to organize a small cell, very marxist, maoist, left-wing...I imagine among very square minded Mestizos. After several years living in the jungle, or the mountain, they draw close to the organized communities of the "canadas", and there occurs a very interesting symbiosis. Marcos and his companions become a little Indian, or very Indian, if we recall that last night Commander David introduced Marcos as "one of us" and, on the other hand, the Indians had the possibility of becoming insurgents at the national level, of having a voice aimed at the outside (they already had one directed towards the inside of their communities,)to make their demands heard. So these are the newest things that happened. The end result is that well, I too come accross new Indian men and women, of a new breed. It is something that I find fascinating, because all anthropologists went over to the traditional communities, especially those who came from elsewhere, like the U.S. Dozens of studies were undertaken, and almost noone saw the importance of this process of colonization, and all that it produced...Also in the Highlands. Because sometimes we have the tendency of centering the Zapatista movement too much in the jungle when all we have to do is look among the Zapatista commanders present at this forum to see how many come from the Highlands [among them a former "student" of Dr. de Vos, Commander David- note of the interviewer.] Others come from the North of the state, a less known region, but one where, according to me, it all began. That is to say where Marcos joined his "companeros", and then left with them for the jungle.

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Dr. Jan de Vos was born in Antwerp, Belgium, in 1936. Since 1973 until recently, he lived, did research, and wrote in the state of Chiapas. He now resides in Mexico City, but he often returns to the Chiapas Highlands, and to the Lacandon Jungle for research purposes, and now also as a permanent guest-advisor to the EZLN during the ongoing peace talks between the EZLN and the Mexican Government.

He has published, among the several indispensable works to understand the history of Chiapas, and now that of the EZLN, "Fray Pedro Lorenzo de la Nada," "The Battle of The Sumidero," and the two first volumes of a future trilogy: "The Peace of God and the King. The Conquest of the Lacandon Jungle (1525-1821)," and "Green Gold. The Conquest of the Lacandon Jungle by the Tabasco's Timber Dealers (1822-1949)." Both of these books were originally, and respectivelly published in 1980, and 1988, and the Fondo de Cultura Econo'mica has since come out with several new editions of these works. The last volume of the trilogy is almost finished, and it deals with the history of the Lacandon Jungle from 1950 until today.

"For Western Civilization, violent and oppressive by nature, the Indigenous cultures keep on being a nuisance which has to be eliminated. Today, several South American countries keep on exterminating in cold blood the last free indigenous tribes of the Amazon Rain Forest. Other nations limit themselves to destroying the autoctonous cultures and force the Indigenous people to enter the national society, only to turn them in uprooted second hand citizens. In other countries they are enclosed, for dubious phylantropic reasons, in reservations (sometimes territorial, sometimes subtly cultural,)in which the Indigenous people are condemned to live like museum pieces, without being able to participate freely in the life of the nation they belong to. And there is not a single country in the American Continent where Indians are not economically exploited and socially oppressed by their White and Mestizo brothers.("La Paz de Dios y del Rey. La conquista de la Selva Lacandona. 1525-1821" ["The Peace of God and the King. The Conquest of the Lacandon Jungle 1525-1821".] Mexico, Fondo de Cultura Econo'mica, 1993, p.12.)

Dr. de Vos is a handsome, tall, blonde, affable, and extremely unpretentious scholar. He agreed immediately to an interview, although he hardly knew me. His Spanish is impeccable, and idiomatically Mexican, in spite of the fact he grew up bilingual in Flemish and French. I could thus transcribe his answers and comments verbatum, minus, of course, all of the markings of oral language. This interview (for Internet) took place on February, 8, 1996, at the Cultural Center "El Carmen", in San Cristo'bal de las Casas, Chiapas, during the National Forum on Indigenous Rights, and the day after Subcommander Marcos' safe arrival in San Cristo'bal.


(Interview in Spanish & translation: Monique J. Lemaitre. Copy and correct at your pleasure, as long as the ideas remain the same.)


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