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Zapatistas set sail for Spain on mission of solidarity and rebellion

The Guardian - Tue May 4 10:59

Five hundred years after Hernán Cortés and his men conquered Mexico, a small boatload of indigenous Zapatistas are making the return journey across the Atlantic to “invade” Spain, rail against capitalist oppression, and perhaps throw the odd cumbia party.

The two men and five women set out on Sunday evening from Isla Mujeres, Mexico’s most eastern point. Although Subcomandante Galeano – the pipe-smoking former Zapatista spokesman once known as Subcomandante Marcos – said they were travelling with the message that “the invasion has started”, their mission is one of solidarity and rebellion rather than belated conquest.

“We’re following the route that they came from 500 years ago,” Subcomandante Moisés, another Zapatista leader, told Mexican media at the departure ceremony. “In this case, we’re following the route to sow life, not like 500 years ago. It’s completely the opposite.”

The group explained that their rusty vessel, named La Montaña, would carry them to Europe on “an odyssey that has everything to do with defiance and nothing to do with a rebuke”.

Friends and loved ones as they set sail for Europe from Isla Mujeres
Friends and loved ones as the group set sail for Europe from Isla Mujeres. Photograph: Lourdes Cruz/EPA

The mariners hope to arrive in the north-western Spanish coastal city of Vigo some time before 13 August, which will be the 500th anniversary of the Spanish sacking of the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán, which became Mexico City. This year Mexico is also celebrating the 200th anniversary of its independence from Spain.

If they are unable to enter the country, they plan to unfurl a banner reading “Wake up!”, according to a Zapatista statement. “But if we are able to disembark and embrace with words those who fight, resist and rebel there,” the statement said, “then there will be parties, dancing, songs and cumbias … shaking the floors and distant skies.”

The Zapatistas will then embark on a tour across Europe to meet NGOs and other groups in order to share their thoughts on how best to tackle “the inequality that comes from the capitalist socio-economic system”.

The Zapatista National Liberation Army became famous as representatives of the anti-globalisation movement after briefly leading an uprising in the southern Chiapas state on New Year’s Day 1994, which coincided with the enactment of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Known for wearing balaclavas and traditional Mayan dress, the Zapatistas live in autonomous municipalities, which are self-sufficient and do not participate in government assistance programmes.

Mexico’s president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, has promoted 2021 as a year of remembrance. On Monday he travelled to the Maya community of Tihosuco to ask forgiveness for the 18th-century war of the castes, in which the Maya people of the Yucatán peninsula rose up against the slave-like conditions they worked under harvesting henequin, which was used to make rope.

“We offer the most sincere apologies to the Maya people for the terrible abuses committed by private individuals and Mexican and foreign authorities during the three centuries of colonial dominion and two centuries of the independent Mexico,” said López Obrador, commonly known as Amlo.

Amlo has had a complicated relationship with indigenous peoples, however. He promised to put the poor and excluded – including indigenous people – first in his government and received a consecrated staff representing governance from indigenous leaders at his inauguration.

The mariners hope to arrive in Vigo some time before 13 August, the 500th anniversary of the Spanish sacking of the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán, which became Mexico City
The mariners hope to arrive in Vigo some time before 13 August, the 500th anniversary of the Spanish sacking of the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán, which became Mexico City. Photograph: Lourdes Cruz/EPA

But he has pushed forward with mega-projects such as a train line around the Yucatán peninsula, which Maya communities say they have not been properly consulted about.

“You can’t support the exploited and the people doing the exploiting,” Subcomandante Moisés said in a 2019 message directed at Amlo. “You have to pick one.”

López Obrador has previously asked the Spanish crown and the Vatican to apologise for the conquest. Spain dismissed the request, saying it “profoundly regretted” the publication of a letter from the Mexican president to King Felipe.

La Montana sets sail for Europe from Isla Mujeres
La Montana sets sail for Europe from Isla Mujeres. Photograph: Alfredo Estrella/AFP/Getty Images

“The arrival of the Spanish on Mexican soil 500 years ago cannot be judged in the light of contemporary considerations,” it said in a statement at the time. “Our closely related peoples have always known how to view our shared history without anger and from a shared perspective, as free peoples with a common heritage and an extraordinary future.” The Vatican said it had already addressed the issue.

The Zapatistas, however, have a rather different agenda. “We are going to tell the people of Spain two simple things,” they said in a statement. “One, they did not conquer us, we are still here resisting, in rebellion. Second, they do not have to ask that we forgive them for anything.”