The Zapatistas at 20: Change without taking power

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‘We are sorry for the inconvenience, but this is a revolution’.1 This is what Subcomandante Marcos told a group of tourists who feared they wouldn’t be able to make it to their destination during the Zapatista armed uprising in the Chiapas, Southern Mexico. These words were spoken twenty years ago. Others may equally, if not more, have been disturbed. Such as the Mexican government which had just ratified the North American Free Trade Agreement treaty. Or those who thought this was the end of history. That liberal capitalism was the final horizon of humanity.

And yet, here they were. While others in the capital city were enjoying their champagne, in the early hours of the New Year in 1994, the Zapatistas launched their military offensive in the Chiapas, the poorest region in Mexico. On the same day they issued the First Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle2. In clear and eloquent language they explained they were the product of ‘500 years of Struggle’ before listing all ills that have been committed against ‘poor men just like us’ by the Mexican ruling class ‘a 70 year old dictatorship led by a clique of traitors that represent the most conservative and sell-out groups’. It issued an order to its fighting arm, the EZLN, to march on the capital and called upon the people of Mexico to join them in the fight for ‘work, land, housing, food, health care, education, independence, freedom, democracy, justice and peace’.

These demands could as well have been made by the Sandinistas or the Cuban guerrillas in the 1950s. This is perhaps as far the comparison goes. Denise Drake3 who worked in the Chiapas and has co-founded the London-Mexican Solidarity Group believes that Zapatistas are different from previous armed groups.

‘They declared war on the government but they did not want power themselves, they declared war to be heard. They never meant it to be protracted, it was meant to make the world sit up and pay attention’ she says.

Dr Claire Brewster4, senior lecturer of Latin American history at Newcastle University, believes that ‘the Zapatistas had no chance against the might of the Mexican forces and they knew it. The majority of the Zapatistas don’t want to use the weapons; either for pacific reasons, the futility of it and because they knew they’d lose advantage of worldwide sympathy if they did’.

The mysteriously masked Subcomandante Marcos masterfully used his role as the spokesperson for the EZLN to captivate attention far beyond the jungles of the Chiapas. Dr Brewster believes ‘their use of the word use of humour, through their spokesman’s eloquence’ also sets them apart; ´they used facts and figures that no-one could dispute which made all Mexicans feel extremely uncomfortable. ‘

Petar Stanchev6 is a member of the Essex Zapatista Solidarity group. He now lives in Mexico and has travelled extensively through the Chiapas, participating in events organized by the Zapatistas. ‘The Zapatistas were the first movement in the world to use the internet as a tool of social empowerment’ he says. ‘They used alternative networks to spread their message and this is what ‘won’ their war. They gained enormous solidarity around the world and in Mexico, which made the army stop their invasion, because of the pressure of civil society, internationally and in Mexico’.

After twelve days a cease fire was negotiated. Though lower level violence has continued, the EZLN has not re-embarked on a full scale military offensive since.

‘However, they never gave up their guns, and this is very important. Though the supreme examples of non-violent resistance, they remain an armed social movement ‘explains the spokesperson of the UK based Zapatista solidarity group. ‘And it is very clear that they can never allow themselves to be provoked into an armed response, or they will be obliterated.’

In Latin America, many armed groups have transformed into a political party after laying down their weapons. In Nicaragua and El Salvador, former guerilla groups have successfully made this transition and have come to power by the ballot rather than the bullet. The Zapatistas did not want power, nor did they wait for the state to bring the changes they wanted to see.

‘They expected to bring about changes in the entire Mexican society through negotiation with the state. They were disappointed when the state did not stick to its promises. This lead to the Zapatista autonomy’ tells Petar. ‘Though there had been attempts before that, the most mature project of creating autonomous civil structures started in the 2003, when the Zapatistas divided the civil structure from the military structure in order implement the full direct libertarian democracy that would make the revolution last,’

In their zone of influence the Zapatista’s set up a society based on the principles of direct participatory democracy. Instead of overthrowing the state, they have created a society, autonomous from the government.

‘We are talking about autonomous government, autonomous justice, autonomous education, healthcare, women participation, completely autonomous from the government. Creating another world, of different social economic and political relations. We are talking about a place which is geographically as big as El Salvador with a population of 250 000 people, living in direct democracy’ argues Petar. ‘The autonomy has gone really far; a giant system of education, healthcare, including hospitals and ambulances, which are controlled by the people, owned by the people. The justice system works without prisons and without severe punishment. ‘

Yet, the Zapatistas have always emphasized they are nor an indigenous, nor secessionist movement. In his book Democracy in Mexico, Dan La Braz writes that ‘while the EZLN is based in the indigenous communities, the EZLN is nevertheless a Mexican movement with national goals’. 7

In 2006 the Zapatistas organized the ‘Otra Campana’; Subcomandante Marcos toured Mexico for several months in an attempt to reach out to other resistance groups and civil society.

‘The strategy of the Zapatistas has always been to build a broader national coalition with alike movements’ says Dr John Gledhill8, Professor of Social Anthropology at Manchester University. He is more sceptical of the ‘Otra Campana’; ‘none of those attempts achieved what they set out to achieve and because this wider strategy just didn’t work very well. They have been increasingly focussed on building these autonomous communities in Chiapas’.

‘They still continue to try to inspire movements which are sociologically different. They build networks, which do not have central control but which do coordinate activities. The strategy is not one of trying to foresee the future but a strategy of negotiating the direction you go in, taking into account the views of the different participants, which is very different from the traditional way of doing politics. ‘

Dr Gledhill does not believe the Zapatistas have become less ambitious ‘their aims have not reduced, just the timescale is more realistic. Everything they say indicates that they expect this to be a long drawn out process’

Their latest initiative is a continuation of this strategy. In the wake of the 20th anniversary of the uprising, the Zapatistas opened up to the world by inviting participants from all horizons to come to the Chiapas and learn about the Zapatista experience and philosophy in what they call their ‘escualitias’.

‘The Zapatistas are making an incredible effort to reach the world and Mexico’ says Petar, who participated last December. ‘ The idea of the escualitas is: you are coming here, you are seeing how we are doing it, get inspired and do it in your own backyard. For the Zapatistas this is their way of sending their message to the world.’

Is the 20th anniversary a reason for celebration?

Dr Brewster believes ‘the main achievement of the Zapatistas is that they are still around. Racism in Mexico is gradually being addressed. Indigenous dignity and self-respect is increasing.  Atrocities still continue, and the divisions in wealth remain, but attitudes are changing.  Sadly, it will take much more time for concrete changes to occur, but an important significant step has been taken on this road. ‘

For Petar they have also ideologically left their mark: ‘They gave hope that revolutionary change was possible at a time when utopia was dead. They inspired all that followed: the alter globalisation movement, Seattle, Genoa and Occupy are all following the Zapatista logic of rejecting electoral politics and constructing alternatives here and now’.

There is a video in which Subcommante Marcos tells the viewers he will show them a picture of himself and take off his iconic ski-mask. He then shows the camera a mirror and instead of showing his face, the video shows the face of people, white, black, male, female, young and old. Though anchored in indigenous traditions and Mexican history, their message and practices have inspired far beyond the Chiapas. As Marcos himself says: Marcos is gay in San Francisco, black in South Africa, , a Chicano in San Ysidro, an anarchist in Spain, a Palestinian in Israel .. an unemployed worker, an unhappy student and, of course, a Zapatista in the mountains.’9

1 Subcomandante Marcos (1994), cited in Henck, N., 2007. Subcomandante Marcos: The Man and the Mask. Durham, Duke University Press

2 EZLN., 1994. ‘First Declaration from the Lacandon Jungle’ [online] available at: http://flag.blackened.net/revolt/mexico/ezln/ezlnwa.html [accessed 28 April 2014]

3 Interview, Telephone, Cardiff-London. 9/5/14

4 Interview, e-mail. Cardiff-Newcastle 9/5/14

5 Interview, e-mail, Cardiff-Dorset 9/5/14

6 Interview, Skype, Cardiff-Meridan 9/5/14

7 La Botz, D., 1995. Democracy in Mexico. Boston: South End Press

8 Interview, telephone, Cardiff-Copenhagen, 10/5/14

9 Subcomandante Marcos., 1994. ‘Communiqué, May 28, 1994’ [online] available at: http://www.spunk.org/texts/places/mexico/sp000655.txt [accessed 10 May 2014]

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