Publications Index | Encyclopedia of Trotskyism | Marxists’s Internet Archive

Socialist Review Index (1993–1996) | Socialist Review 177 Contents

Socialist Review, July/August 1994

Augusta Dwyer

‘The Zapatistas have opened our eyes’


From Socialist Review, No. 177, July/August 1994.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The uprising early this year by the Zapatista Army of National Liberation has shaken the Mexican ruling class and echoed round the world. Augusta Dwyer spoke to leading militants of the movement about their struggle

Capitalism, we are told, is not only the best and most democratic system possible but one which is by and large accepted by the working class and the oppressed. No recent event destroys this myth more effectively than the uprising of indigenous peoples in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas.

In Chiapas the typical capitalist promises of prosperity and democracy ring particularly hollow, with land distribution heavily weighted towards rich and powerful ranchers, a centuries old tradition of discrimination against indigenous people and blatant poverty for the vast majority.

The enormous challenge the uprising presents to the government’s carefully woven web of repression and deceit and the refusal to accept such conditions any longer, should be an inspiration to socialists everywhere.

The uprising by Tzotzil, Tzeltal, Chol and Tolojobal peoples, united under the banner of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation, began on 1 January with the spectacular taking of six municipalities. Once they achieved the demonstration of their force and publicity for their cause, the Zapatistas left the towns and returned to their camps in the Lacandon Forest area further south. Since then hundreds more have joined them as workers, peasants and students throughout the country have identified with the cause.

The Zapatista demands – land, decent housing, schools, health clinics, decent salaries, equality, liberty, justice, clean elections and a transitional government – are simple yet revolutionary. They expose the vast chasm between rich and poor, the wage controls that make the Mexican worker among the lowest paid in the world, as well as the corruption and hypocrisy that are hallmarks of the party that has monopolised power for decades, the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI.

When President Salinas realised that he could not simply go in and smash the Zapatistas, he opted for another tactic, that of dialogue. His peace commissioner responded to their demands with the vague and insubstantial offers which have now been roundly rejected by the Zapatista communities.

The Zapatista forces now include some 12,000 soldiers and militia, backed by 400 indigenous communities. It is at the community level where, after discussion and a direct vote, all decisions are taken. The Indigenous Revolutionary Clandestine Committee, or CCRI, which directs the organisation, is made up of delegates from these communities.

According to Remiro, community representative for the village of El Prado, where the Zapatista leadership is headquartered, decisions of, all kinds, from what to plant on communal lands to local justice, have always been reached after village assemblies. Men, women and, depending on the ethnic group, children as young as 12, may vote in these assemblies (or in the words of Subcommandante Marcos, ‘anyone who can stay awake through the meeting’). If the elected person ‘does not do his job properly, anyone who breaks with community’, says Remiro, ‘he is easily removed.’

The decision to drop their constant attempts for better conditions through endless petitions to the government and take up arms, said Remiro, was taken about ten years ago. Over the years, as more and more communities joined the Zapatista movement, they have elected delegates to regional committees as well as to the CCRI. The proposal to start the uprising this year ‘was passed to all the communities,’ says Marcos. ‘Everyone was asked what they thought. Then there was a direct vote. It was the same when the government proposed the talks. You have to go to every one of these communities because those who decided the war have to decide if it will stop.’ All military orders, he added, emerge from this process.

The regional committees also make decisions, respecting differences of opinion between the different ethnic groups.

‘For example, the application of war taxes,’ says Marcos, ‘or who gets in, who doesn’t, with whom they will talk and with whom they won’t talk. These are their decisions. So that means that in one region they charge war taxes, and not in others. It could mean that in one region they apply a tougher policy against the big ranchers and in others not.’

Behind this system of communal democracy lie appalling poverty and neglect. In many villages such as El Prado families live in dark, windowless houses made of adobe brick with thatched roofs, black with the soot of cooking fires inside.

The school is a plain wooden structure without desks, books or teachers. Most of the children in Prado speak their own language, not Spanish. According to one of the Zapatista nurses, a lieutenant named Elena, malnutrition is common and even easily cured diseases are deadly. ‘If a baby gets diarrhoea or begins to vomit,’ she said, ‘he usually doesn’t last a day or more.’ With the nearest hospital more than a day’s walk away, ‘often people just don’t make it.’

Elena says she joined the Zapatistas ten years ago, when she was 20 years old, ‘because of what I saw when I was at home. I saw that it wasn’t fair the way we were living.’ Like almost all of the Zapatista insurgents interviewed, Elena had never been to school and could neither read, write nor speak Spanish before joining. Many say they joined because they were poor, because they had nothing to lose, or because they had seen so many die of illness that it made more sense to die fighting for a cause. The arrival in their villages of members of the Zapatista organisation united them and gave them some way of fighting for that cause.

For women like Elena, the break from a life of backbreaking labour, childcare and serving their husbands, to earning ranks and carrying arms, is a liberating one. They emerge from a contradiction where they have the right to a vote, but enjoy practically no personal freedom from their fathers and husbands. A young soldier named Amalia could see that contradiction coming from the overall system.

‘Maybe our parents – it’s because the government does not take women into account,’ she said. ‘For them women serve no function. But here it is different. Men and women are equal. Women in the army play important roles. It’s no longer like life as a civilian.’

There are now a number of women on the CCRI and, judging by an early Marcos communique, they have already begun to lead the way in questioning women’s status in their own families and communities. Early last year a CCRI member named Susana visted dozens of communities asking women what they wanted, and returned with a proposal that read:

‘We don’t want to be obliged to marry someone we don’t want. We only want to bear the children we want and that we can care for. We want the right to carry out community posts. We want the right to study and even to [learn to] drive.’

Support for the Zapatista movement continues to grow throughout Mexico. The Saturday following the uprising saw a crowd of 50,000 demonstrators in Mexico City’s main square. On the anniversary of the assassination of revolutionary hero Emiliano Zapata, even larger crowds marched through the city, attracting peasant and indigenous organisations from all over the country.

‘The left and the workers’ movement have been stagnant for years,’ said a member of the independent General Workers Assembly, or AGT. ‘People had given up on the idea of armed struggle, believing the only way we could achieve anything was through electing the opposition to the presidency. Now the Zapatistas have opened our eyes.’

Reformist politics, with the belief that change can only come from above, have taken their toll on the left in Mexico. Too often so called independent and in some cases quite far left organisations have succumbed to control and cooption by the PRI. With their vision being one of the party taking power, rather than the working class and peasants themselves, fostering any kind of rank and file organising or consciousness among members becomes irrelevant.

The Zapatista movement is in many ways a counter-reaction to such politics. According to Marcos, the global turn to neo-conservatist economics and the fall of Stalinism in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe ‘brought us to the thinking that the problem of power and the way forward for society is something that cannot be resolved from above.’ Whatever the colour of the party, he adds, ‘in the end the social base, the people, are alienated, from the political process. That is to say, they may support one tendency or another, but they do not necessarily make it theirs.’

He and his comrades originally went to Chiapas about ten years ago. The way forward, should they achieve their goal of a democratic opening, is one of the various sectors of Mexican society – workers, students, peasants and the indigenous peoples – deciding what to do themselves.

The Zapatistas do not intend or promote the taking of power themselves, ‘because in the end it just displaces the problem once again,’ said Marcos. ‘It would be the same as the PRI, which imposes itself through force of arms. We do have a proposal for the way forward, but it and every other proposal has to confront the majority. And if this majority has the means to make its power count, they will then have power.’

How does the working class fit in? It is ‘the element without which our revolution – any revolution – is impossible. But concretely it is this revolution of a new type that we propose’. But Marcos admits there is widespread suspicion among the working class for proposals that are supposed to solve their problems. ‘Because they have been deceived, betrayed, lied to... they will not do anything unless they see that you are not going to betray them. We have a lot of contacts with the working class sectors, but they come with this terrible suspicion.’

In the run up to the August elections, more and more groups in Mexico have been building up stocks of arms in case of fraud. All over the country there is talk of uprisings. Will the Zapatistas stick to their principles and seek to spread their ideas among the Mexican working class and other sections of the population?

Socialists face a hard argument. Socialism is about workers taking over the factories and offices, peasants seizing control of the land, the working class taking power through its own struggles. But the decades of opportunism and manipulation hiding behind apparently socialist rhetoric; the experience of union confederations dominated by government stooges; and the dreadful international legacy of Stalinism – all weigh heavily in the balance.

The movement which will truly challenge the ruling class has still to be built: among the millions of workers in Mexico City and the north.

Every time the oppressed join together and rise up to challenge the system that exploits and destroys them, socialists celebrate.

The Chiapas uprising is an inspiration because it embodies some of the best traditions of the revolutionary movement with its emphasis on popular democracy, on the right to recall and replace those who represent you, and above all on the liberation of all the oppressed.

Socialist Review Index   |   ETOL Main Page

Last updated: 9 May 2017