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Mike Gonzalez

The Zapatistas

The challenges of revolution in a new millennium

(Winter 2000)

From International Socialism 2:89, Winter 2000.
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Reaching a crossroads

There were those who argued that the fall of the Berlin Wall would mark the beginning of a new era when a full blown capitalism, allowed to roam freely across the face of the globe, would finally be allowed to bring prosperity to every corner of the earth. The myth fell to pieces on the Basra Road, where the evidence of the methods of capitalism’s expansion was exposed to a watching instant world audience by CNN. In the period that followed the abandonment of Africa, the brutal imposition of neo-liberal economic strategies, and the disintegration of Russia ushered in a period of aggression that continued through the Balkans and beyond.

What was unclear in those early years of the 1990s was where and in what form resistance would express itself. In reality, of course, the struggle against the depredations of capitalism had not relented for a moment – the Palestinian Intifada continued unabated through the so called ‘end of history’, the landless and homeless of Brazil began their occupation of empty spaces throughout that vast country, and South Africa celebrated the overthrow of apartheid.

And yet many on the left seemed transfixed by the idea that revolution was no longer possible – as if the possibility of the mass overthrow of capitalism was inextricably linked to those brutal bureaucracies of Eastern Europe which claimed the legacy of workers’ revolution while savagely repressing any attempt by their own workers to organise in defence of their own class. The struggles against capitalism continued unabated, but they were now described as ‘new social movements’, a designation which seemed to distance them from any class content and from any general understanding – those much derided ‘grand narratives’ that sought out the laws of motion that linked and connected apparently disparate phenomena. And it was true that on the surface many of these forms of organisation appeared to arise out of local issues or to make a virtue of the fact that they had no programme for a general social transformation. They were environmentalist or ethnic or rights movements with no prescription for the reorganisation of society as a whole.

New Year’s Day 1994

Then, on 1 January 1994, just after midnight, the local and the global coincided in a way whose enormous symbolic power was impossible to ignore. While the presidents of Mexico and the US, and the prime minister of Canada prepared to launch the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), a rising of indigenous communities in a remote part of southern Mexico – the state of Chiapas – seized the headlines. The EZLN – the Zapatista Army of National Liberation – issued its first communiqué. [1]

The celebration was almost immediate. John Berger and Roger Burbach were among those who proclaimed this ‘the first postmodern revolution’. [2] What was it that so attracted the disappointed sections of the old left to the Zapatistas? And why did an insurgent Chiapas later become such a central feature of the emerging new movement grouped around the condemnation of global capital and its destructive incursions into every corner of the world?

At one level, the particular history of Chiapas illustrated how remorseless and pervasive was the process of globalisation; on another, that same history exposed in the harshest light the actual consequences of those global programmes of economic integration and ‘rationalisation’ masked by anodyne terms like ‘structural adjustment’. Duncan Green quotes The Economist, a journal that can usually be relied on to tell the truth to its own supporters among the ruling class: ‘Stabilisation and structural adjustment have brought magnificent returns to the rich.’ [3] Those returns, of course, represented a redistribution of wealth across the world. In the specific case of Latin America, for example, ‘60 million new names were added to the roll call of those living in poverty in Latin America’, according to statistics provided by the Economic Commission for Latin America (CEPAL) between 1990 and 1993. [4] By 1997 that figure had increased to the point where 36 percent of all households lived below the poverty levels defined by UNESCO. [5]

In broad brush strokes these inelastic statistics translated into an increasingly repeated general picture. Multinational corporations encroached further and further into lands previously given to subsistence agriculture or food production, using them for the cultivation of export crops with advanced technologies. At the same time the much cheaper food imports from the United States – maize in particular – undermined that area of agriculture too. A particularly poignant example was the shift of the Salvadorean economy towards flower production at the expense of food growing lands. [6] The little land given to food production was increasingly polluted by the highly toxic fertilisers employed to accelerate the gowth of the flowers. The same process was repeated on a much larger scale throughout the continent.

Those agricultural workers or peasant farmers expelled from the land drifted towards the expanding city slums in search of casual work which, as often as not, meant joining the ghostly armies of ‘ambulantes’ – street sellers selling contraband goods or chewing gum or consumer durables, or fire-eating and tumbling in front of snarling rows of cars at traffic lights. Or they joined the roaming gangs of young muggers or drug dealers who ranged the streets of almost every Central American town after 1990. In the countryside unemployment grew even more rapidly than in the cities, and extreme poverty made its reappearance there. A resurgent tourism brought a new market for sun and sand and the multiple aspects of ‘service’ which involved Latin Americans in selling one or several of their physical attributes in exchange for the indispensable dollar – indispensable because the other aspect of structural adjustment was the systematic dismantling of public services, health and education. As each of these became privatised, they also became available to a limited dollar-earning clientele. No one escaped – not even Cuba, despite its many claims to have escaped the remorseless laws of survival in the global market. [7]

The North American Free Trade Agreement represented in some ways a second stage in that process of integration and adjustment. It was ‘the first ever regional trade agreement between a first and a third world economy’ [8] – even though Mexico was one of the largest of the non-metropolitan economies – ‘a crucible in which advanced technology, subsistence farming, global finance capital, massive underemployment, and contrasting legal and political systems are mixed for the first time’. [9] What NAFTA guaranteed was the removal of all tariff barriers and restrictions on foreign investment, even for state procurement. In agriculture all tariffs would be fully removed within 15 years, spelling the effective disappearance of all but the most large-scale sugar, maize and vegetable growing enterprises. Even Mexico’s most symbolically sacred area – oil production – was partially opened [10], and the financial industry had already opened significant areas to foreign involvement – insurance and the stock market, for example – before eliminating all and any financial barriers by 2007.

The then president Carlos Salinas de Gortari was a late but enthusiastic convert to NAFTA. The enormous personal fortune he accrued and his ubiquitous involvement in all manner of dirty tricks, including the elimination of his competitors and political opponents, may explain his conversion. Furthermore he was the president of the PRI, the Institutional Revolutionary Party which had governed Mexico in one form or another since the 1920s and which constituted effectively the political machinery of the state. It was in every sense a bureaucratic dictatorship whose six-yearly election of a new president indicated only a transfer of power between components of the governing elite. So when Salinas announced that ‘what was most satisfying at the end of the day is that we achieved a balance that is good for all three countries’ [11], he had every reason to assume that with this degree of political and economic control the victims of the new agreement would not interfere with NAFTA’s much-vaunted official launch.

He was quite extraordinarily wrong.

The rising of the red bandannas

The armed movement that took the town of San Cristóbal de las Casas, capital of the southern Mexican state of Chiapas, could not have been more of a contrast to the snappily-suited bevy of international businessmen and politicians (Clinton and Salinas among them) who had gathered to sign the NAFTA documents. These were indigenous people, members of the 21 or so ethnic groups who occupied the areas in and around the Lacand-n forest near the border with Guatemala. They spoke a number of languages. Their weapons were limited to rifles – and some of the insurrectionaries carried only wooden facsimiles. Their dress was often handmade – blankets made locally, rough sandals, woollen balaclavas to hide their faces. What could be more remote from the world of consumer goods and multinational capital flows that concerned the NAFTA signatories – especially since they spoke Tojolobal and Tzotzil and K’iche rather than the English of the global market? Yet in their apparently remote region the talks conducted in comfortable air-conditioned offices shaped and impacted directly on their everyday lives. The distance was only apparent. The global market’s steel grip held their lives in thrall too.

The ethnicities to which they belonged constituted some of the 10 million or so indigenous people of Mexico – people whose conditions of life and standards of living were among the very lowest on the continent. Of the 3 million or so residents of Chiapas at that time, one third were illiterate – overwhelmingly indigenous people. Half the population lived in homes without running water, again most of them members of ethnic minorities. Disease was rampant, life expectancy lower than any other section of Mexico’s 90 million population, and 39 percent of the population of the state earned less than the minimum wage, with infant mortality – at nearly 55 per 1,000 – among the highest in the country, if not in the region. [12] As the First Declaration of the Lacandón Forest put it:

We have been denied the most elemental instruction, in order thus to use us as cannon fodder and loot the wealth of our country without any care for the fact that we are dying of hunger and curable diseases; without any care for the fact that we have nothing, absolutely nothing; no roof worthy of the name, nor land nor work, nor health, nor food, nor education; without the right to elect our authories freely and democratically; without independence from foreigners, without peace or justice for ourselves or for our children.
Today we say ‘Basta! Enough!’ [13]

Yet Chiapas produced half of Mexico’s hydroelectricity, was the largest coffee exporting state and produced the second highest quantities of oil after Veracruz. It was also increasingly important as a cattle producer. The contrast speaks for itself.

The data, however, conceal a specific historical experience which lies at the roots of the Zapatista movement and to some degree explains its characteristic forms of organisation and its symbolic language.

In the mid-1930s, under the populist presidency of Lázaro Cárdenas, one of the key demands of the peasant revolutionaries led by Zapata finally began to be fulfilled – the expropriation of agricultural land and its redistribution in the form of communal holdings called ejidos. Through the 1940s the redistribution continued, though the land given over to ejidos in Chiapas tended to be marginal land, distant from roads and infrastructural services and often previously uncultivated, in the Lacandón forest and the river basins. The recipients were largely indigenous communities. As Chiapas’s agricultural economy grew through the 1960s and 1970s, cattle raising became the most important area of activity – and while the ejidos did raise some cattle they were mainly sold on as calves to the big cattle-raising estates producing for the national and international market. Indeed ejido land was itself increasingly sub-let to larger individual farmers or to the big estates – even though that was specifically forbidden by the originating legislation. By the 1970s many ejido members found themselves working as waged labourers on land of which they were the nominal collective owners. In the same decade cattle production doubled (from 2 million to nearly 4 million head), occupying more and more land, and an oil boom drew growing numbers from the land to the boom towns of north eastern Chiapas. At the same time growing demand for electricity from an expanding urban economy in a period of boom led directly to the flooding of 100,000 hectares (a quarter of a million acres) of fine farmland.

There was resistance, of course. Bishop Samuel Ruiz, nominated to his post despite the vehement objections of the conservative church, had already organised a peasant conference in October 1974 at which 527 delegates represented 327 indigenous communities. The main issues the congress addressed concerned the aggressive encroachment of the big cattle estates onto communal land, the corruption of government officials and their involvement with the big landowners, and the absence of labour rights for plantation workers. The Indian communities and farmers described how local officials controlled access to markets on the one hand and credit on the other, an exploitation reinforced by an absence of cultural rights (fundamentally the right to use their own language) and an astonishing lack of even the most basic health facilities. [14] The response of the government to the congress in practice was given with the murder by the army of six peasants shortly afterwards.

Tensions were exacerbated by the crisis of the early 1980s which began with the devaluation of 1982. The government of de la Madrid (1982–1988) marked the first steps in the move towards the full blown policies of structural adjustment introduced by the Salinas regime. So the rescue of the Mexican economy organised by the international financial institutions and private US capital not only involved incurring a massive debt, but also carried with it conditions and strings which de la Madrid enthusiastically applied. The result was a collapse in the value of wages of close to 40 percent, cuts in social spending of over 40 percent, a rise in unemployment of 15 percent (from 9 percent to 24 percent of the economically active population) and a rampant programme of privatisation. The overall outcome was a dramatic redistribution of wealth towards the rich – with labour’s share of GDP falling from 41 percent to 29 percent.

In Chiapas itself the general picture applied in extreme forms: 400 percent more cattle were exported between 1982 and 1987, yet the number of herds fell significantly – the industry was becoming concentrated in fewer and fewer hands. The abolition of the state INMECAFE agency put small coffee growers at the mercy of the intermediaries acting on behalf of the international market – the result would be the virtual collapse of small coffee production. Throughout this period the communities resisted, organised and fought back. The government, for its part, introduced occasional reforms and redistributions of land. But in no case were these intended to fundamentally alter the patterns of land ownership or income distribution. In its usual way, the state and the PRI, its political expression, used grants of land to ejidos and the provision of subsidies as instruments of patronage and methods of political control – a local client leadership was established for whom subsidies and land titles were rewards for their allegiance to the PRI. Although this often succeeded in confusing and dividing the burgeoning grass roots resistance, it could not stop the growth of independent organisations, like the Zapatistas. In 1989–1990 the PRI governor of Chiapas, Patrocinio González Garrido, himself a wealthy cattle baron, embarked on a repressive campaign against the organisations of indigenous resistance while simultaneously appropriating communal lands and small farms for absorption into the big agricultural estates. Peasant protests were broken up by armed gangs, communal rights ignored, the movement’s leaders snatched and imprisoned. [15] In 1991 a group of women from Ecatepec staged a protest sit-in in central Mexico City, and the following year the violent repression of a meeting of indigenous organisations provoked a six-week march by 400 people from Palenque to Mexico City which finally broke the conspiracy of silence.

The rise and rise of Zapatismo

Those who saw the Zapatista movement as a virtually spontaneous outburst against neo-liberalism and its strategies were quite simply wrong. The EZLN was a movement about whose actual founding date there still seems to be some disagreement, but which had been established at the very least five years before the rising of 1994. More importantly it drew on 20 years of virtually continuous and determined struggle on the part of a range of communities and organisations against the depredations visited upon them not so much by a particular tactical decision as by the development of Mexican capitalism itself. The fact that most of those involved in the resistance held to indigenous cultural traditions and spoke Spanish imperfectly did not absolve them from the processes of accumulation agreed and organised in profoundly different circumstances by people who had nothing in common with them. And nor did the often low level of technology they employed in a usually labour-intensive system of production, or the absence of even the most elementary social provisions signify that they stood outside the circles of reproduction of an international capitalist system. But it did serve to indicate how very remote they were from any system of representation – a political voice, of which their multiple and little understood ethnic languages came to symbolise their lack.

Yet 1992–1994 did mark a qualitative change in the character of peasant organisation and struggle in Chiapas. It is worth repeating that, while it may fit with a largely Western mythology about how the oppressed begin to resist, it is simply not true that, the transformation of indigenous struggle in the region was spontaneous or instinctive. It does not fit with a model of the rising of the innocents, a last-ditch defence of ancient and enduring forms of life. This was a population who had struggled to function within a modern economy, and in the face of the relentless assaults of the representatives of an aggressive global capitalism which had long since penetrated even into the remotest corners of the Chiapas region.

What 1992 did mark, however, was an important change in the forms of struggle and in the ideology of peasant insurrection. A key element was the decision by Salinas to revoke Article 27 of the Mexican Constitution; it was a decision of deep resonance and far-reaching significance. Article 27 referred to the promise of agrarian reform and the right of communal ownership – under the reformed article land could be bought and sold and the state’s commitment to land reform was officially ended. True, Article 27 had more often been observed in the breach – it nevertheless had remained as a defining expression of the ideal nature of the state. It was the banner of the radical wing of the Mexican Revolution of 1910–1917 whose slogan – Tierra y Libertad (Land and Liberty) – was personified by the leader of the peasant insurrectionaries, Emiliano Zapata. [16]

The subsequent survival of the post-revolutionary Mexican state, a political compromise between the new political class born of the period of military struggle and parts of the old landed oligarchy, depended in large part on its ability to maintain ideological hegemony and political control over the agricultural workers and the peasantry on the one hand, and the burgeoning working class on the other. [17] The prelude to the forging of the new state was the murder of Zapata himself, in 1919, for he would not tolerate the consensus that might draw him into a new ruling elite but would abandon forever the commitment to the socialisation of land. It has been argued that Zapata was a peasant revolutionary, whose concerns were limited to a radical agrarian reform and who was unable to break out of that limited frame of reference to address the connections between the separate areas of class struggle – and that consequently his movement was little more than a jacquerie, a peasant rising. Adolfo Gilly among others [18] provides the evidence that in the course of the armed struggle Zapata’s vision evolved, developed and was deeply transformed. But the circumstances and pace of that change, and the asymmetries between political developments elsewhere and within Zapata’s own movement, both provide the narrative structure of the history of that ‘unfinished revolution’ and suggest parallels between the experience of Zapata himself and the movement that took his name some 80 years later.

Zapata’s base was in the state of Morelos, south of Mexico City, and the neighbouring province of Puebla. Morelos was a centre of the expanding sugar industry of early 20th century Mexico; the growth of the plantations occurred at the expense of the rural communities who owned and worked the land, often communally, to produce largely food crops. As the plantations expanded their land was invaded and stolen with the active support of the notorious guardia rural, the armed rural guards commanded and controlled by Mexico’s dictator of 30 years, Porfirio Díaz. The revolutionary manifesto which Zapata produced in Februrary 1911, the Plan de Ayala, expressed the demands of his class of small farmers and their communities – for communal land rights and political freedom. In forging an alliance with sections of the old landowning class, the rulers of the new Mexican state turned against the rural movement.

In late November 1914 Zapata and Villa entered Mexico City and ended the attempt by Victoriano Huerta to restore the old regime. For a month or two they effectively held control of the government. But neither had envisaged the conquest of state power – and they withdrew to their regional strongholds. But there was no doubt that their presence in the capital had frightened the new bourgeoisie – they had expelled the counter-revolutionary threat of Huerta, but having done so they themselves now became the obstacle to the forging of a new national state. Within a month Carranza, a wealthy landowner and a state governor under the Diaz dictatorship, became the leader of the new Mexico. His national project was well defined in an early decree recognising the right to private ownership of the land. It was consistent, therefore, that he should see it as his first task to mobilise forces against Zapata and Villa, including the infamous Red Batallions of workers mobilised against Zapata. As the military assault on Zapata progressed he was driven further and further into his Morelos redoubt and to a large extent besieged there.

At the same time, however, Zapata and his advisers were enacting a series of decrees and creating a range of organisations within the besieged province which suggested that Zapata was moving rapidly in an increasingly radical direction in his social and political thinking. Under siege from a national army, Zapata began to recognise the necessity of an alliance between peasants and workers, for the socialisation of land and property, and for radical democratic forms. He was no unlettered peasant in any case – he had been aware of and in contact with anarchist ideas from an early age. Their distrust of the bourgeoisie and emphasis on mass action clearly convinced him, but their refusal to address issues of political power and the control of the state go far to explain Zapata’s decision to withdraw from Mexico City (and from the battle for the conquest of power) early in 1915. His critical reappraisal of that experience was now (tragically) taking place under siege conditions and with few possibilities of making contact with the urban working class movement.

That experience, that history, has an unmistakable resonance for the end of century inheritors of Zapata’s mantle.

A road less travelled

The armed action on that January day in San Cristóbal was limited and quite rapidly contained – though there were other simultaneous actions against local police stations and barracks elsewhere in the region known as Las Cañadas, roughly the Lacandón forest. In fact it was not the EZLN’s first armed action. The decision to move to armed struggle had been taken at a meeting of indigenous community leaders in 1992. The timing of that agreement responded to the decisive abandonment of Article 27 of the Constitution; the state could no longer be seen as a potential defender of indigenous land rights; nor, as the experience of the previous four years of González Garrido’s governorship had shown in particular, could any of its representatives be relied on to defend the rights or representations enshrined elsewhere in the constitution.

Yet it had remained an almost wholly secret war until 1 January 1994 – despite the impact of the protest march of 1992 which for the first time brought the rural struggle to the heart of the capital. Then the limited armed actions provoked an extraordinary and rapid response outside Chiapas, which almost certainly restrained Salinas from the repressive military response he and previous presidents had employed as their prime instrument for addressing the problems of the people of Chiapas. This time he announced on 12 January 1994 a unilateral cease fire by the government. Within six weeks, on 20 February, peace talks began in San Cristóbal under the auspices of Bishop Samuel Ruiz. It was then that the negotiating committee of ski-masked Zapatistas, wearing indigenous dress, became an internationally recognised phenomenon. And chief among them was their central spokesperson, the Spanish-speaking Subcomandante Marcos. Though he appeared to be the leader of the movement, he insisted that he was speaking on behalf of a Clandestine Revolutionary Committee whose elected membership reflected the spectrum of communities and ethnicities that made up the Zapatista National Liberation Army.

Alma Guillermoprieto ascribes the reluctance of the Mexican government to move against the Zapatistas entirely to the impact of Marcos:

The huge, and life-saving outpourings of support in favour of a group that was essentially unheard-of less than two weeks earlier, and that espoused the violent overthrow of the state, was almost as astonishing as the rebellion itself. It would have been inconceivable without the communiqués and declarations of the man who at the time professed to be merely the ‘spokesperson’ of the insurrection, Subcomandante Marcos. [19]

The role of Marcos is undoubtedly central, though the debate about his politics and his significance in the struggle has generated rather more heat than light. But Guillermoprieto herself makes the kind of assertions that would be repeated in the months after the insurrection across the world. That the movement was ‘unheard-of’. By that she means that it was not known outside Chiapas – and the temptation is therefore to assume that it had not existed at all before a variety of external enthusiasts seized hold of the Zapatista cause. As I tried to show earlier, both Zapatismo and its component communities in struggle had quite a long history. Secondly she asserts that the EZLN ‘advocated the violent overthrow of society’; yet other enthusiastic supporters proclaim that ‘unlike almost all previous revolutions, the Zapatista revolution does not aim to take power’. [20] The contradiction is fundamental.

Marcos learned his politics during the Mexican student movement of 1968 which ended in savage repression on the eve of the Olympic Games of that year, when 500 or more students were gunned down in cold blood during a public meeting at Three Cultures Square, Taletelolco, in Mexico City on 2 October. Those leaders of the movement who were not killed or imprisoned and tortured often went into hiding to escape their government persecutors. The 1968 student movement was beset by political argument. The new generation of student leaders, clearly influenced by some of the anti-Stalinist notions filtering through from Europe and in particular from the US, were clearly deeply suspicious of the corrupt authoritarian regimes personified by Mexico’s current president, Díaz Ordaz. The Communist Party, for its part, had long been compromised for its complicity with elements of the ruling group and its collusion with the extraordinarily corrupt Mexican trade union leadership. The revolutionary socialist tradition, for its part, had few advocates in Mexico. [21] If there was a beacon of revolutionary hope it was Cuba, nourished by a Mexican national revolutionary mythology enshrined above all in Zapata – the symbol of an uncorrupted revolutionary ideal.

It was logical, therefore, that Maoism should take root among the generation of student revolutionaries seeking an international ideology embedded in a nationalist tradition and adapted to the withdrawal into the countryside that followed the repression of 1968. A document produced in mid-1968 in the course of the student movement in the capital presaged that future direction. It was called Hacia una Política Popular (Towards a Popular Politics), written by Adolfo Orive, a university lecturer at Mexico City’s UNAM and the group’s acknowledged leader. The ‘people’ to which it referred reflected a politics of alliances based on a bloc of several classes defined by their common exclusion from the state. [22]

The organisation’s ‘mass line’ was bitterly critical of the existing organisations of the left, which it saw as having only tenuous roots in the mass movement and of being locked into an antagonistic but permanent relationship with the PRI.

After the crushing of the student movement some student activists attempted – unsuccessfully – to create guerrilla groups in Chihuahua in the north and Guerrero (where there already existed an armed local resistance movement led by Genaro Vázquez) in the south. Those influenced by PP (Política Popular), however, moved into other areas, to work particularly with peasant groups, squatters and student groups. Their general political strategy – the ‘mass line’ mentioned earlier – was critical of armed struggle and profoundly sceptical of the Leninist conception of the party. Their ‘política de dos caras’ (politics on two fronts), was directed at a kind of political organisation on the margins, away from the threat of state repression and immersed within the mass movements. The method of organisation – deriving in part from the experience of 1968 – was what was called ‘una política asambleísta’ – direct democracy through mass meetings. René Gómez and Marta Orantes, for example, were two young Maoist agronomists who went to Chiapas around 1974 to help to prepare the Indigenous Congress organised by Bishop Ruiz. [23] Some eight years later another activist from the same political tradition would arrive in the area and begin the construction of the EZLN – Marcos.

The alliance between Maoist activists and representatives of liberation theology like Samuel Ruiz may at first glance seem a curious one. But it is certainly my view that these two disparate political currents shaped the political rhetoric which would later become such an object of fascination for the supporters of the Zapatistas around the world. What the two perspectives shared was an insistence on direct democracy and self activity, and a clear reaction against the Stalinist variants of Communism whose sorry history of compromise with dictatorships and state bureaucracy was particularly striking in Mexico, though it was a phenomenon repeated throughout the continent. That anti-Stalinism expressed itself as a deep hostility to the concept of the revolutionary party, or the caricatures of a Leninist model which had proliferated in Latin America’s more recent history. For the Maoist currents, too, Cuba’s absorption into the Soviet bloc ensured that neither Cuba itself, nor the kind of guerrilla politics which it had espoused up to 1968 could offer an alternative. [24] That suspicion of authoritarianism and emphasis on self activity, together with a strong sense of moral purpose, also characterised the ideas of ‘liberation theology’ – a current of thought that emerged out of a savage critique of the role of the Catholic church in defending dictatorship and legitimating oppression. Expressed at two Bishops’ Conferences at Medellin, Colombia (1967), and Puebla, Mexico (1969), the new theology was perhaps personified by Camilo Torres, the young Colombian priest who ‘opted to struggle with the poor’, joined the guerrillas, and was killed in 1965. Priests now emerged in the leadership of mass organisations of struggle throughout Latin America – and defended their use of arms where the repression was most bitter, as in Guatemala, El Salvador and Colombia.

In fact, the struggles of the 1980s produced a series of internal conflicts between organisations and their leaders. Separate Maoist factions within Chiapas each accused the other of factionalism and authoritarianism. Marcos and the EZLN had begun military training for ‘self defence’, of which many sectors of the church were deeply suspicious. On the other hand, and paradoxically, it was the liberation priests who were most suspicious of the contact with official agencies (for credit, land negotiations, services, etc.) which many of the Maoist cadres advocated – as part of their ‘politics on two fronts’ strategy. As the strains and tensions developed through the 1980s, a new factor entered the equation. An aggressive Protestant evangelism was particularly active in Guatemala, where military ruler Rios Montt was a born again Christian, and in Nicaragua, where over 100 sects organised opposition to the Sandinistas. They began to organise in Chiapas in the same period, exploiting suspicions of a radical church among some of the better off peasants, raising issues of gender discrimination and particularly of contraception among women who had become increasingly self confident precisely because of their role in the struggles of those years.

And yet, despite the spreading influence of Protestant fundamentalism and liberation theology’s profound suspicion of the Mexican state on the one hand, and resistance to armed struggle on the other, by 1993 the majority of Chiapas’s indigenous population were ready for war – and the EZLN would lead it, as the manifestation of the democratic determination of the communities themselves.

But what kind of war?

What began as a violent insurgency in an isolated region mutated into a non-violent though no less disruptive ‘social netwar’ that engaged the attention of activists from far and wide and had nationwide and foreign repercussions for Mexico. [25]

The term ‘social netwar’ is certainly not one with which I was familiar. But it points to that element of Zapatismo that has so fascinated those beyond Mexico. While wearing Indian dress and presenting themselves to the world through the multiple languages of indigenous Mexico, the Zapatistas – and Marcos in particular – have used the internet as a free communications highway. The paradox is moving and in some curious way quite beautiful. The US military who generated this many-branched information superhighway to facilitate internal communication can hardly have intended it to be used to generate solidarity for an armed struggle in an isolated redoubt in southern Mexico. There was also something about the nature of the messages that Marcos sent that caught the imagination. The language of Zapatismo was a curious mixture of registers; it was clearly familiar with the categories of political debate and modern economics, yet the communiqués were also full of a visionary language more usually associated with religious rhetoric as well as myths and parables which clearly originated in the oral cultures of the region.

Above all it had a powerful moral charge. Here were the very poorest addressing the wealthiest and most powerful directly. The messages from Marcos were able to leap the encircling troops (some 12,000 of them) that Salinas immediately sent to Chiapas. If Salinas agreed to a ceasefire just 12 days after the rising, we can assume that he did so believing that the Zapatistas, who had by now returned to their communities, could be besieged, strangled and eventually overrun. The fact that they were not undoubtedly has to do with their ability to speak to a listening world, and to the almost instantaneous movement of solidarity and support that they generated, particularly among students and workers in Mexico City.

For Salinas, moving into an election year and with the eyes of the world focused on Mexico, Chiapas was a problem. His chosen candidate, Colosio, was murdered in March by assassins and for reasons still unknown. The head of the PRI, Ruiz Massieu, was murdered three months later. In Chiapas the negotiations in San Cristóbal beginning on 21 February attracted massive media attention and a growing stream of tourists curious to see these ‘rebels down from the hills’. The industry in Marcos dolls and memorabilia began very quickly.

The armed confrontation between the Zapatistas and the Mexican state had already ceased. In the nearly seven years since the rising the number of Mexican armed personnel in the area has quadrupled, the encirclement of the Zapatistas is now almost complete, their area of control has been reduced and continual inroads into their communities have left many dead and those left alive deprived of water, electricity and physical access to the outside world. Yet there has been no resumption of war (other than the ‘netwar’).

When Marcos and the negotiators returned to the communities with a peace agreement at the end of March 1994, the supporters of the EZLN rejected the agreements. The timing was highly significant, coming as it did some three months before voting began for the national presidential elections. Ernesto Zedillo, Salinas’s nominee to replace the murdered Colosio, was the PRI’s candidate – a virtual guarantee, at least up till then, of an overwhelming victory. The other candidates were Vicente Fox, a right wing businessman and candidate of the Catholic party, PAN; and Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, son of the president who had distributed land for the first time, and candidate for the PRD (Revolutionary Democratic Party), a coalition organisation embracing social democrats, some left nationalists, and a number of ex-members of the PRI who had followed Cárdenas out in 1987. In the 1988 election Cárdenas was seen as the great hope of the left – a champion of reform, democratisation and change. Although the candidate was anything but inspiring in his public appearances, he did manage to gather the support of wide sections of Mexican society seeking change; had the vote-counting computer system not inexplicably crashed just as the final votes were in, he would almost certainly have won.

In the intervening six years he had lost much of his symbolic significance. He was a reformer, perhaps, but within the system rather than outside it. Time and again the PRD had negotiated with Salinas rather than opposed him, and the wide range of struggles against Salinas’s economic policy had not always been able to count on his support. For Cárdenas, the Zapatistas presented him with a golden opportunity to re-establish his oppositional credentials. As the elections approached, the PRD opportunistically identified with the widespread popular support for the Zapatistas throughout the country. From the point of view of a besieged Zapatista enclave in Chiapas, speaking across the airwaves to a massive audience but unconnected in any organisational way to them, the PRD was offering a network of contacts beyond Chiapas. At the same time, Marcos was not blind to the fact that the PRD was using the movement for electoral purposes, and he tried to elicit undertakings from Cárdenas that he would carry through the 32 original demands that the EZLN had placed before government negotiators in February. In the event, Cárdenas lost the election again and then turned his attention to the powerful post of mayor of Mexico City, which he did win three years later. By the year 2000 his support had declined and Fox, candidate of the PAN, won a largely democratic election.

Much has been written about the frequently paradoxical nature of Marcos’s lengthy bulletins to the world. Often poetic, personal, analytical and mythic at the same time, their curious and lyrical language has often been celebrated as a new political language for a postmodern revolution. The origins of the movement marry a sense of the economic and political realities of globalisation with a visionary quality of high moral content that echoes with the metaphors of religious language. Marcos’s occasional excursions into fable or children’s stories are charming and often powerful in their simplicity. But the paradoxes and internal contradictions also suggest a pluralistic vision, a notion of a political and imaginative space in which different views, visions and strategies for change can coexist without resolution. Aesthetically, it is pleasing and complex. Politically, it is paralysing.

The concepts derived from the struggles of previous decades persist here – centrally in the evasion of the question of power. It is a curious ‘quality’ in a revolutionary organisation that it does not seek power. What then is the nature of the revolution they advocate? At one level, the demands are absolutely clear and correspond to the needs and interests of many of the individuals and communities of the region – particularly as far as land on the one hand, and the recognition of indigenous political and cultural rights on the other are concerned. At the same time, the experience of recent times has led them to a profound distrust of the intentions and integrity of the Mexican state – an extremely well founded suspicion. That would explain the rejection of the March 1994 agreements and subsequent accords.

But if one thing has become incontestably clear as a result, in part, of the Zapatista rising itself, it is that there is no space outside the system – globalisation does not tolerate free territories. [26] Like every major struggle, the origins of Zapatismo lie in specific local conditions, but the movement’s claim is that it is part of a global process and a global resistance. If at first, and in the hope that Cárdenas might occupy the presidential palace in Mexico City, the EZLN placed its demands upon the Mexican state, there could be little hope that a Zedillo presidency would not pursue objectives in any way different from those of his predecessor.

It was presumably with that in mind that the Zapatistas convoked the Convention of August 1994 in the Lacandón forest. The meeting attracted many supporters to the specially built grass amphitheatre deep in Zapatista territory. For many of them the long walk through the jungle carrying their own plate, fork and spoon will certainly have been a novel experience. Equally it raised the national profile of the Zapatistas. But the movement was already at an impasse in many ways. The PRD was demonstrably an electoral organisation whose sole concern was winning elections. Their commitment to Zapatismo was not a principled one. Equally, it was clear that the confrontation between the Zapatistas and the Mexican state had already reached stalemate. The level of popular support and sympathy the EZLN enjoyed could hardly be higher, yet it was physically trapped inside Chiapas. More importantly it was ideologically enclosed too. Its local roots were firm, its representativity unquestioned and its claim for rights just by any standards. Morally, it dominated the high ground – especially in contrast to a government, now run by Zedillo, which was as corrupt as its predecessors and as committed to a full neo-liberal agenda of rising unemployment, falling living standards, full and rapid privatisation, cuts in public spending and a free market in all commodities including land.

There is little doubt that the balance of political elements within the Zapatista message began to change by late 1994 – the emphasis on the issue of indigenous rights was combined with the increasingly central demand for autonomy. As George Collier put it, the Zapatistas were beginning to negotiate with the government as a parallel national movement. [27]

In some sense, as the encirclement tightened around Chiapas, the Zapatistas were moving towards the opposite conclusion from the one that Zapata himself had begun to reach during the siege of Morelos. Any encounter between the Mexican state, nearly 50,000 of whose troops are currently in Chiapas, and the Zapatista enclave would be an absurdly unequal one. The state’s concern was not necessarily with the Zapatistas themselves, but rather with the resonance they might have beyond the state of Chiapas. As Zedillo’s economic policies began to bite, there was growing discontent and pockets of fierce resistance began to emerge. Yet there was also a collapse in levels of union membership – a result of a long history of manipulation of trade unions by the PRI and the presidency. The regular Consultas – popular plebiscites – organised by the supporters of the Zapatistas confirmed again and again the enormous level of support for Chiapas. But if, as John Ross suggests, the Zapatistas’s original appeal to the PRD had been intended to address the mass of its working class supporters directly, that had manifestly failed to develop into any form of national organisation.

Defined as a class movement, the Zapatistas could develop joint actions of class defence and co-ordinated struggles. Defined as a national movement, in however direct a way, the Zapatistas were constrained to calling for support for their actions at the very time when a vicious official siege was making it virtually impossible for them to move at all. And massacres like Acteal, where 45 people were murdered by the army and/or pro-government peasant activists, were signals that the army could encroach whenever it wished – although it was clear that the government favoured a slow but silent campaign of attrition, cutting off or polluting water supplies, making movement through or into the Zapatista areas virtually impossible, cutting electricity, denying medical services and so on. The symbolic power of the Zapatistas was unabated, their actual ability to act increasingly contained.

In the rest of the country structural adjustment and NAFTA are producing exactly the results its instigators anticipated. As the Mexican economy grows and plays host to foreign investors in growing numbers, 50 percent of the population live in poverty and 15 percent beneath the extreme poverty line. Forty million Mexicans are undernourished – 10 million have no access to health whatsoever.

This points up the central dilemma in the Zapatista experience. If the early alliance with the PRD suggested a hope of a reform of the state, then that hope now lies in ruins. As the rest of Latin America has discovered, social democrats or nationalist revolutionaries who find themselves administering programmes of austerity and structural adjustment become neo-liberals with unnerving speed. Zedillo, of course, had no such credentials – but Cárdenas presented his candidacy for the 2000 elections on the basis of his ability to carry through exactly such programmes – hence his early willingness to present a joint platform with the candidate of the PAN, Vicente Fox, an erstwhile executive of Coca Cola and the candidate of the industrial and manufacturing business sector. In the event, Fox won the election and Cárdenas remains as leader of a loyal opposition – still proposing occasional joint projects.

The language of rights, which has increasingly dominated Zapatista rhetoric, also presumes an intermediary state, or the existence of neutral agencies. The role has been filled at the level of political debate by NGOs, which have also attempted to plug some of the holes left by the abandonment of public services by the new alliance of state and private capital. But they are by definition unable to propose an alternative project for the state. Thus all the lobbying in the end comes down to whether those who walk hand in glove with global capital are willing from time to time to offer a crumb or two of justice. But it is a contradiction in terms to expect redistributionist policies or social justice from governments whose very survival depends on administering programmes designed to accumulate an increasing proportion of wealth in the hands of powerful international economic actors.

Wishing and hoping

The Zapatista movement has generated movements of solidarity across the world. At one level it has coalesced around a defence of the oppressed – the exemplary victims of neo-liberalism and corporate greed. That is their symbolic power. An anarchist friend of mine suggested to me after Seattle that ‘this was all because of the Zapatistas’. Did he mean their example? In part that is what he meant – but beyond that he saw them as representatives of a new politics. Zapatismo does not seek power, only justice; Zapatismo does not acknowledge leaders, but it is democratic in the extreme; Zapatismo is not a party, but a living and changing movement; Zapatismo has used the internet to create an international connection between all those who reject a capitalism red in tooth and claw.

The moral authority of Marcos is, of course, enormous. But it also has political implications. Where does solidarity with Zapatismo lead its supporters politically? In Mexico itself there are some 29 sites of armed struggle now, with the state of Guerrero – as poor and brutalised as its southern neighbour – chief among them. The magnificent student strike at UNAM in Mexico City (1999–2000) lasted for nearly a year in its struggle against the destruction of free education. It raised Zapatista slogans in its frequent assemblies. Yet throughout that year there was no suggestion of co-ordinated action. Solidarity – sympathy – replaced organisation.

’New social movements’ have been defined as ‘popular movements’ which see the people as the central actors and have ‘institutional demands’ which they address to the existing power. [28] This may well characterise Zapatismo, but it is also clear that their demands have been ignored. As Vicente Fox prepares to take power as the first non-PRI president in 60 years, it is absolutely clear that he will not in any sense change the political arrangements in Mexico – or listen to Chiapas.

For the EZLN and its supporters, December will be a crunch moment. It is then that Vicente Fox will take power, and then that his evasive response to questions about his intentions in Chiapas will no longer work. At one point he said that he would ‘resolve the Chiapas question in 15 minutes’ but it remains to be seen what kind of solution he had in mind. Nevertheless, it would be a reasonably secure guess that his agenda will not include agrarian reform, a redistribution of wealth to the poorest, increased public spending, a solution to the problems of Mexico’s poor, full employment or a state of rights.

It is inconceivable that the communities of Chiapas should be asked to continue to resist the silent war of attrition to which they have been subject for years. They remain an example of heroic resistance to oppression which has quite rightly inspired all those who are united against global capitalism. What has to be acknowledged, however, is that they are not in a position to provide political leadership for the movement that has celebrated their example.

Zapatismo has raised important questions that must concern the left. The issue of authentic democracy and the accountability of leaders to those on whose behalf they speak is a principle that has been at the heart of the socialist movement since the Paris Commune and the organisation of the soviets in 1917. That proletarian democracy was proclaimed by regimes which created grotesque caricatures of it is a historical distortion we have to deal with and acknowledge, patiently explaining why authoritarian bureaucratic rule was the absolute contrary of all that revolutionary socialists stand for. Suspicion of party organisation derives from the same source – yet without co-ordinated and disciplined organisation to match the self awareness of a capitalist class fighting for its interests on every front simultaneously, the producers cannot use the enormous power they have as a collective. For in the end, the issue is power – the control of society by the producers. The renunciation before the fact of any claim to lead society in new and different directions is an entirely moral (if not moralistic) posture, and one that will under no circumstances draw a similar response from the ruling classes across the world. There is not a choice between power or its absence. The only choice available is on the question of which class holds power.

The decade that produced the Zapatistas unmasked the real workings of the capitalist system; it exposed the limits of nationalism where capitalism is resolved to act globally, and it made manifest that capitalism by its nature is driven solely by the impulse to accumulate. Underpinning much of the Zapatistas’ political language is a rhetoric of rights, but that is posited on the assumption that a capitalist state is governed by principles and laws rather than class interests. Since 1990 Latin America has seen regime after regime come to power, led by ex-revolutionaries or social democrats, and bearing aloft a banner promising democratisation, social justice and truth. The decade ends with those slogans still unfulfilled and the democrats who replaced the military regimes hopelessly compromised with the imperatives of capitalism. It is time to revisit the theory of permanent revolution, which acknowledged the international character of class struggle while recognising that it would erupt in every case in local or national contexts, and confronted the fact that only a revolutionary proletariat can fulfil the democratic tasks and create the egalitarian future that Marcos describes so movingly in his speeches and stories.


1. This was the Declaración de la Selva Lacandona, dated 1 December 1993. See I. Arvide, Crónica de una Guerra Anunciada (Mexico City 1994).

2. See R. Burbach, Roots of Postmodern Rebellion in Chiapas, New Left Review 205 (May/June 1994), pp. 113–124.

3. D. Green, Silent Revolution: The Rise of Market Economics in Latin America (London 1995), p. 92.

4. Ibid., p. 91.

5. ECLAC 1998 figures quoted by Lance Selfa in his Latin America: Rebirth of Resistance, International Socialist Review 10 (Winter 2000), p. 8.

6. See J. Dunkerley, The Pacification of Central America (London 1993).

7. M. Gonzalez, Can Castro Survive?, International Socialism 56 (Autumn 1992).

8. D. Green, op. cit., p. 146.

9. H. Browne, For Richer For Poorer: Shaping US-Mexican Integration (London 1994), p. 3.

10. Oil production had been entirely controlled by foreign companies before the Mexican Revolution of 1910, and was only nationalised in 1938 by the populist President Cárdenas, despite the fact that the post-revolutionary constitution of 1917 made the subsoil an inalienable national resource. In theory that remains at least partly in force as the national oil corporation PEMEX still monitors exploration – but all secondary production, including refining, is open to private (including foreign) investment.

11. In The Observer’s special supplement, Mexico: The Making of an Economic Miracle, 12 September 1993, which reads as though it was written by Salinas’s PR agent. For an alternative view of the impact and significance of neo-liberalism see R. Grinspun and M. Cameron, Mexico: The Wages of Trade, NACLA Report on the Americas XXVI/4 (February 1993), pp. 32–37.

12. R. Burbach, op. cit., pp. 115–116.

13. Quoted in A. Guillermoprieto’s The Shadow War in New York Review of Books, 2 March 1995, pp. 34–43.

14. See N. Harvey, The Chiapas Rebellion: The Struggle for Land and Democracy (Durham/London 1998), pp. 77–78. See also G.A. Collier’s useful and clear Basta: Land and the Zapatista Rebellion in Chiapas (Oakland 1999).

15. See N. Harvey, op. cit., pp. 171–173.

16. Frank McLynn’s recent account of that movement, Villa and Zapata: a Biography of the Mexican Revolution (London 2000), is a perceptive and extremely readable and refreshingly non-academic account of the role of the peasant armies in the events of 1910–1917. Useful general histories of the movement are Adolfo Gilly’s La Revolución Interrumpida (Mexico City 1971) the title means The Interrupted Revolution, but the English translation, published by Verso, is simply called The Mexican Revolution. Beyond that there is a huge bibliography on the Mexican Revolution, comprehensively reviewed in the bibliographical essay at the end of McLynn’s book.

17. Carlos Fuentes’s novel The Death of Artemio Cruz (Mexico City 1962) is a powerful account of the construction of that compromise.

18. See G.A. Gilly’s op. cit., but also John Womack’s absolutely exhaustive biography Zapata and the Mexican Revolution (New York 1969), published in 1969 but still unrivalled.

19. A. Guillermoprieto, op. cit., p. 35.

20. From J. Holloway and E. Peláez’s Introduction to their edited volume, Zapatistas (London 1998), p. 4. This truly terrible collection is illustrative, in a wholly negative way, of some of the confusions that Zapatismo generates. Let me make it clear that I don’t make this judgment because I disagree with its political viewpoint, but because it has no viewpoint at all. It is an attempt to imitate the idiosyncratic eclectic style of Marcos himself – which I suspect is inimitable – and to make a virtue of imprecision, moralistic rhetoric and political ambivalence. And on the way it does Zapatismo itself a disservice even in its own terms.

21. The writer and revolutionary José Revueltas was a single exception, yet he was largely marginalised having exhausted his political energies in endless struggles with the Mexican Communists.

22. The history of the Zapatistas’ political origins can be found in N. Harvey, op. cit., and in J. Ross, Rebellion from the Roots: Indian Uprising in Chiapas (1995). See also J. Womack (ed.), Rebellion in Chiapas: An Historical Reader (New York, 1999).

23. See N. Harvey, op. cit., p. 82.

24. For Cuba’s changing attitudes to guerrilla strategies on the one hand and the Soviets on the other, see M. Gonzalez, op. cit.

25. From the abstract of the Rand Organisation study, The Zapatista Social Netwar in Mexico (New York 1998).

26. Two examples to reinforce the point. For nearly ten years the resistance of El Salvador fought a heroic struggle against massive US-provided military material, creating free territories in various places, particularly Morazán, in the process. Since the peace accords of 1990 there are no more free territories and El Salvador is fully integrated into the global economy. In Colombia, where such territories do exist under FARC and ELN control, they are the object of a rising military siege abetted and funded by the US.

27. G.A. Collier, op. cit., pp. 162–163.

28. By J. Foweraker and A. Craig in Popular Movements and Political Change in Mexico (London 1990).

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