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Zapatistas after the Great March – a postscript

(Summer 2001)

From International Socialism 2:91, Summer 2001.
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).

On 13 March 2001 the Zapatista column came to Mexico City. It was the culmination of an extraordinary three-week march through Mexico, accompanied by tens of thousands on its way. The delegation attended the Indigenous People’s Conference before moving on to the capital, where it was met by a huge crowd in Mexico City’s main square – the Zócalo. The British media contemptuously described the crowd as ‘several thousands strong’ – but anyone who has ever stood in that vast colonial square knows that ‘several thousands’ would barely occupy one corner. There were hundreds of thousands there.

The Great March marked a crucial turning point, a crossroads at which the Zapatistas (or to give them their full name, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation, or EZLN) still stand. It was in many ways a tactical victory for the embattled communities of Chiapas, yet politically it did not resolve the dilemmas and contradictions that face a movement in search of its future.

Two tactics of Zapatismo

The march to the capital had two linked purposes. On one hand, it was a way of breaking out of the iron encirclement imposed with increasing ferocity since the Zapatista rising of 1994 by the Mexican state – 60,000 military personnel had closed the circle around the Zapatista communities as they were deprived from time to time of water and electricity, harassed at the omnipresent roadblocks, and threatened by rival, often government-supported, peasant organisations. The roadblocks seemed curiously powerless to prevent the traffic into Zapatista communities like Acteal, where 45 were murdered in 1997 in one of many paramilitary incursions. Peace talks with the government, in what was clearly an endless delaying tactic, were held spasmodically, then effectively abandoned after 1997.

To the physical isolation was added an ideological siege made easier by the deepening ambivalence of the so called left of Mexican politics represented by the PRD, the Democratic Party of the Revolution. The organisation had gathered dissident elements of the ruling government party, the PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party) and others behind the candidacy of Cuahtémoc Cárdenas. Cheated out of what was probably a very high popular vote in 1988, Cárdenas’s vote fell in 1994 and his support continued to wane. It became clear that he was fundamentally a political opportunist who could not represent the mass struggles growing up in Mexico in resistance to the economic measures taken under Salinas (1988-1994) and Zedillo (elected in 1994 for six years). Immediately after the Zapatista insurrection of 1994 the PRD claimed some right to speak on behalf of the Zapatistas outside Chiapas. But they were very clearly interested only in the electoral advantage to be gained. There was never any possibility that the PRD could become the political voice of a mass anti-globalisation movement from below. Cárdenas’s election as mayor of Mexico City in 1997 brought no advantage to the EZLN in Chiapas or the solidarity movement in the capital. Thus when it became clear that Cárdenas was negotiating with the right wing Catholic PAN (National Action Party) to present a joint candidature to the presidency in the elections of 2000, whatever doubts might have existed about where the PRD stood in relation to the mass movement were definitively dispelled. The extremely low PRD vote in the election was evidence of widespread popular disillusionment with a so called left whose sole purpose was to assume control of the existing government structures.

The beneficiary of Cárdenas’s discredit was the candidate of the PAN, Vicente Fox. A former Coca-Cola executive, Fox posed the first serious challenge to the party that had maintained a virtual monopoly of power in Mexico for over 70 years – the PRI. The PRI’s corruption, its assault on Chiapas, but above all its support for the structural adjustment programmes that formed part of the 1994 NAFTA agreement, had undermined its traditional capacity to mobilise support through the trade unions and other institutions with a combination of fear and selective bribery. Its internal struggles (several leading members had been murdered in the 1990s) only added to the sense of decay. At the same time, Fox subtly distanced himself from the deeply conservative Catholic establishment which led the PAN and launched a populist campaign centred on ideas of clean government, modernisation and, crucially, a promise to end the situation in Chiapas ‘in 15 minutes’ – what he actually meant by that, however, was always left unexplained. Fox’s Catholic credentials were never in doubt, and his economic strategy resolutely and unconditionally followed the directions set out in the NAFTA agreement. Fox was no threat to globalisation – that much was certain! And yet he ran a successful populist campaign in which he distinguished himself from the old PAN and won significant support among working class Mexicans.

Fox was the victor in the July elections. When he formally took over the presidency in December, Fox would be the first non-PRI president (or at least the first not to be a product of the political class emerging from the Mexican Revolution that ended in 1917) since the mid-1920s. And while his adherence to Catholic doctrine on the touchstone issue of abortion made it clear where his allegiances lay, it was also true that his cabinet choices underlined the ambivalences of his presidential campaign. The new foreign minister, for example, is an extremely well known academic who was hitherto identified with the ‘new social democratic realism’ of the post-Stalinist era – Jorge Castañeda. It remained very unclear, therefore, what his response to Chiapas would be.

The Great March was undoubtedly designed to put that to the test. Fox himself moved quickly to declare his desire to reach a resolution over Chiapas, and the Zapatista leader Subcomandante Marcos responded on 31 January in his first interview with a Western journalist for five months. ‘I’m optimistic,’ he said. ‘I think we will have a successful dialogue with the government.’ Eventually, the journalist reported, Marcos ‘would like the Zapatistas to take off their masks and become a legitimate political force.’

The accords of San Andrés

But what were the Zapatista demands? They centred on three issues – the removal of the army from Chiapas, the release of Zapatista prisoners, and the passing of the San Andrés accords into law. These accords, agreed with government representatives in 1996 but never enacted, represented essentially the right of Indian communities to collective autonomy and organisation based on indigenous traditions. Their entry into law would certainly represent a historic step forward for Mexico’s 10 million people of indigenous origins. Rights had been systematically ignored and trampled under successive governments as powerful economic interests expanded and took Indian lands, expelling their inhabitants. In this the corporations were ably assisted by governments that, aside from supporting them directly, did so indirectly by removing agricultural subsidies and official credits and effectively driving indigenous communities into the arms of unscrupulous middlemen and corporate interests.

Fox declared himself in favour of the accords, despite blowing hot and cold in subsequent weeks as the balance of forces in Congress dictated. The arrival of the Zapatista column into Mexico City, however, and Marcos’s rhetorical declarations that he would not leave the capital without an agreement, made further evasion impossible. There were anxious hours while Fox negotiated with recalcitrant representatives of his own party as well as the other parties in parliament. Some prisoners had already been released and undertakings were given that the rest would soon leave prison – although there were and will be delays and reluctance at a local level. Fox had also promised to withdraw troops. Some have certainly left Chiapas, but significant numbers remain and there are constant claims and counter-claims between the government and the Zapatistas as to how many have left and how quickly the process is moving. But despite the mutual distrust, and however sluggishly, it is clear that these two demands will be met. The key point, of course, was the accords (there were other Zapatista demands which were set aside). The decision, after much argument, to allow the Zapatista delegation into Congress was a clear signal – and some weeks after their departure, an amended version of the accords was accepted by the Mexican parliament.

There was no doubt that this was a historic victory for Mexico’s indigenous people. But it had other consequences and implications. The Zapatistas, above all through the prolific writing of Subcomandante Marcos, claimed a representativity – a right to speak for a movement of many struggles united against globalisation and its impact. This is the central reason why the Zapatistas have come to symbolise the anti-capitalist movement worldwide. Yet the negotiations behind the accords, and the agreements themselves, narrowed and limited the nature of the Zapatistas’ demands. Slowly, imperceptibly, and with the collusion of many of their external supporters, the Zapatistas were redefined as a movement exclusively concerned with indigenous rights. The difference is a subtle one – but it is fundamental. Did the specific local history of Chiapas demonstrate the common experience of all of those addressed in Marcos’s speeches and communiques? Was Chiapas therefore the embodiment of the rich possibilities embodied in the slogan ‘Think globally, act locally’? Or was it an exception, a special case albeit with an especially high moral charge?

The exception or the rule?

The political implications are fundamental. Because if Chiapas was to be addressed as an exception its great symbolic power would be thrown behind an argument that its original example had served to overcome. Namely, the argument for autonomous struggles, linked to specific conditions or problems, and resolved by negotiations with the state. In other words, the politics behind the theories of ‘new social movements’.

Let’s put it in different, more flesh and blood terms. There are or have been some 29 points of armed confrontation with the Mexican state in the seven years since the Zapatista rising – the most important in the state of Guerrero, where the massacre of whole communities is openly conducted by the local military. In and around the capital, with its concentration of industrial production and population (some 22 million at the last count and rising), the consequences of structural adjustment policies have been impoverishment, rising unemployment, and hunger as all subsidies on basic necessities are removed, the collapse of public services, particularly health, the spectacular rise of a precarious black market economy, the ‘Calcuttaisation’ of whole areas of the city centre and so on. In the labour movement long struggles against corrupt leaders and for the formation of rank and file organisations have signalled new forms of resistance to cutbacks and worsening working conditions. In the universities the courageous 14-month struggle of students at Mexico City’s huge National University (the UNAM, with something around 220,000 students) was directed against the imposition of tuition fees. Fees would mean the definitive end of democratic education – a further requirement embedded in the economics of structural adjustment which prohibits public spending other than on infrastructural support for private enterprise. There can be no doubt that all of these struggles have been inspired, strengthened and generalised by the politics of the Zapatistas. What does the agreement on the accords say to them? Given its extraordinary political authority within the movement, what impact does it have when Comandante Ester, speaking for the Zapatista delegation in Congress, says, ‘We have not come here to humiliate or defeat anyone ... we have come to engage in dialogue’?

The movement has been encouraged by forces both within and outside Mexico to look to the Zapatistas for some political direction. Yet when some of the mass organisations that formed part of the solidarity movement gathered after the Great March to discuss the future and look for ways to build on and extend this victory, they were told that the EZLN had no blueprint or plan for the future, no sense of how to organise this movement into a force with a vision of a different society and an evolving method for achieving that future. ‘I am a rebel,’ Marcos announced, ‘not a revolutionary.’

The ruling class, in Mexico and beyond, must be feeling mightily relieved. A fairly cautious recognition of indigenous rights is a relatively small price to pay in exchange for a declining threat from Chiapas. That presumably was the thrust of the private discussions between Fox and his parliamentary colleagues.

The paradox is that with completely opposite intentions some of those in the anti-globalisation movement who have worked hard to draw attention to the Zapatista struggle have celebrated aspects of their tactics which will disarm or at least confuse a movement so deeply encouraged by their example. At this point in its development the growing anti-capitalist movement faces important political issues. How will a powerful ruling class be persuaded to relinquish its increasingly contracted power? George W. Bush’s recent unilateral withdrawal from the Kyoto agreements must surely signal that the goodwill of Western states is a worthless currency. Vicente Fox in Mexico has negotiated the San Andrés accords, but he has also repeated his commitment to the economic strategies enshrined first in NAFTA and now in its expanded version the FTAA (Free Trade Area of the Americas). In Ecuador a magnificent movement of workers and indigenous organisations brought down one government bent on imposing similar policies, and is confronting its successor for the very same reasons. In Argentina the labour unions are organising to roll back the consequences of the FTAA. And in Bolivia mass resistance defeated a programme of water privatisation that flowed directly (if you’ll excuse the pun) from structural adjustment policies. The central task now is to combine those struggles and tie them to the strongest sections of the movement – those with the power to stop the engine of production on a world scale.

In these circumstances the refusal to make decisions or commitments to the broader struggles is not a virtue. The wholly justified authority of the Zapatistas was born of a heroic struggle, but it carries a responsibility that cannot be renounced so easily. The eloquent promise of a different, more humane and just world is an inspiration, but those who stand between us and that future will not surrender power under the burden of guilt or moral condemnation. They will disappear when the working class seizes power from them. To pretend otherwise is to disarm our movement at the very moment when the struggle itself demands solutions to these problems.

When Naomi Klein and other powerful voices of the new anti-globalisation movement speak of Marcos in tones of reverence and admiration, they depoliticise his movement, make of him something exotic and romantic, but also empty Marcos’s symbolism of its political content. The Zapatistas placed revolution on the political agenda again. True, they warned against the excesses of Stalinism, rediscovered and regenerated the democratic heart of the revolutionary tradition, and insisted that the emancipation of the working class must be the act of that class itself. But that simply underlined the necessity of addressing the question of power.

We would do better to pick up on an analogy offered by Marcos himself. When the EZLN reached Mexico City, Marcos drew a parallel with the arrival in Mexico City in November 1913 of the peasant armies led by Emiliano Zapata and Pancho Villa. It was the mid-point of the Mexican Revolution which had thrown out the old dictator Porfirio Díaz. The shape of the new state was not yet clear and no bourgeois forces were yet in a position to assume power over the new post-revolutionary state. For two months Villa and Zapata’s armies held the capital and the potentiality of power over the whole society. Then they left the city and returned to their own local areas. They had no perspective, no plan for a new and different kind of power – and so they abandoned the capital and left a political vacuum behind them. The new head of state, Venustiano Carranza, assumed power and began to forge a new state out of an alliance between a new national political class and the old landed classes. His first act was to form an army to disarm Zapata and Villa. From then on Zapata’s area of control in Morelos province began to shrink under the tightening siege of government troops supported (more symbolically than militarily) by a Workers’ Batallion. Within Morelos, Zapata was thinking through the implications of recent events, and coming to a growing understanding that isolation (physical and political) was the anteroom to destruction – that without their natural allies in the working class the Morelos Commune would be lost. But the realisation came too late.

The task of those who have made the struggles in Chiapas the touchstone of the movement on a world scale is to draw global conclusions as well as lessons about the realities of state power, how it is won and how it is lost. That is our obligation to the great revolutionary whose name the fighters of Chiapas have taken as their own. We must not allow history to repeat itself as tragedy.


This article is intended as an updating of The Zapatistas: The Challenges of Revolution in a New Millennium, International Socialism 89 (Winter 2000).

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