“Always, since our birth, we’ve insisted on another way of doing politics. Now, we had the chance to do it without arms, but without stopping being Zapatistas; that’s why we keep the masks on.”
-Subcomandante Galeano (formerly Marcos)
On January 1st, 1994 the North American Free Trade Agreement became law in Canada, the United States and Mexico. In the latter country, local elites promised that the deal would eventually raise the standard of living for the majority of their citizens to that of its rich northern neighbors.
For those in rural areas of Mexico that relied on subsistence farming NAFTA meant increased competition from large scale farms to the north, which eventually flooded the market with cheap corn and other national staples. The deal also hurt the country’s small farmers by taking away land rights put in place almost a century before, during the Mexican Revolution.
As Bill Weinberg explained in In These Times, “Under constitutional changes pushed through in preparation for the treaty by then- President Carlos Salinas, the communal peasant lands known as ejidos could be legally privatized or used as loan collateral. This robbed the residents of the ‘inalienable’ village lands that Emiliano Zapata fought for in the Revolution of 1910 to 1919.”
The fact that almost half of Mexico’s land was being used in this way prior to the “reforms” gives an idea of the impact the loss had on some of Mexico’s poorest citizens, especially the country’s long neglected indigenous peoples.
Revolution from the Forest
On the same day that NAFTA came into force, a ragtag army, their faces covered, some carrying old rifles, many with sticks and other improvised weapons, descended on San Cristobal de las Casas and other large towns in the southern state of Chiapas, freeing prisoners in that small city and forcing authorities to flee.
It appeared to many, including the politicians in Mexico City where the PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party) had held power for almost 70 years, that the uprising had come out of nowhere. However, the guerilla group calling themselves the EZLN (Zapatista Army for National Liberation) claimed they’d been preparing the rising for a decade in the highlands and tropical forests of the state.
The EZLN grew out of a Marxist-Leninist group called the FLN (Forces for National Liberation) that had been active in the 1970s and 1980s in a number of southern states. Although the core leadership remained in Mexico City, those that traveled to Chiapas soon realized that their ideas of class struggle based on Marx and his successors weren’t relevant to the desperately poor indigenous people they found themselves living among, most of whom spoke little or no Spanish.
These would be revolutionaries, likely from the educated, urban middle classes, who included the man who would become famous as Subcommandante Marcos, began to listen to their hosts and experience their way of life. Out of this immersion, new ideas about a more communal politics based on local customs were born and a break was made with the FLN leadership.
Although this unusual rebel force seemed to catch the government by surprise, the army was soon mobilized and the would be revolutionaries were surrounded on all sides. At least 145 people died in the conflict that followed, with reports from the time saying that some casualties were found with their hands and feet bound. Early on, it appeared that the uprising would be easily crushed.
A mixture of internal and external protest, international media attention focused on the “Zapatistas” and the work of Bishop Samuel Ruiz and other leftists within the Catholic church forced newly elected President Ernesto Zedillo to the negotiating table with the EZLN. These discussions between the rebels and the government led to the first part of the San Andres accords being signed on February 16th, 1996.
The President would officially reject these accords in December of that same year but they remain a beacon for indigenous people fighting to preserve their cultures throughout the world today. The agreement promised “constitutional acknowledgement” of the right of indigenous Mexicans to “self determination and autonomy”, possibly the first time in its history the Mexican state had recognized the basic humanity of its indigenous citizens.
This situation in Chiapas has remained unchanged for more than twenty years and a new generation has grown up living under what amounts to a state of siege. All the while, the rebels, who soon decided to lay down their arms, have been doing their best to ignore the central government and build their own society in a small corner of the Lacandon jungle.
Pitting the Poor Against the Impoverished
While the stalemate continues, the situation throughout the state has exploded into violence many times in the intervening years.
In the small town of Acteal there was another group who called themselves Las Abejas (the Bees) and, although they disagreed with the EZLN’s use of force, through nonviolent action they shared their struggle for indigenous rights. In December of 1997, a group of 45 Abejas, most of them women and children, were massacred by some of their neighbors, thought to be part of a government sponsored paramilitary organization calling itself Mascara Rojo (Red Mask)..
Although the paper trail from the Mexican investigation into this crime is almost impossible to follow, as a reporter for the Mexican newspaper Milenio found when trying to report on the authorities’ progress on the case in 2009, a Freedom of Information request to the US government produced two documents from the US military’s Defense Intelligence Agency. These shed some light on the Mexican armed forces involvement with Mascara Rojo and other paramilitaries opposed to the Zapatistas or thought to be sympathetic to them.
According to one of the documents the Mexican military fielded “Humint Teams” of three to four junior officers who would move through communities in Chiapas collecting information on EZLN activities. Unfortunately, this wasn’t their only mission, as the DIA documents make clear: “In order to gain the support of the local communities and collect intelligence information, the Army Humint teams assisted armed groups with training and protection from arrest by law enforcement agencies and military units patrolling the region.”
This likely includes another militia active in the north of the state. The ironically named Desarollo, Paz y Justicia (Development Peace and Justice) has terrorized communities far from the Zapatistas’ area, engaging in acts of violence that continue to this day. Over time, they’ve turned citizens who had nothing to do with the rebels into refugees in their own country.
The DIA document from May of 1999, goes on to note that even after what happened in Acteal, the Army was still using these Humint Teams and they “continue to rely on the support of armed groups to provide the military with information on EZLN sympathizers.”
“The People Command, The Government Obeys”
The harassment the Zapatistas and their supporters face in their areas from soldiers, police and paramilitaries hasn’t stopped them from governing themselves. At the most basic level their participatory democracy is based on a motto found on signs throughout their territory: “Here the people command and the government obeys”.
All citizens can have a voice through participation in democratic assemblies that sometimes go on for days, both in and between the various municipalities the rebels control. We’ve seen assemblies like these using a slightly different model embraced by the Spanish Indigados, the protesters at the Occupy Wall Street encampments and most recently by the Nuit Debout movement in France. This connection should put to rest criticisms that this type of democracy is unique to the Zapatistas.
Among the movement’s greatest achievements are the schools and small medical clinics they’ve created in municipalities that had historically been deprived of these institutions. Laura Gottesdiener in a 2014 story picked up by the Nation Magazine, reported that every town she visited in Zapatista territory at that time had an elementary school and many had secondary schools. Besides Spanish, at least five indigenous languages are used in teaching at these schools, including Tsotsil, Chol and Tseltal.
Proving that they are dedicated to the education of all of Mexico’s poor, the Zapatistas have also sent 10 tons of food and other aid to striking teachers associated with the leftist CNTE union in nearby Oaxaca and have been involved in widespread protests demanding that the government find answers for the families of the 43 teachers in training disappeared from a bus in the state of Guerrero almost two years ago.
Also, in a country where the majority population still prides itself on its machismo, one of the great strides made by the rebels is in securing rights for indigenous women, at least within their territories. If men from these communities dealt with the extreme racism of landowners and government officials for centuries, these women dealt with this racism alongside the casual misogyny and physical and sexual abuse from men in their own communities and the majority Spanish speaking population.
Through their participation in the armed resistance, in governing their communities and in creating coops to provide for their communities, women have come to the forefront of the Zapatista movement. It’s often they alone facing incursions by the Mexican state into their villages with little more than sticks and stones.
The banning of alcohol and other drugs in areas controlled by the Zapatistas has also been important in allowing women to achieve equality. Just as it went in the US and Canada, alcohol has been used as a weapon against indigenous people since it was first introduced during the Spanish conquest and illegal drugs in their territories could be just the excuse authorities need to ramp up violence as part of the War on Drugs.
In the coffee and other plantations of Mexico and Central America, alcohol has also been used by landowners in their ‘company stores’ to practically enslave whole families with debt, as many men would alleviate their suffering by drinking on credit, in the process spending money earned by their entire family, a disgusting practice that this writer witnessed for himself in Guatemala. In some places in Chiapas these large landowners would see their lands seized by the very people they had been taking advantage of for generations.
It’s easy to romanticize these rebels, as many writers have done over the years by focusing on the presumed leader of the movement, Subcommandante Marcos (who has since changed his name to Galeano in honor of a fallen comrade) while downplaying their collective achievements.
Still, things like fresh water and electricity that most North Americans take for granted are still luxuries throughout the state, including areas controlled by the Zapatistas. What can’t be denied is that their revolution quietly continues and, for some of the world’s most desperate people, there is some hope for the future