The Zapatistas 17 years of Rebellion

On the morning of January 1st 1994 a previously unheard of armed group in the state of Chiapas, South East Mexico, seized control of seven town and cities, freeing prisoners from jails and setting fire to police stations. This was the EZLN or Zapatista Army of National Liberation (Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional), the military wing of what came to be referred to as the Zapatista’s. By the standards of South and Central America the rebellion was a minor, short lived and small scale conflict, the fighting was over within 12 days. But what marked the Zapatista’s out was not their use of arms but the politics behind the rising, the large scale and long lived experiment in direct democracy that followed and perhaps most importantly the huge influence they were to have on the emerging summit protest left over the decade that followed.

The Zapatista’s themselves were comparatively dismissive of the military aspect of their struggle. Their spokesperson Subcomandante Marcos said “We don’t see armed struggle in the classic sense of previous guerrilla wars, that is as the only way and the only all-powerful truth around which everything is organized. In a war, the decisive thing is not the military confrontation but the politics at stake in the confrontation. We didn’t go to war to kill or be killed. We went to war in order to be heard.”

In a 1995 letter to the Mexican and international left Marcos explained “It is not our arms which make us radical; it is the new political practice which we propose and in which we are immersed with thousands of men and women in Mexico and the world: the construction of a political practice which does not seek the taking of power but the organization of society.”
And heard they were, within a couple of years the Zapatista’s were hosting an international conference of the left in their jungle headquarters attended by delegates from 44 countries, including Ireland. An Irish solidarity group had formed in 1995 whose activists were not only involved in the Irish Mexico Group’s ‘peace camp’ in the village of Diez de Abril but also in the founding steps of the summit protest movement here. This was a process that started at that international conference, as one of the two that attended I was later to meet others who were present on the streets of Prague during the September 2000 riot that drove the IMF conference out of town and was one of the lead organisers of the Dublin Mayday 2004 EU summit protests.

The ‘peace camp’ was actually located in the house of a large landholder who had been driven out by the rebellion and whose lands were now occupied by the newly formed Zapatista village of ‘10th of April.’ On a visit there in 2007 one of the local Zapatista delegates explained to me how "We used to meet where the church is now, and there decided where to put the houses, and to give a house to the international observers. We measured the land and divided it up among the people. Each family has a plot of land of their own and then there are also collective [plots]."

This constructive work is the other key feature of the Zapatista rebellion. Far from waiting for a new government or land reform the rank and file of the Zapatista movement had taken co-ordinated direct action across the 32 municipalities where the rebellion had taken hold and seized the land they were previously forced to work for pitiful wages. In both new and existing communities programs of popular education replaced the often almost non existent state eduction and co-ops were created to displace the middle men who had previously preyed on the communities. These Mexican equivalents of the Gombeen man were known by the highly descriptive term ‘Coyotes’.

In Diez there was a weekly assembly of all the community in the church where all the issues of the running of that community and any problems that arose were discussed and decided on. This was a pattern repeated in similar forms in every one of the hundreds of communities in the rebel area. This meeting selected delegates who went to meetings of the region, in 1994 Marcos had described how this worked as follows
“In any moment, if you hold a position in the community .. the community can remove you. There isn’t a fixed term that you have to complete. The moment that the community begins to see that you are failing in your duties, that you are having problems, they sit you down in front of the community and they begin to tell you what you have done wrong. You defend yourself and finally the community, the collective, the majority decides what they are going to do with you. Eventually, you will have to leave your position and another will take up your responsibilities. ”

The big political and strategic decisions like that not to sign a peace agreement with the government in 2004 were made not through this delegate process and not even through referendum but through a Consulta, essentially an amalgamation of votes from every assembly in every community with the vote only happening after long discussion. A Zapatista communique explained this process as follows “The study, analysis, and discussion of the peace accords took place in democratic assemblies. The voting was direct, free, and democratic. After the voting, official reports of the results of the assemblies were prepared. These reports specify: the date and place of the assembly, the number of people who attended (men, women and children older than 12 years old), opinions and principal points discussed, and the number of people who voted." IMG and other international activists observed these consulta’s in progress in various communities, our observations generally confirming this description but it also struck us what a very different way of doing things this was that the secretive and top down Irish ‘Peace Process’ we had witnessed at home.

The major limitation the Zapatista’s faced was the Mayan communities they organised were composed of excluded, impoverished subsistence farmers lacking both economic power and political clout. The mountains and jungles of Chiapas although rich in resources and isolated from Mexico by geography, poverty and language. In the Irish context we have seen how the state can isolate the resistance of a small community in North West Mayo, the indigenous rebellion in Chiapas found itself considerably more excluded than this.

When the deeply unpopular PRI government tried to use large scale military force to crush the movement in 1995 the Zapatista’s retreated and Mexican Civil Society mobilised on a massive scale in their defence, triggering a currency crisis and forcing a cease fire. The period from ’95 to the removal of the PRI from power for the first time in 70 years in 2000 saw the Zapatistas build links with many other struggles in Mexico but the election of the new government in 2000 saw a general dampening down of struggle. In Chiapas the army had switched to classic low intensity warfare through arming right wing paramilitaries to carry out attacks on Zapatista communities on the one had while on the other the government offered financial incentives to both communities and individuals who abandoned the Zapatista’s. A shift in allegiance was often marked by shiny new corrugated iron roofs on the peasant shacks.

Today, quite remarkably, the Zapatista’s continue to survive as a movement controlling a large swathe of Chiapas, probably around 150,000 people in around 1,300 communities that continues to build an infrastructure of eduction, health clinics and co-ops independent of the state. Much of the funding comes from the coffee co-ops which produce and sell organic Zatatista branded coffee. They remain isolated but Mexico is a powder keg due to the extreme division between wealth and poverty it contains both internally and due to the US border so the Zapatistas remain placed to break out of that isolation with the next wave of popular struggle.

A whole generation has now grown up in these free communities, a generation that the EZLN described in 2005 as “those who were children in that January of '94 are now young people who have grown up in the resistance, and they have been trained in the rebel dignity lifted up by their elders throughout these 12 years of war. These young people have a political, technical and cultural training that we who began the zapatista movement did not have.”

Article as submitted to Look Left magazine, the text actually published in the Feb 2011 issue may have differed from this text due to their editing.


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