The Zapatistas at Ten

September 25, 2007

With their rubber boots slapping at the slick cobblestones and faces hooded by mists and masks, they seemed like ghosts from a past that many do not recognize as being very present in contemporary Mexico. They advanced on the center of San Cristóbal de las Casas, the capital of the Mayan highlands of Chiapas, in the early hours of New Year’s Day, 1994, the start-up date for that beacon of globalization, the North American Free Trade Agreement—NAFTA.

When dawn rose above the old colonial city, a black flag embroidered with a large five-pointed red star flew over the sacked municipal palace, as ski-masked rebels hunkered around small bonfires under its porticos. All that New Year’s Day, the Indians and their apparent leader, a mestizo with a gift for gab whose amber eyes glowed through his mask, chatted with wary coletos (members of middle class San Cristóbal families) and fascinated tourists in the plaza. From the balcony of the wrecked palace, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN)—for that is what they called themselves—declared war on the Mexican Army and promulgated a series of revolutionary “laws.” At nightfall, as Mexican Air Force fighters circled San Cristóbal, a curfew was declared. Then, before dawn, the rebels pulled back to lay siege to a military base on the outskirts of the city.

By Monday morning, January 3, the first wire story was running in the coletos, and policymakers in Washington swiveled their desk globes to this place called Chiapas. Who were these masked men and women who had dared to spoil the NAFTA party?

Ten years later, the slogans spray painted upon San Cristóbal’s whitewashed walls are liable to be dedicated to Kurt Cobain rather than Zapatista leader Subcomandante Marcos. The international volunteers who saturated the jungle and the highlands, not to mention the cafes of San Cristóbal, have mostly moved on to other battlefronts.

Even Mexican civil society, which so enthusiastically backed the EZLN and time after time kept the military from decimating it, has itself fallen upon hard times. Subcomandante Marcos’ witty jeremiads no longer galvanize the masses and sell piles of La Jornadas. That leftist daily’s ace reporter Hermann Bellinghausen jeeps ceaselessly through Zapatista terrain searching for insurrection and finds little except the standard disputes of daily life.

So is it all over, this rebellion that ten years ago electrified the Americas? When I headed down to the jungle a year ago to mark the ninth anniversary of the uprising, the rebels had barely been heard from since the spring of 2001 when the Mexican Congress had mutilated the Indian Rights law for which they had battled so doggedly. The EZLN’s General Command, the Clandestine Indigenous Revolution Committee (CCRI), under Marcos’ pen, had broken off all communication with the Fox government and lapsed into an 18-month silence from which the Sup—as the rebel commander is known—had only recently emerged like an angry bear awakening from hibernation. He did so to issue diatribes against Spanish judge Baltazar Garzón for suppressing the Basque Batasuna separatist group.

It was difficult to understand why Marcos had resumed the conversation there. Everywhere I traveled everyone professed to know nothing about any Basques. Laconically, they insisted there would be no celebration that year to mark the rebellion. What was there to celebrate anyway?

Then on New Year’s morning, they began to gather as they always have, down by the Coca-Cola plant just outside of San Cristóbal. Hundreds of pick-up trucks arrived filled to the brim with Zapatistas, the women in their bright, fancy duds and the men wearing ski-masks and rubber boots, each with a machete and a chunk of jocote (pitch pine) in their fists.

They rolled in from each of the five Zapatista regions until there were 20,000 down there by the Coca-Cola plant. I had not seen so many representatives of Zapatista base communities gathered together in one place since the first year of the rebellion. For hours, the throng sat in silence under the hot sun and when I walked through it, I noticed that some of their signs were in Basque.
Then at nightfall, they began to move into the city in a ritual recreation of that first New Year’s takeover, filling the Cathedral plaza and spilling out down the side streets, their torches blazing in the night. The coletos seemed just as wary as they had been ten years before, although their Indian servants were not: they could be seen belligerently yelling support for the rebels as they marched through the darkened streets.

For the first time in 18 months, the comandantes spoke their minds, among them Esther who had addressed the nation from the high tribune of Congress nearly two years before to defend the Indian Rights law. But not an hour after the great meeting had ended; the rebels all packed up and dissolved back into the countryside. Ten years later, the question remains pertinent: Who are these masked men and women?

The political protoplasm that eventually evolved into the EZLN did business on Mexico’s armed left—frequently in the northern states—many years before January 1, 1994. “This is where it all began,” relates my colleague Raúl Rubio, himself an ex-guerrilla fighter. We are visiting an old country home in Apodaca on the outskirts of the northern industrial city of Monterrey. Raúl rolls back a cast-iron stove in the kitchen area to reveal a basement bunker where the Forces of National Liberation (FLN), the EZLN’s predecessor formation, stored weapons and hid fugitives.

The house, now a small private museum, is still owned by the Yañez family, once headed by the late Dr. Margil Yañez, the patriarch of the city’s armed left, and now led by his son Fernando, AKA “Comandante Germán.” In the 1960s and 1970s, Dr. Yañez formed a revolutionary nucleus in this financial and industrial powerhouse of a city where class distinctions have always been pronounced. The FLN partly took instruction from Mao and the Cuban Revolution, recalls Rubio, who was a member of the September 23rd Communist League, a group notorious for bank robberies and kidnapping members of the oligarchy. The two groups sometimes worked together but the FLN had visions of a wider constituency and began dispatching cadre to Chiapas, then seething with radical organizers and angry Indians. A much younger Marcos was a member of a brigade that established itself in Chiapas in 1983; Raúl points out the Sup in a group portrait taken in the jungle that year on display in the Apocada bunker-museum.

The Zapatistas’ first camps were around Lake Miramar inside the Montes Azules biosphere reserve, a gigantic swath of pristine wilderness that President Luis Echeverría had awarded to 66 Lacandón Indian families in 1972, ordering all other Maya subgroups to immediately vacate the premises. The EZLN took up cudgels in defense of the displaced Mayans, helping to build the Union of All the Ejidos, where the rebels worked side-by-side, and often nose-to-nose, with San Cristóbal liberation theologian Bishop Samuel Ruíz and his army of catechists and deacons. A quarter of a century later, the eviction issue continues to smolder in Montes Azules.

During the 1980s, the EZLN expanded its growing base into the highlands above San Cristóbal to the rebellious municipality of San Andrés Larrainzar. Today, the Oventic ejido, one of 30 or so clustered around San Andrés, functions as the EZLN’s most public outpost.

That the Zapatista rebellion has survived these ten years is in itself a miracle for which many candles will be lit this New Year’s eve. Indeed, if civil society had not risen to their defense and filled Mexico City’s great Zócalo plaza with 100,000 supporters to force then-president Carlos Salinas to call off the Mexican military and declare a cease fire, the EZLN might never have survived its first month as a public entity.

Civil society, nurtured on “white guilt,” would time and again fill the Zócalo to defend the Indians—three times in one week after President Ernesto Zedillo turned the Mexican military loose to capture Marcos and the Zapatista leadership in February 1995. After Zedillo “unmasked” Marcos on national television as a pipe-smoking, non-Indian university philosophy professor, the mobs in the street took to chanting “we are all Marcos!”

Twenty-two months of negotiation underscored that the two sides did not even speak the same language. The reward for all this misunderstanding, the San Andrés Accords on Indian Rights and Culture, is in fact, a landmark agreement for Indian America, creating the structures for indigenous autonomy over everything from local governance to bilingual education to Indian justice, and re-inforcing control over the exploitation of natural resources and collective agrarian policies. But although his own representatives had signed the agreement, Zedillo vetoed it on the pretext that San Andrés would allow Mexico’s Indians to secede from the nation.

Trying to make San Andrés work, in the end, became the rebels’ single-purpose struggle, and the document itself became infallible scripture on the Mexican left. Since the agreement was signed, the EZLN has spent eight years battling two presidents to implement an Indian Rights law they can live with. Three times, the Zapatistas sent delegations up to Mexico City to impress upon the government that San Andrés must become the law of the land, and three times they were denied.

The first delegation was led by Comandante Ramona, a tiny, ill Tzotzil woman, who in October 1996 was dispatched to the founding convention of the National Indigenous Congress (CNI), a formation the EZLN had inspired and hoped would be useful in spreading support for San Andrés to the nation’s numerous distinct ethnic cultures. The CNI, like other Zapatista-inspired popular alliances, has since floundered—the victim of bad leadership and unclear purposes.

The second expedition to the capital, in 1997, came just after Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas and the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), Mexico’s electoral left, had won the mayoralty of Mexico City, and the combined forces of the opposition had at last wrested control of Congress from the long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). The Zapatistas sent 1,111 delegates (their peculiar numerology) to the capital in dozens of buses during the annual patriotic holidays to demonstrate to the nation that the Indians were Mexicans too. The 1997 visitation also coincided with the formation of the Zapatista Front (FZLN), a sort of political arm under the wing of long-time Zapatista civil commander, Javier Elorriaga. The FZLN, like the CNI, has dwindled in influence and essentially has been reduced to a handful of activists aligned with remnants of a long-ago strike at the national university, UNAM.

The third caravan to the capital, the “March of the People the Color of the Earth,” in February-March 2001 set out soon after Vicente Fox took office as the first president of Mexico in seven decades to be chosen from the ranks of the opposition—albeit, the right-wing opposition. During his campaign, Fox had repeatedly boasted he would fix the Chiapas standoff “in 15 minutes,” and on the day of his inauguration, he finally sent the Zapatista-approved legislative version of San Andrés on to Congress.

Twenty-four comandantes, the CCRI plus Marcos, climbed aboard a luxury Gran Turismo bus and rolled up to Mexico City, jamming plazas and roadsides, and winning the rebels international attention for the first time in years. Perhaps 200,000 welcomed them to the Zócalo, and the international press clamored for more. After Esther had given Congress hell in defense of the Indian Rights bill, the cautiously triumphant comandantes headed back to Chiapas. The moment they left town, the legislature proceeded to dismember San Andrés, stripping it of everything from Indian autonomy to Indian-run radio stations. The CCRI slunk back into sullen silence.

Despite their affirmation of the Word, silences have marked the Zapatista decade. From January 1997 when Zedillo vetoed San Andrés through July 1998, Marcos and the Comandantes did not utter a word outside their jungle mountain camps. During the 2000 presidential election, the Zapatistas were equally mum. From May 2001 through December 2002, the angry silence reigned. Silence is an Indian weapon, the Subcomandante is fond of reminding his public, but such lapses do not much sustain the EZLN’s national and international notoriety. In a world that has been in permanent turmoil since 9/11/01, not a lot of people are listening to Indian silence.

But it is equally true that each time the comandancia has climbed out of its cocoon, the nation remembers the rebels and is energized by their presence. The Zapatistas have been around so long that they have now become a part of Mexican history. People guard them in their hearts—though not always on their minds—like they do their martyred namesake, Emiliano Zapata.
The Zapatista road map is often a spectral one invoked from village to village by over 400 collective murals painted on the walls and wood slats of community structures in the highlands and the jungle. The murals depict rebel struggles and cosmography; “Zapata-Votan” the Guardian of the Heart of the People, is an ever-present figure.

Like the visuals, the infrastructure is flourishing too. Because the old ruling party, the PRI, no longer controls either state or national government, rival PRI-affiliated villages have lost their powers of gestión—of pressing the government for public works and material aid in return for their votes. By contrast, the 38 Zapatista autonomous municipalities, boosted by varying degrees of support from Northern nongovernmental organizations (NGOs)—especially not-for-profit organic coffee distributors—have constructed a series of schools, clinics and co-ops that fill the openings created by the rebels’ refusal to take money from the mal gobierno (bad government).

One of the great merits of the Zapatista movement has been its ability to distinguish its mistakes from its rhetoric. The principle of mandar obedeciendo, or governing by obeying the will of the community, tends to deflate the inevitable arrogance of leadership. In early 2003, the CCRI issued a series of nine critical and self-critical communiqués under the Sup’s signature. Perhaps feeling its isolation from its natural allies and supporters, the communiqués addressed the increasingly glaring disparities between successful co-ops like Muk Vitz and impoverished autonomous municipalities much further from the road. They summoned 7,000 supporters to Oventic in August to re-baptize the Zapatistas’ five organizational centers and rename them caracoles (spiral shells) or, in Marcos’ metaphor, “doors through which those outside can enter the communities and the communities can visit the world outside.”

The EZLN established Juntas of Good Government in each of the caracoles. The juntas are meant to resolve conflicts and disequilibrium between the centers and the outlying autonomías. They will regulate activities of NGOs in the Zapatista zones of influence. The NGOs—typically bringing funding from the North—came in for stinging criticism in the Subcomandante’s recent epistolary outburst: “They give us an herb garden when we need a school.”

In setting up the Juntas of Good Government, to be composed of representatives from each of the autonomous municipal councils that fall within the purview of the five caracoles, the EZLN is establishing a regional autonomous authority for the first time; until now Zapatista autonomy has been municipal. Because the Mexican constitution only recognizes three levels of government—federal, state and municipal—the juntas have been created in open defiance of the mal gobierno and could become a flash point for future conflict.

The impact of the Zapatista rebellion upon Indian Mexico is a complex tale. There are those who claim that Mexico’s self-reported Indian population has doubled from 10 to 20 million in the ten years of the Zapatista rebellion, largely because mestizos now take pride in their indigenous blood. Nonetheless, attempts to build structures through the CNI and national referendums on the San Andrés accords have borne scarce fruit. Although most of the nation’s etnias have adopted the Zapatistas’ Indian Rights law as their own, Indian social movements are essentially local, land- and resource-based in nature, so they do not lend themselves to building permanent national organization.

For a few years, the EZLN was the new Holy Grail of many internationalists, and Marcos’ florid, acid-dipped prose achieved sacred screed status in several languages. But the Zapatistas had not really set out to save the world—or the left—from itself. From their first public moment, they rejected taking state power—although they did promise to “advance on the capital, defeating the federal army along the way.” The EZLN was not the vanguard the left wanted them to be. “We just want to take part in the democratic change,” their comandantes often protested.

Mostly, the Zapatistas seem to want to grow their own corn and coffee and their communities in the way that they see fit. The rebels are, after all, Mayans, “the People of the Corn,” and corn is rooted in this rebellion. It was only when the three NAFTA nations began discussing corn quotas, which the EZLN feared would displace Indian farmers from the internal market, that they got around to declaring war. NAFTA and Salinas’ revision of constitutional Article 27 to permit the privatization of the ejido, “left us no alternative but to declare war,” Marcos has often explained.

The brief show war the Indians fought, armed political theater really, was in fact a strategy for survival, as agribusiness giants like Cargill and Archer Daniels Midland closed in on the People of the Corn. Ten years later, the guns are out of sight (although last New Year’s Eve, in the pine-scented Oventic auditorium, the militia men and women danced with them slung over their shoulders), but the Zapatista communities are themselves armed and loaded with resolve to resist and to survive the global monster. Perhaps the EZLN has not saved the world, but it has saved itself.

And was not their survival what the Zapatista rebellion was about in the first place?

John Ross, a frequent contributor to NACLA, is the author of three books on the Zapatista rebellion, the most recent being The War Against Oblivion: The Zapatista Chronicles (Common Courage Press, 2001).

Tags: Mexico, Chiapas, Zapatistas, NAFTA, violence, autonomy

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