I would like to respond to John Ross’ article “Commodifying the Revolution: Zapatista Villages Become Hot Tourist Destinations,” published by CounterPunch on February 17 and NACLA.
As someone who has supported the Zapatista movement for the last 15 years, and worked in Zapatista communities for six years, I was disappointed by this article. In the first part, Ross presents an accurate critique of the role of tourism and eco-tourism in Chiapas. After making some important points, however, Ross goes on to deride Subcomandante Marcos and the recent Festival Mundial de la Digna Rabia (Worldwide Festival of Dignified Rage), organized by the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN). What Ross presents in his article is a subjective and rather limited view of the Digna Rabia festival, of Subcomandante Marcos, and of the Zapatista movement itself. Of course no one person can paint the whole picture, but I would like to provide some balance to Ross’ perspective.
While Ross presents himself as a supporter of the Zapatista movement, he says very little about the Digna Rabia event itself; one of his few comments is that “special invitees such as the British writer John Berger sent along videotaped contributions rather than traveling to Chiapas for in-person appearances.” By mentioning one esteemed individual who did not show up, he implies a lack of interest in, or support for, the event and the movement – an unfair generalization. In fact, an impressive array of national and international intellectuals and leaders of social movements came to Chiapas to speak at the event: Michael Hardt from the US, Oscar Olivera from Bolivia, Mónica Baltodano from Nicaragua, and Sylvia Marcos, Adolfo Gilly, Gustavo Esteva, and Pablo González Casanova from Mexico, to name just a few. There were also representatives of dozens of organizations present: Via Campesina (an international peasant movement), the National Indigenous Congress (of Mexico), the National Association of Rural and Indigenous Women of Chile, the Mexican Network of Sex Workers, the Movement for Justice in El Barrio (from New York), and a number of international solidarity committees, again, just to name a few.
Personally, I was more impressed by the energy and enthusiasm at the event than by the big name speakers. The auditorium—which seats 1300 people—was constantly packed to overflowing. I spoke with a number of participants, people who have supported the Zapatista movement for years and who felt energized by the event, and people who were getting to know the Zapatista movement for the first time and were inspired by what they were learning. For anyone who is interested, there is extensive information about the Digna Rabia event on the Chiapas Indymedia website.
After dismissing the Digna Rabia event, Ross goes on a personal tirade against Marcos. Marcos is not above criticism, and I don’t agree with everything that Marcos says. I do believe, however, that the form as well as the content of Ross’ criticism is unreasonable. In his article, Ross states that Marcos “is single-handedly responsible for the depreciation of the Zapatista movement as a national and international player on the Left.” This is a ridiculous statement. It is true that the Zapatista movement currently faces significant obstacles. And admittedly, the Zapatista movement has made its share of mistakes. But the most serious obstacles the movement faces have more to do with external factors than with Marcos’ behavior. These external factors include the toll that 15 years of state-implemented counter-insurgency tactics have taken; efforts to privatize the land that the Zapatistas occupied in 1994; and the global financial crisis and the related fact that members of indigenous villages—Zapatistas and non-Zapatistas alike—are being forced to leave their communities and migrate, looking for work.
Many of us on the left acknowledge the importance of leadership, but also recognize the problematic nature of focusing too much attention on any one leader. Whatever his faults, Marcos has played and continues to play a key role in the Zapatista movement. Yet Marcos himself acknowledges that allowing a cult of personality to flourish around him was a mistake. In an interview with Laura Castellanos, Marcos states: “If there’s anything that I would go back and do differently, it would be to play a less protagonistic role in the media.”  By focusing solely on Marcos, Ross reproduces this individualistic framework which Marcos has himself has acknowledged as problematic.
For example, John Ross focuses on what he calls Subcomandante Marcos’ “shameful performance” at the Digna Rabia festival, but does not bother mentioning any of the other Zapatista leaders whose voices were heard at the event. Teniente Coronel Insurgente Moisés spoke on a panel discussion with other leaders of indigenous and peasant movements, emphasizing that “indigenous and non-indigenous peoples have to think about how we are going to live together on Mother Earth without exploitation.” Comandanta Hortensia spoke about women in the Zapatista movement during a panel on gender and sexuality, saying even though “there are still men who don’t really understand the importance of women’s participation,” that one of the most important things that they had achieved was “the participation of women at almost all levels.” Comandante David closed the event with these words: “Having listened to each other, it’s clear to us what is happening in other places, and we see that it’s not that different from what is happening here… And we know that another politics, another path, another culture, another everything is possible.” Why does Ross choose to ignore these and other contributions to the event in favor of a single-focused critique of Marcos?
Of course criticism is important, even essential, for social movements to thrive. When someone has a critique to offer to a movement or a movement leader, however, and especially from the left, it’s critical to present that critique in a constructive manner, to direct it strategically, and to consider the impact that airing it publicly might have on the movement. John Ross has written valid critiques of the EZLN’s political postures within its Other Campaign. It is one thing, however, to express an ideological disagreement, and another thing altogether to launch a petty and vitriolic personal attack, such as calling Marcos a “vituperative, narcissistic charlatan.”
At the end of his article, Ross describes the important work of constructing autonomous health care and education in indigenous Zapatista communities. His positive comments, however, are buried in the last few paragraphs, and his tirade against Marcos is a blow against that very same work being done by the Zapatista support base. As someone who worked in Zapatista communities for many years, my impression is that the people who make up the movement do not distinguish between the work they are doing in their communities and their military leadership; they see it as one integrated movement. Because the military aspect of the Zapatista movement is the most clandestine, perhaps it is the least understood; and because it is the most hierarchical, perhaps it is the easiest to criticize from the outside. But there is no denying that without its political-military character, in other words, without its initial commitment to armed struggle and its guerrilla army, the Zapatista movement would not be what it is, 15 years ago or today. Of course I cannot speak for the Zapatistas, but there is no doubt in my mind that the communities Ross claims to support would consider his attack against Marcos an attack against their entire movement.
As Ross mentions, the Digna Rabia festival marked the 25th anniversary of the founding of the EZLN and the 15th anniversary of the Zapatista uprising. For any social movement to survive for 25 years is no small feat, especially when this movement was clandestine for 10 of those years and has withstood a consistent campaign of low intensity warfare for another 15 years. At a party to commemorate these anniversaries in Morelia (one of the Zapatista centers of resistance), I was struck by their profound significance; the simple fact of these anniversaries deserves recognition and respect. For those of us in the United States, it might be worthwhile to reflect on what it would take to build a strong, militant social movement in the US which has been around for 25 years and has succeeded in creating regional structures of autonomous government, education, health care, and economic infrastructure; and then give it some thought before we criticize radical social movements in other countries.
John Ross calls himself a “long-time Zapatista supporter.” Indeed Ross’ writing over the last 15 years has been instrumental in generating interest and support for the Zapatista movement. However, any long-time Zapatista supporter should understand that an article like this does nothing but add fuel to the fire of the counter-insurgency strategies being employed against Zapatista communities by the Mexican government and other actors. This article would not have surprised me if I had read it in the mainstream media. Ironically, Ross criticizes the New York Times article about tourism in Chiapas as a “self-serving hit piece” and then goes on to write a hit piece himself. I think we should be able to expect better from a committed radical journalist like John Ross.
This response was originally published by The Narco News Bulletin.
Hilary Klein has worked as an activist and community organizer on a number of issues in the San Francisco Bay Area including immigrant’s rights, affordable housing, and violence against women. She lived in Chiapas from 1997 – 2003 working with women’s cooperatives in Zapatista communities and is currently working on a book about women’s participation in the Zapatista movement.
 Laura Castellanos, Corte de Caja; Entrevista al Subcomandante Marcos (Naucalpan, Mexico: Grupo Editorial Endira México, 2008), 92