On new years day 1994, An uprising occurred in the state of Chiapas, Mexico. It was timed to coincide with the signing of NAFTA, The North America Free Trade Agreement, a treaty which aimed to eliminate barriers to free trade between the countries of Mexico, Canada and the USA. This forgotten corner of Mexico was unknown to most and the uprising took the world, including the Mexican government, by surprise. It soon became clear that it was led by an organization calling itself the EZLN (Zapatista Army of National Liberation) and photographs of the mysterious Subcomandante Marcos started appearing.
Chiapas is the southernmost state in Mexico and its population is largely indigenous. Its geography consists of misty highlands and dense jungle and it is one of the least developed states in the country. One of the provisions of the NAFTA treaty meant the cancelling of article 27 of the Mexican constitution – an article guaranteeing that communal indigenous lands could not be sold or privatised. These lands had formed a part of the indigenous social structure long before the Spanish arrived and, during the Mexican revolution, folk hero Emiliano Zapata had ensured that their continued existence were enshrined in the constitution. The revocation of this article proved to be too much for the already marginalised population of Chiapas, and so they took his up arms and named themselves after Zapata, aiming to defend his revolution. After a brief period of conflict they were largely beaten but continued however, to exert control over autonomous communities in the region. The movement became a poster child for left-wing groups all over the world – many of whom were still reeling from the collapse of communism in the Soviet Union. In 2013 I went to Chiapas to visit one of their autonomous communities and see what had become of the movement.
After 45 minutes drive we passed a sign by the road telling us that we were entering the autonomous territory of the “good government” – as opposed to the “bad” government of the rest of Mexico. The heavy mist and rain prevented us from seeing much else and added to the already eerie atmosphere of the highlands. After another 20 minutes the driver dropped me off at a locked gate, flanked by two fortified boxes. Out of one of these appeared two women, both masked. After conferring in Tzotzil, the native language, and disappearing with my passport for a few minutes they agreed to let me in and take me to speak to someone. As I walked down the main street of the village I noticed the brightly painted murals that covered almost every building. Everyone I had seen so far was wearing the black ski mask that had become a symbol of their movement. I was told to wait outside a wooden building and after a few minutes I was taken inside wherein sat eight men and women sat around the edges of the room.
Since its inception the EZLN has been adept at using publicity to their advantage. When it became clear that they would not be able to beat back the Mexican army, they created a PR campaign that saw marches of support, not just across Mexico but across the world. The attention they focused on their conflict gave them a leeway in negotiations that they had been unable to gain through their uprising alone. When the internet began to take off, they quickly realised it potential and used it to communicate with the wider world – long before its role in social movements such as the Arab Spring was being analysed. This explains then, why they were willing to talk to me and happy for me to tell their story.
Throughout our conversation, they took turns to speak and conversed in Tzotzil before responding to each question I asked. They explained that politics in the Zapatista villages was done in a participatory way and that all decisions are discussed in this manner. The Mexican (and generally accepted international) form of representative democracy they argued, only serves to distance politics from the population and leads to a lack of accountability. Furthermore, the community is run by a council that is separated from the military body that led the uprising. This has been the case from the very beginning when the people were given the right to resist any intervention by the EZLN in civil and economic matters within territories under their control. It is not just politics that they do differently – they have created an economic system based on communal exchange in which basic services such as healthcare and education are provided for free and food is distributed equally amongst members of the community. I was told how the government had never provided these services in the area and so they built the facilities themselves and create this system in order to ensure that the local people would have access to them free of charge; for the good of the community as a whole. While most still work in agriculture, doctors and teachers are trained within the community in order to run the schools and clinics.
The interesting thing about the way in which the Zapatista communities are run is the way in which ideas from western political theories, such as Socialism and Marxism, are fused with the traditional native systems of the area. The council members I spoke to explained that exchange and systems of communal land had been used for centuries before the coming of the Spanish who then set about trying to break these up in order to implement the encomienda system where Spaniards were awarded land and natives to run as vast plantations. For them, their struggle did not begin in 1994 or even in 1910 when Zapata led the revolution; theirs is a continuation of a historic resistance to a foreign set of ideas.
The movement also looks forward however, and while the Spanish brought colonialism, globalisation now brings new challenges and a new mechanism of continuing the marginalisation that they have always faced. The main spokesperson of the uprising was Marcos and it was the silhouette of his masked face, complete with pipe, that became the most potent symbol of their uprising. Not much is known about this man or his origins (some believe he was a professor at UNAM – a university in Mexico City), however it is likely that he was the driving force behind the integration of western left-wing politics into the movement. Being an outsider, he became the most prominent spokesman of the movement as he knew how to explain the movement in terms that the outside world would understand. It is likely that it was Marcos behind the the movements focus on reaching out the wider world, knowing that there were many in western countries who were alienated by the inequality created by neoliberal economics and globalisation. He also managed to win the support of environmentalists. Back in the village, my hosts explained that before the uprising, the people of Chiapas had suffered from the effects of pollution caused by pesticides in farming. This had made people ill and damaged the plants and animals. Traditional religious customs had reserved a special respect for the earth and its inhabitants and so once again traditional beliefs found a comfortable convergence with modern environmentalist ideas and became an integral part of the Zapatista ideology. Traditional farming methods are now used which forbid the use of chemicals. This has allowed them to grow enough food to be self-sufficient without damaging their environment.
Things have not been easy however. The Mexican army managed to beat the rebels back breaking a ceasefire in the process. While their area of influence was greatly diminished, the government did eventually agree to give the Zapatista communities more autonomy and since then, as the peace process has not been completed, they have existed in a legal grey area. This uneasy situation has been disrupted however by the occasional outbreaks of violence, the worst of which was the 1997 massacre at Acteal. Paramilitary groups killed 45 people attending a prayer meeting, burning the village down in the process; evidence later surfaced which seems to suggest that the Mexican army was at least aware, if not involved in this attack. When asked about this situation, The council alleged that the tactic of supporting paramilitary groups was still ongoing. While the army had not entered the communities for a long time, I was told that communities had been forced from their homes with the threat of violence only to return and find their houses destroyed and their things stolen. I was also told how when the communities had set up drinking water and electricity, these things (as well as crops) were sabotaged by the paramilitaries. I asked how the Zapatistas responded to this and was told only that they “defended”.
The Zapatistas have been largely forgotten in the west, but at the time of their uprising they inspired hope in left-wing movements at home and abroad. In 2014, Marcos announced he would not be heard from again as the movement no long needed the persona however, as I discovered, the Zapatista communities continue to exist and govern themselves using their strange mix of traditional and modern. The Zapatistas rebelled against the marginalisation that the people of Chiapas had long suffered. Alongside the specific set of issues they faced as indigenous Mexicans, they spoke out against inequality, the failure of mainstream politics to represent, environmental issues, and the crashes that seem to accompany our favoured economic model. These are the very same issues that dominate today. Maybe it’s time we remembered the Zapatistas and just maybe we could learn something from them.