Are Mexico’s Zapatista rebels still relevant?

Twenty years after the uprising, activists say Zapatistas have influenced radical movements around the world.

The Zapatista uprising coincided with the launch of the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement [AFP]

Oventic, Mexico – January 1, 2014 marks 20 years since the Zapatista rebels rose up in arms and drew the world’s attention to the plight of Mexico’s impoverished indigenous population. 

A rag-tag army of masked Mayan farmers named after Emiliano Zapata, a hero of Mexico’s 1910 revolution, the Zapatistas briefly seized control of several cities in Chiapas, one of Mexico’s poorest states with one of its biggest indigenous populations. 

The rebellion was timed to coincide with the launch of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), a treaty intended to strengthen Mexico’s economic ties with the United States and Canada by eliminating trade tariffs. 

The enigmatic Zapatista spokesman known only as “Subcomandante Marcos” proclaimed NAFTA a “death certificate” for Mexico’s indigenous farmers, noting it would force them to compete with a wave of cheap US imports, while under the terms of the agreement the Mexican government had revoked their constitutional right to communal land. 

A charismatic figure forever hidden behind his trademark pipe and balaclava, Marcos helped galvanise support from civil society groups, even as the Mexican army forced the Zapatistas back into the jungles and mountains of Chiapas. A peace agreement was signed in 1996, but the Zapatistas later broke off all dialogue with the government after it reneged on the treaty. 

Fighters of the Zapatista National Liberation Army [AFP]

20 years on 

Today the rebellion remains a work in progress. Having established complete political and economic autonomy, the Zapatistas govern and police their own communities across five regions of Chiapas. Relations with the state remain strained, and Zapatistas complain of regular harassment by the military and paramilitary forces that surround their territory. 

Although wary of outsiders and especially the media, the Zapatistas sometimes allow sympathisers and even curious tourists to visit Oventic, a tranquil community in the pine-clad highlands. If allowed entrance by the masked but unarmed guards, visitors may be allowed to speak with the governing council, buy local produce and view a school where children are taught in both Spanish and their native Tzotzil language. Guests who become ill are cared for at the Zapatista-run clinic. 

Life in Oventic may appear idyllic, but a visit to nearby Magdalena de la Paz, whose inhabitants live on a basic diet of beans and tortillas, shows poverty remains a real problem. The Zapatistas reject all government handouts, but rely on aid from sympathisers and are vulnerable to “the economic pressures that push the poor from all over Mexico into migrating to the cities”, said John Holloway, a professor of sociology at the Autonomous University of Puebla. 

With Marcos having kept a low profile in recent years, speculation has mounted that the Zapatistas are a spent force. Mexican journalist Jose Gil Olmos told Al Jazeera they have “stagnated” and “fallen into a natural decline”. 

Their most recent initiatives, such as a 2006 campaign to unite disaffected groups across the country, “have not had the same impact, at least in Mexico, because the national agenda has changed and there are a much wider number of concerns now”, Olmos said. With the drug war and an underperforming economy, the primary concerns of most Mexicans, “the Zapatistas are no longer a priority”, he added.

But the Zapatistas remain popular at the local level, as was demonstrated in December 2012, when some 40,000 supporters marched in silence across Chiapas. Supporters say the movement has restored a sense of pride in the area, saying the Zapatistas have empowered women by passing a law prohibiting forced marriage or any form of sexual discrimination, and have kept their communities free from violence and addiction by outlawing drugs and alcohol. 

Teaching rebellion 

With a new generation of Zapatistas having grown up since the uprising, education has become increasingly important to the survival of what is now more of a non-violent social movement than a guerrilla insurgency. 

In August 2013, the Zapatistas launched La Escuelita – “The Little School” – a series of coordinated classes that drew about 1,500 academics, activists and sympathisers from Mexico and abroad to the autonomous communities. “This is really about the younger generation taking the initiative of the movement,” Holloway said. 

As soon as I arrived I saw that many of the principles, language, themes and ways of organising Occupy Wall Street had been taken straight from Zapatista philosophy.

by - Rebecca Manski, Occupy Wall Street activist

Participants included Alejandra, a young woman from Guadalajara. “We were there for a week. We stayed with local families and tried to live like them and understand their way of life,” she told Al Jazeera. “We went from discovering them and reading about their struggle to smelling and tasting it. That was the idea.” 

Sergio Tischler, a Guatemalan sociologist and historian who also attended the inaugural Escuelita, told Al Jazeera the initiative showcased the Zapatistas’ “extraordinary organisational achievements”, with the classes mainly focused on their experiences of self-governance. 

Although colourful murals of Che Guevara adorn the wooden huts in their communities, the Zapatistas – unlike Guevara – have never sought to overthrow the government and take over the state. Instead, they aimed to build an entirely new system from the bottom up – one where “the people give the orders and the government obeys”, according to the popular Zapatista refrain. 

“After the fall of the Soviet Union … and the collapse of so many revolutionary movements, it’s really become clear that the old, 20th-century model of revolution by building up the party and capturing control of the state just didn’t work,” explained Holloway, author of Change the World Without Taking Power.

The Zapatistas realised this and sought to develop a new organisational structure that has evolved over the years and is now centred around five councils. Membership in these rotates between different members of the community every two weeks, so that everyone is directly involved in local governance. 

Global influence

Beyond the local struggle for autonomy, the Zapatistas have also influenced numerous international protest movements. At a time of widespread economic crisis and disillusionment with representative democracy, their rejection of capitalism and conventional party politics lies at the heart of their continued global appeal.

Rebecca Manski of Occupy Wall Street – a movement that sprang up in New York in 2011 to oppose social and economic inequality, financial greed and corruption – acknowledged the Zapatista influence after visiting Oventic last summer. “As soon as I arrived I saw that many of the principles, language, themes and ways of organising Occupy Wall Street had been taken straight from Zapatista philosophy,” Manski told Al Jazeera.

But beyond the “romantic imagery” of the Zapatistas, their most “powerful contribution” to global politics has been the example they set by working outside of the state and the electoral system to form their own, more democratic society, Manksi argued.

“Without building direct links with other movements they’ve become a source of inspiration” and spurred “a complete rethinking of what radical left-wing organisation and action means”, Holloway said.

In terms of ideology and organisation, Holloway said the Zapatistas have strongly influenced not only Occupy, but also Spain’s Indignados and Greece’s Direct Democracy Now, whose members have demanded radical political change because they do not feel represented by the parties and politicians in their countries.

“All around the world these movements are a backlash against the crisis of representation – and I think that can be definitely be traced directly back to the Zapatistas,” Manski said.

Follow Duncan Tucker on Twitter: @DuncanTucker

Source: Al Jazeera