The Meaning of the Zapatista Struggle

T Gz MeeNilankco and S Sivasegaram 


This essay is the outcome of an attempt to understand the significance of the Zapatista movement and its uprising on New Years’ Day 1994 that led to the Zapatistas taking control of much of the state of Chiapas in the southeast of Mexico, 15-years after the event. Even those who acknowledge the importance of the uprising to the anti-imperialist cause, differ in their assessment of the Zapatista movement, its theory and practice, and their implications for the Third World. Some, especially those who reject armed struggle and the need for the oppressed masses to seize state power, tend to romanticise it and prescribe it as the model for anti-imperialist struggles. Anarchists are most approving of the Zapatista method of government; and NGOs relish aspects that help them to promote post-modernist theories hostile to Marxism, and their rejection of organised political parties and armed struggle against the oppressor, imperialism in particular. There are others who resent the seemingly naïve populism that fails to put in clear perspective the violent and oppressive nature of the state.

The essay summarises the impact of the Zapatista insurrection in 1994 on the Mexican state, the practice of democracy by the Zapatistas in Chiapas, and the wider impact of the Zapatista movement on democracy in Mexico. Zapatista concepts of participatory democracy and autonomous development in Chiapas, including “rule by obeying” are briefly outlined and commented upon, with special reference to the movement’s resistance to government programs and democratisation of politics and administration. Attention is drawn to the efforts of Zapatista networks to re-embed social values in making economic and political decisions, and thereby transform hegemonic meanings and practices of democracy and development in Mexico, thus far understood and applied in terms of corrupt bourgeois democratic practices and neo-liberal notions of economic development.

Comments in the sections that follow on the philosophy, programme, activities and achievements of the Zapatistas are based on factual but largely uncritical writings on the uprising of 1994 as well as subsequent developments. The essay in its concluding section contains a critical assessment of the significance of the Zapatista movement to Third World struggles against oppression.

The Background 

Latin American social movements for human rights, acceptable living and working conditions, and to end corporate exploitation and military violence have from the mid-1990s acquired a momentum of their own. The indigenous populations, motivated by the desire to claim their economic and political rights that have been denied to them for generations and in the process inspired to rediscover their legacy cruelly denied to them by European intervention five centuries ago, are now increasingly assertive and politically effective. They have pledged to fight poverty and put the needs of the people before the interests of the U.S. and multi-national corporations. Their resistance, based on decades of organising among indigenous groups and unions, besides contributing to major political changes in Latin America in recent years, has produced a vibrant array of popular movements and lessons for meaningful democracy in the region.

These developments are inseparable from the process of democratization that has been at work for some years in Latin America and forced elected governments to be at least formally more democratic, in a region which not long ago was ruled almost entirely by military dictators in the service of U.S. imperialism. The people are now most forthcoming in their expression of disappointment and disillusion with existing democratic institutions and have in several instances dared to build democratic alternatives based on mass participation, rejecting elite and foreign domination.

Indigenous movements in Latin America came to the fore by drawing attention to ethnic issues in a context where politics, at best, concerned issues of class but not ethnic identity. The emergence of identity-based social movements and growing political awareness among the indigenous people has been an important contributor to political democratization. The new century has witnessed a series of victories for the people of Latin America, many without recourse to armed struggle, although not entirely free of counter-revolutionary action and consequent bloodshed. The ongoing struggle of the Colombian rebels initiated in mid-20th Century is an important exception, and that of the Zapatistas of Chiapas, Mexico is another of a different kind.

An Overview

Mexico, in its endeavour to become a First World country, had made arrangements to formally join the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) on 1st January 1994. In the early hours of that day the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) stormed the municipalities of Chiapas demanding “democracy, liberty, and justice for all Mexicans” (Bruhn, 1996). The EZLN comprising mainly campesinos (poor indigenous peasant farmers) deliberately chose that day for their uprising since the signing of NAFTA on that day would be a major media event drawing the audience of millions of people from around the world.

This unexpected entry of the EZLN into the international scene was a declaration of the presence of indigenous peoples in a globalised world, and a call for democratic alternatives to neo-liberalism, which the EZLN identified as “a new war of conquest for territories […which] is a strange modernity that moves forward by going backward” (Marcos, 1997). The EZLN thus declared war on the Mexican government, and denounced the new neo-liberal policies scheduled to take effect on that day.

The ending of armed clashes between the Mexican army and the EZLN in Chiapas with a cease-fire 12 days after the uprising, has been followed by 15 years of military stalemate between the government and the EZLN since neither side can afford to initiate hostilities. The EZLN, while following a non-violent course, has refused to disarm, let alone surrender. The Mexican government, under pressure to abide by international conventions on human rights, resorts only to covert military violence. The Zapatistas, meanwhile, have mobilised considerable international support and solidarity, so that overt confrontation and a genocidal war will be a public-relations nightmare for a government seeking First World respectability. There is political stalemate too, with the government declaring illegal the Zapatista Autonomous Rebel Municipalities (MAREZ) established in Chiapas by the EZLN, based on which the EZLN is refusing to return to negotiations with the government.

The EZLN has adhered to the ceasefire and, despite its belief in armed uprising where necessary, it was cautious in its use of violence in its military attacks. Yet, despite the EZLN refraining from warfare, the governments of Mexico and the U.S. call it a terrorist organisation, nominally because it remains armed but actually because it resists U.S. imperialist ambitions. The EZLN, despite its continued possession of arms, has vigorously pursued non-violent, educational forms of struggle to achieve its objectives, averting violent response to provocation by the Mexican military and paramilitary forces (Bruhn, 1999); and is only engaged in what it calls “a war of ideas not bullets” with “words as weapons” to prevent its own military destruction, to attract resources, and to build a broad coalition of mostly non-state allies to exert pressure on the government to respond positively to its demands, mainly the implementation of the San Andrés Accord on Indigenous Culture and Rights signed in February 2006, the only negotiated agreement to be reached between the Mexican state and EZLN (Burgess, 2003) for compiling laws and stipulations on Indigenous Rights.

Thus, some identify the EZLN as a social movement and not a revolutionary guerrilla movement since, despite its goal of dissolution or restructuring of the existing government institutions, its methods differ from those of other Latin American armed movements, the most important being that it never aimed to overthrow the government (Johnston, 2000), although it initially called for the dissolution of the federal government and/or restructuring of its oppressive institutions. It has also endorses the existence of the Mexican state and has not sought to undermine it by demanding secession.

The EZLN approach is based on the view that a real revolution cannot come about by a mere change in the reins of power, but requires long-term change in individual consciousness, state institutions, material conditions, and civil society. Thus it aims to change the way both local and national government are run by working with the masses, organising at grassroots level, and bringing about structural changes from the bottom to the top (Gilbreath and Otero, 2001). The EZLN approach has important parallels with the “Mass Line” advocated by Third World Marxist Leninists during and after the struggle for state power, and also seems to draw on the thoughts of Antonio Gramsci (1971). The aim to alter the status quo by a strategy of maximum popular participation by including virtually everyone in the political decision-making process, however, seems to be oblivious to the nature of the state in class society, certainly the Marxist understanding of it.

The EZLN has evolved an unarmed governing body, the Juntas de Buen Gobierno (JBG or good-government councils, better known as ‘juntas of good government’) to use revolutionary reforms aimed at fundamental political and economic changes (MacEwan, 1999), in other words structural reforms, to achieve a radical transformation of society. The Zapatista approach here is akin to that of early socialist idealists.

Promotion of Democracy 

The EZLN was the first armed guerrilla movement to propose a peaceful resolution of contradictions with the state. Following the uprising, it invited popular organisations to work towards altering the balance of forces between the state and civil society and defeating the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). Its most direct contribution to democratization was to challenge the racist practices in Mexico by the creation of fresh awareness of indigenous rights in the socio-cultural sphere.

The uprising of 1994 gave a greater impetus to the democratization of Mexico than any activity of the parliamentary opposition. The latter has been notorious for its compromises with the ruling PRI, which has used every possible means to undermine the opposition. Thus, despite political pressure from the opposition from time to time, the authoritarian political system remained effectively intact, whereas the social movement initiated by the EZLN, heightened political activity and enhanced democratic debate.

The key difference between the two approaches was that, unlike the EZLN, the Mexican political parties had a vested interest in the existing political system. Hence the latter did not dare to alter the framework within which they worked while the former went outside the framework to use mass mobilisation as the driving force of democratization. While there are limits to what mass mobilisation could achieve without overthrowing the existing oppressive state apparatus, the EZLN uprising put Mexico’s political system to test by bringing into focus the failure of formal democracy to address the concerns of an invigorated population. Continued mass activity and mobilization by the EZLN was a compelling factor in forcing the government to respond to a wide range of social concerns.

The EZLN acted pragmatically in taking advantage of a situation where armed confrontation was not in the interest of the Mexican government and agreeing to a ceasefire, since it was not equipped to establish and defend a revolutionary government of its own. Thus there is need here for caution against making a virtue out of necessity. The EZLN also avoided provocation by emphasising the potential of “civil society” (meaning subordinate individuals and organizations independent of the state’s corporatist structures, which is closer to the meaning in which Gramsci used the term than typical NGO usage which purposely excludes political organisations) to bring about democratic change. Thus the line adopted by the EZLN was in direct conflict with the ruling PRI’s policy of a managed transition to electoral democracy and radical free-market reforms with a negative impact on peasant life (Harvey, 1998).

The EZLN approach, with much in common with the emerging Latin American left, conceptualised power as a practice situated both within and beyond the state and exercised through what Gramsci referred to as “hegemony”, comprising the dissemination of beliefs and values that systematically favoured the ruling class (Dagnino, 1998). It opened political spaces where new actors in civil society could press for democracy and social justice. Thus the EZLN initiated a cultural strategy that challenged PRI hegemony by redefining national symbols and discourses in favour of a more genuine and broader democracy.

The party system before the uprising had little incentive to significantly reform the state. The emergence of the EZLN as a challenge to the system of political representation led to cooperation among political parties to achieve meaningful changes (Prud’homme, 1998). Following the uprising, the interior minister (a former governor of Chiapas) resigned, and electoral reforms were announced to allow international and civic observers to monitor the presidential elections of August 1994, and by 1996 the Federal Electoral Institute became an independent body run by non-partisan citizens rather than by the government.

Responses to the uprising and the ensuing social movement from Mexican intellectuals was mostly disapproving of the violence but approving of the net outcome. (Collier and Collier, 2005; Barry, 1995). The main contribution of EZLN to Mexico’s democratization was, however, the impact of the uprising on mass political awareness. In Chiapas it initiated fresh interest in indigenous cultural empowerment to transform the social and political climate. It also inspired and enabled other indigenous Mexicans to make demands and be heard amid resistance by the local Latino population.

Across Mexico, the response of the public to the uprising was positive. The first important mass response was a spontaneous rally by thousands protesting against air attacks by the Mexican air force on the retreating rebels and the summary execution of rebels captured by federal soldiers. Besides popular demands on the government to stop the war, people went on to organise human rights security cordons around the venue of peace talks during sessions. They also delivered supplies to jungle communities besieged by federal army units; set up “peace camps” to monitor human rights conditions in communities threatened by military presence; organised health, education, and alternative production projects; built civilian-based Zapatista support groups, and participated in fora and encounters convoked by the EZLN to discuss democracy and indigenous rights (Bruhn, 1999). Much of the mobilization since the EZLN’s call for democracy occurred outside traditional political channels. The EZLN aimed to extend democratization to the economic realm to address the social costs of the neo-liberal economic model, especially the free market and globalised trade.

Its communiqués and other pronouncements in the wake of the uprising made it clear that the EZLN opposed not only the lack of democracy but also the neo-liberal free-market reforms that had opened up Mexico to the forces of global capitalism and diminished the ability of the nation-state to shape the domestic economy as it became increasingly integrated into global capitalism (Cooper, 1994). They explained the aggravation of socio-economic disparities by free-market reforms in terms of the relationship between economic marginalization and political exclusion and the extent to which it hampered democracy. Thus the uprising was also a bold statement by an oppressed minority against an encroaching global capitalism that threatened the small Mayan farmer and, by extension, any subordinate group unable to shoulder the weight of global competition (Slater, 1998), and thereby encouraged demands for democratization in the economic sphere.

The Zapatista movement further contested the socio-cultural manifestation of state power embedded in everyday life with a counter-discursive that reinterpreted national symbols in favour of its project of building a movement based on a shared understanding of the obstacles it confronted. To borrow Gramsci’s terminology, the EZLN changed its strategy from a “war of movements” challenging state power by force of arms to a “war of positions” contesting the moral and intellectual leadership of Mexico’s ruling class. The uprising contributed to an expansion of democracy in the political domain and beyond it into the cultural.

Democratising Administration

In 1994 the EZLN set up the Clandestine Revolutionary Indigenous Committees (CCRI) to enable dialogue and negotiation and to house a de facto rebel government; and in 1995 it initiated “autonomous projects” in the areas where it had strongest control, and proceeded to expand. The EZLN started with projects to afford communities with a local democratic government, based on general assemblies and consensus voting, something that indigenous people were denied under the local state government (Nash, 2001).

Several indigenous communities have had de facto autonomy based on their own customs well before the EZLN demanded the Mexican government to allow them autonomy under the law (Collier and Quaratiello, 2005). In 1998 the Zapatista support bases decided to construct the Autonomous Municipalities (MAREZ) to implement the de facto autonomy in the San Andrés Accord 0f February 2006 that the federal government refused to implement. The functions of the MAREZ are to provide justice, community health, education, housing, land, work, food, commerce, transport, information and culture. The MAREZ, besides, emphasises gender equality and encourages women to participate at all levels of civil government (Marcos, 2003). Within MAREZ, the communities name their authorities, local health promoters, community teachers, and elaborate their own laws based on social, political, economic, and gender equality among the inhabitants of diverse ethnic communities; and an assembly of all members of an indigenous community decides whether it should belong to a MAREZ, and each community elects and withdraws its representatives for the MAREZ (Flood, 1999).

The civil government has no power over decisions like going to war and signing peace accords without formally consulting the communities. Consultations take place in every community, and are by a form referendum preceded by intense discussion. Voting is direct, free, and democratic; and the date and place of the assembly, the main points discussed and views expressed, the number of people over 12 years of age who attended, and the vote are recorded in the official minutes. For example, the decisions to accept the San Andrés Accord and later to break off talks with the government were based on such consultations (Flood, 1999).

Each MAREZ is unique: some have a single ethnic identity while others have plural identities including ones speaking different Mayan languages. The MAREZ are dynamic and constantly changing so that the Zapatistas constantly adapt their rhetoric and policies to accommodate and to satisfy an increasing number of members. What is common to them, however, is the principle of ‘governing by obeying’. Governing by obeying too pre-dates the Zapatistas in Chiapas and has been a system in which the community monitored the authorities carefully and recalled and replaced them when necessary (Bartra and Otero, 2005).

The Zapatista concept of participatory democracy is a hybrid of representative and direct democracy, and seeks to allow citizens considerable control over political decisions while retaining the efficiency of a presidential or parliamentary system (Ribeiro, 1998), and the EZLN established in August 2003 a non-hierarchical participatory democratic structure comprising the Juntas de Buen Gobierno (JBG) to address the needs and concerns of the people.

Thus the JBG while coordinating the MAREZ does not take over their functions and, while mediating between communities, regions, the state, and international actors like NGOs, has left ultimate political power with the communities (Mentinis, 2005). The JBG also mediated in affairs within and between municipalities and between MAREZ and government municipalities. Thus they serve to counteract imbalance in the developments in the MAREZ and the communities. Elections to the JBGs are from the bottom up, with governance guided by the philosophy of ‘governing by obeying’, so that by implication government officials accept that they are there by courtesy of their constituencies (Collier and Quaratiello, 2005).

With the establishment of the JBG, all domestic and foreign policy matters were directed through it, by-passing the EZLN. The EZLN worked with those in responsible positions in the organisation in each community, in groups of communities, and areas covering several groups to ensure that those who did not discharge their duties were, “in a natural fashion, replaced by another” in keeping with the principle of ‘governing by obeying’. The role of the CCRI has been to guide the EZLN in each region and to maintain the necessary checks and balances by monitoring the operations of the JBG to ensure clean government in conformity with the principle of ‘governing by obeying’ (Mentinis, 2005). The EZLN has kept out of the affairs of autonomous authorities, and no military command or member of the CCRI is allowed a position of authority in a community or a Municipality. Anyone seeking to participate in autonomous government is required to resign from office in the EZLN (Marcos, 2003).

Despite the three tiers of civil government, namely community, municipal and JBG, the Zapatista model is ‘non-hierarchical’, and the organizations have no executive power over one another. Their functions complement each other in the protection of human rights, monitoring and implementation of community projects and work, keeping law and order in Zapatista territory, and conducting foreign policy with international civil society organisations (Collier and Quaratiello, 2005). This conduct of democratic local government stands in sharp contrast to the conduct of the Mexican government, with a history of authoritarian rule, neglect, and oppression of the indigenous people (Mentinis, 2005).

The carefully planned and implemented EZLN initiatives have thus far demonstrated to the indigenous people that feasible alternatives exist for democratic self-government, and that ways exist to combat inequality even under conditions of extreme poverty and military oppression. Sub-commander Marcos declared that preventing those with disproportionate wealth from gaining undue influence over the political agenda became ‘the single most important area of reform needed to enhance the quality of democracy’ (Marcos, 2003).

The ‘Other Campaign’

On 1st January 2006, exactly 12 years after the uprising and even longer years of struggle for indigenous rights, the EZLN reasserted its anti-capitalist roots by launching its La Otra Campaña (the Other Campaign) to link non-partisan anti-capitalist national liberation struggles across the country. The Campaign sought to mobilise these forces as a “national campaign for building another way of doing politics, for a program of national struggle of the left, and for a new Constitution” (Mentinis, 2005); and in the process introduce its local autonomy practices to indigenous autonomy initiatives so that they persist in confronting broader structural inequalities. The Campaign also sought to expand the scope of the radical politics of recognition by evolving a loosely-knit collective of diverse national political forces comprising radicalised ethnic groups which drew on the cultural knowledge and experiences of historically marginalised political actors to construct anti-capitalist alternatives to hierarchical positioning in society. It is, however, the contrast with a well-structured political party and mass organisations linked to political parties that made the Other Campaign appealing to Anarchists and NGOs alike.

The Other Campaign had to be alert to new developments in capitalist thinking and their implications for the Mexican state. This was important since neo-liberal hegemony is about global expansion of capital as well as the taming of dissident claims. In first 12 months of the Campaign, Sub-commander Marcos met with people to listen to their concerns and discuss forms of struggle. The emphasis on listening in the Other Campaign is interpreted by some as a break with conventional political party platforms as well as with the vanguardist politics of revolutionary movements. But such views deliberately ignore the mass line advocated by Marxist Leninists for most of the last century, which laid emphasis on listening to the people. Differences in approach between the Zapatistas and Marxist Leninists relate to context and to the avoidance of a well-defined ideological stand by the former.

Experience at grassroots level has shown that, the alongside the centrality of listening, the resulting dialogues needed to be understood as existing in a terrain of hierarchical power, with the indigenous experience extreme political and economic inequality. Also, recognition cannot be exclusively cultural since ethnically marked traits exist alongside persistent colonial legacies and biological signifiers. Thus there will be an inevitable need to draw on shared experiences of racialisation and forge political alliances across cultural borders, and based on class.

Tactical Media

The Zapatistas use the term “tactical media” to refer to its idea of using the media to “exploit the theatre and poetry of a political action”. EZLN has demonstrated much skill in using new media to communicate and generate universal solidarity in Mexico and worldwide (Meikle, 2004). This concept, used as a form of political activism, is based on the notion that “the important thing is the spectacle that you make out of an event in the media, as opposed to the event itself” and the impact of the communications revolution, which has allowed some degree of power for the audience by eroding, even slightly, media monopoly in mass communications.

The Zapatistas developed the idea further to open up new channels to provide a powerful forum for political participation by citizens, or “e-democracy” on an unprecedented scale. “Digital, networked media allow for faster, diverse, two-way communications between users who have both more control and more choice” as they simultaneously become users, producers and agents of social change. This was a valuable contribution of the Zapatistas to anti-establishment struggles and the idea has subsequently been used more effectively by campaigners against globalisation on a massive scale during this decade.

New Realities 

Two major events in Mexico in 2006 demonstrated the potential as well as the limitations of the method of Zapatistas. One was the struggle since May 2006 in Oaxaca a poor southern state, bordering Chiapas, following the heavy-handed action of the state governor Ulises Ruiz against striking teachers. Opponents of the repressive local regime resisted repressive measures by the Mexican armed forces under the leadership of APPO (Popular Assembly of the Peoples’ of Oaxaca), founded on 17th June 2006 and embracing a large number of social organizations that include the striking teachers and indigenous people. Following state repression, the struggle demanding the dismissal of Ruiz became one of resistance to Mexican state and its misguided economic policies. The violent occupation of Oaxaca by the militarized police provoked protests throughout Mexico; and the Zapatista-inspired Other Campaign together with others blocked highways throughout Mexico on November 1st and all roads through Zapatista territory in Chiapas. APPO took over the running of city of Oaxaca and some 30 municipalities throughout the state and proposed that Popular Assemblies be created throughout Mexico and that grassroots organizations join together to create a new way of exercising representative democracy. Although the APPO uprising lost momentum and declaration by the EZLN’s Delegate Zero (Sub-commander Marcos) “We are on the eve of either a great uprising or a civil war” referring to uprising the failed to realise, and the Other Campaign itself has not had a follow-up, APPO as well as other indigenous peoples organisations remain active to varying degrees.

The second was the Presidential Election in July 2006. The EZLN uprising was instrumental in bringing an end to PRI domination in 2000, but led to the election of Vincente Fox, an even more pro-U.S. President. He was succeeded in 2006 to be succeeded by Felipe Calderón, an equally vigorous supporter of imperialism. Calderón cheated Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, the leftist Partido de la Revolución Democrática (PRD) candidate of victory by electoral malpractices in the Presidential election. The public which was confident of victory for Obrador participated in mass demonstrations against the victor Felipe Calderon and calling for a recount. The mass mobilisation was unprecedented in scale in Mexican political history. Although the Zapatista uprising was a factor in the rise in support for the left candidate and in inspiring the mass mobilisation that impeded the inauguration of Calderón by nearly five months, the EZLN itself had refrained from endorsing Obrador’s candidature.

The situation for the EZLN has taken a turn for the worse since the election Calderón as President of a polarised country with a weaker mandate than his predecessor. Calderón has become more dependent on military, now subsidised by the U.S. and has been particularly harsh towards Chiapas, where the government has complemented its “iron fist” policy with a divide and conquer strategy aimed at undermining the EZLN. Calderón has intensified the creation and training of anti-Zapatista paramilitaries within the Chiapas and has used various programs to make dubious land grants, often in EZLN-occupied zones, to anti-Zapatista families and indigenous outfits such as the Organization for the Defence of Indigenous and Peasant People, with ties to the government and/or paramilitary groups. The purpose is to use the land titles as pretext to stir violence and justify military intervention. There has also been increased activity in the military bases on indigenous land in Chiapas. (COHA, 2008)

While the mayor of Chiapas is from the PRD, the likelihood of him and the PRD coming out in support of the EZLN is in doubt, partly because of the EZLN’s failure to support Obrador’s candidature. It is also doubtful that the election of Barack Obama as President of the United States will usher in a new era of U.S.-Mexican relations that would change things in favour of the EZLN. The White House will not undergo an ideological shift of sufficient magnitude to uproot neo-liberal economic policies, the root cause of Third World suffering, least of all that of Mexico’s indigenous population. Imperialist interests will decide Obama’s priorities, and little will happen that would sour relations with the Mexican government.  The commitment to the unpopular NAFTA will remain while minor reforms of NAFTA are possible. Unlike Bush, Obama may prefer to avoid a bloody conflict with the EZLN, while moves to undermine the EZLN’s efforts at self-rule will continue.

Concluding Remarks

The Zapatistas have demonstrated that ordinary masses who are not academically or professionally qualified can rule themselves better than the Mexican liberal democracy has done so far. They have worked to heal the wounds created by a history of authoritarian rule and have through the strengthening of cooperatives, diversification of production, and building food security made life more bearable for the indigenous population in Chiapas.

Apart from aspects specific to Mexico and its indigenous people, the Zapatista experience, both positive and negative, reaffirms the validity of the Marxist Leninists approach, which insists that the people are the masters. The intervention of ideology and the party of the proletariat need not be an obstacle to empowering the masses and the need for flexibility, dynamism, and sensitivity to local idiosyncrasies has been emphasised time and again. It will be useful to compare the approaches to revolution of Marxist leaders of the calibre of Mao Zedong and Amilcar Cabral among others and that of the Sandinista leadership, despite subsequent defeat of the revolutionary lines.

While the EZLN has clearly pointed out that although their system is working for them their solution is not the only answer to social justice, there is a strong tendency among politically motivated NGOs and sections of anarchists and left liberals to idealise and generalise the Zapatista strategy to make a case against the Marxism and revolutionary armed struggle. There are on the other hand Marxists who dismiss the Zapatistas as mere reformists. That is not very healthy either.

The Zapatista ideology has to be understood in the Mexican context, with emphasis on the conditions relating to the indigenous people. The Zapatistas have created a social democracy in an area known for extreme poverty, prone to internal divisions and violence, and deemed to be ungovernable by the state. The EZLN have solved some problems that Mexico’s emerging liberal democracy and Presidential system have failed to address. While the benefits of the Zapatista system are felt exclusively within their limited zones of influence, its practice of indigenous autonomy offers alternatives for terrains marked by the interplay of assimilationist and multi-culturalist discourses. Experiences relating to resisting the political, economic and cultural logic of late capitalism can be relevant to geographically isolated ethnic groups and communities, like the Indian Tribal people, and to other oppressed nationalities as well.

The claim of the EZLN that it is not seeking state power is a reflection of objective reality. The question of state power would enter the picture only when there is a call for secession or a bid for political autonomy based on the principle of self-determination. Without conditions making secession the only feasible option or a strong secessionist tendency within Chiapas, the question of state power simply does not arise. A call for autonomy would have led to a situation in which the region could declare autonomy without secession, but at the risk of providing the pretext for the Mexican state to unleash a destructive war against a politically isolated EZLN.

To say that the EZLN has rejected armed struggle is to say that it has signed its own death warrant. The decision of the EZLN to accept the ceasefire was a realistic move since prolonging the conflict was not in its interest or that of the people of Chiapas. It was, however, the military success and the martyrdom of hundreds of EZLN cadres that made it possible for the EZLN to gain and retain control of a large territory and govern it according to the principles of participatory democracy, and defend the culture, resources and livelihood of the people. It was the uprising that made the people of Mexico as a whole more aware of the inequality surrounding them, the devastating effects of NAFTA, and the desire of many in Mexico to have more of a say in decisions that affect their daily lives.

What the EZLN has done is to consolidate its gains and build on that basis. But the equilibrium is delicately unstable. While it may not opportune for the EZLN to resort to armed struggle, it will be folly to be unprepared against a state that is busy undermining EZLN authority in Chiapas in anticipation of a good chance to strike. ‘Globalised’ and ‘liberalised’ Third World economies like that of Mexico’s do not change their ways unless forced to, since the ruling classes have too much at stake, and that includes Chiapas. If measures are not taken by the EZLN to avert confrontation with Calderón’s “iron fist”, the EZLN could face a renewal of violence against the Mexican authorities before his term ends in 2012.

With the path to peace and autonomy far from clear, defensive preparedness, avoidance of conflict with local paramilitaries while exposing their ties with the government, and a vigorous campaign to draw the attention of international anti-imperialist forces to events in Chiapas, will help to deter the Mexican state from going for a military solution. With the enemy and its super-power patron keen to make an example out of Zapatista resistance to neo-liberalism, successful resistance to oppression requires besides courage and dedication to the Zapatista cause, the strongest possible backing of domestic and international forces. Thus, those who, for whatever reason, uncritically endorse the line pursued by the EZLN cannot be true friends of the EZLN, because they fail to draw attention to likely pitfalls.

While the Zapatista campaign against neo-liberalism and globalisation provides remarkable insights into the workings of the imperialist world order and its rejection of bourgeois democratic solutions are commendable from a revolutionary perspective, the reluctance of the EZLN to expose NGOs as an arm of imperialism is a matter for concern. NGOs seemed to be papered over by the term Civil Society by many writers supportive of the Zapatista movement. Besides the prospect of the NGOs who are active in Chiapas playing a counter-revolutionary role at the opportune moment, the involvement of EZLN with NGOs and its failure to caution the people about them runs against the spirit of self-reliance.

The question of development cannot be ignored. The EZLN uses ultra-modern communication technology for its propaganda and the question of advancing technology for production cannot be deferred for too long. These are areas in which extra caution is required because of the delicate balance between modernising production and defending the traditional way of life. Survival will require every group of indigenous people to move into the modern world, but the point is to make the transition without destruction of the fabric of the indigenous society. This too is an area where caution against covert imperialist intervention is important.

Finally, the authors appeal to progressive forces to recognise the positive features of the Zapatista movement and its struggle, learn from them, and be supportive of the struggle. That is not to say that the Zapatistas should be spared criticism; but to denounce outright the Zapatistas for what is perceived as a wrong line will only help those who seek to isolate them. The correct approach would be to encourage the Zapatistas to take their anti-imperialism to its logical end and form lasting alliances with the revolutionary left in Mexico and Latin America as well as to forge links of solidarity with the international revolutionary left.


Barry, Tom (1995) Zapata’s Revenge: Free Trade and the Farm Crisis in Mexico. Boston: South End Press.

Bartra, Armando and Otero, Gerardo (2005). “Indian Peasant Movements in Mexico: the Struggle for Land, Autonomy and Democracy” in Moyo, Sam and Yeros, Paris, Reclaiming the Land: A Resurgence of Rural Movements in Africa, Asia and Latin America. London and New York: Zed Books.

Bruhn, Kathleen (1999) “Antonio Gramsci and the palabra verdadera: The political discourse of Mexico’s guerrilla forces”, Journal of Inter-American Studies and World Affairs, Summer 1999.

Bruhn, Kathleen (1996) Taking on Goliath: The Emergence of a New Left Party and the Struggle for Democracy in Mexico. Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University Press.

Burgess, Katrina  (2003) “Mexican Labour at Crossroads”, in Tulchin, Joseph A. and Selee, Andrew D.,Mexico’s Politics and Society in Transition. Boulder: Lynne Reinner Publishers, pp. 73-108

COHA (2008): “The Future of Mexico’s EZLN” .

Collier George A. and Collier Jane F. (2005) “The Zapatista Rebellion in the Context of Globalization”, The Journal of Peasant Studies. Special Issue on Rural Chiapas 10 Years after the Zapatista Uprising Vol. No. 3-4, 2005.

Collier, George A. and Lowery Quaratiello (2005) Basta! Land in the Zapatista Rebellion in Chiapas. Oakland: California Food First Books.

Cooper, Marc (1994). Zapatistas: Spreading Hope for Grassroots Change. Westfield, NJ: Open Magazine Pamphlet Series.

Dagnino, Evelina (1998). “Culture, citizenship, and democracy: changing discourses and practices of the Latin American left”, in S. Alvarez, E. Dagnino, and A. Escobar (eds.), Cultures of Politics, Politics of Cultures: Re-Visioning Latin American Social Movements. Boulder and Oxford: Westview Press.

Flood, Andrew (1999) “The Zapatistas and Direct Democracy”, Anarcho-Syndicalist Review, #27, Winter 1999.

Gilbreath, Chris and Otero, Gerardo (2001) “Democratization in Mexico, The Zapatista Uprising and Civil Society”, Latin American Perspectives, Issue 119, Vol. 28 No. 4.

Gramsci, Antonio (1971). Selections from the Prison Notebooks. New York: International Publishers.

Harvey, Neil (1998).The Chiapas Rebellion: The Struggle for Land and Democracy. Durham NC and London: Duke University Press.

Johnston, Josée (2000) “Pedagogical Guerrillas, Armed Democrats, and Revolutionary Counterpublics: Examining Paradox in the Zapatista Uprising in Chiapas Mexico”, Theory and Society Vol. 29, No. 4.

MacEwan, Arthur (1999) Neo-liberalism or Democracy? Economic Strategy, Markets, and Alternatives for the 21st Century. London and New York: Zed Books.

Marcos, Sub-commander (1997) “The Seven Loose Pieces of the Global Jigsaw Puzzle, Neo-liberalism as a puzzle: the useless global unity which fragments and destroys nations”.

Marcos, Sub-commander (2003) “Chiapas the 13th Stele”.

Meikle, G (2004): “Networks of Influence: Internet Activism in Australia and Beyond” in Gerard Goggin (ed.)Virtual nation: the Internet in Australia, University of New South Wales Press, p. 83.

Mentinis, Mihalis (2006) Zapatistas: The Chiapas Revolt and What It Means for Radical Politics. Pluto plus.

Nash, June (2001) Mayan Visions: the Quest for Autonomy in an Age of Globalization. London and New York: Routledge.

Prud’homme, Jean Francois (1998). “Interest representation and the party system in Mexico,” in Philip D. Oxhorn and Graciela Ducatenzeiler (eds.), What Kind of Democracy? What Kind of Market? Latin America in the Age of Neo-liberalism. Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University Press.

Ribeiro, Gustavo Lins (1998) “Cyber-cultural politics: political activism at a distance in a trans-national world,” in S. Alvarez, E. Dagnino, and A. Escobar (eds.), Cultures of Politics, Politics of Cultures: Re-Visioning Latin American Social Movements. Boulder and Oxford: Westview Press.

Slater, David (1998) “Rethinking the spatialities of social movements: questions of (b) orders, culture, and politics in global times” in S. Alvarez, E. Dagnino, and A. Escobar (eds.), Cultures of Politics, Politics of Cultures: Re-Visioning Latin American Social Movements. Boulder and Oxford: Westview Press.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: