Mexico: An Uprising Against the Inevitable

By Laura Carlsen

“The inevitable' has a name today: fragmented globalization…the end of history, the omnipresence and omnipotence of money, the substitution of politics for police, the present as the only possible future, rationalization of social inequality, justification of super-exploitation of human beings and natural resources, racism, intolerance, war.”
- Subcomandante Marcos.

The indigenous insurrection of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation on January 1, 1994, produced shock waves throughout the world. For much of Mexican society, the response was twofold and simultaneous: fear and exhilaration. The fear of finding that—wholly unexpectedly—war had broken out in the homeland, and a rush of exhilaration that something had finally thrown the train off its track.

The train in this case was the inexorable imposition of the neoliberal model in Mexico. The administration of Carlos Salinas de Gortari (1988-1994), a Harvard-educated member of the Mexican elite, had forged its legacy as a classic example of neoliberal modernization. The pace of liberalization of trade and investment, and privatization was unmatched in any other part of the developing world.

For Mexican social movements and the left, as elsewhere in the world, that meant a series of major defeats. Social farms and communal lands that had been a conquest of the Mexican Revolution were open to privatization, state-owned enterprises and basic services—including banks and telecommunications—passed to private hands in crony deals, government cooptation split opposition movements, mobilization of production led to loss of leverage for workers, and major sectors of society were not only exploited but excluded in the vertiginous process of economic restructuring. Most damaging of all, most of the population believed that trade liberalization and foreign investment would pull the country into the First World, and many who didn't believe had nonetheless come to view the neoliberal path as inevitable.

The privatizations and reforms to the tax and financial structures had created by design a new and extremely powerful oligarchy that owed its existence and allegiance to its benefactor: Carlos Salinas de Gortari. Ironically, “modernization” had consolidated a small elite with power comparable to the Porfirio Diaz dictatorship that preceded the 1910 revolution. With the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) that liberalized trade and afforded unprecedented privileges to transnational corporations, the stage was set for decades of corrupt control and “development” marked by a sharply unequal distribution of wealth and power and loss of national sovereignty.

In this context, the left was in defensive mode and the prevailing metaphor—except among sectarian groups whose rhetoric is reality-resistant—was no longer revolution but survival. On the eve of NAFTA's implementation, the promise of prosperity through free trade blasted through the media on a daily basis; opposition voices barely registered as static compared to the main message hammered through the airways.

The last thing anyone expected was an armed rebellion in a forgotten state in southeast Mexico. A state that historically suffered the nation's highest rates of poverty, illiteracy, mortality, and sickness. A state where a large indigenous population had been controlled by rural bosses and corrupt politicians connected up through the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). A state of great natural-resource wealth and immense poverty that had, through equal doses of bloodshed and dependency, historically maintained political stability despite sporadic attempts at rebellion.

It was in part the long list of contradictions present in the state of Chiapas that attracted the handful of Marxist urban guerrillas who joined with a few indigenous leaders to form the Zapatista Army of National Liberation in 1983. That, and the depths of the Lacandona jungle where steep mountains, dense vegetation, and remote communities offered cover for the very hardy to slowly build a base without being detected.

In her excellent account of the Zapatistas' dual anniversary—“20 and 10: the Fire and the Word”—Gloria Muñoz Ramirez describes how the organization grew during those first years. Testimonies from Subcomandante Marcos and members of the first villages to join, reveal a painstaking effort to build toward insurrection, a trial-and-error process that grew family by family, village by village, region by region. Each time it grew, it developed a higher level of coordination within and among the villages and greater military strength in the mountains. But even more importantly, the villagers began to read their reality in a different way.

The villages in the jungle had been built on a history of resistance so the idea of rebellion was not new. A mix of Mayan indigenous populations and mestizos relocated by agrarian policies, many had participated either in land struggles or in the centuries-old battle of the indigenous population for cultural and physical survival. More recent history provided new experience, most of it in failed attempts to find ways to accommodate to the new economic system through appropriation of productive processes and marketing. One of the first members of the EZLN, Comandante Abraham describes his experience:

“When the Zapatista Army first came to our villages, around 1984, 1985, we had already taken part in peaceful struggles. The people were already protesting against the government. When the clandestine organization arrived, they talked to us about revolutionary struggle… An insurgent arrived with a pamphlet that had a political explanation of the national situation and there it said what exploitation was and all that.

We understood pretty much right away, because anyway we had participated in other movements, not in the revolutionary sense, but in struggles where we negotiated with the government for land, for coffee, for a road in the Lacandona Jungle in Montes Azules. Since we already experienced the repressions that the compañerostold us about, when the message of the EZLN arrived we were glad, and we felt happy there was another struggle to defend the security of the small farmers and the poor.”

In some ways, the idea of armed revolt was less of an obstacle to the indigenous villages than perhaps to most other segments of the population. Not due to a propensity for violence, but rather to a combination of an acceptance and familiarity with death, a recognition of having little to lose given the desperation of their daily circumstances, and a frustration with the dead-ends reached through other forms of organizing for social change. The political-military organization grew, until the EZLN villages called local assemblies to ask their members if it was time to rise up. The answer was a resounding yes.

Millions of words have inundated pages and computer screens in the attempt to describe and explain what happened next. The war itself was brief. In the first of a long line of communiqués released on January 6, the EZLN set forth conditions for dialogue. On January 12, the government suspended fighting and open warfare came to a halt. The Zapatista Army of National Liberation had lost some 200 soldiers, but most surprisingly it had captured headlines throughout the world and brought over 100,000 people into the streets of Mexico City to call for peace and to support its demands.

A “movement of movements” had begun that was to mark the course of indigenous organizing, civil society activism and the anti-globalization movement into the 21 st century.

II. The Word that Shapes Us
“It was words that created us. They shaped us and spread their lines to control us.”

- Subcomandante Marcos

In its review of its first twenty years of existence and first ten since the uprising, the EZLN identifies three axes of struggle: fire, which is the war and military aspects of their organization; the word; and an overarching third axis of popular organization. While the third supports and defines all actions and strategies, among the first two “the word” has been by far the most important. More malleable than the sword and—in the age of Internet—‘faster than a speeding bullet,' the Zapatista word has been crafted carefully into a weapon, a bridge, a dream, a story.

What is now recognized as a modern case study in political communication draws on several strengths. The most obvious to outsiders is the skilled pen of Zapatista spokesperson, Subcomandante Marcos. With remarkable versatility and craft, the thousands of texts coming from “somewhere in the Lacandona Jungle” aim at distinct audiences and purposes. Some are intellectual and engage directly with leading intellectuals of the times. These comply with what Marcos calls the critical analysis role of progressive intellectuals: “to convert the word into both scalpel and megaphone.” Others are formal political declarations, communiqués, and letters. What has caught the attention of the world, both for the impact and the unexpected use of the genre are the stories. These reveal a preference for parables over manifestos and often reflect indigenous ways of understanding the world. The Zapatista stories have resonated in an anti-globalization movement asphyxiated by the commercialization of culture and starved for new foundational myths, not only for their literary quality but for their ability to spark the imagination. From conversations with Old Antonio, whose indigenous common sense invariable breaks through the rationalist constructs of the mestizo Marcos, to the sardonic truths of the cockroach Durito, the Subcomandante's Zapatista stories have not only become the stuff of revolutionary cult literature but a direct challenge to capitalism's homogenizing culture.

A second enabling factor in the shift from a primarily military to verbal battlefield was communications technology, especially the Internet. Indeed, the Zapatistas would never have encountered the reception they have without the Internet. Free and available, the net has been the medium for creating armies to spread the word. Volunteer translators grab the latest communiqués and send them out in new languages within a day; web junkies post to listserves that in turn multiply on other lists. Electronic media and the decentralized, network-style organization of the anti-globalization movement fit with the Zapatista movement's non-vanguard style and the independence initiative of its solidarity groups.

But the Zapatista word and the movement itself cannot be reduced to a propaganda machine and the accusations of that reflect fear and in some cases envy more than a careful reading of the reality. The texts are written by an army in the mountains, defending itself and its communities against harassment and hostile actions. Its language grows out of a daily praxis of living the worst aspects of an unjust society while seeking to communicate to an outside world. This has given the movement an uncommon legitimacy from the outset.

The indigenous culture that values the word as a constituent element of humanity and society has also lent weight to the Zapatista word. Many of Mexico's indigenous peoples name themselves precisely for their capacity for language: the Zoques call themselves “O´de pöt”—“people of language”; the Chatinos “Chátnç”—“work of the words”; the Chols “Lak´ tyan” meaning “our word”. In indigenous communities the integrity of one's word is considered essential to social cohesion and human dignity, although practice as always may deviate from the norm. This contrasts markedly with modern conceptions of messaging and communication as a sales tool in a competing marketplace of ideas by stressing truth, consistency, and sincerity.

When the guerrilla organizers first arrived in the Chiapas jungle and began work in the early eighties they expected to spread a fairly classic model of Marxist guerrilla “foco” organizing. According to Subcomandante Marcos in an interview with Yvon Lebot, not long after gaining acceptance in several villages, indigenous people they worked with complained: “Your word is too hard”—meaning “hard” not as difficult, but “hard” as edgy, intimidating, impenetrable.

The language then underwent a metamorphosis in the chrysalis of the jungle, in which it shed much of the standard rhetoric of revolution. In the search for a common language, the guerrillas adopted simple terms, baseline ideals and shared historical and cultural icons. “Democracy, freedom, and justice” took the place of socialism and revolution as central goals and demands, and Mexico's revolutionary heroes Emiliano Zapata and Pancho Villa stood higher than Che Guevara. Clearly, some of this thinking had occurred before the intense contact with the communities (hence the name “Zapatista”). But the capacity to listen and adapt fundamentally altered not only the language but the practice and the idea of the ultimate objective. When they adapted the rhetoric, it was because their perspectives were being altered by their chosen core constituency—the Mayan Indians of Chiapas.

Because it has been so effective, and because the military stage of the uprising was so brief, critics have accused Marcos of launching an “Internet war” that relies on selling false utopias to disaffected members of globalized society. Coming from the left, the skilled use of language is somehow considered a semantic sleight of hand. But as John Berger wrote in a passage cited by Subcomandante Marcos, words only stir up currents when they are deeply credible.

The Zapatista word has found an echo, not only among indigenous people but among “civil society” in general; not only in Mexico but in countries throughout the world. It has gained credibility from a respect for the word that the indigenous rebels often compare to the Mexican government's many retractions, contradictions, and false promises. The combination of the skilled use of language, a grounding in experience, and a cultural respect for the integrity of speech has enabled the Zapatista movement to leap borders and acquire great moral authority within the anti-globalization movement.

III. The Problem with Power
The Zapatista movement proved the power of language to weave global webs of resistance at the same time as it rejected the language of power. From the First Declaration of the Lacandona Jungle on Jan. 1, 1994, the EZLN announced its intention to defeat the federal army and march into the nation's capital to “allow the people to freely and democratically choose their own authorities.” Unlike previous revolutionary movements, they did not announce plans to take power and install a socialist state.

Since then, and in the context of the switch from military to political means of social change, the Zapatistas have deepened their commitment to building alternatives that empower from the grassroots rather than controlling, competing for, or often even confronting the formal power of the state.

Building autonomy is central to this process. Before the Zapatista uprising the Mexican indigenous movement had already formulated a concept of autonomy that focused on recuperating traditional forms of self-government in the community. This soon came to play a central role in Zapatista discourse and practice. In the first stage starting in 1996, indigenous autonomy became the unifying principle for forging a national indigenous movement and the main demand in negotiations on indigenous rights and culture with the federal government. The idea was not that legislation could bring about the needed changes, but that constitutional recognition of indigenous peoples would offer the space to strengthen and rearticulate their societies and would be a first step in a profound reform of a multicultural state. When Congress rejected legislation based on these agreements, the EZLN entered a second stage of creating de facto autonomies within its territory. It formed autonomous townships and later coordinated them under Good Government Boards that sought to deepen democracy and separate civilian self-government from the political-military structure of the EZLN. This experiment is on-going.

Zapatista roots in indigenous culture and the movement's encounter with the communalist current of the Mexican indigenous movement helped forge a very different understanding of political power than previous revolutionary forces. The maxim is “ mandar obedeciendo”—to rule by obeying. The National Indigenous Congress describes the guiding principles of this power as: “to serve, not be served; to represent, not supplant; to build, not destroy; to propose, not impose; to convince, not defeat; to come down, not climb up.” The principles of organization aim to develop grassroots leadership that is “horizontal, rotating, collective, inclusive, flexible, representative, plural, gender-equal, and non-partisan.”

Luis Hernández Navarro points out that the Zapatista/indigenous formulation of power contributes to current debates on two major points. First, it rejects the definition of power as a specialized sphere and formally related only to the State (Weber) in favor of a definition of power more along the lines of Foucault's—as a web of relations of force particular to any given moment and set of circumstances. In this way, it proposes taking power not by storming the National Palace, but on the level of empowering citizens as social actors. Second, it redefines the relationship between power and morality. The Western interpretation portrays power as fundamentally pragmatic, in the best of cases influenced by moral precepts. This is diametrically opposed to a concept of power as the privileged place from which to exercise morality, as found in many of Kant's writings.

Within the Indian movement, to rule by obeying leads to a different kind of organizational structure as well, based on a loose network of assemblies, coalitions, liaisons, and forums that assure flexibility and serve to decentralize power—what Ramón Vera calls “the invisible web.” More than an invention of the New Indian Movement, the conception of power arises out of “a series of particularly indigenous forms of organization, political conformation, justice, and many kinds of human relationships that together make up the best of Indian peoples…their deeply reasonable intention is to distribute power so it can do no harm—an idea implicit in the way they weave their clothes, mats and baskets and also in the design and dynamics of the constellations.”

The need to spread power, the Foucault vision, and the chameleon-like nature of power in modern life are basic themes of most currents of feminism. Early feminist critiques of hierarchical power also focused on empowerment rather than taking control of centralized power. To rule by obeying and empowerment imply a profound reconstruction of power, both its content and its distribution. In this sense, women and Indian peoples share the experience of being the “other” usually located outside the realm of power. From there, or rather from a multitude of ‘theres,' they construct a vision out of resistance; a rejection of the formal structures of domination but also of a hegemonic way of thinking and formulating the world that subordinates or represses all other ways. It follows that to build a deep democracy, the power of the state must fundamentally change and not just change hands.

The Zapatista concept of democracy, like the indigenous concept seen in other countries of Latin America, challenges the liberal formulation by positing the central role of difference in society. It does not view citizens as indistinguishable cogs in a democratic machine, each with an identical function that corresponds to the exercise of individual rights—mainly voting to delegate representation. Rather it sees the “others”, marginalized for diverse reasons by the economic system, as the building blocks of a new world. These new social actors are not defined exclusively by their relationship to the means of production nor by an immutable identity politics; “the other” posits a new way of affirming identity without congealing it. Ideally all this comes together at some point much as the magazine Rebeldía describes the Zapatista Other Campaign: “…many collective actors begin to recognize each other as ‘others' and begin to imagine what it would mean to be part of a political project that didn't try to homogenize or hegemonize.” Imagining, according to the Zapatista philosophy, is half the battle.

This critique of power then goes beyond the nation-state and runs as deep as the human psyche and as broad as the entire architecture of global society. As such, it becomes clear that neither a revolutionary vanguard nor an elected government can confront a challenge of this magnitude. Both inevitably wind up reproducing the structures of domination, albeit with different names or appearances. For the Zapatistas, the only solution is to build from the ground up something that will be defined along the way.

IV. EZLN in Mexico, Latin America, and the World
The Zapatista Army of National Liberation has had a tremendous impact on Mexican, Latin American, and global politics. Today it faces new challenges on all three levels.

The EZLN in Mexico: The Sixth Declaration and the Other Campaign

In June of 2005 the EZLN came out with the Sixth Declaration of the Lacandona Jungle. The Sixth Declaration sets out a bold set of political definitions: it declares the movement anti-capitalist (in those terms) and describes neoliberal globalization as a global war of conquest. It posits that “a new step forward in the indigenous struggle is only possible if indigenous people join with workers, peasants, students, teachers, employees…that is, all the workers of the city and countryside.” It reclaims the label of “left” saying “we believe that it is on the political left where you find the idea of resisting neoliberal globalization and building a country where there will be justice, democracy, and freedom for everyone.”

After a simple explanation of the problems generated by neoliberalism, the Sixth Declaration proposes to hook up directly with people fighting back in Mexico and beyond. The objective is to free organized discontent from the reductive trap of electoral politics that fails to offer an alternative to neoliberal model. The second goal is to articulate these struggles and the third is to develop a more precise reading of the national situation from below, a constant in the Zapatistas' four (1996, 1997, 2001 and 2006) forays out of the jungle.

It also announces the beginning of the Other Campaign. With presidential campaigns in full tilt, Subcomandante Marcos left Chiapas in January of 2006 to tour the country and meet with groups that had signed on to the Declaration. In scores of meetings throughout the country, he has registered their demands and activities: battles against environmental destruction, for workers' rights, against the ostracism and oppression of sex workers, for indigenous civil and territorial rights. Organized groups of youth, punks, leftists, alternative media, small farmers, homosexuals, workers, women, and “others” have organized to receive the EZLN representative.

Accustomed to swimming against the current, the Zapatistas chose to denounce party politics just when a significant part of the left saw in center-left presidential candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador a ray of hope for prying open the neoliberal stranglehold on the nation. Lopez Obrador has criticized aspects of NAFTA and neoliberalism (without rejecting them), called for a stronger role for government and national sovereignty, and opposed the most politically sensitive privatizations, particularly of petroleum and the electrical system. On the other hand, the Zapatistas correctly point out that Lopez Obrador has not taken a clear stand against capitalism, neoliberal globalization, or U.S. domination, and chose the man who helped orchestrate the Congressional counter-reform on indigenous rights as campaign manager. They also claim Lopez Obrador undermined grassroots organizations as mayor of Mexico City and before that as president of the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD). The harsh criticism of Lopez Obrador and the split over the prospects of his candidacy to effect social change have caused polemic within the Mexican left, although the Zapatistas have not called on supporters to vote against Lopez Obrador or abstain.

The EZLN has, since its arrival on the Mexican political scene, criticized political pragmatism. In particular, the communiqués from the mid-term electoral period in 1997, just weeks after the federal government went back on its word in complying with the San Andres Accords, and criticism of the “practical vote” for rightwing candidate Vicente Fox by part of the left in order to defeat the ruling party reflect this view.

Today the Zapatistas' criticisms of the electoral campaigns have taken on a sharper tone as part of the new strategy to articulate the left and because they view the current process as a siren's call that pulls progressive forces into an electoral process that continues to be fundamentally flawed and essentially illegitimate. Instead of seeing active participation as a “necessary evil” or bulwark against the right, they believe it could detract from the formulation of the more radical demands needed to address Mexico's problems.

The Other Politics of the Other Campaign explicitly distances itself from government and formal political power by committing “not to seek gifts, positions, advantages, public positions, from the Power or those who aspire to it, but to go beyond the electoral calendar. Not to try to resolve the Nation's problems from above, but to build FROM BELOW AND FOR BELOW an alternative to neoliberal destruction, an alternative of the left for Mexico.”

Zapatismo in Latin America: The State-Social Movements Debate

Social movements throughout Latin America are watching how the Mexican polemic progress with great interest. Latin America has seen the ascendance of center-left parties in recent years that has led to a grand debate on whether this is a boon or an impediment to the aspirations of social movements for more profound change. The center-left governments of Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Venezuela, and now Bolivia have plunged those countries into uncertainty about how to relate to the state and the potential of governments to solve core problems of the poor in a globalized economy.

In this debate, the Zapatistas provide lessons that cannot be seen as universal but add theoretical and practical elements. One is their experiments with autonomy, self-government and rejection of government aid in Zapatista territory. Uruguayan analyst Raúl Zibechi notes: “The Zapatista movement, since 1994, lit up the continent and the world with an uprising that did not seek to take power but to build a new world. It shows the importance of building autonomies (communal, municipal, and regional) from below and more recently seeks to expand a political culture throughout Mexico that consists in listening as the point of departure for a non-institutional politics, always from below.”

The lack of a finished alternative model, a method the Zapatistas call “walking-asking,” is also seen by many as positive at this point in history. Colectivo Situaciones in Argentina notes “public emergence (of the Zapatistas) on January 1, 1994, opened up a new sequence of struggles against neoliberalism (as a phase of capitalism) that didn't view the worldwide defeat of the socialist project as an obstacle for developing a revolutionary perspective but rather understood the lack of any political model for the future of society as a source of potential, and called for the creation and founding of a renewed notion of democracy, beyond the discourse of legitimating powers.”

For its part, the EZLN asserts in the Sixth Declaration “Latin America, we are proud to be a part of you” and cites the shared political heritage of Che Guevara and Simon Bolivar. They do not, however, mention any contemporary figures that many associate with a new counter-hegemonic movement in the hemisphere. In fact, when the EZLN was invited to the inauguration of indigenous leader and Movement toward Socialism candidate Evo Morales in Bolivia, it did not attend and in fact did not even respond publicly to the invitation.

Zapatismo in the World: Decentralized Resistance

What we want in the world is to tell all of those who are resisting and fighting in their own ways and in their own countries, that you are not alone, that we, the Zapatistas, even though we are very small, are supporting you.

- Sixth Declaration of the Lacandona Jungle

Like everything else, Zapatismo has developed its own brand of solidarity. The tremendous outpouring of sympathy from abroad following the uprising was channeled into shared political commitments, respectful of the diversity in each person and group's role in society. ‘Don't copy us, we are not a blueprint or an example to follow. Create your own Zapatista movement and we will walk together' was the message from Chiapas. European cities have established Zapatista political and cultural centers, and groups and networks exist around the world that set their own agendas and decide on their own actions.

The creation of the Good Government Boards and the Sixth Declaration both took steps to reorganize the EZLN's relationship with leftist, revolutionary, and anti-globalization forces throughout the world. International solidarity has been a mainstay for the survival of Zapatista communities and the constant contact with other groups oxygenated a movement enclosed in a remote part of southeastern Mexico, adding new political perspectives to their experience.

The reorganization clarified relations. The Good Government Boards recognized the contribution of international civil society but applied new rules to solidarity by subordinating it to the priorities of the communities. The Sixth Declaration gets down to brass tacks in Zapatista foreign relations: it promises to send maize and petroleum products to Cuba, crafts and organic coffee to Europe, and non-genetically modified maize to Ecuador and Bolivia. The quantities are insignificant of course, but the symbolic point is to construct concrete relationships outside the nation-state apparatus that emphasize shared ideological commitments.

For the visitors that have streamed through the jungle since 1994, the Zapatista experience offered vision, hope, enthusiasm. Through praxis, an alternative view of politics and political change develops that at the same time serves to bolster action aimed at rebuilding the links that have been destroyed in people's lives and communities, and creating collective identities that go beyond wounded nuclear families and market-oriented societies and are founded on a sense of shared purpose. This vision has had particular appeal among youth in Mexico, Europe, the United States, and other parts of the world.

Laura Carlsen directs the Americas Program of the International Relations Center.