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Mexico : A Decade go « Rebellious » Dignity

A balance sheet of the Zapatista rebellion

It is already ten years since the iconoclastic rebels of Chiapas and their symbolic « sub-comandante » Marcos began appearing in the Mexican and international news. What is the balance sheet of their destabilizing rebellion ? What have they contributed to the « great » history of struggles and to the « little » everyday life of the Mayan Indians down at the bottom of Mexico ? The picture is unclear : neither euphoric nor definitive.

The rebellion of the Zapatista Indians of South East Mexico was certainly no flash in the pan. They have been catalyzers of the democratization of Chiapas and of Mexico, the artisans of the fall of the party that had enjoyed undivided power since the 1920s, and the dynamo behind the constitution of a national, if not a Latin American indigenous movement. Affirmative, mass-based and democratic, they have been pioneers of a new pluralistic international which is now called the « alternative world » movement. Indeed, the hooded rebels can be proud of their record. Ten years after their spectacular uprising of 1 January 1994 against injustice and poverty, the universal recognition of their qualities feeds on and is nourished by their rediscovered dignity.

It would be wrong, however, to be too optimistic. The results of ten years of more or less open conflict and discussions between the rebels and the government can only gladden the detractors of the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN). Apart from its military weakness, its social roots in Chiapas have been undermined or, at the very least, threatened. Its entry on to the Mexican political scene, which has been regularly postponed, has ended in collapse. As for its « inter-galactic » link with the alternative world convergences, which was always ambivalent and is now evanescent, it has not fulfilled its promises.

An original and irreversible mobilization

These two assessments are not contradictory. The portrait of « those without faces » looks different, according to whether you are looking at the zapatista movement from above or from below. Friends of the rebels emphasize the long term, the irreversibility of the Chiapas mobilization and its fulfillment within the social, peasant and indigenous movement, which is strong and autonomous. From military zapatism which reached its limits soon after the first days of the insurrection, there has sprung, ineluctably, a social and civil zapatism that is dynamic and promising. The deeds of the hooded ones have made it impossible to go back. They draw their strength and legitimacy from a history of over five hundred years of resistance, the Indian consciousness that has been forged over the centuries seeming to be indestructible. They who have always been marginalized and exploited have found their voice. It will be impossible in the future to act as though nothing has happened. Symbolically the relations between the indigenous people and the dominant groups have changed ; physically, the zapatistas continue to count in the relationships of power.

It is the innovatory aspects of the rebellion that are always emphasized : its contribution to the history of struggle, its originality. A guerilla force emerges, fights for a few hours, survives and negotiates for years on end. Guerilla fighters who have created a sensation out of all proportion to their military feats. Anti-authority figures who recognize their historical antecedents without being limited by them. An armed Latin American movement that does not want to take power and aspires to disappear as soon as possible because it considers itself an « absurdity ». An indigenous insurrection that fights through press releases, solemn declarations, symbolic acts and peaceful happenings. A spokesman, an erudite « sub-comandante » whose words of wisdom are transmitted over the internet and who disconcerts his interviewers. An army of Mayan Indians who claim their legitimate rights, encourage the democratization of Mexico and fight neoliberalism. A post-Cold War peasant revolt that has sufficient sense of its identity not to become diluted, is sufficiently universal not to turn in on itself. A regional social movement that multiplies its origins - Indian, Mexican and humanist - without opposing one against another and that conditions its cosmopolitanism by its deep-rootedness and its attachment to the land by its self-mockery. Democratic revolutionaries, proud of their own identity, who command the civil society to take over. A revolt that talks about « indefiniteness » when pushed to define itself and which declares its doubts through truths ... This has never ever been seen before.

There is no doubt that the main achievement of the EZLN, at this point, has been its ability to influence the national, if not the international agenda. It has managed to impose the recognition of ethnic diversity on the nation states that have been convulsed by globalization. While social justice remains the ultimate objective for the zapatistas and for most of the Latin American indigenous movements, for the time being it seeks to make power responsible, to give new value to democracy and to build autonomous, multicultural spaces within multi-nation and sovereign states. This major contribution is quite different from that of the Indian actors among the Latin American revolutionaries that preceded them, who were dead set on conquering central power by all possible means. They are also quite distinct from the other contemporary identity movements which are turned in on themselves and clinging, often violently, to mythical homogeneous identities. Obviously this amazing phenomenon does not fall from the skies and rather than seeking to find out what is essentially new about it, we would do better to analyze the conditions that have enabled it to emerge.

A social and political impasse

Examining the zapatista movement more carefully, we can see that its threefold bases - Chiapas, Mexico and international - also corresponds to a triple impasse.

In Chiapas the living conditions of most of the indigenous peoples are now worse than they were in 1994. The « low intensity » strategy of the authorities, who are counting on the apathy of the population and the worsening of the situation through the exacerbation of the conflicts within and between the communities, appears to be attaining its objectives. The relative impunity of the anti-zapatista paramilitary groups, but also the purist intransigence of the zapatista leaders vis-à-vis the other indigenous movements contribute to the present deplorable climate of denunciation, intimidation and repression that prevails in the region. On the side of the rebels, the aim of « consolidating » some thirty « de facto autonomous municipalities » is barely more than an illusion. On the side of the authorities, the fact that, as from 2000, the opposition has been heading the state of Chiapas has not really changed the power relationships.

At the national level, in spite of the commitments made by President Fox and the colourful zapatista march on Mexico in March 2001, the agreements made between the government and the rebels in February 1996 - which recognized the rights of the indigenous population - have not had the expected effects on the indigenous movement as a whole and its 10 million potential members. The peace negotiations have been « suspended » since September 1996 ! Moreover, over 40 million poor people, almost half the entire population, have been unaffected by the « Mexican miracle » and the free trade agreement with North America. In spite of many attempts, the EZLN are not politically aligned with the left. Mistrust of all ideological factions and the mocking disdain sometimes adopted by « sub-comandante » Marcos have not helped the situation.

As for the international level, zapatism has also lost something of its lustre. It was the precurser of the alternative world dynamic, but since then it has been overtaken by the Social Forums of Porto Alegre and elsewhere and their « world citizens » agenda. Thanks to them, the rebellion still finds an echo outside Mexico but the talent of Marcos has lost its novelty. His pride gets on the nerves of some « zapatistants » while his democratic radicality has been transmitted elsewhere.

This is, however, only a provisional balance sheet. The zapatista rebellion has shown that it can exist without bearing any of the labels with which the sceptics want to tag it. They are conscious of the internal dangers (authoritarian regression, division, dilution of its capacity to take action) and external dangers (repression, neutralization, co-optation) that threaten them. As its leaders repeatedly say, patience is not the least of the Mayan virtues.

•Bernard Duterme. Sociologist, deputy director of the Tricontinental Centre at Louvain-la-Neuve, editor of the journal Alternatives Sud, Duterme is also the author of Indiens et zapatistes - Mythes et réalités d’une rébellion en sursis, Brussels : Luc Pire, 1998, and various contributions to collective works.


Who are the Zapatistas ?

On 1 January 1994, thousands of Mayan Indians, poorly armed and many with their faces covered by balaclavas, took over four important places in Chiapas State in the south of Mexico, on the frontier with Guatemala. The insurgents called themselves « zapatistas » after Emiliano Zapata, one of the great charismatic figures of the Mexican Revolution at the beginning of the 20th century. What were their demands ? Justice, respect and dignity ; an end to the 500 years of cultural, economic and political discrimination towards the Mexican indigenous peoples ; but also the democratization of Mexico and the struggle for another globalization. The communiqués of the spokesman for the rebellion, « sub-comandante » Marcos, travelled all around the globe. Marcos is one of the few non-indigenous members of the revolt. He went to university in the city and emigrated to Chiapas in 1984, with the firm intention, like Che Guevara, of « setting fire » to the revolution. He and his friends were not, however, to be the only ones to « work » alongside the Tzotziles, Tzeltales, Tojolabales, Choles (etc.) Mayas of the region. Social workers from the Catholic Church, from the highly committed Samuel Ruiz, Bishop of San Cristobal de Las Casas, had also been at work in the indigenous villages for many years.

A large number of the indigenous population of Chiapas took up the rebellion, strongly influenced by these influences but blocked in their projects for emancipation by the authoritarianism of the local elite and by the consequences of the liberalization of the Mexican economic system (drop in coffee prices, a constitutional reform demolishing all hopes for agrarian reform, etc.). But the spectacular action of the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) on 1 January was to misfire. Severely repressed, the insurgent Indians rapidly fell back and reintegrated their villages. Then started a long militarization process of the region by the authorities, a peaceful mobilization of the zapatistas and sporadic negotiations. Who knows what the outcome will be ?

Explanation of the « marionette » drawing

The « deviation » of the indigenous peoples is often dwelt upon in journalistic accounts of the zapatista rebellion. Some insist on the « 100% Indian authenticity » of the movement ; others on the manipulations (of « sub-comandante » Marcos, of Bishop Samuel Ruiz, etc.) of which the indigenous peoples are victims. And supposing that their capacity to utilize the influences to which they have been subjected could be the real strength of the zapatista indigenous people ?


 Baschet, Jérôme, L’étincelle zapatiste - Insurrection indienne et résistance planétaire, Paris : Denoël, 2002

 Boron, Atilio A., « The jungle and the Polis : questions regarding the political theory of Zapatismo » Document, 2002

 De la Grange, Bertrand and Maite, Rico, « Diálogo de sordos sobre Chiapas » in Quorum, Revista de Pensamiento Iberoamericano, Winter, 2001/2002

 Duterme, Bernard, Indiens et zapatistes - Mythes et réalités d’une rébellion en sursis, Brussels : Luc Pire, 1998

 Holloway, John, « Es la lucha zapatista une lucha anticapitalista » in Revista Rebeldía, No. 1, Mexico, 2002.

 Le Bot, Yvon, Le réve zapatiste, Paris : Seuil, 1997

 Le Bot, Yvon, Duterme, Bernard. Interview : « Le zapatisme, c’est cela ou ce n’est rien » in La Revue Nouvelle, No. 11, November 1999.

 Viqueira, Juan Pedro, Encrucijadas chiapanecas. Economía, religión e identidades, Mexico : Tusquets Editores/El Colegio de Mexico, 2002


Original in Enjeux internationaux, No. 1, Summer 2003

Les opinions exprimées et les arguments avancés dans cet article demeurent l'entière responsabilité de l'auteur-e et ne reflètent pas nécessairement ceux du CETRI.