Mexican Independence Day is No Big Deal for the Zapatistas
By: Ramor Ryan
Subcomandante Marcos rides horseback in front of the Zapatista support base members in La Realidad during an homage to fallen compañero Galeano, who was killed in a paramilitary attack on May 2, 2014. | Photo: Tim Russo/Upside Down World
16 September 2015
As Mexico celebrates El Grito amid crisis, the Chiapas rebels quietly organize.
On Sept. 16, 1810, the rebellious Catholic priest Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla delivered the Grito de Dolores ("Cry of Dolores") in the town of Dolores, as a proclamation of Mexican independence from the Spanish crown. Hidalgo urged resistance to the “bad government” and ignited a revolutionary war leading to the “Declaration of Independence of the Mexican Empire” on Sep. 28, 1821. Mexico celebrates its independence from Spanish colonial rule on the anniversary of El Grito every Sept. 16 with an outburst of patriotism and general revelry.
But while El Grito is mere pageant now as government officials across the nation take the stage to lead the renditions of “Viva Mexico!” many also have in mind Hidalgo’s urge to resist the “bad government.”
Last year, hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets in the wake of the disappearance of 43 student activists from the Ayotzinapa teacher’s college by security forces, demanding justice and railing against impunity and corruption. The response of the government of President Enrique Peña Nieto was to ignore the protests, and attempt to block independent investigations into the atrocity. In a damning indictment of the government’s handling of the worst human rights atrocity in recent memory, the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights released their report this month, roundly dismissing the government’s official story.
Throughout 2015, the killings, repression and impunity have continued, with the assassinations of photojournalist Rubén Espinosa, activist Nadia Vera and three associates in Mexico City creating an international scandal and bringing people out onto the street once more. In July, notorious drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán escaped from prison (again), with suspected official complicity, as the links between top ranking officials and drug criminals become ever more apparent in what many call a “Narco State.”
As Mexico’s institutional crisis intensifies — alongside increasing levels of economic precarity — Mexico seems poised for another “grito” of resistance to the "bad government." And who better positioned to deliver a new rallying call than the long-standing Chiapas-based rebels, the Zapatistas?
Where Are the Zapatistas Now?
The Zapatistas marched en masse 13 Ba´ktun, or Dec. 21, 2012, marking the end of the 144,000 day Mayan long calendar and the beginning of a new era. Photo: Tim Russo/Upside Down World
Contrary to their detractors who say they are no longer a player on the national agenda, the Zapatistas have been keeping themselves very busy, albeit taking a low profile. Twenty-one years since the 1994 armed uprising, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN), remains intact and has consolidated a large swathe of territory under de-facto autonomous control. Its local support base has grown over the two decades, as witnessed by their largest yet public mobilization in December 2012, with 40,000 masked indigenous rebels marching on San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas, representing the thousand-plus rural villages and communities affiliated with the movement.
“But where are the Zapatistas now at this moment of national crisis?” ask the critics. As ever, the Zapatistas are doing it their own way and in their own time. They are not issuing a new “Grito,” no grandstanding, but instead engaging in a meditative process of critical thought with other social movements. The current strategy is based around promoting education among the base of support through regional-wide Zapatista “Escuelitas” or Little Schools, and secondly, convening seminars around critical thinking with the participation of a wide array of Mexican and international social and protest movements. They also continue to draw thousands of outside supporters into their autonomous territory through their anniversary celebrations, the last being the year-end Festival of Resistance and Rebellion Against Capitalism.
A new Zapatista publication Critical Thought Versus the Capitalist Hydra (July 2015) outlines the analysis occurring within the movement. The book is the product of an activist seminar by the same name held in San Cristóbal de las Casas in May 2015 and attended by a couple of thousand participants, including families of the Ayotzinapa students, and many leading left intellectuals. While recognizing that Mexico is entering into a stage of unprecedented crisis — or, "a storm is coming," as one prominent Zapatista, Subcomandante Moises, noted — heading inexorably into systemic breakdown, the Zapatistas are engaging in critical thought as a means towards finding solutions. "Critical thought is not the thought that speaks of catastrophe," pointed out renowned intellectual John Holloway, a participant in the seminar, "but the thought that looks for hope inside the catastrophe."
Identifying global neoliberal capitalism as the problem, the historic rebel leader, Subcomandante Marcos (now re-named Galeano in honour of the Zapatista teacher murdered by paramilitaries in May 2014) explained the use of the term “hydra.”
“This capitalist system is not dominant in only one aspect of social life, but rather, it has multiple heads, that is, many forms and ways of dominating in different and diverse social spaces," he said. And with his inimitable wit, the masked rebel commander added – "I’m sorry, but this thing of ‘the State’ is much more complicated than the twisted lines in Game of Thrones.” As ever the Zapatistas do not provide ready-made answers, but ask questions, insisting that their role is not to give instructions, but to provoke thought. “There is no single answer,” according to Subcomandante Moises, “there is no manual. There is no dogma. There is no creed. There are many answers, many ways, many forms. And each of us will see what we are able to do and learn from our own struggle and from other struggles.”
It is a process that is about bringing people who resist together under a “one no, many yeses,” and of creating a “seedbed” of ideas from which solutions to the crisis will blossom. The only directive given by the Zapatistas is that people must organize collectively.
Against All Odds
Zapatista youth and women form much of the current support base of the rebel organization. Photo: Tim Russo/Upside Down World
The Zapatistas have been pushing a similar message for many years and organizing various initiatives. In 2006 they launched The Other Campaign, advocating participatory democracy and criticizing the electoral process. That campaign began on Sept. 16, to coincide with El Grito, and managed to mobilize hundreds of thousands in mass events held across the country before petering out after a few months as the country was gripped by an overwhelming wave of narco-related violence. Nine years on, the Zapatistas are taking a different approach.
Critics may insist that the Zapatistas have become irrelevant, but 21 years after the initial uprising, and against all odds, they are still here, the embodiment of resilience and implacable rebel determination. They haven’t been defeated, co-opted or sold out. More poignant still, their ideas have currency not just in global social movements but also in front-line struggles as witnessed in Kobanê, Syria, as the Kurdish defenders embrace a similar practice of direct democracy, forging direct links with the Zapatistas.
Leading Latin American analyst Raúl Zibechi, talking recently, places them in a wider historical perspective: "The Zapatista experience is a historic achievement that had never existed before in the struggles of those below, except for the 69 days that the Paris Commune lasted and the brief time of the Soviets before the Stalinist state reconstruction." It would be folly to underestimate the Zapatistas at this point in time.
Ramor Ryan is author of Zapatista Spring (AK Press 2011) and Clandestines: The Pirate Journals of an Irish Exile (AK Press 2006).