Why We Still Love the Zapatistas
Inspiration from Chiapas: The construction of a new world is much more than an academic exercise.
By Leonidas Oikonomakis, Roar Magazine
Primero de enero 1994. 3:00am.
The Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari has gone to bed happy that towards the end of his mandate Mexico joins the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA. Goods, capital and services will now move freely between Mexico, Canada, and the United States of America. Of course the agreement mentions nothing about the border wall between Mexico and the US. Free movement of goods, capital, and services, we said—not of people.
At the same time, the removal of trade protectionist measures practically opens up the Mexican economy to Canadian and American goods that are produced more cheaply and in greater quantities (in some cases even genetically modified). Bad news for the Mexican farmers, that is, who also find a “for sale” sign hanging on their ejidos—the communal land which had until then been protected from privatization by the Mexican Constitution.
The government propaganda machine, however, can “sell” the agreement with plenty of fanfare, praising the president for this “triumph”: Mexico is finally joining the First World!
Riiiing, riiiing, riiiing!!!!!! The man who awoke Carlos Salinas from his “First World dreams” was his secretary of defence, General Antonio Riviello Bazán, who announced that there had just been a rebellion in Chiapas. Thousands of masked armed men and women had occupied several cities of the south-eastern Mexican state. They were calling themselves Zapatistas, and their army the EZLN.
“APOLOGIES FOR THE INCONVENIENCE BUT THIS IS A REVOLUTION!”
For Mexico, Latin America and the international left, what emerged from the Chiapan mist along with the Zapatistas was the spectre of revolution with a capital R—something the Mexican autocracy of the ruling Partido Revolucionario Institucional, the PRI, believed it had killed a long time ago, in the late 1970s.
Ever since the Tlatelolco massacre of 1968, a few days before the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games in Mexico City, Mexico’s youth had stopped believing in the possibility of social change through protests and elections. Some of them influenced by the Cuban revolution, others by Maoist thought and praxis, they took to the mountains and the cities of the country with the idea of organizing a rebel army that would overthrow the PRI government and bring socialism to Mexico. According to Laura Castellanos, in her book México Armado, more than 30 urban and rural guerrilla groups were active in the country between 1960 and 1980.
The Mexican state launched a war against its youth, who were killed, tortured and disappeared systematically in a dark period that became known as la guerra sucia: the dirty war. Thousands are still missing, others were found dead in mass graves, and thousands more were tortured and imprisoned in military barracks. With the amnesty and the new electoral law of 1978 the government thought it was done with the revolutionaries, with their foquismo and their prolonged people’s wars.
Well… not with all of them!
LAS FUERZAS AND ZAPATISMO
One of those guerrillas of the late 1960s and early 1970s was a group called the Fuerzas de Liberación Nacional, or FLN. It was neither the most well-known nor the best organized, and it never attracted large numbers of recruits. The FLN was, in fact, a very otherly guerrilla group. It never engaged in bank robberies, kidnappings or other spectacular actions to make a name for itself, as was customary among revolutionary groups at the time.
Perhaps it was their strategy of staying and acting underground that allowed them to survive at a time when other groups were being uprooted by the state—even though they themselves also came close to extinction more than once, with the most exemplary cases being the discovery of their main safe house in Nepantla and the assassination of most of their leading cadres in their training camp in Chiapas, near Ocosingo, in 1974.
However, through painful trial and dramatic error, the FLN managed to not disband like most other groups. They rejected the Amnesty of 1978 and finally installed a rebel army in Chiapas in 1983; an army that would be embraced by the indigenous Tsotsiles, Tseltales, Choles, Tojolabales, Zoques and Mames of the region during the 1980s, and that would take Mexico and the world by surprise on January 1, 1994. That army was the EZLN.
Of course, in the period leading up to the uprising of 1994, the EZLN had also become very otherly. What began as the armed branch of a Castro-Guevarist, vanguardist and strictly hierarchical organization soon found its theories crushed by the indigenous reality and the will of the people they had come to “enlighten” deep in the mountains and jungles of the Mexican southeast. The vanguardism of the FLN was at odds with the assemblyist customs of the indigenous populations of Chiapas, which also owed in part to relevant previous work done in the region by liberation theologists and Maoist militants.
Soon the EZLN realized that if it was to be successful it would have to change. It chose to break with its outmoded vanguardism and adopted a more assemblyist organizational form and decision-making structure. Years later, it would set off to “march all the way to Mexico City,” as the First Declaration of the Lacandona Jungle put it.
However, things did not really turn out exactly as the Zapatistas had expected them to. Their call to arms was not answered by the Mexican people, who—instead of taking to the mountains—took to the streets to demand peace and to stop the Mexican army from exterminating the EZLN.
Peace negotiations followed and the San Andrés Accords were signed, practically granting autonomy to the EZLN institutionally, only for the agreement to be abruptly dishonoured by the government. After this, the EZLN announced that they would continue down the road of autonomy—de facto and not de jure this time—and that is exactly what they have been working on ever since: creating new pathways and opening up new horizons of the imagination far beyond the impasses of the traditional left.
CRITICISM FROM THE LEFT
As a result of their otherly strategies—and thanks, of course, to the sharp pen of Subcomandante Marcos (now renamed Galeano)—the Zapatistas became an emblematic reference point for the international left, and a visit to Chiapas and the intercontinental encuentros of the EZLN became a necessary pilgrimage for activists in the alter-globalization movement. However, especially in recent years, the Zapatistas have also become the target of criticism from those on the more traditional and institutional left.
Take, for instance, a recent article by Bhaskar Sunkara, in which the editor and publisher of Jacobin depicts the Zapatistas as a sympathetic but rather unfortunate role model for the international left.
Apart from the obvious errors of his piece, apparently the result of limited familiarity with the case (the FLN were not Maoist and did not vanish “as quickly as they had appeared,” but rather lasted longer than any other guerrilla group of their time; Subcomandante Marcos was not amongst the founding members of the EZLN’s first camp in 1983 but rather took to the mountains a year later), Sunkara’s is an effort to discredit the Zapatistas on ideological terms, mainly because—in his view—they became the inspirational reference point for movements that simply negate and do not create.
Sunkara also argues that the influence of the Zapatistas is unjustified as Chiapas actually remains a deeply impoverished region “without much to show for almost two decades of revolution.” In Sunkara’s view, representative to some extent of the old left, we loved the Zapatistas because we were “afraid of political power and political decisions.” And he argues that the Zapatistas—and those inspired by them—did not achieve much. The only meaningful way forward, it seems, is an organized working-class movement in the Marxist-Leninist tradition.
WITHOUT MUCH TO SHOW FOR?
In defence of his argument, Sunkara offers some statistical data on Chiapas illustrating that the region has not changed much in the past 20 years: illiteracy still stands at over 20 percent, running water, electricity, and sewage are still non-existent in many communities, and infant mortality rates are still extremely high.
These statistics are correct—but statistics do not always tell the whole truth.
If Sunkara had actually researched his case a little better, he would have found out that his statistics, which are presumably derived from the Mexican state’s National Statistical Agency (the source is not mentioned in the article), mainly refer to the non-Zapatista communities. Chiapas is an enormous region, roughly as big as Ireland, and out of the 5 million people who inhabit it, between 200.000 and 300.000 are actually Zapatistas.
Furthermore, most of the Zapatista communities, the so-called bases de apoyo, are not depicted in any official data since they do not allow access to state authorities: they are autonomous. And while Sunkara is right in that social transformation “can be examined empirically,” his article—relying on a narrowly developmentalist logic of statistical change—fails to do precisely that.
Take the following story, which is characteristic of the emancipatory social change that has been taking place in the Zapatista communities of Chiapas over the past 20 years; a story that is not visible in any official statistics.
A Basque friend I met in Chiapas a couple of years ago told me that what had impressed him the most during his last visit to the Zapatista communities was the position of women. The Basque comrade had come to Chiapas for the first time in 1996, two years after the uprising, and he could still vividly remember that women used to walk 100 metres behind their husbands, and whenever the husband would stop, they would stop as well to maintain their distance. Women would be exchanged for a cow or a corn field when they were married off—not always to the man of their choice. The situation has been very neatly depicted in the Zapatista movie Corazon del Tiempo.
Almost 20 years later, my Basque friend returned to Chiapas for the first grade of the Escuelita Zapatista. This time he would freely dance with the promotoras after the events, while some of the highest-ranking EZLN commanders—or to be more precise for the lovers of statistics: 50 percent of the Commanders of the Clandestine Revolutionary Indigenous Committee—are actually women.
In addition, women are now forming their own cooperatives contributing to family and community income; they are becoming the promoters of education (teachers, that is), nurses and doctors; and they serve as members of the Good Government Councils, or Juntas de Buen Gobierno, and as guerrilleras.
Let me give you another example that speaks for itself: In one of the Zapatista caracoles, there is now a music band called Otros Amores (“Other Loves”). Otros Amores is the phrase the Zapatistas use for the members of the LGBTQ community. All this in a previously deeply conservative, machista region (and country). Just try to imagine something similar in the rest of Mexico—or wherever you may be coming from!
At the same time, since the subject of education came up in Sunkara’s piece, it should be noted that—in an area where schools were an unknown word and teachers a very rare phenomenon—today there is not a single Zapatista community without a primary school, while secondary boarding schools now exist in the caracoles as well. This is a Zapatista achievement. These schools would not have existed without them.
Of course, the Zapatista autonomous rebel schools have nothing to do with the state schools: they are bilingual (Spanish and Tsotsil, Tojolabal, Tseltal, Chol, Mame or Zoque, depending on the region); they teach local indigenous history; and their syllabuses have been designed from the bottom up, with the active participation of the students and the communities, and are fully tailored to their specific needs.
Participation is a key concept when it comes to the social transformations that have been taking place in the Zapatista communities over the past twenty years. We are talking about deeply impoverished regions, where large estate owners used to rule over land and people, with the governors and the army of the—generally absent—federal state on their side.
The relationship between the “bosses” and the “workers” was a rather slavish, almost feudal one, in which the bosses even had the right to the “first night” of their peasants’ wives (the so-called derecho de pernada). Some say that large finqueros like Absalón Castellanos Dominguez fathered numerous children with the wives and daughters of the workers of their ranches.
When it came to the expression of their democratic rights (which had until the 1994 uprising been limited to participating in elections), their votes were regularly exchanged for some pesos, some food, or were simply subject to the will of their ranch owner. Not surprisingly, the PRI was receiving over 90 percent of the vote in these lands.
Today, every time I enter the offices of one of the Good Government Councils, I see different faces, very diverse age- and occupation-wise, who rotate in the administrative council every one to eight weeks, depending on the zone and caracol. I have seen old campesinos, 16-year-old graduates of the Zapatista schools, and young mothers breastfeeding their babies. They are all sent there by their communities for a given period in order to act as delegates in the collective self-administration of their lands.
In the communities themselves, regular assemblies are organized from the bottom up to discuss local concerns and movement-related affairs, and to decide horizontally and directly on the issues that affect their everyday lives.
COMMUNITY, MUNICIPALITY, ZONE
The Zapatista communities—contrary to the army, the EZLN—have a horizontal structure. A given number of communities form an autonomous municipality (municipio autonómo), and a given number of autonomous municipalities form a zone (zona). The “administrative centre”, which is also the office of the governing council of every zone is the caracol—which means snail.
The caracol is a very important symbol in the indigenous worldview and everyday practice of the Mayas, since it has traditionally been used to call the community to an assembly or to inform and communicate with other communities. For that reason, the snail represents “the word” (la palabra).
There are five zonas and five caracoles, each with varying numbers of communities and municipalities. The Zapatista communities that administratively belong to each caracol do not necessarily hail from the same ethnic group. For example, the zone of Los Altos (“the Highlands”) is mainly ethnically Tsotsil, although it also includes some Tseltal communities.
The decisions are taken at the community level, in assemblies that take place either at the school, at the basketball court, or at the church (yes, they exist) of the community, with the participation of everybody who has completed their twelfth year of age. Each and every member of the community has the right to express their opinion and to vote on every single issue discussed. Every community selects its own representatives to the municipality, and each municipality selects its own representatives to the zone, who will eventually rotate in the Good Government Council.
The Good Government Council is responsible for all the issues that have to do with the self-governance of the areas and the communities that belong to it: justice, politics, administration of natural resources, education, health, and so on. The caracol is also the place where seminars and gatherings with national and international civil society are organized. It is, in other words, the “entry point” through which those interested can enter Zapatismo, as well as its voice to the outside world.
THE SEVEN PRINCIPLES
The seven principles that define Zapatista self-government are the following:
To obey and not to command.
To represent and not to supplant.
To move down and not upwards (in the sense of denying power-over).
To serve and not to be served.
To construct and not to destroy.
To suggest and not to impose.
To convince and not to conquer.
To avoid the professionalization of politics and the formation of leading oligarchies, each and every member of each and every Zapatista community has the right and the obligation to represent his or her community in the region and the zone once, for a very specific time period. Once his or her mandate is over, he or she cannot assume the same right and responsibility again until all the turnos have been completed: until all the members of the community have been through that role.
The mandate of each Good Government Council varies from zone to zone and is set by the communities themselves. So, just to give an example, in the caracol of Oventik the council rotates every eight days, whereas in the caracol of La Realidad it does so every two weeks and in the caracol of Roberto Barrios every two months.
All the above is a product of the Zapatista movement, and would not have existed if the movement had opted for a more traditionally leftist organizing structure.
OPENING UP NEW PATHWAYS
The only thing we proposed was to change the world. The rest we have improvised. — Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos
What is probably the greatest contribution of the Zapatistas to the international left—apart from reminding us that History had not truly ended just yet—is the fact that they managed to go beyond the usual recipes of the revolutionary cookbooks, re-inventing revolution with a “small r” and opening up innovative and autonomous pathways of democratic self-government. Of course, the Zapatistas did not start out that way.
What began as the armed wing of a Castro-Guevarrist, post-Tlatelolco revolutionary group did try—but eventually abandoned—the strategy of the foco guerillero, and later switched to the Maoist prolonged people’s war. All of this did indeed bring about an attempt at the long-awaited Revolution with a capital R. However, when that Revolution failed as well after guerrilla groups elsewhere in Mexico failed to join the 1994 uprising, the Zapatistas actually had to open up new pathways. Through walking.
While they could have easily taken the beaten path of other armed revolutionary groups—going back to the jungle, that is, and keep attacking the army from there —they surprisingly opted for what has been called “armed non-violence” instead.
The Zapatistas went back to their indigenous communities, consulted them, and decided to self-organize in an autonomous way. Without the Great Leaders, the all-powerful and all-controlling Parties, or the top-down vanguardist structures that the indigenous communities of Chiapas had already rejected a long time ago.
“DON’T COPY US!”
I had the opportunity to participate—together with hundreds of other activists—in the Escuelita Zapatista (the “little Zapatista school”) of August 2013. There, we spent time living and working together with several families of the Zapatista support bases in their own houses and communities, experiencing first-hand what freedom and autonomy according to the Zapatistas looks like.
The most important lesson of the Escuelita, however, was the farewell message to the students: a plea not to copy the organizational structure of the Zapatistas and their particular form of self-governance, but rather to rush back to their own lands and try “to do what you will decide to, in the way you decide to do it.” As they put it: “We cannot and we do not want to impose on you what to do. It is up to you to decide.”
That was the humble message of those proud and dignified people who “cover their faces in order to be seen, and die in order to live.”
WHY WE STILL LOVE THE ZAPATISTAS
Today, more than 20 years after the 1994 uprising, the Zapatistas are still there. Those previously illiterate, marginalized, exploited indigenous peoples of Chiapas are actually constructing a new world in the way they themselves have imagined it. Without revolutionary cookbooks and step-by-step theories of social change; without central committees, oligarchic Politbureaus or armchair intellectuals. Without hierarchies, revolutionary prophets or electoral politics—without too many resources either.
The poorest of the poor, the most ignored of the ignored, have taught us a crucial lesson: that the construction of a new world is much more than an academic exercise. It is a matter of opening up new paths through walking.
That is what the international activists see in the Zapatista struggle, what they admire, and what they are inspired by. And of course, by rejecting the Party—in the traditional sense—as an organizational form, and representative democracy as a political system, they do not only “negate” in some kind of nihilistic approach.
They also create new, autonomous and direct democratic structures: from the piqueteros and the occupied factories of Argentina to the Coordinadora por la Defensa del Agua y la Vida in Bolivia; from the occupied squares and the social clinics, producers’ cooperatives and other bottom-up solidarity economy projects in Greece, Spain and Turkey, all the way to the polyethnic revolutionary cantons of Rojava—autonomous movements are building power everywhere.
“Asking we walk,” say the Zapatistas. And they do what they know best: to organize from below (and to the left), to imagine and create their own autonomous and democratic structures, and to be a shiny little light in the capitalist darkness. I personally see no harm in admiring them for that, and in trying to follow their example by imagining and creating similar structures, in our own lands, tailored to our own needs, shaped by our own dreams—without, of course, considering them to be yet another revolutionary recipe to copy.
Leonidas Oikonomakis is a PhD researcher in Social Movement Studies at the European University Institute, a rapper with the Greek hip-hop formation Social Waste, and an editor for ROAR Magazine. His research focuses on the political strategies of the Zapatistas and the Bolivian Cocaleros.