A Glimpse Inside the Zapatista’s Rebel Capital of Oventic, Two Decades on
Ryan Mallett-Outtrim – Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal
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August 17, 2016
Sign reads, “You are now in rebel Zapatista territory. Here, the people command, and the government obeys.” (Ryan Mallett-Outtrim)
The line of guards clad in the guerrilla movement’s iconic balaclavas was a sign we had found the place. For anyone who did not get the hint, there was a half rusted sign across the road that read, “You are now in rebel Zapatista territory.”
“Here, the people command, and the government obeys,” it stated.
Less than an hour from the nearest city, and I had already arrived at Oventic. This small, unassuming community in the highlands of Mexico’s Chiapas state is often known as the de facto capital of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN), a leftist guerrilla movement that has been a thorn in the side of the Mexican government since the 1990s.
A decade ago, Oventic was easily accessible to outsiders, and gringo tourists hoping to catch a glimpse of the EZLN in their heartland were generously accommodated. Today, things are different, and the Zapatistas are more reserved about who they allow to peek inside their world. In late July, I was given the privilege to visit Oventic, and see how the community was doing two decades after the EZLN first shocked the world with its fiery entrance into Mexico’s already complex political landscape.
The Zapatistas’ debut act came in 1994, when seemingly out of nowhere, they seized control of a handful of towns across Chiapas, one of the country’s consistently poorest states. Among the towns captured was the highland city San Cristobal, which is today the heart of the state’s booming tourism sector. The offensive was accompanied by a declaration of war against the Mexican government by the EZLN. They accused the federal government of losing touch with ordinary Mexicans, and called for a nationwide revolt.
Their sudden offensive was timed to coincide with the signing of the controversial North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). In their early communiques, the Zapatistas warned NAFTA would fail to deliver on its promises of economic prosperity, and would only widen the country’s wealth gap. Any gains under NAFTA would not be seen by the already impoverished indigenous farmers of rural Chiapas, they claimed.
Reminiscing on the time, veteran Mexican journalist Olivier Acuna said the uprising “caught us all by surprise”.
“Basically, nobody outside Chiapas saw it coming; other than, I suppose, intelligence agents,” he said.
However, he argued the EZLN didn’t really come from nowhere.
“Chiapas is a highly marginalized and poverty stricken state, and if you add the long history of massive caciquismo you have a very resented and abused population,” he said.
Caciquismo refers to regional authoritarianism, where local leaders such as mayors weld huge power over their constituents, often in remote rural areas. In hindsight, Acuna said, the uprising was a long time coming. He pointed to decades of local and federal governments abusing the highland population.
“[It's] majority indigenous people who have been stripped of their lands, and in many cases turned into almost slaves on their own land,” he said.
Today, the EZLN has long since retreated from the city of San Cristobal, though it retains a following in the highlands. An uneasy ceasefire exists, with the Mexican military mostly avoiding contact with EZLN communities, which remain dotted across the countryside. Meanwhile, the Zapatistas themselves have adopted a defensive strategy, focusing on consolidation rather than expansion.
During my time in Oventic, I spoke with Roy Ketchum, an associate professor in Hispanic studies from the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University. Ketchum has been observing the EZLN for years, though this was the first time he was able to visit Oventic, after being turned away on a previous trip.
“There’s a vibrant, community based participatory democracy,” he said. “Everyone participates, and everyone is heard.”
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