The Zapatista uprising, 30 years on

The Zapatista uprising, 30 years on

Displaced women from the Otomi Indigenous community of Querétaro commemorate the 30th anniversary of the uprising and the 40th anniversary of the founding of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) in Mexico, at the House of Indigenous Peoples and Communities in Mexico City, 18 November 2023.

(Gerardo Vieyra/NurPhoto via AFP)

It’s been exactly thirty years today. Three decades now separate us from an event that marked the end of the previous century. On 1 January 1994, the very day that the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) between the United States, Mexico and Canada came into force, a few thousand Indigenous Mayans from the state of Chiapas in south-east Mexico, armed with old rifles, “declared war” on the federal army and “dictator” Carlos Salinas. Their spokesperson, Subcomandante Marcos, one of the survivors of the core group of Guévarist academic revolutionaries, had entered the region clandestinely ten years earlier to create the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional, EZLN) and “ignite the revolution”.

While the momentum of the armed conflict was quickly snuffed out, the “Zapatistas”, their faces now covered by their distinctive balaclavas – paradoxically in order “to be seen” – remained mobilised against all odds, for “freedom, democracy and justice” – and for “dignity”. The first few years following the events of that New Year’s Day were marked by three concomitant processes: erratic negotiations between the insurgents and the government, a strategy of (para)military harassment of the rebel communities by the authorities, and a succession of explosive encounters with national and international civil society, initiated by the Zapatistas.

All three efforts failed. Both president Salinas and Congress refused to implement the only agreement signed (in February 1996) with Zapatista leadership on the right to self-determination and respect for Indigenous peoples. The “low-intensity war” waged at the same time against Zapatista villages strengthened rather than weakened the movement. And attempts to integrate the left movements of Mexico into a new organisational dynamic created more friction than synergy. Only the National Indigenous Congress (CNI), set up in 1996 to unite Indigenous peoples across Mexico in their struggle against exploitation and discrimination, would survive these efforts.

Redistribution and recognition

For more than two decades, in the absence of de jure autonomy, the rebels of Chiapas have exercised “de facto autonomy” in the organisation of daily life in their territory. They control a highly politically fragmented area roughly the size of Belgium where they are trying to build a “different world” that is radically democratic, “anti-capitalist” and independent of the Mexican state. The Zapatistas’ critique of the dominant model is articulated through action and developed over time. Their new emancipatory perspective aimed at “redistribution and recognition” is expressed both in their form of self-governance that seeks to “command by obeying,” as well as in their repeated intercontinental invitations to articulate struggles “from below and to the left”.

In its early days, the Zapatista rebellion was often compared to the Central American revolutionary movements of the 1970s and 1980s, either in an attempt to stigmatise it or to set it apart. Both movements, which had similar “calendars and geographies” to borrow a Zapatistas expression, represented historic insurrections against the established order led by popular movements who challenged repressive regimes. The very names of the driving forces behind these political upheavals – the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) in Nicaragua, the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) in El Salvador and the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) in Chiapas, Mexico – reveal more than just a structural link. In their early writings, both the FSLN and the FMLN, as well as the EZLN, identify “socialism” as their ultimate goal.

There were, however, many significant differences between the Central American movements and the Mayan rebellion in Chiapas, and in some ways they were quite opposite: whereas the former were more statist and “verticalist,” tending to advocate change “from above,” the latter was more autonomist and “horizontal,” emphasising transformation “from below”. The Zapatistas have added environmentalism, communalism, differentialism, etc. to the various registers of emancipation – republican, nationalist, socialist, Christian, third-worldist, etc. – used by the Central American revolutionaries. Guided by the principle of “equal and different,” the Zapatistas significantly have also incorporated feminism and increasing awareness of gender issues much more resolutely than their predecessor movements.

The persistence, political coherence and moral integrity of the Zapatista rebellion, as well as its fidelity to its original ideals, also distinguish it radically it from the revolutionaries of the FMLN in El Salvador and the FSLN in Nicaragua. The latter have, at best, abandoned their founding objectives and, at worst, turned on their own movements and “eaten their own children”. The Zapatistas, on the other hand, have stubbornly persisted, continuing their resistance even as conditions in their region deteriorate dramatically. As the EZLN predicted in a 2021 communiqué and as the local Catholic Church lamented as recently as last September, Chiapas is currently experiencing unprecedented levels of insecurity, “una situación de violencia y alarde criminal que no se había visto por acá” (an unprecedented level of violence and crime in the area), as the excellent Mexican writer and journalist Hermann Bellinghausen, who has been travelling the region for decades, explains.

Chiapas is exploding

“Chiapas is exploding,” writes Gloria Muñoz Ramírez in October 2023 in La Jornada. “The failed state [there] is overwhelmed and/or infiltrated by criminal groups”. The population is subjected to daily harassment by armed gangs and crime ranging from threats and racketeering to kidnapping, land theft, forced displacement, forced recruitment and murder.

The recent arrival of large numbers of major drug cartels, previously more active in the centre and north of the country, has not helped, nor has the surge in Central and South American migrants. Encouraged to head north to the United States by President Joe Biden’s misguided immigration policies, these migrants are preyed upon by lawless smugglers as soon as they enter Mexico. According to Muñoz Ramírez, these dynamics, along with the both Indigenous and non-Indigenous paramilitary units that have been tearing the region apart for even longer, some with government complicity, have turned Chiapas into a “powder keg”.

These conditions of social breakdown, bloody skirmishes and settling of scores over territorial control of drug trafficking, arms, migrants and even mining products, have made it difficult for the Zapatista self-government to peacefully administer the daily life of its “communities, collectives and autonomous assemblies” (whose reorganisation the Zapatistas have just announced).

On the one hand, their own economic, agro-ecological, educational, health and judicial activities, which form a part of their alternative approach, are precarious and fragile, dependent as they are on ephemeral international solidarity; on the other, they are faced with a significant number of adversaries.

These include the rival Indigenous peasant organisations who, with the consent or aid of the government authorities, claimed ownership of the land “recovered” by the Zapatistas during the insurrection or, failing that, set fire to Zapatista barns or schools. The federal army is also omnipresent in the areas between the EZLN’s zones of influence. At best, they limit themselves to dissuading any further large-scale “subversive” demonstrations. Finally, their greatest adversary and indeed that of Indigenous Mexican activists as a whole, are the major public and private, national and multinational investors pursuing their “mega-projects” – mining, airport, energy, motorway, agro-industrial, rail, tourism, etc. – for “development,” without the “free, prior and informed consent” of the populations living in the affected territories.

Unprecedented scope

Thirty years after the uprising of 1 January 1994, the question arises: is the battle half-lost or half-won? While the rebels of Chiapas may not have succeeded in reforming Mexico’s constitution, decolonising its institutions or even gaining a foothold in the country’s political scene, they have nonetheless given unprecedented local, national and international visibility to peasant and Indigenous struggles for redistribution and autonomy.

Despite their relative political and geographical isolation, the Zapatistas intend to continue influencing the balance of power and social dynamics. Zapatismo is thus fully involved in the Indigenous movements which, from the bottom up in Latin America, have demonstrated that mobilisation for respect for diversity doesn’t have to mean identity-based tensions, and that it can go hand in hand with the fight for social justice and the rule of law. Global recognition of their accomplishments, however fleeting, feeds and is fed by their rediscovered dignity.

This article has been translated from French.