The Zapatistas’ legacy of rebellion

5 February 2014
Patrick Weiniger

Magdalena García Durán is an indigenous Mazahua woman from San Antonio Pueblo Nuevo in central Mexico. Commenting in the run-up to 20th anniversary of the Zapatista uprising in the distant southern state of Chiapas, she tells an interviewer:

“Living as an indigenous woman in a big city is not easy. I had to wear different clothes, dye my hair and wear high heels to go to meetings at my son’s school. It was thanks to the struggle of the Zapatistas that now I wear my indigenous clothes with pride.”

In Chiapas prior to the 1994 uprising of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN), indigenous people would not walk on the same part of the footpath as mestizos (Spanish speakers of mixed heritage), nor feel confident to look them in the eye. In its two decades of struggle, Zapatismo has achieved much in the area of indigenous dignity, and dignity for all of Mexico’s oppressed.

On New Year’s Day in 1994, 3,000 armed, mostly indigenous Mayan fighters emerged from the Lacandon Jungle and seized several towns and cities in Chiapas. In the ensuing years, the EZLN and its chief spokesperson, Subcomandante Marcos, became heroes of the international movement against corporate globalisation. The Zapatista cry of “Ya Basta!” (Enough!) was an inspiration.


The roots of the EZLN were several. First, there was Mexico’s 1968 generation of student radicals. In the same era that students were on the streets of Paris and occupying university administration buildings around the world, thousands of student radicals rallied in Plaza de las Tres Culturas in the Tlatelolco section of Mexico City.

Ten days before the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, the government carried out a massacre in which hundreds were killed. In the aftermath, many young revolutionaries went to the countryside to prepare for armed struggle against the state. The National Liberation Forces (FLN) guerrilla group was founded in 1969 and eventually chose Chiapas as an area of operation. Many EZLN commanders emerged from this group.

Another source of what became Zapatismo was the left wing of the Catholic Church, in particular the Chiapan bishop Samuel Ruiz, a practitioner of liberation theology. Ruiz was impressed with the community work of the revolutionaries; much of his work intertwined with theirs. The activities of these two organised forces coalesced in the bitterness of indigenous peoples still suffering racist oppression.

The catalyst for the uprising was the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) between Mexico, the US and Canada, which came into effect the day the Zapatistas launched their uprising. The EZLN described NAFTA as “a death certificate for the indigenous people of Mexico”. One of the major social gains of the Mexican Revolution of 1910-20 was the constitutional right of campesinos (peasants/ rural workers) to seek title to unused agricultural land.

This was always an imperfect process, but without it, the landless rural poor had no hope. Under NAFTA this was to be abolished along with prohibitions on foreign agribusinesses buying Mexican land, and trade protections for farmers.

Government violence

At the outset of the rebellion, the EZLN agenda was to transform all of Mexico, not merely the parts of Chiapas to which their operations subsequently became limited. They took their name from a leader of the Mexican Revolution. Emiliano Zapata was one of the most radical figures of that revolution, who led an army of peasants fighting for land redistribution under the slogan “The land belongs to those who work it”.

The government of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI by its Spanish initials) – which had ruled Mexico for more than 60 years – responded to the Zapatista revolt with a massive military operation in Chiapas. This included aerial bombing of Zapatista-held towns.

Mexicans throughout the country were appalled. Tens of thousands of people rallied in city squares to demand an end to the war on the EZLN. This forced the government to accept a truce within 12 days.

The Zapatistas then engaged in peace talks with the PRI regime. The talks yielded very few results. The one document that both parties signed off on was the 1996 San Andres Accords, which committed the Mexican government to grant autonomy, recognition and rights to the indigenous population. But President Ernesto Zedillo reneged on the deal.


The political system had betrayed the Zapatistas, and they had little hope of achieving success through a military offensive. The movement focussed on building communities in the Lacandon Jungle, based on dignity, democracy and justice. These Zapatista communities are wonderful experiments in communal self-government.

They are based on mass participation and collective decision making. The communities reject any assistance at all from “bad governments”, and instead have built their own schools and medical facilities, overseen by their “good government councils”.

All of this relies on solidarity from various activist networks, including funding provided by foreign-based NGOs. The Electrical Workers Union in central Mexico was involved from an early stage, sending members to help set up electricity facilities. Every year thousands of activists travel to Chiapas to learn about the struggle and help with community-building projects.

These communities in resistance have faced various forms of violence from state and paramilitary groups over the past 20 years. For instance, on 22 December 1997, pro-government paramilitaries opened fire on a prayer meeting of a pro-EZLN pacifist group in the Chiapan village of Acteal. Forty-five people aged between 8 months and 61 years were killed.

That the Zapatistas have survived is an impressive achievement. But life in the area is still difficult. Attaining basic nutrition is an ongoing struggle, and the communities’ medical facilities are not well supplied.

Politics of Zapatismo

It would be arrogant and unreasonable to dismiss their project because of these limitations. It is a struggle that deserves support and admiration. But there is another error that observers can make. The Zapatistas are lauded by some commentators, such as sociologist John Holloway, for “changing the world without taking power”.

This misreads as political success the constraints that reality has placed on the movement. The initial aims of the EZLN were not distinct from those of other armed insurgencies, and power was part of the equation. The Zapatistas’ First Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle from 1993 lacks the poetry of the subsequent five declarations, and instead instructs EZLN fighters to “advance to the capital of the country, overcoming the Mexican Federal Army, protecting in our advance the civilian population and permitting the people in the liberated area the right to freely and democratically elect their own administrative authorities”.

These aims were overly ambitious given the balance of forces. But they demonstrate a desire to confront existing power at its centre, to defeat it and replace it with something more democratic.

That a revolution has not taken power in Mexico should be lamented, not celebrated (though of course this is not the Zapatistas’ fault). The Zapatistas survive and are working for the benefits of the people in the areas of Chiapas to which they are restricted. At the same time, the bad governments in Mexico City and the state capitals continue with the same destructive agendas.

Free trade’ destruction

Far from lifting Mexico into the First World, NAFTA has helped to keep Mexico’s economic growth lower than at any time since the 1930s Depression. Farmers suffer because they cannot make a living competing with subsidised food imports from the US.

Workers’ wages are lower than in 1994. More than half the country lives in poverty. Around 100,000 Mexicans have died of hunger in the last 15 years. Increased mining by US and Canadian corporations has caused awful environmental damage.

Now the government is involved in the process of creating the world’s biggest “free-trade” agreement, the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Often referred to as “NAFTA on steroids”, this proposed agreement includes Australia as well as the US, Canada, Japan, Vietnam, Peru and others.

Mexico’s capitalist parties have finally succeeded in changing the constitution to allow the country’s oil industry to be privatised, as per the strictures of NAFTA. The Electrical Workers Union, one of the few democratic unions independent of PRI control, has been essentially smashed. The PRI still uses electoral fraud to install its presidential candidates in office and violence to repress its opponents.

While the Zapatistas have done much to improve women’s rights within their communities, the general plight of women in Mexico is deplorable. State forces conduct organised sexual violence to punish activist women and their families.

Fortunately the Zapatistas have not been the only ones resisting this state of affairs. Mexicans have launched many mass struggles since 1994, from the 10-month student occupation of the National Autonomous University in Mexico City in 2000, to the struggles of oil workers and electrical workers against privatisation, to the massive protests against stolen elections of 2006 and 2012, to recent teachers’ struggles against regressive education “reforms”.

In all of these struggles are people inspired by Zapatismo. And the Zapatistas have reached out to other sectors in struggle, most recently through “the Other Campaign”, launched in 2006, in which Marcos and other Zapatistas toured Mexico, collaborating with a vast range of social movements and organisations of the left.

Ultimately it is these national movements, with strong bases in the urban centres, which, if victorious, can do more to challenge capitalism than can be achieved in remote areas of Chiapas. This is not only because the power of our enemies is concentrated in the cities, but also because urbanisation means that people are increasingly concentrated there too. It is here that the question of political power is posed most sharply.

This explains why the most important heroes of the Latin American left of the early 20th century are those who have taken governmental office: most importantly, the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. In the last two years of his life, the government he led arranged for the construction of more than 500,000 new public houses, mostly built by grassroots organisations and communal councils. This is just one measure that demonstrates that the damage of neoliberal capitalism can be overcome on a grander scale than has been achieved so far in Chiapas.

As Subcomandante Marcos puts it: “Another world is possible, but only on top of the corpse of capitalism.”

Read More

Red Flag
Red Flag is published by Socialist Alternative, a revolutionary socialist group with branches across Australia.
Find out more about us, get involved, or subscribe.

Original Red Flag content is subject to a Creative Commons licence and may be republished under the terms listed here.