The Zapatista Army of National Liberation (Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional, EZLN) is an armed revolutionary group based in Chiapas, one of the poorest states of Mexico. Their social base is mostly indigenous but they have supporters in urban areas as well as an international web of support. Their spokesperson and military commander, although not their leader, is Subcomandante Marcos (currently a.k.a. Delegate Zero in relation to the "Other Campaign"). Unlike other Zapatista comandantes, Subcomandante Marcos is not an indigenous Mayan.
The group takes its name from Emiliano Zapata, the most progressive proponent of the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920); The Zapatistas see themselves as his ideological heirs, and heirs to five hundred years of indigenous resistance against imperialism.
Some consider the Zapatista movement the first "post-modern" revolution: an armed revolutionary group that has abstained from using their weapons since their 1994 uprising was countered by the overpowering military might of the Mexican Federal Army. The Zapatistas have survived because they were quick to adopt a new strategy and garner the support of Mexican and international Civil Society. They managed to achieve this by making use of the internet to disseminate their communiqués and to enlist the support of NGOs and solidarity groups. Outwardly, they portray themselves as part of the wider anti-globalization, anti-neoliberalism social movement while for their indigenous base the Zapatista struggle is all about control over their own resources, particularly the land they live on, the right to govern themselves according to their own customs and a dignified peace without government interference.
The EZLN opposes corporate globalization, or neoliberalism, arguing that it severely and negatively affects the peasant way of life of its indigenous support base.
The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) is an example of neoliberal policy that the EZLN is against. Apart from opening the Mexican market to cheap mass-produced US agricultural products it spells an end to Mexican crop subsidies and drastically reduces income and living standards of millions of Mexican farmers who cannot compete with the subsidized, artificially fertilized, mechanically harvested and genetically modified imports from the United States. The signing of NAFTA also resulted in the removal of Article 27 Section VII in the Mexican Constitution which previously had guaranteed land reparations to indigenous groups throughout Mexico. The start of the 1994 Zapatista revolution happened to coincide with the coming into effect of NAFTA.
Another key element of the Zapatista ideology is how they aspire to realize a new vision of politics: A truly participatory one that comes from the "bottom-up" instead of "top-down." The Zapatistas view the contemporary political system of Mexico as one that is inherently flawed due to what they claim is its purely representative nature and obvious disconnection from the people and their needs. The EZLN, in contrast, reinforces the idea of participatory democracy by limiting public servants' terms to only two weeks a term, lacking visible organization leaders and constantly referring to the people they are governing for major decisions, strategies and conceptual visions. As Marcos reiterates time and time again, "my real commander is the people." In accordance with this principle, the Zapatistas are not a political party: they do not seek office throughout the state and wish to reconceptualize the entire Mexican political system rather than perpetuating it by attempting to gain power within its ranks.
Unusual for any revolutionary organization, documents released by the EZLN (In Spanish) before the initial uprising in 1994 explicitly defined a right of the people to resist any unjust actions of the EZLN. However, it can be argued that this has been a right in a number of other rebellions and revolutions, particularly in the Anglo-Saxon tradition, such as the Glorious Revolution and Shays' Rebellion, as well as arguably being the view of the moderate majority of parliamentarians in the English Civil War. They also defined a right of the people to:
- demand that the revolutionary armed forces not intervene in matters of civil order or the disposition of capital relating to agriculture, commerce, finances, and industry, as these are the exclusive domain of the civil authorities, elected freely and democratically". Furthermore, it added that the people should "acquire and possess arms to defend their persons, families and property, according to the laws of disposition of capital of farms, commerce, finance and industry, against the armed attacks committed by the revolutionary forces or those of the government.
This section highlights some of the most important events in the Zapatistas' history.
The Zapatistas went public on January 1, 1994, the day that the NAFTA agreement went into effect. The initial goal of the EZLN was to instigate a revolution in all of Mexico but as this did not happen, they used their uprising as a platform to call the world's attention to the large wealth distribution disparity of Chiapas and to protest the signing of NAFTA, which the EZLN felt would only intensify the gap between the rich and the poor in Chiapas. The EZLN does not demand independence from Mexico, but rather autonomy, asking (among other things) that the natural resources that are extracted from Chiapas benefit more directly the people of Chiapas. For example, a great part of Mexico's hydroelectricity comes from Chiapas, yet many communities in Chiapas suffer because they have no access to fresh drinking water. It is these kinds of injustices that the EZLN intends to address.
Short armed clashes in Chiapas ended on January 12 of 1994, with a ceasefire brokered by the Catholic diocese in San Cristóbal de las Casas under Bishop Samuel Ruiz. Much of the land taken over by the Zapatistas in 1994 was retained but the territory they militarily held for a little more than a year was overrun by the Mexican Federal army in a surprise raid in February 1995. While army camps were set up along all major thoroughfares, the Mexican government failed to capture the guerrilla movement's commanders. After that, the Mexican government instead pursued a policy of low-intensity warfare buliding up para-military groups in an attempt to control the rebellion, while the Zapatistas developed a mobilization and media campaign through numerous newspaper comunicados and over time a set of Six Declarations of the Lacandon Jungle with no further military actions on their part. A strong international Internet presence has prompted the adherence to the movement of numerous leftist international groups.
The Intercontinental Encounter for Humanity and against Neoliberalism held in Chiapas in 1996 resulted in various pro-Zapatista support groups emerging outside of Mexico, particularly in the US, Argentina, Catalonia, the Basque Country, Italy, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, France and Britain.
Government talks with the EZLN culminated in the signing of the San Andrés Accords (1996) that granted autonomy and special rights to the indigenous population. President Zedillo and the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) however, ignored the agreements and instead increased military presence in the region. With the new government of President Fox in 2001, the Zapatistas marched on Mexico City to present their case to the Mexican Congress. Watered-down agreements were rejected by the rebels who proceeded to create 32 autonomous municipalities in Chiapas, thus partially implementing the agreements without government support but with some funding from international organizations.
On June 28, 2005 the Zapatistas presented the Sixth Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle declaring their principles and vision for Mexico and the world.
The first such declaration, issued in 1993, had amounted to a declaration of war on the Mexican government, which they considered so out of touch with the will of the people as to make it completely illegitimate. Subsequent declarations have focused on non-violent solutions, both through political channels and through the assumption of many of the functions of government in the Chiapas state of southeastern Mexico.
This latest declaration reiterates the support of the Zapatistas for the indigenous peoples who compose roughly one third of the population of the state of Chiapas, and extends the cause to include "all the exploited and dispossessed of Mexico." It also expresses solidarity with the international alter-globalization movement, and offers to provide material aid to those in Cuba, Bolivia, Ecuador, and elsewhere with whom they make common cause. The declaration ends with an exhortation for all who have more respect for humanity than for money to join with the Zapatistas in the struggle for social justice both in Mexico and abroad.In this new Declaration, the EZLN called for an alternative national campaign (the "Other Campaign") in opposition to the current presidential campaign. In preparation for this alternative campaign, the Zapatistas invited to their territory over 600 national leftist organizations, indigenous groups and non-governmental organizations in order to listen to their claims for human rights in a series of biweekly meetings that culminated in a plenary meeting in September 16, the day Mexico celebrates its independence from Spain. In this meeting, Subcomandante Marcos requested official adherence of the organizations to the Sixth Declaration, and detailed a 6 month tour of the Zapatistas through all 31 Mexican states that took place concurrently with the electoral campaign starting January 2006.
"Everything for everyone, and nothing for ourselves." ("Para todos todo, para nosotros nada.") A Zapatista saying.
The group was founded on November 17, 1983 by non-indigenous members of the FLN guerrilla group from Mexico's urban North and by indigenous inhabitants of the remote Las Cañadas/Selva Lacandona regions in eastern Chiapas. Over the years, the group slowly grew, building on social relations among the indigenous base and making use of an organizational infrastructure created by peasant organizations and the catholic church. The Zapatistas appeared on the national and international scene on January 1, 1994, the same day that the North American Free Trade Agreement between Mexico, the United States and Canada became operational, as a way of stating the presence of indigenous peoples in a globalized world.
Indigenous fighters wearing the black ski masks (pasamontañas) or red bandanas (paliacates) that have since become the group's trademark, some of them armed only with fake wooden rifles, took hold of five municipalities in Chiapas. There was token resistance in 4 of those and hundreds of casualties in and around the city of Ocosingo. The Zapatistas officially declared war against the Mexican government, and announced their plans to march towards Mexico City, the capital of Mexico, either defeating the Mexican army or allowing it to surrender and imposing a war tax on the cities that they conquered in their way.
After just a few days of localized fighting in the jungle, President Carlos Salinas de Gortari, then in his last year in office, offered a cease-fire agreement and opened dialog with the rebels, whose official spokesperson was Subcomandante Marcos. After twelve days, the fighting stopped.
The dialogue between the Zapatistas and the government extended over a period of three years and ended with the San Andrés Accords, which entailed modifying the national constitution in order to grant special rights, including autonomy, to indigenous people. A commission of deputies from political parties, called COCOPA, slightly modified the agreements with the acceptance of the EZLN. However, the new President of Mexico, Ernesto Zedillo, said Congress would have to decide whether to pass it or not. Claiming a violation of promises at the negotiating table, the EZLN went back into the jungle, while Zedillo increased the military presence in Chiapas to prevent the spread of EZLN's influence zone. An unofficial truce accompanied by EZLN's silence ensued for the next three years, the last in Zedillo's term.
After the dialogue ended, many accusations were made against the Mexican army and para-military groups due to prosecution, detentions and killings of Zapatistas and supporters; one particular incident was the Massacre of Acteal, where 45 people attending a church service were killed by unknown persons. The motives and the identities of the attackers aren't clear, to the point it might not be related to the EZLN at all (however, the survivors claim that they were attacked by paramilitaries).
Almost at the end of the armed conflict between the Mexican army and the Zapatista rebles, the Mexican army could overun most Zapatista forces. Subcomandante Marcos, realizing that his rebels were near total defeat, got an agreement with the Mexican government to cease fire. The Mexican government accepted due to the fact that the armed conflict took away the lives of many civilians during the shooting.
In 2000 President Vicente Fox Quesada, the first from the opposition in 72 years, sent the so-called COCOPA Law (constitutional changes) to Congress on one of his first acts of government (December 5, 2000), as he had promised during his campaign. After seeing the criticism and proposed modifications by notable congressmen, Subcomandante Marcos and part of his group decided to go, unarmed, to Mexico City in order to speak at congress in support of the original proposal. After a march through seven Mexican states with substantial support from the population and media coverage (and escorted by police to protect the EZLN members), representatives of the EZLN (not including Marcos) spoke at Congress in March 2001, in a controversial event. The march was nicknamed "Zapatour", and on the day of their arrival an unrelated concert for peace was held. During their stay they visited schools and universities.
Soon after the EZLN had returned to Chiapas, Congress approved a different version of the COCOPA Law, which did not include the autonomy clauses, claiming they were in contradiction with some constitutional rights (including private property and secret voting); this and other changes were seen as a betrayal by the EZLN and other political groups. These constitutional changes still had to be approved by a majority of state congresses. Many political and ethnic groups filed complaints both against and in favour of the changes, which were finally approved and went into effect on August 14, 2001. This, and the still recent electoral victory of President Fox in 2000 slowed down the movement, which had less media coverage since then.
As a last recourse to void the changes, a constitutionality complaint was filed to be resolved by the Supreme Court of Justice, which ruled in September 6, 2002 that since they were constitutional changes made by Congress and not a law as it was wrongly called, it was outside its power to reverse the changes, as that would be an invasion of Congress' sovereignty.
Until 2004, many people believed Marcos had fled Chiapas. Attempts to contact him failed or were answered by email or internet publications. Marcos denies being the head of the Zapatista movement, instead presenting himself as a spokesman, but he is by far the most prominent figure of the EZLN to the public. The collective leadership of the EZLN is made up of 23 commanders and 1 sub commander. This is one of the unique characteristics of the Comité Clandestino Revolucionario Indígena or CCRI, Revolutionary Indigenous Clandestine Committee).
The communiques of 2004 list accomplishments and failures of their movement. From their own point of view, the Councils of Good Government, or Juntas de Buen Gobierno have been successful, as well as efforts to keep the violence between them and the military to a minimum. Their efforts to increase the role of women in cultural and political matters were not as successful.
From these communiqués it seems Marcos had been following the developments, from wherever he was. He also reiterated the EZLN's long known opposition to what they see as a worldwide movement towards a neoliberal globalized economy, claiming that the current trend in government policies disempowers the people and establishes a de facto corporate government. The United States' declared 'war on terror', IMF/World Bank sponsored economic policies, and free trade agreements are seen as an application of these policies.
In October 2004, Subcomandante Marcos issued communiques explaining the problems that the EZLN had with the Mexican government. Some Zapatista communities were expelled from their homes. The EZLN claims that this is an attempt to gain control of an area rich in natural resources (biodiversity and oil). These communities were relocated with great difficulty due to lack of resources, something that the EZLN intended to alleviate by calling for international help. The Mexican government maintains a vague stance on the issue, claiming the people were moved for their own benefit.
However, the relevance of the EZLN to the national political agenda diminished. The Zapatistas claim that this silent period of their uprising has been an extremely rich effort, centered in organizing their own "good government" and autonomously organized lives; in particular the establishment of an autonomous education and healthcare system, with its own schools, hospitals and pharmacies in places neglected by the Mexican government. Recently, with the Sixth Declaration of the Lacandon jungle it seems that the Zapatistas will soon re-enter into the political arena.
There are currently 32 "rebel autonomous zapatista municipalities" (independent Zapatista communities, MAREZ from their name in Spanish) in Chiapas.
In the late months of 2002, Subcommandante Marcos wrote a letter to a Spanish supporter on October 12, the date Columbus arrived to the Americas in 1492, marked by indigenous peoples as the beginning of their suffering. In that long letter, Marcos calls Spanish Judge Baltasar Garzón a "grotesque clown" for, among other things, banning Batasuna, an independent Basque party on claims it was supporting Spanish terrorist group ETA, and then calling Garzón's attempt to try Chilean General Pinochet for human rights violations against Spanish citizens a "fool-deceiving tale". Marcos also criticized the Spanish monarchy and then Spanish Prime Minister José María Aznar. After the publication of the letter by the Mexican press on November 25, Marcos and Garzón exchanged many more via the international press, in a not-so-elegant duel of words, which included Marcos' joking acceptance of Garzón's challenge to a debate, betting to reveal his secret identity if he lost against Garzón's commitment to the EZLN cause if he won. The whole incident caused much debate among many of Marcos' supporters. Some were upset about Marcos devoting his time to other causes; others thought the tone of his letters was improper of the official spokesman of the EZLN and finally others interpreted his letters as supporting ETA.
In February 2003, Marcos wrote yet another letter. This one condemned the congressmen of the only party that supported the Zapatistas to some degree, the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD). Marcos claimed they agreed to approve a modified version of the EZLN-sanctioned COCOPA Law the previous year. That letter and the replies that followed left many of EZLN's strongest and most influential allies ill-disposed toward Marcos. It was not a surprising move, however, since the PRD had dismissed the San Andrés Accords.
Aside from criticism of political actors, Marcos described EZLN's ongoing work in its zones of influence and changes in its internal organization.
Since December 1994, the Zapatistas had been gradually forming several autonomous municipalities, independent of the Mexican government. By August 2003 these municipalities had evolved into local government "juntas", implementing communitarian food-producing programs, health and school systems, supported in part by NGOs. Then several "Juntas of Good Government" formed by representatives of the autonomous municipalities and overseen by the EZLN were created as an upper level of government under the motto mandar obedeciendo (to command obeying). These renegade municipalities had been tolerated by the government despite being a state within the state. Although they do not tax the inhabitants, the Zapatistas decide, through assemblies, to work in communitarian projects; when someone does not participate in these communitarian efforts it is discussed and sometimes it is decided to not consider the person a Zapatista. This for example implies that the person has to pay for medicine in Zapatista pharmacies (although not for medical care). Membership in the Juntas rotates continuously, so that all members of the community have an opportunity to serve the community and also to prevent people in power to become addicted to it or become corrupted.
From the beginning, the EZLN has made communication with the rest of Mexico and the world a high priority. The EZLN has used technology, including satellite phones and the Internet, to generate international solidarity with sympathetic people and organizations. 1990s rock band Rage Against the Machine were well known for their support of the EZLN and often informed concert crowds of the ongoing situation. As a result, on trips abroad the president of Mexico is routinely confronted by small activist groups about "the Chiapas situation".
Subcomandante Marcos, a man of uncertain origins, acts as the primary public spokesperson for EZLN. He is recognized by many as a skillful communicator; his colloquial, ironic style and references to indigenous cultures have significant appeal. However, Marcos has paler-than-average skin and is clearly not indigenous, leading some to question his goals and motives.
Prior to 2001, Marcos' writings were frequently published in major Mexican and international newspapers. Marcos then fell silent until 2002, and his relationship with the media declined. When he resumed writing in 2002, he assumed a more aggressive tone, and his attacks on former allies angered some of the EZLN's supporters. Except for these letters and occasional critical "communicados" concerning the political climate, the EZLN was largely silent until August 2004, and COCOPA head Luis H. Álvarez stated in the middle of 2004 that Marcos had not been seen in Chiapas for some time. The EZLN received little press coverage during this time, although it continued to develop the local governments it had created earlier.
In August, Marcos sent eight brief communiques to the Mexican press, published from August 20 to August 28. The set was entitled "Reading a video" (possibly mocking political video scandals that occurred earlier that year). The set began and ended as a kind of written description of an imaginary low-budget Zapatista video, with the rest being Marcos' comments on political events of the year and the EZLN current stance and development.
In 2005, Marcos made headlines again by comparing Andrés Manuel López Obrador with Carlos Salinas de Gortari (as part of a broad criticism of the three main political parties in Mexico - the PAN, PRI, and PRD) and publicly declaring the EZLN in "Red Alert". Shortly thereafter, communiques announced that the EZLN had undergone a restructuring that enabled them to withstand the loss of their public leadership (Marcos and the CCRI). A consultation with the Zapatistas' support base led to the Sixth Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle.
Since the first uprising, the newspaper La Jornada has continuously covered the Zapatistas. Most communicados and many of Marcos' letters are delivered to La Jornada, and the online edition of the newspaper has a section dedicated to the Other Campaign.
Recent and current activitiesEdit
On June 28, 2005 the EZLN released an installment of what it called the Sixth Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle. According to the communique, the EZLN has reflected on its history and decided that it must make changes in order to continue its struggle. Accordingly, the EZLN has decided to unite with the "workers, farmers, students, teachers, and employees... the workers of the city and the countryside." They propose to do so through a non-electoral front to talk and collectively write a new constitution to establish a new political culture.
On January 1, 2006 the EZLN began a massive tour - "The Other Campaign" - encompassing all 31 Mexican states in the build up to the year's presidential election, which the EZLN made clear they would not participate directly in. They will be touring the 31 states without arms.
On May 3-4, 2006, a series of demonstrations protesting the forcible removal of flower vendors from a lot in Texcoco turned violent when Mexico State Police and the Federal Preventive Police bused in some 5,000 agents to San Salvador Atenco and the surrounding communities. A local organization called the People's Front in Defense of the Land (FPDT for its initials in Spanish), which is an adherent to the Sixth Declaration, called in support from other regional and national adherent organizations. Delegate Zero and the Other Campaign were at the time in nearby Mexico City having just organized May Day events there and quickly arrived at the scene. The following days were marked by violence, with some 216 arrests, over 30 rape and sexual abuse accusations against the police, five deportations, and one casualty, a fourteen-year old boy named Javier Cortes shot by a policeman. There were also reports of people being abducted by the police. A twenty-year old UNAM economics student, Alexis Benhumea, died the morning of June 7, 2006, after being in a coma caused by a blow to the head from a police-launched tear-gas grenade. Most of the resistance organizing was done by the EZLN and Sixth Declaration adherents, and Delegate Zero has stated that the Other Campaign tour will be temporarily halted until all prisoners are released.
In late 2006 and early 2007 the Zapatistas, through Subcomandante Marcos, along with other Indigenous, announced the Intercontinental Indigenous Encounter. They are inviting Indigenous from North and South America, and the world, to the gathering on October 11-14 2007, near Guaymas, Sonora. In the declaration for the Indigenous Intercontinental Conference, it designated this date because of "515 years since the invasion of ancient Indigenous territories and the onslaught of the war of conquest, spoils and capitalist exploitation". Comandante David said in an interview, "The object of this meeting is to meet one another and to come to know one another’s pains and sufferings. It is to share our experiences, because each tribe is different."
Pop culture referencesEdit
World music star Manu Chao is an avid supporter of the EZLN. The red star logo appears on various Chao CDs and other merchandise, and a speech by Subcomandante Marcos appears on his first album Clandestino as well as the performer's live album, Radio Bemba Sound System.
The U.S. band Rage Against the Machine expressed support for the Zapatista movement and included Zapatista references in several songs ("People of the Sun", "Calm Like A Bomb", "Zapata's Blood", "War Within a Breath").
The U.S. Hip Hop Group Dead Prez is known for their admiration and support of the EZLN and other anti capitalist movements.
The U.S. punk rock band Anti-Flag has performed a song called "Zapatista, Don't Give Up."
The American experimental band Jackie-O Motherfucker has a song called "Chiapas, I Must Go There!" and while not necessarily about the Zapatistas, it may be influenced as such.
Boston-based alternative rock band Swirlies included a song "San Cristobal de las Casas", apparently about the Zapatista movement, on their 1996 album "They Spent Their Wild Youthful Days In The Glittering World Of The Salons".
Spanish ska punk band Ska-P made a song and a video of the song "Paramilitar" about the paramilitaries and Zapatistas.
American Death Metal Band Brujeria made a song "Revolucion" that expressed their support for the Zapatista movement.
Rap group The Coup's, Boots Riley states he is "Pro-Zapatista" in the song "Ride the Fence."