Zapatista Army of National Liberation
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 most visible leader by far is Subcommander Marcos.
The Zapatistas went public in 1994 with the initial goal of overthrowing the Mexican government. Short armed clashes in Chiapas ended two weeks after the uprising and there have been no full-scale confrontations ever since. The Mexican government instead pursued a policy of low-intensity warfare with para-military groups in an attempt to control the rebellion, while the Zapatistas developed a media campaign through numerous newspaper comunicados and over time a set of six "Declarations of the Lacandonian Jungle", with no further military or terrorist actions on their part. A strong international Internet presence has prompted the adherence to the movement of numerous leftist international groups.
Government talks with the EZLN culminated in the San Andrés Accords (1997) that granted autonomy and special rights to the indigenous population. President Zedillo however, ignored the agreements and instead increased military presence in the region. With the new government of President Fox the Zapatistas marched in 2000 towards 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.
In July 2005 the Zapatistas presented the Sixth Declaration of the Lacandonian Jungle. In this new Declaration, the EZLN called for an alternative national 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, Subcomandeer Marcos requested official adherence of the organizations to the Sixth Declaration, and detailed a 6 month tour of the Zapatistas through all 32 Mexican states that will take place concurrently with the electoral campaign starting January 2006.
Some consider the Zapatista movement the first post-modern revolution: an armed yet non-violent revolutionary group that incorporates modern technologies like satellite telephony and the Internet as a way to obtain domestic and foreign support. They consider themselves part of the wider anti- economic globalization movement.
The group was founded on November 17, 1983 by former members of different groups, both pacifist and violent. They broke onto the national and international scene on January 1, 1994, just one day after the North American Free Trade Agreement with the United States and Canada became operational, as a way of stating the presence of indigenous peoples in the middle of a globalized world.
Indigenous fighters, some of them wielding fake rifles made of wood, took hold of five municipalities in Chiapas, officially declared war against the Mexican government and announced their plans to march towards Mexico City, the capital of Mexico, either defeating or allowing the Mexican army to surrender and imposing a war tax on the cities 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.
The dialogue with 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, modified slightly the agreements with the acceptance of the EZLN. President Ernesto Zedillo, however, 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.
Unusually for any revolutionary organisation these laws then defined a right of the people to resist any unjust actions of the EZLN. They 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." And said 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."
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).
In 2000 new 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, Subcommander 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 was 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 President Fox's electoral victory 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 Subcommander Marcos had fled from Chiapas. Attempts to contact him failed or were answered by email or Internet publications. Although Marcos has denied to be the head of the Zapatista movement, presenting himself as a spokesman, he is by far the most prominent figure of the EZLN to the public. There are 23 commanders and 1 subcommander which total 24, the collective leadership of the EZLN, one of its unique characteristics, known as the Comite 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 weren't that successful.
From these communiqués it seems Marcos has been following the developments, from wherever he was. He also reiterated their long known opposition to what they see as a worldwide movement towards a neoliberal focused globalized economy, claiming that the current trend in government policies disempowers the people and establishes a de facto corporate government. The United States war on terror, IMF/WB sponsored economic policies and free trade agreements are seen as an application of these policies.
Subcomandante Marcos in October 2004 communiques explained the problems in with the Mexican government. Some zapatista communities were expelled from their homes. They claim 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 lives autonomously; in particular the organization for 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 again 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, Subcommander Marcos wrote a letter to a Spanish supporter on October 12, the date Columbus arrived to the Americas in 1492, marked by indigents 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 President José María Aznar. After the publication of the letter by the Mexican press in 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 stir 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 the ETA.
In February 2003, Marcos wrote yet another letter, this time condemning the congressmen of the only party that supported, to some degree, the zapatistas, the Party of the Democratic Revolution, claiming 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.
Having lost much of his support and with his public image affected, Marcos' communications for the rest of the year went unnoticed. Aside from criticism of political actors, he 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 it 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.
The EZLN placed since the beginning a very high priority on communication with the rest of Mexico and the rest of the world. Subcommander Marcos writings (almost the only ones) were initially in plain prose, with references to indigenous cultures and influenced by their style. These declarations and analysis were sent to national and international media. They also made excellent use of technology, in the form of satellite phones and the Internet to communicate with supporters in other countries, helping them gain international solidarity and support from other organizations and people. For some time, on almost every trip abroad the president of Mexico was confronted by small activist groups about "the Chiapas situation".
Their public spokesperson is Subcommander Marcos, a pipe-smoking middle-aged man whose real identity, according to the Mexican government, is Rafael Guillén, a middle-class university lecturer. Marcos himself denies this, but keeps his identity secret. His skin tone is paler than that of the average Mexican. He is clearly not indigenous, something his critics use to question his goals and motives. Marcos has been recognized by many as an outstanding and eloquent communicator; his writings, colloquial, ironic, and with references to indigenous stories were eagerly published by the media in the first years. However, after 2001 a long period of silence brought his relationship with the media to a standstill. In 2002 he began writing again, but this time his style was different and his declaration more aggressive, even against former allies.
By 2004 the EZLN's communication strategy was not clear. Except for isolated letters and "comunicados" about the political climate, mostly criticism, the EZLN had been silent for almost three years, and the media (except "La Jornada" newspaper) stopped covering them as there was no public interest.
For the first half of 2004, Marcos remained silent. By the middle of the year Luis H. Álvarez, Head of COCOPA, the official communication link between the EZLN and the Mexican government, declared Marcos hasn't been seen in Chiapas for some time, and that he didn't know his location. However the EZLN was still active, mostly tending the local governments it has created.
In August 2004, Marcos sent to the Mexican press eight brief communiques, the whole set titled "Reading a video", published from August 20 to August 28. They were probably intended as a mocking of the political video scandals earlier in the year, the set beginning and ending as a kind of written description of an imaginary low-budget zapatista video, the rest being Marcos' comments on political events of the year and the EZLN current stance and development. The communiques went mostly unnoticed, partly because of the Olympic Games of Athens 2004 and the Congress reforms to the IMSS pension system, and partly because of loss of interest by the public.
In 2005 Marcos made headlines again by comparing Andrés Manuel López Obrador with Carlos Salinas de Gortari (as part of a broad criticism to the three main political parties in Mexico the PAN, PRI and PRD) and publicly declaring the EZLN in "Red Alert". Shortly 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.
The EZLN claims to represent the rights of the indigenous population, but also sees itself and is seen as part of a wider anti-capitalist movement. The neozapatistas oppose globalization, or neoliberalism, the economic system advocated by the Mexican presidents from 1982 to 2000. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), is an example of neoliberal policy, and spawned the 1994 Zapatista revolution because those who would later become the EZLN believed that it would destroy the rights of Mexico's impoverished indigenous community. The group takes its name from the Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata; they see themselves as his ideological heirs, and heirs to 500 years of indigenous resistance against imperialism.
The EZLN differs from most revolutionary groups by having stopped military action after the initial uprising in the first two weeks of 1994. They never attempted their announced campaign against the capital, in fact they didn't leave the jungle, but in any case they were no match for the Mexican army. They organized a nationwide vote in which the general public chose to stop armed confrontation and continue through peaceful means as their course of action. They say these channels have been ineffective for the indigenous and for everyone else for too much time (500 years, as they say), thus the EZLN motto: ¡Ya Basta! ("Enough!"). This stance weakened after the electoral victory of Vicente Fox Quesada, who peacefully assumed the presidency as the first president from the opposition in 72 years. However, they have not participated in elections and now propose a non-electoral political front. (Note here that the indigenous people of Mexico was not allowed to vote before the election in 1998)
Only once, EZLN representatives have publicly visited (unarmed) Mexico City, marching down the streets, doing press conferences and organizing meetings with the civilian population and some political parties. This great march to Mexico City, described in a different part of this article, was also relatively peaceful, with some minor, mostly verbal, incidents. This peaceful approach is one of the reasons for its longevity and some popularity with the civilian population.
The EZLN has been mainly fighting for autonomy of the indigenous population as a solution to poverty ; they promote a kind of state within a state where peoples can retain their ways of government and communal way of life yet receive outside support in needed areas. Many leftist groups have attempted to "adopt" the Zapatistas by portraying them as Trotskyists, Anarchists, Socialists, etc., when in actuality, the Zapatista ideology of autonomy is unique.
On June 28, 2005 the EZLN released an installment of what it called the "Sixth Declaration of the Lacandona 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.
- Ya Basta! Ten Years of the Zapatista Uprising, selected writings by Subcomandante Marcos; ISBN 1-904859-13-5
- Our Word is Our Weapon, selected writings by Subcomandante Marcos; ISBN 1-85242-814-7
- The Zapatista Reader, edited by Tom Hayden
- Profit Over People, Noam Chomsky; ISBN 1-888363-82-7
- Change the World Without Taking Power, John Holloway -e-text on libcom.org
- Rebellion in Chiapas, a historical reader, John Womack, Jr.
- The war against oblivion: Zapatista chronicles, 1994-2000, John Ross; ISBN 1-56751-174-0
- "First World, Ha, Ha, Ha! The Zapatista Challenge", edited by Elaine Katzenberger
- Marcos' communiques, some of them in English
- ZNet Chiapas Watch/Zapatista Crisis page with English translations of EZLN documents
- A Commune in Chiapas - Libertarian Marxist Analysis of the Zapatista Uprising
- Chiapas Indymedia More EZLN communiques can be found here. In Spanish, with English sections.
- Student Project on Cyberactivism and the EZLN
- Zapatistas Discussion Group
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