Are we all Zapatistas?
Are we all Zapatistas?
“We are all Zapatistas” has been painted on banners, walls and shouted at demonstrations in recent years. The slogan has been used by leftists, anarchists, advocates of fair-trade schemes and even for commercial gain. But who are the Zapatistas?
The Zapatistas take their name from Emiliano Zapata who led the Ejército Libertador del Sur (Liberation Army of the South) during the Mexican Revolutionary war from 1910 until his assassination in 1919. During the 30-year dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz which preceded the revolution much of the land farmed by the indigenous people was enclosed to form haciendas or ranches for the production of food for export markets forcing peasants into, both wage- and debt-slavery to the often cruel ranch owners. Zapata’s army sought to institute the Plan of Ayala for the repossession of the haciendas for landless peasants where pre-enclosure legal titles existed and partial expropriation of land, with compensation, where legal titles didn’t exist. The Liberation Army of the South initially fought the federal forces who sought to uphold the dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz. Zapata’s army also fought the constitutionalist forces which eventually replaced Diaz as well as the intervening military dictatorship.
Despite the defeat of Zapata’s army, the 1917 Mexican Constitution contained a provision for the return of communal lands appropriated by the haciendas and to provide new lands called ejidos to landless peasants. Communal lands and ejidos are owned by the people of a village and plots within the designated areas are divided amongst individual families to work. However, this article of the constitution was never fully implemented, or yielded only small or unproductive land areas to the peasants. In 1992, President Carlos Salinas de Gortari revoked the constitutional commitment protecting communal land from private ownership in preparation for implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). The NAFTA would also remove agricultural price support affecting peasants who were increasingly reliant on small scale cash crop production.
On the day the NAFTA came into force the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (EZLN, Zapatista Army of National Liberation) officially declared war on the Mexican government and invaded six main population centres and many ranches in the Chiapas region of south eastern Mexico. It is the EZLN and their supporters that are referred to as Zapatistas.
Open conflict in Chiapas lasted twelve bloody days in which hundreds lost their lives mainly due to aerial bombardment of EZLN-held towns by the Mexican army. By 1995, tens of thousands of troops were stationed in the region. There has been little open combat since, but a network of checkpoints, army patrols, military incursions and alliances with local paramilitary groups have been used to intimidate and wear down the EZLN. The EZLN signed an accord with the Mexican Government in 1996 to institute peace and political rights for the people of Chiapas, though the government later reneged on many of the provisions. Paramilitaries, who have subsequently been linked to local landowners and ruling party officials, assassinated 45 Zapatistas in the town of Acteal in December 1997.
Chiapas is about the same size (area and population) as the Republic of Ireland. The area has a long history of conflict over land. Peasants have been forced onto the thin, rocky soils and steep slopes of the highlands with the encroachment of cattle ranching, coffee and sugar plantations from the more fertile lowland regions. Land availability has also been reduced by forestry and mineral, gas and oil extraction operations. Migration from neighbouring Guatemala, migration of those fleeing poverty in Mexico and the return of many of those who had migrated to urban areas for employment after crisis of capitalism in the early 1980s caused rapid population increase and eventual retreat into the inhospitable Lacandon jungle where the Zapatista rebellion is centred.
The EZLN was formed in the early 1980s by Leninists who had migrated into the Chiapas jungle to lead the peasantry to revolution. One of those who joined the EZLN was the man now known as Subcommandante Marcos, the Zapatista’s military leader and most famous spokesman. The EZLN found that many of the peasants there could not support the idea of the revolutionary vanguard and language of ‘Marxism’. What followed was what Marcos calls a period of “indianization”. The Leninist founders of the EZLN steeped themselves in native Mayan culture. In the words of Marcos, quoted by Yvon Le Bot (El Sueno Zapatista, 1997):
“Suddenly the revolution transformed itself into something essentially moral. Ethical. More than the redistribution of wealth or the expropriation of the means of production, the revolution began to be the possibility for a human being to have a space for dignity.”
The “indianization” of the EZLN seemed to infuse the organisation with the local traditions of direct and decentralised democracy. However, in material terms the EZLN retained much of the previous reformist ideology. The Declaration of War, written in 1993, stated that the EZLN was acting legitimately to overthrow the ruling government because of their unconstitutional actions. The statement also says that the EZLN proudly carry the national flag into battle.
In June this year the EZLN announced a new political initiative in the Sixth Declaration of the Selva Lacandona. They suggest a national campaign,
“which will be clearly of the left, or anti-capitalist, or anti-neoliberal, or for justice, democracy and liberty for the Mexican people, in order to demand that we make a new Constitution, new laws which take into account the demands of the Mexican people, which are: housing, land, work, food, health, education, information, culture, independence, democracy, justice, liberty and peace. We are also letting you know that the EZLN will establish a policy of alliances with non-electoral organizations and movements which define themselves, in theory and practice, as being of the left, . . “
The stipulations for organisations wishing to join the national campaign are a democratic structure and a “clear commitment for joint and co-ordinated defence of national sovereignty, with intransigent opposition to privatization attempts of electricity, oil, water and natural resources.” In addition, the Zapatistas offered food aid to Cuba for their resistance to the USA’s embargo, express admiration for Che Guevara and Simon Bolivar and offered to send handicrafts, coffee or soup to activists in Europe to help with the struggle against neo-liberalism. The Zapatistas clearly think that capitalism can be run in the interests of the workers through state possession of industry and with the absence of the intervention by foreign capital.
The EZLN stopped making demands for constitutional rights from the Mexican government in 2001 and began to form a state within a state. This is described by Marcos in Chiapas: The Thirteenth Stele as involving the withdrawal of the EZLN from civil matters and establishment of self-governing villages or Autonomous Municipalities, with recallable and rotated functionaries. In August 2003, the ‘Juntas of Good Government’ were formed. These are regional councils which take the functions of administering justice, taxation, healthcare, education, housing, land, work, food, commerce, information and culture, and local movement from the EZLN. Marcos states that there have been improvements in living conditions as well as improvements in gender equality in the notoriously patriarchal peasant societies since the formation of ‘Juntas of Good Government’.
However, the war is not over as EZLN recruitment and guerilla warfare training continues. The U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor report for 2004 highlights instances of state and local police involvement in kidnappings and extortion, torture, unlawful killings, narcotics-related crime and the trafficking of illegal migrants in Chiapas. The report also states that there were numerous allegations of the use of excessive force and the violation of international humanitarian law against the Mexican Army as well as continued violence by paramilitary groups.
There is also US involvement in the Chiapas rebellion which is perhaps of no surprise given the proximity and the fact that Mexico has the third-largest proven crude oil reserves in the Western Hemisphere and is the third-largest foreign supplier of petroleum to the United States, behind Canada and Saudi Arabia. PEMEX, the state-owned oil corporation, is a vital source of revenue for the Mexican state which is heavily indebted to the banks in the USA. Oil fields with one billion barrel potential have recently been discovered in Chiapas.
According to the Federation of American Scientists’ Arms Sales Monitoring Project direct commercial sales of defence articles (e.g. machine guns, rifles, pistols, grenade launchers and ammunition) and defence services (e.g. missiles, rockets, torpedoes, bombs, mines and tanks) amounted to $112million and $436million, respectively, in 2003. The US military also spent $1.25million on training the Mexican Army in 2003. The US training programmes are officially for counter-narcotic operations, however the Mexican Army have been observed using techniques learnt from the US military against the EZLN in Chiapas.
From the initial uprising the EZLN has publicised their struggle using the printed media and the internet. The writings of Subcommandante Marcos are available in many different editions and languages. The Chiapas conflict has become a celebrated cause for many activists across the world and has, in part, been shaped by the involvement of activists. The Mexican Army’s ceasefire has been attributed to the protests in Mexico’s urban centres far away from the Chiapas. The presence of peace observers mostly drawn from Zapatista support groups in the USA and Europe, as well as Mexico itself, is thought to have prevented excessive violence and intimidation by the Mexican army in Chiapas.
So well-known across the world is the name and image of the Zapatista that co-operatives in the Zapatista communities are producing and marketing their own brand of coffee which is distributed in Europe through various ethical shopping outlets. In 1994 The Independent (1 March) reported that Zapatista t-shirts, dolls and even condoms bearing an image of Marcos and the word ‘uprising’ have been marketed. In 2001, workers of a trendy clothing shop in Covent Garden selling Zapatista-inspired merchandise spray-painted Zapatista imagery and slogans on walls around major shopping areas in central London as well as dressing up as Zapatista guerrillas to hand out advertising material.
For socialists there are several encouraging things about the Zapatista movement: their apparent reliance on direct democracy and the solidarity shown to them by workers across the world. However, it is clear that the Zapatistas think their rallying cry of ‘democracy, liberty and justice’ can be fulfilled whilst the greatest amount of wealth, all it commands, and that we all depend upon remains in the hands of a minority.
So are we all Zapatistas? The workers and peasants of Chiapas have experienced some of the worst poverty and violence that humans have inflicted on each other. Workers across the world experience poverty and violence to some extent on a daily basis – it is the common bond that transcends national boundaries. This feature of our class-based society, an inevitable result of the social relation of worker to capital, has never been abolished by national liberation, state capitalism or ‘good’ government. The Zapatistas’ desire for real democracy is commendable, however, this should not be limited to defence of perceived or actual gains within capitalist society but for the abolition of capitalism and establishment of world socialism.