The Revolutionary Autonomous Zapatista Movement in Chiapas: a Primer
(This is a reprise from 2013 I’d titled: ‘Israelis help crush the Zapatistas & Here’s why‘. That reason will come toward the end. These militant indigenous and their allies are one shining example of those who threw off the yokes of their neo-colonialist by oppressors shouting Basta! , and acting on their militancy. Against all odds, their communities are still alive and growing today.)
As ever, when such an underclass is created by ‘the Victors’ of colonization, so does it evolve that a pernicious form of racism and bigotry is also created. That condition still exists today.
Until the early part of the 20th Century, the land outside the native villages in Mexico was the property of the oligarch class. In what now seems a remarkable feat, during the 1930s, President Lazaro Cárdenas created the ejidos system in which millions of hectares of land were distributed to Mexican peasants. The land could not be sold, just passed down through the generations. Cárdenas also nationalized the Mexican petroleum industry, which goes by the name Pemex. During his tenure, he also helped to create a national labor union.
Over the decades, the ejido system was corrupted, and many of the 28,000 parcels of land once again came under the control of the feudal lords of Mexico, often Europeans.
Emilio Zapata, revolutionary hero to the Mexican peasants, often cried, ‘The land belongs to the people who work it’. It became the anthem of those still infused with the spirit of the ejido concept as they their holdings fall prey to the greedy and powerful. His murder by Mexican generals under President Caranza in 1919 in an act of betrayal as he sought a truce, reified his battle cry among the peasants, as did the sense of righteous power he willed to the generations who came after him. That fervor would lie in quiet dormancy for some 40 or 50 years, waiting to be sparked anew.
Poverty and disease among the Maya in Chiapas and neighboring Oaxaca were rampant. Rumblings of dissent began to emanate from the highlands, rolling among the people. The recently created Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (EZLN), or Zapatista movement, began to accrue more and more members.
Adding fuel to the Indigenous fire, in an arguably stolen election in the 1988, Carlos Salinas was elected President. Under his corrupt rule, privatization of the ejido lands was legalized in 1992; forests, land and water were gobbled up by the feudalist class. On the first of January, 1994, Zapatista communities approved a military offensive by the EZLN. Guerillas seized control of the colonial city of San Cristóbal de las Casas and 5 towns in the surrounding Chiapas highlands.
“We have nothing to lose, absolutely nothing, no decent roof over our heads, no land, no work, poor health, no food, no education, no right to freely and democratically choose our leaders, no independence from foreign interests, and no justice for ourselves or our children. But we say enough is enough! We are the descendants of those who truly built this nation, we are the millions of dispossessed, and we call upon all of our brethren to join our crusade, the only option to avoid dying of starvation!”
– Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) Declaration of the Lácandon Jungle, 1993
January 1, 1994 was of course the day NAFTA took effect. The call went out to the poor and disenfranchised throughout Mexico, and via internet to the wider anti-globalization, anti-neoliberalism movement, including the fact that NAFTA would be deadly to the peasants. Non-indigenous had been joining EZLN, including their leader, Subcomandante Marcos (his nom de guerre). His life’s story and writings are fascinating, even at Wikipedia. It contains this explanation of the black knit masks that Marcos and his army sport (aside from keeping their identities secret from the military):
“Marcos, the quintessential anti-leader, insists that his black mask is a mirror, so that ‘Marcos is gay in San Francisco, black in South Africa, an Asian in Europe, a Chicano in San Ysidro, an anarchist in Spain, a Palestinian in Israel, a Mayan Indian in the streets of San Cristobal, a Jew in Germany, a Gypsy in Poland, a Mohawk in Quebec, a pacifist in Bosnia, a single woman on the Metro at 10 p.m., a peasant without land, a gang member in the slums, an unemployed worker, an unhappy student and, of course, a Zapatista in the mountains’. In other words, he is simply us: we are the leader we’ve been looking for.”
The Mexican government’s military response to the short-lived revolutions was swift: planes and helicopters dropped bombs in the EZLN ejido villages; 145 people were killed. In the towns, we have this from Democracy Now, 2004, “The Zapatista Uprising 1994-2004: A Look At How An Indigenous Rebel Group From Chiapas Took on Mexico and Corporate Globalization” (illuminating video here):
FREE SPEECH RADIO NEWS: Within less than 24 hours, the almost jovial spectacle turned to full-fledged warfare as thousands of Mexican military and police forces confronted the rebel army and terrorized civilian populations. In one indigenous village, the men of the community were rounded up and three elders were assassinated. Sister Patti, who ran a small popular hospital in the area, was accused by the military of hiding weapons in the hospital. This sister remembers that day.
SISTER PATTI, WITNESS: It was the 5th of January in the afternoon, the federal army arrived. It was a day of incredible silence, an environment of great fear. The military began to give out food to the people. When the families went to receive their food, many of the men were taken by the military, tortured, and taken to the prisons.
FREE SPEECH RADIO NEWS: During the 12 days of warfare, approximately 200 people were killed, most of them civilians. The images broadcast throughout the world of the corpses of poor indigenous men lying on the dirt with wooden guns by their side made people wonder what was behind the decision to make them risk their lives. In February, 1994, the Zapatistas entered the city again to begin negotiations. From the cathedral, they spoke about the importance of peasant and indigenous people’s rights to land.
EZLN REPRESENTATIVE: We decided to go to war so that the peasants could have land, not the ranchers. It wasn’t for one village nor for the state, but rather for everyone who doesn’t have land.
On Jan.12, a cease-fire was called. The truce was arranged by the well-known Liberation Theologist Samuel Ruiz. February: Peace talks began in February; the government peace proposal was rejected by the Zapatista communities. In August, after holding the National Democratic Convention attended by 6000 Mayans and their comrades, the Zapatistas declared autonomy for 38 indigenous municipalities. They have created cooperative agricultural systems, clinics, schools, and actual democratic institutions for themselves.
Their point has long been that they simply want autonomous rule of their districts in which all people make the decisions in a true participatory ‘bottom up’ rule.
Not long afterward, a Feb. 1995 report from the Chase-Manhattan Bank surfaced, urging the Mexican government to ‘eliminate the Zapatistas’; their brand of state destabilization is bad for business and the value of a peso, you know. A month later, the army mounted a massive invasion of Zapatista territory, implementing a strategy of low-intensity warfare (civilian-targeted warfare). The army displaced 20,000 campesinos, and occupied much of Chiapas.
The following years of rule by Zedillo and the PRI were hellish for the self-rule municipalities; Zedillo deported human rights workers by the droves. There were brief respites of oppression under Vincente Fox’s rule, including dismantling some of the military bases and checkpoints, freeing some political prisoners. When the Senate passed a weak-tea version of the San Andres Accords in April of 2011, the Zapatistas went home, and entered The Silence once again.
Allow me to neglect the intervening years of oppression and misery, and come to the winter solstice of 2012, when the Zapatistas walked out of the misty jungle highlands in silence, thousands of masked men, women and children.
‘To be heard…we walk in silence.’
From Leonidas Oikonmakusm this thrilling prose (and wonderful photos):
As the Maya calendar ends, a new cycle of struggle begins with thousands of Zapatistas peacefully and silently occupying town squares across Chiapas. The Zapatistas are back! Flowing like the water of the river that beats the sword. And while some were anticipating the Christmas holidays, some others the end of the Maya calendar, and others still the new Communiqué from the Comandancia General of the EZLN that was announced back in November, the main cities of Chiapas woke up today with memories of 1994. New Age freaks around the world may have been gearing up for the end of the world, but it appears that some Mayas had a very different opinion on the matter. They preferred to send us another message: that of the new world they have been building in silence for two decades now.
Several pieces of news concerning the Zapatistas and Mexico have emerged this week. From Intercontinental Cry comes information that:
“Earlier this month, Jorge Luis Llaven Abarca, Mexico’s newly-appointed secretary of public security in Chiapas, announced that discussions had taken place between his office and the Israeli defense ministry. The two countries talked about security coordination at the level of police, prisons and effective use of technology (and a pdf in Espanol). [snip]
In the twenty years since the uprising, the Mexican government has not ceased its counterinsurgency programs in Chiapas. When Llaven Abarca was announced as security head in December, human rights organizations voiced concerns that the violence would escalate, pointing to his history of arbitrary detentions, use of public force, criminal preventive detentions, death threats and torture. [snip]
According to declassified Defense Intelligence Agency documents [PDF] obtained via a freedom of information request, Israeli personnel were discreetly sent into Chiapas in response to the 1994 Zapatista uprising for the purpose of “providing training to Mexican military and police forces.”
The Mexican government also made use of the Arava aircraft to deploy its Airborne Special Forces Group (Grupo Aeromóvil de Fuerzas Especiales, or GAFE). GAFE commandos were themselves trained by Israel and the US. Several would later desert the GAFE and go on to create “Los Zetas,” currently Mexico’s most powerful and violent drug cartel.’
The authors list the weapons sold through out Central America to some of the worst purveyors of genocide, including recently convicted of genocide, Rios Montt in Nicaragua (his sentence has been stayed by the courts for now). We know how the purveyors of war and neoliberalism operate, and that the CIA and cohorts may even be involved, as they were all over the region for decades. Be careful, Zapatistas! Here comes more…
Laura Carlson, writing at Counterpunch, has a piece up about Obomba’s recent trip to Mexico and Guatemala to strengthen ‘trade ties’. She notes that the hideous drug wars aren’t mentioned, because…our part in all that would be embarrassing and signal corruption, deceit, and part of the Financialization of Fear we’ve come to notice all too well. Instead, he used code words for strengthening NAFTA, and put in a plug for the TPP (which Carlson seriously low-balls, imo). But in addition:
Obama threw his weight behind Peña Nieto’s reforms, referring obliquely to the education reform that has provoked thousands of teachers to take to the streets in defense of their jobs and the public education system. He also mentioned the crown jewel for U.S. oil companies and Pentagon planners—the privatization of the national oil company PEMEX.
At the joint press conference in Mexico’s National Palace, Obama stated “I want to commend President Peña Nieto and the Mexican people for the ambitious reforms that you’ve embarked on to make your economy more competitive, to make your institutions more effective. And I know it’s hard, but it’s also necessary. Ultimately, only Mexicans can decide how Mexico reforms. But let me repeat what I told the President — as Mexico works to become more competitive, you’ve got a strong partner in the United States, because our success is shared,”
U.S. oil companies have long been chomping at the bit to share success in Mexican oil resources. For decades, Mexican governments have run the state-owned enterprise into the ground in anticipation of making the case for greater privatization, taxing away funds for even basic reinvestment and maintenance. Peña Nieto denies he’s promoting “privatization” but believes he can pass legislation to greatly increase areas where private investment is allowed.
Does all of this remind you of other US ‘non-intervention’ across the globe? It’s just more of the same: Neoliberalism on the March, Military ‘Solutions’ to Civil Rights and Justice Problems. Put down those who resist, and make way for Bidness. Privatize Everything, Monetize Every Resource, and Send in the Clowns. War by other Means. They really seem to believe that they can keep starving, oppressing, and killing vast numbers of us without reprisal, even of the non-violent sort.
Some lengthy, but fascinating, background and Zapatista philosphy from a visitor to the Zapatista Little School: ‘“Practice First, Then Theory:” The Zapatista Little School Shares Lessons Learned During 19 Years of Self-Governance’, warrior publications, Sept. 2017
a brief snippet:
“Perhaps one of the Little School’s most important benefits for the Zapatistas occurred during its preparation. The Little School’s four textbooks, Autonomous Government part I and II, Women’s Participation in the Autonomous Government, and Autonomous Resistance, as well as the two DVDs that accompany the books, were all created by Zapatistas themselves. The textbooks are the result of Zapatistas from all five caracoles (Zapatista government centers) traveling to regions other than their own to collect testimonies and interview fellow Zapatistas about how they self-govern.”
The Zapatistas’ bottom-up approach to government means that while all of the caracoles operate under the same basic principles and towards the same goals, their day-to-day operations sometimes differ drastically. For example, every caracol has a Good Government Board, the maximum governing body in the region. However, each caracol’s Board is structured differently. Many of the Zapatistas’ questions to their compañeros from other caracoles in the interview portion of the textbooks revolved around their experiences and what has worked and what has not.”
The caracoles are ‘little snails’ that they say resemble human hearts.
The Schools for Chiapas website with even an online store is here.
This is the most recent communiqué from Subcomandante Insurgente Moisés at the EZLN website: ‘Words from the Indigenous Revolutionary Clandestine Committee-General Command of the Zapatista Army for National Liberation, January 1, 2018’; 24th Anniversary of the beginning of the war against oblivion. via enlacezapatista.ezln.org
It’s verbose to the Nth degree, but that’s how they do things (smile). All articles and communiqués at enlace zapatista are merrily enough in Spanish, Portuguese, English, and German, sometimes in Italian and Greek (iirc).
And just because I love inspirational and earthy folk art, a few more:
(cross-posted from café babylon)