“We’re the product of 500 years of struggles: first against slavery and the war for independence against Spain, then avoiding being absorbed by North American expansionism, then promulgating our Constitution and expelling the French Empire from our territory, then against Porfirio’s dictatorship that denied the fair implementation of the Reform Laws . . .”
Those were the opening lines of the first public statement by the National Liberation Zapatista Army (EZLN), published on the day of the uprising on January 1, 1994, the day when the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) came into effect. The agreement binded the United States, Canada and Mexico into a single commercial zone, that has since impoverished the working classes while making the capitalist classes even richer.
In that first statement, the EZLN announced they would walk into Mexico City and defeat the national military, inviting people to rise up and join them in the fight. Since then, the Zapatistas have come an incredible distance, drawing various sectors of Mexican and international society, regardless of their background and skin color, into a struggle that continues till today.
Their stance is different now. Perhaps the invitation to rise up in arms was a “bluff” to intimidate the government, but we will never know. In the early years, they negotiated the San Andres Accords with the federal government that established that Indigenous peoples’ autonomy would be respected. The agreements, however, were soon violated by the administration of Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Leon, so the Zapatistas decided to implement them on their own, forever eschewing mainstream politics, including the new National Renewal Movement (Morena) led by Mexico’s newly inaugurated President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.
Claudia T., one of the founding members of a collective named ‘Mujeres y la Sexta’, was in Mexico City at the time of the uprising, 900 kilometers away from San Cristobal de las Casas. Sympathisers quickly organised protests to stop military action against the insurgents, and out of those connections were born new support networks in urban and rural areas. Some of those people formed brigades to bring aid to Chiapas, where the uprising took on new life. Luz y Fuerza del Centro, a state-owned electricity company with a combative union, even sent workers to install electricity in Zapatista villages where the government had been completely absent.
“There were several ways to help them. People from the educational or nursing departments used to go and support them,” Claudia told teleSUR. “We would rent a bus and go as far as we could, then walk through wet mud to reach the communities, in order to help them. Everytime we went there, we brought back more than we took. They would give us their love, their teachings, their humanism.”
Those were some of the first relations established between the insurgent group (or communities) and civil society living in the cities and towns outside of the Zapatista rebel territory. In the subsequent years, collectives—a network of organisations and sympathisers—would establish long-standing relations with the Zapatistas. These collectives in turn influenced the Zapatistas too.
“Then the Sixth Declaration of the Selva Lacandona came. They explained their six points and asked us: What is your opinion?” said Claudia.
“The relation that was initially established by going there and supporting the struggle was transformed. It was not any more a ‘come and help me,’ but a ‘let’s be partners in struggle’. The relationship has now changed. We now participate in their meetings, they invite us to forums, seminars. Scientists, artists, all of us participating in this process—we are all enriched by this participation. Simultaneously, their youth, the people in their communities, are enriched by our participation.”
This process took place in parallel with a transformation in the Zapatistas’ own internal political organisations. The ‘Aguascalientes’ were transformed into ‘Caracoles,’ each governed by a ‘Good Governance Committee’. In this new political structure, the local or base communities are grouped into municipalities, which in turn are grouped into Caracoles. Each Caracole includes one or two delegates sent by each of the constituent municipalities. And each of the municipalities are run by committees to which each of the constituent base communities send their representatives.
According to the late Subcomandante Marcos, the movement’s most prominent spokesperson, the new political system created by the Zapatistas aimed to make the Caracole answerable to the local communities. The representatives sent by the local communities are not professional politicians. Instead, everyone is encouraged to participate and learn how to represent without substituting popular demand.
The focus of the Zapatistas has shifted since the time of the uprising. In 1996, they called for a meeting of Indigenous people from all across Mexico, which led to the formation of the National Indigenous Congress (CNI). The CNI is not just an organisation, it is rather a space to share information about community struggles, build their unity, and discuss vision of a possible future for the country. Indigenous people’s organisations from all over Mexico, who are not a part of the EZLN and who have not taken up arms, have joined the CNI and while continuing to organise resistance in their own areas, participate in CNI to share / build capacities and exchange worldviews.
The support networks played a key role in perhaps the CNI’s most widely known project, the formation of the Indigenous Government Council (CIG) and election of Maria de Jesus Patricio Martinez, better known as ‘Marichuy,’ as their spokesperson and presidential candidate for the 2018 elections. They were in charge of organising Marichuy’s visits to their respective communities and cities, collecting signatures to approve her candidacy and include her in the ballots, and contributing to a collective reflection exercise on revolutionary praxis.
Charting Ever New Paths
The Zapatistas’ slow but steady development in revolutionary theory and practice has made them one of the main reference points for an alternative to capitalism in Latin America and the world. By refusing to take part in the mainstream economic and political system and actually proposing and executing alternative ideas, the movement is moving forward positively.
The Zapatistas believe that every individual and group should find their own path for liberation. “In 1994, the Zapatistas called for an uprising, and have since turned to other forms of struggle,” says Gogol, a writer and activist living in Mexico. “They are anti-vanguardist, and thus believe that each movement and social struggle needs to decide how it will organise and what form its struggle will take, without being dictated from above.”
This thinking has influenced Gogol and pushed him to write and organise study circles with colleagues to analyse today’s reality, while taking part in Zapatista-led initiatives and supporting the CNI and the CIG and its spokeswoman, Marichuy.
Now, the EZLN and other revolutionary Indigenous organisations are at a turning point. Marichuy didn’t make it to the ballots for the 2018 elections, won by the center-left Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO), but the CIG continues organising a national movement in which Campesinos and the working-class—both Indigenous and non-Indigenous—are integrated, to topple capitalism and the ruling class.
Lopez Obrador and his team have promised to respect the San Andres Accords signed by the EZLN and the government in the 1990s, but reality seems different. Even though the accords establish that Indigenous communities should be consulted over anything related to their territory, one of Lopez Obrador’s first announced projects, the Maya Train, has been approved without proper consultation, and Indigenous organisations from the Yucatan peninsula are rejecting it.
In late December, support networks from across Mexico, along with representatives of the CNI, the CIG and the EZLN, met in Guadalupe Tepeyac, part of the Zapatista autonomous territory in Chiapas, to discuss the next steps in the struggle. On January 1, they will be at ‘La Realidad,’ the first Caracole, to commemorate 25 years of the uprising.
Taking into account the outcome of the last assembly, this has the potential to produce an inclusive national plan, a new step in the long road to autonomy, liberty, life and dignity.
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