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Zapatistas and the Globalization of Resistance

Ten years ago, the day NAFTA went into effect, indigenous people of Chiapas launched a rebellion against the death sentence they believed the new trade agreement represented. The Zapatistas later went on to spark a global movement

Photo by Tim Russo
Photo by Tim Russo

On New Years Day 1994, the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) took up arms in Mexico's Chiapas state in what was hailed as the first revolutionary movement of the post-Cold War world. Media accounts noting the 10th anniversary of the uprising often portray the Zapatistas as having fallen short of their dreams. But this rebellion of poorly armed Maya Indians in an obscure corner of Mexico has rippled across the globe, sparking a movement that has concretely slowed corporate globalization. Last summer, this global movement returned to Mexico, with protests against the World Trade Organization summit in Cancún. As in Seattle four years earlier, the summit ended in frustration for the architects of the free trade order.

There are obvious reasons for the widespread media portrayal. The one-party dictatorship the Zapatistas took up arms against has been broken up, but the biggest beneficiary is the free-market right of President Vicente Fox, who has outmaneuvered the Maya rebels on their minimum demands. Fox kept his 2000 campaign pledge to sign the rebels' peace plan, which would instate constitutionally protected autonomy for Mexico's indigenous peoples. Hashed out with congressional negotiators five years earlier, the plan was the EZLN's sole condition for transforming from a clandestine to a civil movement. With Fox's signature, the plan went before Mexico's congress for approval. In March 2001, 24 Zapatista comandantes—wearing their trademark ski masks but unarmed—led an historic rally for the plan in Mexico City and addressed congress. But when congress voted the following month, Fox's party pushed through a version stripped of all binding provisions on indigenous control of territory and resources.

It seemed the Zapatistas were back to square one—still in arms, but aware they would be crushed if they used them; still in control of many indigenous communities in the jungles and mountains of Chiapas, but losing ground to the army-supported paramilitary groups that oppose them.

To reconceive the world
Yet the Zapatistas did much to prompt the democratic opening that brought Fox to power. The 12 days of warfare in Chiapas that followed the 1994 uprising forever altered Mexico's political landscape. A massive public outcry called a halt to the government offensive—which largely targeted unarmed Maya communities—and pressured both sides to negotiate. With the rebels demanding guarantees of Indian rights and democracy for Mexico generally, the moribund political machine that had ruled for three generations realized some glasnost was required to avoid an explosion.

But the Zapatistas emerged in response to globalization, not just to Mexico's internal dictatorship. The Zapatistas timed their uprising to coincide with NAFTA taking effect, declaring the treaty a “death sentence” for Mexico's Indians—who stand to be forced from traditional lands by agribusiness and development projects. Drawing inspiration from Emiliano Zapata's followers, who rose up elsewhere in Mexico in 1910 against a dictatorship that embraced free trade policies, the neo-Zapatistas were the world's first guerillas to explicitly take up arms in response to a trade agreement.

The new Zapatistas advanced less through military means than through moral and even theatrical means. The most obvious example of this is the jungle amphitheater they built, dubbed Aguascalientes, for the high-profile dialogues they hosted with leaders of Mexico's political opposition. Even their rifles—and they have never had enough rifles to go around, as evidenced by the young rebel troops of January 1994 marching into battle with sticks symbolically shaped like rifles—have, to an extent, been props in a highly effective political theater.

They also made unprecedented use of the Internet, zapping the words of their verbose and poetic Subcomandante Marcos to the press even when they were on the run deep in the jungle. Marcos says the Zapatistas do not seek to seize power like traditional guerillas, but instead, pursue “a revolution to make a revolution possible”—opening a space for dialogue within civil society on how to reconceive the world.

Maya rebels as global catalyst
Beginning with the Aguascalientes conference they hosted in the Chiapas jungle in August 1995, the Zapatistas held a series of consultas and encuentros—consultations and meetings—aimed at extending their movement to Mexico's civil society. In August 1996, they hosted the Intercontinental Encuentro for Humanity and Against Neoliberalism for their supporters from around the world—now quite numerous, thanks to Marcos' contagious cyber-charisma. Emphasizing the event's multicultural character, Marcos dubbed it the “Intergalactic Encuentro.” While Latin Americans, North Americans, and Europeans predominated, every continent was represented. Marcos and the Maya comandantes addressed political pilgrims from some 50 countries at the mud-locked jungle settlement of La Realidad.

The Intergalactica was the springboard for an International Network Against Neoliberalism, which pledged to build cross-border resistance to the free trade order. The Intergalactica would “continue on every continent ... in every home, school or workplace where human beings want a better world.” The Network followed up with a series of meetings in Europe, even bringing Zapatista representatives to Spain and Italy. “Neoliberalism”—commonly called “free trade” in the US—was recognized as a threat to democracy, labor rights, and public control over land and resources by communities far removed from the stark survival struggle in Chiapas. Marcos called on his army of “moles” to lay the groundwork for resistance throughout the planet.

This network was an early kernel of the movement that burst onto the world scene at the November 1999 Seattle protests against the World Trade Organization (WTO). This loosely coordinated movement has since convened for creative disruption whenever exponents of corporate globalization have come together, most recently at last November's FTAA summit in Miami. At Seattle in 1999 and Cancún in 2003, WTO summits ended in failure, in part due to large, attention-grabbing protests.

The Zapatistas have openly participated, often sending statements and delegates. They have also built alternative economic initiatives with international supporters, providing examples of globalization-from-below—such as fair trade organic coffee grown by Zapatista collectives, marketed by Denver's Human Bean Company with a maxim of “human values before profit.”

In July 2003, with their peace plan still stalled, the Zapatistas announced they were advancing with their local autonomous government in Chiapas in spite of official intransigence. The EZLN's five “Aguascalientes” community centers scattered across Chiapas—originally established for dialogue with civil society—were transformed into “caracoles” (snail-shells). These caracoles are to serve as regional seats of the local rebel villages and coordinate on a regional level, while attempting to build links of solidarity with supporters on the continents they are respectively assigned. Such links could include shipments of aid, marketing of “fair trade” products, delegation exchanges, and consciousness raising about international struggles analogous to Zapatismo.

First, Marcos joked that the Caracol of La Realidad was launching a Realidad-Tijuana Plan to spread democracy in Mexico—a play on the mega-industrial Puebla-Panama Plan pushed by Fox and the Inter-American Development Bank. Next, the other caracoles extended the conspiracy of hope across the planet: a Morelia-North Pole Plan for North America, a Garrucha-Tierra del Fuego Plan for South America, an Oventic-Moscow Plan for Europe and Africa, and a Roberto Barrios-New Delhi Plan for Asia and the Pacific.

The “Fourth World War”
“Globalization, neoliberalism as a global system, should be understood as a new war of conquest for territories,” Marcos wrote in a 1997 communiqué. He postulated a “Fourth World War,” which has superseded “World War III,” or the Cold War: a “world order returned to the old epochs of the conquests of America, Africa, and Oceania. This is a strange modernity that moves forward by going backward. ... In the world of the post-Cold War, vast territories, wealth, and above all, a qualified labor force, await a new owner.” How much truer are these words after the actual (if not formal) declaration of a world war in the wake of the September 11 disaster and the military occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq?

The new model of global organizing was seen again in the coordinated worldwide protests against the Iraq war drive on February 15, 2003, when millions flooded the streets in cities across the planet. The Zapatistas sent a Marcos-penned letter to the massive rally in Rome. It was read from the stage by Heidi Giuliani, mother of activist Carlo Giuliani, who was killed by police during protests at the July 2001 Genoa G8 summit. In November 2003, federal funds ostensibly approved for the Iraq military campaign were actually directed to the Miami police for security at the FTAA summit—where paramilitary tactics sparked demands for an investigation by international human rights groups.

The Zapatistas are still perceived as occupying the moral high ground in Mexico, so it remains impossible for the Mexican government (or the US State Department) to label them “terrorists.” And the recent Cancún and Miami protests show the global movement has survived the post-9/11 war footing. The emergence and survival of the Zapatista movement raise the question of whether globalization will merely destroy indigenous culture, or if it can be made reciprocal, bringing Maya traditions of resistance to bear in expanding democracy on planet Earth. This question is more challenging than ever as neo-Zapatismo enters its second decade.


Bill Weinberg is author of Homage to Chiapas: The New Indigenous Struggles in Mexico (Verso Books, 2000) and editor of the on-line World War 3 Report, www.ww3report.com. He is currently working on a book on popular resistance to Plan Colombia in the Andes.

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