What may turn out to be the biggest political movement of the twenty-first century emerged from the rainforest remnants of southern Mexico on 1 January 1994, carried down darkened, cobbled colonial streets by 3,000 pairs of black leather boots at precisely thirty minutes past midnight. The owners of the boots carried riffles and the odd AK-47 or Uzi. Those who had drawn short straws carried fake wooden guns. -- Paul Kingsnorth

It is good for them to know, the gentleman of money, that the times of yesterday will no longer be those of today nor those of tomorrow .... They shall no longer humiliate those of us who are the colour of earth. We have always had a voice. But it shall no longer be a murmur which lowers its head. It shall now be a shout which lifts the gaze and we shall force them to see us as we are, and to accept us as we are. -- Subcomandante Marcos

The indigenous movement in which zapatismo is inscribed is not trying to return to the past, nor to maintain the unfair pyramid of society, just changing the skin color of the one who mandates and rules from above. The struggle of the Indian peoples of Mexico is not pointing backwards. In a linear world, where above is considered eternal and below inevitable, the Indian peoples of Mexico are breaking with that line and pointing towards something which is yet to be deciphered, but which is already new and better. -- Subcomandante Marcos

What upsets the Pentagon is that when you punch Zapatista into the computer, nothing comes out that says, Moscow, or Havana, or Libya, Tripoli, Bosnia or any other group. And the left, accustomed to the same way of thinking, says, Well, they don’t fit in anywhere. It doesn’t occur to them there might be something new, that you have to retheorize. And they say, Well then, these poor people don’t know what they want, we need to help them ... I have seen various magazines ... of Trotskyites and Maoists, of all of the orthodox leftists and of the old dinosaurs that say, Well, the ELZN is very good and what they’ve done is very good and all, but they lack a program, so here’s a program. They lack a party, so here’s a party. They lack a leader, so here’s a leader. -- Subcomandante Marcos

On the one side is neoliberalism, with all its repressive power and its machinery of death; on the other side is the human being. There are those who resign themselves to being one more number in the huge exchange of power ... But there are those who do not resign themselves ... In any place in the world, anytime, any man or woman rebels to the point of tearing off the clothes resignation has woven for them and cynicism has died grey. Any man or woman, of whatever colour, in whatever tongue, speaks and says to himself or to herself: Enough is enough! Ya basta! -- Subcomandante Marcos

It is possible to govern and to govern ourselves without the parasite that calls itself government. -- Zapatista communique

The Zapatista uprising occurred when seven towns in the Chiapas were seized on the 1 January 1994. It was no coincidence that the uprising was timed to coincide with the beginning of NAFTA (North America Free Trade Area) as NAFTA signed the death warrant for the people of Chiapas.

Chiapas is a wealthy area of Mexico, unfortunately the wealth does not trickle down to the indigenous people of Chiapas, who are among the poorest in Mexico.

Following the Mexican revolution of 1917, one of the key components of the revolutionary constitution was land reform. Land was handed to the people and held in trust on their behalf. No matter how poor people were, they had some land that they could work, and it could not be taken away from them. That is, until the corrupt president decided to repeal that part of the Mexican Constitution.

NAFTA too hit the peasants hard, as in addition to having their land stolen, NAFTA caused the country to be flooded with cheap corn from the US. Farmers found the market for their produce collapsed, but curiously the prices in the shops rose.

A more insidious problem was agribusiness was carving out huge swathes of the countryside and GM maize was creeping in. Apart from the usual dangers with GM crops the problem is critical for Mexico as it is home to many varieties of indigenous maize which were now facing the twin attack of agribusiness monoculture and GM contamination, which will lead to mass extinction.

The indigenous population of Chiapas was faced with a choice, either slow death or death by revolution. They chose revolution.

The 1994 New Year's celebration in Mexico started with a bang. Less than an hour into the New Year, the Ejercito Zapatista de Liberacion Nacional (EZLN or Zapatista National Liberation Army) assaulted and captured several towns in the Los Altos region of Chiapas, Mexico's southernmost state. The most important to be captured was San Cristobal de las Casas.

The capture of San Cristobal de las Casas, was led by Major Ana Maria, an indigenous Indian. When the dust settled, Subcomandante Marcos came out onto the balcony of the Municipal Palace and read out a statement, the first communique from Chiapas.

We are the product of five hundred years of struggle. We are the inheritors of the true builders of the nation ... denied the most elemental preparation so that they can use us as cannon-fodder and pillage the wealth of our country. They don't care that we have nothing, absolutely nothing ... There is no peace or justice for ourselves or our children. But today we say: Ya Basta! Enough is enough.

For the first time in half a millennium, since the conquistadors had landed on their shores, the indigenous people had risen up against their oppressors.

It did not last long. The government brutally put down the uprising. 15,000 troops poured into Chiapas, helicopter gunships attacked native villages killing 150 people. The Zapatistas melted back into the rainforests from whence they had emerged.

Yet another South American revolution had been put down.

But this time it was different. Far from being put down, what we were seeing was only the beginning.

The Zapatistas are different to every revolutionary movement that has gone before them. They are not interested in seizing power at the barrel of a gun. They are not interested in seizing power. What they are interested in is power going back to the people where it rightfully belongs. They don't just preach participatory democracy, not only do they practice it, it diffuses everything they say and do. It is this, and their strong opposition to neo-liberalism, and the fact that they recognise neo-liberalism as a global problem, not a little local difficulty, that has fired the imagination of anti-globalisation campaigners worldwide. Unlike too many woolly-minded environmentalists, Zapatistas are attacking root causes, not symptoms.

Subcomandante Marcos attempted to explain this difference in a letter in 1995:

We do not want others, more or less of the right, center or left, to decide for us. We want to participate directly in the decisions which concern us, to control those who govern us, without regard to their political affiliation, and oblige them to 'rule by obeying'. We do not struggle to take power, we struggle for democracy, liberty, and justice. Our political proposal is the most radical in Mexico (perhaps in the world, but it is still too soon to say). It is so radical that all the traditional political spectrum (right, center left and those of one or the other extreme) criticize us and walk away from our delirium.

It is not our arms which make us radical; it is the new political practice which we propose and in which we are immersed with thousands of men and women in Mexico and the world: the construction of a political practice which does not seek the taking of power but the organization of society. Intellectuals and political leadership, of all sizes, of the ultraright, of the right, the center, of the left and the ultraleft, national and international criticize our proposal. We are so radical that we do not fit in the parameters of 'modern political science'. We are not bragging ... we are pointing out the facts. Is there anything more radical than to propose to change the world? You know this because you share this dream with us, and because, though the truth be repeated, we dream it together.

Zapatistas have not called upon the proletariat to rise up and seize the State, instead they have called upon civil society to come to their aid. Instead of power at the barrel of a gun, Zapatistas use the power of the Internet. Instead of spouting Marxist claptrap, Subcomandante Marcos recites poetry, tells stories and speaks in riddles. Zapatistas did not even rise against the traditional enemies - The State and Capitalists - they rose against a trade treaty!

Contrast the Zapatista approach with Trotsky’s speech to the 1921 Bolshevik party congress attacking one faction which he said had 'placed the workers' right to elect representatives above the party. As if the party were not entitled to assert its dictatorship even if that dictatorship temporarily clashed with the passing moods of the workers democracy.'

A post-modern revolution conducted in cyberspace.

The EZLN had been in existence in some form since 1983 but it is only since 1994 that they came to world attention.

The international circulation through the Net of the struggles of the Zapatistas in Chiapas has become one of the most successful examples of the use of computer communications by grassroots social movements. That circulation has not only brought support to the Zapatistas from throughout Mexico and the rest of the World, but it has sparked a world wide discussion of the meaning and implications of the Zapatista rebellion for many other confrontations with neo-liberal economic and political policies.

The Zapatista analysis of neoliberalism (the Latin American term for pro-market, pro-business and anti-worker/peasant policies) has led to discussions and analysis of the similarities with Thatcherism in England, EU-Maastricht policies in Europe, IMF structural adjustment programs in Africa and Asia, Reagan-Bush-Clinton supply-side policies in the US and so on.

The 1996 Zapatista call for a series of continental and intercontinental Encounters led to a global encuentro in Chiapas at the end of July 1996 at which over 3,000 grassroots activists and intellectuals from 42 countries on 5 continents came together to discuss the struggle against neoliberalism.

Those attending expected the Zapatistas to instruct them, to show them leadership, lead them down the path to the promised land. That is not the way of Zapatismo. The delegates were told to sort out and solve their own problems.

The global encuentro of 1996 in Chiapas led to a second in Spain in 1997. These global encuentros led directly to the action on the streets in Seattle that put anti-globalisation firmly on the world map, or at least did as far as the mainstream media were concerned, as though, if the neo-liberal struggle had a year zero, it was Seattle in 1999.

It is impossible now to think of a gathering of our revered leaders, without mass protest on the streets. Seattle, Prague, and, even more so, Genoa, released the naked aggression of the State. Now threatened, its leaders cowering behind barricades whenever and wherever they met, the State lashed out. Aggression normally reserved for Third World streets, out of sight, out of mind.

Coincidental with this increasingly sophisticated network communications, has been the development of the Independent Media Network (that was born in Seattle during the protests there) that provides alternative information about struggles in an ever growing number of countries, including streamed audio and video in real time.

At the end of the first global encuentro in Chiapas the following statement was issued:

That we will make a collective network of all our particular struggles and resistances. An intercontinental network of resistance against neoliberalism, an intercontinental network of resistance for humanity.

This intercontinental network of resistance, recognising differences and acknowledging similarities, will search to find itself with other resistances around the world. This intercontinental network of resistance will be the medium in which distinct resistances may support one another. This intercontinental network of resistance is not an organising structure; it doesn’t have a central head or decision maker; it has no central command or hierarchies. We are the network, all of us who resist.

Powerful words were penned by Subcomandante Marcos after the first Chiapas Encuentro, and they have followed the anti-globalisation movement around the world

On the one side is neoliberalism, with all its repressive power and its machinery of death; on the other side is the human being. There are those who resign themselves to being one more number in the huge exchange of power ... But there are those who do not resign themselves ... In any place in the world, anytime, any man or woman rebels to the point of tearing off the clothes resignation has woven for them and cynicism has died grey. Any man or woman, of whatever colour, in whatever tongue, speaks and says to himself or to herself: Enough is enough! Ya basta!

Within the liberated areas the Zapatistas have created autonomous zones. Government officials and all traces of the corrupt Mexican government have been kicked out.

EZLN Comandante Samuel explained the reasons why the EZLN decided to create these liberated zones:

It was an idea that surfaced in 1994 as a way of not having to interact with government institutions. We said ‘Enough!’ to them controlling all aspects of our community for us. By creating autonomous municipalities we are defining our own spaces where we can carry out our social and political customs as we see fit, without a government that never takes us into account, interfering for its self-benefit.

The government did once try to seize back one of these autonomous zones. In a surprise raid in San Andres in 1999, the police seized control of the town hall and kicked out the Zapatistas. The following day, thousands of Zapatistas, unarmed civilians, took back their town hall. The state has never tried it again.

Against all the odds, these autonomous zones have survived since the uprising in 1994. In total they encompass a third of the Chiapas. The zones survive, not because they are defended by armed guerrilleros, but because it is the will of the people.

In many ways the autonomous municipalities symbolise Zapatismo. Power is not to be held by some far off elite called the state, that you may or may not have some say in every few years at the ballot box, where you are free to choose between near identical corrupt political parties, power is to be devolved down to community level to be used by and for the people it affects. Anyone who wants this to happen, does not politely wait for what is rightly ours to be handed down, but should as a community rise up and take what is rightfully ours.

All decisions are made by means of the consulta. These are meetings where everyone can meet and speak. Decisions are usually reached by consensus, but if there is the need for a vote, everyone, men, women and children older than 12 years old, have a vote. After the voting, official reports of the results of these assemblies are prepared. These reports specify: the date and place of the assembly, the number of people who attended, opinions and principal points discussed, and the number of people who voted.

Subcomandante Marcos explained how the process works:

The people meet in assemblies and the representatives put forth, for example in the case of the consultations, the demands of the EZLN and the response of the government. They’re explained. What is it that we asked for and what has the government said in response? And they begin to debate, Well, this is bad and this is good. After the community says, We have already debated, we already understand, now we can vote - this could take days. In fact, almost all the consultations have gone on for two, three days now and they haven’t yet reached the point of voting. They arrive and say, Well okay, we are in agreement, let’s vote if we are ready to vote, if we already understand what it is we are going to decide. It’s not about raising your hand or putting a check-mark for one option or the other. You have to debate and analyze the pros and the cons.

Before the 1 January 1994 seizure of several towns took place, there was the inevitable consulta, as explained by Major Ana Maria, who led the attack in San Cristobal de las Casas:

First we voted on whether to begin the war or not. After the decision the attack was organized, with the support of the high commanders.

Interestingly, in an interview four years later, Subcomandante Marcos revealed that this consulta had gone against the wishes of the military command who did not consider the EZLN prepared for an offensive war.

The consulta also led to the Women’s Revolutionary Law. Ann Maria again

They’d given us the right to participate in the assemblies and in study groups but there was no law about women. And so we protested and that’s how the Law for women came about. We all formulated it and presented it in an assembly of all the towns. Men and women voted on it. There were no problems. In the process opinions of women were asked in all the towns. The insurgents helped us write it.

Seen by the West as their leader, Subcomandante Marcos is not their leader, as the Zapatistas have no leaders. The Zapatistas with their faces hidden by bandannas, ski masks and balaclavas are 'the ones without faces, the ones without voices' who have come to make the world listen. Anyone and everyone is 'Marcos'.

Subcomandante Marcos is the spokesman and poet of the Zapatistas. He is their intellectual guru, who makes the world stop and think.

Who is Marcos? Marcos himself answered the question

Marcos is gay in San Francisco, a black person in South Africa, Asian in Europe ... a Palestinian in Israel, a Jew in Germany ... an artist without a gallery or portfolio ... a sexist in the feminine movement, a woman alone in a Metro station at 10pm ... a writer without books or readers, and a Zapatista in the Mexican Southeast ... He is every minority who is now beginning to speak and every majority that must shut up and listen. He is every untolerated group searching for a way to speak, their way to speak. Everything that makes power and the good consciences of those in power uncomfortable - this is Marcos.

If Marcos did not exist, the West would have to invent him, a charismatic Che Guevara Latino leader. Where otherwise would the t-shirt vendors be?

Or as the t-shirt says Todos Somos Marcos.

Officially, Marcos cannot be a leader as he is only a subcomandante.

The leadership of the Zapatistas is a revolutionary council formed of twenty-three comandantes, known as the Clandestine Revolutionary Indigenous Committee. But they in turn, are elected by and take their orders from the autonomous communities from which they come.

When the 1994 uprising took place, the comandantes did not take the decision, it was taken after extensive consultation with the autonomous municipalities.

The Zapatistas are anonymous, it is their masks that give them their anonymity, and yet is is their masks that have given them their identity. It is through their masks, on which any face can be painted, that Mexico and the world has sat up and taken notice, before then the indigenous Indians of Chiapas had been ignored for 500 years. 'The voice that arms itself to be heard' works with 'the face that hides itself to be seen'. We are all Zapatistas now.

A key element of Zapatismo is 'resistance'. The autonomous municipalities do not survive because of armed guerrillas in the face of state repression, they survive because the people, all the people, are prepared to resist. When the state seized the town hall in San Andres, the people took it back.

The most moving account of 'resistance' was a military base occupation that took place on 1 January 2001, seven years on the anniversary of the 1994 uprising. The Zapatistas came out of the dawn mist, silently marching. When they reached the base, they were faced by armed soldiers wielding semi-automatic weapons. The soldiers were panic stricken. It would have only taken one in blind panic to loose off fire and a massacre would have taken place, but still they press on. When they eventually seize the base, the Zapatistas burst into song, the soldiers stand with their heads bowed in shame. [A video clip of this amazing occupation can be found on the CD given away free with the SchNEWS 2003 Annual Peace de Resistance]

Later that year, the Zapatistas were to march unarmed on Mexico City. When they entered Mexico City they were greeted by 100,000 cheering supporters. The first time revolutionaries had entered the city since Emiliano Zapata and Francisco Villa in 1914 at the height of the Mexican Revolution.

The Zapatistas rely on civil society to help with 'resistance'. International observers are in all the autonomous municipalities, making it very difficult for the Mexican military to take them by force.

It should never been forgotten that Zapatismo offers an alternative, a challenge to the vested social order, that the Zapatistas in Chiapas operate in a war zone.

The Mexican government, with the full support of the crypto-fascists in Washington, are carrying out low intensity warfare against the Zapatistas. It is only civil society that stands between the Zapatistas and Zapatismo and death at the hands of the forces of repression.

Zapatistas take their name in honour of Emiliano Zapata (c 1877–1919), assassinated hero of the 1910 Mexican Revolution. Mexican revolutionary leader and agrarian reformer Zapata, together with Mexican revolutionary general Francisco Villa, led a seven year revolt against the corrupt 34-year rule of Porfirio Díaz. An illiterate tenant farmer of almost pure Indian blood, Zapata recruited an army of Indians from villages and haciendas in Morelos under the rallying cry tierra y libertad. When they emerged victorious in 1917, a million Mexicans had been killed. Zapata was murdered in 1919 by an agent of Carranza, in interim president during the revolutionary period. Seen as a pillaging bandit by his enemies, Zapata was idolized by the Indians as the true revolutionary reformer and hero, his life has inspired countless legends and ballads.

The Mexican government is controlled by a corrupt oligarchy of drug barons.

One of the outcomes of the first Zapatista global encuentro held in Chiapas in 1996, was the formation of an international activists network, known as the People's Global Action, formed in response to the Zapatista call for the creation of an 'intercontinental network of resistance, reognising differences and acknowledging similarities'. PGA formerly came into being in Geneva in 1998, of 300 people from 71 countries. It is not an organisation as such, rather a network of grassroots groups fighting neo-liberalism. In the spirit of Zapatismo, only grassroots groups, no formal, well-established NGOs can participate, and definitely, no political parties. Key to PGA is civil disobedience, none violent direct action. PGA were behind Seattle, Prague, Genoa and the precursor to Seattle, the G8 meeting in Birmingham.

NAFTA has made a mockery of national sovereignty, human rights and social and environmental justice. Clapped-out, unsafe Mexican lorries drive on US roads, US workers have lost their jobs as factories relocate to just across the Mexican border, US subsidised agricultural products put Mexican farmers out of business, Metalclad successfully sued the Mexican government for $16.7 million because it would not let Metalclad site a toxic waste dump in an ecological reserve. What NAFTA does to Chiapas, WTO and GATS does to the rest of the world. The US is pushing for Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), that will encompass North and South America.

Mut Vitz Coffee Co-operative of around 1000 producers in the co-op has an annual estimate of total coffee production which exceeds 690 tonnes. The coffee is sustainably produced high up in the mountains in Chiapas. 100% Arabica Beans. Grown in Chiapas. Roasted in Galway. Available green, roasted, or ground, from the Galway Coffee Company in Galway


further reading

Amazonian Adventure: A Report from the 1999 Encuentro, Do or Die, No 9, December 2000

Behind the Balaclavas: Breaking Bread with the Zapatistas, Do or Die, No 7

Tom Hayden (ed), The Zapatista Reader, Thunder's Mouth Press, 2002

Elaine Katzenberger (Ed), First World, Ha Ha Ha!: The Zapatista Challenge, City Lights, 1995

Paul Kingsnorth, One No, Many Yeses: A Journey to the Heart of the Global Resistance Movement, The Free Press, 2003

Paul Kingsnorth, Opening a crack in history, The Ecologist, May 2003

Subcomandante Marcos, The Seven Loose Pieces of the Global Jigsaw Puzzle: Neoliberalism as a puzzle: the useless global unity which fragments and destroys nations, June 1997

Subcomandante Marcos, Our Word is Our Weapon, Seven Stories Press, 2001

John Ross, Rebellion from the Roots: Indian Uprising in Chiapas, Common Courage Press, 1995

John Ross, The War Against Oblivion: Zapatista Chronicles 1994-2000, Common Courage Press, 2000

John Ross, Mexican Wave, The Ecologist, April 2000

Lori Wallach & Robert Naiman, NAFTA: Four and a Half Years Later, The Ecologist, May/June 1998

The Zapatistas: A Rough Guide, Chiapaslink, 2000

Zapatistas, BVEJ newsletter, April 2001

Zapatistas put autonomy into practice, Indymedia UK, 15 August 2003

Pictures taken from Chiapaslink newsletter and Irish anarchist site.
Gaia index ~ participatory democracy
(c) Keith Parkins 2003 -- September 2003 rev 1