Zapatistas: Still Fighting for Land, Justice and Indigenous Rights
By Caroline Moyer
On December 21, 2012, tens of thousands of Zapatistas-the anti-neoliberal indigenous movement that emerged from Mexico's Lacandon Jungle in late 1993-marched silently through the streets of five cities in Chiapas, Mexico. It was the revolutionary group's first appearance in the media in more than a year. The symbolic action in December commemorated 20 years of the Zapatista movement, a fitting occasion to reflect on the lessons the Zapatistas have taught the world.
The December action also coincided with the 15th anniversary of the Acteal massacre, in which 45 unarmed civilian Zapatista sympathizers-including children and pregnant women-gathered at a prayer meeting were brutally murdered by paramilitary forces, while soldiers stood idly by. December also marked the end of the Mayan calendar and tourists were flocking to the area. Perhaps most significantly, the march came three weeks after the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), a major target of the Zapatista movement at its inception, came back into power with the election of Enrique Peña Nieto.
The Zapatista movement originated in the state of Chiapas, Mexico, when the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional, EZLN) declared war against the Mexican state and the fraudulently elected president Carlos Salinas de Gortari, a member of the PRI. On January 1, 1994, the day the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) went into effect, the EZLN seized towns in Chiapas, creating a spectacle that earned them international media recognition. In their First Declaration from the Lacandon Jungle, the General Command of the EZLN called upon Mexican citizens to fight for "work, land, housing, food, health care, education, independence, freedom, democracy, justice and peace."
The initial spectacle was so well orchestrated, and the movement garnered so much attention as a result, that Subcomandante Marcos, the mysterious, well-spoken leader of the EZLN, even graced the cover of Vanity Fair magazine, clad in his trademark face mask. Supporters of the Zapatistas came from all over the world in droves-enlisted via online networks-to help the indigenous struggle in Chiapas.
The story of land rights in Chiapas is long and complex, and helps to provide context for the 1993 rebellion. Residents of Chiapas have actually traditionally been supportive of the PRI since the Mexican Revolution, which ensured land rights to peasants in the 1917 constitution. However, as George A. Collier observes in his book, Basta!: Land and the Zapatista Rebellion in Chiapas:
"What the Mexican constitution promises and what the national and state governments legislate and actually (if ever) deliver are two different things. The present-day Zapatistas, who in August 1994 called for a new constitutional convention, claimed that the 1917 Constitution's promises were not being met and never would be".
A second factor leading to the Zapatista uprising is the liberalization of trade via the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). However, Collier explains that NAFTA was not necessarily the biggest concern of the EZLN. More central to the movement were President Carlos Salinas de Gortari's moves in 1992 to reform Article 27 of the Constitution, the article that had protected peasant land rights for decades. Salinas and his advisors decided that the peasant-controlled land was not competitive in global markets, and the peasant sector needed to be restructured. By reforming Article 27, Salinas robbed peasants of any possibility of obtaining land, their main source of livelihood. Collier explains: "by changing the law, the government removed a crucial reason for peasants to try to work within the law". The result of this was a declaration of war against the government and the birth of the Zapatista movement.
Since 1994, Zapatistas have themselves redistributed land to small peasant farmers. They created autonomous tracts of land, caracoles, which are run by local governing groups and provide land for farming, schools and clinics to serve the indigenous communities surrounding them. According to Mexican activist Gustavo Esteva, Zapatistas place great importance in the ability to educate and take care of themselves: "We need to overcome our need for and dependency on the health and education systems ... We must take these into our own hands, autonomously, without waiting for the system to do it for us". Aside from the redistribution of land, the movement has also been credited with achieving greater participation of peasants in local and state politics, and attracting international attention to the negative impacts of neoliberalism.
The indigenous communities of Chiapas do still vie for control over the area. Occasionally, paramilitaries and supporters of the state violently confront Zapatista territory. According to reporter Grant Fuller, "the Mexican Army also maintains a strong presence in the region, and the government's tolerance of Zapatista autonomy is tenuous at best".
While emphasizing their allegiance to the indigenous communities of Chiapas, the Zapatistas look for solidarity and cooperation with organizations around the globe. In the most recent communiqué from Subcomandante Marcos, dated December 30, 2012, he states, "We will try to construct the necessary bridges toward the social movements that have arisen and will arise, not to direct or supplant them, but to learn from them, from their history, from their paths and destinies".
So, what has the Zapatista movement taught the world? The Zapatistas have shown the importance of building alliances among movements, as well as ways to use technology and the media as a movement-building tool. Most importantly, the Zapatistas demonstrate how indigenous movements can create grassroots change in the face of neoliberal "development," privatization, and exploitation. According to Alex Khasnabish, author of Zapatistas: Rebellion from the Grassroots to the Global, "it is impossible to understand the current cycle of [global] protest without the Zapatistas". On December 21st, 2012, the Zapatistas reminded the world that they are still here and they are still fighting.
1. Ioan Grillo, "Return of the Zapatistas: Are Mexico's Rebels Still Relevant?" Time, January 8, 2013, http://world.time.com/2013/01/08/return-of-the-zapatistas-are-mexicos-re....
2. General Command of the EZLN, "First Declaration from the Lacandon Jungle," 1993, http://flag.blackened.net/revolt/mexico/ezln/ezlnwa.html.
3. George A. Collier, Basta!: Land and the Zapatista Rebellion in Chiapas (Oakland: Food First Books, 2005), 28.
4. Collier, Basta!, Op Cit. page 87.
5. Jessica Davies and Helen Jaccard, "Gustavo Esteva: Recovering Hope - The Zapatista Example," Upside Down World: Covering Activism and Politics in Latin America, January 10, 2013, http://upsidedownworld.org/main/news-briefs-archives-68/4068-gustavo-est....
6. "Mexico's Zapatistas," PRI's The World, September 16, 2010, http://www.theworld.org/2010/09/mexico-zapatistas/.
7. Devon G. Pena, "Zapatista Communique of the New Year 2013," Environmental and Food Justice, January 8, 2013, http://ejfood.blogspot.com/2013/01/zapatista-communique-of-new-year-2013....
8. Grillo, "Return of the Zapatistas." Op Cit.