January 1st marked 25 years since rebels stormed towns, reclaimed farmland and disarmed a military base in Mexico’s southernmost state of Chiapas. Women and men from Tzeltal, Tzozil, Chol, Tjolobal, Zoque, Kanjobal and Mame communities had been organising quietly for a decade in the lead up to this breathtaking offensive. They declared themselves to the world as the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN), or the Zapatistas for short. Their faces partially covered by iconic red paliacates or by balaclavas, the Zapatistas announced that they would show their faces when Mexico was finally ready to see them. This was a war, they said, against forgetting and for living.
In the 1990s, globalisation and the multinational “free” trade world order were still fairly new concepts for the left. Outside of Chiapas everyone was trying to make sense of the Zapatistas. They were a kind of enigma, they were utterly exciting. Many tried, with limited coherence, to explain them in the terms of European and North American revolutions gone by, to debate whether peasant struggles could transform capitalist social relations, or to claim the Zapatistas as emblematic of their own political perspective. But what the Zapatistas have achieved in over the past 25 years (35 years, or 500 years) is their own.
Since 2005, the communities organise themselves through five autonomous Good Government Councils, positions are elected and rotate. The revolutionary women’s law continues to hold perpetrators of violence accountable to their communities and ensure that women are actively part of all government. The communities remain poor, but now they have schools and clinics, they work their own lands for themselves, not the patron. As they put it, they have dignity.
It’s a long story, and the Zapatistas and others have spent much effort sharing it. You can read the Zapatistas in their own words here and here (where there are translations in several languages). We also include a reading list of texts at the bottom of this post.
The Zapatistas stand out because of their relentless efforts to reach out and create spaces of dialogue and encounter. They have provided the rest of us with new ways of seeing our world, with new concepts through which to express exploitation, resistance and organization.
In July, 2018, in his third bid at the Presidency, Andres Manual Lopez Obrador was finally elected President of Mexico. Obrador cut his teeth in the Democratic Revolution Party (PRD in Spanish), which split from the 80 year single-ruling party, the Institutional Revolution Party (PRI). He was elected on a platform of increased social spending, which he promises to fund through savings generated by anti-corruption measures not by any major restructuring of the economy, via taxation or nationalisation. The Zapatistas already have their own story of betrayal by Obrador and the PRD. In 1999, the PRD backed down on its commitment to support proposed changes to the Constitution that would have guaranteed Indigenous peoples in Mexico more control over their lands. Now, Obrador (also known as AMLO) is backing multimillion-dollar tourism and agri-business development deals that will force a confrontation with the Zapatistas, as well as many communities across Southern Mexico.
The Zapatistas have seen the tide. They call it the fourth world war: a war against all of life. In 1999 they called for the formation of a National Indigenous Congress (CNI), in which around 200 Indigenous Nations in Mexico still participate. In 2005, in their Sixth Declaration they called for the formation of a National Plan for the Struggle and thousands of collectives and organisations met for more than two years to share perspectives and proposals to this end. In 2016, they backed the formation of an Indigenous Governing Council (CIG) under the CNI, which involved meetings across the Mexico and the appointment of around 50, mostly younger, representatives from over 50 communities. The Council decided to launch an independent candidate María de Jésus Patricio (Marichuy), a Nahua woman, in the Mexican Presidential Elections. No strangers to controversy or to stirring things up, this recent engagement with the Mexican electoral spectacle served to speak widely and sharply about what a farce it is. Knowing that it would be impossible for an indigenous woman to make it onto the Presidential ballot, this strategy forced a public debate and called for mestizo people (people of mixed Indigenous and Spanish descent, the majority of the population) to recognise their connection to country and their common interests with others who are more oppressed.
As you can see, the EZLN’s route has been one of organisational change within their communities, alongside building up and proposing many forms of coalitions which are strategically outside of electoral parties, and for a politics that orients to the struggles of those most oppressed in capitalism. This politics they call desde abajo y a la izquierda: from below and to the left. Time and time again they’ve acknowledged that they can only depend on each other to protect and reclaim autonomous zones (over the years their composition has shifted, territories have been ceded and others have been gained), but in the struggle against capital as a global system, they are us and we are them.
Below is a brief statement written by groups who have watched Chiapas in the context of the shifts in the world over the past years. There have been others too. It is a response to a call for solidarity. We share it with you because we, like the Zapatistas, fear that a new offensive led by a centre-left populist government in Mexico might attack and assimilate Indigenous communities. We invite you to join us in screaming: “the EZLN is not alone”.
Statement from organisations and collectives in Australia: the EZLN is not alone
25 January, 2019
To our comrades Zapatistas in Chiapas,
To our comrades in Mexico and in the world.
Some of us are old enough to remember the stunning images of indigenous rebels storming San Cristobal de Las Casas in 1994. We took in the reports with awe and excitement. These visions became emblematic of a wave of global struggles against late capitalism’s global trade plans and the subsequent impoverishment of the majority world’s peoples and lands. They captured the attentions of many different perspectives, under a banner of global resistance that continues to shape the world we know today.
Ten years later, some of us gathered together to form an organization in Australia aiming to think about Zapatista politics and critically engage with the Sixth Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle. Most of us had never been to Mexico, let alone to the Zapatistas’ autonomous communities. This didn’t matter. We could learn from the words of our Zapatista comrades regardless of where in the world we were. True, the situation that we confront in various cities in Australia was (and continues to be) very different to the situation lived in communities like La Garrucha or 22 de Diciembre. But we felt that we shared a desire for a world in common, not a world at the disposal of big capitalist ambitions to excavate the mineral resources, to destroy the forests and to put us all to work at the service of the bosses’ wallet. We too live on lands where genocide of Indigenous peoples continues to occur in order for capital to command the lands and the peoples who belong to the land. While Australia may be rich as a nation, it continues to have some of the world’s worst rates of curable diseases and poverty among First Nations peoples. The Zapatistas put into words what many of people here had felt for a long time.
By 2005 some more of us had arrived, we were (we are) young. And since then we read and discussed the Sixth with diverse groups and individuals in the places where we live, and with comrades from the Intergalactic. We thought then and continue to think now about how the Zapatistas ask questions about the world, with their periscopes inverted, looking for the resistances and rebellions that are always happening from below. It was tricky translating “desde abajo y a la izquierda” in English. We hope, even though the translation continues to sound a bit weird, that we have been able to carry this into the many struggles we continue to be part of in our communities and workplaces.
Fast-forward ten years. More comrades arrive asking about the experience of the Zapatistas and about how people in other places struggle against capitalism from where they are. How strange that the multinational free trade order that the EZLN responded to has been declared dead by the loudest head of the hydra, the President of the USA. In some ways the world has indeed changed since we first learned of our comrades in Chiapas’ struggle. As capitalism responds to our struggles its strategies are bound to change, but the dignity of our Zapatista comrades has endured. We see now that Mexico has a centrist-left government, a tool that seeks to divide and undermine the power of social movements. We echo the EZLN’s total rejection of the Maya-Train and other mega-projects that seriously threaten the autonomous territories and ways of life of indigenous peoples. We have also seen in the Australian Labor Party’s periods of government, where some of the most regressive policies for the organisation of labour, the policing of borders, the theft of Indigenous lands, the exploitation of education in the interests of capital not of students.
‘Walking while asking questions’ resonates with us as a method to grasp the shifting world order. Maybe the questions we need to ask on our walk here in so-called Australia are not exactly the same as those necessary in Mexico, maybe some of them are. But what we think is certain, is that it is only through asking questions and struggling from below in our own contexts that we can build a world of struggles that can finally defeat the capitalist hydra.
We denounce any aggression on Zapatista territory by the Mexican State or by civilian groups and paramilitaries backed by the State. We hold the Mexican Government responsible for any confrontation that may arise as a result of attempt to seize Zapatista territory or undermine the Zapatistas’ capacity to democratically and peacefully organise their own lives.
Perhaps we are too far away to stop the Hydra’s development projects or the threatening presence of the army in Chiapas, but we are part of building a world where these plans cannot come to fruition.
We know that the EZLN is not alone, we see evidence of this every day.
Members of the former Mexico-Australia Solidarity Network
Sydney, Wollongong, Brisbane, Tasmania, Melbourne
Recommended reading from and about the Zapatistas
El Kilombo (2015) Critical thought in the face of the capitalist hydra: Contributions by the 6th commission of the EZLN. Paperboat Press.
(Selected content from the book is available here.)
Alvaro Reyes (2015) “Zapatismo: Other geographies circa “the end of the world”
Image: Zapatista Encuentro, 1996, via Wikimedia Commons