The Legacy of the Zapatistas

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Thirty years ago, on January 1, 1994, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) captured international attention. Masked in balaclavas and demanding rights for Mexico’s indigenous population, they initiated a 12-day uprising in the Mexican state of Chiapas. This was the first major anti-capitalist struggle after the collapse of Stalinism, rekindling the hope that an alternative was possible after capitalist commentators had declared the struggle for socialism “over.”

The rebellion of 1994 expelled the landowning bosses from the haciendas, promised more rights for women, and paved the way for the creation of community-run schools, health clinics, and other institutions in sections of the Zapatistas’ home state of Chiapas. These continue to serve poor rural communities that the Mexican state has long denied access to basic necessities.

Despite the concrete gains of the uprising, quality of life for Chiapanecos has remained among the worst in the country. 2022 data from Mexico’s National Council for the Evaluation of Social Development Policy found that 67% of people in Chiapas live in poverty – the highest rate of any state – compared with 36% in the general Mexican population. A whopping 28% in Chiapas meet the government’s definition of “extreme poverty,” meaning they make so little money that even if they spent all of it on food their diet would still lack key nutrients.

To make matters worse, violence from cartels has escalated in the region over the last few years as Mexico’s two biggest criminal organizations compete for key smuggling routes connecting Guatemala to Mexico. Civilians have been caught in the crossfire, and incursions have been made into Zapatista territory. The EZLN in 2021 warned that the recent escalation of violence, both at the hands of cartels and the state who closely colludes with them, has placed Chiapas “on the verge of a civil war.” In response to this dire situation, the EZLN announced the dissolution and reorganization of their self-governance structures last November.

Thirty years after the Zapatista uprising, what is the way forward to end the poverty and violence still plaguing indigenous communities and working people more broadly in Chiapas? As we reflect on the legacy of Zapatismo, we should not simply romanticize the movement for its heroism, but take a critical look at its limitations, drawing lessons both from what it achieved, and what is left to fight for.

Backdrop To The Rebellion

In the 1980s, after the defeat of decisive working-class struggles in several key countries, neoliberalism became the dominant model for the capitalist class worldwide. Economists and politicians claimed that free trade and globalization would eliminate inequality. In reality, neoliberalism meant a new policy of privatization and cuts to social services that dramatically increased poverty among the working class. 

Latin America was a central testing ground for neoliberal policy, and Mexico led the charge in opening up markets to foreign investment. From 1990 to 1993 Mexico attracted most of the capital entering Latin America – $92 billion – with billionaire investors snatching up state-run industries and speculating on the stock market in order to make a quick buck. Mexico also led the world in privatization. It leapt from 1,200 state-run utilities in 1982 to just over 200 by 1994. State budgets were slashed. Support for rural areas in 1995 was less than a quarter of what it was in 1980. Business-friendly deregulation meant the scrapping of minimum wage and workplace safety laws.

Mexico’s president from 1988 to 1994, Carlos Salinas de Gortari, claimed that these policies would bring Mexico out of the Third World and into the First World. This was true for the super rich, but not for working people. Before Salinas, Mexico had only two billionaires. By the time he left office, there were 26. At the same time, minimum wage levels fell by a staggering 58%. The working class had nothing but worsening conditions to show for the supposedly equalizing hand of the free market.

Then Salinas signed the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which would go into effect January 1st, 1994. By establishing a free trade zone between the US, Mexico, and Canada, the trade deal promised a continuation of the neoliberal globalization that had already wreaked havoc on the livelihoods of ordinary people. NAFTA abolished Article 27 of the Mexican constitution, a legacy of the Mexican Revolution which promised land to every group of workers who asked for it. NAFTA’s slashing of tariffs meant that small farmers would be crushed by US-dominated agribusiness. 

Against this economic backdrop, in the jungles of Chiapas the EZLN clandestinely prepared their insurrection to take place the day that NAFTA was implemented. While the uprising was in part a response to NAFTA, it was also a broader struggle to improve the living conditions of indigenous communities who had been continuously dispossessed from their lands, both at the hands of colonialism and modern-day privatization. As the EZLN founding declaration summarized: “We are the product of 500 years of struggles.” They called on peasants to join the insurgency and claim the rights they had been historically denied – “work, land, housing, food, health, education, independence, freedom, democracy, justice, and peace.”

The ranks of the Zapatista army were composed mainly of poor Mayan peasants. In 1994, 33% of households in Chiapas had no electricity, 59% had no sewers and 41% had no running water. Malnutrition was rampant. 55% of the indigenous population in Chiapas was illiterate, with a life expectancy of 44 years. Largely neglected by the state in the geographically-isolated corner of the country, there was a sense that matters had to be taken into their own hands. Even prior to the arrival of the EZLN in Chiapas, indigenous peasants organized to demand land reform, education in indigenous languages, healthcare, and labor rights, often facing deadly state repression for their efforts.  

Insurrection Launched

Under the banner of the EZLN some 3,000 guerrilla soldiers took up arms and seized six cities in Chiapas on January 1st. They demanded the cancellation of NAFTA, the overthrow of the Mexican government, and a constituent assembly to write a new Mexican constitution. Some told reporters they were fighting for socialism.

Salinas swiftly sent in the military to crush the rebellion. Bullets were exchanged between the EZLN and around 12,000 Mexican troops, greatly overpowering the poorly-armed guerrilla soldiers. Within four days the Mexican army had forced a significant retreat of the EZLN and began to assassinate those they had taken prisoner. 

However, the attempts of the government to outright crush the rebellion failed under pressure of solidarity protests nationally. The Zapatistas’ struggle had broad support in Mexican society, seen as a necessary answer to the ravages of neoliberal attacks. The brutality being unleashed on the EZLN also evoked memories of state-sanctioned massacres long used against the student and workers’ movements. This sense of solidarity materialized in tens of thousands of people protesting in city centers across the country. The day of these protests, Salinas announced a ceasefire, 12 days after the uprising began, and plans began for negotiations between the government and the EZLN.

Peace Talks And Economic Crisis

Peace talks were on-and-off. Despite the ceasefire, the army maintained a siege around the Zapatistas’ zones of influence. Constant intrusions and attacks eventually led to the appearance of paramilitary groups and a wave of violence that provoked the forced displacement of thousands. At the end of 1994, the EZLN broke off all talks with the federal government, citing continued repression and militarization around their territory. They also submitted the results of the peace talks to a popular referendum, conducted within the Zapatista communities but also open to wider society. Nearly 98% voted to reject the government’s proposed peace deal. At the same time, only 3% wanted the EZLN to take up arms again, so the decision was made to continue abiding by the ceasefire. The EZLN launched a new military offensive, but this time without a single shot fired. Overnight, they declared over half of Chiapas “rebel territory,” with the formation of 38 “Zapatista Rebel Autonomous Municipalities.” 

This was the straw that broke the camel’s back for the foreign capitalists pumping money into the Mexican economy, triggering a severe financial crisis. Despite Salinas’s promises of economic transformation for Mexico, real economic growth was actually shrinking and national debt was soaring, threatening the profits of investors. A whole year of armed rebellion in Chiapas added to the capitalists’ concerns, and finally led to a run on their investments. The Mexican peso collapsed and the government announced that it would default on loan payments to the International Monetary Fund. GDP fell by 6.9% in 1995, and one million jobs were lost. The crisis sent shock waves all over the world. 

The Mexican stock market was temporarily stabilized with a $50 billion loan from the US. These sorts of loans, however, never come without strings attached. Debt repayments took huge chunks out of the Mexican budget, spurring lawmakers to push a massive new austerity package onto working people.

Another condition for the loan was that the Mexican ruling class get its house in order and crush the Zapatista rebellion. The federal government launched a military offensive against the EZLN and their supporters. Arrest warrants for terrorism charges were issued against leaders of the insurrection, including the movement’s infamous mouthpiece Subcomandante Marcos. In response to the crackdown on the Zapatista communities, another protest of tens of thousands in Mexico City demanded a halt to militarization and the dropping of charges against the Zapatistas.

The Mexican government’s strategy was to break the EZLN away from the rest of the peasants. The military, with the support of US advisors, sought to drive a wedge between the guerrillas and the peasants by economically ruining the villages, destroying tools and poisoning water supplies. This forced the peasants to rely on government handouts, helping to break their independence and break down their links with the guerrillas. They also bribed and coerced villagers into forming village “defense” brigades, with arms supplied by the army. However, the Zapatistas’ deep roots in the local communities and the mass support they had throughout Mexico and beyond made the government’s efforts unsuccessful.

Stalemate 

Later negotiations eventually resulted in the drafting of the San Andrés Accords on Indigenous Rights and Culture in 1996, a document that would have granted 800 majority-indigenous municipalities local control of their own territory, including the right to administer their own financial, judicial, and educational systems. But the agreements had a short life span: Mexico’s new president Ernesto Zedillo vetoed the accords seven months after they were signed.

A stalemate dragged on. In 2003, the Zapatistas took action to implement the San Andrés Accords themselves in the territories they controlled, whether or not the government acknowledged it. The EZLN announced the creation of a new government structure in the form of five caracoles, each with their own “Good Government Council” which grouped together the more than thirty Autonomous Rebel Municipalities. This restructuring marked the full withdrawal of the EZLN from military activity. 

The Zapatistas declared full autonomy from the Mexican state by creating these institutions of self-governance, but in many ways this autonomy was symbolic. While the Zapatistas have created their own schools, health systems, justice systems, and other resources, the Mexican government’s grasp on the region has not been fundamentally challenged. It continues to repress their movement, to encroach on Zapatista territory, to displace indigenous peasants, and to prevent these communities from truly achieving the demands they set out to win in 1994. Power needed to be wrested from the hands of the politicians, who work hand in hand with paramilitary groups and cartels, and ultimately the billionaires who seek to maintain their violent system at the expense of ordinary people not just in Chiapas, but globally.

Marxism and Guerrillaism

What sort of movement could have taken down the government and won the peasants’ demands? Marxists contend that the organized working class is the only force capable of overthrowing the capitalist system as a whole and replacing it with genuine democracy based on the needs of ordinary people: socialism. How does that compare to the Zapatista’s approach of guerrilla struggle?

The Zapatistas didn’t begin in Chiapas, but in the north of the country, founded in 1983 by a small group of activists. They arose alongside other guerrilla groups of the time in Mexico and across Latin America who drew inspiration from the Cuban Revolution and Che Guevara, as well as Maoism. Che Guevara’s thinking was heavily influenced by earlier nationalist movements such as the Bolivarian and Mexican Revolutions. The 1917 Russian Revolution, which overthrew Czarist rule and replaced it with a state controlled by workers and peasants, inspired Che Guevara and other guerrillas to fight for socialism. 

But Guevara failed to understand the central role that the working class played in the Russian Revolution, concluding instead that the primary revolutionary role in colonial countries needed to be played by the peasantry engaged in guerrilla struggle. This approach unfortunately has never yielded a true democratic workers’ state as we saw in Russia prior to Stalin’s bureaucratic counter-revolution. In China and Cuba, guerrilla armies were able to overthrow capitalism but, without the active involvement of the working class, they established bureaucratic governments from the start. Attempts at replicating the Cuban experience elsewhere in Latin America failed to achieve even that. By the time that the Zapatistas emerged on the scene, the other guerrilla struggles in the region, from Nicaragua, to Guatemala and El Salvador, were reaching dead ends with tragic consequences.

What makes the working class unique, and why was it able to lead a successful revolution in Russia? The answer lies in the working class’s role in capitalist society. In their search for greater and greater profits, the capitalists sewed the seeds for their own demise by centralizing production. Capitalism has brought working people into large workplaces where they have to work together to produce commodities and services, giving them not only great power to grind these massive production processes to a halt but also putting them into close contact with one another, allowing them to commiserate over their conditions and get organized.

This situation is markedly different from that of peasants and small farmers who generally are more isolated from one another, working to produce enough to live on (after the feudal landlords take their share), rather than working for a wage as part of a collective. The conditions of peasants generally lead them to aspire to own the land they work. The conditions of the working class point toward farther-reaching aspirations, to collectively own the means of production. This isolation fuelled the ELZN’s stalemate with the Mexican state.

Peasants in 1917 Russia played a vital role in overturning Czarist rule, side by side with the workers, but due to their role in production they did not lead the revolution. The guerrilla approach reverses this formula, posing that the working class must play an auxiliary role to the struggle of the peasants. Its central strategy is to create an armed peasant force in the countryside, with the guerrilla army seizing power and then taking over working-class cities from the outside. 

The working class is the decisive motor force for socialist revolution, but that does not mean the revolution will necessarily start with them. The struggles of the peasantry can give an important impetus to the working class in the absence of a fighting leadership at the head of the workers movement. But a socialist transformation of society ultimately requires the working class taking hold of the factories, hospitals, schools, and all other workplaces to establish democratic control of them. Guerrilla struggle on its own can never result in a workers’ democracy. That’s exactly where the Zapatista’s strategy for taking on the capitalist system fell short.

The ELZN’s guerillaism confined it to indigenous peasant areas on the outskirts of Mexican society. To actually overthrow capitalism, it would be necessary to link their struggle to that of the Mexican working class. At the time of the uprising, 73% of the Mexican population lived in the cities. The Zapatistas had tremendous support from the working class, an opportunity which they should have made use of by calling for further protests and strike action, linking the demands of the peasants with those of workers in the cities who were likewise suffering under the economic crisis and state repression. The political establishment had been severely wounded by crisis and scandal in 1994, and at this point could only cling to power by committing election fraud. The situation was ripe to deal serious blows to the Mexican state. But unfortunately the true power of the working class, shutting down production and business as usual, was not fully harnessed alongside the EZLN’s guerrilla struggle. 

A New Kind of Struggle?

In addition to inspiring the Mexican working class to take mass action, the Zapatistas were also a reference point internationally for a growing protest movement against neoliberalism. This new anti-globalization movement began in the 1990s and culminated in the Battle of Seattle, a protest which united labor, environmentalists, and youth against the World Trade Organization in 1999. In the wake of the collapse of Stalinism, many in this movement saw Zapatismo as not only a revival of struggle against capitalism, but a new type of struggle that would avoid the failures of the previous generation.

For those workers and youth who opposed capitalism but had grown skeptical of the potential for a workers’ revolution to transform society, the Zapatistas appeared to be building an alternative to capitalism one village at a time. They evoked the imagery of snails building slowly but steadily toward a new form of society, naming the central resource hubs of their communities caracoles, the Spanish word for snails. 

The anti-globalization movement arose at a time when unions and workers’ parties had been thrown back under the blows of neoliberalism. The disorientation of traditional workers organizations gave the movement a decentralized character. The ideologues of the anti-globalization movement held up this decentralism as superior to the Leninist approach of previous generations, highlighting the Zapatistas as an example. In reality, the decentralization of the movement was a weakness that hindered its development into a powerful international force. It was ultimately cut across entirely by the September 11th, 2001 attack on the Twin Towers which shook the world and shifted US politics to the right.

Decentralization is often conflated with democracy, but our movements are actually less democratic when they lack centralized forums for discussion and debate. In order to wage a united struggle that speaks to the needs of all working and oppressed people, and ultimately that has the power to overthrow capitalism, we need collective decision-making structures not just within individual activist groups, but also ones which draw workers together nationally and internationally into broader social movements. The anti-globalization movement lacked this sort of approach which would have helped it to coordinate action around a unified program of demands.

While the EZLN stresses the importance of long periods of discussion and consensus-based decision making within the Zapatista communities, they did not utilize such an approach to organize a wider social movement to truly challenge capitalism, which the Zapatistas correctly identify as the root cause of poverty and violence not just in Chiapas, but worldwide. Critically, the EZLN refused to participate in existing labor unions, which despite their flaws are a key tool for the working class to organize itself under capitalism. Instead, they attempted to organize their own Zapatista workers’ organization, effectively cutting off dialogue with the workers movement.

Appeals to workers in the cities and internationally were mainly focused on sustaining the movement in Chiapas, such as spreading awareness of the government’s atrocities and raising funds. This resulted in the cultivation of a sort of “light-touch” solidarity. Activists outside of Chiapas who took inspiration in the Zapatistas saw their role not as democratically deciding a program, strategy, and tactics for global struggle, but as passively supporting the program, strategy, and tactics already employed by the ELZN.

While the Zapatistas launched several educational initiatives to engage working people outside of Chiapas, this was secondary to their focus on exercising their autonomy, building the change they wanted to see in the world in a small corner of it, and hoping their example would spread. The absence of a wider discussion about tactics and strategy for the fight against the global capitalist system paradoxically centered the EZLN’s “decentralized” political approach. For years, they dominated the leadership of Mexico’s indigenous struggles. As the anti-globalization movement revered the Zapatistas’ strategy as a new way of organizing, its impact ultimately was to weaken democracy within the movement.

The Pink Tide

After the anti-globalization movement receded in the 2000s, it was replaced by a new pole of anti-capitalist attraction in Latin America, an electoral phenomenon dubbed the “Pink Tide.” As neoliberal policies continued to wreak havoc across the region, working people responded with waves of protest. Off the backs of these mass mobilizations, nearly a dozen left-reformist governments came to power in Latin America between 1998 and 2008, promising to improve the lives of ordinary people by reversing austerity. The EZLN’s solution to the inequality created by capitalism was to refuse to recognize the capitalist state. The Pink Tide instead proposed to reform it.

In reality, they could do little more than to slightly tweak it temporarily. Capitalism is an economic model set up to concentrate the vast majority of wealth in the hands of a tiny few, driven to secure ever-greater profit margins for shareholders by robbing the working class. Inequality is in its DNA. While the capitalists and their politicians will often grant concessions to the working class when they deem them necessary to preserve the overall health of their system, these gains always fall short and are at risk of being snatched back at any moment. Throughout capitalism’s existence, the gap between the rich and the poor has continuously widened. Events can cause the pace of this widening to slow or even reverse temporarily. But over the years it has become a chasm.

With the backing of mass struggle, the Pink Tide governments were able to win significant concessions for working and poor people during the commodities boom of the 2000’s. However, when the economy took a turn for the worse the limitations of their reformist strategy was laid bare. They refused to take the capitalist class head on to make them pay for their crisis, instead pushing the costs of the crisis onto the working class and implementing neoliberal policies themselves.

In essence, the Pink Tide meant the corralling of mass anger off of the streets where the working class had the most power to win, toward electoral channels that were safer for capitalists. At the same time, it represented the desire of working people for true political representation, independent of the establishment parties which so clearly opposed themselves to their interests. Working people cannot simply vote our way out of capitalism, but participating in elections by running independent candidates, based in mass workers parties and other working-class movements, is an important strategy to win reforms under capitalism and to chart a path toward the overthrow of the capitalist system.

The EZLN eschewed all participation in elections. They raised legitimate criticisms of the Pink Tide’s reformism and electoralism, but took a sectarian approach which refused to connect with the working class’s desire for a political alternative. When the prospect arose for Mexico to have its own Pink Tide moment in 2006, the EZLN boycotted the election, instead launching their propagandistic “Other Campaign” alongside the election. They refused to provide even critical support to the campaign of Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO), the most viable challenge thus far to the nearly 80-year rule of the political establishment parties. 

AMLO’s campaign shared the same flaws of the Pink Tide governments – he promised a dramatic transformation of society that would uplift the poor, but not to break with capitalism, just give it “a human face.” He proposed to fund social programs not by taxing the rich and re-nationalizing state industries, but merely by cutting government corruption. For all its flaws, AMLO’s campaign had a message that appealed to broad sections of Mexican society. It was a pole of attraction for the Mexican working class, which the EZLN had been unable to fully reach through its cryptic communiqués and isolated guerrilla struggle. 

Meanwhile, the Mexican government was preparing to conduct election fraud to ensure a steadier hand for big business, just as they had done in the 1999 election. An enormous protest movement sprang up to stop the stealing of the election from AMLO. Even as other groups within the EZLN’s Other Campaign opted to join these defense-of-the-vote protests, the EZLN did not. This sectarian attitude toward that movement did enormous damage to their reputation, costing the EZLN much of the authority they had maintained since the 1994 uprising.

The Mexican political establishment maintained its grip over society for the next two presidential terms, but that changed in 2018 when AMLO ran his second presidential campaign. With the class struggle at a level not seen since the 1980’s and record-breaking support for AMLO’s campaign, the establishment found itself incapable of stealing the election and AMLO won the election with 53% of the votes, the highest of any president in Mexican history. Showing just how out of touch they were with the masses, in 2018 the EZLN reversed their policy of abstentionism but doubled down on their sectarianism towards AMLO, calling for a protest vote for the National Indigenous Congress’s presidential candidate Marichuy.

The EZLN are right to criticize the limitations of AMLO. Now nearly at the end of his term, AMLO has been unable to pass many of the key reforms that he promised would bring a “Fourth Transformation of Mexico.” His attempts to balance the needs of working people with the interests of big business, and his insistence that the path to victory will come from negotiations with the establishment parties rather than by mobilizing the massive support he still holds, have hamstrung that promised Fourth Transformation. At the same time, he’s raised the expectations of the working class. From the 2019 strike wave in Matamoros to the feminist movement which just won decriminalization of abortion nationally, when AMLO hasn’t been able to make his promises a reality, working people have filled the gap with class struggle to secure them.

Rather than ignoring AMLO, revolutionaries should place demands on his government and join the struggle to win them. Ultimately we need to break out of the limitations of reformism, but those conclusions are most often drawn by working people through first-hand experience in the heat of struggle. The working masses who were mobilized by AMLO’s campaign are the force best equipped to take on the mistakes and betrayals stemming from AMLO’s reformism. These are the forces the ELZN cut off in their sectarianism. That’s why revolutionaries need to stand shoulder to shoulder with working people who desire to see AMLO’s Fourth Transformation made a reality, fighting for every reform possible under capitalism as a means to build the fight for wider system change.

The Struggle Today

The world situation today is very different from the period of globalization or the commodities boom during the Pink Tide. The neoliberal era has come to an end, giving way to an age of disorder, characterized by unending crisis, increased inter-imperialist rivalry, war, inflation, and staggering debt. 

The label “age of disorder” certainly fits the current situation in Chiapas. Owing to increased cartel presence, continued paramilitary attacks, a ramping up of militarization, and environmental destruction fed by infrastructure mega-projects like AMLO’s “Mayan Train” passenger rail system, people in Chiapas are experiencing a surge in massacres, femicides, sexual violence, kidnappings, disappearances, and forced displacements.

Both the US army and the National Guard have been deployed to the region to address the situation, but reportedly do nothing to stop cartel violence. In reality, the role of the military there is to enforce US border policy, criminalizing migrants and turning a blind eye to the same sort of cartel violence that is a driving force of migration from Central America. As Republicans in the US attempt to broker deals with Biden and the Democrats to allow US funding for the Israeli and Ukrainian militaries in exchange for increased funding for “border security,” we can expect a continuation of AMLO’s policy of enforcing US border policy in Mexico by mobilizing the National Guard to Chiapas to prevent immigration. Meanwhile AMLO has minimized the scale of the violence in Chiapas, claiming that the implementation of social programs and the presence of the National Guard are appropriate solutions. His policy of amnesty for narco traffickers, “hugs not bullets,” has totally failed to curb cartel violence against Mexican communities. 

In the context of this escalating violence, the EZLN has dissolved their Autonomous Rebel Municipalities and Good Government Councils, replacing them with a new structure based in community assemblies that promises a more direct democracy. Contrary to what many media outlets have speculated, the Zapatistas maintain that this does not symbolize a retreat, but a change of strategy to confront the violence. Improving the democratic participation of the Zapatista communities can play a positive role, but will have a limited effect on the spiraling violence in the region at the hands of massive crime gangs who operate in collusion with local authorities. 

To ensure community safety, the working class and peasants must unite in struggle around a program that addresses the economic roots driving participation in organized crime. AMLO’s social welfare programs have benefitted working people across the country, but they do not go nearly far enough. Another strategy of AMLO’s has been to “drive investment” and job creation in southern Mexico through mega-projects like the Mayan Train railroad. Big infrastructure developments, however, will ultimately serve to benefit railroad and construction bosses the most, without meaningfully changing the living conditions of the working class and poor. Mexican workers need free, high-quality education for all, universal free healthcare, and affordable housing, all paid for by taxing the rich. The struggle to end the violence and secure a better standard of living for Chiapanecos in the Zapatista territories and other rural areas as much as in the city centers will require mobilizing the power of the entire Mexican working class, connected with similar movements internationally, in the struggle for a new world organized in the interests of ordinary people, not the billionaires. 

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