Documents on Mexican Politics.

"Things Are Going To Be Difficult For The EZLN..."

Interview With Salvador Castaneda About The Zapatistas' Struggle

[Salvador Castaneda, born in 1946, was a founding member of the
'Movimento de Accion Revolucionaria' (MAR), a political-military
organization which organized a guerrilla struggle in Mexico in the
1970s. After the defeat of the MAR, he spent several years in
prison. In 1990, he and other former guerrilla founded the Centre for
Historical Studies of Armed Movements (CIHMA). Juan Chicoy interviewed
Salvador Castaneda on December 5, 1994 in Mexico City. We are
translating this interview from issue #373 of the German-language
magazine analyse & kritik.]

Mexico is a country where political-military organizations have had
little success in the past. None of the armed groups in the 60s and
70s managed to become a political force at the national level, unlike
the guerrilla movements in El Salvador and Nicaragua for
example. Today, as one phase of the Latin America guerrilla comes to
an end, and in which many former guerrilla organizations have bid
farewell to the revolution (ERP, M-19), the EZLN seems to be
introducing a new phase of armed revolutionary struggle. How could
this organization develop so quickly - in a war lasting less than two
weeks - into a political force of such significance?

     Before January 1, 1994, there were ten years of clandestine
work. In principle, that's the same thing we did, but under completely
different geographical conditions. Because the region is so isolated
geographically, the EZLN were able to build up their organization
without being noticed. There were not confronted with a whole variety
of security risks which our urban guerrilla or the groups of Lucio
Cabanas and Genaro Vazquez in the Sierra or Guerrero had to deal
with. There were no military confrontations for ten years, they did
not seek out the federal army and fight them. When they took over five
towns on January 1, they did not encounter any resistance. The army
simply wasn't there. It can be hardly be considered a military victory
to state they were able to defeat the local police forces.

In May 1993 there was a clash with the federal army...

     That was the only one. Afterwards the EZLN retreated, and the
federal army retreated as well, but not because they couldn't
militarily deal with the EZLN, but rather due to political factors:
The government did not want to risk the passage of the NAFTA accord
and the August election.
     The retreat of the EZLN forces after the January 1 occupations
was also orderly because they hadn't had any major problems with the
federal army. The only military confrontation was the struggle around
the Rancho Nuevo barracks. They weren't able to seize the
barracks. They have certainly examined these experiences and prepared
for future confrontations. But it's difficult to assess the military
strength of the EZLN, because other than the fight at Rancho Nuevo,
they haven't really been in any real fights.
     The present conditions all favour the federal army. They have
been able to expand and strengthen their ring of defenses with
military advisors and modern weapons. They have unloaded four
shiploads of weapons from the harbour at Veracruz. The federal army is
in a position where they have many opportunities to inflict blows on
the EZLN.

Don't you think that the jungle provides a tactical advantage for the

     Yes, it won't be easy for the federal army to advance into
there. They could only do this if they take heavy losses, and even
then they would only find the EZLN in limited areas, and they are well
prepared. But the federal army has many possibilities, because the
EZLN units are now effectively localized. The federal army can call in
fighter jets and helicopters. The EZLN can't leave their zones. In
that sense, they are trapped.

No Bases Outside Of Chiapas

The EZLN claim to be organized nationwide.

     Who knows? Up until now, they haven't shown much to prove
this. What's clear, however, and this is a big mistake, they don't
have their own press system with a nationwide distribution.  They
don't have a radio station, by means of which they could coordinate
civil resistance. Apart from the three normal newspapers which publish
their communiques, there's nothing. And the rest of the media is
firmly controlled by the government.

Why can't the Democratic National Convention (CND) provide this type
of logistical and political structure?

     The CND was created in a climate of peace. If the ceasefire
collapses, the convention will cease to function. If things get really
serious, then the leaders and the radical elements of the CND will be
imprisoned, because they are perfectly localized.
     When Marcos, in his most recent statements, began taking on a
more radical tone and hinted at the resumption of the armed struggle,
some CND leaders started to criticize him. The CND exists because of
the conditions of the ceasefire, but when the ceasefire is over, the
CND will disappear. It cannot be an effective support for the
EZLN. When the state opts for a "military solution", the CND will not
be able to offer logistical and political support and the media will
be silenced. The EZLN forgot one important thing: to create bases of
support outside of their zone. Now they say, yes, we have a group
called 'Soundso' in Sierra Gorda/Querotaro, but you don't see any
evidence of this. So why did they tell us this? Their statements are
staring to lose their effectiveness. They once said: If the PRI uses
fraud during the elections, there will be an uprising. They said the
same thing about Zedillo taking office on December 1. But nothing
happened. And when the PRI governor takes office in Chiapas on
December 8, nothing will happen.

But the situation in Chiapas is different. Unlike the rest of the
country, the situation is really explosive, and unlike the CND, the
Council of Campesinos and Indigenous Organizations (CEOIC) is a real

     But they aren't armed.

Who knows?

     Well, they haven't shown any arms up until now. They are civil
resistance, something which is much easier to control.

Limited Military Experience

But that depends on the degree of this resistance. Besides, it's not
that difficult to get weapons in Mexico.

     That problem isn't one of procuring weapons. The problem is
firepower, the military preparedness of these people (something they
don't have), a united military command (which doesn't exist). They are
not in a position to defeat a well-trained and well-armed professional
army. Only the EZLN could do this - eventually. The CEOIC wants to
achieve a peaceful transition.  This is completely impossible. Even if
they can achieve this in their own state, they can't do this at the
national level, therefore the state apparatus still has all of its
options open.
     The EZLN continually state that they are not the avant garde. But
that's just confusion. Of course they're the avant garde, even if they
say they don't want to be. The decisive factor isn't what you say,
it's what you do. If you are the first to take up the struggle, you
polarize things and you have to assume the responsibility of
organizing all the resistance and coordinating all of the civil forces
which arise during the offensive. I think it was a mistake to go to
the negotiations table after only two weeks of struggle. They should
have carried out many more military actions, to prove that they are
capable of inflicting serious blows against the federal army. Then
they could have entered into negotiations in a stronger position.

What are the EZLN's military options, if war breaks out once again,
which is not unlikely? What do think their major weaknesses are?

     Not having carried out more military actions was a big
mistake. The second mistake was immediately going to the negotiations
table, thereby giving the state the option of introducing a
low-intensity war, meanwhile their hands were tied by the
negotiations. The state had already declared a general amnesty for all
the inhabitants of the EZLN zone. All of that is tied to a continental
plan for fighting uprisings.

Internal Political Differences?

Do think it's correct to speak of a low-intensity war?

     Yes. The negotiations and the amnesty gave back the initiative to
the state, something which it had lost at the beginning of January,
meanwhile the EZLN's position was wearing out. It's a war of
attrition. Simply the fact that there has been a state of emergency
for an entire year, and that their army of 6,000 cannot produce
anything because they must always been ready to fight. Sure, something
like that is going to create internal difficulties. It means
exhausting their bases of support. How long can something like that
last? The federal army can wait for as long as it wants to. It has all
the advantages, economic resources, fresh troops, etc.
     What's more, there are internal differences within the EZLN
regarding the conception of the struggle. The statements released by
Mayor Moises and Tacho are fundamentally different that those from
Marcos. Marcos always insists that they are not trying to seize
power. But Moises says: We are going to seize power and carry out a
socialist revolution. But in general, only Marcos is taken seriously
in the media. Why? He's a good speaker, an author, a poet. Moises and
Tacho don't speak good Spanish. Marcos is counting on support from
sectors who, when things get serious, won't want to have anything to
do with the Zapatistas. The first intellectuals are already starting
to bail out. The convention is just designed to fill in a gap which
exists, where they should have been working in the past to build up a
political and logistical structure. They organized this convention two
weeks before the election! After the elections, this is supposed to
mobilize the society. But how? The so-called society is factionalized,
the remains of the left are splintered. They put their faith in the
PRD. But that didn't work. Today the PRD are entering a government
which tomorrow will attempt to eliminate the EZLN. They are in an
extremely difficult situation.
     Besides, the state has been able to capitalize on the nice demand
for "peace" to suit its own needs. "Peace" is good for the ruling
class, it has always lived in peace, and that's why they're still in
power. And the intellectuals in the CND use this formula in the same
abstract way. In the end, the majority of the population voted for
"peace" on August 21, namely the state apparatus, because this sort of
"peace" is managed by the state.  The Zapatista Army for National
Liberation cannot rely on such people. These people cannot offer real,
effective, consistent support.

But those are the objective resources. How can they change this

     Those are the resources at the moment. But this can't last.  The
CND wants to see a peaceful transition to democracy, a transitional
government. What kind of government? Who will create it? The CND will
reply: Not us. Apart from that, they don't have the political power to
do so anyway. In my opinion, the EZLN are trying to buy time in order
to build up bases of support outside their zone, which is something
they don't have. But at the same time, this delay is working to the
advantage of the government.  The mistake was to start to war without
having already done all of that. That is the same mistake which we in
the MAR made in the 70s. Some of our comrades discussed this with
Marcos in August.  We just don't fit into your scheme of things was
his reply.
     The entire politics of the EZLN since January seems very
improvised and voluntary to me. On the first of January, they release
a communique stating: Vamos, let's march to Mexico City and take it
over! I thought to myself, What was that all about?  And less than two
weeks later they were negotiating. What does an army of national
liberation have to negotiate about if its goal is to seize power? Can
you make deals with the state about taking power?

The Strategy Of Peaceful Transition Has Failed

I don't think the objective behind the negotiations was to win
concessions from the government, but rather to bring about an
oppositional force in the country and to create a political movement.

     Yes, that was also the idea behind the convention. But that was a
mistaken assumption. We can see the results. I think that now they are
trying to organize their own structure. But that's not easy and it
takes time. There is the danger that this decisive mistake has
fundamentally changed their political concept. The EZLN is moving
towards the position of becoming a pressure group for negotiations. In
fact, that's the exact position they are in now, and it's not clear
how they can get out of this. That is something which has happened to
several armed movements in Latin America, in Columbia for
example. They sit in the mountains, but they never seize power, they
inflict some blows on the state, but only to win a better position for
negotiations. In Columbia they've been there for 40 years, and their
chances are getting worse year by year.
     I also believe that the EZLN thought that they could bring about
a peaceful transition to democracy. But these possibilities have been
exhausted: the negotiations, the PRD, the CND.

But it was not necessarily false to enter into alliances, including
democratic sectors of the bourgeoisie.

     Of course not. These alliances are necessary and useful. But the
point is, they haven't functioned as they should have. One of the most
important lessons from the Cuban and Nicaraguan revolutions in the
necessity of building a political front which is able to seize power,
one in which the revolutionary forces are predominant.

But don't you think the CND can be the starting point for such a

     One of its most important tasks was to mobilize the civil
society. But they didn't mobilize anybody. It remained without
results. In northern Mexico, there's no activity whatsoever. The
largest mobilization outside of Chiapas was in Mexico City: 5,000
people on December 1, in a city of 25 million. And even at this level,
nothing will last if a higher level of confrontation is not
reached. The mobilizational capacities are limited, due to a variety
of factors. The political consciousness of the goals is limited. But
there are several day-to-day factors as well: People can't just take a
day off work, etc. That's just the way things are at the moment, but
such things are decisive factors in tasks such as this.

But the situation in Chiapas is different. How do you view the future?

     Maybe they can prevent the inauguration of the PRI governor on
December 8, and push through Avendano as governor and set up a
parallel government. But then what?

At the moment, a genuine process is underway to replace bourgeois
state power in Chiapas, with the autonomy movement of the
'munizipios', which is practically controlled by the radical
indigenous organizations...

     But still, it's always the state, the central government, which
has the ability to intervene, to buy 'fincas', to negotiate, then dam
up problems and to isolate them. And if the movement doesn't spread to
other states outside of Chiapas, then it won't have any future. They
can't just keep demonstrating, marching, and taking over 'fincas' and
town halls. That won't provide a radical solution to the problem, so
long as things stay regionalized. This regionalization of the conflict
is a government strategy, one which says: Chiapas is not Mexico. The
forces in Chiapas will become exhausted if they aren't able to go over
to a higher phase of struggle. A few days ago, three campesino leaders
were murdered, something which has happened a lot. And what was the
reaction? There was none. And the others, the death squads, the White
Guards, are all armed. There's no doubt about that. They also haven't
yet opted for a general military strike, because they too are waiting
for the state to solve things in a "civil manner". That's the same
reason why the federal army are just waiting. But just like everywhere
in America, the certainly have a plan for the military option all
worked out and ready to go. In other Latin American countries, this
option of intervention doesn't exist, whereby the army can just pull
back and allow the state to solve things politically.  In the long
run, the government's position will become more consolidated, whereas
the EZLN's position will continue to erode.

How do things look for the EZLN with Ernesto Zedillo as president?

     Things are going to get worse. Zedillo will carry out reformist
politics, which he has already shown in his dealings with the
opposition parties PAN and PRD. The moderate wing of the PRD and part
of the PRI, the 'Democracia 2000' group around Camacho Solis, will
form a new reformist party in a few years, and this will bury the
Cardenistas, the PRD leftists. Things are going be difficult for the
EZLN, to keep themselves going and to launch a new offensive.