from CrossRoads Magazine
The author analyzes the Zapatista uprising and its impact throughout Mexico and beyond. Since their rise to the summit of political power, the new Mexican political elite, headed by Carlos Salinas de Gortari, has trumpeted the transformation of the land of the ancient Mayans and Aztecs into a first world country. Cosmopolitan, rich, sophisticated, educated in the best U.S. universities, they have promised to build a Mexico in their own image. Surrounding themselves with yuppies and displacing the older PRI political leadership, they have boasted to the world that they are engaged in a radical project to "modernize" Mexico. The adoption of NAFTA, representing a strategic alliance with the U.S. and Canada, was not only a practical triumph for the technocrats and their backers but also a symbolic seal of approval for their vision of Mexico's future. Opposition forces who have protested the enormous inequalities that have continued to worsen during Salinas' presidency have been met with lies, insults and repression. At one point Pedro Aspe Armella, one of those "tapped" by Salinas as the possible ruling PRI candidate for President and currently Mexico's Secretary for Finance, called the existence of widespread poverty and unemployment "genial myths." The Indian-peasant uprising in Chiapas has given a shattering response to the blindness and arrogance of Salinas and the social groups his policies benefit. Furthermore, the specific characteristics of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN), and the magnitude of their sudden offensive, indicate that it may not be easy to contain popular resistance within traditional channels as Mexico's complex, new situation unfolds. A NOVEL MOVEMENT The Zapatistas constitute a novel type of armed political movement. They can be clearly distinguished from previous guerrillas in Mexico as well as elsewhere in Latin America, in terms of their ideas and military practices. The two best-known and most influential guerrilla insurgencies in recent Mexican history were the National Revolutionary Civic Association (ACNR) of Genaro V zquez Rojas and the Party of the Poor (PP) of Lucio Caba$as Barrientos, which arose in 1967-68 and largely disappeared as military forces after the deaths of their leaders in 1972 and 1974. Both of these groups formed in a spontaneous manner in the wake of government repression of civic movements which they led in Chilpancingo and Atoyac de Alvarez, in the southwestern coastal state of Guerrero. As a result, the guerrillas had neither formal organization nor military structure. They started out with little in the way of political doctrine, and no stockpiles of military supplies. At its height, the PP had no more than 200 armed fighters. The ACNR had 50 to 100. Facing a huge Mexican Army offensive (according to Marco Bellingeri, the government had some 24,000 soldiers in Guerrero at the beginning of 1971), Genaro V zquez and Lucio Caba$as were unable to consolidate guerrilla columns outside of the state; nor were they successful in setting up strong solidarity groups among students and teachers in the major cities. Nevertheless, both movements had impressive support from peasants in their base areas and they generated widespread sympathy throughout Mexico. The ACNR and the PP became revolutionary icons for thousands of radical students and political activists, something none of the urban and university guerrilla groups of the time achieved. In conjunction with the history of Villa and Zapata in the beginning of the century, the experience of the PP and the ACNR demonstrates the ability of rural insurgencies to influence Mexican politics in a manner seemingly disproportionate to the actual size of the guerrilla armies. The EZLN uprising promises to follow this path, as both the Mexican Army and political forces of every stripe erupt into a frenzy of activity. Yet in many ways, the armed movement in Chiapas is something new. In particular, the modern Zapatistas represent the fusion of a classic peasant movement with indigenous peoples' struggles. On the one hand, the EZLN's demands for land and protection for small farmers in Chiapas makes them part of a long and significant current of agrarian revolt in Mexico. On the other hand, the Zapatistas' championing of Indians' way of life and Indian resistance to years of exploitation, discrimination and repression links the guerrillas to another longstanding and volatile political dynamic. The combination of these two types of revolt creates a potent synergy, as intersections of class struggle and national liberation often do. Militant Indian struggles have already proven to be crucial in radical insurgencies throughout the hemisphere, including just across the border from Chiapas in Guatemala. The thought that these indigenous struggles might become the cutting edge of multi-ethnic resistance by the victims of neoliberalism must send chills down the backs of strategic planners in Washington as well as Mexico City. The symbolism of Indians in Chiapas leading the charge against NAFTA and the neoliberal agenda speaks to the desire of many Mexicans to preserve their independence and culture, proving the attraction of what the brilliant anthropologist Guillermo Bonfil Batalla calls "el Mexico Profundo" -- "Deep Mexico." In another break with the traditional model of guerrilla insurgency, the EZLN has apparently rejected the idea of leadership by a single, charismatic "caudillo." In the early days of the insurrection, the government appeared intent on creating a principal leader by singling out the commander of the EZLN's military operation in San Crist"bal de las Casas, Comandante Marcos. However, both Marcos and other representatives of the Zapatistas speak of a "committee" which makes decisions, rather than any individual. This seems to indicate that the EZLN has the political maturity and organizational structure to be able to survive and act without a cult of personality. EZLN HAS LEARNED LESSONS The EZLN says it is fighting for socialism, but it does not use Marxist-Leninist rhetoric, or declare itself to be the vanguard of the proletariat. Nor, in contrast with recent Mexican guerrilla groups, does it demonize the existing political parties or lay claim to state power for itself. In fact, the Zapatistas appear to have drawn lessons from the revolutionary processes in Central America, especially in El Salvador and Nicaragua, where a flexible policy of alliances and varied forms of activity proved both useful and necessary. It is notable that the EZLN recognizes the Mexican Political Consultation and the Congress. In San Cristob l on January 1, the fighters called on "the powers of the Union to make use of the constitutional right to depose the illegitimate government of Carlos Salinas de Gortari and his cabinet and in their place to install a government of transition...in order to convoke elections under equal circumstances, unlike the present illegitimate and lopsided ones." Later, in a proclamation released in Mexico City on January 6, the EZLN called on workers, the poor and the labor movement to rise up against the "starvers of the people." Speaking of "the disaster of neoliberal economics" and the "violence" of poverty, hunger, sickness and unemployment, the proclamation threatens to attack "the nerve centers of the oligarchy," and warns "the Mexican soldier, a young person like ourselves, that this fight will last for many years." Could just be. The uprising led by the EZLN is much larger, better planned and more extensive geographically than any other in recent times. The ACNR and the PP were never in a position to consider taking over cities the size of San Cristob l (population roughly 80,000) or Ocosingo (about 100,000). The EZLN has declared that it is not a group of guerrillas but a regular army. This seems to be an overestimation of their own forces. Nevertheless, it is certain that since the Mexican Revolution in 1910, there have never been so many insurgents under arms. The Mexican Army claimed at one point that 400 rebels took San Cristob l; journalistic sources speak of seeing 1,000 to 1,500. San Cristob l newspaper publisher Concepci"n Villafuerte estimates that there may be as many as 8,000 armed guerrillas in Chiapas, including many non-Indians. Other estimates are higher. To put this in perspective: the armed forces of the FMLN in El Salvador never had more than 15-20,000 combatants. Nor is the uprising confined to Chiapas. The EZLN seized more than 3,000 pounds of dynamite and about 1,400 blasting caps before the start of the uprising. There have been bombings in the capital, where tens of thousands of police are on alert. In Puebla and Michoac n two 400,000- volt electrical lines were dynamited on January 6. That same day, the Zapatistas declared their existence in Mexico City, Guadalajara and the states of Morelos, Tabasco, Guerrero, Veracr#z, San Juan Potos! and Chihuahua. All this flies in the face of government statements that the "lawbreakers" exist only in Chiapas. The Zapatistas are not "foquistas": they do not advocate founding a small nucleus of armed fighters with the expectation of growing in the course of confrontations with the state. They appear to have followed what is called a strategy of the "cold accumulation of forces" ("acumulaci"n de fuerzas en fr!o"), which was previously used by the Revolutionary Organization of the People in Arms (ORPA) in Guatemala. ORPA, which is now part of the National Revolutionary Unity of Guatemala (URNG) was founded in 1972 by Rodrigo Asturias, and spent "seven long years of silent work," as Martha Harnecker reports, developing a guerrilla organization, one which was also largely made up of Indians. According to Comandante Marcos, the EZLN has been in existence for ten years. In that time, it did not launch any type of offensive, although there were some small clashes with the army in May of last year. It remained almost entirely a secret from the outside world while it recruited, trained and planned. Salvador Casta$eda, a former guerrilla who is now a novelist and Director of the Center for Historical Investigations of Armed Movements, thinks that the Zapatistas have "an original conception of popular warfare. There is no rigid scheme of prolonged popular war nor of revolutionary war. The unfolding of forces indicates great planning skills...[and] demonstrates great support from the population...in short, a lot of politico-military capacity." Two colleagues of Casta$eda's, also ex-guerrillas, have written that all this adds up to the likelihood that "the war is going to be much more prolonged than we can imagine, it is going to be a war of attrition." GOVERNMENT RESPONSE The Mexican government initially tried to dismiss the Zapatistas as localized "delinquents" comprising a combination of misled young Indians and peasants on the one hand and "a professional leadership, expert at conducting actions of violence and terrorism, well-educated, of foreign and domestic origin." This quickly proved to be an untenable spin, as more facts became public and popular demand for negotiations and a political settlement with the EZLN grew overwhelming, even within the PRI. Throughout the 20th century the Mexican state has been the most stable in Latin America. This stability was sustained by PRI corporativism, extreme presidentialism and a populist orientation to public spending. Mexico has not had a coup d'etat since 1921, during which time every other Latin American country, including Costa Rica, has endured some type of military dictatorship. Likewise, almost all Latin American states faced strong guerrilla movements during the last 30-35 years. With the exception of the Central American guerrillas, all were liquidated, reduced to small group survival or severely weakened. Yet the EZLN accomplished an unprecedented set of political victories faster than any other guerrilla movement in the hemisphere. It is extraordinary that the most efficient, skilled and established political regime in Latin America saw itself obliged to recognize the EZLN's belligerent status and seek negotiations. How was it possible that the arrogant and perennially triumphant Mexican president, the darling of the U.S. business elite, had to propose a political accord with those he had just ten days earlier called "adventurers" and "a few cow rustlers?" The government was put up against the wall by the force of "deep Mexico," Indigenous Mexico, which has preserved a cultural wisdom that cannot be assimilated by neoliberalism and which has now awakened millions and mobilized thousands. Under pressure, the discourse of Salinas and Donaldo Colosio, the PRI's presidential candidate, has begun to incorporate the themes of poverty, justice and "clean and democratic elections" -- all of which they ignored before Janaury 1. But since mid-January's forced turn toward negotiation with the EZLN, there appears to be another shift back toward arrogance and disqualification. On January 27, Salinas de Gortari brought together the political elite of the PRI -- secretaries of state, governors, deputies, senators, labor leaders and peasant officials, business leaders, etc., -- and together they rejected the thesis that poverty creates the conditions for violence. Salinas declared his disgust with journalists and intellectuals who hold this position. On January 29, in Switzerland during the World Economic Forum, he declared that the uprising contained only a few indigenous people and took place only in a very restricted area in Chiapas. The rest of the country, he assured the gathering, was in peace. For their part, the majority of Mexican political opposition parties did know how to respond during the first few days of the Chiapan rebellion. In principle, all condemned the violence as a method of political struggle. The first statement by Cuauhtmoc C rdenas, the PRD presidential candidate, was ambiguous and spontaneous. He sought to distance himself from the guerrillas and did not want the PRD to be linked with the EZLN just because the political analysis of both organizations is similar. Both the PRD and the EZLN call the Salinas government illegitimate because it came to power through fraudulent elections; both declare that democracy does not exist in Mexico, that the popular vote is not respected, both opposed NAFTA, etc. Later, the PRD, party of the Aztec sun, issued a political declaration more in solidarity with the indigenous insurgents. In its "Manifesto of the National Council on the Uprising on the State of Chiapas," published Janaury 17, the PRD called for "political recognition of the EZLN as a belligerent force to effect negotiations and an accord...social and political reforms.... a permanent and effective cease fire...defense of the human rights of the entire population of Chiapas.... complete access to the press, the Red Cross and all humanitarian organizations in the zones of conflict." The PRD believes that the Chiapas rebellion can only be resolved with "urgent modifications of a national character...political, economic and social reforms." In sum, "the National Council of the Party of the Democratic Revolution is in solidarity with the EZLN's cause and calls on all PRD militants to use legal means to defend the rights of the Chiapans and of all the Mexican people." For their part, some of the EZLN leaders have declared that they are not opposed to the electoral struggle of the political parties but as of this writing do not support any of them, because, in their judgement, none of them has raised the demands of the Mexican Indians. The indigenous people of Mexico have not expressed themselves in one voice. In Chiapas itself not all indigenous people support the Zapatistas. But there have been declarations, demonstrations, meetings and other political actions by Mexican Indians in open support of the EZLN. In meetings between 450 Chiapan indigenous leaders representing 20 organizations and the government's Special Peace Commission, indigenous leaders have said that the "armed conflict is the struggle of the Tojolabalesm, Tzeltals, Tzotzils, of the indigenous people; it is just, its is truthful (genuine) because in all the communities there are great needs." From another region where there is grinding poverty and a huge indigenous population, 300 Mixtec, Nahua and Tlapan leaders of the Guerrero Council of 500 Years of Indigenous Resistance sent a message to the EZLN full of poetry and courage during January 23 demonstration: "In the name of our grandmothers and grandfathers and generations sacrificed throughout time; in the name of the sacred mountains and rivers our lands; in the name of the blood and spirit of all the men and women of all our history; in the name of those who never stopped struggling for the land...In the name of shame, the shame of having endured so much misery, death... for so long; in the name of having had to carry our shame on our shoulders, the weight of feeling inferior which was imposed on us since the European invasion... "In the name of all this, and of the birds and butterflies that play with our children, in the name of our struggles and hopes to create a just and egalitarian, society -- more humane and tolerant of diversity, more democratic... in the name of all this, we wish to tell you insurgent indigenous peoples of Chiapas, Tzatzals, Zoques, Tojolabales, Tzeltals, of Mexico and the world: we recognize your great valor to take up arms, exposing yourself to death and struggling to give birth to a just life for all Indians and non-Indians of Mexico." The principal social and political actors of the country have all been shaken by the force of indigenous Mexico. Since January 1, those who have been brutally exploited for centuries are setting the political rhythm of the country. But the outcome is not clearly visible yet. There is still enormous resistance to democratic change and social justice. The government and its party do not want to let go of power. Salinas wants Mexicans and the world to believe that the conflict is limited to a specific region of the poorest state of Mexico. But the EZLN has a very clear sense that it can only triumph if there is a profound political, economic and social transformation in the entire country. They will not lower their weapons until this has happened. The Zapatista rebellion marks a turning point for Mexico. It may provoke a strengthening of authoritarianism, which has deep roots in both the armed forces and in conservative social sectors. The air bombardment and state of siege in the countryside of Chiapas is an expression of this possibility. On the other hand, if the Mexican state shows some political intelligence, and the EZLN some political flexibility, the country could see the first clean and democratic elections in its history next August 21. This in turn could initiate a profound and progressive change in direction for Mexico. It is remarkable what a powerful impact the EZLN has had, seemingly against all odds. They have done it by defying the conventional wisdom, and they have apparently done it on their own. At a time when the wave of revolutions in Central America has been receding, when few have believed in revolutions at all, the Zapatistas have gone ahead and started one. They have found widespread sympathy in Mexico and abroad -- not for the war, necessarily, but for the justice of their cause, and for the passionate demand to break with 500 years of oppression.