Socialist Worker

Zapatistas looking to take power?

Issue No. 1973

One of the disasters that have afflicted different parts of the world in recent months, was Hurricane Stan, which swept southern Mexico and Central America nearly three weeks ago.

Flooding and mudslides killed over 1,000 people — about the same number that died in Hurricane Katrina, though of course that got vastly more publicity. Among the worst affected were the coastal regions of the Mexican state of Chiapas.

Chiapas is best known as the site of the Zapatista rebellion, which broke out on 1 January 1994, the day that the North American Free Trade Agreement came into force. Named after the greatest hero of the Mexican Revolution, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) is a coalition of indigenous people and ex-Maoist activists with connections with the radical wing of the Catholic church.

While they weren’t able to break the power of the Mexican state, they captured the imagination of a world growing sick of free-market capitalism. This was particularly thanks to the panache and wit of the EZLN’s best-known leader, the perpetually ski-masked Subcommandante Marcos.

National and international support allowed the Zapatistas to keep the Mexican army at bay. In 2001 they mounted a countrywide “march for indigenous dignity” to demand a law granting indigenous people autonomy.

The bill was blocked in the Mexican congress. So the EZLN withdrew to their mountain strongholds in Chiapas. But this didn’t mean their influence vanished. I was able to see this for myself when I took part in a conference on “Empire and Resistances” at the Metropolitan Autonomous University in Mexico City at the beginning of October.


The idea of autonomy — in other words, that the best way to fight capitalism is to carve out a space where you can survive — dominated the conference. This is summed up by the slogan, “Change the world without taking power”, coined by John Holloway, who lives in Mexico and who spoke at the conference.

The problem with this is that, if you ignore capitalism and the state, this doesn’t mean that they will ignore you. Interestingly, the Zapatistas seem themselves to be acknowledging this in a document called “The Sixth Declaration of the Lacandon Forest” that they issued this summer.

What has brought things into focus is the fact that there is a presidential election next year.

Tipped to win is Andrés Manuel López Obrador, of the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD). He is the ex-mayor of Mexico City, running on a pro-free market platform similar to that of Lula in Brazil and the other centre-left leaders now ruling much of Latin America.

Maybe because of López Obrador’s candidacy, the Zapatistas have moved into national politics. Indeed, the Mexican Trotskyists to whom I spoke argued that the Sixth Lacandon Declaration amounted to a break with the tacit alliance the EZLN had hitherto had with the PRD as the most left wing of the established parties.

Certainly the declaration is more radical than previous Zapatista documents.

It denounces not merely neo-liberalism, but also capitalism itself. It also praises struggles taking place elsewhere in Latin America, and also those of “social Europe”.

The declaration pledges the EZLN to “forge new relationships of mutual respect and support with persons and organisations who are resisting and struggling against neo-liberalism and for humanity”.

It also promises “to build, or rebuild, another way of doing politics”, based on “a national programme of struggle, but a programme which will be clearly of the left, or anti-capitalist, or anti-neoliberal, or for justice, democracy and liberty for the Mexican people”.

The Zapatistas’ “other campaign”, which will not field a presidential candidate, starts in the new year with a national speaking tour by Marcos. It looks as if they are beginning to recognise that changing the world must involve confronting political power.

Click here to subscribe to our daily morning email newsletter 'Breakfast in red'

Article information

Alex Callinicos
Sat 22 Oct 2005, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1973
Share this article


Mobile users! Don't forget to add Socialist Worker to your home screen.