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Issue 1739


  • Who are they?
  • What are they fighting for?
  • Where next for the struggle?

By Sam Ashman

THE ZAPATISTAS marched into Mexico City on Sunday after travelling from the southern state of Chiapas and holding solidarity rallies along the way. They were demanding that Mexico’s president, Vicente Fox, passes a law giving more rights to the indigenous peoples.

The Zapatistas became a symbol of resistance around the world when they rose up on 1 January 1994 and took control of San Cristobal de las Casas in Chiapas. They are based among the Mayan Indians of Chiapas, the descendants of people conquered by Spanish colonisers 500 years ago. From then through to today the Maya have been oppressed and kept in poverty by Mexico’s rulers.

The Zapatistas declared in 1994, “We have been denied the most elemental instruction, in order thus to use us as cannon fodder and loot the wealth of our country without any care for the fact that we are dying of hunger and curable diseases, without any care for the fact that we have nothing, absolutely nothing, no roof worthy of the name, nor land nor work, nor health nor food, nor education, without the right to elect our authorities freely and democratically, without independence from foreigners, without peace or justice for ourselves or for our children.

“Today we say, ‘Basta!’ Enough!” The rebellion struck a chord with people across the world. Subcommandante Marcos, the masked Zapatista leader, argues that they are fighting not just for rights for the Mayan Indians of Chiapas, but are part of a wider struggle against “neo-liberal”-free market-policies and for global resistance and solidarity. “We are you,” says Marcos. “Marcos is gay in San Francisco, black in South Africa, an Asian in Europe, a Chicano in San Ysidro, an anarchist in Spain, a Palestinian in Israel, a Mayan Indian on the streets of San Cristobal, a Jew in Germany, a Gypsy in Poland, a Mohawk in Quebec, a pacifist in Bosnia, a single woman on the streets of the metro at 10pm, a peasant without land, a gang member in the slums, an unemployed worker, an unhappy student.”

At the time of the Zapatista rising Chiapas produced half of Mexico’s hydroelectricity, was the country’s largest coffee exporting state and produced the second largest quantities of oil. It was also an important cattle producer. Yet of the three million people in Chiapas, one third were illiterate, half lived in homes without running water, disease was rampant and life expectancy lower than in the rest of the country.

The date of the 1994 rising was chosen to coincide with the launch of the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, which could only make their lives worse. NAFTA tore down all restrictions on foreign investment and opened up Mexico for big companies to exploit. For some, the Zapatistas do not just provide inspiration in the struggle against neo-liberal free market policies, they provide the world with a new form of politics.

Naomi Klein, the author of No Logo, wrote in the Guardian recently that the Zapatistas have become “theorists of a new movement, another way to think about power, resistance and globalisation. Zapatistas aren’t interested in overthrowing the state or naming their leader, Marcos, as president. If anything, they want less state power in their lives. Their goal is not to win control but to seize and build autonomous spaces where democracy, liberty and justice can thrive. Free spaces, born of reclaimed land, communal agriculture, resistance to privatisation, will eventually create counter-powers to the state simply by existing as alternatives.”

But the Zapatistas face a big question-where do they go from here? If they are to take the struggle against neo-liberalism and the poverty and injustice of Mexican society further, they must confront the very questions that Klein suggests are no longer important. Simply creating an “autonomous zone” or “autonomous spaces” cannot wish away the mighty power of the Mexican state. The support the Zapatista rising got from the rest of Mexican society meant that state did not dare use the army to crush it outright.

But the Zapatista areas have been surrounded by thousands of Mexican army troops, and are often deprived of water, electricity and medical supplies. The army has also repeatedly launched brutal raids and massacres of villagers, like that at Acteal in December 1997.

The bulk of that repression was carried out by the PRI governing party, which ran Mexico for some 70 years. The PRI was finally defeated in presidential elections last year. But the state has not disappeared. The army and police are still intact. New president Vicente Fox says he wants to make peace with the Zapatistas. If Fox does legislate more rights for indigenous peoples it would undoubtedly be a step forward.

But Fox is a former Coca-Cola executive. His policies are the very neo-liberal, free market, agenda that forced the Zapatista rising in the first place. He wants peace in the south in order to make the area “stable for business”. So far foreign investment is concentrated in the border area of the north of Mexico, the “maquiladoras” where Mexicans are exploited as cheap labour by multinational corporations.

Fox and US president George W Bush want to spread this to the isthmus in the south of the country, where Mexico joins Guatemala. To surrender or compromise before such an agenda would be a terrible waste of the heroism of the Zapatista struggle.

But if the Zapatistas fight on, they cannot defeat the neo-liberal agenda alone. Indigenous peoples make up only 10 percent of the population of Mexico and often live in the most remote rural areas. A powerful movement against neo-liberalism can, however, be built by linking together all those who are suffering from its effects. For example, last year students at the National Autonomous University of Mexico staged a huge occupation lasting nearly a year.

Sadly there was no coordinated action between them and the Zapatistas. But it is not just students who the Zapatistas could-and need-to ally with. There are tens of millions of workers across Mexico. In the maquiladoras many of them are struggling to establish unions, fighting for their rights, struggling against the same devastation caused by capitalism that spurs on the Zapatistas.

The capital, Mexico City, is the biggest city in the world, with 22 million inhabitants and vast concentrations of workers. The huge Mexican working class has a far greater size and social weight than either students or indigenous peoples. They can stop the factories. They can take control of production away from the multinationals and the ruthless local bosses. It is not enough to just establish liberated zones in a sea of capitalism and brutality.

The rest of that sea will eventually drown them unless the power of workers is used to break the old order. The question of the state and capitalism cannot be dodged. It is not a boulder in the road you can just steer around. They must both be confronted if all the oppressed are to win lasting social change.

But the Zapatistas got a central question right. NAFTA has resulted in just what they predicted. Mexico today is host to a multitude of foreign investors out to make a profit while 50 percent of the population live in poverty and 15 percent live beneath the extreme poverty line.

These conditions cannot but produce further explosions of struggle that have enormous potential to bring about change. The Zapatistas face choices. Which path they will follow we do not yet know. But as the French mainstream daily Le Monde said last week, “How to translate the struggle of the Indians into broader social and political action? How to become the catalysts of a broader social movement? These are the questions which will confront the Zapatistas in the wake of the march.”

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