At 12:30 a.m. on January 1, 1994, scarcely half an hour after the hotly debated North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) had gone into effect, 3,000 masked rebels took control of seven towns in the jungles of Mexico's southern state of Chiapas. And with that, what has come to be known as the global justice movement was born.
For these “Zapatistas”—named after Emiliano Zapata, hero of the Mexican Revolution of 1910—were not like the Latin American guerrilla movements of the past, writes Paul Kingsnorth in The Ecologist (May 2003). Their initial rebellion was quelled quickly by 15,000 Mexican soldiers who hunted them mercilessly. But a surprising surge of public sympathy for the insurgents forced President Carlos Salinas de Gortari to call off his troops, and the rebels melted back into the rainforest within two weeks. Something about them had captured the public imagination, not only in Mexico but around the world.
“For one thing, they claimed that they had no desire to seize state power,” says Kingsnorth. “Their aim, they said, was not to grab ‘power’ on behalf of ‘the people,’ but to dissolve power down to the level of communities—to take back what they claimed had been rightly theirs, before governments and private economic interests stole it from them.”
They spoke in a fresh new language, influenced by indigenous people’s culture. Gone was the familiar talk of Marx, Mao, Lenin, the proletariat, and the bourgeoisie. They spoke “not of a dictatorship of the proletariat but of a rebirth of democracy,” says Kingsnorth. And their spokesman, Subcomandante Marcos, spoke not in traditional political rhetoric but 'in poetry, stories, and riddles.”
The Zapatistas were not the first group to take aim at the power of multinational corporations. But by focusing their actions on NAFTA and encouraging “civil society” to get involved in the struggle, the Zapatistas were certainly the first organized popular uprising against the entire neoliberal economic order.
On a visit to Chiapas while he was researching his new book, One No, Many Yeses (Simon & Schuster), Kingsnorth was struck by what the rebels had accomplished—particularly their commitment to educating their people and promoting the equality of women. Both are fairly radical notions in Chiapas, a traditionally macho culture of poorly educated Mayan peasant farmers.
The status of women has been key to the Zapatistas’ efforts to meld aspects of traditional Mayan culture with newer ideas, Kingsnorth writes. The Zapatistas’ Women’s Revolutionary Law, written by women, “explicitly grants women the same rights as men in all things—including decision making, marriage, and armed combat (up to a third of the Zapatista guerrillas are said to be women).” In fact, the 1994 assault on the state capital of San Cristobal de las Casas was led not by Marcos but by a Mayan woman, Major Ana Maria. Interviewing many Zapatista women, Kingsnorth found that the women’s law “has led to a marked improvement in their lives—and a new confidence in their dealings, as equals, with the traditionally dominant men.”
The Zapatistas may have begun as a military force, but in the past several years they have focused increasingly on taking their movement to the political sphere. In March 2001, to promote a proposed “indigenous bill of rights,” they staged a two-week “Zapatour” from Chiapas to Mexico City. The bus expedition culminated in a rally with 150,000 supporters outside the Mexican Congress, a meeting with government officials, and a promise from President Vicente Fox to make progress on indigenous rights.
In July 2003, citing the government’s foot-dragging on that promise, Marcos announced a reorganization of the governing structures in Zapatista communities. Five “juntas of good government” will now oversee the five geographic regions that constitute Zapatista territory, reports Teo Ballvé in Connection to the Americas (Sept./Oct. 2003), the newsletter of the Minneapolis-based Resource Center of the Americas. “The governing officials will have to resign their posts in the EZLN (Zapatista National Liberation Army), the military arm of the Zapatista movement, since they will not be allowed membership in both organizations simultaneously,” Ballvé writes.
No one knew for certain what would come of that little New Year's Day insurgency 10 years ago. “We know that there are Zapatistas elsewhere in Mexico, that there are Zapatistas all over the world. We are everywhere,” a village leader in Oventic told Kingsnorth.
Looking back, it's clear that “this tiny indigenous rebellion in an overlooked part of Central America would provide the spark that lit a bigger rebellion all across the world,” Kingsnorth concludes. And by the time the global justice movement burst onto the world scene on the streets of Seattle in November 1999 and subsequently in Prague, Washington, D.C., Quebec, Genoa, and most recently in the Mexican city of Cancún, many of the protesters could be heard quoting Subcommante Marcos and carrying signs that read “We Are All Zapatistas.”