Mexican Insurgents and Global Politics

We are all Zapatistas


| November-December 2003


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.