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Celebrating the Zapatistas: 20 years of reinventing revolution

Zapatista autonomous schools  COURTESY PHOTO

Zapatista autonomous schools COURTESY PHOTO

By Francisco Alonso

Thanks to Tom Stephens for sharing this article. — GLB

Twenty years have passed since the Zapatistas declared war on the Mexican state for having signed the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), for closing definitively the agrarian reform by modifying article 27 of the Mexican Constitution, and for the lack of institutions to guarantee fair elections in Mexico.

The first day of 1994, the EZLN fought and occupied the municipalities of San Cristóbal, Ocosingo, las Margaritas, Altamirano, Chanal, Huixtán and Oxchuc in Chiapas. The official death toll of the armed struggle was 56 casualties, most of them young indigenous rebels. The EZLN also kidnapped the former governor of Chiapas, Absalón Castellanos Domínguez, together with his wife and his brother. The hostages were released later without any harm inflicted on them.

The Zapatistas were expecting their armed struggle to activate other guerrilla “sleeper cells” throughout in Mexico. They thought that peasant organizations and unions would follow and rise up in arms, starting a revolutionary war against the government.

Indeed, the call resonated in many places of Mexico’s geography and other belligerent groups, unions and peasant and social organizations declared their solidarity with the EZLN. But it quickly became clear it was not enough to overthrow the authoritarian PRI regime; that victory through military means would not be achieved. The revolution they expected didn’t occur and many diagnosed the total failure of the Zapatistas.

Instead, the initial uprising triggered an erratic flow of events. The brief period of armed struggle was followed by a phase of tense and complicated peace talks which culminated in the agreements of San Andrés; several repressive acts perpetrated by paramilitary forces against Zapatistas sympathizers, including the shameful killing of 45 unarmed indigenous women and children praying in a church in the village of Actéal; several referendums to include Mexican and international civil society in their decisions; the mockery of including indigenous rights in the Mexican Constitution; the assassination of human rights activist Digna Ochoa who was defending the Zapatista political prisoners (the Distrito Federal attorney stated she shot herself with a gun, an account no one believes because the bullet came from the left side of her head — Ochoa was right handed); many mobilizations (some of them nationwide) followed by long periods of silence when the EZLN returned to the hills (silence became an event as well and served to intrigue the Mexican government about the next actions of the Zapatistas).

In the long run, there are many reasons why the eventful path of the Zapatistas may be even more surprising than a conventional revolution, like those of the 20th century. Many of the things that happened in these twenty years in Chiapas became crucial events for the creation of the autonomous Zapatista governments, the so-called Juntas de Buen Gobierno; for justice and democracy in Mexico; for the advancement of indigenous rights in Latin America; and for the rise of the global anti-capitalist movement. It is still surprising that indigenous people from Chiapas suddenly rebelled after centuries of quietly suffering appalling conditions of poverty, oppression and abandonment, and it is not very clear yet exactly how it happened. It is not very clear either how the Zapatistas, many of whom carried little more than toy guns carved out of wood, suddenly reached the very epicenter of this global anti-capitalist struggle.

Perhaps, as Eric Hobsbawm thought, the 20th century was a short one, which ended in 1989 with the fall of the Berlin Wall. What happened in Chiapas in 1994 was already outside of the Cold War logic. Perhaps it pulled out of their mourning many of those who felt like orphans when the Soviet Union collapsed. Maybe the radical left was ready for the call (any call) and the Zapatistas were lucky enough to revolt at the exact right historic moment. Perhaps the call was not answered exactly as they thought, but for some reason and without doubt, the Zapatista uprising reached many hearts and resonated in many corners throughout the world.

Reprinted from Jan. 4, 2013.

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