Green Left Weekly | Saturday, November 27, 2010
Zapatistas struggle for another Mexico
By David T. Rowlands
In revolutionary Chiapas in Mexico’s south, state-sponsored paramilitary terrorism continues to claim the lives of Mexican citizens who are resisting the dispossession that goes together with “free trade”.
Unlike the drug-related violence in the north, this is a largely unreported war — but the two conflicts are related. Both are by-products of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which was engineered by Washington.
Neoliberal reforms had already bit deep in Mexico’s indigenous south by the mid-1980s. Knowing that they would shortly face a life and death struggle for their mineral and oil-rich ancestral lands, groups of Mayan peasants organised themselves into a secret army of resistance.
Calling themselves the Zapatistas (after the 1910 revolutionary leader and pro-indigenous land reformer Emiliano Zapata), they located their stronghold in the central highlands of Chiapas.
The Zapatistas combined traditional Mayan communalism with elements of libertarian socialist ideology.
Instead of taking over existing power structures, they sought to build an otro mundo (other world), creating a patchwork of autonomous enclaves to replace the capitalist nation state model.
“Everything for everyone”, ran one of their sayings, “and nothing for ourselves”.
Safeguarding and expanding the ejido system of collective land ownership lay at the heart of the Zapatista project. This pitted the Zapatistas and its peasant supporters against the forces of corporate globalisation.
NAFTA came into effect on New Year’s Day, 1994. It condemned tens of millions of “surplus” Mexicans to the scrap heap.
To pave the way for NAFTA, the Institutional Revolution Party (PRI) government amended Article 27 of the Mexican constitution, which had guaranteed indigenous land rights. Now, ejido holdings could be privatised.
Left with no other choice, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) declared war against what its leader Subcomandante Marcos rightly called “a death sentence” for Mexico’s indigenous people.
In the early hours of January 1, thousands of Zapatista rebels seized towns and cities in Chiapas and issued an appeal (known as the First Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle) to the people of Mexico.
“Today we say enough is enough”, it said. “We, the men and women, full and free, are conscious that the war that we have declared is our last resort, but also a just one.
“The dictators are applying an undeclared genocidal war against our people for many years. Therefore we ask for your participation, your decision to support this plan that struggles for work, land, housing, food, health care, education, independence, freedom, democracy, justice and peace.”
The Mexican state responded with predictable brutality. It launched a huge counterattack against the EZLN.
Surrounded on all sides, the Zapatistas held out against overwhelming odds. In doing so, they took heavy casualties. But they captured the sympathy of millions of fellow Mexicans and won supporters around the world.
As pro-Zapatista solidarity demonstrations paralysed Mexico City, the corrupt PRI government had little choice but to enter negotiations. A ceasefire was brokered on January 12, leaving much of Chiapas under Zapatista control.
In the years following the uprising, more than 600,000 acres were confiscated from large landowners and redistributed to peasant families. This challenged (without entirely overcoming) generations of feudal exploitation.
Impressive advances were also made in the areas of democratic governance, income equality, health and education.
Living standards in Chiapas rose throughout the second half of the 1990s. This stood in marked contrast to the rest of Mexico, where NAFTA created a massive internal refugee crisis and an explosion in narcotics trafficking.
The Zapatistas achievements were made under the thumb of the Mexican army, which engaged in every tactic short of all-out war — road blocks, arrests, arbitrary detention and extrajudicial killings — to repress the Zapatistas.
Resorting to dirty war methods, the Mexican state and its backers in Washington encouraged the growth of right-wing paramilitary groups.
On December 22, 1997, 45 members of a Zapatista community were massacred by paramilitaries linked to the national army.
The victims, who had just left a prayer meeting in the village of Acteal, included children and pregnant women associated with a pacifist welfare organisation known as Las Abejas (“The Bees”).
Soldiers garrisoning a nearby outpost did nothing to stop the carnage, which lasted for hours. Afterwards they helped clear away the evidence.
Since Acteal, the paramilitaries have remained active in Chiapas — committing rape, torture and murder with almost complete impunity.
Zapatista sympathisers in the ejido community of Mitziton have been targeted by the “evangelical” paramilitary organisation Ejercito de Dios (Army of God) for resisting the construction of the environmentally destructive San Cristobal-Palenque toll road.
On July 21, 2009, Army of God members drove a truck at high speed into a group of 30 anti-road protesters. Aurelio Diaz Hernandez was killed and five others were injured.
As in Colombia, evidence suggests paramilitaries act as enforcers for foreign corporations. Since NAFTA took effect, US and Canadian mining companies have acquired more than a million hectares of land in Chiapas, displacing thousands of peasants.
On November 27, 2009, assassins in Chicomuselo gunned down Mariano Abarca Roblero, an anti-mining activist opposing the operations of Canadian mining company Blackfire.
In the context of such blatant terrorism, it is little wonder the Zapatistas and their supporters have endured many setbacks.
Today, the EZLN’s presence in many districts is less conspicuous, leading to speculation that they are a spent force.
The Zapatista’s decision to abstain from anti-electoral fraud demonstrations that swept Mexico in 2006 does seem, in retrospect, like an opportunity missed.
Yet, in spite of the many challenges facing them, Zapatista communities in Chiapas remain animated by a spirit of courage and dignity, proving that another Mexico — and another world — is possible.
“I’m happy because we’re here living in this place, this village”, one resident of the Zapatista village of Juan Diego said in an October 7 GlobalPost article.
“The landowners used to not even let us step over here onto their land. But it’s all different now. We have what we didn’t have before : the land.”