zapatista uprising against nafta twenty years later

I’ve been a bit conflicted about which of two tracks to take on this post, either Zapatismo itself, or how their rebellion is so relevant to the present.  I’ve embedded two video interviews concerning the Zapatista Uprising, and will link to Lori Wallach on Democracy Now speaking about the actual-factual effects of NAFTA as opposed to the bullshit promises, and what they mean for the looming potential of the TPP’s being given fast-track status and/or ever being enacted.  (Ye gods and little fishes and yikes, no!)

In some ways, I’d have preferred to discuss the self-governance of the Chiapas autonomous Zaptatista communities now that some more recent articles post-Zapatista ‘Little School’ have been written in English.  Running the various Communiqués from the five caracoles (snails) through online translators produces awkward essays at best.

Also, I’d imagine that you’ve heard enough from me on the egregious corporate power grabs that are the TPP and TAFTA (TTIP) by now, even though a lot of folks seem to be just waking up to the mega-dangers these ‘deals’ pose to the 99% of all potential signatory nations, one of which is the de facto shredding of sovereign laws and regulatory controls in just about every sector you might shake a stick at.

But as joss would have it, yesterday a fast-track Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) bill was introduced by Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.), House Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.) and Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, the top Republican on the Finance panel.  If you click into the link, be advised that you might want to put on some shades to mute the effect of the photo array.

So, given that you might want some extra incentive to call your representatives in the House and Senate, I’m going to leave you a choice as to how much of this post is of interest to you, meaning: I’ll go both directions, you can stop when you’ve a mind to.  Rather Solomonesque a decision, yes?  ‘It’s up to you to split the baby in half…or not.  :)

Concerning the history of Zapatizmo in Chiapas, it’s likely that many of you will be able to add to it, or show me where I’ve gone astray.  Of the two interviews, I prefer the TRRN with Gustavo Esteva; his explanations about creating alternative autonomous rule inside the Belly of the Beast, or perhaps ‘beside it’ more accurately, and the potential for spreading as models to oppressed populations around the world, are very inspirational.

From The Real News Network:

From Democracy Now:

This is the link to ‘NAFTA at 20: Lori Wallach on U.S. Job Losses, Record Income Inequality, Mass Displacement in Mexico’, and how the facts relate to the TransPacific Partnership ‘Agreement’.

To add some background to the history that led to the Zapatista Uprising in 1994, I’m going to borrow from a post I wrote in June, and it will help to understand more about the 1992 events that Esteva had referenced.  It contains video of the winter solstice day in 2012 (the end of the Maya Calendar) on which thousands of Zaptista women, men, and children walked out of the mountain mists in total silence to deliver an alternative to the ‘end of the world’ scenarios that unenlightened gringos had touted.

‘To be heard…we walk in silence, bringing news of the new world we have been building in silence for two decades now.’

Some history via my June post:


zapatista cooperative

Where does one start a story of Chiapas and the Zapatistas? One useful starting point might be during the Spanish conquest of the lands that comprised the narrow isthmus between North and South America. At the time, the Chiapas lowlands were considered to be ‘the breadbasket’ to the indigenous of the region; I’ve read that over 125 different heirloom varieties of maize still exist. But as the Spanish enlarged their appropriated holdings and began farming large coffee and cotton plantations, and created vast cattle ranches, the indigenous Mayans were pushed into the rocky, thin-soiled highlands to eke out an agricultural subsistence. When those lands proved inadequate to their needs, some Mayans cleared the jungled hills to the east; some poor Spanish-speaking residents fleeing poverty in the south joined them.

As ever, when such an underclass is created by ‘the Victors’ of colonization, so does it evolve that a pernicious form of racism and bigotry is also created. That condition still exists today.

Until the early part of the 20th Century, the land outside the native villages in Mexico was the property of the oligarch class. In what now seems a remarkable feat, during the 1930s, President Lazaro Cárdenas created the ejidos system in which millions of hectares of land were distributed to Mexican peasants. The land could not be sold, just passed down through the generations. Cárdenas also nationalized the Mexican petroleum industry, which goes by the name Pemex. During his tenure, he also helped to create a national labor union.

Over the decades, the ejido system was corrupted, and many of the 28,000 parcels of land once again came under the control of the feudal lords of Mexico, often Europeans.

Emilio Zapata, revolutionary hero to the Mexican peasants, often cried, ‘The land belongs to the people who work it’. It became the anthem of those still infused with the spirit of the ejido concept as they their holdings fall prey to the greedy and powerful. His murder by Mexican generals under President Caranza in 1919 in an act of betrayal as he sought a truce, reified his battle cry among the peasants, as did the sense of righteous power he willed to the generations who came after him. That fervor would lie in quiet dormancy for some 40 or 50 years, waiting to be sparked anew.

Poverty and disease among the Mayans in Chiapas and neighboring Oaxaca were rampant. Rumblings of dissent began to emanate from the highlands, rolling among the people. The recently created Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (EZLN), or Zapatista movement, began to accrue more and more members.

Adding fuel to the Indigenous fire, in an arguably stolen election in the 1988, Carlos Salinas was elected President. Under his corrupt rule, privatization of the ejido lands was legalized in 1992; forests, land and water were gobbled up by the feudalist class. On the first of January, 1993, Zapatista communities approved a military offensive by the EZLN. Guerillas seized control of the colonial city of San Cristóbal de las Casas and 5 towns in the surrounding Chiapas highlands.

We have nothing to lose, absolutely nothing, no decent roof over our heads, no land, no work, poor health, no food, no education, no right to freely and democratically choose our leaders, no independence from foreign interests, and no justice for ourselves or our children. But we say enough is enough! We are the descendants of those who truly built this nation, we are the millions of dispossessed, and we call upon all of our brethren to join our crusade, the only option to avoid dying of starvation!

~  Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) Declaration of the Lácandon Jungle, 1993

There’s more in the post about the plots hatched by Chase Manhatten Bank and Israeli Intelligence officers having worked with, and provided weapons and planes to, the Mexican government to quash the uprising.  The ensuing ‘low intensity’ war on civilians was ugly, 20,000 campesinos were displaced, many assassinated.

After the Uprising in which seven cities were taken over by the EZLN, and some recent Feudal Lords had been driven off land the campesinos and campesinas believed was their own, things were chaotic in Chiapas, and the military stepped in to keep order temporarily, but soon, from Warrior Publications:

‘The military leadership held consultations with civilian authorities, and together they decided to create autonomous municipalities in order to bring order and civilian governance to the rebel territory. In December 1994, the Zapatistas inaugurated 38 autonomous municipalities comprised of an undisclosed number of towns. Each autonomous municipality had its own municipal council named by the towns, allowing for increased coordination between towns and more formal organization of civilian affairs. [snip]

In 1997, the Zapatistas formalized the assemblies of municipal councils by creating the Association of Autonomous Municipalities, comprised of representatives from each autonomous municipality. “With the association of municipalities, tasks and work in health, education, and commerce were overseen,” recalls Doroteo. [snnip]

During the creation of the Association of Autonomous Municipalities, the Zapatistas formally redistributed the land they had taken over in the 1994 uprising. Landless Zapatistas left the communities in which they were born to settle on recuperated land they could finally call their own, fulfilling revolutionary hero Emiliano Zapata’s creed, “The land belongs to those who work it.”

In 2003, the Zapatistas inaugurated the third level of their autonomous government, the five Good Government Boards, located in La Realidad, Oventik, La Garrucha, Morelia, and Roberto Barrios. However, the organization of higher levels of government does not mean that the Zapatistas are moving further away from direct democracy through local assemblies. On the contrary, all proposals must be approved by town assemblies.’

The article speaks about the various needs and ways each of the five caracoles (barrios) have implemented citizen ideas and agreed-upon proposals, and chronicles both successes and failures, which led to the Little School’s motto: “First practice, then theory”.

But it really is a ground-up, command-down approach, with even command sometimes sending new proposals down to the various entities, and finally to the people at large.  All are related to the Zapatistas’ demands concerning land, housing, health, education, work, food, justice, democracy, culture, independence, freedom, and peace.  Caracoles vary, for instance, as to how many projects are strictly cooperative, or which projects fund political or other projects.  But all seem to agree that their self-governance is always being fine-tuned, and that’s a very good thing to hear.

In ‘The Zapatista Caracoles: Networks of Resistance and Autonomy’, Pablo González Casanova says of the movement’s new way of thinking and acting:

‘Among the rich contributions of the Zapatista movement toward building an alternative is the recent project of the caracoles (conches),1 which undercuts many empty promises put forward by politicians and intellectuals. The project of the caracoles, according to Comandante Javier, “opens up new possibilities of resistance and autonomy for the indigenous peoples of Mexico and the world—a resistance which includes all those social sectors that struggle for democracy, for liberty and justice for all.” As a commentator in Spain noted: “Zapatismo has become a tool which can be used by all rebellious forces that sail the sea of globalization. It invites us to build towards community and autonomy with the patience and tranquility of a snail.” [snip]

The change has meant several things; among the most important would seem to be the transformation of areas of solidarity among like-minded localities and communities into a network of autonomous municipal governments, which in turn conjoin to form government networks encompassing wider areas and regions. All the communities are involved in building up essential government networks, as well as broader alliances. In all cases, they implement internal and external policies, of neighborhood and village, of the group of villages that make up the municipality, of the villages and authorities that connect various municipalities, and so on.  [snip]

The scale and extent of this new project reflect this movement’s capacity to redefine its rebel agenda, in both thought and action, while at the same time maintaining its fundamental goal of a world with democracy, freedom and justice for all.

The project of the caracoles is the synthesis of many earlier Zapatista demands. It links up with all those forces that fight against neoliberalism, against economic and military war that wreaks havoc in the countries subject to systems of debt and plunder imposed by the World Bank, the IMF, the World Trade Organization, the great powers headed by the government of the United States and its allies and local subordinates such as the current Mexican government, and all the parties that in the Mexican Senate and Chamber of Deputies denied and stripped the indigenous peoples of those rights that they had promised to recognize.

The short-sightedness or blindness of the dominant forces is such, and their arrogance and capacity for self-deception so obstinate, that they cannot see the immense opportunity that is opening up with the march of the caracoles, to impose a peaceful historic change by means of direct negotiation and without cooptation. The Zapatistas offer a new route to peace for Mexico, with doors and windows open to humanity.

Amen.  And the end of the post, but certainly not of Zapatismo.  Stay tuned, as they say.  And I’ve changed my mind, and am embedding the video of the Zapatistas coming out of the misted mountains…in silence, so that they would be heard…

(cross-posted at

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