Bitter celebration: 25 years of the Zapatista Experience,by Jérôme Baschet // Amarga celebración. Los 25 años de la experiencia zapatista


The Zapatistas in Chiapas have just celebrated 25 years since their uprising on the 1st of January 1994. The armed uprising declared “Enough!” (¡Ya basta!) to the five centuries of colonial domination that indigenous communities have suffered; to the Partido Revolucionario Institucional’s decades of “perfect dictatorship”; and to the neoliberal policies that brought about the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) that went into effect the same day. It was also a rejection of the supposed “end of history” proclaimed by the apologists of omnipotent capitalism.  The uprising and the various successive adventures created space to build a very unique experience of political autonomy: first with the declaration of thirty autonomous municipalities as of December 1994 and with more force from August 2003 when the five Good Government Councils were created. In this context, Zapatista men and women have built their own self-government and justice. They maintain their own health and education systems; revitalize productive practices based on collective ownership of the land and new ways of collective working to materially maintain autonomy. For them, autonomy is an affirmation of their own ways of life, rooted in community existence and the rejection of capitalist plans that destroy them. At the same time theirs is an experiment in popular self-goverment being built outside of the institutions of the Mexican state. This experience is taking place on a significant geographical scale (about half of the state of Chiapas), and not only have they persisted for 25 years, they work constantly on their own self-transformation. 

For these reasons, Zapatista autonomy is a star shining very high in the sky with the hopes and aspirations of people who do not resign themselves to the devastation wrought by the capitalist hydra (and we may add that this star can be touched with the hand and the heart, and it is even possible to visit the inhabitants of the star). So all the people who made the long journey to the caracol  [1]  La Realidad in the Lacandon Jungle for the 25th anniversary of the daring uprising were prepared to share the joy of this rebellious experience which has overcome numerous obstacles, resisted the inevitable test of time and continues to demonstrate undeniable creativity. In this regard, simply recall the intense series of initiatives of the last six years, particularly the Little Zapatista School (la Escuelita zapatista), the World Festival of Rebellions and Resistance, the international seminar “Critical Thought in the Face of the Capitalist Hydra”, the various gatherings exploring art and science (CompArte por la Humanidad and ConCiencias por la Humanidad) and the recent impressive Puy ta kuxlejaltik film festival. And that’s not even mentioning the joint initiative carried out with the National Indigenous Congress to form a nationwide Indigenous Government Council with its spokesperson “Marichuy” running as an independent candidate in the last presidential elections.However, the anniversary was anything but a happy party. Subcomandante Moises stated it clearly:  “This time, we just can’t take on an anniversary”[2]. In fact the essence of the message was not so much expressed by the Zapatista spokesperson’s words but by the EZLN’s forceful military demonstration. For many years the military dimension has been in the background, but by no means did it ever disappear. After the arrival of the commanders on horseback, interminable ranks of civilian militia marched into the caracol filling the central square along with the powerful clamor of their canes which they struck in rhythm to their steps on the ground [3]. Three thousand combatants in total, coming from the five Zapatista autonomous zones and part of the 21st Zapatista Infantry Division, the same body that had occupied seven municipal centres in  Chiapas 25 years ago.

For people visiting Zapatista territory for the first time, they could have thought that it was the customary annual ritual celebrating the 1994 insurrection. On the contrary, the end of year celebrations on the 31st of December, with speeches and dance, tend to take place without any military presence, as is the case with most of the gatherings the EZLN organise. And while they do on some occasions, like when the militia assured the security in La Realidad after the assassination of community leader Galeano in May 2014, to find a comparable military demonstration we probably have to go back to the Democratic National Convention in Guadalupe Tepeyac in the summer of 1994, when the soldiers were armed, an important difference. In general, the non-military nature of the Zapatista meetings and celebrations is logical since the ceasefire of January 12, 1994 (with the exception of the lightning-fast movement that broke the siege in December 1994), the EZLN has suspended the offensive use of weapons. Instead they prioritise the construction of autonomy and doing everything possible to avoid responding to the provocations of both the federal army and the paramilitary groups that constantly attack Zapatista communities.In short, both the “set design” and the place chosen for the event indicated a return to the early days of the public life of Zapatismo. Later, Subcomandante Moisés’s speech, combative and with incisive rudeness, put the dots over the i’s. Just as with the speeches at the beginning of the previous six-year presidential terms of E. Zedillo and V. Fox, Moisés defined the position of the EZLN regarding the new Mexican government. Although the Zapatista analysis of the situation created by the election of A.M. López Obrador is not a surprise. They shared it in August last year [4], but this time the message was addressed to the new president inaugurated on 1 December 2018. Despite what Lopez Obredor has made some 30 million voters believe, for the Zapatistas the new president is not a bearer of hope but nothing more than a “catapult” into the great estate of globalized capitalism. Now, Subcomandante Moisé focused his criticism on the mega-projects that the current president promotes with an energy that none of his predecessors had. Of course this is done in the name of progress, employment and the fight against poverty and relies on a long-established rhetoric cataloging and condemning all those who oppose such projects are as retrograde conservatives and enemies of collective welfare, if not simply anachronistic primitivists. But, for the indigenous peoples, and not only them, these mega-projects mean above all the dispossession of their territories and accelerated destruction of their ways of life [5]. Subcomandante Moisés sums it:  “Now we are seeing that they are coming for us, the original peoples.”

Among the many mega-projects, there is the one in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec where not only the expansion of the wind turbine farms affects communities that have struggled for years against the project, but also the creation of a special economic zone and a corridor of “multi-modal inter-oceanic communication” capable of competing with the Panama Canal (an old project that various neoliberal governments never managed to achieve).Another plan that does not stop fueling suspicions of conflict of interest is the planting of a million hectares with commercial fruit and forest trees, with focus in the southeastern states of the country. Simply take into account that Alfonso Romo, a player in Mexican agro-business, head of the Office of the Presidency and a key figure for the relationships between López Obrador and business leaders, is also owner of many other companies based in Chiapas that produce millions of papaya seedlings every year [6]. 

Subcomandante Moisés talked more than anything about the Tren Maya (Mayan Train) which plans to connect Palenque in Chiapas with the main tourist and archaeological sites in the Yucatan peninsula. This proposal would intensify the exploitation of the natural resources of the peninsula (between the years 2000 and 2016 14,000 km2 of jungle was destroyed) and above all increase the big tourist centres and all that that brings:  privatisation, destruction and pollution of the coastal zones. The president pointedly lamented that so far they have focused exclusively on the Riviera Maya [7].The slogan of the discourse seems to be: one, two, three … dozens of Cancuns. Apart from the natural areas that will be destroyed by the project, the way it was announced presented the Zapatistas with an unacceptable provocation. On December 16 last year, the new president visited Palenque, just a few kilometers from Roberto Barrios, to officially open the construction of the project where he took part in a pseudo-ritual honouring the Mother Earth. Subcomandante Moisés commented with irony that it was if Lopez Obrador had said:  “Mother Earth give me permission to destroy the original peoples,” and if only Mother Earth could speak she would have said “Fuck off”. 

In addition to all this, for the Zapatistas, the fact that this project carries the name of their ancestors makes it truly offensive. The parody of the Mayan ritual was considered a “mockery” and a “humiliation”. It was as if addressing Mother Earth –  instead of asking the people in the region  – was as a way of hiding the fact that the inhabitants of the affected area had not been asked their opinions about the project. It must be remembered that the organisation of a prior, free and informed consultation process, is an obligation of the States who have signed the International Labour Organisation Convention 169 (C169) and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, both of which Mexico has ratified. In short, those newly in power appear to lean on Mother Earth to better destroy her and to authorise themselves the right to violate international agreements in force in Mexico [8].Faced with the creeping, brutal threat of the capitalist hydra disguised as progress, the Zapatistas firmly and thoroughly expressed their position: “We are not going to give up”;  “No matter how small the provocation, we will defend ourselves”; “We will not allow this project of destruction to pass through our territory”; “We will fight if necessary.” The warning couldn’t be clearer. And this is what is behind the military deployment that preceded these words:  the 3,000 soldiers that we saw passing in front of us, as well as all those soldiers that we didn’t see, they are ready to give their lives to defend the territory and the autonomy that the people have built there. 
However, this message shouldn’t be interpreted as a return to armed struggle, as it could have been before 1 January 1994. Now it is a defensive option. It’s about defending the construction of civilian autonomy that continues to be at the heart of the Zapatista project. Everything that we have accomplished so far, explained Moisés, has been the fruit of our effort and “we are going to continue building and we will win.” The bet is on continuing with the civilian experience of autonomy, and to do this, it is necessary to defend it from the threats that surround us with all the means necessary.   

Other things subcomandante Moisés said provoked more than a few comments and questions. Throughout his speech the Zapatista spokesperson repeated “we are alone” which to many people felt like a punch in the stomach. Did this mean that all the effort the EZLN put into weaving links over the past quarter century with the National Indigenous Congress, the Indigenous Government Council, the Sixth (la Sexta) as a national and international network of struggles, the networks of the  Indigenous Government Council and the solidarity collectives all around the world, etc – was all in vain? Was this a reference to an inability to overcome inertia and divisions as a way to advance the formation of networks of rebellions and resistances at a national and international level? Rather, it is necessary to take into account the broad nature of this discourse which marks a strategic decision in the face of the new Mexican government. And in all likelihood it also represents a key moment in the trajectory of the Zapatista movement. On that matter, it could be that  subcomandante Moisés was referring to the majority of Mexican voters who did not pay attention to the Zapatistas’ warnings. In addition, his words held up a mirror saying “we are alone” just as we were at the moment when “we alone went and woke up the people of Mexico and the world 25 years ago.” That is to say, just like the decision for the uprising was wholly taken by the EZLN, again the decision to prepare to confront the federal government is the EZLN’s alone [9].This decision is based on the analysis of what the new Mexican government proposes with its deepening of capitalism through unbridled development and no limits, to the extent of almost completely ignoring growing concern about global warming and making very little effort to even fake any interest in ecological issues. Although López Obrador is not a climate denier, on this point he is not very different from Trump, with whom in fact, he has very cordial relations. In this regard, it was announced that the “Mayan Train” would allow the use of a large Central American workforce (as well as other investments to be made in the southern part of the country), which means that the mega-projects of the current government clearly function to contain the flow of migrants to the United States [10]. In a way, Trump is right to insist that Mexicans will end up paying for the wall, but it may not be where it was expected to be.

It is likely that the lesson of the so-called progressive governments of Latin America over the last fifteen years, especially in Brazil, Argentina, Bolivia and Ecuador, also has remarkable weight. Although some specific positive points can be observed, two constants of great importance have been identified: on the one hand, a weakening of social movements, especially of indigenous movements, through cooptation, loss of autonomy, division and self-censorship (so as not to play into the hands the right or the extreme right). On the other hand, there is an unprecedented advance of the market’s advance, through mega-projects, extractivism, GMO agribusiness, land grabbing and the destruction of ways of life sorely shaped by social relations warped by capitalists, etc. In short, “progressivism” has been, at least temporarily, one of the most efficient political tools making the capitalist hydra stronger and feeding its insatiable appetites. Instead of waiting for policies of the same kind to produce their deadly effects little by little (and, probably a disappointing experience will then follow as the Argentine and Brazilian examples show with a return to ultra-liberalism or the slide to the extreme right), the Zapatistas preferred to take the lead. Therefore, they challenge the new man in power, forcing him to choose between two of his solemn commitments (one, to carry out the announced major projects, and two, to never repress the Mexican people). They also oblige everyone, men and women, especially those in social movements and indigenous struggles, to choose sides. Above all, they are preparing to defend what they have been building for a quarter of a century: an experience of rebel autonomy with scope and radicalism that have few equivalents in the world.And us? Are we going to let this experience be threatened and perhaps attacked? In fact, this risk is intensified at the moment now as Syrian Kurdistan is also seriously under threat by the announced withdrawal of the United States and the tacit agreement between Erdogan and Trump. As an Argentine friend wrote, without Zapatismo (and we can add, without the Rojava’s democratic confederalism), the world would be much more horrible than it is now [11].

[1] Caracol:  the name of the political-cultural centers located in each of the five large autonomous zones, where the Good Government Councils are located and the main activities and Zapatista meetings are held
[3] Shots taken from a drone can be seen on the EZLN page: Also:
[4] Three-part text entitled 300 (in particular:
[5] Since 2014, the EZLN and the CNI have identified 29 “mirrors” in the country where infrastructure projects, highways, mining, energy, etc. they seriously affect indigenous territories:
[6] Luis Hernández Navarro offered a striking portrait of A. Romo:
[7] “The so-called “Mayan Train’”, Ojarasca (suplemento de La Jornada), diciembre de 2018, p. 4-5.
[8] On November 24 and 25, 2018, there was a national consultation on 10 projects and plans the  president-elect has been organizing, held in a very short time and without prior debate. 950,000 people participated in it (around 1% of the electoral roll), with an approval of between 90 and 95%. Needless to say, this consultation has nothing to do with the one required by ILO Convention 169. 
[9] That is to say, the EZLN is careful not to implicate anyone in its decision, even those who, up to now, have supported the Zapatista struggle. It must be emphasized that the CNI and the IGC immediately issued a statement in which they affirm that any aggression against the Zapatista communities would be considered as an aggression against them.:
[10] After his election, the new Mexican president sent a letter to the United States insisting on the need to address the migration problem through an investment plan in southern Mexico and the Central American countries.

Jérôme Baschet
translation:  colectivo esporádico 

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