Interview with Subcomandante Marcos
A Time to Ask, a Time to Demand, and a Time to Act
Gloria Muñoz Ramírez | January 16, 2004

Americas Program,
Interhemispheric Resource Center (IRC)

The Beginning of the War: Motives, Memories, and Confrontations
The beginning of the war represents for us pain but also hope. As we see it now, the war is what made it possible for everything that happened afterward. The successes over the past nine years wouldn’t have been possible without those first hours of armed uprising.
Apart from the confrontations between the EZLN and the Federal Army there is another confrontation that isn’t in itself aggressive, namely between the EZLN and what we call civil society. This encounter begins in the first minutes of the uprising and, in some ways, pushes the federal army–one of the parties–completely to the sidelines.
If you look at the pictures from that Jan 1 st, 1994 you see the almost promiscuous relationship between the Zapatista troops and civil society. What I have in my mind’s eye now is the surprise of the civilians surrounding the insurgents. Also the surprise and amazement that we showed, in our looks and in our faces, at meeting these people. There wasn’t exactly camaraderie but there wasn’t aggression either. Like both sides were convinced that the other wasn’t the enemy.
From the outset, this characterizes what will be the relationship throughout all these years of meetings, clashes, and reconciliations between the EZLN and civil society. It’s important to point out that this encounter happens right away; so from the very beginning the government and the army start to be pushed aside. They are there, as an aggressive force you have to fight against. But they have little or nothing to do with what will be built–not what will be destroyed–over these nearly ten years. It’s a surprising relationship, like “oh, there you are!”on both sides, Zapatistas and civilians, from Jan 1, 1994 on.
During all the days of combat the attitude of civil society toward the insurgents is to try to find out who they are, what they’re like, what they think, what they want. To try to understand what made them make this decision. Meanwhile, the attitude of the federal government and the army was to wipe them out, bury them, destroy them, eliminate them. And let’s say that after the first battles where we took the municipal seats, we were just busy fighting, planning retreats, and surviving.
Usually in a war the civilians are the refugees or victims, and in this one they weren’t either one, although of course there were cases where there were refugees and displaced people in those days. But in most cases there they were–in the plazas where we fought, in the plazas where we moved around, where there were battles. The majority of the civilian population didn’t flee in the presence of our troops.
From the first hours of this war–that’s been going on for ten years now–there has been this encounter and the federal government and its troops are displaced from the place of being the most powerful counterpart. I believe that this has been decisive for many things that have happened afterwards.
There’s another thing, the Zapatista way of making decisions, of building things from the ground up, not deciding from the top down. This is what gave us the strength and confidence that we were doing the right thing when we started the war. It’s one of the doubts a combatant usually has, among many others, about whether it’s the right thing. We had a lot of doubts–when to move, what people’s response would be, how the enemy army would respond–but we didn’t doubt the legitimacy of what we were doing. I don’t mean the personal decision of each combatant–that’s a huge weight, having to decide to fight to the death to get something. No, I’m referring to what it meant to us to carry out an action with collective support, in this case, the support of tens of thousands of indigenous people and thousands of combatants.
Ten Years: The Fire and the Word
Instead of dividing this period in big stages, we distinguish three main axes of operations over the last ten years. The axis of what we call fire , which refers to military actions, preparations, battles, basically military movements. And the one called the word , which refers to meetings, communiqués, wherever there’s the word or silence, that is, the absence of the word. And the third, the backbone , refers to the organizational process that the Zapatista communities evolve over time. These axes–the fire and the word, articulated by the axis of the people, of their organizational process–are what mark the ten years of the public life of the EZLN.
The fire and the word appear with more or less intensity in certain periods and for greater or lesser duration, and with more or less impact in the life of the EZLN and its surroundings or in the national or international arenas. But the two axes are always determined by the structures developed by the villages. As we’ve said many times: the (communities) are not only the sustenance of the EZLN, but the road that the EZLN walks along. The rhythm of its step, the interval between one step and the other, the speed, has to do with the organizational process of the villages.
Sometimes fire is more visible, I mean the military part–preparing for combat, mobilizations, manoeuvres, battles, offensives, or retreats. In other cases, it’s mostly the word or the silences built around the word, the speaking by being silent , as we say. Throughout these ten years, one or the other has prevailed but always they are predicated on the way the villages are organizing. The EZLN bases of support don’t organize the same way for war as for dialogue with the government or with civil society, or to resist, or to build autonomy, or to build other forms of government, or to relate to other movements, or to other organizations, or to people not from movements or organizations.
The Zapatista bases of support have adopted styles along the way that aren’t in any book or manual, or, of course, in anything we have told them. They’re forms of organization that have a lot to do with their experience, and I don’t just mean the ancestral and historic experience that comes from centuries of resistance, but also the experience they’ve gained already organized as Zapatistas.
The EZLN and Indigenous Struggle
Following history, our history, when the revolutionary laws were being discussed in 1993 in the Clandestine Revolutionary Indigenous Committee (that is, the leaders of the different Indian peoples: Tzeltal, Tzotzil, Tojolabal, Chol, Zoque, and Mam), it was debated whether we would emphasize certain indigenous demands of the EZLN in the moment of the uprising, and the side that argued better and that won said that we had to give it a national character, so that the movement wouldn’t be seen as having just regional or “ethnic” objectives. Because the danger is that they would see our war as a war of Indians against mestizos, and that was a danger to be avoided. I think that the decision was correct, that the First Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle is convincing and clear, that the clearer definition of the indigenous issue as the movement advanced after becoming public, after the start of the war, was also correct and very modest. We never tried to take the lead or speak in the name of all the Indian people of Mexico .
Now the EZLN in a public way does not present itself or conceive of itself as a watershed in the indigenous struggle. We present ourselves, as it says in the First Declaration, as part of a process of struggle that goes way back and that can be found in many places. In the case of Mexico , the indigenous struggle didn’t start in 1994 or in Chiapas : Before January 1994 there were many struggles of resistance, of valuable experiences in many parts of Mexico with other Indian peoples in different regions of the country. And the EZLN has always said that.
Round One of the San Andrés talks on Indigenous Rights and Culture did not represent the EZLN. If we thought we were the leaders of the national indigenous movement, we would have gone alone. But we invited organizations, groups, intellectuals; all those who have worked with and know the demands of Indian peoples. The group included differentiated viewpoints that can loosely be grouped as pro-autonomy. This was important to say from the beginning because at the start of the movement in the first months, the political class and much of the communications media affirmed that the main problem or that the fundamental indigenous issue in Mexico was a problem of charity. That is, that the indigenous people are poor and should be given hand-outs, in this case, more hand-outs, and more pity.
At first, the indigenous problem was described as a problem of material poverty and not how the EZLN and before it other indigenous peoples and organizations in the rest of the country had defined it–as something more complex that implied cultural issues, self-government, autonomy, and not just the lack of a larger hand-out. At first much of national and international public opinion saw the problem as “poor Indians, we have to help them a little, so they have a good house and a good education”–thinking that education is the way for the Indian to stop being Indian, learn Spanish, forget his or her language, become mestizo (mixed blood) or Ladino as they used to say, and the moment they stopped being indigenous everything would be better.
So that’s the first stage of the indigenous struggle. It is recognized that in Mexico and in the world the living conditions of indigenous peoples are disastrous, prehistoric. And one compares this situation with the project of Salinas de Gortari, a project to enter the First World , of a country capable of competing under globalization. But evidently, the indigenous problem wasn’t the only thing in the comparison.
In the second stage, around the dialogues of San Andrés, all these experiences and demands can be grouped in the moment in which the EZLN explicitly renounces, and acts on its word, the role of vanguard or leader of this rich and varied indigenous movement. The people then realize that the indigenous problem is not only economic but also cultural, political, and social. And they begin to look at experiences in other places, begin to get to know each other, and articulate their views in the San Andrés Accords that include the demand for autonomy, self-government, and cultural demands. This is what will later be incorporated in the Zapatista autonomous municipalities and in the Boards of Good Government, not only as a product of the Zapatista experience but also gathering all that we had learned from our contact with the national indigenous movement and in some cases with the international movement.
In this second stage, the indigenous movement builds in Mexico , alongside the EZLN but not directed by it–this kind of bridge or common cause that unites us all that will be the San Andrés Accords. (The Accords are) the constitutional recognition of Indian peoples to govern and be governed… Because when things are thought of only in terms of charity, the PRI, the PAN, and the PRD say, ‘if it’s about giving more money, fine, we keep a part of it and give them the other, we can buy votes like that, etc.’ But when the demands of Indian peoples are couched in terms of political organization and forms of government, the political parties no longer agree. As demonstrated in the Congress and now in their campaigns.
In the second stage we begin to build a consensus on indigenous demands to publicize within the national indigenous movement and outside it: in civil society, to the media, through other social organizations. This stage ends when the Congress legislates against the rights with the support of the Executive branch, and later this decision is validated by the Supreme Court. In this moment, this stage ends and the current stage begins. In sum, in the first stage, certain rights are claimed as necessary; in the second, we demand these rights; and in the last stage we exercise these rights. That’s where we are now.
The World between 1994 and 2003
We had thought about and imagined the world we found in January 1994. The break-up of the socialist camp had happened and armed struggle wasn’t very popular in Latin America , let alone in other parts of the world. That is what we expected. But the advance of neoliberalism and globalization in all the world turned out to be a surprise, because we saw that not only had the process of destruction and reconstruction that we mentioned in some of our texts advanced, but also the birth and maintenance of forms of resistance and struggle throughout the whole world. The socialist or communist internationals, or the international mutual networks to oppose capitalism had disappeared, but foci of resistance had emerged in various places and were multiplying.
This is why the uprising has been so well received in much of the international community, among organized people or people who want to be organized. And I’m referring to something beyond the feeling of pity or compassion for what the EZLN uprising meant and the revelation of the indignant conditions that indigenous people lived in before January 1, 1994 , which is totally legitimate. That’s what it was for many people. But for others it also meant a serious political project.
This world we found in 1994, even if we had imagined it, we didn’t quite understand it, and so we didn’t understand the way we were received in many groups, especially in groups of young people of all political tendencies and convictions We didn’t completely understand why the Zapatista movement caused this sympathy and why they created solidarity committees in all five continents.
The world of today, ten years later, is more polarized. This is what we predicted: that globalization is not producing the global village but a world archipelago that is getting narrower. [The differences] are getting sharper, not only in the economic, political, and social interests of this huge society, of power in general, to divvy up, conquer, and destroy the world. But also in the growth of resistance, rebellion that grows autonomously, independent, not in a consequential line, not like a resistance that can be spread to all parts of the world, but that acquires its particular form everywhere.
The Antiglobalization Movement–We Weren’t the First
The antiglobalization movement or, as it’s called now, alter-globalization .we don’t think that it’s a linear movement, with precedents and consequences, nor that it has to do with geographic situations or calendars, dates like first, Chiapas, then Seattle, then Genoa, and now Cancun . It isn’t that one precedes the other and inherits it.
We conceived of our movement and declared it in 1994 to international media as a symptom of something that was happening and was about to happen. We used the image of the iceberg, we are, we said, the tip of the iceberg that is sticking up and soon other tips will emerge in other places, and something larger below will surge up to the surface.
In this sense, Chiapas doesn’t precede Seattle as much as it announces Seattle . Seattle is the continuation. Seattle is another manifestation of this world rebellion that is gestating outside of political parties, outside of traditional channels of politics. And it’s that way with every one of the demonstrations, and I don’t mean only those that have followed the WTO and have become its worst nightmare, but other kinds of more lasting demonstrations or mobilizations or movements against the globalization of death and destruction.
We are more modest as to our place. We are a symptom and we think that our duty is to maintain ourselves as much as possible as a handle, a point of reference. But not as a model to follow. That’s why we never disputed, nor will we say, that Chiapas and the Continental and Intercontinental Meetings were the beginning. The rebellion in Chiapas is called Zapatista; but in Seattle it’s called something else; in the European Union something else; in Asia something else; in Australia something else. Even in Mexico, in other places the rebellion has another name.
We are pleased by this alterglobalization movement in the sense that it doesn’t repeat the vertical model of top-down decisionmaking, and that helps it not have a central command, directives or something like that. And that the movement has known to respect the differences within it–the thoughts, the currents, the styles, the interests, and the form of decisionmaking.
We view the antiglobalization or alterglobalization movement as still rich in experiences, with much to contribute, and we think that it will give a lot, as long as it doesn’t fall in the temptation of structures. The risk that always exists is that a movement is converted into a show of personalities when these personalities don’t even have the support of mobilizations on their own home turf.
We think that this movement is translating not only into a critique of the model that the WTO and others represent, but also, in many aspects it’s building alternatives not just on paper but in forms of grassroots organization in many places where you can say that there are the seeds of this other possible world.
It’s often said that diverse movements in Mexico and other parts of the world have seen in Zapatismo an example of struggle and even that some have taken up its principles to build their own resistance. We say: to those who follow our example, don’t follow it. We think that everyone has to build his and her own experience and not repeat models. In this sense, Zapatismo offers a mirror, but a mirror that isn’t you, it just helps you see how you are, to comb your hair in a certain way, to fix yourself up a little. We say, look at our mistakes and achievements–if there are any–the things that can serve to build your own processes. But don’t try to export Zapatismo or import it. We think that the people have enough courage and wisdom to build their own process and their own movements, because they have their own histories. This should be not only welcomed, but encouraged.

On the EZLN in the indigenous movement:
“.the EZLN has never presented itself as the representative, the leader or the conductor of all the Indian peoples of Mexico . The EZLN has always said that it only speaks for the Indian peoples that are organized within the EZLN, concretely, in south-eastern Mexico ”
On self-criticism:
“If time could be turned back, what we would not do again is allow and. encourage. that the figure of Marcos get so blown out of proportion.”
On Mexico ‘s Indigenous Rights Reform:
“.it was a failure of the whole political class, not just Vicente Fox, but all branches of the nation, all the political parties. If we had triumphed it would not only have been exemplary for Mexico , but for the world. It would have been a precedent to orient dialogues and negotiations all over the world. But instead, they preferred to shut themselves up in their room and count their money, instead of resolving the problem and establishing a precedent for international conflicts.”
On women in the EZLN:
“In the EZLN we think that the liberation movement, the emancipation of women, has a lot to do with their material conditions. A woman can’t be independent and free if she depends economically on a man. In this sense, the progress made in the indigenous women’s cooperatives allows them to have an income and gain economic independence; it allows them to do many things they couldn’t do before. And we are trying to spread that. but we’re still very far still because it’s so tied up with economic conditions in the Zapatista communities.”
On the Boards of Good Government:
“The main challenge is the same one we’ve always faced: learning. The Boards of Good Government are now in the learning process, to delimit their functions with respect to the autonomous municipalities, because in the first few days they had cases of invasion of functions.”
On silence:
“We discovered silence later, when we discovered that the government was more interested in that we talked–it didn’t even matter if we were insulting them–but that we said something because they thought that then they knew what we were up to. And when we are silent they don’t know what we’re doing. An army that has used the word as a fundamental weapon, when it becomes quiet, makes them worry.”
Gloria Muñoz Ramírez is a Mexican author and journalist. This article was excerpted with permission from her book 20 y 10: El fuego y la palabra (Mexico City: Rebeldía/La Jornada, 2003).

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Published by the Americas
Program at the Interhemispheric Resource Center (IRC). ©2004. All
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Recommended citation:
Gloria Muñoz Ramírez, "Interview with Subcomandante Marcos:
A Time to Ask, a Time to Demand, and a Time to Act," Americas Program (Silver City, NM: Interhemispheric
Resource Center, January 16, 2004).
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Production information:
Writer: Gloria Muñoz Ramírez
Editor: Laura Carlsen, IRC
Layout: Tonya Cannariato, IRC