In early August 1994 the Zapatistas held the first National Democratic Convention in the rebel community of Guadalupe Tepeyac, site of the political and cultural center know as Aguascalientes, deep in the Lacandón jungle of Chiapas. I recall how a great storm hit the place and turned everything into a huge mud-bath. But more importantly, I remember the procession, before the storm, of the Zapatista support bases that seemed endless due the large number of men, women and children who marched carrying rifles with white ribbons attached, as symbols of the peaceful commitment of a movement that had rejected the dominant idea that there was no alternative to neoliberal globalization.
Twenty years after the rebellion, we can say that, against the current, the Zapatistas have maintained this peaceful struggle to create other forms of living and thinking. Today, they continue to defy a Mexican political system, which, despite changes in the parties that hold power, conserves many elements of the authoritarianism that existed prior to 1994.
We can address the political significance of Zapatismo from two perspectives: one that concerns its interactions with the existing political structures and one that focuses on the construction of autonomous forms of government where alternatives created by the communities themselves are practiced. The Zapatistas have made contributions in both senses and at the same time have encountered problems that they have had to overcome. In this regard, Zapatismo shares with indigenous movements in Latin America the problem of how to change the national political system while simultaneously maintaining autonomous spaces in which the right to difference is respected.
Before discussing these two aspects of Zapatismo, we should remember some of the conditions that existed prior to the rebellion, particularly three forms of authoritarianism that existed in Chiapas in the 1970s and 1980s: corporatism, clientelism and caciquismo. Corporatism was characterized by the control that the governments of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) held over peasant organizations, which did not allow communities to express their interests or dissent outside the existing channels. This type of control was reflected in impunity for acts of corruption and a slow response to many land petitions. Corporatism represented the interests of the government, not the peasants, and as long as the PRI continued to control this form of political mediation, it was unlikely that solutions would be given to the many demands of peasants and land claimants.
Clientelism allowed government agencies and the dominant party to divide and control communities by giving some material benefits to certain groups in exchange for their political support, especially at election time. The manipulation of clients by their patrons avoided the emergence of large opposition movements and in this way contributed to the reproduction of an authoritarian political system.
Caciquismo was the third element of control, based on the regional power of dominant families who combined clientelism with the use of force against their opponents. Amnesty International denounced the impunity for acts of repression by caciques or government authorities in a report by in 1984, ten years before the Zapatista rebellion.
These forms of control were challenged in the 1980’s when several independent social movements emerged in Chiapas. Through peaceful means and accompanied by members of the Diocese of San Cristóbal de Las Casas, these organizations tried to free themselves of the PRI’s corporatist control, rejected clientelism by demanding their rights, and denounced in marches and demonstrations the growing wave of repression against their leaders and supporters.
Repression, the lack of response to old and new land petitions and the government’s indifference to the negative consequences of its neoliberal policies are factors that explain the decision of thousands of indigenous people to support the armed rebellion. The Zapatista uprising on January 1, 1994 expressed this accumulation of dissent that had crashed against a wall of intransigence and authoritarianism. The rebellion opened up a new horizon in which it was possible to propose, along with broad sectors of civil society, deep reforms of the state and the full recognition of the rights of indigenous peoples, not only in Chiapas, but in the whole country.
After the initial fighting between the government and Zapatista forces, the two sides participated in a dialogue which, among other things, allowed for closer interactions between the Zapatistas and different groups and members of civil society who participated in peace cordons, solidarity caravans, peace camps and other initiatives. In this context, the Zapatistas sought to intervene in political life, accepting dialogue with the government as a way to achieve solutions through peaceful means.
However, for the Zapatistas, the results of the dialogue were not positive. The minimal agreements on indigenous rights and cultures, signed by both delegations in February 1996 (known as the San Andrés Accords), represented the possibility for a real transformation of the Mexican political system by modifying the Constitution to include the right of indigenous peoples to exercise autonomy. It was a moment of much hope, which was dashed not long after when the government of then President Ernesto Zedillo refused to send the accords to Congress for incorporation into the Constitution.
In other Latin American countries, indigenous movements had the chance to insert their own demands in the debates of new constituent assemblies (for example, Colombia, Ecuador and Bolivia). In contrast to these experiences, the political transition in Mexico has been limited to the electoral arena, allowing greater alternation of power between the main parties, but without tackling problems of impunity, corruption and discrimination. The Zapatistas once again insisted on the need for constitutional reforms when the National Action Party (PAN) candidate, Vicente Fox, won the presidency in 2000, but Congress manipulated and modified the content of the San Andrés Accords and approved a watered-down law that reproduces the state’s paternalistic approach towards indigenous peoples.
Although the Zapatistas were unable to change state institutions, they have created new forms of politics within indigenous communities in Chiapas. At the same time, they have made new contributions for rethinking politics that have resonated among many sympathizers in Mexico and other countries. As mentioned above, one of the unforeseen consequences of the rebellion was the solidarity from civil society groups nationally and internationally. For these groups, Zapatismo represented something new, an alternative to neoliberalism that does not seek to take power in the way that previous armed movements had sought, but a movement that poses the question of power in a different way.
The central issue is not who exercises power, but how power is exercised. In rejecting corporatism, clientelism and caciquismo, the Zapatistas are questioning not only a political party, but all those who see politics as a way for some to dominate others. For the Zapatistas, breaking with these forms of politics has been essential in their struggle for freedom. In practice, this struggle is based on the construction of autonomous governments at three levels: the local community, the municipality and the wider region or zone.
The Zapatistas propose that it is possible to organize without falling in to the authoritarian tendencies of the political parties and the government. To achieve this, the principle of “governing by obeying” seeks to create a relationship of greater commitment and responsibility of the Zapatista authorities towards their own communities. Through decisions of community assemblies, the people who occupy positions in the autonomous governments can be removed if they are not fulfilling their obligations. The frequent rotation of authorities allows more people to have the opportunity to participate in commissions and posts, although it also produces problems due to lack of experience in these tasks.
It is a challenge that the Zapatistas themselves recognize. For example, during the first “Escuelita Zapatista” in August 2013, several Zapatistas said that for them there is no guide or model that they can follow. The only thing they know is what they learn in the work itself, correcting mistakes and looking for solutions with everyone’s participation. For them, autonomy is a process that is built in practice and its form can be modified over time.
Although the Zapatistas are attempting to build their own forms of government, this does not mean that they seek to isolate themselves from the rest of the society and retreat to a closed life in their communities. On the contrary, during the past twenty years the Zapatistas have convened many meetings with individuals and groups from Mexico and internationally with the goal of sharing their experiences of their struggles and ways of doing politics. In fact, autonomy could enrich national political life by furthering respect for diversity and the capacity to create new forms of government more in tune with the country’s cultural heterogeneity. In this sense, we can think of autonomy not as a break with the nation, but as a mechanism of inclusion in a reconstituted nation, one that leaves behind discrimination and marginalization of indigenous peoples.
In facing the encroachments of neoliberal globalization, counter-insurgency actions and the government’s refusal to respect the San Andrés Accords, Zapatismo has survived against the current. Today it continues to be a relevant force due to the simple fact that there are many pending reforms needed, not only those demanded by indigenous peoples, but also those that concern the majority of the population, including respect for the fundamental rights of access to work and dignified housing, and the basic conditions of security which have been undermined by corruption, impunity and drug trafficking).
In August 2013 I participated in the first level of the “Escuelita Zapatista” in Chiapas. Each student was accompanied by a guardian (votán o votana) who assisted in the study of the written materials on autonomy and Zapatista resistance. My votán was ten years old in 1994 and had grown up with the movement. He described in detail and with pride the advances of autonomy, the training of new education and health promoters, the participation in the autonomous governments and the way in which his community rebuilt the offices of the autonomous municipality of Ricardo Flores Magón after it was violently dismantled by the government in 1998.
This reminded me of another image that has stayed with me, that of seeing Aguascalientes, the site of the National Democratic Convention in August 1994, destroyed and burned by the Mexican army in February 1995. A few years later, Years later, it was revived in the nearby community of La Realidad as one of the Zapatistas’ five regional centers for political-cultural meetings known as caracoles. Perhaps this is the political significance of Zapatismo, in the unshakeable presence of dissent that demands today as it did two decades ago democracy, justice and dignity.
Neil Harvey is a professor in the Department of Government, New Mexico State University, Las Cruces email@example.com and a contributor to the CIP Americas Program www.americas.org. A Spanish version of this article first appeared in the Mexican magazine PROCESO Special Edition.