Two Anniversaries; Two Futures: NAFTA and the Zapatistas

zapatista-womenThe two events that shook Mexico and the world on January 1, 1994 seemed to have little to do with each other. The first had been carefully planned, laid out over two years by some of the wealthiest and most powerful men on the continent. On that day, the historic North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) became the law of the land, setting in motion a series of foreseen and unforeseen changes throughout the country.

The second event was also meticulously planned, although few knew it at the time. The armed uprising of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) was mapped out in the mountains of Chiapas by some of the poorest and most disenfranchised men and women on the continent. Their desperation produced a rebellion that broke loose in Chiapan cities and caught the attention of international media. The Zapatista uprising, which emerged as a refutation of the politics of free trade and an immediate negation of NAFTA, captured the stark black-and-white tones of poverty long ignored.

Ten years later, it is mostly hindsight that connects these two events. Although much has been made of it subsequently, the timing of the Zapatista uprising had more to do with military strategy than with a full appreciation of what would come to be the symbolic value of the date. The emblematic spokesperson of the EZLN, Subcomandante Marcos, refers to the convergence of the anti-globalization movement and Zapatismo as one of the biggest surprises following the insurrection.

Since 1994, Zapatismo and NAFTA have become recognized as diverging paths for the future of Mexico and the planet. NAFTA is used as a blueprint for further trade agreements in the hemisphere, particularly the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas (FTAA) and bilateral agreements between the United States and smaller nations. In marked contrast, Zapatismo has been embraced by a huge and amorphous group of global followers who protest globalization and the effects of economic integration. Their shared birthday this month highlights the disjunction between the two visions.

Reflection on Both Sides

The ten-year anniversary has sparked reflection on both sides. The raft of official evaluations of NAFTA’s effect, particularly on Mexico, has come to a common conclusion: The results of the agreement are disappointing but the fault lies with external factors, not the agreement itself. A recent World Bank report titled Lesson from NAFTA blames the “Big-Events-Little-Time” problem for NAFTA’s shortcomings–that intervening events (mainly the Zapatista uprising and the December 1994 devaluation) and the mere decade of NAFTA make it difficult to fully reap the unquestioned benefits of free trade.

The walkout at the WTO meeting in Cancun, the diluted FTAA agreement in Miami, and the increasingly renegade attitude of Brazil and other southern cone countries prove that the free trade consensus in the hemisphere is broken. NAFTA can no longer claim to be our undisputed destiny.

Meanwhile, Zapatismo has risen to the center of a movement demanding that the model be rejected outright as a failure, while calling for placing diversity, equity, and national development first. During their celebration–called “20 and 10: The Fire and the Word”–the movement examined twenty years since the founding of the EZLN and 10 years since the uprising. In over 200 cultural and political events in 130 cities around the world, solidarity groups and sympathizers organized photo exhibits, dances, conferences, book presentations, video screenings, and media events. In a decade, a military action in one Mexican state has clearly grown into a global cultural and political alternative.

A third event occurred in the first few days of that tumultuous January 1994. Our daughter was born. Oblivious, she was born on the cusp of what the Zapatistas call the “globalization of death” and a grassroots globalization of rebellion.

Today, this child faces two futures. One is being imposed from above, and is characterized by inequity, illusion, and shrinking life options. This is a future that is meeting widespread protest, resistance, and opposition–here in Mexico and throughout North America. The other future is far less calculated and will be constructed on the values of fairness, community, and diversity. It will be a future she herself will need to build, although in that task she will not be alone.

Laura Carlsen is director of the Americas Program,



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