The 10th Anniversary of the Zapatista Uprising

Oventic, Chiapas.

On the eve of the 10th Anniversary of the Zapatista Uprising, Jan 1 1994, the indigenous rebels had an unexpected surprise for the thousands of supporters who gathered here in Chiapas to pay homage–they did nothing.

No spectacular celebration, no mass march upon San Cristobal, no bold new political initiatives, and certainly no new armed uprising. Instead there were a series of subdued celebrations in each of the 5 Zapatista Caracole centers, attended modestly by rank and file and somewhat more generously by national and international supporters.

Here in the Zapatista highlands headquarters of Oventic, some 800 people danced the night away cloaked in mud and fog. I recalled another New Years Eve here in this very arena some years ago and that night there were several thousand rebels out in force. Tonight’s demure festivities (midnight passes without much ado), the lackluster message read out by an unidentified masked rebel and the empty space enveloping the gathering, prompts some journalists present to ask – Where have the Zapatistas gone?


President Fox claims he has ended the conflict and brought peace to Chiapas, and mainstream political analysts predict an end to Zapatismo. 1994–2004: The great illusion, the great frustration, reads the cover of this weeks Proceso, Mexico’s most prestigious political weekly. Their contention, that the Zapatista Uprising did not deliver its promises and has brought little but more misery upon the base communities, is gaining currency. The Zapatistas are a spent force, have no answer to the new challenges of the 21st century, are losing ground in the communities and Marcos has gone mad: these are grist to the mill amongst the critics, but also among some sympathizers.

“To still be here is a victory,” said a Zapatista veteran at Oventic.

“Well, a small victory.” he added.

Encircled by the Mexican Army and threatened by paramilitaries, such small victories can be regarded as quite an achievement. When one considers the fate of the resistance movements in neighboring Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua in the 1980’s – the predecessors of the EZLN, then maybe indeed the victory is to still be here, and not to have been massacred.

A young Zapatista read out the end of year message in Oventic. It did not address the quite momentous achievements of the previous 10 years of Zapatista resistance but instead concentrated on the concrete gains of the past year- the consolidation of the autonomous municipalities, the creation of the 5 Caracoles and the new Juntas of Good Government.
“We have been able to advance in our struggle, in our different tasks. During 2003 we made important gains” the masked Zapatista read. “We ask that the companeros and companeras in each region and each municipality, simply, continue working.”

No rhapsodic communiqués of love and rage, no poetic convocations to global revolt, none of the signature tunes of Sub Marcos, just the nuts and bolts of local resistance, of building radical communities and autonomy in action.

From National Liberation to Local Autonomy

“You are in Zapatista territory. Here the people rule and the government obeys,” reads the rough sign as you enter the ‘Resistance and Rebellion for Humanity’ Zapatista Caracole of Oventic. And that is the message on this 10th Anniversary.
For this the dead died. Those who fell in the marketplace of Ocosingo and Rancho Nuevo in ’94, or the environs of El Bosque in ’98, and of course, those massacred in Acteal. For this the thousands of indigenous people of the canyons and highlands and jungle of Chiapas struggle, to rule themselves and to resist the attempts of government encroachment over the sovereignty of the people, their land and their resources.

What began 10 years ago ostensibly as an old school struggle for national liberation (“We give our military forces, the EZLN, the following orders: Advance to the Capital of the country, overcoming the Mexican Federal Army”­ Declaration of War, 31st December 1993) became the long struggle for local autonomy, for really taking control of their day-to-day lives.
With or without the shadow of Marcos, the Zapatistas move forward in stealth and cunning, and the end of Zapatismo proclaimed by pundits may be just the end of Marcos and the more spectacular Zapatista ventures, for now. And the fictitious peace proclaimed by Fox may be merely a prelude to a non-violent revolutionary change of the structure of power in Chiapas that could reverberate further, nationally, internationally and indeed, intergalactically.

A Foggy Night in Oventic

Fireworks pierced the murky night sky and the predominantly young crowd danced all night long. Despite the mud and the cold mountain air, the atmosphere was cheerful and there is something still very special about this demure festival of resistance. This day last year 20,000 Zapatistas descended upon San Cristobal lighting huge bonfires and reminding people that they hadn’t gone away. This year the Zapatistas felt no need for a big show. To be alive, a small victory, to be capable of joy and struggle.

“Only in a rebel existence,” the masked youth reminds us, “Can we continue constructing our autonomy”