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Zapatistas: 18 Years of Rebellion and Resistance

Hundreds of activists and academics from around the world gathered at the International Seminar “Planet Earth: Anti-Systemic Movements” to discuss the importance of the 1994 Zapatista uprising on its 18th anniversary. In the context of the popular insurrections that have emerged this year across the globe, the seminar held from Dec. 30 to Jan. 2 in San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico, concluded, with Portuguese sociologist Boaventura de Sousa Santos, that seen in retrospect Zapatista influence has been so strong that “one cannot view the left or the struggle against capitalism without this point of reference.”

De Sousa Santos stated that the explosion of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) on the scene January 1, 1994 was the first major moment of global resistance to neoliberalism. The uprising gave visibility to indigenous struggles that had been growing since the eighties in Latin America and soon became the precursor to other movements.

“They taught us another way of seeing the world. They broke with Marxist orthodoxy by developing a new discourse, a new semantics and new ideas. They taught us a new organizational logic that had a fundamental influence on the whole world,” De Sousa Santos said in an interview.

Paulina Fernandez, a professor of Political Science at UNAM who has followed the Zapatista movement since its inception, spoke to Desinformemonos about the transcendence of the Zapatistas. “It is still not possible to see clearly the magnitude of the importance of the Zapatista uprising. I track the news on Internet everyday and the EZLN is cited all over for one reason or another—it is a permanent reference.”

“Despite efforts to silence them, hide them away, marginalize them and isolate the movement up in the mountains, and without media information about what they are doing, the Zapatistas are building a real alternative process on a daily basis. They are proof that this country can function in a different way when its people are committed and they do it without the intervention of laws, institutions, parties, politicians and the vices and practices that official institutions are the ones guilty of the corruption of this country,” added Fernandez.

Representatives of indigenous peoples, among them Salvador Campanur, Purhépecha from Cherán, Michoacán and Santos de la Cruz, Wixárika from Bancos de San Hipólito, Durango, agreed that “in all the processes that we have experienced as indigenous peoples, the Zapatistas have been very important. Before, indigenous struggles were isolated and not linked up, but since 1994 we began to realize that we suffered from a common problem and we began to interact and develop solidarity between peoples, not only in Mexico but in the world.”

Campanur noted “Although the words ‘dignity’, ‘liberty’ and ‘justice’ already existed it was the Zapatista brothers and sisters who in 1994 taught us to use them in each one of our struggles.”

Javier Sicilia, poet and leader of the Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity, said in an interview that “the last 18 years have been fundamental since the Zapatistas–by revealing the negation of the indigenous world that had been going on for centuries–also revealed the dysfunction of the State and the neoliberal system, and gave new content and new possibilities not only to the nation but to the entire world.”

New Movements and the Zapatistas

Many participants linked the Zapatista movement to the new movements in Spain, Greece, the United States, Tunis, Egypt, Yemen and others. French historian Jerome Baschet stated that, “The logic of capitalism is causing us to lose control of our lives and it is time to recuperate that control. The world movement has arisen as a crossroads of all struggles: the struggle against the looting of material goods, of land, of ways of life, of the capacity to decide. It is a movement that calls on everyone who feels dispossessed.” He added that the latest uprisings “reflect a general sense of injustice and the possibility that a collective awakening could intensify the reactions of rejection that we’ve seen so far.”

Feminist anthropologist Mercedes Olivera observed that the Zapatista communities have developed outside the mercantilist logic, which can be a viable point of departure for “men and women to dare to experience the construction of another civilization based on solidarity not exploitation, to try to recreate the human sense of existence, recover the vital sense of the land and the sustainability of production for consumption, to be able to practice new forms of using and caring for natural resources, and in this way we can change and reorient our strategies toward building a new paradigm of development and attempt a civilizing process based on life and not on destruction, like the Zapatistas do in their autonomy.”

In the Occupy Wall Street movement in the United States that has spread to cities throughout that country and the rest of the world “there are many people who have been strongly influenced by the Zapatista struggle”, says Marlina of the Movimiento por la Justicia en el Barrio (Movement for Justice in the Barrio), a Latino collective that forms part of the Other Campaign in New York City and the Occupy Wall Street movement. Marlina asserts that “what many people of the Occupy movement are trying to do is break the relationship between capital and humanity”, noting that the Zapatistas have provided clear and inspiring messages for people in the United States. “The Zapatista resistance encourages us to keep up the struggle to build a different world,” Marlina concluded.

She recounted that “women from the movement came one night to Liberty Plaza and instead of talking about economic policies and political struggles, they talked about what it means to be a woman, a mother and a mestiza in the United States. They talked about their families and their dignity, and I cried during the talk because for me the discourse on “right living” or “vivir bien” was something really different from the fancy discourse on economic policies. And I believe that the power of the Movement for Justice in the Barrio is to talk about the truth of human experience and the truth of the devastation of the earth, and that’s a discourse that cannot necessarily be understood in capitalist terms.”

Daniela Carrasco attended the seminar in representation of one of the most important movements of 2011: the Chilean student movement. A Chilean student from the collective Tendencia Estudiantil Revolucionaria, Carrasco reflected on the lessons of the Zapatistas for the Latin America student movement.

“The great example that we have taken from the Zapatista movement is the assembly as a from of organization. For many years, the Chilean movement was characterized as very bureaucratic and personalist, its was focused on certain presidents that ended up negotiating with the government and often betraying the movement. This year this logic was broken, the rightwing that formed part of the Confederation of Students was kicked out and the assembly was adopted as the method of validating all decisions we make. We got to the point where we even voted on building a barricade—yes or no—in an assembly and this has been really satisfying. All our members vote raising their hands, knowing that they are participating and not just spectators, in an act of taking back the struggle in the streets.”

“For a long time, it was said that students didn’t participate, that they didn’t have political training, that they weren’t involved in almost anything, that they didn’t care what happened in society. But this year, the panel members of the seminar agreed, “has shown the opposite in Latin American, in the United States, in Arab countries and in Europe, where youth—sick of a system that produces inequality, poverty, unemployment and hopelessness—are questioning what is happening and are going beyond protest,” said Carrasco. “We built a Chilean movement that is expanding into a ‘student spring’– in Colombia, in Costa Rica, in Mexico…”

Carlos Marentes, of the Unión de Trabajadores Agrícolas Fronterizos (Union of Border Agricultural Workers) of El Paso, Texas, told the crowd, “the Zapatista influence continues to extend among us, especially around the need to organize from below with other movements and the importance of pushing an alternative to the industrial model of agriculture that threatens our planet.”

Intellectuals Weigh In
Fernanda Navarro, doctor in Philosophy who has followed the Zapatista movement since 1994, spoke at the afternoon panel the last day of the seminar. She told Desinformémonos that the main challenges facing the Zapatistas “are to continue to build autonomy, strengthening themselves and to prove that bad governments and corruption and violence cannot uproot the seeds that have been planted and what is growing in the Chiapan mountains.”

The Zapatista movement “was a totally new political phenomenon that broke the mold and that’s why it has become a point of reference for many movements for social justice for women, small farmers, workers, people who live on the margins, due to their innovative ways of existing that broke with class Marxism,” Sylvia Marcos, professor and researcher on gender issues, told Desinformémonos.

Julieta Paredes, of the Bolivian organization Women Creating Community condemned the way in which social movements usually see women as “just another sector” and women’s issues “as just one among many issues of the left.”

“But women are half of all sectors and half of all issues, and community feminism-a category of analysis that represents the movement she forms part of–locates patriarchy as a system that articulates all oppressions, historically built on the oppression of women. In this sense through the defeat of patriarchy, “the community can encompass the entire social body to be able to build relationships of freedom.”

Pablo Gonzalez Casanova, a prominent Mexican intellectual, was unable to attend but sent a message to the seminar stating, “Just consider the immense mobilization of the indignados and the Occupy movement that struggle for the another possible world… There has never been a [mobilization] of this magnitude, and the mobilization began in the jungles of Chiapas with the principles of inclusion and dialogue.” Gonzalez Casanova added “increasingly throughout the world people are struggling for what in 1994 seemed only ‘a post-modern indigenous rebellion.’”

Marcela Salas Cassani writes for Desinformemonos.org, an “autonomous, global communications project” and sister organization to the Americas Program, that covers grassroots movements throughout the world and the ideas and aspirations behind them. Its team has been in San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas reporting on an international seminar there to commemorate and reflect on the 18th anniversary of the Zapatista uprising.

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