Zapatistas Versus the “Neoliberal War Against Humanity”

Photograph Source: (Jose Villa) at VillaPhotography – CC BY-SA 3.0

The Zapatista revolution has survived in Chiapas, southern Mexico, since 1914, and that is a miracle. Zapatistas endured the assaults of government paramilitaries, the betrayals of Mexican presidents and crushing poverty. “They don’t care that we have nothing,” the Zapatistas said of Mexico’s elite at the start of their first uprising, “absolutely nothing, not even a roof over our heads, no land, no work, no healthcare, no food, no education, not the right to freely and democratically elect our political representatives nor independence from foreigners.”

This specter of destitution loomed over the Zapatistas, and indeed millions of indigenous people because of NAFTA. After a 12-day war against the Mexican state in 1994, Zapatistas agreed to a ceasefire, maintaining control of their lands in Chiapas. Thus the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) is always ready for combat. Its soldiers may spend their days planting corn and beans, but at a moment’s notice they drop their hoes and grab their rifles. That’s because government paramilitaries could reappear at any time, and with them, the threat of reinstituting the near slavery of the abominable finca plantations. These fincas were the Zapatistas’ original target in 1994. The revolutionaries overran the fincas, expelled the owners and empowered the indigenous peons, thus ending the systematic rape of indigenous women and girls and the hanging of indigenous men who refused to hand over their daughters. The practice of whipping these serfs for the slightest infraction also stopped. In every way, life improved for these peons, who had previously been treated like dirt.

Women constitute a third of the Zapatista army, according to the introduction to a new book, Zapatista Stories for Dreaming An-Other World, by Subcomandante Marcos, their leader, if they could be said to have one. And women became pivotal to the Zapatista effort to create a new social-political-economic arrangement on their lands. “The proclamation of the Women’s Revolutionary Law before the 1994 uprising was an insistence that women’s rights cannot wait until after the revolution; they are part of the revolutions.” The Women’s Revolutionary Law included, for example, the right to drive; thus it enables women better to participate in what the Zapatistas accurately call “the neoliberal war against humanity.”

Resistance to capitalism, not only the neoliberal variety, is a way of life for Zapatistas and best understood through their Autonomy Project. They designated their new autonomous regions “caracoles” – referring to conch shells used to summon assemblies. “These five caracoles would coordinate the already existing Zapatista municipalities in rebellion. The latter, created in 1994, were based on their massive land seizures during the uprising.” No free enterprise zones here! The caracoles feature socialist governance. “The Zapatistas understand governance as a particular form of work in service to the community, rather than as an exercise of power through administration or rule,” according to Dylan Eldridge Fitzwater in his book on the Zapatistas, Autonomy Is in Our Hearts, which was published about four years ago.

The 1994 revolt came specifically in response to the NAFTA cancellation of protecting native communal land from sale and privatization. Those protections were previously enshrined in the Mexican constitution, dating from Emiliano Zapata’s 1910-19 revolution. When they were stripped out, the EZLN went into action. This unique army had developed from the Forces of National Liberation (FLN), who were Marxist communist guerrillas. They had migrated into the Lacandon jungle in 1983 to organize a peasant wing. Instead, as Fitzwater wrote, “over the years, this organization [the FLN] was transformed by the Tsotsil, Tzeltal, Chol, Toyolabal, Mam and Zoque indigenous communities that joined its ranks.” FLN aspirations evolved over ten years of clandestine organizing from “seizure of state power and redistribution of national resources to…local autonomous self-determination.”

Subcomandante Marcos’ new collection of stories reveals how unique and necessary the Zapatista outlook is. The first tale, “Antonio Dreams,” describes the war between peasant dreams and rulers’ dreams. “Durito’s Story” presents a beetle who wears glasses and smokes a pipe, who studies “neoliberalism and its strategy to dominate Latin America.” “The Story of the Others” tells us that “the first agreement reached by the very first gods was to recognize difference and accept the existence of the other.” In another short fiction, the narrator explains that “the mole went blind because, instead of looking outward, he began to look into his heart.” It concludes: “That’s why the mole is not afraid of the lion. Neither is the man who knows how to look into his heart.” Some of these stories read like parables. Other’s resemble Aesop’s Fables. All reveal a trenchant imagination applicable to revolutionary topics. One of the commentaries at the book’s end provides a more abstract interpretation: “Foundational elements of Zapatista poetics and history [are] the prophecy, the communal assembly and rebellion – the imagination of the future, the internal democratic process, the refusal to give up.”

Some of Subcomandante Marcos’s stories obliquely address the colonial catastrophe in Latin America, others do so directly. About European conquerors, one narrative tells us: “Their justice functioned only to give to them and take from us. Gold was their god. Superiority their belief. Deceit their word. Cruelty their way.” Some stories refer to the government’s offensive against the Zapatistas, while others muse about the doings of the gods who made the world. Some present aspects of creation myths. For instance, one concludes: “That’s how men and women learned that you can look at others, know that they exist, they are there, they are other, and, in that way, not bump into them, hurt, step over or trip them.”

For most westerners, these stories do truly dream another world; one of great struggle. One that is better.

Eve Ottenberg is a novelist and journalist. Her latest book is Hope Deferred. She can be reached at her website.