[Marxism] In a Mexico ‘Tired of Violence,’ Zapatista Rebels Venture Into Politics
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Sun Aug 27 09:41:16 MDT 2017
NY Times, August 27 2017
In a Mexico ‘Tired of Violence,’ Zapatista Rebels Venture Into Politics
By PAULINA VILLEGAS
The Zapatistas, the most powerful political rebels in Mexico in nearly
100 years, are renouncing armed revolution, after decades of opposing
the government, for a simple reason: Mexico is so riddled with violence,
they say, that the country cannot handle any more of it.
The decision is a searing commentary on the state of Mexico today,
analysts say. The rebels have not reached a peace deal with the
government, nor won their longstanding push for indigenous rights. But
killings in Mexico are rising so quickly that even a movement rooted in
armed struggle feels compelled to back away from violence.
“This shows the extent to which Mexicans are tired of violence,” said
Jesús Silva-Herzog, a political-science professor at the School of
Government at Tecnológico de Monterrey. “Political radicalism today has
to be pacifist because the public, social and economic life in Mexico
has been stained with blood for far too long.”
Subcommander Marcos, the rebel leader who became a global phenomenon in
1994 when the Zapatistas stormed into towns in the state of Chiapas,
stood on stage for a brief moment a few months ago, hidden behind a
throng of fighters, youngsters with piercings and indigenous followers
in hand-stitched blouses.
But now, the Zapatistas say, more violence, no matter the cause, is the
last thing Mexico needs.
Instead, they have decided to work within the system they once revolted
against, backing a candidate to run for president in next year’s elections.
“We arrived at a breaking point,” said Carlos González, a spokesman for
the National Indigenous Congress, an organization that represents
indigenous groups in Mexico, who was speaking for the Zapatistas as well.
“Taking up arms was out of the question,” he said. “It was just too
bloody of an option,” though he did not rule out taking up arms again at
some point in the future.
Violence has long plagued Mexico, where more than 100,000 people have
been killed and more than 30,000 have disappeared in the decade-long
But this year, deaths have hit new heights: May and June set consecutive
20-year records for the number of homicide scenes across the country.
Letting go of the revolutionary identity that once defined them, the
Zapatistas, whose full name is the Zapatista Army of National
Liberation, are venturing into electoral politics. They have endorsed
María de Jesús Patricio Martínez, a healer from the indigenous Nahua
people, in next year’s presidential elections.
“In Mexico, being an indigenous person means being treated as half a
person, and if you are a woman, even less so,” said Mrs. Patricio, 57,
who is not a Zapatista herself.
The Zapatista goal, they say, is not to win, but rather to use the 2018
election as a platform to voice the issues most pressing to Mexico’s
“We couldn’t care less about the presidency; all we want to do is crash
the election party and ruin it,” said Mr. González, the spokesman.
The Mexican government says that it welcomes “all political and social
expressions,” including the Zapatista-backed candidate, arguing that it
contributes to a stronger democracy.
Not everyone, however, buys the Zapatista narrative. Some of their
opponents see them as an opportunistic guerrilla group that could
further fracture the vote on the left.
One of their main critics is the leading left-wing populist presidential
candidate, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, a front-runner in early polls
who has called the Zapatista-backed candidacy a “political stunt.”
When they first appeared in 1994, the threat of violence was part of the
Zapatista program. A transfixed nation watched as an army of indigenous
peasants, wearing ski masks and toting assault weapons, stormed several
towns in the southern state of Chiapas and declared war against the
The rebels demanded the recognition and protection of indigenous
communities, which have persistently ranked at the bottom of the
country’s socio-economic ladder. With their armed insurrection, black
balaclavas and fervent speeches, the Zapatistas forced Mexico to grapple
with its long history of inequality.
The uprising came at a particularly sensitive time, as Mexico was in the
throes of globalization and its deepening relationship with the United
States. The North American Free Trade Agreement was enacted on the day
the uprising started.
After a 12-day confrontation between government troops and Zapatista
fighters, a first truce took place. It soon crumbled when the president
at the time, Ernesto Zedillo, issued arrest warrants for prominent
Zapatistas members, including the group’s only nonindigenous spokesman,
With the impassioned speeches from its horse-riding, mysterious leader,
the Zapatistas quickly attracted legions of followers both locally and
abroad. Some hailed the rebels’ fight as the first “postmodern revolution.”
A rocky negotiation process with the government ensued, leading to the
San Andrés Accords, signed in 1996. It promised a constitutional reform
that would grant limited autonomy to indigenous communities, such as the
right to elect councils for local rule over their lands.
But when the reform was finally passed in 2001, it excluded the right to
autonomous rule over their territories, prompting the Zapatistas to cut
all ties with the government and political parties.
Their momentum began to fade. The rebels vanished from the public radar,
returning to their hide-outs in the Lacandon jungle and quietly
organizing their own communities in lieu of seeking publicity.
And then three years ago, Subcommander Marcos gave a speech reflecting
on the Zapatista army and laying out what would ultimately become, this
year, the rebels’ new course of action.
“We choose life, not death,” he said in the speech. “Instead of building
barracks and improving our arsenal of weapons, we built schools,
hospitals, and we improved our living conditions.”
The Zapatistas were changing, and so was he. He changed his name to
Subcommander Galeano, to honor a fallen comrade. And he announced the
death of the persona of Subcommander Marcos. There was no longer a need
for it, he said, describing himself as “a suit made for the media.”
In the following years, the Zapatista-controlled territories exercised
de facto autonomy, delivering broad access to education and health
services. Organized crime has been unable to penetrate the area.
Just 16 miles north from the colonial town of San Cristóbal de las
Casas, a large sign welcomes outsiders to Oventik, a Zapatista enclave.
It reads, “In this place the people rule, and the government obeys.”
Guards stand watch 24 hours a day, rigorously questioning outsiders
about their business and often turning them away.
Supply stores sell T-shirts with the popular image of Subcommander
Marcos wearing a mask and smoking a pipe, with catchphrases like, “I
apologize for bothering you, this is a revolution.”
Bright, enormous murals with revolutionary slogans, both in the local
Tzotzil language and in Spanish, cover every building. No alcohol is
allowed and neither is the use or cultivation of illegal drugs. Instead,
farmers grow coffee, honey and flowers. The people make shoes, sell
tortillas and live in a commune-like system, sharing responsibilities
and decision-making power in so-called Good Government Councils.
“The U.S.A. seems to be destined, by providence, to plague Latin America
with misery in the name of freedom,” reads a worn-down sign hanging in
the middle of a dusty dining hall.
This Zapatista model of community organization, and the new political
movement backing Mrs. Patricio for president, have given hope to some
disenfranchised Mexicans that the way they are governed can be
different, and better, with a more democratic system free of the
deal-making and patronage politics that exist on practically every level
“They were the ones who sustained and nourished our hope over the
years,” said Maribel Cervantes, a community organizer from the state of
Veracruz, referring to the Zapatistas.
“They are a living example of how different things can be,” she added.
“And now this candidate can be a ray of light in the darkness.”
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