Zapatista Viability: By What Measure?

by Jeanne Simonelli, Duncan Earle

Thursday Feb 10th, 2011

Recent media reports suggest decline, even death of the Zapatista movement; Tata Samuel may have passed but Zapatismo is still strong. It has taken a cautious position in relation to the current government drug war, placing emphasis on local development, not high profile politics.

“What ever happened to the Zapatistas?” is a question asked of those known to have a history of working with the EZLN (Ejercito Zapatista de Liberación Nacional ) in Chiapas, Mexico’s southernmost state. January 1st marked the seventeenth anniversary of the 1994 indigenous uprising, which coincided with the signing of NAFTA, the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement. The month of January also saw the passing of individuals prominently associated with the Maya struggle in Chiapas, including Bishop Samuel Ruiz, who spent decades working for indigenous rights and dignity, and activist author John Ross, who wrote about the era.

These events gave rise in the press to reminiscences and studied pronouncements of Zapatismo’s death, demise, nostalgia, insignificance, and even betrayal.

The suggestion is of failure, and it permeates, for example, a recent Catholic Online article titled: “Zapatistas no longer a viable force, analysts say,” alluding to “goals fallen by the wayside” and tales of continued poverty despite Zapatismo’s development efforts (

Al Jazzera’s Chris Arnault also recently commented on the EZLN. His version, titled “Zapatistas: The War With No Breath” was yet another post-mortem based on a measurement of material prosperity, something that we as social scientists have gone to great lengths to show has never been the movement’s primary motivation. He lamented that, “Unlike previous years, there are no major celebrations, no marches or fiery public speeches by rebels fighting for the region’s long-neglected indigenous people (”

As a social movement, the Zapatista’s primary goal has been to address the basic needs of social development, as associated with education, healthcare, family planning and women’s empowerment, in a uniquely indigenous way. The Catholic On-line article gives solid data on the socially horrific conditions for the rural Maya people of Chiapas before the 1994 uprising. But there is no mention of the abundant reports of improvements since those times—a huge accomplishment, if not yet a complete eradication of the conditions that led to their discontent. Emergence from poverty means the growth of security, the retaking of control of one’s life, including continually available healthcare services in remote regions, enlightened education for children, responsive village governance, and a viable social system of production and marketing. These are the victories of the movement for the more than 100,000 people who remain associated with it. But these are local victories, invisible victories. They are not concerned with their legacy or the potency of the Zapatistas as national and global critique, such as media and scholarly fascinations concerning the political effectiveness of the Other Campaign, or about how Zapatista spokesman Marcos talked to the nation in past (historically situated) public declarations. These are concerns that lie beyond the community cornfield, and that addressed a different political context than Mexico finds itself in today.
It is as if the global media and many scholars are upset because the visible icon Marcos “never calls” anymore, when he used to be so much fun to cover, so they read his silence as signifying the impotence of a movement. Such measures of viability are alien to the grounded objectives that have evolved as a result of the Zapatista organization in the communities for nearly a generation. If analysts are to measure viability, we must be clear about what we mean and what is being evaluated. What Zapatismo may signify to just-in-time media is far from its worth to its ongoing participants; viability is a question of your position, inside or out, and the depth of understanding one has of their goals.

When the uprising began, the planned objective was Mexican governmental overthrow or, failing that, horrible blood sacrifice in the effort. Marcos himself said that he expected the coin to fall on one side or the other, but that the Mayas were by then so fed up (basta!) they did not flinch against the enormous risk. Marcos commented that what he did not expect was that the coin would fall on its edge, neither wiping them out nor overthrowing the ruling party, but instead evolving peaceably into a vast community movement announcing to the world: Never more a Mexico without us. This has been the legacy of the uprising, the unexpected, an evolution of goals, transformation. Zapatismo is not stationary, with some rigid ideological pronouncements. It has always been an evolution rather than a revolution, a bumpy social movement engaged in complex processes of growth and change.

These animated Maya embrace the long view, seeking to guide by example, working to maintain autonomous communities viable now in a time of worldwide financial crisis, one that inordinately impacts rural communities. This is especially true for those plugged into the world market, such as coffee producers or flower growers; any smallholder whose financial viability is wedded to stable demand for his or her goods. In such bad times, success is not going down with the global economy.

What ever happened to the Zapatistas? One way to answer would be to ask: which ones? The public face, masked and well-disciplined, last seen marching en masse in 2003, announcing radical changes to the organizational structure of Zapatista civil society? This side is currently quiet. But the private, localized side of the movement, in far off villages and settlements, is alive and well, working in snail-like fashion to build a lasting social system. A recent trip to a jungle community confirmed this for us. The aging patriarch Antonio was in the milpa; his 80 year old wife Dominga was off to the city to sell a few things. Some of the older men were up at the Cooperativa, the community’s cooperative store, taking a turn as proprietor. The Cooperativa is a business marvel. About five years ago the Zapatista Junta de Buen Gobierno ( JBG) at La Realidad provided the community with 70,000 pesos in financing. This was not a loan, but rather like angel financing, where the donor invests in a business and takes a risk that it will be profitable. This community was selected by the regional EZLN to be one of the first experiments in
socialist capitalism, a model of collective or cooperative entrepreneurship. The money was invested in the construction and provisioning of what became the Men’s Cooperative. The Cooperative was given five years to work to stabilize the business. If, at the end of five years, they are accumulating profit, it returns to the Junta who use it to start the whole process again for another one of their communities. On several occasions over the last few years we had arrived to find the Zapatista organization’s auditors pouring over the Cooperative’s books.

The system of governance and oversight the Zapatistas have chosen to enact is a marvel, the continually evolving process of democracy in formation. The decision-making body sits in the Caracoles, a physical locale which provides infrastructure and a place to meet to its widely dispersed, multi-municipal membership. These Caracoles are part of the reorganization of the Zapatista political infrastructure, enacted in 2003. In each Caracol sits the Junta de Buen Gobierno, the Council of Good Government, which has asserted itself as the current arbiter of all affecting the Zapatista communities, including efforts to assist them. Caracoles are huge snail shells, an ancient Maya symbol of time, continuity and true speech, la palabra, “the word”. The Juntas do the work of setting policy
for everything from development to internal peace keeping, overseeing the lengthy process of consensus decision-making as it moves up and down the ladder from the communities. It is the flexible infrastructure of the EZLN’s evolutionary revolution. In each case, those charged with leadership must await an actual situation in order to develop a response, a precedent-stimulated policy much like US courts. Process is their most important product.
When the Caracol funded the new men’s cooperative, the women took over the old building that had housed the original store. Men and women are often gone to workshops learning new skills in marketing and accounting that they need to know in order to run their businesses effectively. Indeed, both groups keep expanding their stock through market analysis, and engage in healthy price competition with other non-Zapatista stores in their divided community. Gendered stores assure dispersed leadership. The men’s store focuses on staples, the kinds of things that agricultural communities use year round. The women’s cooperative features seasonal items, including clothing and perishable food items. You get your junk food and Pepsi Cola at the men’s store. You get fruit, tomatoes, onions, and chickens from the women. Both groups keep tuned in to the area’s needs. When a law was passed dictating that dogs could no longer run loose, the men stocked leashes. With the arrival of Semana Santa, Holy Week, the women added a line of specialty items for making holiday foods, like the spicy chocolate sauce, mole.

Like the cooperative stores, Zapatista actions over the past years have revealed an intrinsic understanding of the importance of what we have called “appropriating the enemy.” In 2003, the organization announced a 10% tax on all development projects carried out by non Zapatistas in Zapatista regions. Part of the revenue from this tax and other fund raising initiatives goes to provide the Juntas with the venture capital to help their communities engage in
collectively organized entrepreneurship, like the Caracolita store. One year, they used resources to buy coffee at higher prices than the coffee coyotes, ultimately forcing up the price paid to producers. In the meantime, non-Zapatistas are buying what they need at competitive Zapatista stores, getting free health care at Organization clinics, and coming to the Junta for the effective resolution of conflicts. By sharing, Zapatismo lifts all boats in the community, and supports solidarity.

In a Mexico characterized by conflict and outright war, with the State Department issuing blanket travel warnings, Chiapas was recently reviewed in the press as the safest place in the country to visit: the rest of the country is considered too unsafe. This relative safety in the midst of national drug wars is due in part to the continued existence of the Zapatistas, who have always been anti drug and alcohol, making it difficult for narcotrafficantes to function within their relatively vast boundaries. The Zapatistas are committed to stability in the midst of the national drug war, so now is not the time for risk taking or national pronouncements. As the Mexican government mounts an attack on the most dangerous foe in its entire history, an effort the US State Department apparently does not believe is working out (see WikiLeaks), the smart thing for Zapatismo is to keep your head down in the drug wars. One of the diplomatic cable leaks from last year warned that, ” a top security official had ‘expressed a real concern with ‘losing’ certain regions’ of the country and warned that ‘pervasive, debilitating fear’ was settling into
the countryside.”

This is what we, as social scientists, are hearing about now in the communities; serious concern that resources coming into regional centers of support not be from Cartels or related gangs. In other words, the Zapatistas are vigorously maintaining an island of Mexican sovereignty, legality, and social order amidst a crumbling nation awash with corruption and unable to organize an adequate response to a well-armed, well-funded criminal security threat.

You cannot speak about Zapatismo without placing it in the national context of declining governability, a failing military campaign against the Cartels, and the proliferation of gangs and crime. What we may see in the future, then is not greater marginalization of a once-and-future postmodern movement, but another kind of campaign, one to maintain a place where Cartels and their paramilitary mafias have no sway, and where Mexico is still a reasonable place to visit. Now how viable is that?

Duncan Earle is Professor of Anthropology at Marymount College, at Rancho Palos Verdes, CA; Jeanne Simonelli is Professor of Anthropology at Wake Forest University. They are authors of the 2005 book Uprising of Hope: Sharing the Zapatista Journey to Alternative Development AltaMira Press: Walnut Creek, CA, 2005.


One Response to “Zapatista Viability: By What Measure?”

  1. Gary Warren Says:

    My students in the |International Support Worker Program have been here just over a month, and we have been visiting in several autonomous communities. Although I agree with all that has been said, I also note that there still is a pervasive fear amongst peoples here. Once a trusting relationship is formed, they admit that they are at on-going risk of violence from the military, but more-so the paramilitary. We were stopped many times on a recent trip to the Lacondon, but all with pleasantries. On the other hand, trucks with local workers were prodded with sharpened rebar rods. Intimidation is still the norm. Low intensity conflict remains. One of my students called it a ‘psychological war zone’.
    The fact that progress has been made here in schooling, health, sanitation and quality of life is even more impressive given this context.

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