Inspiration from Chiapas : The Construction of a New World

By Leonidas Oikonomakis

Primero de enero 1994. 3:00am.

The Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari has gone to bed happy that towards the end of his mandate Mexico joins the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA. Goods, capital and services will now move freely between Mexico, Canada, and the United States of America. Of course the agreement mentions nothing about the border wall between Mexico and the US. Free movement of goods, capital, and services, we said—not of people.

At the same time, the removal of trade protectionist measures practically opens up the Mexican economy to Canadian and American goods that are produced more cheaply and in greater quantities (in some cases even genetically modified). Bad news for the Mexican farmers, that is, who also find a “for sale” sign hanging on their ejidos—the communal land which had until then been protected from privatization by the Mexican Constitution.

The government propaganda machine, however, can “sell” the agreement with plenty of fanfare, praising the president for this “triumph”: Mexico is finally joining the First World!

Riiiing, riiiing, riiiing!!!!!!

The man who awoke Carlos Salinas from his “First World dreams” was his secretary of defense, General Antonio Riviello Bazán, who announced that there had just been a rebellion in Chiapas. Thousands of masked armed men and women had occupied several cities of the southeastern Mexican state. They were calling themselves Zapatistas, and their army the EZLN.

“Apologies for the inconvenience but this is a revolution!”

For Mexico, Latin America and the international left, what emerged from the Chiapan mist along with the Zapatistas was the specter of revolution with a capital R—something the Mexican autocracy of the ruling Partido Revolucionario Institucional, the PRI, believed it had killed a long time ago, in the late 1970s.

What emerged from the Chiapan mist along with the Zapatistas was the specter of revolution with a capital R.

Ever since the Tlatelolco massacre of 1968, a few days before the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games in Mexico City, Mexico’s youth had stopped believing in the possibility of social change through protests and elections. Some of them influenced by the Cuban revolution, others by Maoist thought and praxis, they took to the mountains and the cities of the country with the idea of organizing a rebel army that would overthrow the PRI government and bring socialism to Mexico. According to Laura Castellanos, in her book México Armado, more than 30 urban and rural guerrilla groups were active in the country between 1960 and 1980.

The Mexican state launched a war against its youth, who were killed, tortured and disappeared systematically in a dark period that became known as la guerra sucia: the dirty war. Thousands are still missing, others were found dead in mass graves, and thousands more were tortured and imprisoned in military barracks. With the amnesty and the new electoral law of 1978 the government thought it was done with the revolutionaries, with their foquismo and their prolonged people’s wars.

Well… not with all of them!

Las Fuerzas and Zapatismo

One of those guerrillas of the late 1960s and early 1970s was a group called the Fuerzas de Liberación Nacional, or FLN. It was neither the most well known nor the best organized, and it never attracted large numbers of recruits. The FLN was, in fact, a very otherly guerrilla group. It never engaged in bank robberies, kidnappings or other spectacular actions to make a name for itself, as was customary among revolutionary groups at the time.

Perhaps it was their strategy of staying and acting underground that allowed them to survive at a time when other groups were being uprooted by the state—even though they themselves also came close to extinction more than once, with the most exemplary cases being the discovery of their main safe house in Nepantla and the assassination of most of their leading cadres in their training camp in Chiapas, near Ocosingo, in 1974.

However, through painful trial and dramatic error, the FLN managed to not disband like most other groups. They rejected the Amnesty of 1978 and finally installed a rebel army in Chiapas in 1983; an army that would be embraced by the indigenous Tsotsiles, Tseltales, Choles, Tojolabales, Zoques and Mames of the region during the 1980s, and that would take Mexico and the world by surprise on January 1, 1994. That army was the EZLN.

What began as the armed branch of a vanguardist and strictly hierarchical organization soon found its theories crushed by the indigenous reality and the will of the people they had come to “enlighten.”

Of course, in the period leading up to the uprising of 1994, the EZLN had also become very otherly. What began as the armed branch of a Castro-Guevarist, vanguardist and strictly hierarchical organization soon found its theories crushed by the indigenous reality and the will of the people they had come to “enlighten” deep in the mountains and jungles of the Mexican southeast. The vanguardism of the FLN was at odds with the assemblyist customs of the indigenous populations of Chiapas, which also owed in part to relevant previous work done in the region by liberation theologists and Maoist militants.

Soon the EZLN realized that if it was to be successful it would have to change. It chose to break with its outmoded vanguardism and adopted a more assemblyist organizational form and decision-making structure. Years later, it would set off to “march all the way to Mexico City,” as the First Declaration of the Lacandona Jungle put it.

However, things did not really turn out exactly as the Zapatistas had expected them to. Their call to arms was not answered by the Mexican people, who—instead of taking to the mountains—took to the streets to demand peace and to stop the Mexican army from exterminating the EZLN.

Peace negotiations followed and the San Andrés Accords were signed, practically granting autonomy to the EZLN institutionally, only for the agreement to be abruptly dishonored by the government. After this, the EZLN announced that they would continue down the road of autonomy—de facto and not de jure this time—and that is exactly what they have been working on ever since: creating new pathways and opening up new horizons of the imagination far beyond the impasses of the traditional left.

Criticism from the left

As a result of their otherly strategies—and thanks, of course, to the sharp pen of Subcomandante Marcos (now renamed Galeano)—the Zapatistas became an emblematic reference point for the international left, and a visit to Chiapas and the intercontinental encuentros of the EZLN became a necessary pilgrimage for activists in the alter-globalization movement. However, especially in recent years, the Zapatistas have also become the target of criticism from those on the more traditional and institutional left.

Take, for instance, a recent article by Bhaskar Sunkara, in which the editor and publisher of Jacobin depicts the Zapatistas as a sympathetic but rather unfortunate role model for the international left.

Apart from the obvious errors of his piece, apparently the result of limited familiarity with the case (the FLN were not Maoist and did not vanish “as quickly as they had appeared,” but rather lasted longer than any other guerrilla group of their time; Subcomandante Marcos was not amongst the founding members of the EZLN’s first camp in 1983 but rather took to the mountains a year later), Sunkara’s is an effort to discredit the Zapatistas on ideological terms, mainly because—in his view—they became the inspirational reference point for movements that simply negate and do not create.

Sunkara also argues that the influence of the Zapatistas is unjustified as Chiapas actually remains a deeply impoverished region “without much to show for almost two decades of revolution.” In Sunkara’s view, representative to some extent of the old left, we loved the Zapatistas because we were “afraid of political power and political decisions.” And he argues that the Zapatistas—and those inspired by them—did not achieve much. The only meaningful way forward, it seems, is an organized working-class movement in the Marxist-Leninist tradition.

Without much to show for?

In defense of his argument, Sunkara offers some statistical data on Chiapas illustrating that the region has not changed much in the past 20 years: illiteracy still stands at over 20 percent, running water, electricity, and sewage are still non-existent in many communities, and infant mortality rates are still extremely high.

These statistics are correct—but statistics do not always tell the whole truth.

If Sunkara had actually researched his case a little better, he would have found out that his statistics, which are presumably derived from the Mexican state’s National Statistical Agency (the source is not mentioned in the article), mainly refer to the non-Zapatista communities. Chiapas is an enormous region, roughly as big as Ireland, and out of the 5 million people who inhabit it, between 200.000 and 300.000 are actually Zapatistas.

Furthermore, most of the Zapatista communities, the so-called bases de apoyo, are not depicted in any official data since they do not allow access to state authorities: they are autonomous. And while Sunkara is right in that social transformation “can be examined empirically,” his article—relying on a narrowly developmentalist logic of statistical change—fails to do precisely that.


Take the following story, which is characteristic of the emancipatory social change that has been taking place in the Zapatista communities of Chiapas over the past 20 years; a story that is not visible in any official statistics.

A Basque friend I met in Chiapas a couple of years ago told me that what had impressed him the most during his last visit to the Zapatista communities was the position of women. The Basque comrade had come to Chiapas for the first time in 1996, two years after the uprising, and he could still vividly remember that women used to walk 100 meters behind their husbands, and whenever the husband would stop, they would stop as well to maintain their distance. Women would be exchanged for a cow or a corn field when they were married off—not always to the man of their choice. The situation has been very neatly depicted in the Zapatista movie Corazon del Tiempo.

Women would be exchanged for a cow or a corn field when they were married off. Today, almost 20 years later, half of the EZLN’s commanders are women.

Almost 20 years later, my Basque friend returned to Chiapas for the first grade of the Escuelita Zapatista. This time he would freely dance with the promotoras after the events, while some of the highest-ranking EZLN commanders—or to be more precise for the lovers of statistics: 50 percent of the Commanders of the Clandestine Revolutionary Indigenous Committee—are actually women.

In addition, women are now forming their own cooperatives contributing to family and community income; they are becoming the promoters of education (teachers, that is), nurses and doctors; and they serve as members of the Good Government Councils, or Juntas de Buen Gobierno, and as guerrilleras.

Let me give you another example that speaks for itself: In one of the Zapatista caracoles, there is now a music band called Otros Amores (“Other Loves”). Otros Amores is the phrase the Zapatistas use for the members of the LGBTQ community. All this in a previously deeply conservative, machista region (and country). Just try to imagine something similar in the rest of Mexico—or wherever you may be coming from!

At the same time, since the subject of education came up in Sunkara’s piece, it should be noted that—in an area where schools were an unknown word and teachers a very rare phenomenon—today there is not a single Zapatista community without a primary school, while secondary boarding schools now exist in the caracoles as well. This is a Zapatista achievement. These schools would not have existed without them.

Today there is not a single Zapatista community without a primary school. This is a Zapatista achievement.

Of course, the Zapatista autonomous rebel schools have nothing to do with the state schools: they are bilingual (Spanish and Tsotsil, Tojolabal, Tseltal, Chol, Mame or Zoque, depending on the region); they teach local indigenous history; and their syllabuses have been designed from the bottom up, with the active participation of the students and the communities, and are fully tailored to their specific needs.


Participation is a key concept when it comes to the social transformations that have been taking place in the Zapatista communities over the past twenty years. We are talking about deeply impoverished regions, where large estate owners used to rule over land and people, with the governors and the army of the—generally absent—federal state on their side.

Participation is a key concept when it comes to the social transformations that have been taking place in the Zapatista communities over the past twenty years.

The relationship between the “bosses” and the “workers” was a rather slavish, almost feudal one, in which the bosses even had the right to the “first night” of their peasants’ wives (the so-called derecho de pernada). Some say that large finqueros like Absalón Castellanos Dominguez fathered numerous children with the wives and daughters of the workers of their ranches.

When it came to the expression of their democratic rights (which had until the 1994 uprising been limited to participating in elections), their votes were regularly exchanged for some pesos, some food, or were simply subject to the will of their ranch owner. Not surprisingly, the PRI was receiving over 90 percent of the vote in these lands.

Today, every time I enter the offices of one of the Good Government Councils, I see different faces, very diverse age- and occupation-wise, who rotate in the administrative council every one to eight weeks, depending on the zone and caracol. I have seen old campesinos, 16-year-old graduates of the Zapatista schools, and young mothers breastfeeding their babies. They are all sent there by their communities for a given period in order to act as delegates in the collective self-administration of their lands.

In the communities themselves, regular assemblies are organized from the bottom up to discuss local concerns and movement-related affairs, and to decide horizontally and directly on the issues that affect their everyday lives.


Autonomous Government I
Autonomous Government II
Participation of Women in Autonomous Government
Autonomous Resistance
A Place Called Chiapas
The Zapatista Women’s Revolutionary Law
Revolutionary Women: Zapatista and YPJ-STAR Embrace New Gender Politics
Nican Tlaca Communism, Part 1: Towards a Synthesis