The Zapatistas: A New Strategy in Mexico
north america / mexico |
the left |
Thursday November 17, 2005 23:47 by Andrew Flood - WSM - Red and Black Revolution
Anarchist analysis of the repercussions of the news from Chiapas
Over the summer the Zapatistas announced a new strategy but what was it and what does it mean? On the global level the the rebellion in Chiapas was both an inspiration and organisational model for new a generations of anti-capitalist activists. Because of this the change in direction will have repercussions that stretch far beyond Mexico
If the 6th declaration represents a very significant shift in
Zapatista politics to anti-capitalism it also still contains many of
the contradictions between their local organisational methods which are based on self-management and what they appear to advocate at the national level
Zapatistas: A New Strategy
Over the summer the Zapatistas surprised their supporters by
a Red Alert out of the blue. After a couple of days of near panic
it emerged that this was just because they were undergoing a consulta
(a discussion and referendum) which would decide on a new path for
the movement. This new path is to once more turn outwards and to aim
to build a new alliance across Mexico and beyond.
At the time I was
an article for Red and Black Revolution which looked at how the
Zapatistas had been in a long inward looking phase which required
many local compromises with the Mexican state. I was interested in
the self-management structures they had built in this period but also
the nature of the compromises and in particular the question of dual
power. That is the question of how long a situation could exist where
you had Zapatista structures of self-management on the one hand and
the Mexico state on the other as opposed mechanisms that both tried
to decide what life in Chiapas could be like.
The traditional leftist understanding is that situations of dual
power cannot be indefinite - yet it appeared that the Zapatistas were
attempting to do just this. Then the Red Alert and the communiques
which followed made all my speculations irrelevant as they clearly
brought this period to an end.
The years 2001-2004
The process by which the Zapatistas have spent most of the period
from 2001 to mid 2005 building up self-management started when the
Zapatistas realised they faced an all party coalition determined not
to allow through the new indigenous laws contained in the San Andres
peace accords. They date this to April 2001 when "the politicians
from the PRI, PAN and PRD approved a law that was no good, they
killed dialogue once and for all, and they clearly stated that it did
not matter what they had agreed to and signed, because they did not
keep their word".
After the usual long period of silence which indicates a lot of
internal discussion the Zapatista's announced that the Auguscalantes
where the big external meetings were once held were becoming Caracols
or the centres of Zapatista internal organization as well as contact
points with the Zapatistas for the outside world. These were to be
the centres of the Juntas of Good Government (although in English
junta is often assumed to mean dictatorship in fact it means
something like council).
What exactly this meant was not all that clear until on the 15th
of August 2004 the EZLN released a set of 8 communiques, most of
which fleshed out in a huge amount of detail just what the Zapatistas
were up to in this period. In many ways these are among the most
important documents of the rebellion and it is worth taking the time
to read them in detail.
Self-management in Chiapas
From these documents we learn that the "good government
juntas" follow the libertarian structures established by the
other layers of Zapatista self-management. By far the most provoking
aspect is that the actual people who make up each junta are rotated
in an incredibly rapid fashion. According to Marcos these rotations
are from every "eight to 15 days (according to the region)".
The delegates are themselves drawn from the members of the Autonomous
Council (AC) and because these are rotated in turn (over a longer
period which seems to be a year) this means that by the time everyone
on an AC has been on the junta a new AC is created and so all these
new people must in turn learn the ropes.
As might be imagined this is driving those who work with the
Zapatistas nuts because it means every time you go to a 'good
government junta' you are dealing with different people. This is by
design and it is worth quoting Marcos at length as to why this is so
"If this is analysed in depth, it will be seen that
it is a process where entire villages are learning to govern.
"The advantages? Fine, one of them is that it's more difficult
for an authority to go too far and, by arguing how "complicated" the
task of governing is, to not keep the communities informed about the
use of resources or decision making. The more people who know what
it's all about, the more difficult it will be to deceive and to lie.
And the governed will exercise more vigilance over those who
"It also makes corruption more difficult. If you manage to
corrupt one member of the JBG, you will have to corrupt all the
autonomous authorities, or all the rotations, because doing a "deal"
with just one of them won't guarantee anything (corruption also
requires "continuity"). Just when you have corrupted all the
councils, you'll have to start over again, because by then there will
have been a change in the authorities, and the one you "arranged"
won't work any longer. And so you'll have to corrupt virtually all
the adult residents of the Zapatista communities. Although,
obviously, it's likely that once you've achieved that, the children
will have already grown up and then, once again"
I think the logic here is quite recognisable to anarchists and
needs no further explanation. The August 2004 communiques also
explored the limitations of what had been achieved - notably the
failure to involve women as equals in the decision making structures
at the base of the organisation and the tendency of the military side
of the organisation to try and make decisions for the communities.
The new turn of 2005
The new turn of the Zapatistas makes no signifi cant difference to
the basics of the self-management structure sketched above. The
communiques which announced it did add more details to what had been
happening and the steps taken to address some of the problems
But fundamentally they recognised that "we have reached a point
where we cannot go any further, and, in addition, it is possible that
we could lose everything we have if we remain as we are and do
nothing more in order to move forward. The hour has come to take a
risk once again and to take a step which is dangerous but which is
Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle is interesting because it also
sees the Zapatistas publically put forward an explicit and general
anti-capitalist line for the first time. Previously there was an
anti-capitalist logic underlying their opposition to neo-liberalism
but here for the first time they distinguish between neoliberalism
simply being a bad phase of capitalism and capitalism in itself being
The section 'How we see the world' includes a long section on how
capitalism works "capitalism means that there are a few who have
great wealth, but they did not win a prize, or fi nd a treasure, or
inherit from a parent. They obtained that wealth, rather, by
exploiting the work of the many. So capitalism is based on the
exploitation of the workers, which means they exploit the workers and
take out all the profi ts they can. This is done unjustly, because
they do not pay the worker what his work is worth. Instead they give
him a salary that barely allows him to eat a little and to rest for a
bit, and the next day he goes back to work in exploitation, whether
in the countryside or in the cities".
Alliance with the left
This sets the basis for an unacknowledged change in who the EZLN
are seeking an alliance with. In the past this was all progressive
forces ('civil society'), now it is "with persons and
organisations just of the left". Previously outside of Chiapas
the EZLN appeared to advocate that the first step was a democratic
(but capitalist) state and that the struggle for this included
'progressive' sections of Mexican business in the fight for
Now the declaration says "we are going to go about building, …
a national program of struggle, but a program which will be clearly
of the left, or anti-capitalist, or anti- neoliberal, or for justice,
democracy and liberty for the Mexican people". In concrete form
"the EZLN will establish a policy of alliances with non-electoral
organizations and movements which defi ne themselves, in theory and
practice, as being of the left, in accordance with the following
- Not to make agreements from above to be imposed below, but
to make accords to go together to listen and to organise outrage.
- Not to raise movements which are later negotiated behind
the backs of those who made them, but to always take into account
the opinions of those participating.
- Not to seek gifts, positions, advantages, public positions,
from the Power or those who aspire to it, but to go beyond the
- Not to try to resolve from above the problems of our
nation, but to build FROM BELOW AND FOR BELOW an alternative to
neoliberal destruction, an alternative of the left for Mexico.
- Yes to reciprocal respect for the autonomy and independence
of organisations, for their methods of struggle, for their ways of
organising, for their internal decision making processes, for
their legitimate representations.
- And yes to a clear commitment for joint and coordinated
defense of national sovereignty, with intransigent opposition to
privatisation attempts of electricity, oil, water and natural
The declaration also makes it clear that the EZLN is not talking
about a return to armed struggle but "a struggle in order to
demand that we make a new Constitution, new laws which take into
account the demands of the Mexican people, which are: housing, land,
work, food, health, education, information, culture, independence,
democracy, justice, liberty and peace. A new Constitution which
recognises the rights and liberties of the people, and which defends
the weak in the face of the powerful."
In all this the 6th declaration does not represent a return to the
strategy of the 1994-2001 period - a strategy which limited itself to
democratic demands and the opening up of a political space. This
strategy meant that while the practical organisation of the
Zapatistas was a useful model for anarchists of self-management in
practice, their actual declared goals always seemed quite naive - a
demand for a nicer capitalism in an age when neoliberalism ensured
any such experiments would be isolated and impoverished.
So it can be seen that the 6th declaration represents quite a
step forward in the political program advocated by the Zapatistas.
But why or how did these changes occur. Is this merely the old core
leadership of leftists that went into the mountains in the 1980's
shifting a step along the path they always intended to follow. Or
does it refl ect a genuine development of analysis at the base of the
movement. Or more realistically a transformation at the base driven
by the old leftists?
Learning from struggle
This question is addressed in another long communique released in
the weeks after the 6th declaration called
Penguin in the Selva Lacandona'. Much of this is taken up with
the story about the Penguin and dealing with criticisms from Mexican
social democrats but a long section also asked the reader to imagine
the infl uence of the rebellion, and everything that went with it, on
the children who have grown up during it. "What happens with that
girl- then-adolescent-then-young-woman after having seen and heard
"the civil societies" for 12 years, bringing not only projects, but
also histories and experiences from diverse parts of Mexico and the
World?" "We told you in the Sixth Declaration that new generations
have entered into the s truggle. And they are not only new, they also
have other experiences, other histories. We did not tell you in the
Sixth, but I'm telling you now: they are better than us, the ones who
started the EZLN and began the uprising. They see further, their step
is more firm, they are more open, they are better prepared, they are
more intelligent, more determined, more aware.
What the Sixth presents is not an "imported" product, written
by a group of wise men in a sterile laboratory and then introduced
into a social group. The Sixth comes out of what we are now and of
where we are."
The suggestion clearly is that the process of rebellion and
solidarity shown with the rebellion has been a political education
for all those growing up during it. And that this is why the
Zapatistas have moved towards a more explicit anti-capitalist
position. Only time can reveal the accuracy of this claim but there
is no reason for dismissing it out of hand.
At the time of writing the work to build the 'National Campaign
with Another Politics' is well underway with the first of a series of
meetings, the one for 'Political Organisations of the Left' having
just taken place. The Mexican anarchist groups, including 'Alianza de
los Comunistas Libertarios', were taking part in this. The ACL had
discussion of the 6th declaration that questioned the aim of
writing a new constitution. They pointed out not only that the fine
words found in constitutions are frequently meaningless in reality
but more importantly a constitution implied the existence of a
government to implement it. In other words the state would continue
to exist and the state is the negation of the social revolution.
So if the 6th declaration represents a very significant shift in
Zapatista politics to anti-capitalism it also still contains many of
the contradictions between their local organisational methods which
are based on self-management and what they appear to advocate at the
national level. The opposition to electoral politics has
significantly hardened with the 6th declaration but still appears as
a critique of all the existing electoral parties rather than of
electoralism as a strategy in itself. The confusion between an
anti-imperialist opposition to US domination and support for
nationalism whether in Cuba, Mexico or Venezula also remains.
How meaningful is it to talk of "our leaders are destroying our
nation" because "they are only concerned with the well being
of capitalists" when this is the natural order of capitalism, not
just in Mexico now but throughout the world and throughout the
history of the capitalist period. There have always been those on the
left - including
Connolly in Ireland - who tried to redefine the nation so as to
exclude the capitalist class. But are such semantic word games not
simply building on sand - and facilitating the creation of a future
'history' where radical movements can be drained of their meaning by
draping them in the national flag?
None of these criticisms are new but they will provide the excuse
needed for those council communists and others who have sat on their
hands for the last 12 years waiting for the Zapatista rebellion to
turn authoritarian to sit on their hands for the next dozen. The
challenge of the Zapatista movement for anarchists has been how to
have real solidarity with a movement that contains such ambiguities.
And how to learn what there is to learn - and tell others - without
becoming unthinking cheer leaders.
The global anti-capitalist movement
On the global level the significance of the rebellion in Chiapas
has been the inspiration and organisational model it provided for new
generations of anti-capitalist activists. Because of this the change
in direction will have repercussions that stretch far beyond Mexico.
The Zapatistas are also aware of this which is why the 6th
declaration starts off by talking of forging a new relationship of
respect and support with those struggling against neo-liberalism
around the globe. This is to include sending aid - even to those in
struggle Europe - although the communique makes clear that they are
well aware that the relative poverty means this can only be symbolic.
But importantly it also announces the intention to organise a 3rd
intercontinental encuentro at the end of this year or the start of
the next. The previous two, held in Chiapas in 1996 and the Spanish
state in 1997 played an important role in the emergence of the summit
protest movement by bringing activists from around the globe into
contact with each other. Those of us who met in Chiapas or Madrid
would later meet on the streets of Seattle, Prague and Genoa. This
encounter could help us take the next step.
From Red & Black Revolution 10 - 2005 - online soon