No account of the Latin American democratic epiphany, the ‘Battle of Seattle’ against the World Trade Organization in 1999, the rise of the Global Justice movement thereafter, the birth of the World Social Forum in 2001, even the Occupy movements and ‘Arab Spring’ of today - or where they might lead - can be full without at least some reference to the inspirational impact of the Zapatistas.
What they did on I January 1994 in Chiapas, southern Mexico, was simple. Completely unheralded, they emerged from the villages of Chiapas to declare another world possible. In embryo it already existed, in their own practices, which replaced the corrupt hierarchy of established power with democratic assemblies.
There may have been an ‘army’ - the EZLN, or Zapatista Army of National Liberation - and a beguiling Comandante Marcos, who quoted poetry, smoked a pipe through his balaclava and satisfied media thirst for celebrity. But the prevailing mood was one of pervasive insolence, not violence, while democratic assemblies took all the decisions that mattered.
The trigger may have been the fearful experience of the indigenous peoples of Chiapas, Mexico’s southernmost state, where for centuries they had formed an oppressed and despised majority. But the date of the insurrection, 1 January 1994, was chosen to coincide with Mexico’s accession to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) with the US and Canada. This, the wider world of neoliberalism and corporate globalization, was precisely the world to which the Zapatistas now offered another possibility.
It so happened that I had been in Mexico shortly beforehand, trying to figure out what NAFTA might mean for the Mexican people. The notion among political élites, corporate lobbyists or anyone with an equally loud voice, north or south of the Mexican border, was that membership of NAFTA would finally propel Mexicans into the heart the American Dream. Why on earth I also intended to go south to Chiapas, a cloud forest of atavistic perversity, was quite beyond them.
You could talk to almost anyone else in Mexico and gain a rather different impression. And so indeed it has turned out. Mexico has fallen into a narcotic vision of the most terrible violence. Ciudad Juárez, planted in the desert just across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Texas, where I met young women slaving in corporate export factories, now presides over the unmarked graves that might well contain their mangled bodies. The American Dream still beckons over the ‘Tortilla Curtain’ between the two countries.
Whereas in Chiapas I came across fair trade for the first time. Every village in the mountains, a landscape of the most intense beauty, had its own intricate dress. From the celebration of National Independence Day in San Cristóbal de las Casas the indigenous majority was notable by its absence. Something seemed to be afoot. I even wrote a couple of sentences to this effect for the January 1994 edition of New Internationalist magazine, only to have them edited out - reasonably enough - as too fanciful.
The Zapatistas have had their ups and downs since. But they have endured, and their struggle continues. This New Year hundreds of activists and academics from around the world gathered at their International Seminar, ‘Planet Earth: Anti-Systemic Movements’, in San Cristóbal de las Casas.
French historian Jerome Baschet commented: ‘The logic of capitalism is causing us to lose control of our lives and it is time to take it back. The world movement has arisen at a crossroads of all struggles: the struggle against the looting of material goods, of land, of ways of life, of the capacity to decide. It is a movement that calls on everyone who feels dispossessed.’