The Zapatista Uprising Is 20

Saturday, 4th January 2014 at 22:40 UTC Leave a comment

Out of the mists of the jungle, balaclava clad insurgents descended to the cities to oust the regional government of Chiapas, Mexico. The date was January 1st 1994, the date of the implementation of the NAFTA trade agreement. They confounded pretty much everyone, including the Traditional Left, and its status as the height of activist cool has slipped. Yet the movement itself is still very much alive and continues to offer important lessons.

I discovered the Zapatistas a bit more than a decade ago – long enough that I was aware of the 10th Anniversary taking place. It seems to have been a bit more forgotten this time around. For many of today’s University students, the initial uprising took place before they were born. 20 years on, and the Zapatista movement is neither new nor exciting. it represents nothing more than the long trudge of life in opposition to on-going threats from neo-liberalism.

Yet the Zapatistas are as relevant as ever. The very fact that, 20 years on, we in Europe are witnessing our own NAFTA in the form of TTIP. Our very democracy is at threat, as corporations seek isolation from the realities in which they do business. Attempts to circumvent legislation, whilst ensuring governments will offer them protection against citizens are back on the cards. For Mexico in particular, NAFTA was a disaster, with wages falling and environmental destruction on a wide scale – not just ‘wildlife’ or ‘countryside’ destruction, but immediate human habit as cities faced immense pollution reaching in to people’s homes.

For the Zapatistas, it has always been about power and dignity, far more than the issue has been money – largely just the language of power and cause of indignity. The Zapatistas have never shied away from fulfilling their own demands, or from acting outside the parliamentary channels which they knew were configured to punish them rather than protect them. They have understood that a real movement needs to do more than make political demands, it needs to meet needs: health centres, education programs, and more.

The Zapatistas are, by many people’s assessments, a set of walking contradictions. The language of their written communications with the outside world is very visual and at times mystifying. In part, its a reminder of just how important creativity is, and how the irrational is part of normal human experience. In part, its a reflection of how different a revolution looks to anything that can be neatly described in a textbook. Amidst the various pressures, compromises and contingencies are life and death matters and fundamentalism is a shortcut to failure. The Zapatistas, despite their rarely-used weapons, have presented a very human revolution – within the collective project, individuals matter. traditions and cultures matter.

But perhaps the real challenge is completely unchanged. When asked what activists around the world could best do to show solidarity with their cause, the Zapatistas issued a simple challenge: make a revolution all of your own, right where you are. Its very easy to get excited about a far off movement in a completely different context, especially when it feels spontaneous. There was nothing spontaneous about the Zapatista uprising – it was simply the culmination of years of mobilising, organising, training and preparations. It has been years of work to get to where they are today. The temptation for the well-meaning has been to hop on a flight and go visit – the Zapatistas have sought to reject this as mere tourism, rather than actual Solidarity. For the Zapatistas, its better that neo-liberalism is challenged by many movements around the world. This has never been about one struggle in isolation, or indeed one generalised struggle.

The Zapatistas have achieved much in 20 years, including greater dignity within their own national politics. Their education projects and cooperative farming efforts have given them more stable and resilient lives. They’ve never made wealth an object, and so its hardly surprising that they haven’t received much, if any, of it. But what of ourselves? The anti-globalisation movement has come and gone. Trade deals like NAFTA and TTIP still threaten our lives and livelihoods. Issues comes and go, but if we want to pay tribute to 20 years of hard work, then it is our communities to which we need to turn and begin to build our own revolutions.


Entry filed under: Activism, Zapatistas.

My 2013 Christmas letter The Tower of Babel today

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