The Zapatista uprising: twenty years on

December 11, 2013
Zapatistas march in Chiapas, December 2012.

The tide of history sometimes surges out of the most unexpected places. Twenty years ago, the Zapatista indigenous uprising broke out in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas.

Zapatismo, limiting itself to operating in Chiapas, may be an incomplete solution to the national rule of the capitalist class, but the Zapatista rising in 1994 was a big advance in Latin America’s liberation struggle.

The Chiapan anti-neoliberal network founded in the 1980s was named after Emiliano Zapata, whose memory had always been cherished in this region. Of the many voices that emerged during the Mexican revolution that broke out in 1910, Zapata’s was always the one most focused on expanding the autonomy of Mexico’s long-oppressed campesino indigenous class.

Zapata’s vision featured small, landed communities planning their own destinies to create a patchwork of self-sustaining, mutually respectful pueblos. It was a melange of traditional Mayan communalism and European libertarian socialism.

Zapata was assassinated in 1911 and the revolution degenerated into the decades-long rule of the Party of Institutional Revolution (PRI). Mexico became a one-party state paying lip service at orchestrated rallies to the ideals of popular sovereignty, but the PRI actually governed on behalf of domestic elites and the ever-watchful colossus to the north.

No event symbolised this more than the 1968 Tlatelolco massacre of protesting students.


By the early 1990s, US overlordship of Mexico had reached unprecedented levels of control. The terms of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which came into effect on January 1, 1994, underscored the dramatic power US corporate interests held over Mexico.

Everything was on the table in the “free trade” negotiations, including indigenous land rights that had been enshrined in Article 27 of the 1917 constitution. This was one of the few revolutionary gains that had not been whittled away.

Traditionally inalienable indigenous land holdings (ejidos) were to be broken up by NAFTA. This allowed multinational corporations to move in, take over and exploit the natural resources of the region.

It was pure neoliberalism and nothing short of a death sentence for indigenous communities.

Unbeknown to the self-styled masters of the world, flushed with triumphal capitalist zeal after the recent end of the Cold War, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN)-- many of whose commanders belonged to the Tlatelolco generation -- planned a counter-strike with the meagre resources at their disposal.

“We have nothing to lose,” they proclaimed, “no decent roof over our heads, no land, no work, poor health … no independence from foreign interests, and no justice for ourselves or our children.

“But we say enough is enough! We are the descendants of those who truly built this nation, we are the millions of dispossessed and we call upon all of our brethren to join our crusade, the only option to avoid dying of starvation.”


On January 1, 1994, the same day NAFTA became law, a guerrilla force made up of a few thousand indigenous Mayan men and women captured six Chiapan towns.

Hundreds of thousands of Mexicans from all over the country lent active support to the Zapatistas, demonstrating in solidarity.

The Zapatistas’ unequivocal rejection of the Washington Consensus smashed into the grim edifice of power, inspiring others to take up the hammer. For a brief moment, the powerless took the power back.

When news of this development reached the centre of neoliberal power, the response from the high priests of globalisation reflected their concern that the Zapatista example might prove contagious.

“While Chiapas, in our opinion, does not pose a fundamental threat to Mexican political stability”, advised Chase Manhattan in 1995, “it is perceived to be so by many in the investment community. The government will need to eliminate the Zapatistas to demonstrate their effective control of the national territory and of security policy.”

The Zapatistas' rebellion put an end to the then-fashionable idea that humanity had reached the “end of history” -- that US-style free market capitalism was now the only possible choice for humanity.

As a result of this remarkable demonstration, which was both an old-fashioned revolutionary gun battle and a post-modern media event, resistance to the Washington Consensus was energised. In the subsequent years, a global movement developed against neoliberal capitalism, many of whose participants viewed the Zapatistas as an inspiration.

Reflecting on that period of the early 90s, when many anti-globalisation activists in the US and elsewhere felt isolated and voiceless in the blare of mass media neoliberal propaganda, New Standard-founder Brian Dominick recalled: “A bunch of us were struggling to stop it [NAFTA] … and it certainly didn't culminate into a general awareness …

“On January 1, 1994, that culmination actually did take place … It came about as a result of activism. That activism I'm referring to … is the Zapatista uprising in Chiapas, Mexico.”

In 1996, about 3000 activists and the Zapatistas met in the first organised “International Encounter for Humanity and Against Neoliberalism” in the pueblo of La Realidad, Chiapas.

As recalled by Harry Cleaver, “the stimulus of those meetings provoked an outpouring of thinking, discussion, writing and other creative activities … That so many participated, in so many ways, with so much energy was truly remarkable.”

The Zapatista-hosted encounter movement had a galvanising effect, as Sara Burke and Claudio Puty point out: “The Encounters between US anti-capitalist activists and the Zapatistas finally bore fruit in a way that came to the attention of the world in Seattle in 1999, for it was the People’s Global Network -- formed in 1998 out of connections forged in La Realidad -- that put out the first calls for N30, the protest against the 1999 WTO meetings in Seattle.”

The influence of the Zapatistas continues. At a 2011 Planet Earth: Anti-Systemic Movements conference attended by hundreds of international activists and academics in San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, tribute was paid to the movement’s adherence to communalist decision making and consultative democracy.

“Just consider the immense mobilisation of the indignados and the Occupy movement that struggle for another possible world,” said prominent Mexican leftist intellectual Pablo Gonzalez Casanova. “There has never been a [mobilisation] of this magnitude, and the mobilisation began in the jungles of Chiapas with the principles of inclusion and dialogue.”

A representative of the Chilean student movement, Daniela Carrasco, said: “The great example that we have taken from the Zapatista movement is the assembly as a form of organisation. For many years, the Chilean movement was characterised as very bureaucratic and personalist …

“This year this logic was broken … All our members vote raising their hands, knowing that they are participating and not just spectators, in an act of taking back the struggle in the streets.”

Ongoing rebellion

Two decades on from the initial EZLN uprising, autonomous Zapatista communities have survived in southern Mexico in the face of constant harassment by the Mexican state -- at the urging of its Wall Street backers.

In pursuit of the policy of elimination, many atrocities have been carried out by military and right-wing paramilitary units, including the 1997 Acteal massacre in which pregnant women and children were butchered, . Punitive sexual assaults, murders and mass expulsions have been commonplace.

Yet the widespread sympathy felt by ordinary Mexicans for the Zapatista cause has prevented a full-scale invasion of Mayan Chiapas. The survival of Zapatismo in southern Mexico is a great achievement considering the weight of the forces arrayed against the movement.

This is not to say that the Zapatista model for effecting change is without limitations. The most critical of which, in the opinion of many, is the failure of the movement to move beyond separatist rebellion to a Bolivarian-style movement that aims to unite with other sectors of the oppressed to take the reins of national power.

As Lance Selfa and Stuart Easterling pointed out in an article published on the 10th anniversary of the uprising at “Defeating the forces of corporate globalization that are crushing [Mexico] will require not just [a Zapatista] rebellion, but a revolution that replaces a system based on profit and greed with a society controlled by workers that will meet human needs.”

A larger challenge, with real tangible gains for the oppressed, has been achieved by the revolutionary struggles of those nations heading Bolivarian Alliance for the People’s of Our Americas (ALBA) anti-imperialist bloc. Beginning in Venezuela, and expanding to varying degrees to Bolivia and Ecuador, social transformation is being spearheaded by the electoral mobilisation of grassroots social movements.

In an January 12, 2011 article published on Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal, Rachel Evans and Tristan Parish wrote: “The Zapatistas’ anarchist strategic outlook, with their anti-theory 'no political line' position and their disdainful 'all politics is corrupt' led them to abstain from key struggles against neoliberalism.”

Despite their shortcomings (which stem, in part, from the traumatic memory of genocidal oppression historically experienced by isolated Mayan groups in southern Mexico and Central America), it should not be forgotten that the Zapatistas resisted the neoliberal prescriptions of the insanely-premised Washington Consensus with courage, eloquence and an admirable concern for human values.

In a sense, those of us in all Pacific Rim nations awaiting the implementation of the pro-corporate TransPacific Partnership (TPP), being negotiated behind closed doors, have much in common with the Chiapans facing NAFTA back in the early 1990s. What will our response be?

Zapatista strategy and tactics do not provide an exact model for our resistance to the “NAFTA-on-steroids” that is presently taking alarming shape in the form of the TPP. But the shining example of their resolve at a time when few others were making an effective stand against neoliberalism may perhaps serve as a valuable reference point and perhaps an inspiration to today’s resistance.

[See also: 20 years since the Chiapas rebellion: the Zapatistas, their politics and impact at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal.]

You need Green Left, and we need you!

Green Left is funded by contributions from readers and supporters. Help us reach our funding target.

Make a One-off Donation or choose from one of our Monthly Donation options.

Become a supporter to get the digital edition for $5 per month or the print edition for $10 per month. One-time payment options are available.

You can also call 1800 634 206 to make a donation or to become a supporter. Thank you.