The Successes and Failures of the Zapatista Movement
On January 1, 2004, over one thousand people in the mountain hamlet of Oventic, Chiapas, celebrated the 10th anniversary of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) rebellion with song and dance. Thus, it seems a fitting time to take stock of the successes and failures of the Zapatista movement in the context of its original goals. While the EZLN has been able to establish thirty eight autonomous indigenous communities in Chiapas, it has failed to weaken the Mexican government's commitment to neo-liberal economic policies. In the following pages, we will explore those factors which enabled the Zapatistas to establish regions of autonomy and extrapolate from Theotonio Dos Santos' understanding of the effects of reliance on foreign capital and Nora Hamilton's analysis of the 'limits to state autonomy' to rationalize the failure of the Zapatista's broader vision of social justice.
In a letter to President Zedillo in 1994, Subcomandante Marcos of the EZLN demanded ?democracy, liberty and justice? for all Mexicans. These nationalist ideals were supplemented by practical demands to meet the needs of the impoverished and exploited indigenous peoples of Mexico. In 1993, the EZLN promoted an indigenous struggle
?for work, land, housing, food, health care, education, independence, freedom, democracy, justice and peace. We declare that we will not stop fighting until the basic demands of our people have been met by forming a government of our country that is free and democratic.?
By the late nineties, the struggle for indigenous autonomy had become ?the central basis of the Zapatista movement.?
Since 1994, the Zapatistas have made significant gains towards autonomy, health, and education within Chiapas. By December, 2003, the EZLN had established 38 autonomous municipalities which ?have constructed a series of schools, clinics and co-ops that fill the openings created by the rebels? refusal to take money from the mal gobierno (bad government).? In addition, the Zapatistas have created five organizational centers (caracoles) and established Juntas of Good Government in each of them in order to ?resolve conflicts and disequilibrium between the centers and the outlying autonomies.? The caracoles mark the EZLN?s first success with regional, as opposed to municipal, autonomy. These Zapatista achievements can be attributed to the local terrain of Chiapas, restrictive legislation, and local and national scrutiny. The Mexican government has faced legal and practical restraints on launching an all-out war on the Zapatistas. The first government counter-attacks encountered tactical difficulties in the jungles of Chiapas and the army failed to score a quick military victory. In 1995, the federal congress passed a ?law for dialogue,? which foreclosed the option of a unilateral show of force by the Mexican army in areas under Zapatista control. This legislation catalyzed the signing of the San Andrés Accords by the EZLN and the Zedillo government. The San Andrés Accords, as well as the inaccessibility of the jungles of Chiapas, made overt military action politically and tactically unviable.
The EZLN?s national popularity and visibility also guaranteed its survival. Though the Mexican government maintained a virtual monopoly on the press, Marcos and the Zapatistas managed to diffuse their ideas and goals across the country using alternative media, namely the internet. Many Mexicans did not support their violent tactics, but the EZLN brought attention to the ?plight of those at the losing end of Mexico?s economic globalization, particularly the indigenous groups who were losing both their livelihood and their hopes for self determination.? Marcos? articulate and incisive letters to Mexico?s presidents put the government on the ?moral defense.? The government could not put down the Zapatistas with brute force,...