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A Spark of Hope: The Ongoing Lessons of the Zapatista Revolution 25 Years On

What are the lessons of the EZLN's revolutionary struggle for Indigenous autonomy, a quarter-century after declaring war on Mexico and global capitalism?

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Zapatista women
In 1998, Zapatista women in Amador Hernadez demanded daily that the Mexican military leave the village communal landholdings. , Tim Russo

January 1, 2019 marked 25 years since the Zapatistas captured the world’s imagination with their brief but audacious uprising to demand justice and democracy for Indigenous peasants in southern Mexico. While never formally laying down its weapons, the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (Zapatista Army of National Liberation, EZLN) has since become known more for its peaceful mobilizations, dialogue with civil society, and structures of political, economic, and cultural autonomy.

Over the past quarter-century, the Zapatista movement has made significant gains in its own territory, with a ripple effect in Mexico and around the world. The Zapatistas stepped onto the world stage as the Cold War was drawing to a close. With communism no longer providing a blueprint for liberation struggles as it had in the past, the EZLN played an important role in broadening the possibilities of what the next wave of popular movements might look like. From a historical perspective, it is even clearer now what a critical contribution that was—the Zapatista movement has influenced grassroots activists and social movements like few others of the late 20th century. And although it’s been many years since the EZLN was the darling of the international solidarity scene, the Zapatista movement continues to offer lessons to social justice advocates and activists that, in the current political landscape, might be more valuable than ever.

Breaking Chains of Colonialism and Exclusion

The Zapatista uprising stood against the backdrop of colonialism and its legacy—centuries of poverty and inequality, racism, and exploitation. Chiapas, Mexico’s southernmost state, is rich in natural resources but one of the poorest states in Mexico. It has one of the country’s largest Indigenous populations, along with some of the highest rates of malnutrition, maternal mortality, and illiteracy. Chiapas also has a long history of conflict over unequal land distribution. After peaceful movements for land reform in the 1960s and ‘70s were met with government indifference and increased repression from large landholders, many Indigenous villagers concluded that armed struggle was their only viable path. In November 1983, they founded the EZLN as a small guerrilla cell. The founders named the group after Emiliano Zapata, a hero of the Mexican Revolution, and took up his rallying cry of tierra y libertad (land and freedom).

After 10 years of clandestine organizing in the mountains and jungles of Chiapas, recruiting Indigenous peasants into their guerrilla army and civilian support base, the Zapatistas came to a consensus that they would rather risk dying from a bullet than continue watching their children die from preventable diseases. They chose a symbolic date for their uprising: January 1, 1994 was the day the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) went into effect. The EZLN was one of the first popular movements to recognize neoliberalism as a dangerous new stage of global capitalism and called NAFTA a death sentence for the Indigenous peasants of Mexico.

As night fell on December 31, 1993, the armed forces of the EZLN had begun to gather. It was an army made up almost entirely of Indigenous people, and about a third of the soldiers were women. As dawn broke on New Year’s Day, Zapatista troops occupied seven towns throughout the eastern half of Chiapas, including San Cristóbal de las Casas, a quaint colonial city nestled in the misty highlands of Chiapas and a major tourist destination, where Indigenous peoples have long been oppressed and stigmatized. The Zapatistas occupied San Cristóbal for less than 48 hours. They stayed long enough to read their declaration of war from the balcony of the municipal palace but slipped away in time to escape the full brunt of the Mexican military. The uprising lasted less than two weeks, but transformed the EZLN into one of the most well-known social movements in the world, and one that, over the next decade, would inspire an extraordinary level of solidarity.

Fighting Patriarchy in Zapatista Territory

Since then, the impact of the Zapatista movement has been visible at the local, national, and international level. In Zapatista territory, land takeovers carried out after the 1994 uprising—where Zapatistas occupied large ranches and reapportioned property to landless peasants—impacted the distribution of wealth in Chiapas and continue to shape living conditions for Zapatista villages farming on reclaimed land today. The Zapatista structures of Indigenous autonomy have extended access to rudimentary health care and education to rural villages in Chiapas. The Zapatistas exercise self-determination through local and regional governments, and their economic cooperatives organizing the production of goods generate resources to invest back into their communities, which I detail in my book.

Women’s involvement in the EZLN helped shape the Zapatista movement, which, in turn, opened new spaces for women and led to dramatic changes in their lives. When the EZLN began organizing in the rural villages of Chiapas, women there experienced an extraordinary level of violence and discrimination. But the Zapatista movement radically redefined gender roles in the context of the Zapatista movement, as women became guerrilla insurgents and political leaders, healers and educators, and members of economic cooperatives. The tremendous changes in women’s lives have included public roles of leadership and participation in community affairs and the ability to choose their romantic partner and decide how many children to have. Women’s organizing led to the banning of alcohol in Zapatista territories, which women credit with helping significantly reduce domestic violence. A generation of young Zapatistas, born since the 1994 uprising and growing up in Zapatista territory, today represent the promise of the revolution.

The Zapatista movement’s approach to women’s rights has also evolved over time. In its early years, the EZLN’s leadership acknowledged the discrimination and oppression that women face, but its sole focus was on encouraging women to participate in the revolutionary struggle. There was initially little or no discussion about how to end violence against women, address economic inequality, or lessen women’s workload at home. However, the EZLN proved able to change and, over time, developed a much more nuanced gender analysis. Over the years, EZLN leadership paid greater attention to gender-based demands, and dismantling patriarchy became a goal of the movement in of itself.

Facing Dialogue and Betrayal with the Mexican Government

The Zapatista movement has had a deep social, political, and cultural influence at the national level as well. For many sectors of Mexican society, the Zapatistas represented the voice of the voiceless, and inspired a new sense of hope for Mexico’s poor and Indigenous citizens after decades of desperation. By empowering civil society, undermining faith in the Mexican government, and demonstrating that it was possible to challenge the status quo, the EZLN arguably contributed to ending decades of one-party rule in Mexico when the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (Institutional Revolutionary Party, PRI) lost the presidential elections in 2000.

Soon after the 1994 uprising, the EZLN and the Mexican government began peace negotiations. Yet the entire time the Mexican government was negotiating with the EZLN, however, it was also waging low-intensity warfare against the Zapatistas. The violence was primarily directed at the EZLN’s civilian support base, including a military offensive against Zapatista communities in February 1995. Instead of returning fire, the Zapatista insurgents and tens of thousands of Zapatista civilians fled to the mountains. Mexican soldiers ransacked the abandoned villages, leaving behind destruction as they advanced through Zapatista territory. The government eventually called off the attack and peace talks were renewed, but the Mexican army established formidable army bases in the heart of Zapatista territory.

The strained relationship between dialogue and violence would continue to mark this stage of the Zapatista movement, and women would end up on the front lines in defending their communities from military attack. In 1996, two years of negotiations culminated in the San Andrés Peace Accords on Indigenous Rights and Culture, which recognized Indigenous rights and promised Indigenous autonomy. The Mexican government, however, never implemented the San Andrés Accords. In 2001, after a Zapatista mobilization throughout Mexico pressured the federal government to sign the San Andrés Accords into law, the Mexican Congress instead passed the Indigenous Law, which was such a watered down version of the San Andrés Accords that the EZLN rejected it immediately. The center-left Partido de la Revolución Democrática (Party of the Democratic Revolution, PRD) voted for the law, which the EZLN considered a deep betrayal. Current Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, known as AMLO, was mayor of Mexico City at the time, and a key leader of the PRD. The Zapatistas have never forgiven AMLO, and the conflict could shape their relationships with the new president over his six-year term.

At the time, this split between the EZLN and the PRD also triggered a broader fracture across the Mexican left. Many had considered themselves supporters of both the EZLN and the PRD, but were now forced to choose sides. Some on the Mexican left criticized the EZLN for their lack of pragmatism and, although it is widely believed that electoral fraud stripped AMLO of his rightful victory in the 2006 presidential election, some still blame AMLO’s narrow defeat on the Zapatista boycott of electoral politics. Others have applauded the Zapatistas for their unwavering anti-capitalist stance and ongoing commitment to truly holistic solutions.

Since being elected president, AMLO has proposed incorporating the San Andrés Accords into the Mexican Constitution, indicating his interest in reestablishing trust with the Zapatistas. There would, however, remain an ideological divide. The Zapatistas have long argued that, under neoliberalism, the capitalist class is always in control, regardless of which political party is in power. The EZLN’s Sixth Declaration, which includes a lengthy critique of neoliberalism, encourages political formations and alliances outside of the electoral system, to build power from below. It was published in 2005, just as the 2006 presidential elections were getting underway, but the EZLN has continued to be critical of AMLO since then.

The AMLO-backed Maya Train project to build a railway across southeastern Mexico is just one example of why AMLO and the Zapatistas are unlikely to see eye-to-eye anytime soon. Many environmentalists and Indigenous groups, including the Zapatistas, oppose the project. Since AMLO is Mexico’s first left-leaning president in decades, it will be telling to see how the relationship between AMLO and the Zapatistas continues to unfold.

And while the Mexican government never implemented the peace treaty it signed with the ELZN, the San Andrés Accords created a framework that the Zapatistas and other Indigenous groups throughout Mexico have implemented on their own. After the passage of the 2001 Indigenous Law, the ELZN turned away from any further efforts to engage with the federal government. Instead, the movement has concentrated on the construction of Indigenous autonomy within its own territory.

Inspiring Anti-Capitalist Movements Across the Country and Around the Globe

Since 1994, the EZLN has also engaged in dialogue with international civil society, inspiring a generation of young activists to organize for social justice in their own contexts. Through its national mobilizations and dialogue with other sectors of society, many credit the EZLN with strengthening Mexican civil society, as Chris Gilbreth and Gerardo Otero have written. The Primer Encuentro Intercontinental por la Humanidad y contra el Neoliberalismo (First Intercontinental Gathering for Humanity and against Neoliberalism) in 1996, and other international gatherings organized by the EZLN, helped jumpstart a worldwide anti-globalization movement.

The exchange between Zapatista and non-Zapatista women has been especially fruitful. Zapatista women have inspired women around Mexico and around the world, and recently held an international gathering for “women who struggle” in defense of its anti-patriarchal platform.

Meanwhile, the Zapatista movement continues to offer a viable example of local alternatives to global capitalism, albeit at a small scale. The economic cooperatives in Zapatista communities, for example, are strengthening a local and regional economy based on collective effort and the well-being of the community, rather than competition and profit.

Although the Zapatistas do not occupy the place they once did in the popular imagination, they continue to be an important reference point for social movements in Mexico and around the world, such as the Occupy movement that emerged almost two decades after the EZLN first put neoliberalism in its crosshairs, and the Mexican protest movement that emerged in 2014 after the disappearance of 43 students from the rural Ayotzinapa teachers’ college. For example, Omar García, a student at the Rural Teachers College of Ayotzinapa and a leader of the protest movement, said in a 2014 interview with Radio Zapatista that “the most powerful reference point for us, in terms of knowing that it is possible to change things at their root, are the Zapatista compañeros and their autonomous municipalities.”

Lessons for Contemporary Social Movements

As social movements in the United States grapple with the rise of white nationalism, the undermining of democratic institutions, deaths of migrant children in government custody, and attacks on voting rights, reproductive rights, environmental protections, and so on, some of the lessons that the Zapatista movement and its history offer might be more relevant than ever.

In 1994, the Zapatistas declared war on the Mexican government. They decided to take on global capitalism and aim to dismantle patriarchy in Zapatista territory. At the same time, they know that none of us have all the answers, that we make the road by walking. Contemporary social movements might do well to emulate this combination of chutzpah and humility. The Zapatistas also readily acknowledge that theirs is a long-term struggle. They view their project of Indigenous autonomy as building a world of justice and dignity slowly, step by step. There is much we could learn from the Zapatistas’ understanding of the enduring nature of this work, and the patience that comes along with that.

Over the last few years, social movements seeking to dismantle patriarchy have surged, in the United States and in other parts of the world. In spite of very different contexts, what Zapatista women have accomplished—and how they accomplished it—offers women around the world an array of insights about how to achieve transformations on gender issues. In Chiapas, a handful of Zapatista women in key roles of leadership, combined with a broad push from women in the Zapatista base, succeeded in changing laws, institutions, behaviors, and expectations around gender roles and domestic violence, resulting in remarkable transformations for women in Zapatista territory.

In an era when social media has become such a primary mechanism for communication and community-building, it might be tempting to look back at the Zapatista uprising and point to their remarkable ability to communicate with outside supporters at a time when the Internet was only just emerging as a mechanism for global communication. But this outward facing communication was just one aspect of the Zapatista movement. Within the Zapatista villages themselves, the deep social fabric of community and the unquestioned assumption that the collective wellbeing takes priority over the individual form one of the strongest foundations of the Zapatista movement. So while one lesson for contemporary social movements might be to continue making the most of new technologies to reach new audiences, another equally important lesson is to heed the importance of building real, in-person communities, and to have rigor and discipline in old-fashioned, face-to-face organizing.

In a moment of heightened polarization in the United States and across the region, it is worth looking back on the Zapatistas’ ability to unite many sectors of society under one banner, and their capacity to remind us what we have in common. The Zapatistas were fighting for land reform and Indigenous autonomy. But they also succeeded in communicating a vision of a just society so universal that people all over the world living in very different contexts from them felt included in their struggle. A quarter-century after their uprising, perhaps the most meaningful, lasting lesson from the Zapatista movement is a spark of hope, a sense of what is possible, even in dark and uncertain times.

Hilary Klein has been engaged in social justice and community organizing for more than two decades. She spent several years working with women’s cooperatives in Zapatista territory and is the author of Compañeras: Zapatista Women’s Stories (Seven Stories Press, 2015).