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2003: The Year of the Zapatista Anniversaries

by anna battista

"We are a product of five hundred years of struggle: first, led by insurgents against slavery during the War of Independence with Spain; then to avoid being absorbed by North American Imperialism; then to proclaim our constitution and expel the French empire from our soil; later when the people rebelled against Porfirio Díaz's dictatorship ... But today we say: ENOUGH IS ENOUGH!" EZLN, First Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle, January 2 1994

2003 will be remembered by the Zapatistas and by those who support them as the year of two special anniversaries. The first one honoured the foundation of the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) in 1983. At the time, there were only six members in the EZLN, three indigenous and three mestizos, six years later members had risen to over 1,300. The second anniversary was in memory of the 10th years passed since the EZLN prepared a military offensive against the Mexican government. On 1st January 1994, members of the Liberation Army marched to San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas' previous capital, in army uniforms and ski masks, and occupied it together with six other towns, protesting against the Mexican government and its unjust land laws. In that occasion the Zapatistas entered the capital shouting "Ya Basta!", "Enough is enough!", a cry which became later the slogan of many anti-globalisation demos. From the '80s on the Zapatistas and the EZLN started being supported by people all around the world. It is worthwhile then to retrace a short history of the Zapatista struggle.

The origins of the Zapatista rebellion can be traced back to the refusal by President Carlos Salinas' government to grant land to the indigenous, as stated by Article 27 of the Mexican Constitution. Salinas' policies mainly concentrated wealth in the hands of a few and made worse the relations between indigenous and nonindigenous landowners. The present generation of Zapatistas descends from the landless indigenous who, in the '30s, were sent to the Lacandon Jungle by the government which avoided in this way re-distributing among the indigenous populations the lands of the large estates, as demanded by law.

The Mexican government often tried to repress the Zapatistas, but the rebels kept on fighting in the name of democracy, justice and freedom and they were often supported by ordinary people, like that first time in January 1994, when Mexican people manifested to ask Salina de Gortari's government to end the military repression against the rebels. In August 1994, the EZLN organised the first National Democratic Convention: more than 6,000 people coming from all over the country gathered at Aguascalientes, a meeting place in the jungle near Guadalupe Tepeyac. Four months after the Zapatistas funded 38 autonomous indigenous municipalities that represented a challenge to the Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo's government.

During the following year, while many Mexican indigenous communities adhered to the Zapatistas, the government's low-intensity war against the EZLN continued and became more violent. The army destroyed the Aguascalientes (centers of indigenous resistance), and it was only in February 1996 that the EZLN and the government signed the San Andrés Accords that included issues such as the reform of the land and the rights of the indigenous and their culture. In July 1996 the Zapatistas organised in the Lancandon jungle the first Intercontinental Encuentro for Humanity and against Neoliberalism: more than 3 million people attended the meeting, they came from Mexico but also from other countries scattered all over the world. Six months after, President Zedillo rejected the Accords. In September 1997, the unarmed Zapatist National Liberation Front (FZLN) was founded in Mexico City, but in December paramilitary groups affiliated with the government killed 45 indigenous gathered in a church in the community of Acteal. The authors of the massacre were never brought to justice, and, while Zedillo denied the existence of paramilitaries in Chiapas, countries all over the world protested in support of the Zapatistas. Also the European Parliament condemned the massacre.

In 1998, while the Zedillo administration tried to expel human rights observers from Chiapas and the army dismantled Zapatistas communities, the EZLN issued the Fifth Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle. In March 1999, the Zapatistas organised a week-long Consulta on Indigenous Rights and Culture. On 21st March over 3 million Mexicans voted to implement the San Andrés Accords. The government in the meantime kept on repressing the Zapatistas.

In 2000, Zapatista communities registered to vote and in July Vicente Fox, from conservative PAN party, was elected President of Mexico. Fox dismantled the government's army encampments and introduced reforms to implement the Accords, but he secretly spoke to Congress encouraging to ignore the reforms. In February of the following year the Zapatistas Comandancia left Chiapas to go to Mexico City: 250,000 people welcomed them when they entered the Zócalo. In that occasion the EZLN wrote: "We are not those who aspire to take power and then impose the way and the word.…We are not those who put a price on their own or another's dignity, and convert the struggle into a market, where politics is the business of sellers who are fighting, not about programs, but for clients…We are here. We are here as rebellious colour of the earth which shouts: Democracy! Liberty! Justice!"

The government's low-intensity war against the Zapatistas and EZLN started again in February 2002. The Zapatistas resisted.

In 2003 Radio Insurgente started broadcasting from the mountains of the Mexican Southeast. In July Subcomandante Marcos announced the formation of the "juntas de buen gobierno", five organisations funded to support the 30 rebel municipalities created seven years before. In August the Zapatistas also created the Caracoles, centres that support self-governing Zapatista communities. But military occupation, paramilitary harassment and kidnappings are still very frequent in Chiapas among the indigenous communities who support the rebels.

As Marcos wrote in a message in 1996, the Zapatistas are "the end, the continuation, and the beginning," they are "rebelliousness," they are "the stubborn history that repeats itself in order to no longer repeat itself," they are "neoliberalism's maximum defiance, the most beautiful absurdity, the most irreverent delirium, the most human madness". Zapatistas are for humanity, peace, new politics, freedom, culture and dignified work. They planted the first seeds for the foundation of anti-globalisation movements in the world. They have been the first revolutionaries of our times who used the Internet to build through their emails, messages and letters penned by Subcomandante Marcos, a general consensus all over the world. As they often underlined, las palabras, the words, are their strength, through them they break the silence of their people and bring their messages to the rest of the world. Marcos' messages and letters against the war in the Balkans, in the name of independent media or against the war in Iraq have become famous and have been translated all over the world.

In the introduction to the book 20 y 10. El Fuego y la Palabra by Gloria Muñoz, Marcos remembers when the EZLN celebrated their first anniversary in November 1984: there were only nine people then and they all gathered in an encampment they used to call "Margaret Thatcher" because they had captured a monkey that looked exactly like the Iron Lady.

A year after they celebrated the anniversary in another encampment, this time they were in four. Each of the four rebels had to sing or say a poem, while the others listened. When it was his turn, Marcos made a speech in which he claimed that one day they would have been thousands and their word would have changed the world. His audience of three in that occasion must have thought the subcomandante was crazy, but his prophesy became true and many things changed throughout the years, indeed the number of Zapatistas and of their supporters simply multiplied. This is why the two Zapatista anniversaries have been celebrated with workshops, debates and films in various capitals of the world, among the others Rome, Barcelona, Berlin, Medellín, Montreal and San Francisco.

For writer José Saramago, zapatismo means hope in a better world, for Subcomandante Marcos it is not an ideology or a doctrine. It is simply "something so open and flexible that it really occurs in all places." Celebrate the Zapatistas then.

Issue 19, January 2004

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