Every January 1 we will all be Zapatistas!

  • January 1, 2014

Autonomy & Authority

On the 20th anniversary of the uprising, we should celebrate not just the Zapatista rebellion, but also the autonomy they have established ever since.

January 1st 1994.

Presidential Palace, Mexico City.

The New Year’s Eve party is over and President Carlos Salinas de Gortari has gone to bed happy, knowing that towards the end of his presidency Mexico is now entering the First World. With the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) entering into effect with the new year, Mexico, Canada and the United States of America would now establish a “free trade zone” under which goods and services (but not people — who cares about people after all?) would now be moving freely between those three countries.

Of course that would also mean the full exposure of Mexican small-scale agricultural producers to unfair competition by the North American multinationals that were producing more cheaply and in larger quantities, but then again, who cares about those peasants — and do they still exist? First World, as we said…

However, Carlos Salinas de Gortari was not meant to sleep long that night. At around 3am he would be awaken by the endless, irritating sound of his phone ringing insistently.

— “There’s been a rebellion in Chiapas. Masked, armed men have taken seven municipal towns. We don’t know how many they are. They call themselves Zapatistas, and their army the EZLN…”

First World? Ha, Ha, Ha!

But who were those masked people who — armed, at least in some cases, only with wooden guns — managed to spoil the President’s dreams and capture Mexico’s and the world’s attention (and hearts) ever since? Where were they coming from? And what did they want?

“We were born of the night, in her we live, we’ll die in her.”

Those masked people, who covered their faces in order to be seen, were the indigenous people of the mountains and the jungles of Chiapas, the poorest and most ignored region of Mexico. Tzotziles, Tzeltales, Choles, Tojolabales, Zoques, and Mames, all of them Mayan indigenous peoples who had been living in those lands even before the Spanish conquistadores arrived, and who have been facing oblivion, injustice, inequality, violence, and absolute poverty both at the hands of the Spaniards and the Mexican state that replaced them. Doctors were an unknown word in those lands in 1994, education a joke, and political participation was restricted to a vote every five years — most of the times in exchange for a T-shirt, a sack of rice, or some other smaller or bigger ‘favor’.

And on January 1, 1994, it is those people who finally said:

¡Ya Basta! Apologies for the inconvenience, but this is a revolution.”

And they went on to call the Mexican people to take up arms against the government and march with them all the way to the capital. “Be realistic, demand the impossible” used to be the May ’68 slogan, and that’s precisely what the Zapatistas did as well. However, their call did not resonate with Mexican society, the revolution did not reach Mexico City, neither did it take political power. But it did happen and 20 years later it is still there, growing, expanding, and inspiring.


What is probably the greatest legacy of Zapatismo, however, is neither the big-R Revolution, nor the uprising itself, not even the fact that they came out of the jungles and mountains of Chiapas to remind the world that history is not dead at all. From my personal point of view, what will remain as the greatest legacy of the Zapatistas is the autonomous system of self-governance they have been constructing in their lands, provoking the whole world — all of us in the cities and villages of Europe, North, Central, or South America, Africa, Asia, or Oceania — to think: “if they are doing it, why can’t we?”

Although it would be worth making a special ROAR issue dedicated solely to Zapatista autonomy — which is in our future plans — in what follows I will try to describe what Zapatismo is like on the ground, how it is structured; and highlight its major achievements up to date.

But before anything else I would like to emphasize the following: Zapatismo and its autonomy is not a blueprint, a recipe, a model to be copied or emulated. Neither was it itself reproduced from any other pre-existing model, book, or recipe. It is the product of the cumulative decisions of the people of Chiapas, the poorest of the poor, to invent new ways of doing things, new forms of self-governance based on horizontality, autonomy, and direct democracy.

After realizing that the big-R Revolution would probably only reproduce the same power relations that they despised, and that electoral processes were a game designed by the ruling elites in such a way as to guarantee their continued domination over the general population, the Zapatistas decided to break with the logic of domination and start building from scratch; a world where Democracia, Libertad y Justicia could flourish and be born from below, rather than be imposed from above.

And so, through trial and error, they created the five caracoles (or snails), each with its own Junta de Buen Gobierno (JBG), responsible for its own Zapatista Autonomous Rebel Municipal Zone (MAREZ). They are the following:

  • “The Mother of Caracoles — Sea of Dreams” (La Realidad)
  • “The Whirlwind of Our Words” (Morelia — 17 de Noviembre)
  • “Resistance Until the New Dawn” (La Garrucha — Fransisco Gomez)
  • “The Caracol That Speaks for All” (Robero Barrios)
  • “Resistance and Rebellion for Humanity” (Oventik)

The municipalities and communities in each zone are not divided on the basis of geographical criteria only, but in other ways too, like ethnic composition and distance from the caracol. Each caracol has its own autonomous health clinic, and nowadays most of the Zapatista communities have their own micro-clinics as well. There are also a number of ambulances that can serve in emergency situations, one of which is called Carlo Giuliani, in honor of the anarchist anti-globalization protester who was assassinated by the Italian police in Genoa in 2001.

Together with conventional drugs, natural medicine is also used in the the Zapatista autonomous health system, utilizing that way the traditional knowledge and wisdom that has been generated over the years in those lands. Normally in almost every caracol there is a primary and/or secondary school, while each Zapatista community has its own primary school and teacher, built and trained by the movement’s autonomous educational system. Each of the graduates of the schools is involved in one form or another with one of the five projects of Zapatismo: health, education, agro-ecology, politics, and information technology — or they can become insurgents if they so wish.

Decisions are taken in a direct democratic fashion, starting at the community level with the community assembly going all the way to the Junta (the Good Government Council). The members of the Juntas rotate regularly, securing in that way that all the members of the community (men, women, children over 12 years old) can participate in the autonomous self-governance of the Zapatistas, and also that no single person can become a permanent representative in the decision-making structures; avoiding this way — to the best possible extent — the problems of corruption and clientelistic relations.

And, most importantly, all the above has been achieved without any exceptional resources or government funds, but rather with the Zapatistas’ own restricted powers and the assistance and solidarity of national and international civil society. The autonomous self-governance of the Zapatistas — their clinics, schools, and other projects — are funded solely through the cooperatives that have been established for that purpose.

The cooperatives — present in every single Zapatista community — are run communally and trade everything these lands produce: coffee, corn, bread, cows, eggs, pigs and chicken. Lately there’s also a transportation cooperative (Zona Norte) that administers a number of mini-vans that transport people from one place to another at a low cost. Whatever little income is generated through this process is then re-invested in schools, educational material, clinics, medical and construction material, and so on.

Of course the Zapatistas’ system of autonomous self-governance is not perfect, of course it has its shortcomings, and of course it has evolved a lot throughout the years and will keep evolving and improving in the years to come. “Asking we walk”, say the comrades in those lands. And of course it is not a model to be copied by anyone in any other part of the world as it stands. It is just what the indigenous peoples of the Zapatista territories have invented in order to govern themselves the way they themselves have decided; the way that makes sense for them. And by not allowing professional representatives to take decisions in their name, they have taken full responsibility over their creation: a just, horizontal, participatory, direct democratic, and dignified autonomous self-governance system, built from below, with their own — however limited — resources. How many of us can claim the same?

Today, on Wednesday January 1, 2014 the Zapatistas will be celebrating the 20th anniversary of the day they said Ya Basta and took a number of main towns in Chiapas by force. Today marks the 20th anniversary of the 1994 uprising! And, like every January 1 ever since… we will all be Zapatistas!

¡Feliz año nuevo rebelde cabrones!

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Leonidas Oikonomakis

Leonidas Oikonomakis is a rapper with the Greek hip-hop formation Social Waste, a PhD candidate in Political and Social Sciences at the European University Institute (EUI) in Florence, a researcher at the Center on Social Movement Studies (COSMOS) at the Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa, and a member of the editorial collective of ROAR Magazine.

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Source URL — https://roarmag.org/essays/20th-anniversary-zapatista-uprising/

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