Zapatistas--Brief History

Judy Olsen (
Thu, 18 Mar 1999 22:36:14 -0800

> I like the way the author compares the Zapatistas' struggle with ours in
> North America.

Judy O

> ------------------------------------------
> ZNet Commentary
> March 19, 1999
> Reinventing Solidarity Activism
> by Brian Dominick
> Since the January 1, 1994 Zapatista uprising in Chiapas, Mexico, EZLN*
> leaders have been quite forthcoming about what solidarity means to them, be
> it domestic or international. Their articulation of the revolution they
> envision is poetic in its clarity, as is the applied strategy they hope will
> achieve their aims -- one reaching well beyond their tiny corner of the
> world or surface problems. Realization of those aims, the Zapatistas
> explicitly state, is intimately tied to the development of movements
> throughout Mexico and the rest of the world. They are under no illusion that
> an "army" like the EZLN can reach its priority goal -- that of localized
> indigenous autonomy -- even with massive amounts of aid, from food and
> medical supplies to weapons and training.
> Realizing the strength of their primary adversary (the US-backed Mexican
> government), the Zapatistas have moved from a military focus to a strategy
> of grassroots organizing among what they call "civil society." And since the
> beginning this has prompted a fresh look at how the rest of the world should
> perceive their movement and our role in solidarity with it. In North
> America, even many pacifists have come out in explicit support of the
> Zapatistas, recognizing the nonviolent social orientation of the EZLN
> strategy. But what does it mean to support the Zapatistas, or to be in
> solidarity with them?
> There are really two main perspectives on international solidarity between
> the US/Canada and the people of Chiapas. One, which we will call the direct
> solidarity method, has viewed the people of Chiapas, and in some cases the
> EZLN, as primarily in need of specific contributions. Some of this aid is
> material, such as food, medicine, housing, money and so forth. In many cases
> it is observers or witnesses to perform "protective accompaniment" in order
> to provide badly needed safeguards against military attacks on autonomous
> Zapatista and other indigenous communities. Additionally, countless
> activists have travelled to Chiapas to share special skills and advice.
> These folks also tend to recognize the important role of organizing at home
> in the North toward greater awareness of the Chiapas plight and against US
> military aid, corporate involvement, and so forth. All elements of this
> approach, if carried out with respect for the autonomy of the Zapatistas and
> Chiapans in general, are vital aspects of the current solidarity movement.
> But according to the Zapatistas, if their revolution is to be successful by
> their own standards, there is still more to be done. It isn't sectarian to
> suggest that, indeed, true solidarity means much more than unilateral aid.
> Old notions of solidarity, which identify the stance too closely with
> charity, need to be checked for both their inherent conceit and their
> limited potential. They are conceited in that unilateral solidarity, or
> one-directional aid-giving, assumes total privilege on one end of the
> relationship, that of the North. In order to understand my concern (shared
> by many indigenous activists) with such a dynamic, it helps to understand a
> bit about who the Zapatistas, and the Maya people in general, actually are.
> The Zapatiasta struggle is decidedly different from the "Latin American"
> "national liberation movements" with which North American solidarity
> activism became identified in the 1980s. For starters, the predominantly and
> centrally indigenous Zapatistas tend not to consider themselves Latin, but
> Indian. As the Zapatistas will be the first to admit today, the term
> "National Liberation" in their army's title is essentially misleading, if
> taken to imply a desire, like that of the FMLN* or FSLN* before them, to
> seize state power as a method of such liberation. Like their namesake
> Emiliano Zapata in the Mexican Revolution of the 1910s, the EZLN harbors no
> desire to liberate indigenous people, or anyone else, through seizure of
> national political authority. As Subcomandante Marcos has eloquently stated,
> the Zapatistas "wish not to seize power, but to exercise it" in their own
> communities. And they hope others will do the same.
> A second distinction between the Zapatistas and most previous revolutionary
> movements in the region (and throughout the world), is their focus on, and
> basis in, traditional Mayan democracy. In every way more direct, localized
> and cultural than commonly understood forms of democratic structure and
> process, Mayan democracy -- not guerilla warfare tactics -- is the
> cornerstone of the Zapatista movement. This is particularly relevant because
> the heritage and present assertion of participatory democratic ideals,
> despite some of the most severe material poverty in the hemisphere,
> indicates an imbalance between activists in Chiapas and their counterparts
> in North America. Much richer in material resources, because of our
> dislocation from indigenous or other democratic cultures, most activists in
> the US and Canada have much to learn about democracy. Without meaning to
> downplay very real economic despair in the North, ours is also a poverty of
> democracy.
> And the Zapatistas have much to teach, which is consonant with their
> repeated insistence that we organize our own communities -- not exactly as
> they have, but according to our own needs and potential -- as a method of
> acting in solidarity with the EZLN. Their means of communicating with
> Mexican civil society, through human-centered language instead of academic
> meandering, is an example of the distinction between the Zapatista and
> typical Northern perspectives on radical organizing. Indeed, because the
> Zapatistas have used Mayan languages to develop their understanding of
> revolutionary social change, Northern models of "leftism" do not even apply
> to the Zapatista struggle. Zapatismo is inherently community-oriented,
> because it arises from communities with preexisting cultures of democracy
> predating European invasion.
> There are other reasons, also articulated by the Zapatistas, for organizing
> in our own communities. The Zapatista vision considers worldwide grassroots
> organizing, not necessarily toward direct or even explicit solidarity with
> Chiapas, a requisite to their own success. Especially important in the US
> and Canada where international influence through NAFTA and military aid is
> strongest, transformation of social systems in the heart of the imperial
> homeland is essential to the Zapatistas' ability to make progress toward
> resistance and autonomy.
> Which leads us to note the real reasons many North Americans have cited a
> special relevance of the Zapatista struggle among others taking place around
> the world. Once again the "threat of a good example" is a real possibility
> in our hemisphere; if the Zapatistas' form of grassroots, democratic,
> localized resistance and self-governance proves successful, or even
> inspiring, the lessons of zapatismo may spread beyond the besieged villages
> of Chiapas. Perhaps no more severely oppressed than other peoples of the
> world, the Zapatistas stand out because they're applying relatively unique
> methods of resistance and social transformation, plus holistically engaging
> not only economic and political struggle but also race, gender, age and
> ecological issues as well.
> For the Maya people of Chiapas, 1994 marked a significant point on an
> ancient calendar. On January 1 of that year, they say, the Sixth Sun,
> marking the dawning of another century in the colonial era, rose above
> Chiapas. And according to their prophecies, the Sixth Sun will illuminate
> the time of renewal, where the people will "rise up from the hills like
> corn," and according to another prophecy, unite with the peoples of the
> world to start a new era.
> Even in this time of draughts, fires and floods, when little corn is rising,
> the Maya people have begun to fulfill those prophecies by saying "Enough is
> enough!," and by placing consistent calls to us all to join in their
> struggle.
> How we partake in this struggle is up to us. Many organizations in the North
> have understood the Zapatista definition of solidarity to promote the
> development of democratic understandings through their incorporation in
> cultural activities. Groups all over are organizing highly politicized
> festivals and culturally-oriented teach-ins, explicitly intended in
> solidarity with the Zapatistas. Other organizations, like the Boston
> Encuentro, have formed to bring the lessons of the Zapatistas home to their
> communities, applying translations of zapatismo to their existing activist
> endeavors. Whatever the specific approach, let it be known there are more
> ways to demonstrate solidarity than the sending of aid or observers, however
> important those efforts are indeed.
> EZLN: Zapatista Army of National Liberation
> For more on the EZLN and Zapatista solidarity, visit:
> or
> FMLN: Farabundo Marti National Liberation, guerilla army turned political
> party in El Salvador.
> FSLN: Sandinista National Liberation Front, revolutionary government of
> Nicaragua, 1979-1990.
> Brian Dominick is a community organizer and freelance journalist living in
> his hometown of Syracuse, NY. He is co-founder of the NorthEast Zapatista
> Solidarity Network ( and Syracuse Zapatista
> Solidarity. For more writings by him on this and other subjects, see
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