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Chiapas and the Global Grassroots:

The Global Zapatista Movement

Luis Hernández Navarro | January 16, 2004
Americas Program, Interhemispheric Resource Center (IRC)

From the outset, the Zapatista rebellion has been characterized by its international dimension. During the first few days of the conflict, the Mexican government tried to portray it as the work of meddling foreigners, especially Guatemalans, Nicaraguans, Salvadorans, Colombians, Basques, and Canadians.

The Zapatistas explicitly denied the charge. In a communiqué dated January 6, 1994 they maintained: “Our EZLN does not have in its ranks or in its command any foreigners nor has it ever received support or advice from revolutionary movements in other countries or from foreign governments.” The administration led by then-President Carlos Salinas de Gortari—itself relying on advice from Joaquin Villalobos, an ex-guerrilla leader from the Salvadoran ERP—was forced to recognize publicly that the rebels were a Mexican force made up mostly of indigenous peoples.

The uprising quickly received expressions of solidarity from all over the world. From the U.S. Midwest, the Farmers Union of Nebraska announced its support of the Mayan rebels. In New York, activists organized in the Committee for Democracy in Mexico, which staged acts of civil disobedience and hunger strikes in front of the Mexican Consulate in New York City. Thousands of Italian workers took to the streets of Rome to greet the insurrection. In Australia, the Mexican Embassy received threats. Ironically, among those most reluctant to welcome the Mexican rebellion were members of the old Central American guerrilla movements—precisely those accused of sponsoring the insurrection.

With the eyes of the world on Mexico as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) took effect, the international press filed long reports on the Zapatista uprising. Mainstream media published interviews and reports filed from the long-ignored state of Chiapas. The rebellion immediately became an issue for the general public, not just a concern of the left. The charismatic Subcomandante Marcos was received with sympathy in the most unlikely places, to the point where Benetton explored the possibility of doing a clothing line with his image.

The Internet became key in the international spread of the movement. Communiqués and articles began to circulate all over the world with tremendous speed. While the Internet eliminated physical distance, dozens of volunteer translators—many anonymous or signing with pseudonyms—helped hoist the Zapatista message over language barriers. The average person didn’t need the New York Times to know what was happening in Chiapas, or to publicize it to the world.

Computer networks also enabled supporters to cut through government information censors and mainstream media filters. They also allowed the budding movement to coordinate solidarity actions very efficiently. In 1995, Harry Cleaver and the University of Texas set up a web network of information on the Zapatistas. Artist Ricardo Dominguez staged a Zapatista performance at MIT in Boston and followed up with a project of electronic civil disobedience. The EZLN even put up its own web page. On March 21, 1999 the Zapatistas coordinated a web consult on indigenous rights with 14,800 persons participating from countries throughout the world.

Grassroots Solidarity Beyond Borders

In August of 1994, a solidarity collective in Barcelona established a consulate of the government-in-rebellion led by Chiapas opposition leader Amado
Avendaño. A year later, when the collective gave a talk in Galicia, a newspaper there ran an article mentioning the consulate. This sparked an indignant letter from the Mexican ambassador, claiming that the consulate had no formal representation. The journalist just laughed it off. On Sept. 16, 1996, the Catalonian Zapatistas organized the traditional Mexican celebration of the Cry of Independence, forcing the Mexican government consul in Barcelona to cancel the official ceremony. When the township of Corbera de Lobregat declared itself a sister city with the community of Amador Hernández in Chiapas, Mexican diplomats wrote in protest, saying that the autonomous township had no legal standing. The Catalonian local government chose to maintain the sister-city relationship.

Zapatista supporters have been the PR headache of successive Mexican presidents, especially in Europe. On tour in Germany, President Fox cringed as a group of Zapatista university students repeatedly yelled “assassin.” In Spain, Germany, and other places, Mexican diplomats have had to keep a stiff upper lip while confronting European Zapatismo.

Although the international solidarity movements were largely spontaneous, the EZLN rapidly and consciously conceived of its message as international. Convinced that globalization drastically modifies the logic and the dynamic of liberation struggles, and that the nation state is being deeply eroded, it banked on a project that went beyond national borders. The first consult held to define the future of Zapatismo in June of 1995 had an explicitly international component, as the EZLN declared its “national and international” nature. As part of the informal survey, 50,000 people, mostly workers, gathered in the Plaza San Giovanni de Roma on June 24th, raised their hands to vote on the questions formulated by the rebels.

Since the EZLN emergence in January 1994, thousands of young people of all nationalities have been traveling to Zapatista communities to live for months at a time in the civil peace camps. At first, they sought to serve as protective shields between the army and the population. Later, they began to work in community service. Solidarity soon gave way to reciprocal learning experiences. The Mexican government was unable to halt the steady stream of support even when it expelled dozens of international workers of several nationalities and imposed all kinds of migration impediments. Not only did these actions cause serious diplomatic tussles, they failed to stop internationalists from coming into the zone of conflict.

Some analysts have written that young people travel to Mexico from across the globe to join a romanticized revolution that will never exist in Europe. Extensive interviews indicate they’re wrong. In most cases, Zapatista supporters travel to southeast Mexico to do what they are already doing at home. The Europe of Maastricht is also the Europe of unemployment, of job insecurity, of precarious standards of living, of genetically modified foods, and of deepening racism. The new model of development consistently fails to generate enough employment for everyone, and much less for youth.
Many European young people view the language of Zapatismo and the movement’s proposals on diversity, autonomy, power, and resistance to neoliberalism as new and valuable elements in the elaboration of proposals to confront the challenges of their own societies. The same individuals who spend a month in a Chiapas peace camp are forging the global justice movement in their own communities and countries.

While hundreds have traipsed through the mountains of Chiapas to listen to the Zapatistas, millions more have heard and read the accounts rendered
by world-famous cultural leaders. Writers including José Saramago, Susan Sontag, and Manuel Vázquez Montalbán; human rights activists like Danielle Miterrand; film directors or actors like Oliver Stone, Fernando León, and Edward James Olmos; musicians like Manu Chao, Rage Against the Machine, Fermín Muguruza, Hechos contra el Decoro, and the Indigo Girls; intellectuals like Regis Debray, Alain Touraine, and Yvon Le Bot; organizers like José Bové; political leaders like Fausto Bertinoti and Ramón Montavani all have talked face-to-face with the Zapatistas and come away with new analyses and thought-provoking reflections on their experience.

This trek of notables to Chiapas lands has provoked bitter comments from anti-Zapatista intellectuals and Mexican government officials. But it clearly shows the international influence of the struggle. Zapatista communiqués have been translated and published in more than two dozen languages, including Greek and Persian. Hundreds of books recounting or analyzing the conflict have been published outside Mexico—in Italy alone they number over fifty. Scores of musicians regularly perform songs inspired by Zapatismo, or produce complete albums dedicated to the movement: Spanish singer-songwriter Joaquin Sabina even co-wrote a song with Subcomandante Marcos.

Every once in a while, this grassroots activity has an impact in the upper echelons of formal politics as well. The Zapatista uprising has led several parliaments and multilateral institutions to strongly criticize the Mexican government. During negotiations for a Free Trade Agreement between Mexico and the European Union, Austria’s Minister of Foreign Relations stated that for them the agreement was predicated on Mexico complying with the terms of a “democratic clause,” particularly in indigenous rights. Then-Secretary of Foreign Relations Rosario Green and Sub-Secretary Juan Rebolledo were forced to travel to Italy to try to decrease the political and diplomatic pressure on Mexico. Groups of legislators from several countries sent President Zedillo letters protesting the government’s failure to comply with the San Andres Accords. First were Danish legislators (La Jornada, 27/01/97) and 120 members of the Italian parliament from all political parties who publicly demanded that the president accept the reforms on indigenous rights. (La Jornada, 7/02/97) A few days later, French and Spanish representatives followed suit. The Commission on the Application of Norms of the International Labor Organization meeting in June 16, 1995 declared that Mexico was committing serious violations of the rights of rural workers and indigenous peoples and that the Mexican government should rectify its indigenous policy.

For Humanity and Against Neoliberalism

In 1996, the EZLN called for the first Intercontinental Meeting for Humanity and against Neoliberalism. Seven months later, the meeting gathered together a diversity of feminists, union leaders, peasant leaders, nongovernmental organizations, youth, ecologists, intellectuals, and political leaders from dozens of countries. A year later, with less impact, a second meeting was held in Spain.

The meetings became benchmarks in the formation of the global justice movement. Many of the promoters of the network of networks recognize in the two Zapatista meetings the direct precedent for the current cycle of protests against globalization. Over a thousand Italian activists took what they dubbed “the Zapatista train” to participate in the protests that sought to block the 55th Annual meeting of the World Bank and IMF on Sept. 26, 2000 in Prague. According to Andrew Flood, Irish anarchist writer, Prague can be seen as the “day for global action against neoliberalism,” announced in the working group on political action in Chiapas 1996.

These meetings did not give birth to a new International order after the socialist model. Many of the participants returned to their countries not only to promote solidarity with the Zapatistas but also to fight their own fights. In late 1996 Subcomandante Marcos received a strange gift from Denmark: a used pipe. The present had belonged to the Danish Minister of Foreign Relations. The pipe was sent not by the Minister but by a group of demonstrators who entered Parliament to protest against their government’s domestic policies that had nothing to do with Mexico. There they found the minister’s pipe and they took it. They figured the best destination for their trophy was to send it to the military chief of the EZLN. Among the activists were several who had participated in the meeting in Chiapas.

After the 1996 meeting, the solidarity committees began to function in a more systematic way in Europe and the United States. In 2000, there were 79 permanent Zapatista solidarity committees in Europe—active in Spain, France, Italy, Switzerland, Belgium, Germany, Ireland, and, to a lesser degree, England. This number doesn’t include the Scandinavian groups in Denmark, Sweden, Norway, and Finland, or the collectives that operate outside the network in Athens and the Czech Republic, or nongovernmental organizations, political parties, and social forces that do solidarity work with Chiapas but not as their main activity. Likewise, groups linked to the Catholic Church that form part of the peace movement relatively distanced from the rebels are not in the count.

In the U.S., there are approximately 45 Zapatista solidarity groups. Four coalitions stand out for their large memberships: the National Commission for Democracy in Mexico, International Service for Peace, Global Exchange, and the inter-religious Foundation for the Organization of the Community-Pastors for Peace. Also significant are the projects carried out by Peter Brown based in San Diego, and the many local groups such as Tonantzín in Boston, the New York Zapatistas, or the Zapatista Alliance in Pittsburgh.

Many of the solidarity committees gather for coordinating meetings annually. Here they exchange information and agree on joint actions. In contrast to other experiences of international solidarity, the EZLN has not defined a specific orientation to guide the action of these groups nor has it sent permanent representatives abroad. The operation of the committees is autonomous and decentralized. They maintain permanent contact among themselves. Many are directly involved in support to sanitary, educational, and economic projects in the autonomous townships. They also often find themselves shoulder to shoulder in campaigns for immigrants’ rights, against racial discrimination, and in resistance to globalization and war.
Their power is unequal. The committees in Belgium and Switzerland have fewer people but considerable influence: they knock on doors of politicians in Brussels and Geneva and make their voices heard there. The Italian committees have a huge capacity for mobilizing people and financing their own activities and travels. They have promoted three commissions of observation of human rights, and involved churches, NGOs, and government representatives in their work. Their members come from many backgrounds. Aldo Zanchetta is a businessman with a Catholic upbringing from the Tuscany region, Doris Palvio is a well-known Danish surgeon responsible for the group Tinku, and Sigfrido Miralles is an anarchist-union workers retired early from the telephone company.

These committees are great at mobilizing resources. Ya Basta! in Italy was key in giving the Zapatistas the Golden Lion Award in Venice and in offering them honorary guest treatment in the city. When the Mexican rebels visited in 1996, they were received with applause as they navigated down the canals. The Germans, Catalonians, and Italians have also played vital roles in the distribution and sale at solidarity prices of Rebeldia coffee, produced directly by rebel coffee growers.

According to Ignacio García, a key figure in European solidarity, these collectives are “a network. Up to now we had platforms, that is, sums of initials and organizations. We called it the alphabet soup. People who weren’t associated with an organization had no place. But now the networks are spaces that are always there, always open, that work without anyone knowing exactly how. Initiatives are left open. We never stop giving talks. We listen. It’s a living space, not a bureaucracy.”

The Disobedients

Luca Casarini, spokesperson for the Italian Disobedient movement, could easily pass for a medieval character. His appearance and his sense of the dramatic make him seem from another epoch. As leader of the Rivolta (Revolt) Social Center in Mestre, Italy he is one of the most prominent figures of the global justice movement.

Shortly before the historic protest against the G-8 in Genoa in 2000, Luca described the origins of the Disobedient movement, formerly known as the White Overalls: “We have a dream. In this dream we are born on January 1, 1994 alongside the Zapatistas. The dream is a good one, and it isn’t completely a fantasy, but reality is different. The truth is that the White Overalls movement was started in 1997 by a group of young people in Rome who called their collective ‘the invisibles’. They were the first to wear white overalls and go out into the streets dressed like that to demand rights.”
The Disobedients are not the only ones with the dream of having been collectively born with the Zapatista uprising. All over the planet, groups have sprung up that believe “another world is possible” and identify with the Zapatistas. Many of them play key roles in the movement of movements that confronts neoliberal globalization. For them, the rebels from southeast Mexico have been a source of inspiration and a political point of reference. Many view Zapatismo as a cornerstone of the movement that became visible in Seattle in 1999.

Sergio Zulian is an Italian in his thirties, a specialist in Spanish literature and an immigrant organizer in the city of Treviso. Following the uprising, he went to Chiapas many times until the Mexican government expelled him from the country in 1998 for traveling “without permission,” along with dozens of young Italians.

According to Sergio, “Zapatismo was the first stage of worldwide movements of the twenty-first century, and the second was Seattle. The indigenous people who rose up brought a new language and an open attitude, and the Seattle demonstrations renovated forms of protest. The ironic and poetic language of the Zapatistas broke many customs of the left, which was very serious and boring. It showed how you could change the world with joy and arms too.”

Zulian explains the impact of the Chiapan uprising on the Italian left: “First, we realized that it wasn’t a traditional guerrilla movement. We discovered that the language of this insurgency was totally different. Here in Italy, in Europe, despite the fall of the Berlin Wall, in 1994 the linguistic legacy and the influence of the big ideologies of the twentieth century were still very strong. To speak of dignity, of humanity, of democracy, of justice, was something that many movements considered bourgeois words, or at least strange.”

Many young people, he adds, embraced the Zapatistas and Marcos as a symbol. Being a Zapatista did not imply adhering to an already constituted line. “It was something subversive, but not a new ideology. We always said they weren’t the last of the twentieth century guerrillas but the first of the twenty-first.”

The Renovation of Politics and Language

Two factors are key to understanding the success of the Zapatistas’ call to action: the renovation of politics and language. In the words of Tony Soldevilla, a small businessman in the information industry in France: “Zapatismo has meant hope. For us it’s a movement. It came out when Internet came out. To be Zapatista was to be modern—if you were a Zapatista with Internet you were doubly modern. But also it was a new way to do politics. People stopped being leftists because it seemed like the same old thing. They went out to vote for the left to confront the right, but once in government they discovered that it was the same politics. Zapatismo was a new form of expression, of giving people the floor.”

García believes that the rebels “have created a new language that knows how to say this world is shit, but it knows how to say it with humor, joy, candor, without authoritarianism. It’s a universal language that has changed the words we use. It’s alive. It isn’t discourse. It’s a language that obeys a reality, a desire not to remain only in words.”

Anyone who believes—out of ignorance or self-interest—that Zapatismo is stuck or somehow waning is in for a surprise. Just ten months ago in the largest demonstration against the war held in Rome, the mother of Carlo Giovanni—the young man assassinated by police in the Genoa protests—read a communiqué from Subcomandante Marcos. Very few movements have that kind of global presence. The international vitality of the Zapatista rebellion has continued into the 21st century.

Luis Hernández Navarro is the Opinion Page Coordinator of the Mexican daily newspaper La Jornada and a longtime member of CECCAM (Centro de Estudios para el Cambio en el Campo Mexicano). He is an analyst for IRC’s Americas Program (online at www.ammericaspolicy.org).