18 August 2005 Edition

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Zapatistas end armed struggle - New political initiative launched

Zapatista National Liberation Army

Zapatista National Liberation Army

Mexico's indigenous rebels, the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN), have launched a new political initiative, ruling out the use of armed struggle and seeking to create a network of groups fighting to build democracy from the bottom up.

Renewing their commitment to fighting neo-liberal globalisation and to transforming Mexican social conditions, the EZLN have called for a grand alliance of left-wing organisations committed to working outside the electoral process. Next year sees presidential elections in Mexico, with the three large parties presenting manifestoes for a six-year term. Scathingly critical of the party political process in general, the Zapatistas point to the way in which the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) has rushed to the centre and to its self-proclaimed intention of repressing the social movements.

Discussions with other organisations are already taking place in Zapatista territory, and these will continue into September. The idea is to build an alternative project, possibly on a ten-year timescale, to counter corruption and what they see as top-down government by political elites.

This re-affirmation of Zapatista values is attributed to the latest generation of activists, who as children saw their parents march off to war, and then lived through a long and uneasy truce with the political parties as the movement attempted to make gains through negotiation. Many of these young people also had extensive contact with different struggles in Mexico and around the world. They met with other indigenous activists, mainly from countries such as Ecuador, Bolivia and Southern Chile, where such movements are particularly well-organised. They also met with anti-capitalists from the rest of South America, from Europe and North America. The EZLN were among the first to host large-scale intercontinental gatherings to co-ordinate resistance to neo-liberal economics, bringing activists from all over the world into the heart of Zapatista territory in 1996.

Above all the Zapatistas have defined themselves as a group of ordinary Mexicans fighting to defend themselves and their country from pillage by transnational capital. The ideology of this ragged army has always been clear: they seek to join with other people resisting within different contexts without attempting to lead them or to impose political direction upon them. This is a radical shift from Marxist vanguardism and notions of "democratic centralism", and is best summed up in their catchphrase, "Everything for everybody, nothing for ourselves". The Zapatista idea is to help others to develop resistance fronts from a position of equality.

The latest development follows a long process of evolution since the earliest days in 1983, when the EZLN was first established in the Lacandon jungle in the southeastern state of Chiapas. The guerrilla group found favour with the local indigenous communities, but in the process their relatively orthodox Marxism became fused with the indigenous philosophy of grassroots democracy. Not surprisingly, since for 500 years material progress in the West had been at the expense of the conquered peoples of the so-called New World, these communities had a peculiarly anti-materialist world view. Despite periodic rebellions, the indigenous people had been out of sight for most of the 20th Century, even though in Chiapas alone they comprised 30% of the population. Attempts at building a social movement during the 1970s met with little success, since the landowners employed armed gangs to suppress them. Everywhere they were met with racism and second-class citizenship by the descendants of their colonisers. As a result there was little contact between either community.

As President Carlos Salinas undermined the Constitutional guarantees on land ownership introduced after the 1910 Revolution and brought Mexico into the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the government was almost completely ignorant of the build-up of a large peasant army in the mountains and jungles of Chiapas.

They struck on 1 January 1994, just as NAFTA came into force. Several thousand poorly-armed insurrectionaries overran the Federal Army and seized a number of towns including Ocosingo, Altamirano, San Cristobal and Las Margaritas — approximately half of the state. Charismatic leader Subcomandante Marcos appeared in the media as communiques called on ordinary Mexicans to rise up in arms and march on the capital. Two weeks of fierce fighting ensued in which the Federal Army drove the rebels back from the towns. Millions of protestors came out on the streets to demand an an end to the repression.

Both sides committed themselves to peace talks, with federal negotiators finally signing a document henceforth known as the San Andres Accords in February 1996. This offered new rights to indigenous people, notably the right to organise in autonomous zones with their own system of local government.

The Zapatista leadership admitted that it was imperfect, but nevertheless sent the document to their base communities, who passed it after a process of consultation. On the other side, however, the government refused to bring the Accords before Congress and instead renewed its attacks on the communities through military forays and by arming counter-revolutionary squads which were responsible for appalling massacres.

The Accords were finally put to Congress by Vicente Fox in 2001, but were so altered by what the Zapatistas denounced as a 'racist' majority of legislators that the situation for Mexico's ten million indigenous people was actually disimproved.

In the years that have followed, the rebels have simply gone it alone, building on the work of the autonomous municipalities and handing over the running of the five rebel zones to civilian structures committed to participatory democracy. Now they are bringing their particular type of revolution to the whole country trying to empower those cast aside by society.

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