An Anarchist Assessment of the EZLN


Electronic Edition * Produced March 10, 1994


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By Todd Prane and Elizabeth Bright

"To the Workers of the Republic: Greetings!

"Brothers and Sisters of the cities, come to meet with your brothers and sisters of the countryside; brothers and sisters of the workshop, come embrace your brothers and sisters of the plow; brothers and sisters of the mines, of the railroad, of the port, save the rivers, mountains, seas, and mingle your desire for freedom with our desire, your anxiousness for justice with our own.

"Workers of Puebla, of Orizaba, of Monterrey, of Guanajuato, of Cananea, of Parra, of Pachuca, of Ebano, of Necaxa, workers and operators in the factories and mines of the republic, heed our fraternal call, help us with the valiant push of our effort; it is already rusting, it is already swaying this skeleton of tyranny...

"The realization of the truth was cruel and did not wait. Instead of the help promised to our unions came the imposition of government tyranny; they tried to make the worker into the docile creature of the government, to prepare for the coming farce of the elections...

"...And as if this were not enough, those who protested went to prison! As if this were not enough, to those who resisted, the scaffold! Do you want more? Do you want a greater injustice?

"No; you cannot be with your enemies. Your demands are like ours. You demand an increase in wages, a reduction of working hours; that is to say, greater economic freedom, greater right to enjoy life; it is exactly that that we demand as we proclaim our rights to land. It is only that, less tyrannized than us, you believed that you would find, in peaceful unions, the infallible formula to solve your problems; we, however, could think of nothing but of arms, of open rebellion against those who violate our rights; because the oppressed are not even the owner of their laments, when the same, just protest is drowned, even as it forms in their throats; therefore, there is no dignified path left for this oppressed, no redemptory gesture other than to take up arms, proclaiming victory or death; death first, before remaining any longer a slave...

"May the callused hands of the fields and the callused hands of the workshop reach out in fraternal greeting and accord; because in truth, the workers united are invincible, we are the strength and we are the right, we are the tomorrow!

"Greetings, brother and sister workers, greetings! Your friends, the peasants, await you!"

--Emiliano Zapata, Tlaltizapan, Morelos, 15 March, 1918

"Here we are, the dead. We die again, but this time to truly live."

Since Jan 1 of this year, our Zapatista troops began a series of politico-military actions with the principal objective of letting the Mexican people and the world know the miserable conditions that millions of Mexican, especially we the Indigenous people, live and die in. With these actions, we also let people know our decision to fight for our elementary rights in the only way that the government authorities have left us: armed struggle.

The grave conditions of poverty of our compatriots has a common cause: the lack of freedom and democracy. We believe that an authentic respect for freedom and the democratic will of the people are the indispensable prerequisites for the improvement of the economic and social conditions of the dispossessed of our country. For this reason, just as we demand the improvement of the living conditions of the Mexican people, we demand freedom and political democracy...

--General Command of the Indigenous Revolutionary Clandestine Committee of the Eje'rcito Zapatista de Liberacio'n Nacional (EZLN), from the mountains of Southeastern Me'xico. January, 6, 1994

The 75 year-old call for solidarity and assistance issued by Zapata to the urban and industrial workers of Me'xico could have been written last month. The EZLN's declaration was. The EZLN has declared a war for land, food, and freedom to control their own lives in southern Me'xico and anti-authoritarians in North America finally have an armed liberation organization that they can (and should) support with few qualms. In the first three weeks of armed struggle the Zapatista National Liberation Army (Eje'rcito Zapatista de Liberacio'n Nacional) accomplished more, militarily and politically, than any of the guerrillas of Central America have in the past 12 years. They claim a tradition of radical Indigenous self-determination, Zapatismo, and in doing so set themselves politically and strategically apart from almost every other clandestine armed group in Latin America. They are not vanguard Marxist guerrillas in search of a social base to lead into the revolution. They are not even trying to conquer the rest of the country (although they clearly wouldn't mind if some other Mexicans caught on to their ideas). They are trying to reclaim their land, their culture, their families, their villages and towns, their lives.

The Beginning

The real beginnings of the current rebellion can be found in 1492 and 1910, of course. Spain's conquest of what is now Latin America gave rise to the conditions under which most Native peoples in this hemisphere still struggle, and die. Emiliano Zapata offered a radical solution to those conditions: that Indigenous campesinos take back their land by any means necessary. Zapata's army of Indigenous peasants played a pivotal role in the Mexican Revolution. Although recent events have been reported several times over by various capitalist and progressive news agencies, a short summary is useful.

The facts, in brief, are the following: several thousand combatants liberated several towns and cities (among them, San Cristo'bal de las Casas, Ocosingo, Las Margaritas and Altamirano) in the name of the EZLN. They were armed, but sometimes with little more than ancient rifles or machetes. They wore bandannas over their faces and flew a black flag with a red star on it. After securing the city of San Cristo'bal de las Casas, with a population of 100,000, the EZLN fighters attacked the jail, freeing 129 prisoners. The soldiers opened prisons in several other towns as well, and redistributed stockpiled food among the people. In Ocosingo, much of the EZLN hid away for three days prior to the attack-- around two thousand soldiers hid among the people in a small town and were "not noticed." Proceso, a Me'xico City news weekly, offered the following explanation: "... in a 'war region' like this, for every one of the revolutionaries there exists a base of support among the communities, and for this reason it is difficult to find those involved." In several other towns and cities, not only were Mexican police officers disarmed by the EZLN, but disrobed as well, and left in their own jails.

What is most distinctive about the EZLN is their political sophistication, both in their development of an extensive base in the population of Chiapas and in the timing and justification of their recent armed actions. The insurgents have justified their entire revolt under the Mexican constitution and have demanded to be officially recognized under international law as a belligerent force in order to bring the conflict under international war conventions. As further criteria for dialogue with the government negotiator, the EZLN demanded an end to aerial bombings of Indigenous communities; respect for the human rights of the local population; the withdrawal of government troops to their barracks; and the declaration of a cease- fire.

Article 39 of the Mexican constitution, which legally justifies the entire rebellion, was ratified under pressure from Zapatista and other liberatory forces in 1917, at the end of the Mexican Revolution. The Zapatistas, distrusting the pro-government forces in the center of the country, demanded that land be guaranteed in perpetuity for the Indigenous population, that the land be held communally in ejidos (land trusts) which could not be bought or sold (provided for by articles 4 and 27, which were respectively deleted and gutted when the constitution was revised two years ago). They also demanded the right to rebel. Article 39 reads as follows:

"National sovereignty essentially and originally resides in the people. All political power emanates from the people and its purpose is to help the people. The people have, at all times, the inalienable right to alter or modify their form of government."

It was this right that the EZLN claimed as they began their struggle. If that were not enough legitimacy for one armed revolutionary movement, they went still further: "We also ask that international organizations and the International Red Cross watch over and regulate our battles, so that our efforts are carried out while still protecting our civilian population. We declare now and always that we are subject to the Geneva Accord, forming the EZLN as the fighting arm of our liberation struggle." The EZLN has tried to put itself in a curious place: a legitimate (in fact, legal), Indigenous people's liberation army.

Almost from the start the Mexican government has tried to claim that the situation in Chiapas was caused by some sort of outside agitator. The first tack was to claim that the EZLN were trained, led, supported or supplied by Guatemalan guerrillas. This theory is doubtful for at least three reasons: the politics of the EZLN are incompatible with those of the Guatemalan guerrillas, the military tactics are quite different (the Zapatistas have been much more successful), and there is absolutely no evidence of significant amounts of Guatemalans in the EZLN or coordination with other groups in Guatemala. Reports that they have encircled towns to try to force new "conscripts" to the EZLN are obviously of government creation.

Another "outside agitator" was found in the person of Bishop Samuel Ruiz. Ruiz, a longtime supporter of peasant economic rights, was charged with leading the rebellion with some brand of liberation theology and the government of Carlos Salinas de Gortari went as far as to ask the Pope to remove him. He has since been cleared of all such charges and is actively participating in the negotiation process. In sum: there are no outside agitators.

Who are the EZLN and What are Their Politics?

The EZLN is an Indigenous, peasant army. During one interview, Subcomandante Marcos [Press Secretary and most public face of the EZLN--see essays and interviews page 15] stated that it was organized by Indigenous ethnicities, each with its own Sub- Commander, with the Clandestine Indigenous Revolutionary Committee setting the strategic and political direction based upon broad "accords" existing between the different Indigenous groups.

The EZLN is a liberation army that seeks not to establish a political regime of one kind or another, but rather to free the people to make those decisions themselves. Their stated goal is to establish liberated zones in which the people can be freed from the one-party dictatorship of the PRI (the Party of the Institutional Revolution, Me'xico's ruling party for over 50 years) and can decide their own direction. This struggle for political freedom is central to the strategy of the EZLN, more central even than land. The point was made in the opening quotes from the declaration on Jan 6: For them the lack of food, of health care, of water, of land itself, are all caused by the lack of political autonomy and freedom. It is this freedom that comes first.

The Legacy of Emiliano

When they call themselves "Zapatistas" they make a strong claim and locate themselves in a particular place in Mexican political history. Zapata championed and fought for Indigenous ownership of land (which at that time, as now, meant removing the mestizo capitalist owners), and autonomous local political control. Anarchists have long drawn the connection between Zapatismo and anarchism (see page 20) and it should not be difficult for others to draw the connections, especially knowing the history. Subcomandante Marcos, specifically stated in an interview with the Italian Communist Party newspaper, Unita, that they are "not communist or Marxist-Leninist." Their strategy does not involve an attempt to seize state power. They are calling for democracy and even democratic elections, but the ambiguities of this are difficult to sort out. They could be calling for a restructuring of the political landscape of the country--they have stated that they want a "true" democracy that includes Indigenous political participation. It is difficult to think what this could be if not more localized control over resources such as land, food and water, and decentralized political control. However, the EZLN has not stated that they are anti-state or even radically decentralist. This can only be determined by inference from other statements and from the history of Zapatismo.

There are several ideological and strategic problems in the communiques, especially in some of the"Revolutionary Laws." [see page 16] These laws, presumably, embody the vision that the Zapatistas have of a society undergoing revolutionary transformation and provide the richest ground for information about their politics. The revolutionary law on women may seem outdated and anachronistic to North American readers, but it is a powerful statement of opposition to patriarchy in a set of societies in which women are routinely forced into marriage, where men are entitled to wear shoes in public but women go barefoot. The Revolutionary Agrarian Law also does not pose serious challenges to anti-authoritarian politics. On the other hand, The Law of the Rights and Obligations of a People in Struggle, as well as the Law of War Taxes, are both extremely problematic for an anti- authoritarian reading of the EZLN's politics. Both of these laws sanction (in fact require explicitly) the election of "civil authorities" who have both increased rights and increased obligations over those of other citizens. They are empowered to levy taxes and to imprison or punish violators of the community's standards. While the Rights and Obligations specifically excludes the revolutionary military from participation in civil rule, it does give them emergency powers that could easily be abused. The overriding electoral strategy, which appears in several of the laws and is mentioned in a number of the communiques, is worrisome, but only to the degree that it shifts power away from people at the base of the society (campesinos, in this case). It is unclear to what degree the EZLN is interested in national, or even regional, elections and posts, but this is obviously important.

Indigenous or Nationalist

There is a contradiction of some sort between the Indigenous and the nationalist character of the EZLN. They emphasize repeatedly that they are an Indigenous movement acting from a base of Indigenous anger and Indigenous demands. They also call themselves a "national liberation army" and evoke Zapata's name. If both of those two concepts have meaning for the Zapatistas, there are questions about what the main bases for the EZLN are: ethnic, class, or national. Clearly it is some combination of these but where the priorities fall is an important question. Some of the most nationalist EZLN rhetoric is clearly geared at getting and keeping widespread Mexican public support (that they always respect the Mexican national flag, for example), and can be taken as evidence of their political shrewdness and realism. (Given the rally of over 130,000 people in the Zo'calo in Me'xico City in mid-January, they have had quite a bit of success.) This is precisely what is most problematic about their apparent nationalism: its repetition of prejudices within broader Mexican soceity (the widespread xenophobia, for example). They cannot maintain that they are Indigenous, including Indigenous ethnicities that cross the Guatemalan border, and claim that they are a uniquely and characteristically Mexican formation.


Much has been said about the question of timing of the rebellion with respect to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA--TLC in its Spanish initialogram). NAFTA formally went into effect at midnight, Jan 1, 1994 and it was this point that the Chiapanecos chose for the onset of their revolution. That NAFTA had something to do with it is clear, but what, exactly, remains uncertain.

Some, such as Marc Cooper of the Village Voice, have attributed to the EZLN strategists a sophistication almost beyond belief: they chose just after, rather than before, NAFTA to ensure the longevity of their struggle--with big, trading brother watching, the Mexican Army could not be quite so free to suppress the peasants. The EZLN, through spokesperson Marcos, offer a much simpler analysis: "NAFTA... for the Indians is a death sentence. Once it goes into effect, it means an international massacre." Marcos was referring to the economic impact of NAFTA on the peasants in rural southern Me'xico. Campesinos currently live at a barely subsistence level by working small plots of land and selling their labor to fincas, farms owned by the land-owning bourgeoisie. What NAFTA brings to Me'xico are cheap beans and grain grown by the enormous agribusiness firms of the midwestern US. They will consistently be able to outprice the small-plot farmers of Chiapas, whose lives are now at risk. Without the food and income from the small plots of land they work, they will not be able to survive. In fact, NAFTA is merely one economic factor, although an important one, in the stew of trouble that has brewed in Chiapas, Morelos, Guerrero and other southern states in Me'xico for decades.

Armed and Unarmed Uprisings Elsewhere

As Subcomandante Marcos said, the winds of change are blowing from the South of Me'xico [see essay page 15]. Shortly after the second week of January there were scattered (and almost unreported) incidents of armed uprisings in isolated areas of the state of Guerrero. More recently a columnist reported in El Financiero that November, 1993 saw a meeting of 52 armed groups in Me'xico under the auspices of the "Guerrilla General Coordinate." At that time, according to the columnist, 51 of the groups agreed to hold off on widespread actions until just before the August elections. Only the EZLN differed. Some believe that 51 other armed groups may be seeing the wisdom of the EZLN's ways, and may begin their activities much sooner than expected, all of which could make for a very interesting summer. Finally, in the second week of February, peasants in towns across several states in Southern Me'xico stormed their City Halls demanding the expulsion of their PRI Mayors. Several of the campesino groups that originally expressed concerns and lack of support for the EZLN have come full circle and have even admitted that they are inspired by their activities. The possibility that large numbers of campesinos across the South of the Mexican state will rise up in the near future is very real.

US Military involvement

We have learned that, according to a Sergeant in US Army intelligence, on March 18 a small group of military intelligence operatives of the US army will arrive in Guatemala to scout out the border with Chiapas and locate a spot appropriate for a battalion-sized encampment. The camp should be established some time this summer. This is solid information that the US considers the situation in Chipaps serious and of potentially long duration.

The Rest of Me'xico

The national elections in Me'xico are less than six months away and how Chiapas is or is not resolved will have everything to do with who wins. The PRI are widely, and accurately, believed to have engaged in vote fraud for decades, and after the last elections in 1988, several towns rose up against the fraudulent vote counts. Chiapas voted overwhelmingly (over 90%) for the PRI in the last election, according to the official counts. Many are joking that they cannot understand what the Mexican Government is afraid of: with such a high level of support in the region, the EZLN must, in fact, be members of the PRI!

The choice of Manuel Camacho Soli's as negotiator represents a significant shake-up in the succession strategy of the PRI. Camacho Soli's was iced out of the presidentital maneuvering late last fall (see L&R, vol 4, no. 5). However, Colosio, Salinas's chosen successor, was not selected as the primary negotiator in this rebellion, in large part because he has no support. There were widespread doubts about him in the past, but Chiapas has, for all purposes, opened up the power succession struggle within the PRI. Whatever faction within the PRI comes out on top of the management of the rebellion will be positioned to decide who is the next PRI candidate for president. However, this rebellion may be the death knell of the PRI: unable to carry off the massive voter fraud that has propelled them into victory in the past and suffering from this recent humiliating uprising (whose economic causes can only be their fault), they seem unlikely to continue in power at this point. The changing of ruling parties in Me'xico would be such a major shift that no one is really positioned to predict what it could mean. For the campesinos, in the end, it is likely to mean more of the same exploitation and oppression.

Solidarity Organizations

In the US, actions in solidarity with the Zapatistas began only days into January, with most of the demonstrations carried out by ad-hoc coalitions or groupings. Several small organizations geared towards longer-term solidarity have already sprung up, including in Santa Cruz where a collection of anarchists have begun holding weekly meetings of the Committee to Support the Mexican Revolution; and in New York City, where the Zapatista Solidarity Committee was recently formed.

It is difficult to say whether longer-term solidarity groupings will come out of the coalitions formed to conduct demonstrations in early January. One of the largest coalitions was formed in San Francisco with the participation of 31 separate groups, and there is clearly a basis for long-term activity around this issue there, although its form remains to be seen.

What the Future May Bring

Several factors indicate that the EZLN will affect Mexican politics for some time to come. Since they have such a strong base in the population of Chiapas, time is to their advantage. Increased repression by the Mexican army will only reinforce resentment on the part of the Chiapanecos and push them towards the Zapatistas. There is already evidence of that sort of sympathy spreading in the actions of campesinos taking over their town halls. In addition, there is the possibility of other armed actions breaking out. There have been two armed incidents in the state of Guerrero since Jan 1 (both largely unreported). It remains to be seen whether and to what extent any of the other armed groups will surface before August, but it seems certain that at least a few will try to disrupt the elections.

Anti-authoritarians should support the Zapatistas (and should draw inspiration from their bold actions) but we should not do so uncritically. There are tensions and problems within the politics of the EZLN as we currently understand them, and others are certain to surface.

As we continue to struggle to find issues of broad- ranging concern with the power to ignite people to political action, we need to use the opportunity presented to us by the revolutionaries in Me'xico. The likelihood of the rebellion in Chiapas having begun a long term class war in Me'xico, combined with NAFTA, explain the US intervention. Our failure to recognize the importance of the fight in southern Me'xico would mean losing out on an opportunity to finally demonstrate that revolutions do not need to assume control of the state apparatus to be successful; that revolutions can be based on an idea as simple, and as profound, as poor peasants taking control of the land, and their lives.

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Todd Prane and Elizabeth Bright
Love and Rage
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