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by Diego Cevallos

Massive EZLN Rally Caps March (2001)

(IPS) MEXICO CITY -- Mexico's Zapatista guerrillas celebrated the 13th anniversary of their brief uprising. Although the group's prominence has faded in the intervening years, the New Year's day event managed to draw activists from 44 different countries.

Relegated to the back pages of newspapers and rarely mentioned by the country's political actors, the indigenous Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) commemorated its January 1994 revolt with a global gathering against "neo-liberal" free-market policies.

The meeting, in the Zapatista village of Oventic in the southern state of Chiapas, drew some 2,000 people, the majority of them Mexicans. The aim of the gathering, was to share experiences of peaceful struggles against neo-liberalism in order to strengthen these efforts. The Zapatistas said that aim was fulfilled,

The event was held with the tacit consent of the government of President Felipe Calderon. Since taking office on Dec. 1, the new president has shown no interest in meeting with Zapatista leaders, apparently regarding the group as of little importance.

The Zapatistas broke off peace talks with the government of Ernesto Zedillo (1994-2000) in 1996, and refused to resume negotiations in 2000 when the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) lost its grip on power for the first time since 1929.

In the 1990s, the EZLN was among the first organizers of the global struggle against neo-liberalism and globalization. It hosted international conferences on these issues in the remote jungles of Chiapas, which attracted such prominent figures as American filmmaker Oliver Stone and human rights activist and former first lady of France, Danielle Mitterand.

But the passage of time, and the change of circumstances in Mexico and the world at large, have taken their toll on the Zapatistas. Their leader, the self-described Subcommandante Marcos, "must have some grey hairs by now," Lucio Contreras, a political scientist at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, told IPS.

In what he dubbed the "Other Campaign," Marcos toured much of Mexico over the past six months in an attempt to unite leftwing groups uninterested in electoral politics and to create a movement to press for constitutional change.

His tour received hardly any coverage in the local media, and most of the rallies held by Marcos drew fewer than 50 people. Nonetheless, he said he would set out on a new tour in February.

The tour, which began at the same time as the campaign for the July 2 presidential elections and ended in early December, "appears to have been a failure, but we'll have to see what happens over time," said Contreras.

He added that the same would apply to Monday's international gathering against neo-liberalism.

According to the state intelligence services, the ski-masked Marcos is Rafael Guillen, a former university professor with a degree in philosophy who turns fifty on June 19. The sources say he was a member of a guerrilla organization in the 1970s and went to Chiapas -- Mexico's poorest state -- in the early 1980s, where he and Native locals founded the EZLN.

Although there is broad consensus that Marcos is Guillen, he has consistently denied it, and appears only in public wearing his trademark black ski mask along with military fatigues.

With his periodic communiques and open letters lashing out at globalization and neo-liberalism and defending Native rights, Marcos once drew the attention of intellectuals, while gossip magazines described him as a witty heartthrob.

But 13 years after the truce that ended two weeks of skirmishes between the lightly armed group and government forces, many of the intellectuals who once admired him, now criticize him, and the magazines ignore him altogether.

While the group is no longer in the media spotlight, it has remained a reference point for the struggle for Native rights and the need to pull Native people out of the dire poverty in which they live.

Around 12 million of Mexico's 103 million people identify themselves as Native, speaking native tongues. The majority of the population is "mestizo" (of mixed-race heritage).

"We have reached a point where we cannot go any further, and, in addition, it is possible that we could lose everything we have if we remain as we are and do nothing more in order to move forward. The time has come to take a risk once again and to take a step that is dangerous but worthwhile," the EZLN stated in a communique issued in June, when it announced its plans for the nationwide tour.

"What we want is to reach an agreement with individuals and organizations of the true left" against "neo-liberal globalization, and to build a country where there is justice, democracy and freedom for all," the group said at the time. The Zapatistas control a small area in the jungles of Chiapas, where they remain hemmed in by the military. In the impoverished Native villages under their influence, they have set up a system of autonomous government, with their own authorities, schools, health centers and production systems.

The government of Vicente Fox (2000-2006) of the conservative National Action Party (PAN) decided not to intervene in the area, and his successor, Calderon -- who also belongs to the PAN -- appears set to follow the same strategy.

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Albion Monitor   January 9, 2007   (

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