EZLN, An Overview

New Social Movements:
Historical Context of the Zapatista Autonomy Movement

The marginalization and severe economic deprivations which caused the Zapatista Movement developed from 500 years of unjust treatment of indigenous communities in Southern Mexico. After the European invasion of the Americas, indigenous communities lost control of their lands and were forced into slavery. Many rebellions occurred during this period, making today’s Zapatista movement part of a long history of struggle and resistance (Zapatismo, 4/16/09). By the late 20th century, indigenous communities in Chiapas were forced to live on marginal and isolated lands. High levels of poverty, and a lack of sufficient health care and education plagued the communities. The Catholic church, was the first to aid the Zapatistas in their movement to change the inequalities of society. The church advocated for improving indigenous living and generated community awareness (Zapatismo, 4/16/09). These land shortages and the lack of economic opportunities caused indigenous communities to organize the Ejercito Zapatista de Liberacion Nacional (EZLN) in the 1980s.

In 1992, President Carlos Salinas de Gortari modified article 27 of the constitution, ending Mexico's commitment to land reform. Article 27 was the legal foundation for distribution of community-owned lands called ejidos (Zapatismo, 4/16/09). Almost half the farmland in Mexico was communally owned at this point and the abolishment of article 27 left the thousands of pending ejido requests unanswered. The repeal of the constitutional reform was a preparation by the Mexican government for assimilating Mexico into the global economy. Mexico began by refusing to fund support programs for rural areas. In anticipation of the North American Free Trade Agreement, the Mexican state forced millions of campesinos to enter the industrial workforce, providing cheap labor for the rapidly growing maquiladora (industrialist) sector (Zapatismo, 4/16/09).

Following an ideology known as neoliberalism, Structural Adjustment Policies (SAPs) have been imposed to ensure debt repayment and economic restructuring of poor countries. However, it has required poor countries to reduce spending on things like health, education and development, while debt repayment and other economic policies have been made the priority. In effect, the IMF and World Bank have demanded that poor nations lower the standard of living of their people (Shah, 4/03/09).

(Indigenous protesting in Chiapas Rebellion)

The Zapatista Autonomy Movement went public in Chiapas, Mexico, in a direct protest of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) between Mexico, Canada, and the United States. On January 1, 1994, an Indian peasant rebellion erupted on the Guatemalan border. Armed rebels expressed their social and economic grievances
against wealthy cattle ranchers and coffee growers, who were supported by police and government officials. NAFTA opened the Mexican market to cheap mass-produced US agricultural products, ended Mexican crop subsidies, and drastically reduced income and living standards of many southern Mexican farmers who cannot compete with the subsidized, artificially fertilized, mechanically harvested and genetically modified imports from the United States (Zapatista Army of National Liberation, 4/17/09). By resisting NAFTA the Maya-descended Indians branded themselves as a new social movement by resisting neoliberal policies.

NAFTA was projected to sharply lower coffee and corn prices which would unjustly eliminate any competition of production the Mayans could have generated. 2,000 peasant guerrillas occupied San Cristobal de las Casas and six other towns in the highlands of Chiapas. They seized a dozen police, ranchers, and others, and waged gun battles with government soldiers for 12 days before being driven into the mountains. This revolt led to the San Andres Accord of 1996 which were peace talks where the Mexican government promised to redistribute large landholdings to poor peasants, to begin a public works program, and to prohibit discrimination against the Indians (Armed Conflict Events Database, 4/30/09).

However, the Accord was not honored by the government. The Mexican government tried to use the agreement as a form of political oppression by masking their actions with appeasing legislation language. Under the veil of the San Andres Accords, the government delayed indigenous law and eventually assimilated prominent indigenous professionals into the neoliberal network. The mistreating and continuous ignoring of the Zapatistas by the Mexican government made the Zapatistas untrusting of the State. So when the Mexican State implemented Plan Puebla Panama, its multibillion dollar SAP which would structurally alienate the poor, the Zapatistas realized they needed to find an alternative to State paternalism. Thus began the Zapatista ideology of autonomy called Zapatismo.

Recently, on January 1, 2008, NAFTA provisions completely abolished protective tariffs on corn, beans, powdered milk and sugar. The impact on the Mexican countryside is devastating. The Mexican government’s drastic reduction of farm subsidies has made it impossible for Mexican farmers to compete with subsidized products from the U.S. without protective tariffs (Chiapas News Summary, January 2008).

Rejecting Plan Puebla Panama: Embracing Autonomy

The main difference between the Zapatistas and other new social movements is their uncommon approach to dealing with State-citizen relationships. The Zapatistas advocate autonomy; the power to communally control their own land, control their own resources and govern their own communities in order to protect themselves from free-market, neoliberal subordination. The Plan Puebla Panama intruded directly into the lives of Chiapas’ citizens. Plan Puebla Panama (PPP) is a mega project which seeks to open up the southern half of Mexico and Central America to private foreign investment and establishing the foundation for the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA). The plan depends upon multi-lateral development bank support and private investment to create infrastructure that will attract industry and expand natural resource extraction. With the Inter-American Development Bank as the head of the PPP's financial structure and major credit and technical assistance coming from the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, among others, the project is the furthest thing from self governance (Plan Puebla Panama, 4/21/09).

The PPP will create an elaborate infrastructure of ports, highways, airports, and railways that will connect the development of the petroleum, energy, maquiladora, and agricultural industries. The PPP's proponents assert that its main objective is to improve the quality of life for area inhabitants, however despite creating jobs, the Plan exploits the abundant, cheap labor force and precious natural resources in order to attract foreign investment to an area stricken with poverty and rich in biodiversity (Plan Puebla Panama, 4/21/09).

The multibillion dollar massive infrastructural plan clearly is not interested in the rights of the citizens it is adversely affecting. Though the plan openly acknowledges the marginalization of indigenous communities, and it acts as if the infrastructural development will alleviate poverty by creating jobs, it is inconspicuously incorporating the region into clientelistic-neoliberal networks. The Zapatistas, rather than settling for the Plan’s structured labor jobs and wages, have insisted on the rights of each community to develop its own network of relations. Social services and institutions like schools, clinics, systems of justice, and regional planning are advocated as collective priorities. When compared to the ideology of capitalism which preaches individual responsibility to escape poverty, collective responsibilities differ by placing the burden of poverty alleviation with the community. The Zapatistas recognize the low-paying jobs created by the PPP will not improve their community’s standard of living, so they advocate a different ideology in addressing the dilemma of the extreme poverty caused by SAPs.


(Corporations create more poverty through SAPs)

Difficulties with Autonomy

Establishing autonomy by rejecting state institutional programs has proved difficult. The lack of resources outside capitalism’s clientelistic network makes it extremely hard for Zapatistas to develop their proposed social institutions. Tired of waiting the Zapatistas now have voluntarily isolated themselves in Chiapas' mountains and jungles because President Vicente Fox passed a weakened version of the Indian Rights bill. They retreated to their strongholds in poverty-stricken Chiapas where 70 percent of Indian homes have no toilet or sewage disposal, the average per capita monthly income for Indians is less than $25, and for all its tourism and natural resources, little money trickles down to the Indians (Ferriss, 2003). Also, Children from autonomous communities sleep in dormitories and must bring sacks of dried tortillas with them to eat.

In Chiapas, conditions are harsh due to poverty, with little education, a lot of ill health and a high death rate for children as a result. There is no sanitation in the community, except the latrines they constructed themselves and there is no access to clean water (The Mexican Zapatistas and Direct Democracy, 4/30/09). Despite these conditions, the Zapatistas have vowed not to cooperate with the government until the peace accords and rights bill are approved in their original form.

Expanding Autonomy’s Ideology

Though they live poorly, no new dams and no surges in investment have materialized and many Indians are proud of this. However there is still a strong need for participation of campesinos, students, and workers in the city and the countryside. In 2005, the popular Zapatista charismatic leader Subcomandante Marcos publicly recognized the Zapatistas’ need to network and reached out to expand the movement. He issued a document entitled “The Other Campaign” proclaiming, “We see as legitimate any organization of the left which aspires to build and to participate in the struggle of all these sectors… We want to join our struggles with the struggles of the workers and campesinos… An alternative for transformation in Mexico is only going to come from the left… We are proposing places of discussion, which in the Other Campaign, we are centering on making a national plan for listening to the main points where struggles exist” (Marcos, 2005).

The distinguishing component in what makes this a new social movement opposed to a revolutionary movement is this: The Zapatista Army of National Liberation now mobilizes throughout the country with street people, artists, independent media, homosexuals, lesbians, transsexual and transgender, feminists, human rights organizations, political prisoners, and individuals. All exploitation, expulsion and oppression is trying to be displayed and all contempt and depravation caused by neoliberalism is trying to be exposed (The Other Campaign, 4/13/09).

Developing Autonomy

(FZLN flag)

When viewed from this perspective, the Zapatista Movement for autonomy progressed from a revolution into a new social movement. They needed a way to improve their autonomously governed communities and their formula to applying pressure to the neoliberal structural subordination was to unmask the political and social domination in Mexican society. In 1996, the EZLN created the Frente Zapatista de Liberacion National (FZLN), a national civil Zapatista organization that would eventually grow into a new kind of political movement (EZLN, 1996). However, since the FZLN was created in 1996 along side the San Andres Accords, the Zapatistas believed the Accords would be honored and the FZLN did not have the influence it has today. But since the Mexican government did not honor their agreements the FZLN has developed new communication channels between social groups and these new relations are what make the Zapatistas such a powerful moral and political force in Mexico today.

The FZLN is spreading the Zapatista perspective of the individual, the nation, and democracy which is forming a new form of political and personal psychology. In 1999, 5000 Mayan Zapatistas traveled all over Mexico to help network.. This group’s participants consisted of thousands of ordinary citizens. Their exploitation of the Mexican state’s deliberate succession into neoliberal policies and it’s effects has produced a strong relationship between the Zapatistas and the rest of civil society.

Managing Autonomy: Transparent Democracy and Collective Development

Within Zapatista Indigenous communities, the highest form of authority is the community assembly. They represent an experiment in devolution of power to the community level, and they are rapidly gaining the reputation among Zapatista and non-Zapatista communities alike for honest and transparent government (Zapatismo, 4/16/09). In the assembly, political decisions are debated for hours and days on end and the decision will be a product of the whole community’s input, not a majority vote. The most prevalent factor of the assembly is learning how to listen to others (Zugman, 2005). In 2003, Juntas of Good Government was established to carry out all the functions of local and regional governments. Members of the Juntas are selected in community assemblies for terms of one year. The make-up of the juntas rotates every week, with representatives from different communities filling the role. The Juntas carry out economic decisions, law enforcement and an effective judiciary. An oversight committee watches for abuse of power (Zapatismo, 4/16/09).

EZLN Schools


The autonomous Zapatista project is constructed on three primary concerns: education, health care and collective development. By establishing autonomous regions, the Zapatistas promote a different psychology than what is put forth by neoliberalism. The FZLN is developing a perspective of the individual, the nation, and democracy that challenges neoliberalism by advocating the responsibility of solving the problem of perpetuating the traditional power relations of rich and poor is wthat of the community, not the individual. As the Mexican government recognizes its failure to create education, health, and other institutions , they implement development projects which inconspicuously assimilate indigenous groups into the neoliberal network. The Zapatista response of demanding autonomy does not completely free them of neoliberalism’s negative effects. In response to being confronted with a lack of financial resources to sustain communal development, Subcomandante Marcos implemented the Other Campaign. This extension of the Zapatista movement into a broader network illustrates the resilience and potential of networking and communication among civil society.

Works Cited
Burguete Cal y Mayor, Araceli (ed.). 2003. “The de facto autonomous process: New jurisdictions and parallel governments in rebellion.” Pp. 191-218 in Jan Rus, Rosalca Aida Henandez Castillo, and Shannan L Mattiace (eds.), Mayan Lives, Mayan utopias: The indigenous peoples of Chiapas and the Zapatista rebellion. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

EZLN (Ejercito Zapatista de Liberacion Nacional) 1996. The Fourth Declaration of the Selva Lacandona. San Cristobal de Las Casas: Comite Clandestino Revolacionario Indigena/Ejercito Zapatista de Liberacion Nacional

Mattiace, Shannan. 2003. To see with two eyes: Peasant activism and Indian autonomy in Chiapas, Mexico. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.

Mentinis, Mihalis. 2006. Zapatistas: the Chiapas revolt and what it means for radical politics. London; Ann Arbor, MI: Pluto Press.

Mora, Mariana. 2007. "Zapatista Anti-Capitalist Politics and the 'Other Campaign': Learning from the Struggle for Indigenous Rights and Autonomy." Latin American Perspectives 34(2): pp. 64-77

Spalding, Rose J. 2008. "Neoliberal Regionalism and Resistance in Mesoamerica: Foro Mesoamericano Opposition to plan Puebla-Panama and CAFTA." Latin American Social Movements in the Twenty-First Century: Resistance, Power, and Democracy. Stahler-Sholk, Vanden, & Kuecker, (eds.) Rowman & Littlefield. Pp. 323–336.

Stahler-Sholk, Richard. 2001. “Globalization and social movement resistance: The Zapatista rebellion in Chiapas, Mexico.” New Political Science 23(4): 493-516

Swords, Alicia C. S. 2007. "Neo-Zapatista Network Politics: Transforming Democracy and Development." Latin American Perspectives 34(2): 78–93.

Zugman, Kara Ann. 2005. "Zapatismo and Urban Political Practice." Latin American Perspectives 32(4): 133-147

Armed Conflict Events Database http://www.onwar.com/aced/nation/may/mexico/fmexico1994.htm

Zapatista Army of National Liberation

Zapatismo 4/16/09

Shah, Anup. October 29, 2008. Structural Adjustment—a Major Cause of Poverty

Plan Puebla Panama July 09, 2007

Ferriss, Susan. December 28, 2003. Zapatista autonomy now a fact of life. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution : http://www.globalexchange.org/countries/americas/mexico/1412.html

The Mexican Zapatistas and Direct Democracy 2003

January 2008 Chiapas/ Zapatista News Summary
http://www.pscelebrities.com/alice/2008/02/january-2008-chiapas-zapatista- news.html

The Other Campaign 4/13/09

Marcos, Subcomandante. August 6, 2005. The Other Campaign

Totzil and Spanish Language Study 4/30/09

Picture Bibliography
Indigenous protesting in Chiapas Rebellion

Corporations create more poverty through SAPs

FZLN flag

Chiapas School

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