Do or Die

An article from Do or Die Issue 9. In the paper edition, this article appears on page(s) 207-208.

The Zapatistas: A Rough Guide


The Zapatistas: A Rough Guide
Published by Chiapaslink, PO Box 79, 82 Colston Street, Bristol BS1 5BB, UK
Paperback / 96pp / £5.00 and £1.50 postage / ISBN 0-907367-99-2

For all those up in arms about Do or Die endorsing eco-tourism, calm down. This book is not part of the official Rough Guide series. It was written by people from various British ecological and social direct action groups who went to Mexico in 1998, wanting to observe and support the Zapatista uprising in Chiapas. This book is one of the outcomes of their trip, and is intended to "educate, depress, inspire, and anger the reader, while suggesting what we can individually and collectively do to change things". In my totally unbiased opinion, I believe that it does all of the above and more. It gives an inspiring account of the Zapatista uprising, whilst at the same time providing vital practical advice on how to help. This is done by drawing on written and photographic accounts of the uprising from people who have spent time in Zapatista communities, bringing a much needed personal touch to the book, which is absent from many other dry political histories and critiques of the Zapatistas.

The first chapter gives a condensed history of events in Mexico leading up to the initial Zapatista uprising in 1994, and what has happened up to the present day. For those who don't know the background to our favourite Central American revolutionaries, here is a brief outline of their struggle.[1]

Chiapas is the southernmost state of Mexico. It borders Guatemala, and is also the poorest state, despite being one of the richest in natural resources. There has been a long history of oppression of the indigenous population of Chiapas, stretching back 500 years to the Spanish invasion. Rich landowners controlled vast areas of the state, forcing the locals to work as virtual slaves, many of them crippled by debts to their landlords. Poverty was rife, infant mortality was over 50% in some of the more remote communities, alcoholism and domestic violence were common, and there were thousands of refugees who had been displaced from elsewhere in Mexico, or who had fled the civil war in Guatemala. On January 1st 1994, the day that the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) came into effect in Mexico, armed rebels calling themselves the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) took over 4 towns in Chiapas, calling for land reform and greater autonomy for indigenous peoples. After 12 days of fighting, and in the face of massive public support for the Zapatistas, the government called a cease-fire and peace talks began. However, the government did not agree to the Zapatistas' demands, and the proposals that were taken back to the Zapatista communities were rejected after a lengthy consultation period. During this time the Zapatistas began occupying properties and ranches belonging to wealthy landowners, and by mid-1995 over 1,500 properties totalling 90,000 hectares had been occupied. To this day there are 32 Zapatista municipalities, covering nearly a third of Chiapas, which are effectively autonomous from the Mexican state, and are run collectively by the local communities. The Zapatistas' way of running their communities is examined, with special emphasis on education and the womens' revolutionary law that confronts the patriarchal machismo of Mexican society.

In 1995 the government launched a massive offensive against the Zapatista communities, forcing over 5,000 villagers to flee into the mountains. The army have maintained a massive presence ever since, with over 70,000 troops (a third of the whole Mexican army) now based in Chiapas. To help prevent the army from oppressing the indigenous population, the Zapatistas set up 'peace camps' in their communities, where foreign observers record any human rights violations, and their presence means that army incursions or massacres are much less likely to happen. Later negotiations with the government produced the San Andrés accords, promising greater indigenous rights, which the Zapatistas accepted, but the government have still failed to implement. The situation remains tense with the possibility of full-scale war erupting if the army tries to reclaim the communities by force. Therefore they are in constant need of support both from people travelling to the area and doing solidarity work at home.

Later sections of the book deal with practical things we can do to help the Zapatistas. In section 2 the relevance of the struggle in Chiapas to our struggles is discussed, as well as the various forms of solidarity that we can do in our own countries. These include: prisoner support, raising money and awareness through talks and events, and taking direct action against representatives of the Mexican state and the companies involved. However, the most direct (and I would argue the most fulfilling) way of supporting the Zapatista struggle is actually going out to Chiapas and getting involved in practical support work in their communities. There are various things you can do including: human rights observation work, installing irrigation projects, as well as less predictable things like getting a sports team together to play in tournaments against Zapatista teams (football teams from Europe have been out there on 2 separate occasions, and both were a great success in the communities - see Do or Die No.8, pp.248-249). This book tells you in a detailed way what to do before you go, what you will need to take with you, and how to continue support for their struggle once you get back home. Finally, there is a section at the end that lists contact addresses for organisations involved in support work, further reading, and useful web-site addresses and e-mail news-groups that can update you on events as they happen in Chiapas.

The book does not pretend to be definitive, and the authors are the first to admit that they may be viewing the Zapatistas through rose-tinted spectacles. They are not 'perfect' revolutionaries, and there are certain aspects of their theory and practice that some may find difficult to fully endorse (such as their views on religion and the nation state) and some of their demands have attracted accusations of reformism.[2] However, this should not prevent us from supporting their struggle, as they have achieved more in 6 years than most First World struggles could ever hope to achieve and, incontrast to many previous struggles in Latin America, they have avoided sliding into left authoritarianism whilst still remaining a real threat to neo-liberalism.

If you are thinking of going to Chiapas and working in Zapatista communities (or even doing support work from the comfort of your own armchair), then this book will make it infinitely easier. I strongly suggest you get your grubby hands on a copy and read it thoroughly before you go - as if found with a copy by Mexican immigration you may well find yourself deported! This book is a passionate yet practical guide to helping the Zapatista struggle and it certainly brought back many memories of my experiences in the 'zone' (especially that time when I almost got the ball past that final defender...). Working and living in communities that are effectively autonomous from state interference can be an incredibly inspiring experience, and anything that makes doing this easier should be applauded.


1) For a more detailed historical account of the uprising, and of Mexican politics in general, read 'A Commune in Chiapas?' in the forthcoming Aufheben issue No.9 (£3.00 including postage from: Aufheben, c/o Brighton and Hove Unemployed Workers Centre, 4 Crestway Parade, Hollingdean, Brighton BN1 7BL, UK) which offers an excellent analysis and constructive critique of the Zapatistas by an activist who spent time in Chiapas.

2) After the 1994 uprising the Zapatistas became a cause celèbre amongst many left-wing or liberal intellectuals and academics, which provoked a backlash from some ultra-leftist/anarchist circles, and generated subsequent critiques of their movement. These critiques ranged from those that offered positive coverage of the uprising whilst raising genuine concerns over some aspects, to those that were ill-informed denunciations of the whole Zapatista movement, sometimes based on selective interpretations of events, or even questionable factual evidence. For more details of these various articles and a bibliography, see the Aufheben article referred to above.

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