When they first emerged out of the jungle early that morning, New Year’s Day 1994, it seemed at first that the Zapatistas materialized out of nowhere.
Their takeover was quick, a flash of ominous lightning that struck Mexico with a force unseen since the sepia-tinted, early days of the Revolution.
Within just a few hours, the scantily armed rebels of the Ejercito Zapatista Liberacion Nacional (Zapatista National Liberation Army)- black-masked mountain dwellers with dark, mysterious, almond shaped indigenous eyes- overran the numerous large towns that strung across Chiapas, the southernmost Mexican state whose rainforests border Guatemala to the south, effectively taking over the entirety of the state. By the time the millions of urban dwellers in Mexico City awoke several hundred miles to the north, presumably reeling from the previous night’s drinking, the rebels had already broken the news, having issued their startling ultimatum to the world: the Zapatistas had declared war on the Mexican government.
Not only had they declared war on their own government; they had begun the first leg of a cosmic battle against the brutal economic ideology of neoliberalism, whose coercive and terrifying tendencies was the symbolic culmination of more than five hundred years of exploitation, abuse, and genocide directed against the indigenous peoples of Mexico.
Before even the first layers of sun began to reef up against the eastern rim of the world, the rebels gathered in their masses in the cobblestoned plaza of San Cristobal de Las Casas, the fading, ruinous establishment of their earliest Spanish colonial oppressors- los conquistadores– and one of the largest towns they’d overtaken that morning.
A large crowd of civilians gathered round the victorious rebels to witness the spectacle. A Mexican flag nearly twenty feet in length was draped along the rusted girders of the balcony of the old Spanish colonial building, billowing festively over the ocean of onlookers beneath. Then, one of the masked rebels appeared on the balcony upon which the flag was draped. The crowd quieted in furtive anticipation. Reading into a microphone that continually emitted a scratchy sound, the envoy conveyed the words of a new, mysterious leader to the world.
“Ya basta!” the speaker said- “Enough is enough!” The crowd erupted in an uproarious applause. Periodically interrupted by the visibly palpable joy of the crowd, the speaker continued forth in reading this document, later known as the First Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle.
Torrents of phone calls were flooding around the country: a revolution, an uprising, a war was taking place. Hundreds of miles off, in the military-political corridors of Mexico City, blueprints for war were already being arranged.
Within hours, a force more than ten times the size of the peasant force- nearly 20,000 soldiers armed to the teeth- would be dispatched at the behest of President Salinas to these mountainous southlands with orders to quash the uprising down to the last sliver. Within days, the military clash of these two worlds- the neoliberal establishment and the Chiapas peasants- would soak these very streets upon which they now celebrated with blood.
None had gone according to plan on this fateful New Year’s Day- at least not along the lines the economists, politicians, and businessmen previously had in mind.
Today was the day NAFTA- the largest corporate, neoliberal trade agreement ushered in at this point- was supposed to come into effect. But having a peasant uprising within hours of the trade deals implementation, the world was soon to know, does not augur well for the fate of the trade deal.
Far off in Chiapas, the crowds reviled in their liberation. But the celebration was to be short-lived. The Zapatista Army had refused to bow before the coercive force of neoliberalism. Soon, they would have to pay the price.
None of it was supposed to happen this way, none of it made any sense.
The decades of vicious civil wars and liberation struggles that once racked Central America had only recently come to an end, though the memory of those years still haunted the regional subconscious like a fresh, bloody nightmare:
Guerilla insurgencies of leftist peasants rising up out of the jungles, followed by the brutal backlash of US-funded counterinsurgencies. The burning, skeletal remains of adobe-walled pueblos, razed by helicopters and the perpetual sting of battle. Disfigured corpses strewn loosely along the roadside, stinking and bloated in the scorching hot sun, priests, civilians, intellectuals, journalists, all murdered at the hands of roving clandestine death squads. The callous rattle of machine gun fire echoing distantly over low tropical pinelands and the slow tearing rip of helicopter miniguns.
The Salvadoran Civil War exhausted its fighting steam over thirteen bloody years and came to an uneasy end with a political truce between the government and rebels in 1992. By 1990, the Contra War, in which right-wing, CIA-funded paramilitary armies ravaged Nicaragua throughout the 1980’s, ended anticlimactically with the re-election of a pro-U.S. government. The genocidal war waged by evangelizing dictator Efrain Montts against the Mayan peasants in Guatemala was now a thing of the past.
Most tellingly of a historical shift, the Soviet Union finally fell in 1991, effectively ending the widely cited pretext that, for decades, had been used by juntas and dictators to start premeditative conflicts against their own populations- the Red Threat, the Communist invasion.
The fighting, to the outside world, seemed to be coming to an end.
So it seemed.
But the outside world was accustomed, then as it is now, to only viewing the world through the refractive and binary lens of the News.
The News, which tends to make its most profitable stories off of wars and other exciting historical outbursts, had failed to convey that, within the smoldering remains of a Central America scarred by war, the chief reason for these wars- the poverty- had ceased to disappear.
Quite to the contrary, the poverty had only metastasized, grown, keeping the vast masses of poor campesinos, especially the indigenous, enslaved within an economic system whose inherent inequality would increasingly restrict them to a life without a livelihood, without opportunities, without any conceivable hope for a future. Such was the situation in Chiapas.
Mexico emerged comparatively unscathed from the previous decade’s bloodbath. This was largely thanks to the fact that one party, the Partido Revolucionario Industrial (Revolutionary Industrial Party, or PRI) had wielded an iron heel over Mexico’s political society since the late 1940’s, incriminating dissent and consolidating its power by running the country as an essentially one-party state.
Originally seen by many as an engine in revolutionary politics, the party soon sold out to foreign multinationals and adopted authoritarian practices- evidenced most painfully in the government’s 1968 machine-gunning of university protesters, an event that came to be known as the Tlatelolco massacre.
But because the PRI nonetheless retained a large, loyal base of supporters, and because they received extensive funding and training from the United States, Mexico avoided the plague of conflicts that stained the region.
But the seeming quiet, we were later to learn, was only an illusion. In truth, a cauldron of suffering and pain had been boiling for decades beneath the seemingly implacable and eventless façade of Mexican society.
Nowhere was this pain, which had been inflicted on the poor, disaffected, indigenous masses of Latin America, first by conquistadors, then by elite creole puppet dictators- a tragic phenomenon Eduardo Galeano once called the “Open Veins of Latin America”- than in the steaming jungle southlands of Chiapas.
Chiapas is, in one sense, an extremely rich place- a paradise even, depending on whom you ask. The rainforests, high cordillera, and Pacific beaches are amongst the most beautiful in all of Central America. Within the mountainous Lacandon Jungle stand the decaying ruins of the Mayan Civilization that had come and gone nearly a millennia ago, aging edifices, like the temple at Palenque, that stand testament like sad remnants of a time and civilization lost to the past.
Beyond the natural beauty, economic wealth is in abundance. There is corn and cocoa. Coffee and cattle. Timber and fish. Beneath the soil lies a third of all Mexico’s crude oil resources.
There is much wealth to be found in Chiapas. And yet none if it gets in the hands of the people who live there.
The abject poverty experienced by the people of Chiapas was astonishing. Social programs that could’ve ameliorated the suffering of the poor, especially good schools, were virtually nonexistent. Illiteracy was through the roof. Malnutrition rampant. And the infant mortality rate was higher that it was anywhere else in the country. Compared to those living in urban centers like Mexico City, the peasants of Chiapas were living in a veritable dark age.
In centuries past, Chiapas and its largely landless peasants suffered abuse at the hands of the conquistadors; now, as the movement’s poetic new leader, Subcomandante Marcos, would so eloquently illuminate in his philosophical writings, they suffered from the brute hand of an economic ideology that virtually ruled the world: Neoliberalism.
Originally a fringe intellectual movement that promoted the elimination of all corporate restrictions in the name of free-market fundamentalism, Neoliberalism gained immense traction when, in the mid-1970’s, Western business leaders, fearful of the mass reformist movements of the previous decade and desiring a return to the glory days of the 19th century (when government restrictions on corporate power were at a minimum) began pouring money into massive “think tanks” that propped up Neoliberalism as a serious force in public policy spheres.
Beginning in the late 70’s and early 80’s, the fellows cranked out by these ideological powerhouses stacked the majority of Cabinet positions in the Western world. And the virtually simultaneously elections of Reagan and Thatcher- who with their charisma and eloquence rendered corporate freedom and individual freedom as inseparable entities, seamlessly fusing the two ideas together- were a boon for Neoliberal economics.
After several years of their tenure, deregulating as many workers protection and environmental laws as humanly possible, attacking unions with a viciousness unseen in decades, the corporate coup d’état of our society was complete. By 2000, virtually every country in the world had been forcefully coerced into ingesting Neoliberalism as it’s economic orthodoxy- and a corporate world, which we still face today, was not a pleasing sight to behold.
Latin America was hit especially hard. Through the 1980’s a string of corporate-friendly dictators regularly massacred their populations at the behest of United Fruit, Exxon, and Texaco (funded, unsurprisingly, by the United States, for whereas Neoliberalism had to be carefully introduced to the affluent masses of the First World through non-stop TV propaganda, it could be done with far greater efficiency through the blatant use of state terror in the Third World, where the illusion of democratic values didn’t need to be maintained).
The poverty created by such programs was wrenching. In Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, and Paraguay- the first laboratories for Neoliberal Doctrine- the percentage of the population below the poverty line following the implementation of the new economic plan skyrocketed. Rodolfo Walsh, the martyred Argentine journalist, wrote in his final manifesto An Open Letter from an Argentine Writer to the Military Junta (for which he was assassinated by a death squad days later), that as heinous as its already blatant campaign of terror was, the regime’s greatest crime was not the use of mass graves, clandestine torture centers or dumping people out of airplanes, but its unflinching adherence to an economic policy that dragged half the population into a cesspool of impoverishment- “planned misery,” in his own words. It was a truth that held true for all of Latin America. It was a truth that held true for Mexico.
In the years leading up to the Zapatista Uprising, PRI officials had as a part of globalization been busily auctioning off Mexico’s natural resources (like those found in Chiapas) to the CEO’s of transnational corporations; meanwhile, the landless campesinos of Chiapas could hardly send their kids to school and earned virtually none of the money for the land they had worked.
So when NAFTA, the largest Neoliberal trade agreement yet- which would force poor local farmers to compete with massive U.S. agricultural conglomerates, rendering them utterly incapable of selling their crops- came along, Chiapas was bound to become a ticking time bomb.
Why, however, should we focus on the Zapatistas? Their distant, now-aging rebellion does not figure well into the Western subconscious, and at most it forms a grainy image in the minds of the few people who do know about it. But the Zapatistas rebelled against Neoliberalism, against power, in a way that is rarely ever seen in history: not just with weapons, but with poetry, language, words.
And in a time when our dominant ideology is growing increasingly volatile and dangerous, to preserve the history of rebellions against it becomes an act of resistance.
To preserve memory, in other words, is to pave the way to a better future.
While far off in Mexico City PRI apparatchiks scrambled to orchestrate a response to the insurrection, the Zapatistas that morning continued with their string of military exploits in what the movement’s leader, Subcomandante Marcos, philosophically anointed as “the war for the word.”
Already, in six hours the uprising was astonishing enough.
A ragtag army of indigenous rebels, often bearing little more than dented wooden hunting rifles and machetes for weapons, but whose military prowess hinted at what must have been years of clandestine training, rose out of the jungle that morning and overran the Mexican military in seven large Chiapas towns, with many government forces surrendering before noon. They attacked the local jail and released the prisoners, the vast majority of whom, according to Marcos, were unjustly incarcerated for the supreme “crime of being poor.” And hundreds of ranches in the countryside were overtaken by these newly armed peasants, the oligarchical ranch owners taken captive by the people who they, for centuries, treated as disposable human fodder in their agricultural operations- unseen and left to rot by the indifferent outside world.
But there was a deeper undercurrent defining this uprising: it was a war to assert dignity, a war to be seen, a war- as we will later see- to reclaim the language that, through decades of prostitution by the Mexican political class, had inadvertently been contorted to oppress them. Theirs was a war to shout “We’re still here!” in a crackle of gunfire to a world that, awash in the mass globalization hysteria ushered by the fall of the Soviet Union, had forgotten their suffering: a war, in other words, against an unnoticed annihilation.
They had resisted Neoliberalism, the latest leg of their centuries-long history of abuse; they had risen up and reasserted their dignity. But by that afternoon on the first day, Mexican fighter planes had already appeared buzzing in circles overhead, filling the high dome of the sky overhead with a faint, ominous drone.
Any notions of romantic victory had to be momentarily stowed away. Their disobedience, much like their counterparts in Guatemala and El Salvador, was about to receive its bloody backlash.
In less than 24 hours the Mexican military commenced its counterattack, bombing indigenous villages and ultimately killing an estimated 145 people, with ground forces coming in hot on the heels of the airstrikes, engaging immediately with the angry horde of belligerent campesinos.
From the outset of the conflict, the odds of victory were hopelessly stacked against the Zapatistas: an army that, despite being built quite literally from scratch (its weapons were each obtained by trading off individual farm animals) was now taking on arguably the most intimidating military monolith in Latin America, all with some wooden rifles and the occasional, beat-up M-16.
The Zapatistas were three thousand, while the Federal Military was twenty. They fought alone, while the Mexican Government had Washington and the most influential corporations in the world at its side (a year later, in 1995, Chase Manhattan Bank would reveal its intentions by issuing a report calling for the elimination of the Zapatistas).
It was a quixotic battle for the black-masked rebels, a modern rendition of David and Goliath- except this time, as three weeks of hopeless fighting would soon illustrate, David’s stone wouldn’t prove too effective in battle.
According to official Mexican reports, the rebellion provided the military with what was in essence a large-scale training exercise- though the truth of this generalization must be conditioned by the fact that, though the Federal Army was superior in virtually every conceivable way, the government likely wanted to quell any potential hysteria amongst the populace- positive or negative- over the rebellion, intentionally downplaying this crisis by putting it into as small of a box as possible.
What’s known for sure is that over several weeks of brief, bloody fighting, the military machine flushed the rebels, one by one, out of the cities they had so victoriously occupied on January 1st. In one notoriously nasty battle, a column of rebels was routed on its retreat from the town of Ocosingo, leaving fifty dead.
The pool of photos and videos on the Internet documenting this period of the uprising is relatively sparse compared to other conflicts of recent memory- perhaps due to the insurgencies sheer shortness and overall obscurity in the Western psyche. But of this visual reservoir that does exist there are a few revealing stills and film clips that depict this initial stage of the fighting in clarity.
In one video, a unit of indigenous men armed with what appear to be wooden M-14’s, their eyes anxiously glued skywards, scramble for cover like ants as a Mexican fighter plane closes in high overhead. As it approaches, they pop off as many rounds as they can at the incoming plane, its drone filling the air; the plane, in turn, responds with a long, deafening rip from its machine gun.
In another photo, amoebas of anonymous indigenous corpses lay contorted in grotesque fashions along the steep grass bank of a remote jungle road- victims, evidently, of the superior firepower of their enemies: machine-gunned in yet another futile battle with the government.
In a number of photos, seemingly endless truckloads of heavily armed Federal soldiers proceed in long, dust-raising caravans into the rural southlands- eerily similar to their American counterparts who would ride into Iraq in 2003- the tips of their M-16’s protruding vertically from the walled-in beds of their vehicles.
In one video, a nervous squad of government forces kick down a series of doors as they clear their way through a ransacked City Municipal building, where old bureaucratic papers, laid waste to twelve days earlier by the infuriated rebels, lay scattered about the floor in a flurry of white.
By all accounts, this period was tinged with a nightmarish can’t for the Zapatistas. They were losing- and not only that, they were losing badly, suffering tremendous casualties against the stolid professionalism of the Mexican Army.
At this point, Marcos related in a speech almost two decades later, the EZLN faced an existential decision which had hardly been reckoned with before. Should they follow the paths of their doomed leftist forebears: digging mud trenches into mountainsides, carving an entanglement of tunnels beneath the Earth, lacing the jungles with snarls of barbed wire, fields of landmines- with death incarnate- bracing themselves with all their strength for the unending twilight of war?
Or, it dawned on them, should they take another path- a more peaceful but equally rebellious path, a path whose only terminus would not be what they feared most, the dreaded prospect of annihilation.
They chose the latter. Instead of organizing to purchase more arms, they elected to build their own autonomous communities, declared independent of all PRI influence. Having begun with a floodgate of violence, they soon traded in their Kalashnikovs for the pursuit of peaceful community building. They decided to organize the Juntas de Buen Gobierno (Council of Good Government), which would be composed of local indigenous leaders- and which the then irate Mexican state has still refused to recognize- to oversee the building and maintenance of schools, clinics, and social centers- the very things which they had been lacking for over 500 years.
Their decision to quit fighting, Marcos related, was not made within the arbitrary constructs of either military victory or defeat. It was a choice, he said, made between the forever-battling poles of life and death.
If death was annihilation, then to continue in an orgy of violence would be self-defeating for their high purpose of being seen, of having their suffering recognized, of reasserting their dignity in the war for the word. Violence was a then-necessary but ultimately transitory, useless means towards achieving their final goal of justice. They would lay down their arms and continue their rebellion via other means.
“We chose rebellion,” Marcos said, “that is to say, life.”
On January 12th, almost two weeks and several hundred dead later, the Zapatista leadership negotiated a ceasefire with the government; soon, they would engage in the highly publicized San Andres Peace Accords, though the “peace” would prove rather elusive in the coming years. Like a jungle mist that evaporates with the hard coming of the morning sun, the black-masked rebels receded into that rugged jungle mountain range from which they first came, destroyed but not defeated, disappearing as fast as they had appeared days earlier.
The fighting had settled upon an uneasy ending. Now the real war was about to begin.
Now began the years-long twilight of simmering, low-scale warfare- of the military occupation of Chiapas.
In the weeks following their stunned ceasefire the Zapatistas managed to bring what was originally a provincial issue that drew virtually no outside attention to the forefront of Mexican politics, elucidating their suffering as not just a problem for Chiapas, but as a distinct symptom of Neoliberalism, whose unswerving ideological crusade had already sent the world environment spiraling into catastrophe and an increasing percentage of humanity into poverty.
The negotiations surrounding the proposed peace accords proved to be a long, arduous ordeal, mediated by the Catholic Church (long a force in Latin American politics), with nearly every news crew in Mexico flocking to Chiapas to document and dramatize the spectacle.
At the center of it all (much to the chagrin of the Zapatistas, and to the man himself) was Subcomandante Marcos.
A note on the black-masked leader. As Churchill once said of Russia, the character of Marcos was “a riddle, wrapped inside an enigma, inside a mystery.” Though Mexican Intelligence soon revealed him to be Rafael Guillen Vicente, a former philosophy lecturer specializing in aesthetics at Mexico City’s UNAM, the public, who were entranced by his rugged guerrilla aura, his sensitive eyes, and his poetic elocutions on the brokenness of the world, didn’t seem to care. Marcos even conceded that his character was a hologram, an image designed to represent the voice of the Zapatistas. Just as Alonso Quijano created for himself the identity of Don Quixote, Vicente would become Marcos; like Quijano to Quixote, Vicente would ultimately prove to be a backstory, a shadow of the man- Marcos would be the true character.
“Quixotic” is an apt description for the man. Though he explicitly stated that he was merely a conduit through which the long-suppressed Zapatista voice could articulate itself, he nonetheless seemed keenly aware of his position as a sort of Internet-era Zorro, milking his identity, endlessly playing with it to tantalize the public. In the many clandestine interviews he gave over the coming years (often conducted at undisclosed rural locales, for he was amongst Mexico’s most wanted men, and extremely difficult one to find at that) he would use the power of his voice to put the problems facing Chiapas in context with the problems facing the world- and it largely worked.
Marcos said he was only a hologram, but his mythical stature as a man and a leader seemed to grow by the day.
His early, Alonso Quijano years, before Rafael Vicente became Marcos, remain muddled by time, but there are some things known about his early life. He grew up urban middle class in Tamaulipas, encouraged from an early age by his parents to read, who saw words not merely as a means to communicate, but as a weapon to fight power, a paintbrush to create new worlds. In an interview with Gabriel García Marquez, he relates how he read deeply, devouring all the scribes of the Latin American Boom- Borges, Vargas Llosa, Neruda, Fuentes, Marquez himself- as well as Shakespeare, Cervantes, European philosophers, and later, in his teens, denser, political texts- often Marxist-leaning.
Like many idealistic students, he was politically radicalized by the 1968 Tlatelolco Massacre, forever pitting himself against the PRI and all the ideologies it represented. And he was restless. In the early 80’s, after having obtained his philosophy professorship at UNAM- Mexico’s most prestigious university- he mysteriously abandoned his academic post to join the liberation wars in the rest of Central America. Some say he went to join the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. Others, the FMLN in El Salvador. No one knows for sure.
Then, in 1984, he would undergo an experience that would forever shape the identity of the Zapatistas. He had joined a guerrilla group that went to Chiapas to foment a nationwide socialist revolution. He envisioned great plans, a massive victory against the PRI. And the reception he got from the local peasants, on whom he’d banked on galvanizing to fight, was utterly cold.
Here was a Marxist intellectual, bred in the inner-city, lugging tomes of academic texts and wielding obscure jargon like “proletarian revolution” an “means of production,” trying to explain to the Mayan campesinos that they should rise up against injustices dealt upon them- as if they’d been completely unaware of their suffering for the past half-millennia.
They didn’t understand the strange European language he spoke, and the thoughts he expressed didn’t make any sense. The land they farmed was not a “means of production” as his books might have had it- it was a spiritual wellspring of life, a sacred patch of the universe that had sustained them through all the dark and bright moments of their history here on Earth. “Class warfare” was as foreign to them as non-Euclidian geometry- all people were equally poor in Chiapas, except for the few Creole oligarchs who owned the land and had discriminated against the Mayans for centuries.
They could hardly pretend to care that, a century prior, a bearded Prussian intellectual had written the very books on class struggle that this mestizo professor-turned-guerrilla had so eagerly brought with him into the jungle, hoping to become the prophet of a new Revolution. Marcos was as alien to their world and culture as the Spaniards had been centuries before, and the Mayans, accordingly, regarded him with the same hostility and suspicion.
Venturing into the jungle like this, Marcos related in an interview many years later, was the loneliest he’d been in his life. He felt like an alien from another planet, unwelcome by the new inhabitants and himself barely capable of surviving. “Imagine coming from an urban culture,” he said, “where everyone talks, talks, talks.” And then he was conveyed from his insular city environment to the rough borderlands of Chiapas – the existential doors on his life thrown open to all the pain and beauty in the world- where few spoke his language and fewer yet wanted to hear what he had to say.
But out of the abysmal despair of this chapter in his life came a transformation that would become the defining mark of the Zapatistas: instead of preaching, Marcos would learn to listen.
He joined a clandestine indigenous group that had been slowly emerging in response to the PRI’s auctioning off of Mexico’s natural resources.
Day by day, he began learning the language, and instead of trying to impose foreign doctrines upon the locals, he immersed himself in the rich tapestry of their culture: its creation myths, their traditions, the way the Mayans perceived themselves in the warp of the cosmos.
For many years he continued living like this, the austere, ideologically strict,
Guevara-esque Marxist that Rafael Vicente had once been when he first came into the jungle- with dreams of proselytizing the peasants into good revolutionaries- slowly chipping away to reveal the more pensive, thoughtful, withdrawn Marcos- Marcos the listener, Marcos the student.
This transformation would be the defining mark that ultimately set the Zapatista Uprising apart from nearly all the other leftist uprisings of the 20th century, from the nightmare of Russia’s Bolsheviks to the bloodbath of Peru’s Sendero Luminoso- and that would provide a hopeful model for peaceful resistance in the dark no-man’s-land of the 21st.
The Zapatistas did not see the poor of the world as one indistinguishably contiguous blob- as Marx’s vague “proletariat” – but as an ocean of different cultures that needed to be respected, protected, cherished.
They did not see the environment in the binary of a Marxist worldview, a thing that was valueless and needed to be rapidly industrialized for human usage, but as a base upon which all life was delicately intertwined.
Largely immune to the machismo that infected most other Latin American Revolutionaries- in Che and the Castro’s especially- they recognized the rights of homosexuals as being as important as any other rights, and openly welcomed women into their army (the first chapter of Marcos’ first book of writings is dedicated to women who fought in that first week of fighting).
They transformed what was originally a violent uprising into a peaceful mass movement that engulfed the nation and defiantly fought Neoliberalism without the need of bloodshed.
The Zapatistas seemed to be the antithesis of what Revolution had come to represent- they converted a violent uprising into a peaceful movement, and instead of preaching decided to listen.
At the center of it all, whether they liked it or not, was Marcos. It’s hard to imagine the idea of the Zapatistas without him.
The Mexican government was faced with a national crisis unprecedented in its history. The Zapatistas were outgunned, outmanned, and in all likelihood could’ve been annihilated by the army in a matter of weeks. But a particularly pernicious obstacle stood in the way of accomplishing this normally easy task: the Mexican populace.
Angry Mexicans, fed up with nearly seventy years of unchecked, autocratic rule by the PRI, took to the streets in long, riverine protests to express solidarity with the black-masked rebels in the south. The government might’ve had guns, but Marcos- with his articulate, wildly popular Internet communiqués– had the backing of millions of people, within and without the borders of Mexico, who saw in the Zapatista’s terrifying fight a reflection of their own struggles, their own suffering.
Deepening rivers of journalists and activists poured into Chiapas in the months following the uprising. Idealistic Mexican University students saved money to road trip down south, their cars loaded with supplies for the campesinos. Around the world, social groups publicly opined their support for the indigenous rebels.
This identification with the struggles of the rest of the world was part of the very real appeal of the Zapatistas. They wore the masks, Marcos said, not for any strategic purpose, but as a means of suppressing their individual identity to the extent that the broader world could see their fight as a symbolic reflection of itself: a mirror of all those who struggled in the face of power.
Predictably, their fight against the Mexican government was utterly hopeless- twelve days of bloody fighting would further confirm this fact. If they could not literally win, they would at the least stain the image of their enemies, using their position to excoriate both the PRI and the utopian ideology of Neoliberalism for which it so vehemently fought.
By rising up against such an intimidating enemy, they were allowing themselves to be very publicly crucified- and this crucifixion would provide an ominous demonstration of the dark fate soon to befall the whole planet.
A war that could’ve been easily winnable militarily was thus transformed into a Manichaean battle of images, one waged between a towering political establishment and a small, Internet-era guerrilla group.
One of the first major blows came on August 11th, 1994, barely two weeks before the Presidential elections, at a rain-soaked convention carved out of the viney tanglework of the Lacandon Jungle.
Having temporarily withdrawn threats to re-engage militarily after months of nerve-wracking negotiations, the Zapatistas again took a different path: they would hold a “National Democratic Convention” in the remote mountains near Aguascalientes.
Nearly 5,700 idealistic delegates, journalists, and onlookers would make the long, overland trek from San Cristobal de las Casas- often at personal financial risk (with many poor Mexicans leaving their jobs suddenly)- to this open flesh wound of muddy clay in the rainforest where there now stood a shantytown of tents, and where the convention would be held.
For many poor Mexicans, there was little in the world to prevent them from seeing a man who finally seemed to represent them, who seemed like their hero- even if that meant possibly losing a job and a long trek through the jungle.
In a natural amphitheater carved out of the side of a mountain, with logs spread out as benches, Subcomandante Marcos spoke before a crowd that responded so wildly to his appearance, with such an uproarious applause, that one would think he was a rockstar.
Marcos, with his trademark coolness, wandered onto the stage and told them to hold fast to their ideals in the face of the long conflict that was to come. “Don’t betray your ideals, your principles, your history. Join forces to say ‘Enough Already!’”
Marcos was a charismatic speaker, a natural spokesman who elucidated powerfully upon the suffering of Mexico’s indigenous peoples- upon the suffering of those who were oppressed everywhere- and exalted the moral imperative of revolt with a poetry virtually nonexistent in political leaders.
By late that afternoon, dark towers of storm clouds began building in the atmosphere high above the jungle, the columns of boiling cumulonimbus slowly drowning the sky under a blue wall of darkness. A sudden wave of wind flushed down over the amphitheater, sending the massive tarp strung over the stage billowing backward over a now terrified crowd, and a veil o hard, pelting rain enveloped the thousands of onlookers.
Conference leaders calmed down the flustered crowds, who would nonetheless go on to say that they were endlessly glad that they attended.
But the violent downpour of that afternoon held ominous portents for the future of the Zapatistas, for the future of all those who would suffer under the brunt of Neoliberalism: there was a storm coming, and there was nothing we could do to stop it.
In this age of constant, blind optimism, it’s easy to cast history within the context of a positive narrative that always culminates in a happy ending- to falsely portray the long, tragic grind of human affairs as if it were continuously riding a sunny, upward-rising trend.
In 1995, a now-disclosed report shows that Chase Manhattan Bank called for the “elimination of the Zapatistas”; that very year, the Mexican government launched what was essentially a military invasion of Chiapas. Thousands more Mexican troops would be stationed in rural outposts, and though money was pumped into the state, the improvements of the condition of the poor were regarded by many as minimal.
With the immense presence of the soldiers, thousands of villagers sympathetic to the Zapatistas were forced to flee from their homes into the mountains, the fighters themselves receding further into the mountains, all retreating into a squalid, subterranean existence.
Rendered incapable of directly attacking the Zapatistas due to their immense public support, the PRI instead threw their support into clandestine paramilitary groups that would attack supporters of the Zapatistas privately- a surreptitious strategy of killing off and intimidating their enemies without the need to get their hands dirty.
On the morning of December 22nd, 1997, a gang of sixty, heavily-armed paramilitaries known as “Mascara Roja” (Red Mask) would encircle a pacifist group sympathetic to the Zapatistas in the rural village of Acteal, where they were gathering in the local church. Over the next few hours, the paramilitaries proceeded to massacre 48 of them, mostly old women and children between the ages of 56 years and 8 months- all within earshot of the government soldiers stationed nearby, who did nothing to deter the killing, despite being aware of the attack.
The next day, the same government soldiers were seen by witnesses washing the bloodstains off the walls of the church to hide any evidence, and the corpses of pregnant ladies were seen with their stomachs shot as well to kill their unborn babies.
As the years passed following the initial uprising and the 20th century fed into the 21st, the torment of the global Neoliberal crusade and the trail of blood left behind it would make waves far beyond the jungles of Chiapas. One by one, like a row of dominoes, the canaries in the cave would begin to fall silent:
NAFTA, despite all the efforts made to resist its implementation, largely went though according to plan; as a result, many of the farmers in rural Mexico were unable to compete with American subsidized agriculture, leaving the drug trade as their only option to stay economically afloat. Those who refused to partake in the growing of marijuana or opium were often left without jobs, forcing waves of migrants to make the perilous illegal journey across the scalding hot deserts to the north (where the border had since been heavily militarized by the Clinton administration following the implementation of NAFTA), crossing into the United States in search of whatever scraps of work they could find.
Meanwhile, on a bright, clear September morning in 2001, the explosion of two gaseous fireballs high over the streets of New York- the handiwork of Saudi extremists infuriated over the corporate oil-domination of the Middle East- would forever redirect the course of American history, segueing into the War on Terror, and, promptly afterwards, the disastrous invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.
As a result of this terrifying War on Terror, which has many of its roots in the corporate pillaging on the other side of the world, a draconian state security apparatus without precedent would turn the citizenry of the U.S. into the most spied upon population in human history. Civil liberties were quietly eliminated, it was ruled by the Supreme Court that corporations had the same rights as individual human beings. Drone strikes overseas abounded. Terrorism and its array of backlashes ultimately compounded into more terrorism.
By 2006- twelve years after the Zapatista uprising- with the drug trade running as hard as it had been in its history, the Mexican government launched its massive “War on Drugs” against an array of drug cartels, a conflict so vast in scope that, by 2017, it had left as many as 138,000 dead or disappeared, according to some estimates, turning many parts of Mexico into some of the most dangerous places in North America.
In 2011, fed up with the corporate domination of the United States and the imposition of the Neoliberal Agenda, which had resulted in the economic crash of 2008, activists would set up camp on Wall Street, desiring to curb the greed of Goldman Sachs and Chase Manhattan. But just like the Zapatistas, the banks did not like these idealistic activists, and the FBI promptly infiltrated their camps, dispersing them by early 2012.
In 2016, indigenous Lakota activists- much like the Zapatistas themselves- set up camp on the high plains of North Dakota to prevent a corporate oil pipeline from being erected through their sacred lands. Though peacefully protesting, they were set upon by armored cars, helicopters, and stolid walls of police riot gear and privately hired mercenary contractors; at the behest of the corporation that wished to see the pipeline completed, the protesters were shot with rubber bullets, assaulted with tear gas, and blasted with fire hoses in the subzero temperatures of winter. In January 2017, following the election of Trump, the pipeline was pushed through via executive orders, and the Lakota were forced to abandon their camps- a striking defeat, yet sadly unsurprising, considering the world we live in.
The playing field of the 21st century that’s been laid out by Neoliberalism- the very force against which the Zapatistas fought so forcefully those many years ago- is a grim scene to behold. To contemplate the upcoming century is like gazing upon the wastes of some smoldering, infernal no-man’s-land: the threat of planetary environmental meltdown looms like a storm, nationalistic neo-fascist and fundamentalist terrorist groups have risen up as the main backlashes to neoliberal economics, and an increasing percentage of humanity is being shoved into the abysmal depths of poverty.
If it seems like we live in relatively dark times, it’s because we do.
In dark times, we would do good to look back upon the prophetic example of the Zapatistas. Still, to this day, despite all odds, they have continued fulfilling the promise which they made upon their existential move over twenty years ago, to stop fighting and instead build their own independent communities
They still exist there today. Now, they have built their own schools, clinics, independent communities declared free of the still-corrupt Mexican government.
In 2014, the character of Subcomandante Marcos, after having drawn too much attention to his persona instead of the valorous movement he spoke for, “ceased to exist,” in his own words. The now again man behind the mask re-named himself “Subcomandante Galeano,” in honor of a local activist and teacher murdered by the many paramilitary groups that still maraud Chiapas to this day.
Galeano- as he is now called- was finally pardoned of his “crimes” by the Mexican government.
He still writes prolifically and is still to be seen occasionally, with pipe atop his horse in those distant jungle southlands, one of the first voices to truly articulate the dangers of the global cataclysm that’s now befallen all of us.
In 2017, he emerged in a video, in one of his increasingly rare public appearances, to make the latest of his statements.
He looked remarkably older than the handsome, pale-faced man who, many years ago, had once stoked the dark imaginations of countless Mexican women- the grizzled 59-year old was now wrinkled, and along with his mask and pipe, wore a skull-and-bones eyepatch over his face, pirate style. He was the same man, only now further toughened by the rough hand of the world: older, tired, sadder, wiser.
With the burdensome gaze of a man who’s escaped Plato’s cave, but who’s consciously descended back into the abyss to liberate the other prisoners, Marcos began his speech.
We had better collectively hold together, he said- “the worst is yet to come and the individualities, as very brilliant and capable as they seem, will not be able to survive if they are not with others.”
He went on to point out that it’s imminently important to struggle, but that “it’s better to do it collectively than individually; I cannot explain the reason to you scientifically and you have every right to accuse me of being esoteric or of something equally horrible. What we have seen on our limited and archaic horizon is that the collective can bring out the best in each individual.”
We are all Zapatistas, Marcos had once said. Anyone who struggles anywhere can consider themselves a Zapatista, for the struggle for goodness transcends any borders- transcends the borders of Chiapas just as it does space and time: all those who struggle for good are connected by the mysterious hum of humanity.
Neoliberalism has already wrought its first wave of destruction on the world.
If we wish to hold together, we had best follow the model of the Zapatistas- for the worst of the storm is yet to come.