On January 1, 1994, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) based in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas, began a rebellion to coincide with the implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement. Lasting twelve days and with reverberations for years, the Zapatista Rebellion was an important moment of discontent with neoliberal trade agreements that still resonate in this day of widespread discontent with the impact of free trade without consideration for populations displaced or left behind.
The NAFTA negotiations helped the Mexican state undermine the pieces of the 1917 Constitution it no longer wanted. That included Article 27, which protected indigenous lands from sale or privatization. These collectively held lands were central to post-revolutionary Mexican indigenous life and economy. But these protections also held back the Mexican elite from maximizing profit off the land. Laborers to work big western-owned broccoli fields in the north would generate more profit that dirt farming corn on steep southern mountainsides. By repealing Article 27, NAFTA could open up these lands for outside development, as well as create possibilities for cheap agricultural imports from the United States. That would have the impact of forcing people off the land, where they could no longer make even a meager living, sending them to Mexico City, to the maquiladoras, and across the U.S. border, where they make your food, landscape your yard, and clean your homes and today are undergoing an ethnic cleansing from the United States, even as U.S. policymakers and corporations played a huge role in creating the conditions to bring them here.
Indigenous leaders and the Mexican left feared this even before NAFTA passed and so they acted. There was no consideration of the Mexican indigenous population by the nation’s elites in crafting free trade agreements. Those elites didn’t care about indigenous needs in 1994 and they don’t care today. They saw native communities as holding back the modernization of their nation. This is not so different from how American elites saw unions as holding back the profit-generating potential of its economy. In both nations, as throughout the Americas and the entire world during the 1990s, the rise of neoliberal economics led to a growth in privatization and the decimation of commitments to the working class, rural or urban. This meant the end of including unions as legitimate partners of the state in managing the economy, agricultural subsidies for poor farmers, and the principle that major resources and infrastructure should be managed by the state for the collective good. While the people of Chiapas were poor to begin with, none of these changes were likely to help them and quite likely to hurt them, as it in fact did.
The EZLN itself formed in 1983. Somewhat ironically, the EZLN’s leader was not an indigenous person at all, but rather was Subcommadante Marcos, the nom de guerre of the academic Rafael Sebastián Guillén Vicente, a UNAM professor who hails from Tamaulipas, in the nation’s north. He was radicalized after the 1968 Tlateloco Massacre and became part of the Mexican left in the 1970s. Marcos himself has discussed that when he and others went into the jungle in the mid-1980s, the calls for revolution using traditional Marxist rhetoric left the local people of Chiapas looking at them like they were insane. After all, it was the communal property of the people that was their greatest resource and calling for the ending of property was not exactly going to catch on. Marcos became the movement’s leader by the late 1980s as other leaders were arrested or killed.
Disgusted over NAFTA and the neoliberal Mexican state that betrayed the principles of the 1917 Constitution, the EZLN timed its rebellion to match the trade agreement’s implementation. launched attacks on symbols of the Mexican state in the state of Chiapas, taking over city halls in cities such as San Cristobal, Las Margaritas, and Chanal. The active phase of the EZLN’s rebellion only lasted for twelve days. Up to this point, no one knew who Subcommandante Marcos actually was. Once his identity was revealed in February 1995, Mexican president Ernesto Zedillo launched a campaign to arrest him and other EZLN leaders. Despite a very real chance of a massacre, peaceful elements in both the government and among the Zapatistas managed to forestall this. By April 1995, secret meetings were being held to create a lasting peace. In February 1996, the Zapatistas and the Mexican government came to the San Andrés Agreement, which granted some local autonomy to Mexico’s indigenous population, giving them some control over the use of natural resources on their lands and a say in governance and use of public funds.
The greater significance of the Zapatista Rebellion is what it represented in an era when global trade and neoliberal economics seemed unstoppable than for anything it actually did in Mexico. Worldwide, there was a great deal of coverage about the marginalization of indigenous peoples within the Mexican nation. But among the investment community, the Zapatistas were seen as a real threat. Riordan Roett, adviser to Chase Manhattan Bank, noted, “While Chiapas, in our opinion, does not pose a fundamental threat to Mexican political stability, it is perceived to be so by many in the investment community. The government will need to eliminate the Zapatistas to demonstrate their effective control of the national territory and of security policy.” This sums up how the architects of the recent phase of global capitalism based around free trade views local voices having a say in economic development. On the left, particularly in the United States, the Zapatistas were heavily romanticized as warriors against capitalism, the next Castro that required support, as the Sandinistas were before them and Hugo Chavez in the early 21st century. Whether this is useful or not is an open question and I have observed here before how the Latin American solidarity left in the U.S. has the problem of jumping from place to place without really exploring local conditions on the ground or staying interested once the revolutionary phase ends. For example, see the conversations over the Oaxacan teacher union movement, which assumes on the face of it that everything the APPO does is good and everything the Mexican state does bad, when on the ground it’s actually really complicated as teachers and active APPO members have told me. But at the very least, support for the Zapatistas served as an expression at a lot of discomfort over how neoliberalism, global financial agencies such as the World Trade Organization, and trade agreements like NAFTA were affecting the world.
Since NAFTA’s implementation, poverty rates for Mexicans have grown, both in real terms and in comparison with other Latin American nations. For Chiapas, the real impact was on agricultural labor and that sector has been decimated. Between 1991 and 2007, 4.9 million Mexican farmers were displaced with a net loss in all agricultural labor of 1.9 million jobs. Meanwhile, whereas in 1990, the United States had 4.5 million residents born in Mexico, by 2009, it was 12.6 million. The arrangements the EZLN made with the Mexican government probably did help keep some people on the land and in their homes because of the caracoles, or indigenous autonomous zones, that were created. These provide networks of support that create resources to help traditional ways stay viable.
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