The EZLN 20 years on

Orsetta Bellani, Latinamerica Press (Photo: O.B.)

“There will be no house-museum or metal plaques where I was born and raised. Nor will there be anyone who lives off of having been Subcomandante Marcos. Nor will his name or rank be inherited. There will be no all-expenses-paid trips to speak abroad. There will be no transfer to nor (medical) attention received from any fancy hospitals. There will be no widows or heirs. There will be neither funerals, nor honors, nor statues, nor museums, nor awards — nothing that the system does to promote the cult of the individual or diminish the collective».

With these words, Subcomandante Marcos, the legendary spokesman of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN), announced his “disappearance” to worldwide surprise. He did so on the morning of May 25, in Caracol de La Realidad, the headquarters of the autonomous Zapatista government deep in the Lacandon Jungle. Subcomandante Moisés replaced him as EZLN spokesman.

“It is our conviction and our practice that to rebel and fight, it is not necessary to have leaders, nor commanders, nor messiahs, nor saviors,” Marcos said from a raised platform in La Realidad, amid a dreamlike atmosphere of the jungle’s nighttime rainfall. “To fight, one only needs a bit of shame, some dignity, and a lot of organization.”

Example of coherence

The former EZLN spokesman described himself as a “botarga,” a media hoax created by the Zapatista communities. They decided to construct him, and now chose to make him disappear, believing it is no longer needed in an organization that believes in horizontality and power from below, and whose leadership is no longer mestizo but indigenous.

People applauded, chanted slogans. Some cried, perhaps more to alleviate the intensity of the moment than out of sadness. Ultimately, the decision to “disappear” Marcos, a figure that somehow concealed the everyday resistance of thousands of Zapatista supporters, was a strong example of coherence in an organization like the EZLN.

“We should have made an effort so the public would focus less on the image of Marcos in the early years,” Marcos admitted in a 2009 interview with Mexican journalist Laura Castellanos. “Subsequently, we tried to fix it, but we couldn’t.”

On Aug. 10, Marcos’ masked face unexpectedly reappeared in La Realidad during a news conference for the alternative press. Marcos, who now calls himself Subcomandante Galeano — a character he took on in a tribute to a Zapatista assassinated last May by opponents to the insurgent movement — criticized the for-profit media and announced the organization would only speak to the independent press. Only time will tell if Subcomandante Galeano will become the new Zapatista media myth.

Marcos’ disappearance happened at a moment of maturity for the EZLN, which in 20 years has made great strides and shown it has enough humility to change. Although in recent years it has been largely ignored by the media, the Zapatista political project continues.

After the betrayal by the government of commitments made in the San Andrés Accords, regarding the right to indigenous autonomy, in 2003 the EZLN decided to unilaterally exercise that right through the creation of the Juntas de Buen Gobierno, or Councils of Good Government, that reinforce the principle of “lead by obeying.” Despite the challenges, during the last 20 years in the autonomous communities, the political participation of women has increased, Zapatista teachers and doctors were trained, schools and clinics opened, and a judicial system was developed and often takes non-Zapatista cases because it is more efficient that the government courts.

Change in attitude

The armed insurrection of 1994 also resulted in an attitude change for much of the Mexican mestizo population toward the indigenous community.

“Before the uprising, the coletos [inhabitants of San Cristóbal de Las Casas, Chiapas] would explicitly express their racism toward indigenous people,” said Juan Blasco, professor at the Autonomous University of Chiapas (UNACH). “After the insurrection, the newspapers strongly criticized the residents of San Cristobal for their mistreatment of the indigenous population for centuries, and since then their attitude has change, at least in word.”

Moreover, the Zapatista uprising inspired a process that lead to other American native peoples becoming key figures in their countries’ politics. Another EZLN achievement was to bring attention to the marginalization of native communities, making the indigenous cause part of Mexico’s political agenda.

Still, the government instrumentally used the new demands to implement counterinsurgency strategies to drive people away from resistance. These are disguised as support for the indigenous population, which could turn into welfare programs or investments in infrastructure.

Nancy Zárate Castillo, former state coordinator for Chiapas of the Network for Sexual and Reproductive Rights in Mexico (DDSER), told Latinamerica Press that “investment in infrastructure by the government started after the Zapatista uprising. Now each municipal seat has a health clinic. Nevertheless, there remains a lack of human resources. The hospitals are empty.”

Article published by Latinamerica Press on 8.21.2014: