Academic journal article Alternatives: Global, Local, Political

The Zapatista Social Movement: Innovation and Sustainability

Academic journal article Alternatives: Global, Local, Political

The Zapatista Social Movement: Innovation and Sustainability

Article excerpt

  The 1994 Zapatista rebellion in Chiapas, Mexico, illustrates "
  glocal" resistance to the neoliberal world order. While rooted in
  indigenous communities, the rebellion is best understood not in terms
  of essentialist identities but rather as an ongoing process of
  creating new social practices in resistance to domination. The
  sustainability of the movement depends not on the overthrow of the
  state, but on the effort to continually transform society. Four
  important contributions emerge from the experiences of the autonomous
  communities and municipalities in Zapatista-influenced territory: (1)
  The refraining of the concept of power. (2) The construction of new
  social subjectivities. (3) A redefinition of the concept of autonomy.
  (4) Radical democracy. Keywords: Zapatista, indigenous, social
  movement, antisystemic, radical democracy, autonomy

When the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) first launched an armed uprising on January 1, 1994--the date the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) went into effect--it first appeared to be yet another Latin American guerrilla group aimed at seizing state power. However, the armed phase lasted only twelve days, and the Zapatistas spent the next fifteen years as a social movement, creating autonomous structures of government and society in the indigenous regions of the state of Chiapas, Mexico, and organizing national and transnational networks of support. Differing significantly from van-guardist Latin American rebels of yesteryear, the movement generated widespread attention as it aimed for "glocal" transformation of society.

Scholarship on the 1994 Zapatista uprising has called attention to both the indigenous roots of the rebel support base (mainly in the Tzotzil, Tzeltal, Tojolab'al, and Ch'ol communities of Chiapas), and the specific shifts in political economy affecting Mexico since the late twentieth century. (1) While Mexico and the world were taken by surprise by the specter of ski-masked indigenous rebels taking over towns in Chiapas on January 1, 1994, the rebels had actually been organizing clandestinely for at least a decade before that. The antecedents built on previous organizing initiatives of independent peasant groups that had sought to distance themselves from the hegemonic Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) since the 1970s, as well as a sprinkling of Maoist organizers from northern Mexico, who arrived in the Lacandon Jungle in the same period, and Liberation Theology catechists working in the primarily indigenous communities of the central highlands, eastern jungle, and northern zone of the state of Chiapas. The onslaught of neoliberal policies after Mexico's 1982 debt crisis had a devastating impact on poor peasant and indigenous communities. The last straw was the agrarian counter-reform launched by the December 1991 "modification" of Article 27 of the 1917 revolutionary constitution, ending land redistribution and threatening privatization of the collectively held ejido lands. The Mexican government initially responded to the 1994 rebellion with military force, but massive protests by civil society forced a ceasefire after only twelve days, suggesting a resonance with a wider set of grievances in which the local rebellion was inscribed. At the same time, zapatismo was forged in the distinctive social spaces of indigenous communities, particularly in the newly evolving collective identities that emerged as indigenous people in Chiapas were squeezed out of land in "traditional" communities, migrating from the 1950s onward to the agricultural frontier, establishing settlements in the canadas (canyons or ravines) that penetrated the Lacandon Jungle. (2)

The Zapatistas characterized their movement as a rebellion, not a revolution. They did not seek to seize state power nor to secede, but rather to build a more participatory and just order from the community level upward. Today's mode of globalization--neoliberalism, based on "free trade" and mobile capital--scatters geographically the focal points of contradiction, so that revolution in the old sense gives way to new forms of resistance such as transnational social movements. …

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