January 1, 2004 will be the 10th anniversary of the Zapatista uprising in Chiapas, Mexico. In 2004, it will be 20 years since the founding of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation, or EZLN (1).
For people concerned about human rights, the 10-year long rebellion has some interesting lessons.
One question human rights advocates might ask is, what was the effect of the Zapatista uprising on human rights in Chiapas, or in Mexico? Given that wartime is when the worst violations of human rights occur, did the Zapatistas act irresponsibly in launching an armed rebellion for indigenous rights and against the neglect and abuse that they had long suffered?
An interview with Subcomandante Marcos of the EZLN gives the Zapatistasâ€™ own answer to this question. On March 11, 2001, when the Zapatistas traveled to Mexico City to present their demands for a new indigenous law to the legislature, one of Mexicoâ€™s main weekly magazines, â€˜Procesoâ€™, interviewed Marcos. The interviewer asked him: “what’s your picture of poverty?” The reply:
â€œA girl who died in my arms, less than five years old, of fever, in the community of Las Tazas, because there was no remedy to lower her temperature, and she died in my hands. We tried to lower the temperature with water, with wet rags, we bathed her and everything, her father and I. She died on us. She didn’t require surgery, nor a hospital. She needed a pill, a little remedy…
It’s ridiculous, because that girl was not even born, there was no birth certificate. What is there more miserable than being born and dying and nobody knows you?â€
Marcos said he felt â€œImpotence, rage. The whole world falls in on you, that everything you believed and everything you did before is useless if I can’t prevent this death, this unjust, absurd, irrational, stupid…â€ and warned that â€œIf that general bitterness doesn’t find a social voice, revenge is bound to followâ€¦ that’s why we say it’s preferable that the discontent get organized.â€
None of the above can be offered as an automatic justification for rebellion, although it certainly is an eloquent argument for social organization. It is also a powerful statement about the motivations for the rebellion. The argument about the effect of the rebellion is made in Marcosâ€™s next statement in the same interview: â€œNow, with indigenous communities taking a stand, we lowered the mortality rate to between two and three hundred per year. We used to have, before 1994, fifteen thousand per year, mostly under five who never had any birth certificate.â€ (2)
The war fought by the Zapatistas is one they describe as a â€˜war against oblivionâ€™, a war against the silent deaths from hunger and preventable disease that the indigenous have faced for centuries. For starting that war, the Zapatistas were punished with the kinds of human rights abuses documented by groups like Amnesty International. A look at Amnestyâ€™s annual reports on Mexico tells the tale (3): disappearances, reports of torture; paramilitarism; death threats directed specifically against human rights advocates, lawyers, and activists; and, worse, several massacres and assassinations, notably the Acteal massacre of December 1997.
This should not be taken to mean that the Zapatistas traded one form of violence for another, opting for the open violence of a â€˜low-intensity warâ€™ over the violence of hunger and poverty.
Counter to the norm of insurgent groups motivated by the kinds of â€˜impotenceâ€™ and â€˜rageâ€™ Marcos described, the Zapatistas have adhered quite closely to the Geneva Conventions and the laws of war. Their adherence to these rules, as well as the asymmetry of force between them and their opponent, the Mexican Army and paramilitaries (with financial, political, and military support from the United States), have resulted in the Zapatistas and their civilian supporters suffering far more casualties in the conflict.
From the beginning, the Zapatistas have emphasized the political aspects of the conflict and have, in fact, subordinated the military to the political and social. Most recently, in August 2003, they announced that the autonomous municipalities of Chiapas, the Zapatista communities, would be â€˜autonomousâ€™ from the EZLN itself, in addition to other changes in the political organization (4).
But the emphasis on the political aspects of struggle has been part of the Zapatistasâ€™ practice from the beginning. By inviting international human rights observers to the communities, holding an â€˜Intergalacticaâ€™ for supporters from all over the world, holding a â€˜Consultaâ€™ or an unofficial referendum on the future of the EZLN, traveling to Mexico City unarmed, counting on the political protection of their supporters during the 2001 caravan, the Zapatistas have constantly tried to present their political platform and positions to the world.
They have also made clear their desire for dialogue. Since 1994, their demands have been simple: housing, land, work, bread, health, education, independence, democracy, liberty, justice, and peace. Negotiations with the governmentâ€™s peace commission yielded a proposal for an indigenous reform law, called the Cocopa law, which would have granted territorial autonomy to the indigenous communities. In 2001, on the occasion of their caravan, the Zapatistas publicized three conditions for dialogue with the government:
First, that the military withdraw from several of the dozens of bases in Chiapas; second, that the Zapatista political prisoners be freed from various prisons across the country; and third, that the legislature pass the Cocopa law. At the time, the government responded with half-measures: a partial withdrawal, liberty for some but not all of the prisoners, and the passage of a gutted version of the Cocopa law.
As a result, there has been little serious dialogue in the past two years, although the armed conflict is not as intense as it has been at several points over the 10-year course of the rebellion.
By adhering to the Geneva Convention and emphasizing the political aspects of struggle, the Zapatistas have distinguished themselves from most of the states and governments of the world, including those of the west, as well as other private or political groups that target civilians.
Since the Bush Administration declared â€˜war on terrorismâ€™ without geographical or temporal limit, those who are against terrorism would do well to listen to the Zapatistas, who have seen terrorism deployed against them without responding in kind.
Indeed, just after 9/11, 2001, journalist Adofo Gilly described the â€˜warningâ€™ leveled by the Zapatistas: â€œSeven years ago, in the Mexican south, the zapatista rebellion leveled a warning. They have not wanted to listen to it, they closed paths off to them, they mocked their ability to make politics and their will to preserve rights, peace, life. More than once Marcos told them that, after and beyond them, would come those from society’s cellar, the faceless and nameless storm of the humiliated, the affronted, those who have always been treated like dirt by governments and officials, by the rich and the masters.â€ (5)
Taking the Zapatista example seriously gives us a chance to, in Gillyâ€™s words, â€œtake care of the country, and keep at a respectful and reasonable distance those who – whether from power or terror – want to replace reason with fury and justice with revenge.â€
Justin Podur is a frequent writer and translator on Latin American issues.
(1) Gloria Munoz Ramirezâ€™s fine book, â€˜20 & 10, Fuego y Palabraâ€, commemorates this event wonderfully (in spanish) with journalism, history, photos, and aspects of the rebellion that have never before come to light. (2) The interview is archived at http://www.zmag.org/chiapas1/procint.htm (3) The summary for 2003 is here, see amnesty.org for reports to 1997. http://web.amnesty.org/report2003/mex-summary-eng (4) See the EZLN communiques on the subject at ZNetâ€™s Chiapas Watch (www.zmag.org/chiapas1/) and my â€˜From Aguascalientes to Caracolesâ€™ for more on this reorganization http://www.zmag.org/sustainers/content/2003-09/12podur.cfm (5) Adolfo Gilly, â€˜Faceless Enemiesâ€™, La Jornada September 13, 2002: archived at http://www.zmag.org/chiapas1/faceless.htm