Review: Subcommander Marcos

The Zapatistas are widely credited with launching the anti-globalization movement on New Year's day 1994, the first day the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) came into effect. What is less known is that in doing so the Zapatistas created a new model that has made taking up arms compatible with simultaneously taking up the cause of grassroots democracy, a paradoxical phenomenon vividly illustrated by Nick Henck in his fascinating book Subcommander Marcos: The Man and the Mask. 

Although a biography, Henck's focus is informed by his passion to understand Zapatismo from the perspective of the man who has become a charismatic icon of the rebellion. Subcommander Marcos makes a convincing case that Zapatismo transformed not only the global movement challenging "neo-liberalism" and globalization, but also how the movement was organized. 

Despite preparing for guerrilla warfare in the jungles and countryside for 10 years, after a mere 12 days of conflict in 1994, the Zapatistas transformed themselves from an "army of liberation" into a facilitator of mass mobilization of what they call "civil society." That they were eventually successful in achieving significant progress towards three major objectives in less than a decade has remained the backstory to coverage about Marcos. The Zapatista uprising put indigenous issues center-stage with the Mexican media and public for the first time, with an indigenous rights bill debated in both chambers of the Mexican Congress. This debate led to the passage of a watered down version of the San Andres Accords between the Zapatistas, its civil society allies, and the government as a constitutional amendment. Although it is impressive that the government would amend the constitution in response to the Zapatista movement, the amendment has not lived up to claims that it expanded the rights of Mexico's indigenous peoples. More lastingly, the Zapatistas were one of the primary forces that contributed to the end of the PRI's (the Institutional Revolutionary Party or Partido Revoluci- onario Institucional's) seven decades of one-party rule. 

After a few years of being ignored in the jungles, the handful of FLN (Forces of National Liberation) members who composed the cell in Chiapas found the locals were sympathetic to calls to pick up arms in self-defense against the theft of their lands by death squads. But the indigenous only really responded to their calls to organize and arm themselves when Marcos and his compatriots realized that "in order to survive we had to translate ourselves using a different code…this language con- structed itself from the bottom upwards." 

This was no rhetorical exercise, but took on tangible dimensions for those who joined, especially among women. As Henck details, once local young indigenous women discovered that joining the Zapatistas protected them from being raped and forced into marriage, they began to join in droves. As the Zapatistas gained allies in assorted villages, those allies used their family relationships and status to solicit recruits. After years of futile effort the number of recruits exploded from only a few dozen members to thousands in just a few months, when the group finally surrendered to the needs of the local communities and "decided it would be better to do what they said." 

Whether this sudden change in fortunes for the EZLN was catalyzed by Marcos's innate skill of organizing or something that was thrust upon him from below is less important than Marcos's flexibility in recognizing the need to break with his model of insurgent politics. Eventually, the EZLN broke off from the increasingly irrelevant and inactive FLN. 

The shift from a military to political strategy resulted in a shift in Marcos. Henck explains, "Marcos abandoned his own personal dreams of becoming a revolutionary guerrilla hero and, reacting to the general public's response to the uprising, began to explore an alternative role for both himself and the movement. He and the EZLN had been gearing themselves for a decade toward a predominantly military role. Now, almost overnight, they opted instead for a predominantly political one. Few politicians and military men have abandoned so rapidly a course of action pursued so intensely, for so long, at such a high personal cost to adapt, revise, and reject their strategies when faced with the dawning realization that they were obsolete." 

Henck's book is a case study of the emergence and evolution of a new political model in which a marginalized top down political organization is reformulated by those it aspires to lead to being led by them. 

Self-organized, de-centralized, bottom up, and horizontally organized movements, networks, affinity groups, and campaigns have achieved a new level of legitimacy and power since the emergence of Zapatismo. These models are exemplified by the higher profile anti-WTO/ IMF/World Bank and environmental justice movements, the growth of the World Social Forum—and, less obviously, the indie music, microcinema, and freecycling movements—to name just a few. We have Zapatismo to thank for the re-emergence of what some now call "horizontalism."  

Subcommander Marcos convincingly demonstrates that Zapatismo has created a new model in which taking up arms may no longer be incompatible with simultaneously taking up the cause of autonomy and democracy. 


Robert Ovetz is an adjunct instructor of political science at College of Marin and of sociology at Cañada College in California.