Lessons of the Chiapas Uprising

Against the Current, No. 60, January/February 1996

James Petras and Steve Vieux

THE ZAPATISTA UPRISING in Chiapas has generated hundreds of articles and dozens of books. The lines of argument about the origins and nature of the struggle focus on several themes: According to some it is a revolt by poverty-stricken Indians; for others it is part of the new social movements, distinct from the older class-based movements linked to ideologies. One writer has labeled it a post-modern rebellion.(1)

These interpretations emphasize the novelty, culture-bound and non-ideological nature of the uprising as a means of giving credence to its authenticity, legitimacy and public appeal.

The Mexican government and its intellectual supporters, on the other hand, argue that while many of the Indian demands are worth discussing, revolutionary outsiders manipulated the local population, exploiting its grievances to further their own political ends.(2)

Thus the debate is polarized between the left, which emphasizes the “indigenous” origins of the revolt, and the right, which counters with the notion of “external subversion” as central to the revolutionary undertaking. In both readings, the legitimacy of the struggle is linked to its “authenticity,” which is associated with particular racial/regional origins.

This is unfortunate, since the legitimacy of the struggle has to do not only with the conditions that gave rise to the discontent, but with the nature of the organizations, program and leadership involved in the struggle against those conditions. And in these areas the issue of “internal” versus “external” forces is much more complex than a dichotomous view would allow.

In brief, the fact that organized revolutionaries played an active role in the formation, organization and programmatic struggle in Chiapas does not in any way minimize the authenticity or legitimacy of the revolution. Revolutionaries–many of them ethnic and geographic outsiders–helped focus national debate and contributed to negotiations with the state.

What is new and authentic is the dialectical interplay between, on the one hand, the local traditions of solidarity within the communities and local authorities committed to their people, and on the other hand Marxist revolutionaries committed to building a revolutionary movement, with a vision of an alternative society, with both sides capable of learning and adapting to practical experience.

The prolonged process of building the Zapatista movement was based on the reciprocal relations between leftist intellectuals, learning the norms and accepting the autonomy of the Indian communities, and community leaders attracted and recruited to the prospects of political struggle based on participatory democracy.

Conditions for Organizing

The Indian communities had a history of relations with leftist political activists, particularly peasant organizers prior to the Zapatistas.(3) The decision to build the Zapatista movement–a peasant army linked to the organized community–did not occur in a political vacuum, nor did it merely link up with traditional Indian-peasant structures.

As one Zapatista community leader stated, “Prior to the 1980s we were in the ARIC Independiente. In 1987 the Zapatistas began recruiting people. It covered the whole community and everyone was recruited.”(4)

The necessary condition for successful organization was precisely the combination of prior organization and the predisposition to struggle of Indian communities, linked to leftist urban organizers respectful of local leaders, and structures that facilitated the “recruitment” of whole communities.

To this day the relations of active solidarity and overlapping membership between guerrillas and peasant communities endure. As one community leader noted: “Here in the community, we make our own rules and our own laws. Here there are no representatives from the government.”

Contrary to the conventional notions of the Zapatista uprising as either a purely indigenous uprising of hungry Indians or a conspiracy of urban Marxists, this uprising was a product of the synergy of local activist Indian communities and urban intellectuals, each contributing organizational, programmatic and leadership qualities.

Each complemented the other: The Indian communities taught the urban intellectuals specificities of the conditions and needs of the local communities, while the intellectuals brought international, national, strategic and military-political understanding.

What made the Zapatista uprising appear novel was its timing. Without minimizing its specificities or the relevance of race/class in defining the originality of the movement, the process of linking local peasant movements with urban activists follows a common revolutionary pattern. But this rebellion occurred during a period of worldwide leftist retreat and, in particular, at a moment when other former Central American guerilla movements were entering into political deals with the neoliberals in power.

By emphasizing the coincidence of the Zapatista movement with other revolutionary experiences, we want to argue that there is a continuity with previous Marxist-influenced revolutionary processes; secondly, that Marxist practices and theories of action have continued relevance, that Zapatismo could not be assimilated to any post-modern conception of politics.

In sum the Zapatista movement combined innovation and tradition: It was not born from nothing, nor did it simply recycle formulas from the past. The highly political–more specifically, anti-imperialist–nature of the movement was clear in the timing of the uprising. As one Zapatista leader put it: “With NAFTA nobody except the rich is going to benefit. We understood this and we rose up.”

The tight structure of the local community, its norms and close personal relations, were instrumental in facilitating the strategic goals outlined by the guerilla leadership. This is very clear with regard to the security measures adopted during the prolonged periods of political organization.

As a Zapatista leader put it: “Everyone was obliged to refrain from drinking. During the whole ten-year period of clandestine organization it was important to avoid alcohol, above all for security reasons, because when one drinks he tells all.”

The surprise element and the capacity of the Zapatista movement to avoid state repression is rooted in the powerful internal linkages that facilitated long-term, large-scale organizing. The movement was built by political education and through direct action that resolved the immediate problems of the communities. An example was occupations to provide peasants with land: While describing the building of the clandestine movement, the Zapatista leader also pointed out that “we threw out the landowners and occupied their land.”

The social bonds, self-confidence and discipline accumulated for strategic goals also served to solve immediate problems. Moreover, the small victories built the larger movement–infusing the members of the community with the idea that they were capable of winning in struggle and changing the society.

Community and Leaders

The relation between the communities and the guerilla leadership is not completely unproblematic. There are differences and tensions, differences in tactical appreciation and socio-economic needs.

For example, the February 7, 1994 government invasion and occupation of the Zapatista communities led to the destruction of the basic food supply. Under severe duress some of the leaders of these communities decided to enter into negotiations with the government to secure economic assistance, thus setting up a parallel structure to the guerilla/government negotiations. This led other Zapatista community leaders and of course the guerilla leadership to denounce them as “traitors.”

A second example of the tactical differences was in the same context of the government invasion in February. The government, feigning “good will” in entering negotiations, suddenly launched a massive military offensive to cut off the guerilla movement from its social/ political base of support in the Indian communities.

Upon hearing of the military approach, the peasant militias were prepared to resist. The guerilla leaders counseled tactical retreat: “The (government) deceived us. We were negotiating and all of a sudden, the army enters. Sixty thousand. The people wanted to confront them. The compañeros asked, why did they (the guerrillas) let them enter? But the commandantes said we should not fight, that civil society doesn’t want a war and that we didn’t have to die.”

For the peasant militia the issue of warfare was based on a moral distinction between “good faith movements” and “bad faith governments.” The question of another instance of broken promises, dishonorable behavior and deception was foremost in the militia fighters’ eyes.

For the guerrillas, political and strategic military considerations were paramount: the reaction of civil society, the correlation of political-military forces at the national level, the accumulation of political support. Ultimately the authority, if not the arguments, of the commandantes was decisive; the peasant communities withdrew to the mountains, letting the military occupy their villages.

The spontaneous response of the peasant militias contrasts with the political calculations of the guerilla leaders. Yet ultimately mutual trust and confidence led to what was essentially the correct decision, to withdraw in the face of overwhelming force to fight another day.

In one sense the resolution of differences could be taken as an example of community decisions being overridden by guerrilla leaders. Most likely, however, the decision was the product of democratic discussion and mutual agreement that the retreat was realistic and in the best interests of the community.

Community Decision Making

Just as there are dramatic debates between militia leaders and commandantes, so within the communities there are debates and discussion on policy issues. The transformations in the communities wrought by their politicization is manifested in the dramatic changes in gender relations and community decision making.

For example, after the decision was taken to withdraw rather than resist the army invasion, a second issue arose: whether the women would also join the retreat or remain in the village. In the initial vote the men decided that they would withdraw and the women remain. The women rejected that proposal and successfully changed the vote.

One community leader described the process in the following fashion: “We met in a general assembly and decided that we, the men, would go to the mountains. But the women insisted that they would also go and so we all left. We were hidden in the mountains from February 10 to March 2.”

The voice and vote of the women was decisive in changing the nature of the retreat and, more importantly, reflects the respect and consciousness among the militia men that they need to consult with women on questions of survival and warfare. The change in gender relations is clearly manifest in the community response to the incorporation of women into the guerrilla army and their acceptance of sexual equality in the mountains:

“There were many young girls who went to the mountains. The community looked upon it favorably, because they were struggling for all of us. In the mountains they give the women contraceptives and if they wish to marry and she gives her consent, they get married in the mountains. There they participate in everything like the men,
some even command troops.”

The traditional assemblies, characteristic of the democratic practices of the local communities, incorporate the modern proposals for gender equality from the urban activists, in a case of the complementary reinforcement of democratic decision-making.

Counter-Insurgency Against Solidarity

The government assertion that outside extremists were manipulating local communities and exploiting grievances was contradicted by its counter-insurgency strategy, which was premised on the assumption that there were profound strategic links among the communities based on family, class and ethnic ties.

The army invasion of last February was designed to undermine both the economic ties between the communities and guerrillas, and the guerrillas’ political-military support of the communities’ efforts to recover land from the large landowners. The military’s principal assignment was to destroy the communities’ food supply, crops and farm implements.

By starving the communities, the government sought to create Indian peasant dependence on state charity, as well as isolation from the guerrillas. With imminent hunger hanging over the villages, the government hoped to divide their communities, drawing them into parallel negotiations and thus undermining the guerrillas.

One community leader described the process as follows:

“The army took everything that we had: It destroyed the potable water pipes, electricity, cattle, food. They destroyed or took everything. Now they try to buy off the leaders. But here in this community those officials who want to buy off peasants cannot enter. If they come in we take them to the mountains so that they know what it’s like.

“We are the base of support for the guerrillas. We fed them all. Afterward a great deal of aid arrived and we could rest a bit. Now the conditions are very bad. The Army took everything and we can’t plant because we don’t have seeds; we can’t sell or buy what we need either. The blow (the invasion) that the Army gave us is going
to cost us two years to recover from. The men are in the war and that’s delaying the harvest.”

It is clear, however, that the government’s repressive policy–directed precisely at creating conflict and competition for scarce resources among families, communities and the guerrillas–has had only limited success. Class, ethnic and community solidarity severely limits the co-optive strategy; guerilla-community ties persist despite the army’s cutting of the food supply.

The use of force by the state reveals another of the basic changes resulting from the consolidation of the Zapatista movement: the end of landowner hegemony. The landowners, by themselves and depending on local resources, can no longer control the region–they can survive only so long as the military is permanently guarding their property.

When the military withdraws from a farm, the landlords remove any mobile assets and leave. Zapatista peasants quickly reoccupy the terrain. As one peasant leader noted: “With the army invasion came the big landowners (finqueros) and they carried off the cattle they could not take before.”

It is interesting to note that the army was not disposed to stand permanent guard for the landowners, despite the regime’s hostility to the Zapatista movement.

Novelty of the Zapatista Movement

The Zapatista movement is essentially a guerrilla movement dependent on the peasant communities. It has no “civilian arm.” [Editors’ note: The Zapatista movement is, of course, noteworthy in the profound way it has engaged politically with the broad left and with social movements throughout Mexican society. That is a different issue than the authors are discussing here: the Zapatistas’ relationship with their own direct base.]

The commandantes must consult with the communities, who are adamant on one point: There can be no peace settlement without first solving the agrarian issues of land reform, credit, marketing, prices, etc. The issues of disarmament and democratization, or more inclusive electoral processes, depend first and foremost on meeting the peasant demands for land and justice.

Disarmament is not a condition of a negotiated settlement; rather, the settlement of basic socio-economic questions is a condition for elections and disarmament. As one peasant leader stated: “We are not going to surrender nor turn over our arms. According to the way the government behaves, we will negotiate or struggle. Here in the community we make our own rules and apply our own laws. Here there are no government regulations.”

In this relationship the Zapatista commandantes are fundamentally different from other former guerrilla leaderships in Central America, who traded off peasant agrarian issues for inclusion in the electoral process. The end result was the upward mobility of the ex-guerrillas in parliament, NGOs, city hall and other positions while the peasants were left in the same poor and landless condition.

Other Central American commandantes, in demoting the agrarian reform issue, argued that electoral “democracy” was a “basic” condition for securing agrarian reform. In practice the electoral process merely confirmed the right in power and in control of the land; agrarian reform disappeared as a central demand, replaced by the neoliberal agenda promoted by right-wing-dominated parliaments and presidencies.

In contrast, in Chiapas the organized communities insist on agrarian reform and new democratic rules, based on their own army being an integral part of negotiations. Self-government by community assemblies is the best antidote to the vertical rulership that helped enable other Central American leaderships to impose their electoral
political agenda above that of their peasant supporters.

In this sense Chiapas indeed represents a new type of politics with a new social-economic agenda.


  1. For the “post-modern” claim, with no argument, see Roger Burbach’s “Roots of the Postmodern Rebellion in Chiapas,” New Left Review 205, May-June 1994.
    back to text
  2. For the Mexican government line see the remarks of Gerardo Galarza, “En unos diaz el EZLN paso de ser…” Proceso 897, 10 January 1994.
    back to text
  3. See Guillermo Correa, Julio Cesar Lopez and Ignacio Ramirez, “La capacidad de organismos campesinos…” and Antonio Lopez, “De Torreon a la selva Chiapaneca,” both in Proceso 897, 10 January 1994.
    back to text
  4. Interviews conducted in Chiapas July 10-17, 1995.
    back to text

ATC 60, January-February 1996