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Brief Historical Background to the Zapatista Movement

CroppedBANNER_trebuss_zapatistabackground_005Caitlin Hamilton
Chiapas mapMap from George A. Collier, Basta! Land and the Zapatista Rebellion in Chiapas, 1999

The term “Zapatistas” broadly refers to the group of people participating in the anti-globalization struggle for democracy and land reform in Chiapas, Mexico, organized around the EZLN (Zapatista National Liberation Front). With the goal of disrupting the state and creating a space for the “democratization of democracy,” the EZLN guerrilla forces, in cooperation with indigenous peoples, incited a rebellion in San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas on January 1, 1994 (Carvey, 1998). Though the signing of NAFTA is generally agreed to be the most direct catalyst for the rebellion, additional significant factors include “a combination of ecological crisis, lack of available productive land, the drying up of nonagricultural sources of income, the political and religious reorganization of indigenous communities since the 1960s, and the re-articulation of ethnic identities with emancipatory political discourses” (Harvey, 1998).

Subcomandante Marcos, the most prominent and frequently identified member of the EZLN leadership, described the Zapatista cause in the following declaration:

We, the men and women of the EZLN, full and free are conscious that the war that we have declared is a last resort, but also a just one. The dictators have been applying an undeclared genocidal war against our people for many years. Therefore we ask for your participation in and support of this plan that struggles for work, land housing, food, healthcare, education, independence, freedom, democracy, justice, and peace. We declare that we will not stop fighting until the basic demands of our people have been met by forming a government of our country that is free and democratic.
—First Declaration from the Lancandon Jungle

Additional Quotations that Illuminate Significant Facets of the Zapatista Movement

[We call for the formation of] a political force that does not aim to take power, a force that is not a political party….A political force that can organize the demands and proposals of the citizens so that those who govern, govern by obeying.
—EZLN, Fourth Declaration of the Lacandon Forest, Chiapas, January
1996

So what we have here is a drawing of a pocket of resistance. But don't attach too much importance to it. The possible shapes are as numerous as the forms of resistance themselves, as numerous as all the worlds existing in this world. So draw whatever shape you like. In this matter of pockets, as in that of resistance, diversity is wealth.—Subcomandante Marcos, “The Fourth World War Has Begun,” Chiapas, 1997


"The voices of indigenous people in Mexico have been either passively ignored or brutally silenced for most of the last five hundred years. Indigenous lands and resources have been repeatedly stolen and the people themselves exploited under some of the worst labor conditions in Mexico. The official policies of the Mexican state have been largely oriented toward assimilation, with only lip service given to the value of the country's diverse ethnic, cultural and linguistic heritage.”
—Harry M. Carvey Jr., “The Zapatista Effect”, 1998