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For some, Zapatista "leader" Marcos already has the same iconic status as Che. But in a few years time will commercial companies also be selling Marcos T-shirts, using and reducing him to yet another commodity: making the transition from cultured revolutionary to object in mainstream popular culture? And is he, and indeed Zapatismo, inspiring a culture of resistance, or cultural resistance? We asked Gustavo Esteva what he thinks.

Desperately seeking Marcos

Some people still reduce Zapatismo to Marcos. Pure racism.
An educated white man was surely manipulating those poor, illiterate Mayas. They cannot say what he is saying and even less conceive such a movement... Unabated racism.

But what about the crowds? A year ago, subcomandante Marcos and 25 Zapatista commanders travelled to Mexico City. For the first time, millions were able to see and hear them. Time and again the crowds did not allow the other Zapatistas to speak. Marcos! Marcos! They were saying. Nobody else. They came to listen to him. Were they also racists?

A modern legend?

In a plaza, a new legend started. For two years not a drop of water had fallen in the region. The very minute Marcos started his speech a torrential rain began. “Of course,” said an old woman; “This man is turning our political system upside down; why shouldn't he command the rain?” Was she a racist? Or just an innocent searcher looking for hope incarnated in a charismatic leader?

And what about the millions collecting the Zapatista communique's penned by him, his stories, his interviews, his letters...What about the editors publishing with impressive love and care his “selected writings”... The book, with a forewordby Saramago, celebrates him as one of the best Latin American writers of all times. Norman Mailer wrote: “Marcos has earned his indignation like few men alive”... Is Marcos the romantic revolutionary a living substitute for Che? Are these admirers racists as well?

Should we think, alternatively, that the “system” performed its usual operation and did not wait 30 years to sell Marcos T-shirts? (Benetton offered him a million dollars to include his face in its collection.) Or should we accept the view that he really is the timely saviour the world was waiting for; an icon that globaphobics can now use to express their dissent; the new flag for rebellion in these desperate times? Is he really an extra-ordinary leader, as wise as he is heroic, awakening us out of confusion and conformism, and thus deserving trust and subordination?

Transformed into an icon

No doubt, the person behind the mask is extra-ordinary. Who can deny his literary talent? Even the very anti-Zapatista Nobel Prize winner Octavio Paz recognised it. No one can question his political savvy. Loved and hated by many people, Marcos remains a mystery and a paradox, a puzzle. Does he really fit into the image of a new romantic and revolutionary archetype? He has charisma. He may enchant both the crowds and his readers. But, is he really a leader, romantic or not? And even more pertinent to the point, is he the very core of Zapatismo, as Mao was for Maoism and Che for Guevarism? Is this specific poet-writer-strategist-revolutionary-icon, what many of his followers/readers seem to assume he is?

During the trip to Mexico City Marcos experienced for the first time his mesmerising impact on the crowds 1. He candidly declared afterwards that the Zapatistas did not foresee this problem. Marcos became their spokesperson by accident, at the beginning of the uprising. Observing his effectiveness, they used him extensively in that role. The mask, used among other things to avoid personality cult, could not prevent it in his case. His transformation into an iconic image took them by surprise. I do not want to minimise that role. It has been critical to overcome one of the main challenges for the Zapatistas. Fully rooted in their own culture, they were keenly aware that their radical otherness was an obstacle to convey to others the spirit and meaning of their movement, without betraying their unique view of the world. How to avoid misinterpretation? How to be truthful without colonising others with their brand of truth? How to share an attitude whose “global” scope derived from its deep rootedness in Chiapas?

Ancient culture, new politics

Few Zapatistas are proficient in Spanish; none, but Marcos, masters it. But the challenge for effective communication was not only a question of language. It was associated with the very conception and orientation of the movement, whose radical novelty comes from both its ancient cultural roots and its contemporary innovations. Their views seemed impenetrable for people of other cultures. Their political stance, strictly contemporary, was conceived outside the modern political spectrum. It had no clear precedents. There were no words to talk about it. This challenge was evident since the uprising started. They needed to draw a line to differentiate themselves from other armed movements in Latin America, then arco-guerrillas, and the peasant rebellions. Through very effective images, using both ordinary language and the epic tone of some predecessors, they appealed to people's imagination. Many analysts took the document with which they introduced themselves for a delirious and politically insane declaration. Instead, the people received it as a sign of hope, inspiring and awaking them. In a matter of hours the Zapatistas established themselves in a new domain, outside the spectrum of classifications that scholars, analysts, and reactionaries would try to pigeon hole them in.

We are the sea

A guerrilla, said Che, is a fish that swims in the sea of the people. The revolutionaries do not ask people's permission for the struggle they start. Once in power, they use it to control the people in the name of their revolution. As many other political classes within a nation state, they use the constituted powers as a structure of domination, marginalising and controlling the constituent forces which constitute them through armed struggle or “democratic” elections. We are not the fish, but the sea, say the Zapatistas in contrast. They declared war on the Mexican government after public assemblies in hundreds of communities. The people themselves forged and sustain the Zapatista Army, subordinating it to a civil command under communal control.

As a matter of principle the Zapatistas have no interest in seizing “power”. They question the very nature of “power” that the modern nation state enforces.

They also discard the idea of having power positions for themselves in the current or a new regime. “True,” they say,”we were ready to die. But we were also ready to kill. No person ready to kill should be in public office.”

The Zapatistas do not consider themselves revolutionaries. They are rebels, awakening “civil society”. If the people want a revolution, it should be conceived and implemented by them. They root their rebellion in the dignity of their !Basta! - Enough! - to colonialism, neo-colonialism, development, globalisation and what circulates as “democracy” or “freedom”.

Intercultural dialogue

Zapatismo was born in 1984 when 12 would-be guerrilleros confronted the indigenous communities with their ideology and strategic plans. They were shunned. Instead of retreating or being killed, like Che, they learned to listen. By listening to each other, they created something radically new, Zapatismo. Ten years later, well trained in this intercultural dialogue, the Zapatistas and Marcos himself discovered his function as a cultural bridge to open a dialogue with civil society and spread the contagion of dignity and hope. Instead of a cold, abstract ideology frozen in seductive slogans, Marcos used images, stories, metaphors, poetry, and characters like Durito or old Antonio. He was not selling a political or ideological code “to plug everyone into”. In this way his masked voice was able to be “the voice of many voices”.

Marcos himself explained “the futility for scientists and the police of speculating over who is behind the criminal nose and the ski mask” 2. Zapatistas show themselves by hiding and hide by showing themselves. They are “the face that hides itself to be seen, the name that hides itself to be named”. It is futile to look both for the individual “author” of plans and conceptions, or for the “real” individual self behind the nosed ski mask. Marcos, born on 1 January 1994, will soon vanish. It will be no longer needed. And it will not, like Cid or Che, win battles after death; it will not be used as a credential legitimising power.

Cultural !Basta!

Today, the Zapatistas are a source of inspiration - not of guidance. Zapatismo buries all isms. They do not ask for affiliation from the people - to a church, a party, an ideology, a political strategy or plan. They inspire dignity, courage and self respect. They nourish with their moral strength and political imagination nonviolent movements against neoliberalism and globalisation3. Their cultural !Basta! opened a new path, which challenges the forces violently practising universal culturicide, in order to standardise and enforce the kingdom of homo economicus. For centuries the indigenous people entrenched themselves in their communities, resisting colonisers and developers. Such cultural resistance often became localist, even fundamentalist. The Zapatistas learned the hard way that all localisms will be razed to the ground in the era of globalisation; that cultural resistance is no longer enough. In transforming their resistance into a struggle for liberation, they also resisted the liberal, secular temptation of “liberating” themselves from their culture by adopting some “universal” values or ideologies.

Well affirmed in their own communities and culture, they are also open to wide coalitions of the dissenters. Their localisation is thus radically different to both globalisation and localism. It invites those still searching for a change within the framework of One World, in the name of any Cross or Sword, to create a whole new world, a world in which many worlds can be embraced. It is an invitation to go beyond mere cultural resistance, into an epic of transformation making room for many cultures. It is an invitation not an indoctrination.

We are all Marcos

Both the system and some dissenters use Marcos. Through their criminalisation or idealisation of the “individual” behind the mask, they dissipate precisely what they try to take hold of. They are thus unable to see with new eyes the Zapatistas radical stance. Many others, however, derive continual inspiration from their movement. They do not need to desperately seek Marcos and idolise him. They know that we are all Marcos, in our own way and place, with our own face and dignity, in our own struggle. As the participants in the Zapatista Encuentro declared, “the rebels search each other out. They walk towards one another... (They) begin to recognise themselves...(and) continue on their fatiguing walk, walking as it is now necessary to walk, that is to say, struggling...” 4.

Notes: 1 Such impact is in fact mysterious. He speaks in a very low voice, mocking himself all the time, always ending in an anticlimactic way. The opposite of any leader or demagogue. In person, it becomes very evident how much he abhors a power position.
2In Subcomandante insurgente Marcos, Our word is our weapon - Selected writings (Seven Stories Press, 2001, 249pp) he alludes to a letter addressed to A Gilly, published in A Gilly, Subcomandante Marcos, C Ginzburg, Discusion sobre la historia (Taurus, 1995).
3I cannot elaborate here on the evident paradox of an army as a champion for nonviolence, challenging all forms of violence and coercion and peacefully resisting 50,000 troops surrounding them and all kinds of armed provocation. See among many other sources my article in PN 2439 and the website: http://ezln.org/
4Second Declaration of La Realidad, in Zapatista Encuentro: Documents from the 1996 Encounter for Humanity and Against Neoliberalism (Seven Stories Press, 1998).
Gustavo Esteva is a grassroots activist and deprofessionalised intellectual; he is a former advisor to the Zapatistas.