New Year’s Day 2014 marks the 20th anniversary of one of the last significant uprisings of the 20th century. The Zapatista rebellion of 1994 was the first revolt of the post-Soviet era, the first uprising to be announced via the then-novel medium of the internet and the first indication that Western-style neoliberalism wasn’t going to have it all its own way in the recently announced ‘New World Order’.
The Zapatista army, the EZLN, quickly took San Cristobal, the largest town in the southern state of Chiapas. After 12 days, a ceasefire was agreed and the Zapatistas slunk back to their jungle stronghold. But a point had been made.
The Zapatistas quickly became a cause célèbre of what would go on to become known as the anti-globalisation movement. And, of course, in this it helped that their black ski masks were an easy brand identifier and in Subcomandante Marcos they had an eloquent figurehead ever-ready with an poetic quip.
Their cause differed from previous leftist guerrillas. The Zapatistas did not just want autonomy for their own communities, but a global transformation. Drawing on Marxism, anarchism and indigenous philosophies, Zapatismo was (and remains) an esoteric mix perfect for a supposedly non-ideological era. There was also the irony of a movement with a standing army taking an almost pacifist approach. The EZLN has not fired one bullet since that 12 January ceasefire 20 years ago.
In the UK, I came to be involved in Zapatista solidarity around the turn of the millennium. Back then they were hot news - the ‘Zapatour’ of 2001, which saw the movement’s leaders march from Chiapas to Mexico City, made headlines around the world. There were rumours Oliver Stone was making a movie about them.
Realising they were on the back foot, the Mexican government switched tactics around 2001. If the Zapatistas couldn’t be crushed by force, a combination of bribery and targeted violence by paramilitaries could slowly grind them down.
The EZLN also adapted. In 2006, they launched what was known as the ‘Other’ campaign, an attempt to create links with other groups – trade unions, intellectuals, factory workers and students both inside and outside Mexico. It began as a mammoth listening project that toured the country but rather ran aground after the events of Atenco in May 2006, when violence between police and protesters ended in two fatalities and the arrest of over 200 adherents to the Other campaign.
For the next few years little was heard (officially) from the Zapatistas, aside from their consistently nonviolent response to the paramilitaries’ attacks on their communities. Then, on 21 December 2012 (the end of the Mayan ‘long count’), they re-emerged, 50,000 marching silently through the streets of San Cristobal and other towns in Chiapas. Their enigma is not to be underestimated.
From the start, both adversaries and supporters have been continually wrong-footed by the Zapatistas. Over the course of 20 years, it has become clear they are playing a long game. After all, the grievances date back over 500 years to the days of Columbus, and the global transformation – the changes in economics, in all our own mindsets – that they hope to bring about will take generations to realise. So we shouldn’t worry that it hasn’t happened yet. These things take time.
And just the fact they are still here is a huge achievement in itself.
The mainstream media and large parts of the activist community may have moved on, but the communities are as resolute as they have ever been to preserve the autonomy they won two decades ago.
In Chiapas, the revolution happened, it’s still unfolding and the quiet determination of the Zapatistas remains undimmed, a beacon to rally to wherever we are in the world.