Mexican journalist Luis Hernández Navarro reflects on the enormous significance of the Zapatista movement, on the 20th anniversary of the uprising.
Zapatistas: twenty years after
In the Mexican elites similar winds are blowing to those which blew 20 years ago. Much like Enrique Peña Nieto today, at that time Carlos Salinas de Gortari felt invincible. His project to reform Mexico in an authoritarian and vertical manner was advancing without major obstacles, and was being advertised as overcoming myths and historical atavism. He had already laid the foundations of a trans-sexennial power. His approval ratings in public opinion were skyrocketing.
The reforms to Article 27 of the Constitution, which privatized the ejido (commons) and opened the way to the land concentration in the countryside, were approved without major mishaps. The same happened with the amendment to Article 130, which granted political rights to the clergy. At the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) an age of abundance, progress and prosperity was announced.
Salinismo believed itself to be eternal. There could be no other reforms than theirs. They were faced with no opposition able to withstand their onslaught. The Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) had overwhelmingly lost in the midterm elections of 1991, and more than 300 of its militants had been assassinated. In the political rubbish dumps they discussed matters such as renaming the country, arguing that the international financial institutions identified it as Mexico, and NAFTA was signed with this name.
The emergence of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) in January 1994 overturned that picture dramatically. It derailed the trans-sexennial project of Salinas, dynamited the authoritarian presidency, put the indigenous question in the centre of the public agenda, unmasked as a sham the government project to combat poverty, opened spaces for the expansion of a wide variety of political and civic forces which had been blocked politically, forced the citizenisation of the Federal Electoral Institute (IFE), laid the foundations for the political reform of 1996, ended the reign of the two hegemonic political-cultural blocs and oxygenated public debate on the country's fate.
The Zapatista uprising won, in a very short time time, a huge social legitimacy, which was politically and legally recognized, first in the Dialogues of the Cathedral, and then in the Law for Dialogue, Reconciliation and a dignified Peace in Chiapas. That commitment to their cause was not unrelated to the devastating effects of the “modernizing” reforms of Salinismo among broad sectors of the population. Many victims saw the insurgents as their avengers. The rebels justified the armed uprising, in part, by the counter-reform to article 27 of the constitution and the signing of NAFTA.
The emergence of the Zapatistas did not stop the cycle of neoliberal reforms, but its promoters were forced to delay them. While it made evident a crisis of political representation in which society does not fit into the regime, and it was a real factor in pushing political change, it did not have sufficient strength to limit the 'partidocracy’. Nor could it occupy a permanent place at the national political table.
This was palpable on at least three separate occasions. First, in 1996, with the government's failure to fulfil the San Andrés accords, and the signing of the Barcelona accords, by which a new political reform was agreed which led to a real sharing of power between the three main parties. This negotiation reinforced the party monopoly of political representation; left many of the political and social forces not identified with these parties outside the institutional spaces; and preserved almost intact the power of the leaders of corporate mass organizations.
Secondly, in 2001, in what is the forerunner of the current Pact for Mexico, the PRI, PAN and PRD united in the Senate to vote for a caricature of indigenous reform that made the San Andres Accords a dead letter, putting an end to the possibility that the EZLN and its allies could be inserted into national political life in another way.
And thirdly, from mid-2005 and throughout 2006 the Zapatistas promoted, through the Other Campaign, a nonpartisan, non-electoral political initiative, which put popular participation at its heart by promoting, from below and to the left, a process of anti-capitalist political change. The project was blocked by the governmental repression of the people of San Salvador Atenco and the incomprehension of the institutional left.
In spite of these blocks, the EZLN continues to be a strong force for transformation and an indisputable reference for a wide archipelago of social organizations in the country. Without asking permission, the rebels govern themselves, exercise justice, are responsible for the health and education of their people, and exercise the right to self-defence. Only a year ago, on December 21, 2012, they showed their strength by mobilising, in silence, 40,000 support bases in an orderly and disciplined manner. In August, 2000 supporters from almost every part of the Republic attended the Zapatista school, a tremendous learning experience. At the end of the event, hundreds of representatives of indigenous peoples from throughout the country made, together with the rebel commanders, the Juan Chavez seminar into a central moment in the reconstruction of the Indigenous National Congress.
20 years after its public eruption, the Zapatista movement continues to be a new form of politics endowed with an enormous strength. What is profoundly original about this strength, wrote the essayist Thomas Segovia, is that, even though it is an armed rebellion, it continues to faithfully bear the features of a social protest and not a political revolution. This protest has challenged the legitimacy of power. It has avoided becoming a political party and getting caught in the networks of institutional politics.
The Zapatista rebellion vindicated itself from popular sovereignty, and does not recognize intermediaries for its exercise. It is a genuine expression of a society that reflects on itself and on its destiny, which makes its own rules and, by doing so, institutes itself.