The EZLN: Revolution in a Global Age

by Adam Gordon, ’02

The North American continent opened its borders to free trade in accordance with the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) on the morning of January 1, 1994. Although heralded by major industry, this new agreement further marginalized the indigenous and landless peasants of Mexico. These people could not have seemed any more peripheral to the new global economy; in the world of globalization the landless do not exist. Disregarded not only by their local and national governments but all the governments around the world, these landless peasants could not allow themselves to be destroyed by a system around them without putting up a fight. Although their actual origins are not completely known, on the morning that NAFTA was to begin to take effect the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) culminated years of preparation in the takeover of numerous cities throughout the southern Mexican state of Chiapas.

Composed of indigenous peoples from the many separate Mayan communities hidden away from the cities in the jungles of Chiapas, this new army had an unprecedented task before them. Labeled “the first postmodern revolution” by some, the Zapatistas’ goals were not of a localized or national revolution or to seize power, but rather a reawakening of global consciousness. Despite having to endure a history of oppression at the hands of the Mexican government, the Zapatistas acknowledged that their problem was part of a greater problem facing the world today, what they call neoliberalism and the further globalization of markets. Fighting in the name of all oppressed peoples, the EZLN began what would become a nonviolent revolution directed towards the local injustices against the indigenous peoples in Mexico and against the greater and newer problem of the injustices of globalization. As an unprecedented war against globalization, the Zapatistas would have to reinvent the ideas and principles of revolution to face a faceless menace. The Chiapas rebellion is important not only in the history of land reform in Mexico, but also as the first global rebellion in the new history of globalization.

In order to understand how such a movement began in such an isolated part of the world, one must first understand the role Chiapas plays within globalization, specifically the reasons for corporate interest in Chiapas. The land of the Lacondón jungle is wanted by cattle ranchers, oil companies, by paper producers, and by an array of industries wanting to exploit the extreme biodiversity as a means for future genetic engineering. The nature of exploiting biodiversity, referred to as biopiracy, is by far the most damaging and degrading force against the indigenous in Chiapas, but it is also the least understood threat. As defined by Global Exchange, “Biopiracy is the illegal appropriation of life – microorganisms, plants and animals (including humans) – and the traditional cultural knowledge that accompanies it… Biopiracy commonly operates through the application of Intellectual Property Rights (primarily patents) to genetic resources and traditional knowledge that accompanies it.”


The following market figures of annual net sales illustrate the profitability of biodiversity:

Food $2-3 trillion

Agroforestry $300-400 billion

Pharmaceutical $300 billion

Agrochemical $35 billion

Commercial seed $23 billion

Biotechnology $23 billion

Veterinary medicine $19 billion

Cosmetic $15 billion


The struggle of the indigenous peoples of Chiapas for the rights to their land goes back to the discovery of the New World. The indigenous people of Chiapas are of Mayan descent and, like other indigenous peoples of the Americas, have faced 500 years of oppression, beginning with Columbus and colonization by the Spaniards. They have been consistently denied of their right to the land they live and work on since as early as 1523 when the system of Ecomiendas set the basis for the exploitation of indigenous populations. The Mexican Revolution of 1910-1919 was a fight for the redistribution of land to those who work it. Led by General Zapata, from whom the Zapatistas take their name, the cornerstone of the revolution’s success was the addition of Article 27 to the Mexican constitution, which stated that Indian communal landholdings, known as ejidos, were protected from sale or privatization. Despite this success of the revolution such agrarian reform never made it to Chiapas. This is due partly to the fact that Chiapas was, until 1821, part of Guatemala and was not as easily infected with the fever of revolution, but mostly to the successful suppression of such land reform by the powerful white land elites in Chiapas. The current struggle of the Zapatistas is for the same land reform that has been desired for hundreds of years and for the autonomous governing of this land by the indigenous people who live on it.

Although the Zapatistas chose the implementation of NAFTA as the policy they would symbolically respond to, the entire process of neoliberalism as furthered by globalization is of great concern to them. Most of the fifteen million Mexicans who live in what the UN terms “extreme poverty” are predominantly concentrated within the country’s indigenous municipalities. Mexico has the largest indigenous population in Latin America. As a result of these conditions, with 1/3 of the states population made up of indigenous peoples, more people die in Chiapas than anywhere else in Mexico. This problem is not limited to the natives of Chiapas or the indigenous of Mexico, but rather is a growing problem for historically and newly oppressed peoples within neoliberal policies around the world. Today, economic successes and social failures are found side-by-side, and such polarization of the classes can be such used to help define the process of globalization. Around the world, 1.1 billion people are currently estimated to be malnourished. Most of these poor people live in rural areas with sufficient land to grow food but not the income to buy food. Many of these people live in countries that have food surpluses, but the farmers of these countries choose to export their crops to richer consumers elsewhere. These processes of globalization are economically beneficial to some, but completely ignore the existence of others.

The pressure on Mexico to liberalize its economy began during the debt negotiations of the 1980s. Mexico joined GATT in 1986, showing that the country was serious about opening up its borders, and NAFTA provided the complete implementation of neoliberal policies. In terms of Mexican land reform, Article 27 was deemed a barrier to investment and removed from the constitution in preparation for NAFTA. Although land reform was not ideal in Chiapas, the removal of Article 27 was a death sentence for all indigenous peoples. In addition, the Zapatistas expressed a deep concern for the people of any country implementing such neoliberal policies. Neoliberalism is defined as encompassing the following features: privatizing state-run companies, opening borders to capital and not people, raising taxes for people and not companies, and changing laws that had previously protected workers rights and other such rights. As only a single example of a very great problem, the structural adjustment of a country entering neoliberal policies calls for the systematic dismantling of public services, health, and education — when privatized, these are available only to those who can afford it. The Zapatistas oppose such practices because they devalue people and culture in favor of profits for corporations. They are fighting against the privatization of life. Although there are other movements with these claims, the Zapatistas through the EZLN are the only guerilla movement to further these positions in addition to the local rights of the indigenous.

On January 1, 1994, the Zapatistas laid their claim over the Chiapas state through a surprise takeover in the name of all disenfranchised, and, although armed, no violence occurred. As the Rebel Governor said, “They asked the global community what was asked of them and the global community asked for a nonviolent resolution.” This reaction was influenced by images of Bosnia, Rwanda, and Northern Ireland, and the idea that the violent civil wars in neighboring Central American countries have only brought misery and not social revolution. On January 12, 1994, through the Cathedral Dialogues a military ceasefire was called, but in actuality this only meant a withdrawal by the Zapatistas to the jungle, to be surrounded by the Mexican military. Since that agreement the Zapatistas have pursued dialogues and nonviolent resolution in favor of military action, although they have never given up their military wing, the EZLN.

Although part of an ongoing movement for indigenous rights, what separates the current Zapatista movement from other indigenous movements is its recognition of the problem of neoliberalism and the free trade policies of globalization as a force that is destroying humanity. Although the Zapatistas are fighting for the rights of the indigenous in Mexico, their movement is the first to question globalization, and they are reinventing revolution to acknowledge such practices that are dehumanizing our world.

The strategies of connecting their movement to the global community have included, “(1) inviting numerous people from many sectors of society (labor, students, indigenous organizations, teachers, artists) to Chiapas and to the Lacondón region for a series of meetings; (2) sending Zapatista delegates throughout Mexico; (3) conducting referenda at the national and international levels on what the future of the EZLN should be and, subsequently, on whether there was support for the 1996 San Andrés Accords on indigenous rights; (4) developing international networks of solidarity and support groups; (5) encouraging the publication of Zapatista communiqués and information on the Internet (a process facilitated by others).” In addition, the use of symbolism and imagery by the movement has helped foster global solidarity.

Currently, the Zapatista movement is facing the new threat of Plan Pueblo-Panama. This proposed plan was announced in early 2001 by President Vincente Fox and was immediately denounced by the EZLN. The plan provides infrastructure necessary for the continual expansion of global trans-oceanic trade by calling for an increase in oil and gas pipelines to the US, the flow of electricity to the US, the building of a major highway system, and, most importantly, the creation of up to five more canals similar to the Panama Canal between the areas of Pueblo and Panama. In addition to providing for the US, this plan would make Latin America a true border zone between Asia and Europe. However, the plan would also call for the displacement of many native communities, uncontrolled ecological devastation, and massive industrial development, which will undoubtedly damage the region’s culture and biodiversity. This would hurt not only Mexicans, but also US workers; only corporations gain. The government and the Zapatistas are currently both draining their energies over this planned project.

One of the major flaws with the Zapatista movement is that while trying to have an effect on the global community, they must still deal with local oppression. Specifically, this local oppression involves the Mexican government’s use of military and paramilitary forces. Although military forces have to abide by international human rights constraints and to the military ceasefire which was signed in 1994, the government-supported paramilitaries do not, and that is why they are more damaging to the movement. Paramilitaries are started by government officials who are able to convince villagers within indigenous communities that the Zapatistas are to blame for their poverty. If land were privatized, the villagers could sell their land to corporations for money, and so the government supplies arms to these people to kill Zapatistas and Zapatista supporters within their own communities. The government makes no attempt to prosecute paramilitary members for crimes they commit against the Zapatistas. One of the worst massacres at the hands of these paramilitaries was the massacre at Acteal on December 22, 1997, against the pacifist organization Las Abejas. Fifteen children, twenty-one women, and nine men were assassinated, twenty-five were injured, and a further 325 people were displaced. However, such massacres are not common because of the attention they bring. A murder of a single person or family is much preferred and goes undocumented. The paramilitaries are tearing these communities apart and slowly disintegrating the Zapatista support base. In addition, although the change of global consciousness on the view of neoliberalism and globalization is an admirable goal, it is not a clear objective. The process of this would require far more than what the Zapatistas could provide, and, despite a valiant effort, their attempt at doing so could so far be deemed a failure.

Although the Zapatistas and the EZLN have had only minimal success in regard to indigenous rights and even less success at changing global consciousness, their struggle has been successful in providing precedence as the first cry against globalization. The struggle did not have aims at creating a new class or power group, but rather to create a free and democratic setting for political struggle, a new set of political relations. The forces of globalization cannot ignore the Zapatistas, and their claims must be dealt with either by compliance or destruction. But, no matter the outcome, people will listen. They are fighting to say that one can be poor in the global world but rich within one’s own if allowed to exist. As Marcos calls it, “[It is] a revolution to build a revolution.” The poor, landless, and all other marginalized groups cannot be ignored, and the Zapatistas are here to remind the world of that.




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RAFI, Wall Street Journal, Agriculture News-2000

Stephen, Lynn. Zapata Lives: Histories and Cultural Politics in Southern Mexico. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002. p91

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Hayden, Tom, ed. The Zapatista Reader. New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2002. p83

Taken from discussions with Gustavo Castro of the Centro de Investigaciones Económicas y políticas de Acción Comunitaria (CIEPAC) on june 18, 2002

Hayden, Tom, ed. The Zapatista Reader. New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2002. p433

Avandaño, Amado. Personal Interview. 21 June. 2002.

Holloway, John, and Eloína Peláez, ed. Zapatista!: Reinventing revolution in Mexico. London: Pluto Press, 1998. p6

Taken from discussions with a man only introduced as Carlos, due to his ties to the EZLN, at Enclace Civil (Civilian Link) on June 18, 2002

Stephen, Lynn. Zapata Lives: Histories and Culteral Politics in Southern Mexico. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002 p 170

Action for Community and ecology in the Regions of Central America. New Corporate Development from Southeastern Mexicoto Panama.

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Holloway, John, and Eloína Peláez, ed. Zapatista!: Reinventing revolution in Mexico. London: Pluto Press, 1998. p121


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