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Mexico’s Zapatistas: Another Failed Revolution By: Michael Radu
FrontPageMagazine.com | Friday, January 16, 2004


For how long can the international Left sustain its ideological dinosaurs? On January 1, the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) in Mexico’s southern state of Chiapas celebrated two dubious anniversaries: 20 years since its formation as an underground Marxist-Leninist guerrilla organization and 10 years since it propelled itself onto the international scene—on the very day NAFTA became a reality—with an armed uprising in San Cristóbal de las Casas that left some 150 dead.

Flash back to 1994, when the EZLN was the darling of the Mexican and Western Left. Its blue-eyed, white-skinned, pipe-smoking leader, Sebastian Guillén Vicente (a.k.a. “Subcomandante Marcos”) was the heartthrob of Mexican and “progressive” women from across the Atlantic realm. Leftist intellectuals like Carlos Fuentes, Pablo Gonzalez Casanova, John Berger and Roger Burbach anointed the Zapatistas the first “postmodern insurgency”—whatever that means—and the likes of Oliver Stone and Danielle Mitterand made obligatory pilgrimages to the poor villages of Zapatista-controlled areas. In addition, European (and some American) human rights NGOs showered the Zapatistas with publicity and, equally important, money.

Today, even in Mexico’s Leftist media, there are fewer and fewer mentions of the EZLN, whereas, just a few years ago, there was serious hope that the group was key to the survival and success of a socialist/indigenous territory within Mexico. Even Zapatista sympathizers admit that they now have the support of only 10 percent, or one-third (and rapidly decreasing) of Chiapas’ Indian population—less than half of what it used to be. Moreover, Marcos’ long-running logorrhea (he used to publish his quasi-political poetry rants on websites and even had a “children’s book” published in Texas) seems to have slowed down markedly. After organizing an “intergalactic” assembly and a march to Ciudad de Mexico in 2001, Marcos has fallen into obsolescence in the West, in Mexico, and, most importantly, in Chiapas. Such are the difficulties of a virtual guerrilla trapped in the midst of rapid globalization.

Founded as the product of another reactionary Mexican (and Latin American) force—the radical Marxisant sector of the Catholic Church—the EZLN originally operated under the misleading label of “liberation theology.” This was the very same movement (one which was repeatedly disavowed by John Paul II) that gave the Sandinistas their priestly ministers and made Brazil a haven of Catholic radicalism. In Chiapas, its promoter was Bishop Samuel Ruiz (since forcibly retired), whose search for revolutionary help led him to invite first Maoists and then Castroite intellectual organizers from the North to help create a Marxist Utopia in his bishopric. One of those outsiders was Guillén, a former Mexico City University professor of design, committed Marxist, and scion of a radical and well-connected Tampico family.

Guillén came to Chiapas and decided to start a Sandinista-type Marxist revolution among the local Tzotzil, Tzeltal, and Tolojobal Maya groups. He took over Ruiz’ radicalized catechists and prepared for war, which he started in 1994, using the neglected Maya as cannon fodder. Prior to that, he tried and failed to obtain armed support from Cubans and Sandinistas, who knew that the ideological winds at the time were blowing away from radical Marxism. Nevertheless, the EZLN began its violent insurrection in 1994 as a typically Marxist one, and Marcos settled back into more fashionable discourse on “indigenous” collectivism. His education and public relations talents led to success on the Internet and in the media, and many of the orphans of the global Left—still reeling from the collapse of the Soviet bloc—were happy to support him.

Increasingly devoid of political support in Chiapas and credibility in Mexico, Marcos & Co. tried to organize their Utopia in isolated mountain villages. The result was predictable: rejecting by force any aid from Mexico City, the caracoles—groups of villages led by so-called “good government” councils—are now even worse off than they were before the progressives took over decades ago. In Oventic, a large Zapatista-controlled area, there are no doctors or teachers, which has led former supporters to migrate into government-controlled (and abundantly subsidized) areas. That leaves the “good government” councils with only the “brotherly” 10-percent tax they levy on all foreign-funded projects in the region, which pays for a Che Guevara cafeteria/cooperative, a Women for Dignity folk art store, and, of course, guns.

Meanwhile, as elsewhere in Latin America (Guatemala comes to mind), former Bishop Ruiz’ efforts to introduce Marx into the Gospel led to the collapse of Catholicism and made Chiapas the first Mexican state with a neo-Protestant majority. Zapatista threats and pressures on non-radical Catholics only hastened that process. On December 8 for example, in the main Zapatista center of Altamirano, there was a demonstration of hundreds demanding a return to government control and the cessation of Zapatista “arrests, humiliations, and abuses.”

Considering its previous record of relentless repression and successful eradication of guerrilla groups, the Mexican government, under the Revolutionary Institutional Party (PRI) that ruled until 2000 and the independent Fox government since, has acted subtly in Chiapas. In a word, it has decided to let the Zapatistas die a natural death. No open crackdown, but support for mass defections and paramilitary groups reacting to Zapatista repression, social and economic investments in Chiapas, and public silence. PRI is now regularly winning elections in Chiapas, Marcos is regularly ignored and, since his offer of support for the murderous ETA terrorist group in Spain (which was ridiculed by Spanish judge Garzón and rejected even by ETA), spiraling toward obscurity. Meanwhile, the victims of Marcos’ attempts at Utopia are becoming poorer and poorer in Mexico’s poorest state. Thus, the world’s first “virtual insurgency” has ended where all things virtual do when confronted with real life: in an increasingly remote corner of our memory. And that is where it should remain.


Michael Radu is Senior Fellow and Co - Chair, Center on Terrorism and Counterterrorism, at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia.


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