“We are united by the imagination, by creativity, by tomorrow”
- Subcomandante Galeano “Flowers, Like Hope, Are Harvested”
In the early 1990s, indigenous Mayans in Chiapas, Mexico known as the Zapatistas, combined their traditional, horizontal method of governance with emerging digital and internet technologies to organize for their independence against the encroaching tide of Neoliberal Globalization. This legacy has inspired a diverse array of movements from the anti-WTO protests to Black Lives Matter. Below is a history of the Zapatistas and lessons that can be gleaned by activists today working against the rise of global fascism.
Just shy of 10 years after their formation and on the dawn of the North American Free Trade Agreement, on 1 January 1994 el Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (eng. The Zapatista Army for National Liberation, or EZLN) emerged from the Lacandon jungle to take over six cities and many ranches in the Mexican state of Chiapas. The 500 year struggle for indigenous self-determination continued.1
A few hours into the new year, news about the takeover reached a global, internet audience. Two days later, Subcomandante Galeano, formerly known as Marcos, sent out the first communique of the EZLN, “The First Declaration from the Lacandon Jungle.” It was the email read around the world.2
On 5 January 1994, EZLN communiques recounting first hand experiences of the Mexican Army bombing the indigenous rebels are sent out. These stories resounded so loudly across the silent mainstream Mexican and international news media landscape that activists and sympathizers around the world create an online network of email blasts, listservs, & organizing forums in support of the Zapatistas.
This network puts international pressure on President Zedillo to stop the military raids on Zapatista strongholds. Zedillo negotiates a peace treaty with the Zapatistas. A cease fire got by e-guerilla tactics. The first “net war” began and words become weapons.
13 January 1995, The “Chase report” leaks to Counterpunch. From there, it is endlessly reproduced and disseminated on the internet. Riordan Roett, a consultant for Chase Manhattan Bank, wrote in the report that, “The [Mexican] government will have to eliminate the Zapatistas to demonstrate their effective control of the national territory and security policy.” Roett is swiftly fired. No military action is taken against the Zapatistas.
In his video address to the “Free the Media” Teach-In in 1997, Galeano calls for independent media to “tell the history of social struggle in the world.” He proposes that this can be accomplished by creating an international network of information sharing “to resist the power of the lie that sells us this war we call Word War IV.3”
His media proposed network extends past social movements and into the fabric of our daily lives. In August 1996, Galeano declared that the Zapatistas will “make [...]an intercontinental network of resistance against neoliberalism [...] of resistance for humanity.” Galeano came to the Lacandon jungle in 1984 with the urban revolutionary group, Forces for National Liberation, which sought to be a vanguard party to lead the indigenous people in a socialist overthrow of the Mexican government. Until they adopted indigenous values, the FLN was met with suspicion. Primarily, the urban revolutionaries had to abandon their hierarchical structure and organize with the indigenous groups horizontally. This collective, assembly-based decision making functions much like an internet chat forum.
Offline and on the ground, villages would debate an issue in their native language and bring their consensus to the central committee to be debated in Spanish. To reach a consensus in these encuentros could take many months, even years. This “cross-cultural dialogical praxis was the EZLN’s most powerful strategy of resistance, unification, and survival.4” This has its echoes online as the communiques are translated into various languages and conversations on chat forums discuss how best to aid the EZLN and Zapatista.
In 1995 Alexandra Halkin visited Chiapas while filming a documentary for a US based NGO. The Zapatistas expressed interest in using video technology. Over the course of two years, Alexandra, Paco Vázquez (a Nahua youth), Fabio Meltis (an indigenous youth organizer), Jose Manuel Pintado (Mexico City based video producer), and others funded and organized a video workshop for the Zapatistas. This would later develop into the Chiapas Media Project/Promedios. Much like the Zapatista organizational structure, CMP is ran horizontally. Mexican CMP personnel and indigenous media-makers from Oaxaca led the seminars in the early years. CMP setup regional media centers for production, post-production, and internet needs. The Zapatistas made videos for internal use and communication (in Mayan languages) and for external audiences.
After the 1994 takeover, the EZLN painted slogans both in English and Spanish on the buildings of San Cristóbal. From the outset, the EZLN knew it could garner international attention. The Zapatistas were keenly aware of the power of symbols. The black balaclava masks is perhaps the most identifiable symbol of the EZLN. The anonymity it afforded was in part to hide the identities of the spokespeople, like Marcos, from gaining celebrity or cult personality. But, importantly also, the Zapatistas see all oppressed people as Zapatista. The anonymity allowed for oppressed people around the world to identify with the Zapatistas. Even Galeano’s title, subcomandante, is a symbolic reminder that he is not the leader.
Lesson 1: In this era of global fascism and alternative facts, independent voices in media are desperately needed. With internet technology the EZLN and Zapatista people were able to communicate their needs, fears, hopes, and love directly to supporters. They could bypass not only government censors but filtration through mainstream media. In multiple cases such communiqués saved lives. We need to investigate the statements of our political leaders, even if their ideas align with our own. We must vigilantly listen to those who are swept aside by our political systems and raise their voices when the corporate media refuses. We must aid them on their own terms.
Lesson 2: The Zapatistas have generally been open to include outsiders in efforts of solidarity. Internally, the Zapatistas comprise of various Mayan tribes (Tzeltal, Tojolabal). Their openness allowed for the Chiapas Media Project and the various international websites that spread information and donated to the Zapatistas. The Zapatistas have expressed solidarity with indigenous peoples around the world including Palestine and Australia. The Zapatistas supported the release of American political prisoners like Mumia Abu-Jamal, LGBT-identified people, workers, and all peoples oppressed by global capital. The Zapatismo philosophy “simply states the question and stipulates that the response is plural, that the response in inclusive.5”
In a time when governments are dividing people and building walls, we must welcome our refugee and immigrant compañeros who may be fleeing to a country which has destabilized their homeland.
Lesson 3: The Zapatistas utilized a multiplicity of media technologies to produce and distribute their message: emails, videos, listservs, fax machines, flyers — all to combat the mainstream news avenues selling the Zapatista’s destruction on the airwaves. All outlets, all technology must be employed to to stand against the tide of corporate controlled information
Lesson 4: The EZLN was a hierarchical structured guerilla army until they adopted indigenous councils. The early Zapatista councils and civic centers, called Aguascalientes, were replaced in 2003 because the distribution of resources and influence was not equal. These new Good Government Juntas were created to rectify these inequalities.6 Moving forward in our political movements, we need to remember to be self critical and creative in addressing the weaknesses of our organizations.
Galeano called for an intercontinental network of resistance to neoliberalism. In this era of rising global fascism, we must re-invite the world to unite to smash reactionaries at every chance. Consistently. Without fail. We, the oppressed people of the world, are the only ones who can end the neoliberal nightmare. We must band together and stand tall!
1. “The First Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle” Subcomandante Galeano. Our Word Is Our Weapon
2. “Zapatistas Online: The Email Read Round the World” DeeDee Halleck. Handheld Visions: The Impossible Possibilities of Community Media
3. In “The Fourth World War Has Begun” Galeano refers to the Cold War as WWIII. The defines WWIV as the international fight against global neoliberal capitalism.
4. “Radical Internet Use” Tamara Villarreal Ford & Genéve Gil. Radical Media: Rebellious Communication and Social Movements.
5. “Zapatismo” Subcomandante Galeano quoted in the Afterword by Ann Carrigan. Our Word Is Our Weapon
6. “Sixth Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle” schoolsforchiapas.org
7. Photos from the Chiapas Media Project Website
ABOUT THE WRITER: Rory Padgett is a second year MFA Film Candidate at the Cathy Hughes School of Communications at Howard University. He has written previously about the L.A. Rebellion. He is set to release a short film, “Orchid Boys” with Julie Dash as Executive Producer later this year. Check him out: Twitter: @Rem_Blues Instagram: @remblues