Thursday, January 10, 2013

Zapatistas--The Sound of the Silence

Congregation of the Zapatistas on December 21, 2012, in which they participated in the March of the Ezln. (Photo credit: Pozol Colectivo)
From the shadows of the jungle in one of the poorest provinces in Mexico (Chiapas) emerged a movement that attempted to voice what had not been heard for more than 4 centuries. The Zapatista movement (EZLN) better known as zapatista army of national liberation is a movement that questioned the authoritarian rule of PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party) for over 70 years and the alleged process of modernization in Mexico during the last part of the 1980´s decade. The President Carlos Salinas de Gortari undertook a series of actions in order to portray Mexico as an innovative, competitive and dynamic economic entity that could be deemed as a country in transition towards modernization. The achievement of NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) as a means to form a bloc in North America to promote trade and the liberalization of the economy was the first step to fully insert Mexico in the international arena. Presumably, this agreement would bring unprecedented benefits for the population, boosting comparative advantages that could be exploited by Mexico. However, the macroeconomic situation differs significantly from the microeconomic reality, which in the vast majority of cases was devastated by the new trade agreement.

What was the reason for the Zapatistas to appear in the 1990's?

There are many factors that explain their appearance, however, some of the most important are the ensuing:

a) An unilateral policy that excluded indigenous people from participation in the political arena
b) The lack of respect towards their forms of political organization
c) The systematic violation of their human rights
d) The exploitation of their territories without considering the environmental impact and the natural repercussions
e) The systemic absence of the State and the fierce advancement of the economic model denominated neo-liberalism.

With a colonial conquer for more than 4 centuries, indigenous people in Mexico had been subjugated, excluded and marginalized. The appearance of a political system based upon political parties was not a platform to channel their demands, and NAFTA was the needle that broke the camel's back. The idea that the process of modernization impregnated in minds of Mexicans was that indigenous people were anachronistic who, hampered growth, development and competitiveness. Thus, most of the society regarded indigenous Mexicans as a hurdle that needed to be eradicated. As this thrust advanced, the indigenous people from Mexico, (which comprises 1/5 of the total amount of the population) devised a strategy to organize against the cultural, political and economic war waged against them. Lead by sub-commandant Marcos they chose the 1st of January 1994 to initiate the uprising, simultaneously NAFTA formally came into effect. Their demands concentrated in a more democratic, pluralistic, inclusive, fair and just society, where participative democracy would be the main pillar. The Zapatistas regarded the current government as illegitimate (as a result of the rigged election in 1988 in which the candidate of PRI was the winner), therefore, the military insurrection was to depose the corrupt and inefficient government. The Zapatistas announce their declaration of war against the formal institutions of the government and the conflict has not been resolved.

However, the Zapatistas movement represents a milestone in the history of social resistance movements. First of all, it was the first indigenous movement that drew attention from all over the world; NGO´s, TV channels, Governments, Human Rights associations and a wide variety of Institutions heeded it. Different entities got involved in the defense of the rights of the Mexican indigenous people that were represented by the Zapatistas and to help bolster the capacity of the Zapatistas to negotiate with the government. In addition, the Zapatista movement triggered and motivated other social resistance movements in the globe, which took them as an example of success. Its prominence is based upon the combination of factors and demands that they promoted in conjunction with the social media promotion it attracted. Respect for human rights, respect for their territories, inclusion and a participatory approach in a democratic system echoed in the whole international system bringing momentum to their cause.

Their form or organization in autonomous cells of government (based on customs and traditions) is another example of their success, which was typified in the Constitution in the Indigenous law enacted in 2001 under the presidency of Vicente Fox which was the first president of the opposition. However, this law has not translated in more substantial benefits for the indigenous population; poverty and marginalization are still the norm.

After the Zapatistas' confrontation with Mexican authorities and a transition to democracy was on its way, high expectations lingered; however, as the history demonstrated, they were in vain. Since the consolidation of democracy is still in its way, inherently, many of the demands that were part of the integral formulation of a new system have perished. The silence that was part of the modus vivendi in the indigenous people for centuries returned and remained in that fashion for 12 years.

On the 21st of December 2012 the sound of the silence was heard, a combination of factors triggered peaceful and silent demonstrations in the 5 boroughs that were taken by the insurgents in 1994: The return of PRI to the presidency, the new era proposed by the Mayan calendar which coincidentally (on purpose) started on the same day and the unheard voices of many people that have not taken part in the process of democratization in Mexico.

In summary, locally and globally, the Zapatista movement is the explosion of years of exploitation, submission and exclusion which proposes a new fashion in which government should be conducted, a new participatory approach. Its importance is significant due to the form of organization, the relevance in the mass media and its impact on other movements and the participation in the creation of summits such as the WSF (world social forum) contending that another world is possible. Moreover, contemporaneous movements have taken the Zapatista movement as an example and a case study to shed light on its struggles and successes, and organize their own structures. If another world is possible where poverty can be diminished or eradicated, where new social ways of organization are an imperative and where inclusion and tolerance is fundamental, social movements such as the Zapatista uprising are a reference that cannot be ignored. Perhaps the dialogue that permeates democracy, the words, speeches and rhetoric that is characteristic of this type of government have not heard the voices of the unheard, thus, silence becomes an ancestral way of resistance that given the circumstances represents a form of protest, from Gandhi, through Martin Luther King to the Zapatistas: a different world is possible and the power of silence accumulated and aggregated might be more powerful than the lips or rifles or the ephemeral lines written in new pieces of legislation.

Mr. Roberto Mendoza, Foundation for Democratic Advancement Blogger and Researcher with a background in public policy and governance and based out of Mexico.

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