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Twenty Years Since the Chiapas Rebellion

Congratulations to Dan La Botz on the publication of his important assessment of the neo-Zapatista experience [Twenty Years Since the Chiapas Rebellion: The Zapatistas, Their Politics, and Their Impact]. It will help to redress the imbalances brought on by a lot of super adulatory coverage on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the neo-Zapatista insurgency and also the contrary conservative condemnation of this movement displayed in establishment media in Mexico and more broadly.

La Botz could have sharpened his critique in two important fronts:

1) First the issue of the victory of Bolivia’s indigenous and popular forces registered by the election and re-election of Evo Morales to the Presidency. His MAS government has since been under relentless attack from the imperialist powers and tradition ruling class sectors in Bolivia and the region. Where do the EZLN and its supporters throughout the hemisphere stand on this vital struggle – undoubtedly the high water mark of the rising tide of continental Abya Yala indigenous struggles in our time. Related to this issue is the failure of neo-Zapatism to respond positively to the Bolivarian revolution and the ALBA process. Its response has been a deafening silence.
2) Second and perhaps most importantly, is the failure of Mexico’s neo-Zapatistas to respond to the Oaxaca semi-insurrection in 2006. This “Comuna de Oaxaca” upsurge was arguably far more important in the Mexican class struggle than the Chiapas events of the 90s. Oaxaca State, is neighbour to Chiapas. Some 37 present of its inhabitants speak indigenous languages (Zapotecos, Mixtecos, Mazatecos, Chinantecos, Mixes, Triquis, among others), compared to only 26 present in Chiapas. Four-fifths of the nearly 600 municipalities of Oaxaca State self-govern according to indigenous custom of rotating leaders and popular assemblies. To the extent that the “from below” line of the EZLN had or has any merit, it proved useless in Oaxaca where a genuine, powerful from-below near insurrection occurred in the capital of a state with a huge indigenous population. The Comuna showdown with the national state stretched out over four months and sprouted soviet type mass collaborative structures such as the famous Asamblea Popular de los Pueblos de Oaxaca (APPO) [see Luis Hernández Navarro, the La Jornada journalist who considers the Comuna to be “one of the most important organizational experiences of the social movement in Mexico”
http://www.jornada.unam.mx/2006/11/21/index.php?section=opinion&article=027a1pol ]. The EZLN and its political line of abstention from national politics had only negligible influence on the Oaxaca struggle and on meeting the dire need at the time to mobilize a national and international defence against the fierce repression. Their line blocked those under their influence in Chiapas and other regions of the country from any successful response to the challenge of participating in, much less sustaining, a broad defence – a role they could have played given their prestige and mystique among youth in Mexico and abroad.

The role of myth and confused symbolism about neo-Zapatista ideology is difficult to untangle partly because writers like John Holloway and others have tried to generalize about this movement in questionable, all-purpose prescriptive ways [see Change the World Without Taking Power]. Regis Debray carried off a similar distortion of Guevara’s strategic concepts in his book Révolution dans la révolution? et autres essais (1967) [Revolution in the Revolution?, Grove, 2000]. It offered a so-called hand book for guerrilla warfare, analysing the strategic doctrines then gestating among many Latin American revolutionists trying to escape from the grip of Stalinist and nationalist reformism. It elevated local and regional tactical approaches to a continental or even global strategy or recipe for revolutionary struggle against the ruling class and its state power. The results, as soon became evident, were utterly disastrous for our side.
The Chiapas movement offers many positive lessons – notwithstanding the limitations of its apparent abstentionism and “autonomism.” But the potential for such lessons to be assimilated more broadly and by younger generations is constricted by the false counter position of the “from below” and “from above” orientations – as Oaxaca demonstrated so painfully.

Felipe Stuart
Managua, Nicaragua

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