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Zapatista History

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In 1994 Mexico's leaders entered into trade agreements with foreign interests (NAFTA) that at US insistence, made changes to their constitution that effectively ended Indian communal land right, making it possible for Foreign corporations to take Indian land and resources. The Maya rose up in rebellion to defend their land and their culture. This courageous act of resistance against a system that was sucking the life out of an already beleaguered population brought the wrath of the Mexican government on any community in Chiapas suspected of supporting the Zapatista rebels (EZLN). When President Zedillo tried to solve the "Chiapas problem" in February 1995 by launching a military attack, domestic and international criticism forced him to begin the pretense of negotiations. In February 1996 the San Andres Accords were agreed to and signed by President Zedillo. This agreement acknowledged the constitutional rights of the indigenous people, and in particular, their right to self-determination and autonomy. This agreement represented an opportunity for peace, justice and true democracy for all of the indigenous people of Mexico. Sadly, President Zedillo refused to implement this agreement.

The uprising of the Maya in Chiapas has some but not all the elements for revolution. The pattern of neglect of the poor, significant class differences where the rich hold all the power and the poor are exploited, and the lack of a significant middle class provide fertile ground for revolution. These problems in Mexico have existed for many years. Like Russia where the revolution brought about a one-party dictatorship Mexico's revolution of 1910 failed to bring about the changes dreamed of by the revolutionaries. Economic conditions for the indigenous population throughout the twentieth century improved negligibly and eventually it became clear to many that the government was involved in a systematic annihilation of the Indian population.

At first thought, it would seem ludicrous for a government to engage in a campaign to systematically destroy strong, independent, self-sufficient communities, who present no drain on the resources of the country. Why would you want to rend stable communities into thousands of displaced refugees, without the resources to feed, clothe or house themselves? Perhaps the answer lies in the fact that those who control the global economy cannot tolerate the existence of a "non-market segment" - a society of non-consumers. In the world of international economics, however, there are only two entities of any value: the consumer and the consumable. Anything or anyone that doesn't fit into these categories is not only expendable - they are an obstacle to economic security. The soul-less eyes of capitalism do not see the indigenous people of Chiapas as a viable, respectable culture. They are simply "non-consumers" who are impeding the acquisition of valuable raw resources. To them, the Maya's commitment to the land and their community is perceived, not as an admirable trait, but a problem that must be solved.

Therefore, on Jan 1, 1994 the Zapatista National Liberation Army (ZNLA), or Zapatistas, a previously unheard of rebel grouping, "declared war" against the Mexican government and began what has been called the worst guerrilla uprising in Mexico in 20 years. The Zapatistas, named after Emiliano Zapata, a leader of the 1910 Mexican Revolution, said they were protesting alleged mistreatment of the Indian population in Chiapas State and had chosen New Year's Day to begin their uprising because it was the same day the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) came into effect. NAFTA, the rebels claimed, was an example of the government's policy of making the lives of the rich easier while the poor continued to suffer. The government responded to the attacks by deploying some 14,000 troops to the region, causing the rebels to retreat by Jan 5. On Jan 12, then-President Carlos Salinas de Gortari offered a cease-fire and offers of amnesty and peace talks, which the rebels eventually accepted.

Although the ZNLA's New Year's attack was quelled by government troops fairly quickly, the Zapatistas have proven to be a formidable force in Mexican politics. Because 1994 was an election year, opposition parties used the rebel uprising as an example of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party's (PRI) neglect of the poor. By mid-1994, ongoing peace talks between the government and the Zapatistas seemed to fizzle out after the rebels rejected a peace accord from the government on the grounds that, although it addressed the needs of peasants in Chiapas, it failed to address national changes.

The Zapatistas once again gained national attention in December 1994, when several peasant groups affiliated with the ZNLA peacefully took over several municipalities in Chiapas. The ZNLA leader, known only as "Subcommander/Subcomendante Marcos," said the peasant mobilization was the first "military action" he had ordered since the original rebellion and warned that the Zapatistas would rise again if Chiapas' current government, which the Zapatistas claim was fraudulently elected, did not resign. In February 1996, the government and the Zapatistas signed the first of six formal peace agreements aimed at ending the two-year uprising, but talks broke down by the end of the year. With the Jul 6, 1997 national elections resulting in heavy losses for the PRI, the ZNLA's claim of national electoral fraud lost some weight. Nonetheless, the group's ideals of Indian self-government, land reform, and Indian rights have attracted tens of thousands of supporters in poverty-stricken Chiapas. Meanwhile, the government has practiced a containment strategy, trying to keep the movement from spreading to nearby Oaxaca and Guerrero states.

Most of the continued support the Zapatistas have received is strongly based on the idea that the Zapatistas are different. Different not just from the neoliberal world order they oppose but, more fundamentally, different from the armed revolutionary groups that exist and have existed elsewhere in the world. Those involved internationally in Zapatista solidarity work are drawn to it not because they believe Mexico is uniquely repressive. There are many countries that are far worse, Columbia being one obvious example. They hope there is something in the Zapatista method that they can take home to their own city or region, hence the popularity of the call from the EZLN to Ð''be a Zapatista wherever you are'.

So although the Zapatistas remain isolated in the jungles and mountains of southeastern Mexico their ideas have influenced many activists across the globe. Not least is the round of global days of action against capitalism. One call for these protests actually

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