20 Years of Zapatista resistance to neoliberalism


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On the lessons of the feminist-leaning Zapatista movement against neoliberalism

A slightly shorter version of this appeared on the Jan 6, 2014 Old Mole Variety Hour.
The well-read red considers Zapatista resistance to neoliberalism.

This month marks "the 20th anniversary of the Zapatista uprising in . . . Mexico, a short moment with a long legacy of struggle for indigenous rights. The Zapatistas–also known as the Zapatista Army of National Liberation or the EZLN–are a movement of indigenous people fighting against the effects of neoliberalism, particularly the privatization of land and other natural resources."

Named for Emiliano Zapata, a peasant leader of Mexico's 1910 revolution, the Zapatistas [took] control of several cities in Chiapas, one of Mexico's poorest states with one of its biggest indigenous populations.

Their movement first became public on January 1, 1994, the day that the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) went into effect. The EZLN understood that NAFTA would increase the inequity between rich and poor, and continue to direct the natural resources of Chiapas (their home state) out of the hands of [the indigenous population and into the hands of] the rich and powerful.

The provisions of NAFTA would force Mexican farmers to compete with a wave of cheap US imports, while under the terms of the agreement the Mexican government had revoked their constitutional right to communal land.

Globally, the increasing economic stagnation since the 1970s has prompted capital to respond with financialization, outsourcing and offshoring, and increasing pressure on workers and their organizations. Fred Magdoff and John Bellamy Foster, writing in the current issue of Monthly Review, note that the various bilateral and multilateral trade agreements currently in effect or in development—from NAFTA to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP—

are the result of a continuing process in which imperial capital has created a post-Second World War, post-colonial economic structure favorable to its interests. The increasing shift of multinational-corporate production to the global South in order to exploit workers with the lowest worldwide unit labor costs, was made possible through an international political process, spurred by U.S. imperialism, that opened up the periphery of the world system to unrestricted flows of global capital. This meant a two-pronged attack on labor and its political power in both the global South and in the global North.

A report from Public Citizen on NAFTA at 20 points out that NAFTA differed from previous

trade agreements in that it was only partially about trade. . . . [among other provisions,] NAFTA allowed foreign investors to directly challenge before foreign tribunals domestic policies and actions, demanding government compensation for policies that they claimed undermined their expected future profits. NAFTA also contained chapters that required the three countries to limit regulation of services, such as trucking and banking; extend medicine patent monopolies; limit food and product safety standards. . . .

The report summarizes its effects as "One Million U.S. Jobs Lost, Mass Displacement and Instability in Mexico, Record Income Inequality, Scores of Corporate Attacks on Environmental and Health Laws":

The dumping of subsidized U.S. corn on Mexican markets under NAFTA destroyed the livelihoods of more than one million Mexican campesino farmers and about 1.4 million additional Mexican workers whose livelihoods depended on agriculture.

The desperate migration of those displaced from Mexico’s rural economy pushed down wages in Mexico’s border maquiladora factory zone and contributed to a doubling of Mexican immigration to the United States following NAFTA’s implementation.

Though the price paid to Mexican farmers for corn plummeted after NAFTA, the deregulated retail price of tortillas–Mexico’s staple food–shot up 279 percent in the pact’s first 10 years.

Real wages in Mexico have fallen significantly below pre-NAFTA levels as price increases for basic consumer goods have exceeded wage increases.

Facing displacement, rising prices and stagnant wages, over half of the Mexican population, and over 60 percent of the rural population, still fall below the poverty line.

Although the uprising in Chiapas began in response to the dangers posed by this neoliberal governance, some activists have criticized the Zapatistas for later withdrawing from direct confrontations with the state political power; conflicts within the Mexican left arguably weakened resistance to neoliberal advances there, such as the recent privatization of Pemex, the state oil company.

Still, most credit the Zapatista movement with important influence and accomplishments. In addition to achieving the continued self-governance of reclaimed regions of Chiapas through forms of direct democracy, they have, as
Duncan Tucker writes for Al Jazeera, "also influenced numerous international protest movements," including Occupy Wall Street, Spain's Indignados, and Greece's Direct Democracy Now. "At a time of widespread economic crisis and disillusionment with representative democracy, their rejection of capitalism and conventional party politics lies at the heart of their continued global appeal."

Importantly, as Juliana notes on Feministing,



In their continuing struggle for justice, the EZLN made a concerted effort to raise awareness about the status of indigenous women. In 1994, Comandante Ramona, one of the movement’s most famous women leaders, created the “Revolutionary Law on Women,” which was voted into practice by the EZLN. The law made it clear that women had the right to reproductive autonomy, political participation equal to that of men, equal pay, education, and freedom from domestic violence. Later that year, the movement presented a list of 34 demands to the Mexican government, one of which outlined a series of actions to be taken to ensure the welfare of women. . . .

Here are a few things we can learn from this inspiring movement.

1. There is another world.

The Zapatistas took a look at the society they lived in, decided it wasn’t working for them, and started a new way of living. They currently maintain various autonomous communities, under their own systems of governance and their own independent schools. According to Gustavo Esteva at Upside Down World,



“They are, in fact, living outside the logic of the market and the state, beyond the logic of capital, and within a new social fabric. This does not imply, of course, that they have escaped the capitalist social fabric that defines Mexico and the world, the unraveling of which, as the Zapatista Sixth Declaration of the Selva Lacandona states, requires weaving another social and political fabric.”
What does this mean for feminism? That if we can imagine a world where patriarchy, homophobia, transphobia, racism, classism and the like are gone, then [we can work to weave another social and political fabric where] it can exist.

2. You don’t have to be powerful, privileged or popular to change the world. In fact, real change often happens from the bottom up.

The Zapatista movement sprang from some of the world’s most marginalized people: indigenous people living in Mexico’s poorest state. These people had extremely limited access to formal education, health services and land ownership, yet their actions had a lasting impact on our world. . . .

3. We must challenge systems of oppression even within our own social justice movements.

As mentioned earlier, the EZLN is a feminist-leaning movement that has demonstrated that it is self-aware when it comes to the welfare of women. The movement has made several steps towards ensuring gender equity among its people. If you walk through Oventik, one of their autonomous communities in Chiapas, you will see many murals of women working alongside men. Of course, the EZLN is very far from perfect and gender equity is always a work in progress. Within any movement, we need to keep pushing each other forward, while acknowledging successes on the road to justice.

4. The road to justice is long

The Zapatistas originally formed in response to the creation of NAFTA. They have now been around for over 20 years, and so has NAFTA. Indigenous activists have suffered greatly for this cause. . . . But that does not mean that the struggle has not been worth it. The same is true for other movements for justice, in which we have to celebrate small victories on the road to success. But twenty years of indigenous resistance is certainly a big victory, and it must be celebrated.

Bill Weinberg points out that spokesman Subcomandante "Marcos says the Zapatistas do not seek to seize power like traditional guerillas, but instead, pursue “a revolution to make a revolution possible”—opening a space for dialogue within civil society on how to reconceive the world." "Marcos called on his army of “moles” to lay the groundwork for resistance throughout the planet."