People power and coalitions of dissent


Gustavo Estava

On 1 January 1994, two hours after the North America Free Trade Agreement came into force, the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) occupied four towns of Chiapas, a province of Mexico neighbouring Guatemala.

Armed with machetes, clubs and a few guns, the rebels declared war on the Mexican government. A massive mobilisation by civil society immediately urged both parties to stop the armed struggle. The government, forced to declare a unilateral ceasefire twelve days later, has since waged what has euphemistically been called a "low intensity war". The EZLN, in contrast, complied immediately with the request made by civil society, put its weapons to sleep, and became the main promoter of nonviolent means to change the country.

I will not tell a story full of incidents and tension regarding a movement that has just started. But I want to bring the example of the Zapatista struggle to people's attention because it clearly illustrates a peaceful epic now evolving at the grassroots.

The EZLN was never a guerrilla organisation. It was not "a fish that swim in the sea of the people", as Ché Guevara would say. Nor a revolutionary group attempting to seize power. It was organised as a collective decision of hundreds of communities: the EZLN were the sea, not the fish.

Choosing freedom

After ten failed years of using every available legal channel, of trekking the two thousand miles to Mexico City, the Indian peoples of Chiapas found themselves at a dead end; literally at death's door, their own end. Their voices remained unheard by the government and society; their commons continued to be raided daily; their children and elders continued to drop like flies because of hunger and curable diseases. Faced with their own mute extinction, they chose the freedom to die a dignified death--not the silence of lambs headed for their slaughter.

As their last resort, they took up arms against the state. They became faceless behind the anonymity of ski-masks: "We were forced to lose our faces, in order to have a face. We were forced to lose our names, in order to have a name. We were forced to lose our voices, in order to have a voice." They had nothing left but their dignity, and they affirmed themselves in it, hoping that their sacrifice would awaken society and that their grandchildren would live better lives, beyond colonisation, development and globalisation.

Shooting words and civil resistance

The Zapatistas are still a mystery and a paradox: a revolutionary group with no interest in seizing power? Rejecting any position of power, now or in the future? ("We were ready to die but also ready to kill", they say; "No one ready to kill should occupy a position of power".). An army shooting words and civil resistance? A locally and culturally rooted organisation with a global scope? A group clearly and firmly affiliated to democracy and its most radical critic?

The Zapatistas are both traditional and contemporary. They are singular, unique, and at the same time typical. They come from an ancient tradition but are also fully immersed in contemporary ideas, problems and technologies. They are ordinary men and women with extra-ordinary behaviour, and they exemplify social movements which are now developing at the grassroots all over the world.

In the times of Ché Guevara, I was involved in a clandestine movement dedicated to organising the first urban guerrilla organisation in Mexico. From 1965, however, I assumed the principles of nonviolence. Was I betraying these principles, by supporting the Zapatistas from the very beginning? I rushed to my Gandhi, to find some light in my predicament. "Nonviolence is for the strong," Gandhi said; "I will not preach nonviolence to a mouse at the point of being devoured by a cat. The weak have no option but violence or passive resistance. I am preaching nonviolence in India because I don't see why 300 million people should be afraid of 150,000 British troops. They are the strong. They should thus use nonviolence to achieve their political goals."

The Zapatistas were the weak. Nobody heard them: not the government, nor society. After the uprising, however, people started to support them. With that strength, they have been able to lead a nonviolent path to social transformation.

The Zapatistas oppose the fragmentation of the country. They also resist the typical path of subsuming local identities and cultural differences into a "regime for minorities". Almost all members of the EZLN are indigenous people, belonging to different cultures and speaking different languages. But they refuse to be qualified as an indigenous or ethnic movement and project their pluralism to both indigenous and non-indigenous people in civil society.

Coalitions of discontent

Localisation, as a trait of the Zapatista movement, is the opposite of both localism and globalism. In the social fabric of their culturally differentiated communities, the Zapatistas find the key to human existence: their commonality is their form of being in the world. But they don't close themselves in it. Fully aware of the global forces affecting their lives, they consider that mere resistance is no longer possible: if they persist in it they will be swept away. To try to prevent this, they are allying themselves with broad coalitions of groups also working in a similar way: coalitions of discontent with "neo-liberal globalisation". This open and even cosmic worldview is the opposite of the parochialism and short-sightedness of national governments, transnational corporations or international institutions affiliated with the neo-liberal credo.

The Zapatistas affirm the autonomy of local-regional bodies where people can have and exert their power to govern themselves. Inside those bodies, forms of government, land tenure, self-defence and justice, as well as a convivial notion of the good life, can be defined. Thus they challenge the framework of representative democracy, which transfers people's power to the homogeneous and mono-cultural structures of the dominant nation-state. At the same time, they resort to judicial and political procedures to generate social consensus and to construct a new social order, forging a communion of the different through intercultural dialogues and radical democracy.

The Zapatistas, in short, promote radically democratic localisation, as an alternative to neo-liberal globalisation; ruralisation of the cities and regeneration of the countryside instead of conventional urbanisation; local-regional self-reliance and marginalisation of the economy instead of intervention by the market or the state; and the regeneration of common land or the creation of new spaces held in common instead of modern, capitalist individualism.

Now we have hope

The Zapatista movement had an immediate impact on the local life of thousands of communities, both in the area in which the EZLN was born, and in the rest of the country and even outside Mexico. In 1994, thousands of peasants of Chiapas--many of them not affiliated to Zapatismo -- occupied private lands and forced the government to legalise their possession of those lands, changing the entire social landscape in Chiapas. In the "area of conflict", 50,000 government troops transform the communities into barracks, bringing with them alcohol, drugs, prostitution, and intimidating and abusing people. Paramilitary groups, created by the government, operate with impunity and commit every kind of crime and abuse against the people. For six years now, the only government spending in the region has been on new roads for the military, to facilitate their incursions.

In spite of this, the communities enjoy an amazing autonomy. They have started to construct new social relations and a different lifestyle, full of energy and hope. "They are not killing more people than before", explains Doña Trinidad, a lucid old woman of Morelia, one of the most affected communities; "We are not suffering more than in the past. But now we have hope. And that changes everything."

That changes everything. Radical hope is the essence of popular movements. The main outcome of the Zapatista movement, until now, has been an affirmation of dignity, at the grassroots. The dominant worldview postulated globalisation as an unavoidable path and brought desperation to its victims. The Zapatistas have revealed that the Emperor has no clothes, and have started to walk an alternative path.

Forging new social consensus

The positive impact of the movement is clearer outside the "area of conflict". Zapatismo has stimulated the initiative, the capacity and the sociological and political imagination of thousands of communities and millions of people.

In Oaxaca, a state neighbouring Chiapas, the impact is perhaps deeper than in any other place. During five centuries, entrenched in their communities, the 16 indigenous peoples of Oaxaca resisted internal or external colonialism by Spaniards or Mexicans. But their autonomy was always unstable and exposed to economic exploitation, social discrimination and political domination. But since 1994 things have changed and the people of Oaxaca began to exhibit a new dynamism. They participated at the forefront of the mobilisations to support the Zapatistas and increased their own local initiatives, widening their public presence and visibility, and forging new social consensus.

To prevent the uprising from spreading, the government of Oaxaca made several concessions to the indigenous peoples. In 1995 a new law dissipated the tense situation which until then had prevailed in the constitution of local governments. Three years later, continual activism made constitutional reforms possible, and a new law for indigenous communities and peoples was introduced. A judicially pluralistic regime was thus born in Oaxaca.

But during this same period, the Oaxaca communities suffered unprecedented natural calamities such as hurricane Paulina, followed by a serious earthquake the following year, and then while in recovery from these events, unprecedented rains fell--which destroyed homes and rendered traditional lands unusable. At the same time they were still exposed to the economic turbulence of neo-liberalism and the authoritarianism of the dying political regime. But they are successfully overcoming old and new predicaments.

Developing self-sufficiency

In many communities, people are actively repairing or improving their houses, building new ones and improving public services. The changes include meaningful technological improvements. For example, Oaxaca communities had no sanitation facilities, the few receiving the "benefit" of a sewage system were suffering the pollution of their soil and rivers because the government never provided treatment plants. In the last six years almost a hundred thousand ecological dry latrines have been built, with marginal support from the government. This alternative technique effectively and autonomously coped with the problem, avoiding the ecological and social damage of sewage or conventional latrines.

Self-sufficient productive projects multiplied everywhere, well beyond the logic of "homo-economicus". Even the dramatic need of temporary or permanent migration, stimulated by neo-liberal policies, got a new meaning. The migrants actively participate in the economic and political life of the communities. A new "trans-national community" has been created: the same human people occupy two spaces, one in their original community in Oaxaca and the other in a new community in the US or Mexico City. This flow of people and goods contributes to the improvement of the living conditions of the whole group.

Many worlds

In 1999, after long reflection and research, a group of grassroots organisations formulated a proposal to articulate the ideas of civil society for the social transformation of the province. This action plan, affirming the principles of pluralism, radical democracy, spirituality, ecological endurance and conviviality, is now being discussed in thousands of communities in Oaxaca. The gender emphasis of the proposal reflects and further promotes the increasing participation of women in all aspects of social life, actively opposing both traditional patriarchy and modern sexism. It is associated with a similar exercise at national level, to promote a profound social change, beyond the globalised market or the nation-state, through nonviolent means.

Everywhere, in the villages and barrios of the cities, you can smell the strength of the people, affirming themselves in their own initiatives. We are a long way from radically changing the whole of society, but we are not waiting for that change, or hoping that an event, a charismatic leader or a party will rescue us from our current predicaments. Instead, people in their millions are actively involved in the construction of a new social order themselves.

As the Zapatistas say, it is very difficult, next to impossible, to change the world. We are involved in something clear, simple and feasible: the creation of a new world, a world--as they say--in which many worlds can fit.

Gustavo Esteva is a grassroots activist and deprofessionalised intellectual. He lives and works in a small indigenous village in Oaxaca, Mexico.
The EZLN website has links to a vast range of Zapatista support and solidarity groups and information sites. See
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