Decades of Resistance

In 1996, indigenous men gather in San Cristobal de las Casas waiting for the
conclusion of the 3rd Reunion EZLN-CONAI-COCOPA where a new law protecting indigenous rights was expected to be drawn up.(all photos by Mara Catalan)

"Twenty years ago, in a place in the selva of Chiapas, a movement began which would go around the world with a message of hope and vindication. Rebellion was being woven in the dark of night, until, on the first of January of 1994, all of us came to know a predominately indigenous army, which flung the word at the powerful and disrupted the neoliberal party. Twenty years from the founding act, and 10 since its armed awakening, we are celebrating the heroic deed of the most small: the struggle and resistance of the men, women, children and old ones of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation."

—Call to the International Community to Participate in the Great Celebrations of the 20th Birthday of the EZLN and the Tenth Anniversary of the Armed Uprising. Rebeldeía Magazine, September 25, 2003.

Nearly ten years after the 1994 Chiapas Rebellion the rallying cry remains the same as it has for decades—maybe even centuries—in many parts of Mexico: "Tierra y Libertad." For all the world to see, the Zapatistas have made it clear that their struggle is one for not just for land and liberty, but also employment, housing, food, health care, independence, democracy, justice and peace. The movement over the past few years has also attracted the support of tens of thousands of Mexicans who demand an end to the exploitation of the environment and largely indigenous poor (i.e. the Tzotzil, Tzeltal, Tojolabal, Xho, Mom and Zoque ethnicities, among others) of Chiapas. Following events since the dramatic seizure of San Cristóbal de Las Casas (as well as Ocosingo, Altamirano and Las Margaritas) on New Year’s Day 1994, many figure that true democracy in Mexico will require a complete overhaul of the political system.

Zapatistas gather in San Cristobal de las Casas to protest abusive human rights violations against indigenous and Zapatista people of the North and South regions, Chiapas 1996.

The EZLN reject the old vanguard role of previous revolutionary groups. Instead, they challenge civil society to engage in the struggle on many fronts for democracy and human rights. Their taking up arms represented an initial strategy to call attention to the plight of the rural poor. Since early 1994 the Zapatistas—often by way of their eloquent spokesman Subcommandante Marcos—have issued hundreds of statements that have been printed in the Mexican press, circulated on the Internet and been made available to millions through a variety of publications worldwide. On the eve of the 1994 presidential elections they hosted a convention in Chiapas that brought nearly 6,000 supporters together for several days of talks and strategizing.

Kids playing at the entrance of the town hall in a Zapatista village of the Lacandon jungle, Chiapas, 1995.

In recent years, the Zapatistas continue to defend and define their struggle. Since 2002 they have opposed the Plan Puebla-Panama—a project that would evict hundreds in the path of massive neoliberal development in southern Mexico. Thousands in Mexico took part in an indigenous day of resistance to the Conquest on October 12, 2002. In Chiapas hundreds blocked highways as well as the entrance to the Rancho Nuevo military base ten kilometers south of San Cristóbal as a way to protest the government’s free market policies. Subsequent tension has arisen in the Montes Azules Biosphere area where violent conflict between neighboring Zapatista communities and paramilitary forces has resulted in several deaths as well as the displacement of thousands.

Subcommandante Marcos in the Zapatista village La Realidad, Chiapas, 1996

Maintaining their resistance in the face of many government attacks over the past decade, Marcos and 24 Zapatistas organized a Caravan to the Capital in January 2003 to make it clear that their struggle had not ended. Despite word from President Vicente Fox that "peace had been achieved in Chiapas," various rebels showed that Fox was wrong. Their banners read "Fox is the Same as Zedillo" and "Globalized Rebellion and Dignity," while speeches by several of the Zapatistas condemned Fox along with the terrorism of Bin Laden and Bush. By the time the caravan and rallies had ended in Mexico City, the event had drawn massive Zapatista children at school from the village of La Realidad. All Zapatista children are obligated when young to go to school.

Zapatista children at school from the village of La Realidad.
All Zapatista children are obligated when young to go to school. Chiapas.

Abundant references to the Zapatistas cropped up at the Fifth World Trade Organization Ministerial Conference this past September in Cancún, where thousands protested the widening gap between rich and poor. Indeed, as the tenth anniversary of the uprising (and the simultaneous implementation of NAFTA) approaches, a long and critical look at the Neoliberal track record by the hemisphere’s power elite is long overdue. And for those in the trenches the Zapatistas continue to lead the way.

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Andrew Grant Wood

ANDREW GRANT WOOD, the author of Revolution in the Street (Scholastic Review, 2001), is writing a biography of Augustin Lara. He teaches Latin American history at the University of Tulsa.