CHIAPAS, MEXICO – I am sitting at a coffee place in San Cristobal de las Casas, a misty town in Chiapas, in southern Mexico. I am told that occasionally Subcomandante Marcos, the famed leader of indigenous people in the region, used to come here. I wonder if I will see him, although he has not made a public appearance in more than two years. He doesn’t come -or may be I didn’t recognize him without his signature ski mask- so I spend my time reflecting on the consequences or legacy of his movement.
Subcomandante Marcos’ movement, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN), took its name from Emiliano Zapata, the commander of the Liberation Army of the South during the Mexican revolution, which broke out in 1910. The EZLN has largely defied political classification, being mainly a movement seeking to redress the unjust treatment by the government — largely in response to the new world economy — of the country’s indigenous people.
The movement went public in 1994. On Jan. 1, 3,000 armed insurgents briefly took several towns in Chiapas, including San Cristobal de las Casas, the residence of the late Chiapas Bishop Samuel Ruiz — an almost legendary figure widely respected by the indigenous people in the state. The goal of the insurgents was to dramatize the harsh living conditions, poverty, and lack of governmental response to the serious situation facing Mexico’s indigenous population, which had deteriorated markedly as Mexico rushed to become a player in the global economy.
The violent revolt and capture of Chiapas’ towns was met with fierce government response and ended 12 days later thanks to a ceasefire brokered by Bishop Samuel Ruiz. The Zapatistas took heavy losses and retreated to the jungle where they had come from. Territory held by the Zapatistas was taken back by the Mexican Army following a surprise ceasefire breach in February 1995. The army failed, however, to capture the Zapatistas’ military commanders.
Although the Mexican government allowed Bishop Ruiz to mediate its conflict with the Zapatistas, the government accused the bishop of being the driving force in the rebellion. Ruiz, however, always advocated non-violence as a way of resolving conflicts, and repeatedly stated that a spiral of violence, once started, cannot be easily ended once the weapons stop firing.
“This war was not carried out to shed blood and take power but to be heard. When they [the insurgents] were heard they laid down their weapons and chose the pathway of dialogue,” said Ruiz in a movie called “A Place Called Chiapas.”
Since the beginning of his rebellion, Subcomandante Marcos made it clear that he didn’t intend to overthrow the government but to make the government respond to what he saw as legitimate indigenous people’s claims for better education, more and better health services, equal work opportunities, and better roads to the indigenous communities. After the government sent an unprecedented amount of funds to Chiapas, and for what I saw during my visit there, most of these goals have been accomplished.
Although the Zapatista movement doesn’t have the same goals as the “indignados” in Europe who are now becoming every day more numerous in many U.S. cities, they share the common goal of a more egalitarian society, where the greed of the few shouldn’t take precedence of the rights of the many. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, one in six Americans were living in poverty last year, a situation that is hitting children the hardest.
“Here in Chiapas we have to speak of before and after Subcomandante Marcos,” said Gustavo Flores Alfaro, a building engineer from this area.
When analyzing the beginning of the 21st century, perhaps historians will also talk of the situation before and after the “indignados” movement that is taking the world by storm.
Cesar Chelala is a co-winner of an Overseas Press Club of America award for an article on human rights.