Book Review

Mexico: Free Markets Versus Freedom

Rebellion From the Roots: Indian Uprising in Chiapas
 By John Ross
 Monroe, ME: Common Courage Press, 1995
 424 pages, $14.95

The January 1, 1994 uprising of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) was a direct attack on the neoliberal economic model and corporate globalism. It exposed the corrupt Mexican regime and the brutal effects of its policies on Mexico's most vulnerable classes.

 John Ross presents an impressively detailed account of the uprising and the historical events that led to it. He reveals the uprising as a product of 500 years of Mexican Indian history, covering the genocide by plague and sword of the European "discovery" of America, the "land hunger" struggles in the centuries that followed, the Mexican Rebellion of 1910-1919, the neoliberal "miracle" imposed by ex-President Carlos Salinas that impoverished millions, through the violent protests in 1992 that accompanied the 500th anniversary of Columbus' landing.

 Ross delves deep into the political events in Mexico over the past few years. He presents ample evidence that both the PRI and the U.S. embassy in Mexico knew of the EZLN prior to the uprising, but the PRI withdrew an army initiative to crush the rebels in May 1993 - a move that "flabbergasted" Commandante Marcos - for fear of derailing the NAFTA vote in the U.S. Congress.

 He documents the extrajudicial killings, tortures and other human rights abuses of the military following the uprising, and the political cannibalism of the PRI leading up to the 1994 elections. He also suggests the assassination of PRI presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio was a PRI "adjustment of accounts," in Marcos' words.

Ross also describes the fall from grace of Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas' Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), noting the cold reception given to the PRD by the EZLN, who considered it to be a party of a political insiders.

While deriding the political establishment, however, the Zapatistas remained committed to peaceful negotiations and the electoral process, even after the EZLN's grassroots base rejected the agreement negotiated between PRI representative Manuel Camácho Solís and the EZLN leadership. An EZLN communique announcing the second Democratic National Convention, which followed rejection of the settlement, noted that "those who think armed struggle" is the only way to separate the PRI from state power, as well as "those who are not willing" to try the electoral path, are "NOT convoked" to the convention.

 While the level of detail in Rebellion From the Roots is impressive, at times it approaches overkill. Ross devotes scores of pages, for example, to a play-by-play description of the logistical preparations and events in advance of the second Democratic National Convention. ("Major Moises calculated the depths of the latrines - how many times a day would convention-goers defecate and what might be the volume.") But his account of the driving forces of the rebellion based in the indigenous communities of southern Mexico is comprehensive and articulate.

 The Zapatistas have distinguished themselves with their proficiency in the propaganda war. Commandante Marcos' mastery of the soundbite, careful staging of events and use of technologies such as the Internet have nurtured an EZLN constituency both in Mexico and internationally.

 In terms of ideology, the EZLN has not embraced socialism, and has generally shunned standard rallying cries against the likes of "Yanqui Imperialism." "The Zapatista vision is not one of clearly demarcated divisions between social classes with the industrial proletariat being the motor of revolution. For the EZLN, the guiding philosophy may be as simple as Šjustice for the campesinos and the indigenous peoples,' " he writes.

 This concept of justice extends to the role women have played in the EZLN. "Women comprise 55% of the logistical support base," Ross notes. The January 1 Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle also includes substantial demands for women's rights, including the right of employment and just salary and severe penalties for the physical mistreatment of women.

 The EZLN distinguishes itself from other armed struggles in Latin America, including the Sandinista National Liberation Front, Peru's Shining Path and Colombia's M-19, by making no demands for political power. Rather than attempt a military takeover of government, they have focused on democratic reform and basic human rights. This integrity and commitment to the grassroots has foiled attempts by the ruling PRI to buy them off with political prizes.

Democracy also extends to the workings of the EZLN. All the results of peace negotiations with the PRI are taken directly to the people in their villages in Zapatista-held territory for several days of consultations. National conventions are held in the jungle to put together the struggle's platforms. And even the charismatic ladino Commandante Marcos repeatedly emphasizes that he is merely a spokesperson for his indigenous leaders.

 "[T]his concept of communal participation is foreign to a world and its pundits accustomed to top-down leadership in which the approval of the pueblos - the people and their villages - is a mere formality that their leaders are charged with guaranteeing."