Multinational Monitor

MAR 2001
VOL 22 No. 3


Fox, Inc. Takes Over Mexico
by John Ross

Labor After the PRI: Will Fox Ride Roughshod Over Mexican Workers?
by Dan La Botz

Hope for a New Dawn in Chiapas
by Subcommandante Marcos


The Democratic Opposition: Challenging Mexico's New Corporate Clan
an interview with
Carlos Heredia


Behind the Lines

Resistance is Not Futile

The Front
Taiwan's Power Struggle - The WTO's Yes Men

The Lawrence Summers Memorial Award

Book Review
The Zapatista War Against Oblivion

Names In the News


Book Reviews

The War Against Oblivion:The Zapatista Chronicles
By John Ross
Monroe, Maine: Common Courage Press, 2000
350 pages; $18.95

Basta! Land & The Zapatista Rebellion in Chiapas
By George A. Collier with Elizabeth Lowery Quaratiello
Oakland, California: Food First Books, 1999
195 pages; $14.95

Homage to Chiapas
By Bill Weinberg,
New York, New York: Verso, 2000
387 pages; $25

Reviewed by Charlie Cray

"While Chiapas, in our opinion does not pose a fundamental threat to political stability, it is perceived to be so by many in the investment community," an analyst for Chase Manhattan Bank's Emerging Markets Group wrote in a now-infamous memo in 1995. "The government will need to eliminate the Zapatistas to demonstrate their effective control of the national territory and of security policy."

Despite the fact that hundreds of Zapatistas have since been killed, jailed or forced into exile in a dirty war of attrition waged by Mexico's mal gobierno, the Zapatista National Army of Liberation (EZLN) continues to struggle for indigenous autonomy "from the mountains of the Mexican Southeast," as their charismatic communicator, Subcommandante Marcos regularly repeats in communiques from the EZLN comandancia.

Indeed, although some 60,000 government troops have been deployed to Chiapas since the uprising to circumscribe and pin the Zapatistas down in what's left of the Lacandon jungle, the EZLN and Marcos have used a masterful combination of internet-ready communications and effective political organizing to prevent their own obliteration and to catalyze national and even global resistance to the forces of neoliberalism that are, at root, the cause and target of their rebellion.

In The War Against Oblivion (a title taken from the Zapatistas' own apt description of their struggle) John Ross, the most astute and entertaining of gringo journalists working in Mexico in the last decade, chronicles the theatrical sweep of events that have occurred since the Zapatistas announced themselves to the world on January 1, 1994, the day the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) took effect.

With poetic flair, Ross integrates events as they unfold in Chiapas with other events in Mexico, particularly events that exposed deep fissures in the corrupt Mexican political system, such as the assassinations of Luis Donaldo Colosio, the 1994 presidential candidate of the PRI, the long-time ruling party, and Jose Ruiz Massieu, the secretary-general of the PRI, a hit allegedly masterminded by the brother of ex-president Carlos Salinas.

The result is a lively chronological narrative that neatly complements his previous two books, Rebellion from the Roots and The Annexation of Mexico. For a concise history of the revolution since it began, The War Against Oblivion is the book to read.

500 Years of Struggle

To understand how the Zapatista struggle emerged, it is important to understand Chiapas - its history, physical and sociological structure. Although Ross couldn't squeeze this into his latest volume, George Collier, a political anthropologist with over 30 years working in Chiapas, provides a penetrating look at the region's history of indigenous agriculture and peasant political organizing in Basta!: Land & The Zapatista Rebellion in Chiapas.

For deeper background on the economic and social forces that led to the Zapatista rebellion, this is the book to read. Collier traces the roots of the conflict to uneven land distribution and macroeconomic development policies that have accelerated the marginalization of Mexico's poorest people.

The Zapatista uprising caught both Mexicans and Mexico watchers by surprise. A remote backwater and tourist region that in the 1980s was calm on the surface in contrast to neighboring Guatemala, Chiapas has long seemed an unlikely place for a revolution. Although contradictions between the natural wealth of the state (Chiapas produces half of the country's hydropower, a large percentage of its lumber, meat, coffee and sugar, as well as other basic foods such as corn and beans, and contains much of its other untapped resources, including a large deposit of oil) and its extreme poverty and lack of basic services are conditions that any student of Latin American revolutions might predict would eventually incubate a revolt, there were few signs that anything lasting was being organized until the EZLN appeared.

Plus, Chiapas' indigenous villages had been among the most reliable supporters of the ruling party since the 1930s. This is particularly true in the central highlands, where Mayan municipalities have been ruled through a traditional patronage system known as caciquismo. As a result, the Tzotzil and Tzeltal villagers seemed to identify themselves more by their own religious beliefs and cultural customs than by their political affiliation.

A Bridge From the Jungle

Although the Zapatista uprising spread to Chiapas' central highlands after it began in 1994, it was actually organized in the obscurity of eastern jungle lowlands. These were recent settlements which government aid programs failed to reach, leaving the poorest of the poor dangling outside the PRI's insidious system of co-optation.

Virtually unpeopled until the mid-1990s, the Lacandon jungle became a dumping ground for highland Mayans on the losing end of corrupt village politics, as well as peasants from other parts of the country.

The Zapatistas began to quietly organize amongst these recent settlers at least 10 years before a small army patrol accidentally discovered their existence in mid-1993. The discovery was covered up by PRI leaders who thought news of such groups could only sabotage the ongoing NAFTA negotiations.

Once the revolution was out in the open, it blew the lid off of long-festering tensions within dozens of central highland and northern Chiapas communities that did not participate in the initial uprising. Numerous municipalities drove caciques - henchmen loyal to the PRI ­ out from their midst, subsequently declaring themselves to be autonomous from the PRI-imposed ayuntamientos (municipal councils). The government systematically ignored these declarations, in flagrant violation of the San Andres accords, which federal officials had negotiated with the EZLN in the central highlands of Chiapas after an agreed cease-fire.

These newly autonomous communities in the north and central highlands of Chiapas - as well as those on the edge of the jungle near the Zapatista army's core base of operations - have since 1995 suffered a brutal backlash. Village leaders have become targets of a virtual counterinsurgency war waged by surrogate paramilitaries (gangs of unemployed, disenchanted young men organized with the complicity of the state's political and economic elite by military officers, some of whom have ties to the U.S. military's Center for Special Forces and the infamous School of the Americas). Their closest sympathizers and supporters - including catechists affiliated with San Cristobal Catholic Bishop Samuel Ruiz and international human rights observers - have also been targeted for harassment and expulsion.

At times, the violence has been so severe that the rest of the world could not help but take notice, such as the infamous Acteal massacre in 1998, when 45 nonviolent Tzotzil Mayans - mostly unarmed women and children - were gunned down by paramilitaries within earshot of indifferent state authorities.

Despite the systematic repression, support for the Zapatistas continued to grow. When the government attempted to emasculate the EZLN by publicly revealing the identity of Subcommandante Marcos, thousands of sympathizers marched in Mexico City with ski masks and banners which read "Todos Somos Marcos" ("We're All Marcos") - a razzing that signaled that the Zapatistas' struggle had spread far beyond Chiapas.

The Zapatistas have attempted to build upon that sympathy through a series of national and international encuentros - or meetings - with activist members of a newly galvanized Mexican civil society and solidarity activists from other countries, as well as a series of popular consultations, votes that have carried the Zapatista agenda to other poor and indigenous regions of Mexico.

Through six years of open struggle, the Zapatistas have made themselves the most popular voice of resistance from below by refusing to limit their demands to conditions in Chiapas and by focusing on indigenous self-determination and national democratic reforms instead of articulating a vanguardist revolutionary plan to seize power. Shunning conventional politics, at times they have even distanced themselves from potential allies within parties such as the left-center PRD, which supported many of the Zapatistas' demands but failed to win their open endorsement.

Twenty Years of Neoliberalism

NAFTA and the Zapatista response are both arguably the culmination of nearly 20 years of structural adjustment programs stemming from debt relief agreements signed in the early 1980s when Mexico's government sought help from the World Bank and IMF after revenues from oil exports plunged.

The technocratic wing of the PRI - mostly ensconced in the Planning and Finance Secretariat - systematically liberalized previously closed sectors of the economy as a condition of future credit. More concerned about keeping Wall Street happy than putting tortillas on the average Mexican's table, a succession of PRI presidents loosened restrictions on foreign investment, privatized state-owned industries (in the process creating 24 Mexican billionaires, mostly cronies of one president or another, and more than any country apart from the United States, Japan and Germany), forced cuts in social spending, froze the minimum wage while devaluing the peso and weakening the unions and other groups objecting to these measures.

By the time Harvard graduate Carlos Salinas took power by fraud in 1988, it was clear the technocratic coup was less a short-term trend than a permanent counter-revolution. In 1992, Salinas dismantled Article 27 - one of the most sacred elements of the Mexican social contract created after the first Zapatista revolution in the early twentieth century - allowing for the privatization of ejidos (communally held lands) and paving the way for NAFTA and the inevitable reaction that followed.

The Ripple Effect

In Homage to Chiapas, Bill Weinberg explores the brutal impacts of this neoliberal evolution, culminating in the NAFTA and the Zapatista uprising. Like George Orwell, who portrayed a model of resistance in Homage to Catalonia, Weinberg sees Chiapas as a powerful catalyst that has opened up the necessary space for grassroots struggles to erupt in other regions of the country.

One key example is Tabasco, the country's biggest oil-producing region [See "Oil Country Blowout," Multinational Monitor, October 1996]. With Mexico as a key supplier of oil to the United States and U.S. multinationals expecting the NAFTA to gradually open up PEMEX - the national oil company (and Mexico's last and most precious industrial plum) ­­ to privatization and foreign investment, Weinberg makes a convincing case that Tabasco may be viewed as even more vital to U.S. national security and business interests than Chiapas.

Tabasco is a state where ecological destruction combines with considerable political corruption (in a state of 3 million, governor Roberto Madrazo spent $70 million in 1994 to be elected). A grassroots struggle emerged in the 1990s in Tabasco against Pemex's negligence and lack of infrastructural maintenance, which have caused not only chronic pollution, but a number of major explosions. The overall damage to farmland and fishing areas has caused various groups of campesinos and fishermen to erect blockades and conduct other increasingly coordinated forms of protests.

As a result, the Mexican military has spent considerable resources in northern Chiapas and southern Tabasco to keep the EZLN struggle from spreading into Tabasco.

Meanwhile, other armed groups have sprung up elsewhere in the South. Just two years after the EZLN, smaller guerrilla groups such as the Popular Revolutionary Army (ERP) appeared in Guerrero (a state with a long history of guerrilla movements) and elsewhere.

Unarmed movements have also emerged to resist specific neoliberal policies, including the debtors' movement (El Barzon) whose large base of support is proof that the government's willingness to advance corporate globalization has come at the expense of most middle-class Mexicans.

Other protest movements which have received tacit support from the Zapatistas and a broad cross-section of civil society include the "democratic electricistas" ­­ the union-led movement opposed to the privatization of the state-held electrical utility; the national university (UNAM) strikers who occupied Latin America's largest college campus in opposition to a tuition fee proposal (the new fee not only would have put the school out of reach of the nation's poorest, but signaled an intent to enact the World Bank's prescription for privatization) - the biggest student uprising since the 1968 revolt that ended with the Tlaltelolco massacre; and anti-development struggles such as that which emerged in the mid-1990s in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec and the central Mexican village of Tepoztlan, which declared itself "in rebellion" against politicians and developers who wanted to build a luxury golf resort and giant computer complex [see "The Mexican Golf War, Multinational Monitor, May 1996]. In chapter after chapter, Weinberg explores each of these struggles.

He also analyzes how the drug war is used against the Mexican poor by a government deeply corrupted by the Juarez and other drug cartels. Anti-drug operations are used as an excuse to increasingly militarize the indigenous Tarahumara region in northern Mexico just as drug raids have been used as a pretext to invade Zapatista villages in Chiapas (where often the drugs are grown by farmers with ties to the PRI or the military).

Weinberg ends this litany of dangerous developments by surveying hopeful signs of international solidarity. He highlights the effort to close the School of the Americas, the emergence of international labor solidarity networks, the resistance to corporate rule and free trade north of the border, and the emergence of new civil alliances such as the International Network Against Neoliberalism. In the end, his book is a call to solidarity for North Americans.

Ultimately, Ross, Collier and Weinberg all put the Zapatista rebellion at the center of a struggle that is rapidly evolving at both the national and global level. Five hundred years of indigenous resistance should inspire and provide a perspective on the stamina needed for the struggle ahead against corporate globalization.

"It is an irony of the passage from one millennium to the next that the oldest peoples, amongst them the Mayan Zapatistas, should find themselves in the vanguard of this battle to the death with the new false gods of markets and money," John Ross writes. "But then it is always the first peoples that fight more diligently for their land and their trees, their languages and their cultures ­­ their way of doing things - because it is the indigenas of this world that have the most to lose."


Mailing List


Editor's Blog

Archived Issues

Subscribe Online

Donate Online


Send Letter to the Editor

Writers' Guidelines