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Photo Essay: Zapatistas

January 18, 2005

Photo Essay: Zapatistas

Reflecting on Ten Years of Resistance in Chiapas

by Chris Arsenault

On New Year's Day 1994, the day the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) went into effect, 3,000 poorly armed indigenous peasants seized 6 towns in Chiapas, Mexico's southernmost state. The Zapatistas demanded work, land, housing, food, healthcare, education, autonomy, freedom, democracy, justice and peace. Their rebellion wasn't an attempt to seize state power; the Zapatistas' stated goal was to draw attention to brutal poverty and ill-effects of NAFTA, which they called a "death sentence". NAFTA allowed heavily-subsidized US crops to flood the Mexican market, eliminating market access for millions of small farmers. As a precondition to the agreement, the Mexican government removed Article 27 from the constitution, an amendment dating to the first Mexican revolution which guaranteed communal land access for small farmers. The Zapatistas' uprising received worldwide attention, and drew much of its support from tens of thousands, particularly in North America and Europe. In the days following the insurgency, the army counter-attacked. Their capacity to destroy the Zapatistas was undisputed, but there was too much popular support behind the rebels; 100,000 rallied in Mexico City, chanting "we are all Zapatistas", and support demonstrations erupted at Mexican embassies and consulates around the world. Twelve days after fighting began, the army agreed to a ceasefire. After a series of fruitless negotiations with the government for indigenous rights and autonomy, three federal administrations, and a 2001 march on the capital drawing hundreds of thousands of supporters and the attention of the world media, the Zapatistas say they are coming to grips with the old maxim, "if you want something done right, you have to do it yourself." Unable to compel the government to negotiate in good faith, they are creating their own political structures, schools, health clinics and economic cooperatives. This photo essay looks back at eleven years of zapatismo, and provides a window onto the future of what the New York Times called "the first post-modern Latin American revolution."

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Zapatista activists in Oventic Caracole.

The rebellion itself consisted of 3000 or so Zapatistas taking over 5 towns, including the tourist Mecca San Cristobal de las Casas. Prior to New Year's Day 1994, people in Chiapas used all the classic protests: sit-ins, road blocks and demonstrations, but no one listened. According to human rights groups, the Zapatistas never violated the Geneva Convention, both during and after the armed phase of the rebellion. The same cannot be said for the Mexican Army.

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A child in the Zapatista refugee camp of San Pedro Polho.

After the 1997 Acteal Massacre where paramilitaries killed 45 unarmed indigenous men, women and children as they prayed in their church, thousands of Zapatista supporters fled their homes and ended up in this overcrowded camp.

According to the Mexican Government, 80 percent of Chiapas' municipalities are facing "acute marginalization". Chiapenco children, like this boy in San Pedro Polho, have a one in five chance of dying before age five.

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The sun slips through the clouds in the Los Altos (the highlands) region. Geographically, Chiapas is one of Mexico's most diverse and beautiful areas.

70 percent of Chiapas's dwellings are overcrowded, 51 percent have earthen floors and more than 35 percent lack drainage or electricity, even though Chiapas produces 60 percent of the hydro electric power used in Mexico City. These objective realities, along with 500 years of cultural destruction and humiliation for Mexico's (and Canada's) indigenous, created the conditions for rebellion.

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Military patrol outside the Zapatista community of Francisco Gomez in the Ocosingo region, 1999. At the height of tensions, observers estimate that 60 000 troops or one-third of the Mexican federal Army was stationed in Chiapas. There are deep seated economic and political interests in Chiapas, a state rich in oil, uranium, timber and other resources. In 1994, Chase Manhattan Bank sent a memo to high-ups in the Mexican Army urging them to "eliminate the Zapatistas to demonstrate effective control of the national territory."

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Military base in the Los Altos region, 2004.

Vicente Fox of the rightist National Action Party was elected president in 2000, ending 71 years of one party rule in Mexico. During the campaign, he promised to end the conflict in Chiapas in "fifteen minutes". Although he removed some troops, there are around 18,000 in Chiapas today. The occupation continues.

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Members of the Junta of Buen Goberino for Los Altos region stand in their office, Oventic Caracole, 2004.

In 2003, the armed wing of the Zapatistas passed the power of governance off to a civilian political authority; the Juntas of Buen Goberino (good government boards). This shift represents a key development for the movement- cemented autonomy. The Zapatistas say they need to create their own structures, functioning outside the hegemony of state political power or "free-market" domination.

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A member of Mujures por la dignidad (women for dignity) a 1,000 member Zapatista cooperative, weaving art-crafts. photo: James Daria

Zapatista women are empowering themselves economically as well as socially. Several women-run cooperatives have sprouted up, producing blankets, crafts, hammocks, etc.

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Mural for women's education and dignity in Oventic. Photo: James Daria

It is safe to say that indigenous women in Chiapas are at the bottom of the world's socio-economic hierarchy. According to Commandante Ramona, the martriarch of the Zapatistas, "Women have been the most exploited... We get up at three in the morning to prepare corn for our husband's breakfast and we don't rest until late at night. If there is not enough food we give it to our children and our husbands first. So the women now have decided to take up arms and become Zapatistas."

Women comprise fifty percent of EZLN (the Zapatista armed wing)'s leadership. One third of those fighting on New Year's Day 1994 were women.

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A farmer tests his corn for genetic contamination.

Genetic Modification has become a global consumer issue; in Chiapas it is a question of identity. The Mayans consider themselves, "the people of the corn"; when you change the corn, you're changing them. These farmers walked for eight hours to bring samples from families in their area to be tested for contamination. All the tests came out negative, but they say that could change any day.

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Activists putting the finishing touches on boots at a Zapatista run workshop.

Even key Zapatista activists still can't afford proper footwear. In response to this need, the movement started the 1st of January boot cooperative, which sells high quality boots at cost to local communities. The factory is a thriving example of worker self-management. According to one of the volunteer employees: "We have no owner. Here we are all equals. When there is something necessary, or when problems arise, all jobs have problems, then we have a meeting or a discussion in general. If we want to make something without consulting the rest, we can't do that. We must present that job on behalf of everyone."

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Students crowd the classroom at the autonomus Zapatista school in Francisco Gomez.

Education is a key demand of the Zapatistas. In many regions, government schools simply don't exist. Government schools neglect indigenous history and are inaccessible to many communities. The Zapatistas have opened dozens of their own schools, with volunteer teachers giving free classes in local languages (tzotzil in this community), Spanish, math, humanities and natural sciences.


Chris Arsenault is a Halifax based freelance writer. He has covered the situation in Chiapas for CBC radio, the Halifax Herald and Z Magazine. Chris has also worked with Students Taking Action in Chiapas and the Black Star Boot Cooperative, grassroots organizations working on the ground in Chiapas.

For further reading, visit Global Exchange, Chiapas Independent Media Centre, and Z Magazine.

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The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.

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