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Eve's Review

The Zapatista Revolution

“Autonomy Is in Our Hearts”
Dylan Eldredge Fitzwater
PM Press, 190 pages
$19.95

Eve Ottenberg
The Zapatista uprising in 1994 was sparked by the specter of destitution, which loomed up thanks to NAFTA. For twelve days, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) made war on the Mexican state, because while few of the mostly indigenous Zapatistas were strangers to absolute poverty, NAFTA had just cancelled the Mexican constitution’s protection of native communal land from sale and privatization – a foundational peasant protection that dated from Emiliano Zapato’s 1910-19 revolution. This was too much. Though the Zapatistas finally agreed to a ceasefire, they maintained control of their territory in the southern state of Chiapas – which they still govern today – despite calls from global capital for their “elimination.” Today, Zapatistas inspire anti-capitalists in Mexico and throughout the world.

“They don’t care that we have nothing,” the Zapatistas said of Mexico’s elite at the very start, “absolutely nothing, not even a roof over our heads, no land, no work, no healthcare, no food, no education, not the right to freely and democratically elect our political representatives, nor independence from foreigners.” Today the Zapatistas have much more than nothing. They govern five “Caracoles,” regions in Chiapas near the Guatemalan border, and in this they blend anarchism with democratic socialism, described by Dylan Eldredge Fitzwater in his new book, “Autonomy Is in Our Hearts.” The only other such large-scale experiment on the planet exists in the Kurdish-controlled region of Syria. Like the Kurds, the Zapatistas cannot let their guard down for a minute, though their enemies differ. The Kurds face savage Islamist terrorists. But the Zapatistas must stay vigilant and ready to take up arms against government paramilitaries, which periodically invade their territory.

The EZLN is a unique army. It grew out of the Forces of National Liberation (FLN), Marxist communist guerillas, who swarmed into “the mountains of the Lacandon Jungle in 1983 to organize the EZLN as the peasant wing of their strategy for a national armed uprising,” according to the book’s introduction. “Over the years, this organization was transformed by the Tsotsil, Tzeltal, Chol, Toyolabal, Mam and Zoque indigenous communities that joined its ranks.” So over the course of ten years of clandestine organizing, the FLN guerillas, who had aimed to organize peasants, were instead transformed by them. FLN aspirations evolved from “seizure of state power and redistribution of national resources to…local autonomous self-determination.” In 2003, the Zapatistas inaugurated the five Caracoles, “each with its own autonomous Good Government Council.” Fitzwater analyzes the Zapatista government’s political, economic and military structure; in this, his books contributes much to revolutionary, anti-capitalist literature.

“Every community, autonomous Municipality and Caracol does things differently,” Fitzwater writes. All adhere “to the seven principles of autonomous government and the rights collectively ratified in the Revolutionary Laws.” At this government’s heart lies the assembly. Those who govern do so by assisting negotiations in the popular local assemblies. “The Zapatistas understand governance as a particular form of work in service to the community, rather than as the exercise of power through administration or rule.” The government helps sustain collectives in health care, banking, transportation, justice and small business commerce. Mechanisms are in place to prevent corruption, to obstruct the formation of elites and to ensure gender equality. These mechanisms require much community effort. “It is a lot of work being a Zapatista,” Fitzwater quotes one local educator.

During the 1994 revolution, the Zapatistas overran the plantations called fincas. They expelled the owners and empowered the indigenous peons, who previously had been little more than slaves. Thus the Zapatistas ended the horrors of finca life, which included rape of indigenous women and girls, hanging for indigenous men who refused to hand over their daughters, exhausting labor and pulverizing debt for the workers. These peons labored in the fields and served the landowner in his home. “The landowners would whip or even hang those who disobeyed them.”

No wonder the Zapatistas are ready at a moment’s notice to step out of their cornfields and take up arms against Mexican paramilitaries. The only surprise, is that the first time, back in 1994, they waited so long to do it.


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