20th Anniversary: Voice of Fire: Communiques and Interviews From the Zapatista National Liberation Army

Ben Clarke
On January 1, 1994, The Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) staged a daring intervention into the course of Mexican history by occupying San Cristóbal de las Casas and five municipalities in Chiapas, the southernmost state of Mexico. The Mexican government, headed by President Salinas de Gortari, responded with bombings, massacres and mass arrests during which hundreds, if not thousands of people, were killed. There was national and international outrage at the government's tactics and, within weeks of the initial conflict, the government proposed a cease fire and opened a process of dialogue with the Zapatistas. In a few short months, the EZLN went from an unknown force to one negotiating directly with the government over national issues such as fair elections, economic development and indigenous rights.

Initial attempts by the government and international press to discredit the EZLN, calling them "professionals of violence" and portraying them as a movement organized by foreigners were refuted. It is now generally accepted that the EZLN emerged from a decades long struggle for land and justice and is firmly rooted in both the Mayan indigenous communities of Chiapas and the national history of Mexico.

The interviews and communiqués in this book reveal the Zapatistas' own views on the fundamental causes of their rebellion, their analysis of the Mexican and international political situation, and pluralistic strategies for revolutionary change. ...When read together these materials present a compelling portrait of a people who began the revolutionary process "hands empty of hope" and have become "filled with fire to demand and cry out our longings, our struggle." {Communiqué, To 500 Years of Resistance, February 1, 1994}

Much of the information from the Zapatistas has come through Subcomandante Marcos, their highly visible, but masked spokesperson. He is author of most of the communiqués from the Revolutionary Clandestine Indigenous Committee (CCRI) and of "Two Winds, A Storm and a Prophecy" which introduces the reader to the social and economic history of Chiapas. His analytic, caustic, poetic and sometimes humorous style has been an important element in the widespread press attention the Zapatistas have received. Subcomandante Marcos is thought to be the military strategist of the EZLN but has insisted repeatedly that he is subject to the orders of the CCRI and is not the caudillo (authoritarian leader) of the Zapatistas. In an interview on February 5, 1994, members of the CCRI explain the meaning of their committee's title : "Revolutionary...because we are conscious... because we want change...Clandestine...because we don't suit the government... Indigenous ... [because] we feel that we have the capacity to direct our own future...Committee because we are [organized] in collectives."

Throughout the Zapatista documents there is a heavy emphasis on collectivism and what they call anti-caudillismo: resisting cults of personality and authoritarian power, as well as demanding accountability to the base. According to Subcomandante Marcos: "Our leadership is collective...They call this ski mask `Marcos' here, today, and tomorrow they'll call it `Pedro' in Margaritas or `Joshua' in Ocosingo or `Alfred' in Altamirano." {Interview, January 1, 1994} This kind of leadership structure is based on traditional Mayan forms of governance in which community service is a cargo (burden or charge) which the wielder of authority bears for the sake of the community as well as a reaction against the centuries long domination of Mexican society by local caciques (strongmen) and national dictators. "Collective work, democratic thought, the obedience to the will of the majority are all more than traditions in the indigenous zones. The have also been the only possibility for survival, resistance, dignity and rebellion." {Two Winds, August, 1992}

The synthesis of indigenous traditions and concerns with "national" Mexico distinguishes the Zapatistas from both indigenous revolts of the past and from European inspired revolutionaries elsewhere in Latin America. In their January 6th communiqué, the CCRI writes, "[Our] primary objective is to make known to the people of Mexico and the rest of the world the miserable conditions in which millions of Mexicans, especially the indigenous, live and die." But in explaining their composition they write, "There are also in our movement Mexicans from other social origins and different states of our country...Our struggle is national and is not limited to the state of Chiapas." In the "Declaration of War," the EZLN cites both the 500 year history of indigenous resistance and the Mexican constitution itself as justification for their struggle. While focusing on the experience and demands of the indigenous Mayans who form their base, the EZLN has also articulated a core set of principled demands that are national in scope. Transition to democracy, land reform, adequate health care, educational opportunity, and indigenous autonomy are essential issues throughout Mexico and the proposed EZLN solution to these conditions is national revolutionary change.

The EZLN takes its name from Emiliano Zapata, an Indian leader of the 1910 Mexican Revolution who was assassinated by the Mexican military in 1919. Many of the campesino (peasant or agrigultural worker) organizations of Mexico have evoked Zapata's legacy in their struggle for land reform and social justice. As Subcomandante Marcos recounts: "The oldest of the old of the communities say there was a Zapata who rose up for them and whose voice sang more than shouted, `Land and Liberty!' And these old ones tell how he didn't die and how he will return... that the wind and the rain and the sun tell the campesino when to prepare the earth, when to sow and when to reap. And the old ones tell how hope is also sown and reaped... how the wind, the rain and the sun are speaking of another form for our earth, how so much poverty cannot continue harvesting death, that the hour to harvest rebellion has come. That's what the old ones say...'Zapata' the poor youth repeat. `Zapata' insists the wind, the wind from below, our wind." {Two Winds August, 1992}

This kind of language, which can be found throughout the EZLN documents, reveals the deep spiritual connection to the land and to the ancestors which is central to Mayan culture. There is another compelling example in the February 1, 1994 communiqué, "To 500 Years of Resistance": "Even the hearts of plants and animals and the hearts of stones were filled with pain; the sun and the wind suffered and were in pain and the land had pain and suffering. Everything was pain and suffering, everything was silence...We saw our grandparents struggling...We saw our parents with fury in their hands. Our dead called us again to dignity and to the struggle."

The identity and spirituality of the base of the EZLN is also, of course, heavily influenced by the Catholic Church. The long history of oppressive alliance between the dominant ladino (Spanish speaking) culture and the church has shifted in Chiapas, due in large part to the liberation theology-based organizing of the diocese of San Cristóbal de las Casas. Under the leadership of Bishop Samuel Ruiz Garcia, not only are important elements of Mayan culture respected (Mayan creation myths from the Guatemalan Quiché text Popul Vuh are taught, side by side, with the Biblical story of Genesis), but diocesan workers have helped develop the social infrastructure of base communities, campesino unions, marketing cooperatives, health care and educational facilities that sustain life in the remote communities. In 1993, there were mass demonstrations to prevent the Vatican from re-assigning Bishop Ruiz. As Subcomandante Marcos says in an interview on January 1, 1994, "whoever gets involved in a community has to choose: either to augment exploitation or do something to end it". He also says, "The diocese of San Cristóbal de las Casas preaches the right to freedom and justice." {Two Winds, August, 1992}

Despite the San Cristóbal diocese's progressive role, Subcomandante Marcos describes their approach as follows: "they always proposed self-sufficiency, economic projects and the like...They clearly stated that they couldn't get involved in politics and that the most radical and least desirable option would be violence." {Interview, January 1, 1994} In Chiapas, any advocacy for Indians is labeled as subversive by the local elite who have responded to grassroots organizing by the church with wild accusations, death threats and imprisonment. Continuing this pattern, church leaders were accused of having helped organize the rebellion. In response, the CCRI specifically denied "ecclesial" assistance in a January 6, 1994 communiqué.

Some of the distancing between the EZLN and the church might be a product of political damage control in the tense confrontations of the current struggle. There is no doubt that important sectors of the Catholic Church support the demands, if not the tactics, of the EZLN. Bishop Ruiz was nominated by the EZLN as mediator for the peace talks and has played an important role in mobilizing "civil society" in support for real change. And by all accounts, real change is desperately needed to reverse the effects of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party's (PRI) economic and social policies.

In "Two Winds", Subcomandante Marcos spells out the essential requirements of the economic strategy of the PRI's "neoliberalism": a cheap expendable labor force, non-sustainable exploitation of natural resources, and concentration of wealth at the center at the expense of areas like Chiapas. "Billions of tons of prime materials flow to Mexican ports, railroad, air and truck terminals, headed toward different parts of the world: The U.S. Canada, Holland, Germany, Italy, Japan but with the same destination, the empire...at the height of neoliberalism and `libertarian revolutions' the southeast continues to export prime materials and labor, just as they did 500 years ago, while importing the principle of capitalist production; misery and death."

Subcomandante Marcos chronicles the numbing statistics of exploitation: 15,000 Chiapans die each year of preventable disease and malnutrition; there are 70 hotel rooms per 10,000 tourists and only .3 hospital beds per 10,000 Chiapan citizens; 16,058 classrooms and only 1096 in indigenous zones; 92,000 barrels of petroleum and 516.7 billion cubic feet of natural gas extracted daily; and most importantly of all, the control of the land is still in the hands of the inheritors of the conquest.

In Chiapas, reforms begun during the Mexican Revolution, such as limits on the size of large landholdings and the establishment of ejidos (collective farms), have been subverted by outright illegal ownership, as well as by legal subterfuges such as splitting title to land among related people so that the old haciendas are kept intact as functioning units. The ejidos received far too little fertile land when they were first established, and since then, almost no technical support, credit or appropriate technology to improve production. With each generation, campesinos have been forced farther and farther up the mountains and deeper into the Lacandona jungle in search of sustenance. Furthermore, the whole premise of land reform is now under direct attack nationally by the Institutional Revolutionary Party.

In 1992, the PRIwhich for 65 years has stayed in power through fraud and coercionrevised Article 27 of the Mexican constitution to end the practice of land redistribution and to allow the private sale of what have been communal lands. For the PRI, privatization is one part of a strategy to integrate Mexico into the international market and in particular, to build a trading block among the U.S., Canadian and Mexican economies through the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

The EZLN chose the first of the year as the date for their declaration of war, in part, because it was the date on which NAFTA went into effect. NAFTA, says Subcomandante Marcos in a January 1st interview, "is a death sentence for the Indians...an international massacre." The reasons for this reach from the cosmological to the practical, from the cultural clash of the campesino Mayans with the cattle-ranching ladinos to the grinding oppression of international capitalism. In Mayan cosmology, corn has a unique place in the organization of the world. It is a stalk of corn emerging from a cleft volcano which is the symbol of original creation and it is the milpa (corn & bean field) which forms the core of the campesinos' survival. NAFTA will open the Mexican economy to cheap U.S. corn and accelerate international exploitation and privatization of the natural resources of Mexico. This will force even more of the Mayan campesinos into starvation, drive them off the land and further damage the fundamental patterns of their traditional way of life.

The Mayan peoples of Chiapas have been consistent in building creative forms of resistance to these attacks. The formation of the EZLN and their dramatic armed actions are only the most publicized dimension of a larger, deeper struggle of the people of Chiapas. The Mayan campesinos (sometimes working with ladinos who are faced with the same conditions) have created hundreds of peaceful organizations to struggle for their freedom, their rights and their land. They have established: economic self-sufficiency projects such as traditional weaving cooperatives, bakeries, and communal kitchens; organized agricultural workers unions, child care centers and land takeovers; conducted marches to Mexico City to make demands on the Federal government; and occupied municipal capitals to protest electoral fraud. But the incessant attacks of the caciques, the landowners, the police and the military finally led to the choice for armed resistance. A member of the CCRI says, "the response the government gave us...was repression, beatings, murder, evictions and the imprisonment of our leaders... That's the reason why we're participating in armed struggle." {Indigenous Voices, February 5, 1994}

The Zapatistas, though forced into war due to the desperation of their own conditions, respect the contributions of the rest of society and have an acute awareness of the limits of armed struggle. "We don't want, neither would it be in our power, to impose our ideas on Mexican civilian society by force of arms as the present government imposes its project on the country by force of arms...We think that revolutionary change in Mexico will not be the product of action in a single course. It won't be, in a strict sense, an armed or a peaceful revolution. It will be, primarily, a revolution that results from the struggle on various social fronts, with many methods." {Communiqué, January 20, 1994}

Furthermore, the EZLN is not a vanguard movement seeking to institute its own rule. "We choose a suicidal profession whose objective is to disappear; soldiers who are soldiers so that one day no one will have to be a soldier," writes Subcomandante Marcos in a letter "To a Boy in La Paz." "We don't want to monopolize as a vanguard or to say that we are the light, the only alternative and deny the qualifications of revolutionary to one or another current." {Interview, January 1, 1994}

The EZLN welcomed the support of "civil society" in bringing about the cease fire in January. After the agreement on Bishop Ruiz as the mediator in the peace dialogue, the EZLN called on the Non-Governmental Organizations of Mexico "to form [a] peace zone to prevent Federal troops as well as those from the EZLN from interrupting the physical space of the table of dialogue." {Communiqué, February 1, 1994} In response, thousands of people from across Mexico came to San Cristóbal and maintained a 24 hour-a-day vigil surrounding the cathedral where the dialogue was taking place. At this point, the `civil society' strategy of the EZLN became clearly visible. The peace zone not only succeeded in providing physical safety for the EZLN (Mexico has a long history of assassinated negotiators), it also focused national and international media attention, relayed information about Chiapas and the EZLN to organizations across Mexico, and mobilized and empowered diverse sectors and regions. These thousands of unarmed people, protecting the EZLN from local caciques and the Mexican military, symbolize the dynamic which the Zapatistas hope to achieve on a national level. The armed movement creates facts which require a response from the government and civil society; this raises issues which other organizations, from labor unions, to students in the universities, advance in their own spheres. "From [the] action of Mexican civil society and not from the will of the government nor from the power of our guns will come the real possibility of a democratic change in Mexico." {Communiqué, January 20, 1994}

In late February, in the face of intense speculation about the course of the electoral campaign and the presidential ambitions of Camacho Solís, the government's peace commissioner, the PRI formulated a response to 34 demands presented by the EZLN. The EZLN took the government's proposals back to the communities which form their base, and according to the CCRI, "in an exercise of democracy without precedent in an armed organization, conferred with its membership regarding whether or not to sign the federal government's peace proposals." {Second Declaration, June 10, 1994} . The demands and proposals were also debated in above-ground campesino organizations and in forums and discussions throughout the country. Meanwhile, in Chiapas, the takeover of thousands of hectares of land by campesino organizations and the expulsion of numerous municipal governments by unarmed occupations fueled an emerging sense of hope. Independent strikes by Mexican workers, parallel organizing in other indigenous dominated regions of the country and solidarity actions by the urban population, began to create a national movement towards real structural reforms. The EZLN's continual reiteration of openness to other forces and its advocacy of national, not just Chiapan issues, inspired reciprocal support from other sectors.

Evidence began to appear of a split within the government between a hard line faction seeking military victory over the EZLN and a more conciliatory wing which was willing to grant limited concessions. Facing the international scrutiny that the upcoming presidential election would bring, and urgently seeking continued foreign investment in the "new" privatized economy, it appeared that some in the PRI might be willing to cut a deal. Concessions in the electoral process, concessions on constitutional reform and some recognition of indigenous rights were put on the national agenda.

On March 23rd, the PRI presidential candidate, Luis Donaldo Colosio was assassinated. The murder successfully shifted the terms of debate, forestalled many of the pressures for reform and interrupted the process of dialogue. In their communiqué of March 24th, the EZLN interprets the assassination as an act of the hard line faction in the government that "secretly energizes the sabotage that the great landowners and merchants have undertaken against the peace process, the same line that threatens the news media and Bishop Samuel Ruiz Garcia, the same line that opposes a radical, democratic political reform."

Despite fears of an imminent military assault, the EZLN eventually resumed its consultations with the communities that form their base. In June they announced, "The federal government responded to the just demands of the EZLN with a series of offers that didn't touch the essential point of the problem: the lack of justice, freedom and democracy in Mexico." {Second Declaration, June 10, 1994} In a carefully crafted analysis, the EZLN rejected the government's proposals as empty promises and half-measures and called for a national democratic convention to organize a transitional government under a new constitution. They also articulated their willingness to "continue down the path the Non-Governmental Organizations have pointed out to us with their commitment: a political route in the transition to democracy." {Communities Respond, June 10, 1994}

The government is trapped in a situation where its cannot launch full scale war against the EZLN because to do so would spark other armed resistance and mass civil unrest. On the other hand, it cannot make authentic changes because, as the EZLN analyzes the situation in the "Second Declaration", "the belligerence of the caciques in their domains, the omnipotent power of the large ranchers and merchants and the penetration of narco-trafficking... make it possible for the party in power to maintain itself."

Militarily the EZLN has little chance of defeating the Mexican government. However, by opening the way for participation of all the other progressive currents in Mexico the EZLN has played a part in accomplishing what it has taken armed revolutionary movements in other countries twenty or thirty years to achieve. The EZLN is offering the nation a choice between social and political change or war. The possibility of millions of Mexican refugees crossing the border into the United States will surely involve the U.S. government directly in the decisions ahead. Already the reactionaries inside this country have heightened their long standing anti-immigrant campaign and now propose militarizing the United States - Mexican border. The U.S. solidarity movement can play a critical role in determining whether the growing interconnections between U.S. and Mexican societies are destructive continuations of the imperial pattern or part of building a world where respect for the land, human dignity, and self-determination provide a new path for cultural and planetary survival. As the CCRI quotes Emiliano Zapata's words in the "Second Declaration," "It is not only by shooting bullets in the battlefield that tyranny is overthrown, but also by hurling ideas of redemption, words of freedom and terrible anathemas against the hangmen, that the people bring down dictators and empires."

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About Jess Clarke

Some Information
Clarke is the founding editor of Freedom Voices Press and Project Director of Reimagine!  the publisher of Race, Poverty & the Environment a journal of social and environmental justice.

Clarke has edited many books, magzinges and journals. Under the pen name Ben Clarke they were co-editor with Roger Burbach of September 11 and the U.S. War, Beyond the Curtain of Smoke co-published by Freedom Voices and City Lights publishers 2002; editor of Image and Imagination, Encounters with the Photography of Dorothea Lange, 1997; and co-editor, with Clifton Ross of Voice of Fire, 1994, the first anthology of Zapatista communiqués and interviews published in English.

From 1998-2004, Clarke was editor of MediaFile a bi-monthly journal of media analysis and resources for activists published by San Francisco's Media Alliance.

A California Arts Council artist-in-residence 1999-2001 and a San Francisco Arts Commission lead artist on a project called Raising Our Voices, Clarke has been teaching writing, digital design and critical thinking in community settings for over a decade.