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NGOs and the Zapatistas

Mary Ann Tenuto Sanchez
Date Published: 
November 01, 2005
    On January 1, 1994, the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN for their initials in Spanish) rose up in arms against the government of Mexico, calling the world’s attention to the extreme poverty in which indigenous peoples lived: of the 3.5 million people in Chiapas, 1.5 million had no access to medical services; 72 out of every 100 children did not finish first grade; 54% of all Chiapas residents suffered from malnutrition, reaching 80% in indigenous areas; and 50% of all children under five died of curable diseases.

Not surprisingly, local, national and international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) rushed into this new and much publicized space. Some have since played an important supporting role in the movement. Solidarity committees and other grassroots organizations have also provided economic support. All this solidarity, however, has also created some problems and less progress than perhaps it should have. Therefore, in August 2003 the Zapatistas issued a series of communiqués, collectively known as The Thirteenth Stele, wherein they publicly redefined their relationship to all organizations that wished to provide economic solidarity.

In The Thirteenth Stele, the EZLN described three problems with the economic support received from civil society: 1) the Cinderella Syndrome, 2) the imposition of projects by national and international NGOs, and 3) the unequal distribution of economic solidarity.
The Cinderella Syndrome is characterized by sending leftovers or discards. Marcos used the example of a “pink shoe with a stiletto heel, size 6 1/2 without its mate,” as an example of a useless discard. Additional items the communities received were “useless computers, expired medicines, and extravagant (for us) clothes.” The Cinderella Syndrome reflects a way of “thinking that, poor as we are, we will accept anything, charity and alms.” It reflects pity while the Zapatista struggle is about dignity.

The Zapatistas also described the paternalistic imposition of projects by some NGOs and believe that it stems from thinking that they—the NGOs and their funders—know what is best for the communities, that is, what they should eat, learn, say, and think. For example, a community that needs a school is offered a library, or a community that needs medicine to keep children from dying is offered a course on birth control methods. Such paternalism amounts to imposing or, in this case, trying to impose one’s own cultural values on another culture. What nonprofits and foundations must come to understand is that impoverished communities know what they need. They simply do not have the means to accomplish it without economic support.

My companeras in the Chiapas Support Committee and I learned this during our March 2002 visit to the Lacandon Jungle. We presented an autonomous council with money for different projects with which we were familiar. The council president diplomatically said, “Our priorities here are health, education and support for the work of the autonomous council.” We politely excused ourselves for a moment, caucused and revised the distribution of our funds to comply with this clear guidance. We later heard the same thing from friends working in other autonomous counties. Since health, education and support for the autonomous counties have been prioritized, one can see and read about many steps forward in these areas.

The Thirteenth Stele summarizes: “The support we are demanding is for the building of a small part of that world where all worlds fit. It is, then, political support, not charity.” With that, the EZLN changed the name of their centers of resistance then known as Aguascalientes and renamed them Caracoles. The name change symbolized an end to charity and imposition. They referred to this name change as the “death” of the Aguascalientes. And, “With the death of the Aguascalientes, the ‘Cinderella Syndrome’ of some ‘civil societies’ and the paternalism of some national and international NGOs will also die. At least they will die for the Zapatista communities, which, from now on, will no longer be receiving leftovers or allowing the imposition of projects.”

The third problem described in The Thirteenth Stele came as no surprise to me as it was a phenomenon I had personally witnessed over the years—the unequal distribution of economic solidarity. The more accessible and familiar communities received the bulk of visits and, consequently, the bulk of the economic support. Inequality in community development resulted.

When the new centers of resistance, renamed Caracoles, were “born” and the Good Government Juntas were created on August 9, 2003, these issues dealing with economic solidarity were addressed. The Juntas are regional autonomous governing bodies. Everyone, NGOs included, is now required to have any project they wish to offer the communities approved by the regional Junta, and the Junta is responsible for the equitable distribution of projects. The Junta is also responsible for rejecting any material aid it does not deem appropriate. Those NGOs that cannot accept this exercise of control by the Juntas cannot work in Zapatista territory. In other words, the Zapatista autonomous governments now regulate the NGOs.

The Juntas have proven effective. Although many of the large international NGOs have left Chiapas, those that remain have learned to work effectively together with grassroots organizations and the Juntas. Many Chiapas NGOs have been created over the last eleven years and some work closely with the autonomous communities. Civilian Zapatistas from the communities actively participate in some Chiapas NGOs as members of cooperatives. Economic support for the communities is now coming from grassroots organizations and nonprofits in Mexico and around the world. European organizations (both solidarity committees and NGOs) contribute much of the funding for projects in autonomous communities.

The Zapatista Uprising was not financed by NGOs. Campesinos sold their cattle and other farm animals to buy weapons. Now, however, NGOs and grassroots organizations are working side by side with the autonomous governments to create the material conditions necessary for continued resistance. The Zapatistas accept no money from federal, state or local governments in Mexico. Therefore, economic solidarity from all of us in civil society permits the communities to continue living in resistance and rebellion and constructing a “world where all worlds fit.”


Mary Ann Tenuto Sanchez is a founding member of the Chiapas Support Committee in Oakland, California, a frequent Chiapas visitor, and a writer for Chiapas Update. She may be contacted by email at [email protected]. The Chiapas Support Committee's webpage is