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The Zapatistas: Beyond the Ballot and the Bullet

Sylvia Romo
Date Published: 
February 01, 2005
    “Elections pass, governments pass. Resistance remains as it is, one more alternative for humanity and against neoliberalism. Nothing more, but nothing less.”
    — SC Marcos

For the global justice movement (global justice movements?), the Zapatistas are often looked to for political strategy that extends beyond taking state power. Yet the Zapatistas were not always known for bottom-up, “lead by following” organizing. How and why has the Zapatista movement changed shape over the past ten years — from armed overthrow to autonomous schools? How can movements outside of Chiapas similarly deepen their notions of “taking power,” and begin to locate multiple sites of social transformation?

The EZLN’s 1994 uprising aspired to take the federal government by force. Calling all Mexicans to “restore the stability of the nation by unseating the dictator,” the Declaration of War ordered their combatants to “advance on the capital, conquering the federal army and allowing the liberated citizens to freely and democratically elect their own administrative authorities.”

Like most revolutionaries before them then, the Zapatistas initially viewed the taking of State power as the only means to obtain their demands of democracy, liberty and justice. Today however, the Zapatistas are known for quite the opposite. Indeed, they have since formulated a new theory and practice of revolution, one that has broken the Left’s fixation on controlling the State and opened new spaces of dialogue and invention within the Global Justice Movement.

What brought about this radical shift from a traditional revolutionary trajectory to the theory/practice of “changing the world without taking power?” Following an election where the Left offered few alternatives beyond the tragic pragmatism of “Anyone But Bush,” and now faced with the reality of four more years of Bush, what can we learn from the Zapatista alternative?

Now more than ever it seems the Zapatista example of democracy beyond the ballot box merits reflection by the American Left, not with the purpose of defining the Zapatista experience as a path to be followed, but rather as an inspiration and a challenge that informs the forging of our own path of resistance and liberation here — one that is therefore appropriate to our own political, historical and cultural context — while advancing the global struggle against capitalism and war.

With the hope of contributing to such a reflection, I believe it’s essential to explore why the Zapatistas abandoned the traditional, State-centric notion of revolution? And more importantly, how does this unorthodox idea get translated into effective, permanent action?

First, we must look back to the initial days of the uprising, when the EZLN hoped to spark a massive mobilization on Mexico City to overthrow the government and initiate a transition to democracy. Instead they encountered a massive mobilization of civil society in support of their demands, but not their means. On January 12, three million Mexicans took the streets to express their solidarity with the insurgents, while rejecting the prospect of a civil war and demanding a negotiated peace.

This moment is the critical juncture in the Zapatista movement, one that inspired them — and in many senses obligated them — to begin to formulate and articulate a new meaning of revolution beyond the seizure of State power. To do so, they put in practice their idea of caminar preguntando — “ask as you walk” — constructing a path forward without a pre-established destination, guided only by an absolute adherence to one’s principles, clearing the path ahead with a series of questions and self-criticisms…If not taking power by force, then what? Become a political party? Surrender? Cease to exist?

Looking back

As is often the case with the indigenous Zapatistas, to find the way forward, they looked back to history. There they found that taking power as an alternative had been mined in Mexico and many other places as well. Revolutionary or reformist attempts either quickly collapsed under the pressure of global capitalism, or worse, left their supporters with unfulfilled promises, sinking into practices of cooptation or mutating into powers as monstrous as those they replaced.

In fact, for a clear example of this, the Zapatistas needed to look no further than the dictatorship Mexico was suffering at the time under the Party of the Institutional Revolution. As its name indicates, the party was born of one of the most radical revolutions in history — the revolution of Emiliano Zapata himself — that ended in the hands of a series of murderous, neoliberal regimes. It seems the revolution-made State institution soon ceases to be revolutionary.

Furthermore, when considering the viability of becoming a political party, the Zapatistas must have recalled the electoral fraud that robbed the leftist PRD party of the presidency in 1988, sending the mass popular mobilization that organized around election day back to their homes empty-handed. Now, incidentally, this Party of the Democratic Revolution is turning out to be anything but. Nationally, many high-level members are locked in corruption scandals and — having taken the governorship of Chiapas — the policy of counterinsurgency and cooptation continues to the extent that there are even paramilitary groups affiliated with the PRD. No matter which party occupies the seat of government, the seat is never turned toward the governed, but toward the foreign financial powers that could make or break them.

Finally, and much to their credit, the Zapatistas also came to recognize that as a military organization, the EZLN is inherently un- or even anti-democratic, and therefore unfit to govern. “Armed Zapatismo,” says Marcos, “cannot be an alternative to government if democracy is the objective.”

Finding themselves stuck in a void between the ballot and the bullet, the Zapatistas began to build another way.

In a broader sense, they concluded that if the ultimate goals are democracy, justice and liberty, they could not be content with a mere transfer of power in the government system. These goals are more than mere projects that can simply be designed and imposed from above. If they are to be attained and sustained, a transformation must occur at the grassroots:

“The only thing left to do will be to re-found the nation. With a new social pact, a new Constitution, a new political class and a new way of doing politics. In sum, there will need to be a program of struggle, built from below, based on the real national agenda, not on the one being promoted by politicians and the media.”

New politics

Therefore, their focus shifted from taking power to altering the nature of power itself by constructing a new political culture. “It is hope which obliges us to look for new forms of struggle, that is, new ways of being political, of doing politics: a new politics, a new political morality, a new political ethic is not just a wish, it is the only way to go forward, to jump to the other side.”

Thus, the Zapatistas began to create new spaces for popular participation, engaging all members of society to change from being spectators to active participants in the development of anti-capitalist, democratic alternatives. Concretely, their efforts included the building of autonomous spaces now known as Caracoles; the organization of massive nation-wide referendums; the founding of the first national, non-partisan political organizations in Mexican history; the historic march to Mexico City; and finally, the organization of a series of national and international encuentros — or meetings — “For Humanity and Against Neoliberalism.”

The national and international impact of these efforts are well-known, and too numerous to outline here. It is important to emphasize, however, that beyond the immediate goal of each of these efforts, they all had the broader purpose of empowerment, of organization, of simply providing a pretext for people to leave their homes and become politically engaged.

However, the real lessons to be learned are not in these national or international efforts, but in the lesser-known transformation unfolding locally in Autonomous Zapatista territory. On the ground in Chiapas, the Zapatistas demonstrate on a daily basis that the refusal to take power is not a passive stance, but a call to action. They have declared 39 autonomous municipalities, spanning almost half the territory of the state. In the last year, they have advanced to yet another level of autonomous governance on a regional level, in five councils called Good Government Boards which coordinate the work of the municipal councils and eliminate the Zapatista Army from involvement in civilian governance.

These boards rotate membership to avoid the creation of a clique of “professional” leaders and establish entire villages capable of leading — that is, “lead by obeying.” They’ve built a network of hundreds of free volunteer-run health clinics and autonomous schools. Other projects include land distribution, sanitation, potable water, electricity, and agro-ecology as well as fair trade cooperatives in anything from coffee to women’s weavings.

We see again, beyond the immediate purpose of these projects, the larger implication is one of liberation — not only economically and politically — but on a more fundamental, enduring level of human relations. Indigenous peasants are becoming doctors. Indigenous children are finally the subjects of their own study, rather than the objects of study by others. Women are becoming leaders, transforming their culture to find lasting solutions to centuries of exploitation and inequality. No transformations as radical as these could have been mandated or implemented from the seat of power.

All of the autonomous projects are maintained without a penny from the government. Therefore, none of them are contingent upon the person or party occupying the capital building at any given moment and are free of ties of paternalism and cooptation. Every brick and every book is theirs, now and for generations to come.

Shifting the focus

On a larger scale, the autonomous territories have proven a formidable obstacle to mega-development projects like the Plan Puebla Panama, blocking the construction of tourist resorts and logging in the natural areas surrounding their communities. In sum, as Marcos puts it, “The transnationals do not govern in Zapatista lands, nor does the IMF, nor the World Bank, nor imperialism, nor the empire, nor governments of any sign. Here the communities make the fundamental decisions. I don’t know what that is called. We call it zapatismo.”

Before outlining how all this might inform our struggle here, we must address the danger of oversimplifying and idealizing the Zapatistas. They are not superhuman, they have made many mistakes on their path, and they still make them today. To idealize is to do them and ourselves a disservice and unduly frees us of our responsibility to aspire to the same level of creativity and courageousness. Their alternative is not perfect or complete — ours may not be either — but we must begin to construct alternatives anyway.

Again, resisting the temptation to cut-and-paste from their experience to ours, I believe the following ideas can most inform our process. First, that the question of democracy is not who is occupying the seat of power, but that the seat exists at all. This seems simple enough, but in fact implies a fundamental shift in the focus and nature of our organizing work and the criteria by which we measure its effectiveness.

It means no longer waiting for a strong-man to sweep in and save us, but asserting our rights with or without government permission and constructing lasting solutions to injustice within and amongst oursleves. Therefore, perhaps the White House should be no more than the target of our resistance, rather than the object of our aspirations or hopes. In a metaphor often used by the Zapatistas, our objective is not to fight for the key to the room of power — as modern politicians would have us believe — but to take a sledgehammer to the walls of that room.

Finally, not aspiring to take power is not an excuse to disengage politically, or somehow ignore the existence of the State. The State must be confronted and challenged, but not by submitting to the rules of its game. The Zapatistas are engaging the State — indeed, surrounded by 70,000 federal troops, how could they not? — as we must here, but we should aspire to do so on our own terms. Of course, this may not always be possible; we cannot underestimate the repressive capacity of the government. However, by the same token, we cannot underestimate our own power and the leverage we can build if we organize to assert it collectively.

This is manifested clearly in the Zapatista’s construction of autonomy, but has roots even in Gandhi’s concept of “Constructive Program.” The idea is twofold: divestment from the political and economic structures of injustice and investment in alternatives to them. The possibilities for both are endless — limited only by our ability to envision them and pursue them with integrity. The Zapatistas will be the first to tell us that the road in front of us is difficult and long and goes well beyond what might occur in November 2008…but in the end, it is the only victory worth pursuing.