Zapatismo: Twenty Years Later

Just like Peña Nieto today, twenty years ago Salinas also thought he was invincible. His implementation of ‘reforms’ in a vertical and authoritarian way went through without major obstacles or a significant reduction in his popularity. He had started a project that would continue with subsequent presidents.


In his reform of articles 27 and 130 of the Mexican constitution, he privatised common land and gave voting rights to the clergy without any real opposition. The PRD had been crushed in 1991’s mid-term elections and 300 of its members had been murdered. Upon signing up to NAFTA, many believed his claims that it would usher in an era of abundance, progress, and wellbeing.


The Zapatista uprising disrupted this undiagnosed malaise. It presented a challenge to Salinismo and brought focus onto Mexico’s indigenous communities. It uncovered the farce of the government’s fight against poverty, opened the way for the expansion of civil society political movements, and obliged the government to reform the Federal Electoral Institute (IFE). It influenced the political reforms of 1996, and encouraged debate, giving new life to a stale political system.


The uprising gained an enormous amount of social legitimacy in a short time, forcing the ‘Cathedral Dialogues’ and the ‘Law for Dialogue, Reconciliation, and Peace in Chiapas’. Many of those who had seen the disastrous effects of the PRI’s ‘modernisation’ saw the Zapatistas as their avengers, who had justified their armed resistance through their opposition to the land ‘reform’ and signing of NAFTA.


The neoliberal reforms weren’t brought to a halt, but their promoters were forced to slow down. The lack of true representation in politics was exposed, and the need for a broader form of discourse became apparent. However, the party political system remained, and voices like those of the Zapatistas were still absent from discussions. This shift could be seen in 1996, when the government betrayed the San Andrés Accords with the EZLN but signed the Barcelona Accords (through which a pact was made to share power better between Mexico’s three main political parties). This pact left in place the party domination of the political process, effectively reinforcing their grip on power. Movements not affiliated with these parties were ignored once again.


Also, in 2001, in the forerunner to the current Pact for Mexico, the PRI, PAN, and PRD voted together to pass an indigenous reform that made a mockery of what was agreed in the San Andrés Accords. The possibility of EZLN participation in the country’s political life (or that of any other alternative political grouping) was buried once and for all.


Finally, between 2005 and 2006, the Zapatistas launched their ‘Other Campaign’, encouraging popular and non-partisan political discussion, ‘from below and to the left’, in order to organise opposition to neoliberal capitalist ‘reforms’. The institutional left largely ignored the process, and the police performed a show of force when they violently repressed protests in San Salvador Atenco.


However, the EZLN continues to be a force for change and a reference point for many of Mexico’s social movements. Without official permission, the Zapatistas govern themselves, taking care of all necessary services without government support. At the end of 2012, they reminded the country of their existence with the silent, peaceful march of 40,000 Zapatistas.


In August 2013, two thousand sympathisers from all corners of the Republic attended a Zapatista School. Afterwards, hundreds of indigenous representatives held the ‘Juan Chávez Lecture’, a key moment in the reconstruction of the National Indigenous Congress.


Twenty years after breaking onto the political scene, the Zapatistas are as innovative, unique, and inspirational as ever. Essayist Tomás Segovia emphasises that one of the most impressive things about the EZLN is that, in spite of being an armed movement, it maintains all the features of a social protest rather than a political revolution. And that protest has brought into question the legitimacy of the nation’s political system, staying firmly outside of the corrupting influences of the establishment.


The Zapatistas demand direct control and sovereignty over their own revolution – rejecting the vertical rule exerted by traditional politicians. Their movement is a genuine expression of a society committed to reflecting about itself and its destiny. In doing so, it has succeeded in making its own rules and establishing a new, truly participatory form of government.


Translated and adapted from Luis Hernández Navarro’s article which can be found at


About Ed Sykes

Independent journalist. Co-founder of Phoenix Media Co-operative. Author of Rojava: An Alternative. Ex-Canary editor and writer (2015-2020). Aka 'Oso Sabio' - see @ososabiouk on Twitter.
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