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Mexico and the Neo-Zapatistas

David Crow of the University of Texas, who has a remarkable knowledge of Mexico, writes:

"In my opinion, much of the analysis on Marcos and the Zapatista Army misses the mark. The main source of error is in seeing them through the irremediably fogged-over lenses of the Cold War. Inevitably, those lenses will lead veteran Cold Warriors to compare the EZLN with the Cuban and Nicaraguan revolutions; but the Zapatistas are of a fundamentally different nature. In the first place, their banner is not that of Marxism, but indigenous rights. Although conservative Mexican thinkers (including the Zedillo government's organic intellectuals) have attempted to pigeonhole them as classical Marxists, the evidence is wanting: nowhere in any official writings or interviews do the Zapatistas embrace Marxism. Of course, the critique of global capitalism has been a rallying point, but this makes them no more Marxist than, say, housewives that take to the streets in Caracas with pots and pans to protest neoliberalism.

Secondly, in contradistinction to Fidel Castro and Daniel Ortega, Marcos and the Zapatistas have explicitly renounced taking power as the goal of the movement. Their demand is passage of the Indigenous Rights and Culture Act, a watered down version of the San Andrés Accords (a document of which I have translated substantial portions) negotiated with the Zedillo administration in 1996 and upon which the former president subsequently reneged. The law would grant administrative autonomy to indigenous municipalities (a highly successful precedent for which is found in Oaxacan state legislation on "uses and customs"), promote bilingual education, give indigenous peoples access to public media, and so on. We may debate the wisdom of these measures, but they hardly constitute some sort of Marxist dictatorship of the proletariat.

Writing in 1993, the current Mexican Foreign Minister, Jorge Castañeda, declared in his book Utopia Disarmed that revolutionary leftism was dead in Latin America. When the 1994 Zapatista uprising appeared to have debunked Castañeda's pronouncement, the author examined the movement closely and characterized the Zapatistas as "armed reformists" more than revolutionaries. We are doing ourselves and our policy makers a disservice to portray this movement as old-style Marxism."

My comment: This is true, and I was well aware of it, but it does not diminish my assessment of Marcos as an individual or of his policies as being misplaced. Having an army and taking Zapata as a model does not suggest an unwillingness to seize power. There is a pathetic photograph of Pancho Villa and Zapata sitting together on the chair of the President, to which each laid claim. Revolutionaries do not always reveal their aims before getting power. Did Hitler? It is good Marxist tactics to hide your aim. This is not to justify US-style capitalism or globalization. People have the right to say that a revolution may be necessary, and the American Founding Fathers did. Yet the world today thinks that Canada has a more honest government and a better quality of life than the US. The results of revolutions are very mixed. The Soviet revolution claimed to be promoting the rights of indigenous peoples and their cultures.

Ronald Hilton - 3/19/01