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The Zapatistas: A Small, Very Small, Ever So Small Rebellion

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At the final meeting of a three-day-long “encuentro,” or political gathering, in the village of Morelia—deep in the Zapatista autonomous zones—participants filled a pavilion to listen to speeches summarizing the results of the previous day’s debates. Here, a Zapatista activist records the speech of Subcomandante Galeano, the de facto spokesman for the Zapatistas. Image by Jared Olson. Mexico, 2018.

At the final meeting of a three-day-long “encuentro,” or political gathering, in the village of Morelia—deep in the Zapatista autonomous zones—participants filled a pavilion to listen to speeches summarizing the results of the previous day’s debates. Here, a Zapatista activist records the speech of Subcomandante Galeano, the de facto spokesman for the Zapatistas. Image by Jared Olson. Mexico, 2018.

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Deep in the so-called ‘autonomous zones’ that constitute the southeastern third of Chiapas, Mexico’s southernmost state—roughly 9,400 square miles of territory which remains largely independent from the national government—the village of Morelia offers breathtaking views of the rugged Sierra Madre de Chiapas. Image by Jared Olson. Mexico, 2018.

Deep in the so-called ‘autonomous zones’ that constitute the southeastern third of Chiapas, Mexico’s southernmost state—roughly 9,400 square miles of territory which remains largely independent from the national government—the village of Morelia offers breathtaking views of the rugged Sierra Madre de Chiapas. Image by Jared Olson. Mexico, 2018.

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Like most Zapatista-controlled communities, village walls throughout Morelia are splashed with the vibrant colors of politically-conscious, socially sensitive murals. The scenes exalt the beauty and diversity of indigenous culture with the same fierceness with which they denounce capitalism and patriarchy. Here, the mural reads, "Capitalism converts everything into a commodity… Enough already of this system!” Image by Jared Olson. Mexico, 2018.

Like most Zapatista-controlled communities, village walls throughout Morelia are splashed with the vibrant colors of politically-conscious, socially sensitive murals. The scenes exalt the beauty and diversity of indigenous culture with the same fierceness with which they denounce capitalism and patriarchy. Here, the mural reads, "Capitalism converts everything into a commodity… Enough already of this system!” Image by Jared Olson. Mexico, 2018.

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Reflecting the aspirations of some of Mexico’s most repeatedly oppressed, marginalized, and exploited peoples—the indigenous Maya of Chiapas—the murals in Morelia paint a vision of a more just future. Here, male and female Zapatista activists machine-gun an evil capitalist monster with bullets reading "Education," "Freedom," and "Democracy." The banner above reads: "Death to the Capitalist and Its Monster!" Image by Jared Olson. Mexico, 2018.

Reflecting the aspirations of some of Mexico’s most repeatedly oppressed, marginalized, and exploited peoples—the indigenous Maya of Chiapas—the murals in Morelia paint a vision of a more just future. Here, male and female Zapatista activists machine-gun an evil capitalist monster with bullets reading "Education," "Freedom," and "Democracy." The banner above reads: "Death to the Capitalist and Its Monster!" Image by Jared Olson. Mexico, 2018.

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A Zapatista militiaman stands on guard near a mural of two women walking together in the fight for a better world. "Forward, women of the world," the caption reads. "United against capitalism." Sensitive to  the struggles of women, the Zapatistas hosted a similar, feminist political meeting in Morelia in March, 2018—the same time that this mural was likely painted. Image by Jared Olson. Mexico, 2018.

A Zapatista militiaman stands on guard near a mural of two women walking together in the fight for a better world. "Forward, women of the world," the caption reads. "United against capitalism." Sensitive to  the struggles of women, the Zapatistas hosted a similar, feminist political meeting in Morelia in March, 2018—the same time that this mural was likely painted. Image by Jared Olson. Mexico, 2018.

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Zapatista militiamen silhouetted by the mist, standing like black-masked sentinels outside the final meeting during a three-day-long political gathering in the village of Morelia. Image by Jared Olson. Mexico, 2018.

Zapatista militiamen silhouetted by the mist, standing like black-masked sentinels outside the final meeting during a three-day-long political gathering in the village of Morelia. Image by Jared Olson. Mexico, 2018.

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Wandering back into town following a brief respite during three days of intense political debating, the black-masked Zapatista militiamen, seen here against the horizon—armed, in a gesture towards nonviolence, with batons instead of guns—played security for the event, which drew hundreds of international visitors. Image by Jared Olson. Mexico, 2018.

Wandering back into town following a brief respite during three days of intense political debating, the black-masked Zapatista militiamen, seen here against the horizon—armed, in a gesture towards nonviolence, with batons instead of guns—played security for the event, which drew hundreds of international visitors. Image by Jared Olson. Mexico, 2018.

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During a break in the white, misty rainstorm which buffeted Morelia for much of the Redes de Apoyo (“Networks of Support”) political gathering, militiamen alongside other activists can be seen walking the main square of the village. Image by Jared Olson. Mexico, 2018.

During a break in the white, misty rainstorm which buffeted Morelia for much of the Redes de Apoyo (“Networks of Support”) political gathering, militiamen alongside other activists can be seen walking the main square of the village. Image by Jared Olson. Mexico, 2018.

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On the final day of the three-day-long political gathering in Morelia—a village in the Zapatista ‘autonomous zones’—local residents could be found wandering through the normally closed-off sections of the village. Image by Jared Olson. Mexico, 2018.

On the final day of the three-day-long political gathering in Morelia—a village in the Zapatista ‘autonomous zones’—local residents could be found wandering through the normally closed-off sections of the village. Image by Jared Olson. Mexico, 2018.

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Before the stage where the high council members of the Zapatista movement sit lies a mural on which the black-masked faces of anonymous Zapatistas stare out at the world, their penetrating gazes flanked by two shucks of maize—a symbol for the earth and a life lived close to the land. Image by Jared Olson. Mexico, 2018.

Before the stage where the high council members of the Zapatista movement sit lies a mural on which the black-masked faces of anonymous Zapatistas stare out at the world, their penetrating gazes flanked by two shucks of maize—a symbol for the earth and a life lived close to the land. Image by Jared Olson. Mexico, 2018.

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Subcomandante Galeano Moises delivers a speech during the final day of the three-day ‘Networks of Support’ political gathering in Morelia, deep in the autonomous zones. Galeano, known as Marcos until 2014, emerged alongside the movement in 1994 as perhaps its most visibly prominent member, as well as its de facto spokesman. Image by Jared Olson. Mexico, 2018.

Subcomandante Galeano Moises delivers a speech during the final day of the three-day ‘Networks of Support’ political gathering in Morelia, deep in the autonomous zones. Galeano, known as Marcos until 2014, emerged alongside the movement in 1994 as perhaps its most visibly prominent member, as well as its de facto spokesman. Image by Jared Olson. Mexico, 2018.

In Chiapas, Mexico’s Zapatista movement convened once more to articulate a critique of and response to the election of “AMLO,” perceived as a dangerous false hope. Their mandate? To connect social organizations outside of the Zapatistas to create a movement of political resistance at the national level. The response to their dilemma was unprecedented.

The Predicament

You would be hard-pressed to imagine anything of importance ever taking place here.

On any other day, approaching it on the cracked roads leading through the rolling ocean of pine, it would’ve seemed little different from the thousands of similar communities which scatter this rugged, mist-cloaked cordillera. The village of Morelia—a soaking-wet redoubt of clapboard wood shacks, high in the mountains of Chiapas, Mexico’s southernmost state—doesn’t at first glance look like a viable locale for a political meeting in which hundreds of international visitors would be drawn to spend three days in the country’s remote southlands.

But to believe such a thing is to be deluded.

For the first time in its history, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation—a former guerrilla army that controls much of southeastern Chiapas—hosted a political meeting in Morelia with the hopes of connecting social movements across Mexico, outside of and unconnected to the Zapatistas themselves.

The meeting, dubbed Redes de Apoyo (“Networks of Support”) by the Mayan pacifist group, was the first of its kind as far as Zapatista meetings go. Unlike “The Other Campaign” in 2006, the “Intercontinental Indigenous Encounter” in 2007, the “Little School of Liberty” in 2013, and the “Women in Struggle” encounter in March, 2018, the official objective of “Redes de Apoyo” was to facilitate the coalescence of previously isolated social movements into broader, more unified political front, capable of affecting change at the national level.

“There hasn’t been a meeting like this, with the desire to bring together networks of support,” Umberto Osegura, a lawyer and union activist, said of the bustling political festival. Its hitherto goal was to connect social movements outside of and unrelated to the Zapatistas. It was a goal unusual enough to bring the normally sleepy village to life—its perceived importance enough to draw people like Osegura all the way from Mexico City. “That,” Osegura said, “is precisely what makes it so important.”

The urgency to connect various social movements came in light of continuing accusations of corruption within the Mexican government and the recent election of “AMLO” to the Presidency, whose victory, for many in Chiapas, represents a false hope. Throughout much of the rural Chiapaneco mountains, the center-left populists’ landslide victory is perceived as little more than an illusory façade whose supposed progressivism heralds no substantive change to Mexican society—one that will only sedate Mexicans to the dark reality slowly engulfing them.

“It was interesting because they decided to listen to the experiences of many groups and individuals on a national level,” Carolina Diaz, an activist and doctoral student specializing in anthropology, said of the Redes de Apoyo gathering. “It was different because they sought to strike a balance between the obstacles. To listen to various collectives is very enriching. To live in a country as large and diverse as Mexico means that there is an immensity of stories that deserve to be told. They sought to create a broader unification between various social networks at a national level.”

“They want to make social movements that don’t just include campesino or rural organizations, but that included worker’s organizations and urban organizations as well,” said Francisco de Parres Gomez, a doctoral student, photographer and activist.

In a communique issued this past July to announce the upcoming encuentro, the Zapatistas invited to Morelia all those people and civil society organizations “who still believe that changes that matter never come from above but rather from below.” The letter said how the Zapatistas proposed seeking out “proposals for the next steps”—following Mexico’s July presidential elections—and wished to “consult those proposals with attendees’ respective groups, collectives, (and) organizations.”

For three days, mud-stricken hillsides surrounding Morelia grew flush with the tents of visiting participants, the brightly colored tarp shelters strangely out of place amid the melancholy hills of pine.

The visitors—activists, journalists, workers who numbered the hundreds—hailed from countries as far away as Argentina, Spain, and Poland. The dirt road leading into the village was lined with sheds of locals selling textiles, paintings, fruits, and the area grew swarmed with people: activists and a ragtag motely of other outsiders, as well as fierce-looking Zapatista milicianos (“militiamen”), who numbered in the hundreds.

Garbed in guerrilla uniform and armed with batons—the absence of arms a symbolic gesture towards their long-standing dedication to nonviolence—the black-masked militiamen played security for the event.

With the election of AMLO hanging like a specter over the gathering, the participants of the encuentro sought to articulate a conclusive critique of the center-left populist.

Tremors of his election were felt nearly everywhere in Mexico, though the election’s shockwaves raised hardly an eyebrow within much of Chiapas’ backwoods. Here, the historically marginalized Indian campesinos still regard the mal gobierno (“Bad Government”: a commonly-wielded pejorative used to denote the oftentimes cold, indifferent, or exploitative national government) with suspicion.

Groping for Solutions

Beneath a vast tent astride a brightly painted building, replete with murals whose agrarian, socialist themes would make Diego Rivera proud, nearly a hundred people sat in Mesa 3 (“Table 3”), an almost contiguous sea of black-masked Zapatistas listening to an informal outpouring of speeches.

To facilitate debate, the Zapatistas divided the meeting’s several hundred participants into five different Mesas (“Tables”). Each of these “Mesas” would host several four to five-hour debate sessions over the course of three days, during which activists would present the struggles they faced within their respective state and the insights that it gave them into Mexico’s political landscape as a whole. The weekend would then be capped off with a final meeting: two representatives from each Mesa, one man and one woman, would summarize the conclusions arrived at by the participants in their group, suggesting potential alliances between different organizations that could help in the creation of a national political front.

In their speeches in Mesa 3, the activists roundly denounced capitalism, capitalist extractivism, and patriarchy. They discussed the election of AMLO, especially the eagerness with which millions of Mexicans believed in his programs, and how his progressivism was little more than illusory. They spoke with particular urgency about the growing spate of privatizations in Chiapas and the rest of Mexico, which they perceived as one of the greatest current threats to their country.

Anecdotal tidbits of statements issued by speakers in the debate on Saturday evening hinted at a dark reality which haunts Mexico, their words betraying the aura of hope emanating from AMLO’s recent election.

“We’re in an undeclared counter-revolutionary war,” a man from Mexico City said apprehensively. “The whole world knows Mexico is a bloodbath. We all have to support each other.”

“How are we going to confront the capitalist system, with its armies, with its governments,” another participant said, “if we don’t have a strong network of support? We can do it with a horizontal, inclusive organization- not vertical. Like the Zapatistas. But we need more.”

A Sisyphean Vision

Waves of torrential rain buffeted Morelia the night before the final Sunday meeting, and the following morning found the quiet village suffocated amid a blinding white sea of mist, its worn grass pathways awash in hopelessly unnavigable fields of black mud.

Several hundred participants who lay asleep on the dirt floor of a large barn that night listened to the roar of rain pounding against the thin corrugated metal roof. All the mud did little to scare them from thronging the village the following morning during a brief lull in the rain. And it did little to stop them from gathering to hear the results of the debating at the final meeting that morning.

The crowd amassed beneath the pavilion at 11 A.M., slowly congregating into an open-air building that could have housed cows with the same ease that it did national political conventions.

Many indigenous Zapatistas, tired of burying their faces beneath thick cotton in oftentimes oppressive heat and humidity, would surreptitiously slip their masks back on as they entered the building, their eyes cautiously flitting about their surroundings to ensure no one was looking as they donned their uniform once more.

The high leadership of the Zapatista councils—men and women considerably older than the rest of the crowd—sat in rows atop an elevated platform, listening with the quiet self-contentment of Buddhist monks as the meeting went underway.

Against the vast hush of the rain, representatives from each Mesa rose to the stage to present the conclusions arrived at by their groups. A militiaman stood on guard outside each door as the speeches began, and as the pavilion within fell silent, the black-masked figures contemplated the white world before them with a peaceful equanimity, watching indifferently as raindrops dribbled off the edges of their hats.

“We find ourselves before a media fence of disinformation,” a representative from Mesa 4 said, describing the isolation and ostracism many collectives from their group felt following their decision to not support AMLO. Activists at Mesa 4 included people from 3 different Mexican states, as well as Germany, the United States, Spain, Colombia, France, Argentina, Vienna, and Italy.

“It was said also,” he continued into the scratchy microphone, “that we are confronting a situation that exceeds our organizational capabilities, our material capabilities, that exceeds our capability of describing… Our material, instrumental, and economic interests presented us with the difficulty of fighting against the hidra capitalista (“Capitalist Hydra”) and its own organization.”

“The extractive projects (here in Chiapas) are coming from above,” a female Spanish activist said, speaking of the conclusions arrived at by Mesa 3. “They are a part of a great national restructuring of land ownership under the logic of capitalism and its four offshoots: plunder, destruction, reconstruction, and reordering… whatever the name, face, or color the next administrator of the government will be, the problem is still the capitalist system.”

Though important and informative, the speeches soon felt as if they were drifting into eternity. The crowd grew restless. As people began surreptitiously checking their phones or nodding off to the soft hiss of the rain, a languid plume of smoke rose unexpectedly from the back of the stage, its source hidden by the rows of the Zapatista councilmembers.

The smoke, it would later be realized, came from Subcomandante Galeano.

Unbeknownst to the crowd, the man who had become the most recognizable face of the Zapatistas—his name being the nom de guerre for Rafael Guillen Vicente—lay sitting onstage behind the 90 Zapatista councilmembers.

A former philosophy lecturer who came to Chiapas in the early 1980s with youthful fantasies of imitating the Cuban revolution, fantasies that would later be abandoned as he grew intimate with the region’s indigenous peoples, Subcomandante Galeano (known for 20 years, until 2014, as Marcos) emerged in the wake of the 1994 uprising as a de facto spokesperson for the indigenous-based movement, as well as its most visibly prominent member. Though the Zapatistas maintain that they have no individual leaders (a view held by Galeano himself), the pale-skinned, soft-spoken, pipe-smoking professor of mestizo origin has nonetheless grown enveloped within a romantic aura of mystery.

When he emerged to the forefront of the stage alongside Subcomandante Moises, another prominent member of the Zapatista movement, it was as if a rockstar had made an unannounced appearance. You could feel the excitement sweep the crowd, the closeness of their presence that was electric in the air.

Moises opened with an anecdote which compared the world today to the plantations of old, before the Mexican Revolution. The only difference separating the “plantations” of then and now, he said, was that the owner of today’s “plantation” is global capitalism. The various overseers are the interchangeable presidents of nation-states—figures who, despite the minutiae of their differences, all work to protect and expand that global system.

“The way we see it is that this situation is the same today,” Moises said. “They want to turn the whole world into a plantation.”

Insinuating those who voted for AMLO, he related how during the Mexican Revolution, many liberated campesinos didn’t know what to do when they were finally freed from their oppressive overseers, merely seeking another boss they could dutifully serve. They were happy to serve a nicer boss within an oppressive system and yet hesitant to scrap the system itself.

His face veiled in a halo of smoke, the speech turned to Galeano, who opened with a meditation on the continuing displacement of indigenous peoples for the exploitation of natural resources within their land.

“It is as if capitalism left pending part of its global conquest during neoliberalism and is now trying to finish the job… Everything that hasn’t already been damaged or ruined lies in the original peoples’ territories and that is where the system is headed.”

He said that the global system of neoliberalism is facing a threefold crisis: environmental collapse, growing waves of migration, and the coming exhaustion of fossil fuels are now coalescing into an unprecedented challenge for capitalism.

To defend itself, that “global plantation” is temporarily allowing the rise of right-wing nationalists—Donald Trump, Narendra Modi, Vladimir Putin—who will preserve the fundamental values of capitalism through their rhetoric, even as they embrace the economic isolationism, previously considered taboo within neoliberal circles. It’s all withdrawing, he said, into an “internal retreat, something like an anti-globalization, in order to defend itself… using the political right as a guarantor of that retreat.”

Twenty-five minutes were then spent laying waste to what the Zapatistas perceive as the false mythologies surrounding AMLO, whose party, MORENA (Movement for National Regeneration), they refer to as the ‘institutional Left.’”

He pointed out that AMLO has expressed approval for development projects whose sugar-coated language—to many indigenous people—sounds little different than thievery:

“The signs of love,” he said, “that Lopez Obrador is showing big capital (the plantation owner) are… promises to hand over indigenous peoples’ territories… The principal project of this government (the million hectares of the Lacandon Jungle, the “Mayan Train,” and the Isthmus Corridor that they want to build, among others) will destroy the territories of the original peoples.”

“We’ll have to swim against the current,” he said of the Zapatistas’ unsavory decision to resist the most ostensibly progressive president Mexico has witnessed in decades. But “we will not exchange our history, our pain, our rage, and our struggle for a ‘progressive’ conformity which is currently losing ranks behind its leader.”

Galeano went on to say, as a part of the list of seven proposals to sum up the encuentro, that the Zapatistas propose to “hold in December of this year an international gathering of networks,” in which new alliances of social movements can further consolidate resistance to the new government in Mexico. The tentative title of the meeting would be “Networks of Resistance and Rebellion.”

Taking a breath, he reiterated the transcendent need to build broader social coalitions:

“We will have to incorporate into our horizon of struggle all of our own realities and the pain and rage they hold. We will have to move toward a new phase of this process: the construction of a Council that includes the struggles of all of the oppressed, marginalized, disappeared, and murdered, the struggles of political prisoners, of women who have been attacked and harassed, of children who have been prostituted, of all the calendars and geographies that delineate a map that is impossible within the laws of probability and ineligible to polls and votes: the contemporary map of rebellion and resistance across the planet.”

Glimpses of Hope

Rain ceased briefly during the final morning in Morelia, the torn rags of clouds revealing sweeping glimpses of the sierra to the east. The views from here are breathtaking: gazing out during the lull in the storm, one felt that they were looking at not just the mountains and jungles of Chiapas but at the end of the world itself.

All was calm at this morning hour in the village. Having taken off their masks, the residents bantered in the indigenous Tzeltal and walk easily about the grounds. For being amongst the poorest people in a nation of 127 million, they seemed strikingly at peace with life.

The Zapatistas have a reputation for seeing the world through an apocalyptic lens. The idealism of their actions—their independently governed communities, their political festivals, their participation in the 2018 elections—often seems contradicted by the almost hopeless pessimism of their worldviews. In a passage from the final speech given that weekend in Morelia, Galeano painted a dark, unsettling vision of the world in 2018:

“The entire world is fragmenting; walls are proliferating; the (capitalist) machine advances in its new war of occupation; hundreds of thousands of people discover that the new home promised them by modernity is a barge on the high seas, the shoulder of a highway, or an overcrowded detention center for the ‘undocumented.’ …Nature hands over the bill with a long list of debts and a balance in the red, accumulated by capitalism in its brief history as the dominant system.”

As they alienate themselves from new supporters of AMLO, fully rejecting the vision of progressivism the maverick candidate promised the country, the Zapatistas find themselves at one of their most isolated points in their twenty-five-year history. They are hopelessly outnumbered: 30 million people voted for the leader they’re now emphatically turning against.

But the Zapatista movement still holds out promise. Their rebellion continues with events like the encuentro in Morelia. They continue striking new alliances in an effort—however hopelessly Sisyphean—to create broader political fronts.

As Galeano conceded in his speech, they are little more than “a small, very small, ever so small rebellion.” But a rebellion nonetheless.

In the brief break in the storm, you can still sense the joy that permeates the air at the back side of Morelia, despite the fact that it will begin raining soon. Kids play in the mud-stricken pathways. In the high mountain air, music floats up from the clapboard shacks, the sound of laughter rising on the wind.