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Story Publication logo October 24, 2018

Gustavo Esteva and the Long Road to the Zapatistas


"Populated the 24th of December. Land Recovered through the blood of our fallen compañeros of the EZLN" [the Spanish acronym for the Zapatista National Liberation Army]. Image by Jared Olson. Mexico, 2018.

An army of campesinos armed with little but words, a social movement, and a radical democratic...



When the Zapatistas first exploded into the public eye in an armed rebellion nearly 25 years ago, Gustavo Esteva found himself at a crossroads.

It had been decades since he'd renounced violence as a means of pursuing social justice. The Mexican philosopher, economist and educator—who'd spent nearly 40 years working to improve the lives of Mexico's campesinos—had come a long way towards developing a philosophy that could help his country's peasants escape the wrenching poverty in which they're trapped. Now, as the army of indigenous Mayans broke into an unexpected war with the national government, Esteva saw that philosophy crumbling apart.

"In the first week of 1994, I was in a very serious conflict with myself," Gustavo tells me of that era, when he joined thousands of protesters in the streets demanding the Mexican Army cease attacking the Zapatistas. "I was telling myself, 'Gustavo, why are you so enthusiastic (about the Zapatistas) if for 30 years you have been against the use of violence?'"

Esteva himself had flirted briefly with violence in the early 1960s, when, inspired by the Cuban Revolution, he had joined an underground guerrilla cell in Mexico City, plotting an armed overthrow of the government. After abandoning the group due to a bloody case of infighting, he renounced the use of violence. Then, following a 10-year stint as a government economist that left him disillusioned with institutional politics and apprehensive of power's seductive allure, he dedicated himself fully to writing.

In the years since then, Esteva has become a distinct dissident voice within the turbulent landscape of Mexican politics, ever-more isolated—much like the Zapatista movement with which he aligned himself—as he criticizes what he and the indigenous army now perceive as the "false progressivism" of the country's new President-elect, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.

For Esteva, many myths had imploded over that life's long and eventful course: the idea that Mexico had to imitate the United States. That corrupt power structures could be reformed from within. The last myth would be destroyed—its void soon replaced, for Esteva, with a sort of intellectual liberation—with the violent emergence of the enigmatic black-masked insurgents in 1994.

"I read Gandhi again, that great guy of non-violence, to see if I could discover something" Esteva says. It was an era of great intellectual confusion for him, and he'd consulted the writings of the Indian pacifist to sort out his own perceptions of the newly emergent guerrilla group.

Gandhi, Esteva tells me, reasoned that because the Indians far outnumbered their British occupiers, the bravest path the people of the subcontinent could take was that of non-violent resistance. The corollary, less frequently mentioned, was that violence thus became acceptable in the case of the weak.

"Gandhi said, 'Nonviolence is for the strong, not the weak.'"

Within 12 days, with millions of people in the streets of Mexico protesting the military's backlash, the Zapatistas ceased fighting and embraced a staunch path of nonviolence. It is a path they've largely maintained to this day. Though hardly 4,000 strong (by liberal estimates) when they rose in rebellion, their numbers swelled into the millions when people began marching on the streets in solidarity with them. Naturally, having become the stronger force, as Gandhi would have parsed it, the indigenous army laid down their arms as soon as this power dynamic changed.

For Esteva, it was the beginning of what would become a long intellectual tryst with the Zapatistas. He participated in the civil society events the Zapatistas hosted in the Lacandon Jungle in late 1994. In 1996, he became an informal adviser in their negotiations with the government for the San Andres Peace Accords. And they later became a recurring subject in his voluminous social writings, such as Grassroots Postmodernism, The Future of Development, and the essay The Zapatistas and Peoples Power. Through his literary oeuvre, Esteva has made a name for himself continually seeking—much like the Zapatistas—to articulate an alternative vision of a more just social reality.

When he later founded the Unitierra (short for Universidad de la Tierra, or "University of the Earth") in the south Mexican state of Oaxaca, he developed a working relationship with the Zapatista movement. Young people from within the autonomous, independently-governed Zapatista 'Autonomous Zones' are regularly invited to study in the school Esteva founded, which is rooted in the alternative education ideals inspired by radical philosopher Paolo Freire. And students from the Unitierra regularly make trips to the rural mountains of Chiapas controlled by the Zapatistas, where they can analyze and learn from the movement of Mayan campesinos.

One could perhaps ask why Esteva has been drawn so irrevocably to the black-masked guerrillas-turned-pacifists—a movement which has polarized and exasperated Mexico as much as it's captured the international imagination. The answer perhaps lies in the fact that, within the Zapatistas, Esteva found both a possible solution to questions that had long been haunting him and an image of the past he once sought to escape.

Rising in the world he would come to hate

Born with indigenous blood, Esteva was taught from an early age to reject and hide his originary, or Indian, roots (his grandmother was a Zapotec Indian). But he proved to be a promising student within the Jesuit and Catholic schools he was educated in, and would later obtain high-level jobs within the nascent corporate world then taking root in early 1950s Mexico.

By helping to replicate the English-speaking imperium to the north, Esteva was told he would play a grand part in the project of "American-izing" Mexico— a crusade that would supposedly cure the country of all its ills. He began working for Proctor & Gamble at the ripe age of 19, and soon moved on to IBM, where he became the head of his own professional bureau.

"It was our collective fantasy to be like the Americans," Esteva says of that time. "Many of us started to accept that kind of drug of looking for what is called 'Development.'"

Esteva had been convinced as he began working with the Mexican branches of various American corporations that he would ultimately help people in his role. Reality, however, proved more dismal.

"When I was studying (at the university)," he continues, "they promised me that I would be at the center of an epic development project providing good services to the community, good conditions to the workers, and good profits to the stakeholder. Once inside, I saw that I was not at the center, but in one side—and not the best side."

Esteva gradually came to loathe the corporate world he'd been lucky enough to be ushered into. It was not the panacea to poverty he'd been taught to perceive it as. Slowly, he found himself in more situations where he was forced exploit the very people he'd originally wanted to help. His inability to repeatedly do so would become his downfall in the business world.

"They wanted me as the personnel manager (at IBM) to do some very horrible things," he says. "I refused, and was fired, and that was that."

Alienated and disillusioned, he became a leftist activist, reading Marxist texts on his own and joining a clandestine guerrilla cell.

The 1960s were, as he concedes, a time of great optimism and hope for the future.

"It had been possible to walk on the moon," he writes in his essay Death and Transfiguration. "How was it not going to be possible to assault the political and economic ceiling?"

But after the hours of late night plotting fed by visions of violence, he became disillusioned—yet again—when one of the leaders of his cell killed another. Repulsed by the prospect of bloodshed, but still eager to overthrow capitalism, he continued acting in what he then was was a revolutionary role—only this time, he tried to be a revolutionary within the structures of power, as an economic minister within the government of President Luis Echeverria.

"I abandoned the idea of violence," he says. "But not of revolution."

His university degree and time in the corporate world made him attractive candidate for government work. He began work as a low-level economist shortly after abandoning the guerrilla underworld in 1964. By 1970, he'd risen to a position of prominent power within the reformist administration of President Luis Echeverria.

Echeverria had been working desperately to resuscitate the image of the PRI (Spanish acronym for "Institutional Revolutionary Party")—then the de facto one-party regime that dominated Mexico—after government forces massacred several hundred protesting students in 1968. Esteva played a part in this resuscitation as one of the heads of CONASUPO (Compañía Nacional de Subsistencias Populares, or "National Company for Popular Subsistence"), a government agency tasked with providing staple foods such as corn to Mexico's campesinos.

"I was in the presidential house with Echeverria twice a week, attending cabinet meetings and mobilizing a lot of people," he says.

Work in the government went well for Esteva—too well, apparently. He had become a friend of future President José Lopez Portillo, who signaled that he wished to elevate the guerrilla-turned-bureaucrat to a pedestal of even higher power were he to win the presidency. When his friend did indeed win the country's highest political position, he grew uneasy, apprehensive of power's seductive allure. In 1976, he quit government work altogether.

"I was in the immediate danger of becoming a minister in the new administration," he says. "And if I accepted I would have joined a mafia-like group of people. By that time, I was convinced that all governments were created and operate for control and domination. They cannot be used for revolution and social change."

Alone again

Renouncing the government in the same way he once renounced violence, Esteva found himself alone once again, cast out from the edifices of political power.

Alongside economists and activists, Esteva formed an NGO eventually called "Autonomy, Decentralism, and Management" that would work to improve the lives of campesinos, indigenous, and marginalized peoples—carrying out work similar to that done during his tenure with CONASUPO and the national government.

This time, however, they wouldn't be beholden to the institutional orthodoxies of Mexico's one-party regime, freeing themselves to innovate as they worked to improve the lives of the campesinos. It was also around this time that he finished his first major sociological work, The Struggle for Rural Mexico, which was published in 1980.

Independent work had, for Esteva, initiated a self-examination that threw into question nearly all the tacit assumptions he'd maintained throughout his life—prejudices he'd held with the same verve and zeal as a Marxist guerrilla as he had as a corporate manager and government economist.

What did this chimera called "Development" mean in practice? Why had he been so eager to chase it? What was development's ultimate end-goal if Mexicans could never achieve the levels of wealth long enjoyed by their American counterparts? And if this was false, and development was in fact unattainable, did it mean that he'd spent the previous 20 years of his life chasing a concept which amounted to little more than an elusive mirage in the desert?

Esteva relates how the widespread hope for development faded for intellectuals like himself as the 1980s rolled around, with the initial visions for Third World affluence promised by American thinkers increasingly refuted by the continuing existence of poverty.

"In the 1950s," he says, "a great statistician prepared the matrix to tell us how much time we needed to develop. He said that a country like Mexico or Brazil required 25 years to become developed, and that if we were very lazy, as we perhaps were, we would need 50 years—but no more than that. In the 1980s, they went about and prepared a new estimate. (The same statistician) said that a country like Mauritania would need 2,200 years to become 'Developed,' and countries like Mexico and Brazil would need only 400 or 500 years—that is, never."

'Developing' Mexico, he realized, meant pursuing an economic program which facilitated the continued exploitation of Mexico's poor at the hands of the very First World countries they sought to imitate.  

"Development was very good business for rich countries," he says. "And very bad business for poor countries."


The final turning point in Esteva's life before the emergence of the Zapatistas came with his encounter with Ivan Illich, a famous Austrian philosopher whose ideas would later become manifest in the enigmatic movement of Chiapaneco campesinos.

The year was 1983. Beforehand, Esteva had been dismissive of the iconoclastic Catholic thinker, who had established a famous school in Cuernavaca, not far from where he lived, and who regularly invoked the ire of both left- and right-wing circles with his trenchant critiques of institutionalism.

"I was not interested (in the thought of Illych) because for us in the Marxist Left, Illich was just a reactionary priest," Esteva says.

But following a meeting at a seminar in 1983, he began to devour the works of the Christian thinker, whose range of books, from Deschooling Society and Tools for Conviviality, seem to touch on, and radically reinterpret, nearly every aspect of human existence.

Esteva was captivated by Illich's notions of how patriarchy and gender underlay the structures of capitalism, how institutions are inherently antithetical to both justice and truth, and how it is imperative that we reclaim our individual agency as human beings. He promptly developed a working intellectual relationship with Illich, and they collaborated on each other's works until the Austrian's death in 2002.

Esteva says that Illich was exactly the thinker he needed at that point in his life. He built upon the insights of Marx, adapting them to the reality of modern-day capitalism.

"I would say that Illich complemented my Marxist education with a different view that corresponded very well to the (reality of) the indigenous peoples and the campesinos," Esteva says. "…He was going ahead, doing what Marx was not able to do. He actualized Marx's thinking."

Unbeknownst to him, his immersion in the thought of Illich would lay the intellectual foundations that would make the Zapatistas so intriguing for him, as they would be for many. The movement was already in the making by the late 1980s and would make its public on January 1, 1994—the first day that NAFTA was passed.

The canaries begin to fall silent

NAFTA (short for North American Free Trade Agreement) was a neoliberal trade deal which, passed at the cusp of globalization's heyday, reorganized North America into a single homogenous economic zone, one in which capital could seek out the cheapest and most easily exploitable labor. One of the trade deals most disastrous effects, foreseen by the Zapatistas and borne out by time and evidence, was the displacement of millions of rural Mexican farmers, who would be incapable of competing against a tsunami of cheap US-imported produce.

The New Year's Day rebellion of campesinos thus heralded the beginning of a nearly twenty-five-year drama—one that would entail the upheaval of millions of peasants, an astronomic escalation of drug violence and a rural conflict that was as bizarre and anachronistic as it was unprecedentedly modern.

For the Mexican government, the Zapatistas provided an unending headache and a public relations nightmare. For Esteva, the idiosyncratic social justice movement—baffling to those who wish to categorize it—made the ideal lens through which he could examine themes of poverty, globalization, and the struggles of campesinos.

They are unlike few social movements in history—they sought no actual power, and converted themselves from an originally violent army into a pacifist political movement which focuses, to this day, on the self-government of their own independent autonomous zones, separate from the Mexican government.

"It really is a radical political innovation," Esteva says of the Zapatista movement and their self-governed 'Autonomous Zones' in southeastern Chiapas. "A system of government where you have no elections and no armed revolutions and it's co-created in a completely radically and different way, according to indigenous traditions."

To Esteva, the Zapatistas are remarkable in that, rather than seeking to seize power in the same way that groups such as his former guerrilla cell had in the past, thereby replicating systems of domination, they cleave open a democratic space in which other movements are empowered to have a voice in Mexican politics and society.

And over a quarter century of existence, he remains deeply admiring of their capability to adapt while remaining rooted in their indigenous identity. I ask him specifically about their decision to participate in the bloody, controversial 2018 Presidential elections with their fringe candidate Marichuy. For a revolutionary group that had once promised to violently overthrow a government, to participate in its electoral system, if only symbolically, was an unexpected tack.

It was a decision, he said, rooted in the desire to give visibility to the conflicts of indigenous people. "They wanted to use the campaign to… give visibility to the indigenous conflict. They were not trying to play the electoral game. (Many Zapatistas said) that 'We are coming to the part of the rich to spoil it, not to play in it."

A long-awaited, hard-earned peace

The aura of Gustavo Esteva is that of a man at peace. Decades have passed to bring him where he is now: a writer living in the south Mexican mountains, running his own school, living life keenly in sync with the Earth's subtle rhythms.

Gustavo smiles as we finish talking, unperturbed by the occasional silences between us as I finish writing notes. Not far from where we speak in the library of the Unitierra, flecks of dust wheel silently through the bronze prisms of sunlight slipping in through the windows. Outside the adobe-walled building, a motorcycle roars past, and birds sing softly in the palms.

When we had begun our conversation, before we talked about the Zapatistas, about politics and changing the world, he told me candidly about his life living in a village in the nearby mountains. For him, after a long and oftentimes chaotic life, to live among the campesinos he'd long worked to help is really to return to himself.

"In a very dear sense," he says, "I'm coming back to my ancestors, to my family. I am living there eight kilometers from where my Zapotec grandmother was born. In a very dear sense, I am coming back to my roots."

Long taught to suppress his indigenous heritage as a child, it perhaps makes sense that he was so captivated—not unlike millions of others—to a movement of indigenous peoples who fought for the same social justice for which he had been striving his entire life.

In a way much more personal than one might realize, the long road to the Zapatistas, for Gustavo Esteva, was really just a road home.


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