by James Graham
On New Years Day 1994 with ski masks and automatic rifles in hand the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) descended from the hills of Mexico's impoverished Chiapas province and commenced a unique armed struggle. The EZLN have relied heavily on sympathetic organisations, public relations and the internet to present the group's ideology to Mexicans and to people around the world. In so doing, they successfully circumvented and undermined the propaganda systems that had previously prevented large-scale peaceful movements from expressing essentially the same objectives.
The EZLN is largely an indigenous peasant based movement with some urban intellectual leadership most notably Subcommander Marcos the groups spokesperson. The organisation has its roots in Mexico's most southern and poverty-stricken province, Chiapas. A province dominated by indigenous Indian communities and largely excluded from any capitalist development. Ninety percent of indigenous households in the state are without electricity and running water.
Democracy, freedom and justice are the EZLN's three central objectives. The democracy they envisage is consensus based, direct and participatory. Their goal of freedom is required to facilitate indigenous autonomy and self-determination. Social and economic justice, a critique of neo-liberal ideology is a key objective considered necessary to gain respect for indigenous culture and alternative ways of life. Combined they cover other more specific demands like improved housing and education and the protection of Indian culture.
Chiapas had long voted for the ruling Revolutionary Institutional Party (PRI) in relatively larger numbers than any other Mexican state. People were mostly forced by the local landowning elites to vote in this way. This gives some clue as to the all-encompassing grip the PRI maintained on Mexican society in Chiapas. It controlled the mass media, the few schools, the unions and the peasant organisations. The only significant counter balance to the PRI was the Roman Catholic Church. Thus, the rebels combined forces with the church to help organise peasant communities and support their struggles. By working alongside with what are generally the most trusted and revered members in Mexican peasant communities the rebels were able to slowly earn the trust and support of the local peasants. Sharing the hardships and general state of hopelessness with the peasants changed the rebels own perspectives to a point where the two became inseparable. Thus the guerrilla leadership did not take up arms and then call for local support. They consulted widely and thoroughly with local communities first until a consensus in favour of armed struggle was achieved.
The Zapatistas hence practise at every step the local autonomy, democracy and justice they preach. This lack of hypocrisy undeniably helped win over the active support of the people of Chiapas. As well Marcos and other Zapatistas have used the "language of storytelling and poetry rather than political dogma" to communicate their dreams and ideas to the local population and later the world. Thirty percent of people in Chiapas are illiterate and another thirty two percent speak only their native Indian language. Storytelling was thus crucial in ensuring the guerrillas earned the support of the most deprived people in Mexico. Active and widespread participation was crucial as armed resistance has historically led to harsh elite led repression. Military and state backed terror was indeed the PRI's and the Chiapas landed elite's response. Hired guards and other paramilitary groups were entrusted by the state to terrorise the local population into subjugation and submission. The peasants responded by sending their men into the jungle in support of the guerrillas while the women folk did their best to continue their way of life in the face of military occupation. The guerrilla leadership foreseeing this response sought to create national and international support networks with any organisation that shared in part or all of the movement's vision. These networks and the support they produced created an effective shield that prevented the Mexican state following a path of complete repression against the Zapatistas.
Mexico in 1994 was firmly under the one party hegemony of the PRI. Opposition movements were uncoordinated and prone to cooptation, repression or marginalisation. Mexico's mass media were either state controlled or closely watched by the PRI state. Interlinking personal relationships amongst the elite also helped to consolidate party control. In October 1990, the Mexican government hired the largest public relations firm in the world, Burson-Marsteller to gain Mexican acceptance of the North American Free Trade Zone. In the early 1990s the Mexican state had a coordinated and successful propaganda machine at its disposal.