by James Graham
In response to the Chiapas uprising the Mexican state tried to bolster the structure of political representation in Chiapas. Through the National Solidarity Program large amounts of money were spent in attempts to reconstruct the apparatuses of state domination in Chiapas. The landholding class received compensation for lands taken over by peasants. Municipal mayors were given extra funding and efforts were made to revive campesino and producers organisations.
However by courting independent journalists, supportive groups and by using the internet the Zapatistas were able to circumvent the Mexican state's stranglehold on information. Initially Marcos directed his communiqués to sympathetic newspapers La Jornada in Mexico City and El Tiempo of San Cristobal de las Casas among others. La Jornada published every EZLN communiqué verbatim and many interviews with Marcos and other spokespeople. The Zapatistas ski masks and Marcos's ever present pipe provided good photo opportunities and thus helped increase their newsworthiness. Combined with a welcoming and joking attitude towards journalists the Zapatistas received unprecedented media coverage. Marcos banned all members of the EZLN from talking to the largest Mexican television network, Televisa as he believed the network attempted to marginalise and subvert the movement. This move created positive returns as other reporters resented Televisa and enjoyed the opportunity to get one up on the network.
The Zapatistas where possible, communicated directly with mass organisations. Their appeals for democracy, freedom and justice resonated with large parts of Mexican civil society and the wider world. A vast and diverse group of "unions, neighbourhood associations, women's, student's and ecologist's associations, of Leftist parties . of associations of debtors, peasants and indigenous communities" have supported the Zapatistas. All share the objective of transforming Mexican society from the bottom up and their courting by the Zapatistas ensured the guerrillas were never isolated in Mexican politics and society. This mass network of activists allowed the Zapatistas to consult straight with the Mexican people though processes of consultation and referendum.
Connecting all these organisations is the internet. In the 1990s, the La Neta computer network was established to link up Mexico's numerous non-governmental organisations. La Neta arrived in Chiapas in 1993 and subsequently played a key role in distributing information to Mexico and the world during the Zapatista uprising. Through this network and the wider internet government fax machines were overloaded and large marches in Mexico City were organised in ways that completely bypassed the state propaganda machine. Government announcements concerning Chiapas were posted on this network and rebutted and classified as propaganda before they were able to gain traction and acceptance. The EZLN successfully used the internet to rally domestic and international support for their objectives.
The world's mass media have ignored or attacked the Zapatistas. Western governments have closed ranks behind the Mexican government and championed NAFTA as a giant step forward towards ending poverty in Mexico. NAFTA's numerous side effects were ignored or explained as necessary short term costs to achieve long-term prosperity. Mass media from the developed world accepted this argument and viewed Mexico and the Zapatistas from a pro free trade perspective. They have thus acted in defence of Mexico's neo-liberal project and ignored as much as possible alternative visions like that of the EZLN. As mass media is thoroughly interlinked with government and corporate elites this is hardly surprising. Various experts, researchers and think tanks also defended NAFTA and the Mexican government. These reports were in turn cited by the mass media to reinforce the status quo.
On the other hand, the Zapatistas successfully seduced various smaller media outlets and interest groups as a counter to mainstream media. In the same way as the elusive masked guerrillas appealed to independent Mexican media, they also achieved a cult status among Western journalists. Above all their enchanting anti-capitalist ideology gave leftists everywhere hope of an alternative to capitalist domination when everything else signalled the inevitable march of capitalism and the triumph of neoliberalism.
The Zapatistas have also utilised the internet to communicate directly and indirectly with sympathetic organisations and individuals around the world. Audiences initially interested in the Zapatistas included PeaceNet conferences, Usenet newsgroups, humanitarian groups, indigenous peoples and feminists. Spontaneous and sometimes even near instantaneous reposting and translating of EZLN communiqués became common. As this activity has grown people have attempted to collate and summarise the numerous sources to provide relevant information to interested people. This mass of information encouraged many activists and journalists to make pilgrimages to Chiapas. These pilgrimages provided both a human shield for the Zapatistas and also a steadily increasing flow of information back on to the internet. The effect was a snowballing of grass roots interest in Chiapas that kept various spotlights on Chiapas that seriously limiting the military options available to the Mexican government.
Local support was earned over a long period of consciousness raising and agitation to improve the lives of peasants. These efforts alone could not shake a co-optive PRI managed state. Only by presenting a military threat and adroitly using the worldwide interest it gained to undermine elite interests could the Zapatistas shake the foundations of the Mexican system of government.