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The Zapatista Uprising 1994-2004: A Look At How An Indigenous Rebel Group From Chiapas Took on Mexico and Corporate Globalization

StoryJanuary 02, 2004
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Ten years ago, on January 1st 1994, a primarily indigenous rebel group, the Zapatista National Liberation Army, or EZLN, declared war on the Mexican government. They yelled Ya Basta! Enough! and announced that NAFTA, which went into effect the same day, meant death to indigenous peoples. [includes transcript]

Throughout the following decade, the EZLN has been a key reference for anti-globalization struggles around the globe. On the 10th anniversary of the uprising that shook the world, we bring you this special report recounting major events of the past decade. It was produced in the Chiapas Indymedia Center.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: And you are listening to Democracy Now!, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman with Juan Gonzalez as we move from one revolution to another, ten years ago today, on January 1, 1994 a primarily indigenous rebel group, the Zapatista National Liberation Army, or EZLN, declared war on the Mexican government. They yelled “Ya Baste!”, “Enough!”, to the authoritarian government, and announced that NAFTA, which went into effect the same day, meant death to indigenous peoples. Throughout the following decade, the EZLN has been a key reference for anti-globalization struggles around the globe. On the tenth anniversary of the uprising that shook the world, we bring you this special report 'Remembering Ten Years of Zapatismo'. It was produced by the Chiapas Indymedia Center in partnership with Free Speech Radio News.

FREE SPEECH RADIO NEWS: On January 1, while the rest of Mexico was celebrating the start of the New Year, while the Mexican president along with the country’s politically elite, were toasting the implementation of the North American Free Trade agreement, the EZLN was mobilizing to take over 5 major towns in the state of Chiapas. Shortly after midnight, fully armed women and men took over several towns in the state of Chiapas. The uprising was a shock. Even for those who for years worked in the very communities where the rebel army had been secretly organizing.

FREE SPEECH RADIO NEWS: In 1992, what we saw was a complicated panorama. We saw all the peasant organizations divided and fighting with each other. Nothing is ever going to happen here, I thought. I was driving home and was stopped by dozens of armed men. I said: “Where the hell have you been? We have been waiting for you.”

FREE SPEECH RADIO NEWS: A local journalist, who now owns a bookstore in San Cristobal recounts the first hours of January 1, 1994.

LOCAL JOURNALIST: The Central Plaza had already been taken. I became more drunk than I already was, and the Zapatistas looked at me. Then a curious thing happened. Something I didn’t expect. People started to talk to the armed men and women to ask them questions and what they wanted. They approached the Zapatistas, because they were sure the war wasn’t directed at them. These conversations happened in the first part of the day.

FREE SPEECH RADIO NEWS: Within less than 24 hours, the almost jovial spectacle turned to full-fledged warfare as thousands of Mexican military and police forces confronted the rebel army and terrorized civilian populations. In one indigenous village, the men of the community were rounded up and three elders were assassinated. Sister Patti, who ran a small popular hospital in the area, was accused by the military of hiding weapons in the hospital. This sister remembers that day.

SISTER PATTI, WITNESS: It was the 5th of January in the afternoon, the federal army arrived. It was a day of incredible silence, an environment of great fear. The military began to give out food to the people. When the families went to receive their food, many of the men were taken by the military, tortured, and taken to the prisons.

FREE SPEECH RADIO NEWS: During the 12 days of warfare, approximately 200 people were killed, most of them civilians. The images broadcast throughout the world of the corpses of poor indigenous men lying on the dirt with wooden guns by their side made people wonder what was behind the decision to make them risk their lives. In February, 1994, the Zapatistas entered the city again to begin negotiations. From the cathedral, they spoke about the importance of peasant and indigenous people’s rights to land.

EZLN REPRESENTATIVE: We decided to go to war so that the peasants could have land, not the ranchers. It wasn’t for one village nor for the state, but rather for everyone who doesn’t have land.

LANDOWNER: There exists a feeling of racism, which is viewed as normal. During the first interviews after the uprising, the people were asked, what is your opinion on the situation, and they said, “Well, this is a very serious problem. Because really, we have always lived like this, with the Indians in their communities and their tranquil way of life and us here. The Indians understand very well, they are Indians and they have to live this way and we live in another manner and there has never been any conflict.”

FREE SPEECH RADIO NEWS: It was against this racism that the Zapatista communities sided to take up arms. In the words of a Commandante of the EZLN

COMMANDANTE: It was the 1st of January, 1994, when we appeared, because of the conditions and the situation in which we live in these mountains. We rose up in arms Not so we could have somewhere — an office, or some other important place to go —–We took up arms so we would not be killed by forgetfulness… so the demands would be heard and they would see that in this corner, in this country, Mexico, there are indigenous peoples who have been abandoned for many years.

FREE SPEECH RADIO NEWS: The EZLN was officially founded 20 years ago, on November 17, 1983. It was in a remotest part of the Locandon jungle in a guerrilla camp. Subcommandante Marcos, the military leader of the EZLN, describes the third year of life.

SUBCOMMANDANTE MARCOS: When the first group arrived in 1983, 1984, we were in the densest part of the jungle. We are talking about a group of four or five, six people that repeated to themselves every day “this is the right thing to do”, “the right thing to do”. There was nothing in the world Telling us this was the right thing to do. We were dreaming that someday all of this would be worth something.

AMY GOODMAN: 'Remembering Ten Years of Zapatismo'. This is a documentary that was produced by the Chiapas Media Center and Free Speech Radio News. We go to Tim Russo, who is the Free Speech Radio News correspondent in Chiapas. In a minute, could you tell us about this tenth anniversary and what people in Chiapas are doing?

TIM RUSSO: Good morning, Amy, sure. What we have seen the last couple of days here, thousands of people from around the world have flocked here to Chiapas to the communities, the Zapatista communities, the five that were mentioned in the documentary where the cultural centers of resistance that the Zapatistas inaugurated on the 8th of August this year, which was sort of the crux point of the Zapatista’s ten years of struggle — is coming to a head with the creation and formation of the “Council for Good Governments” or the “juntas”. The thousands flocked in from around the world and pretty much divided into small groups of affinity groups that came from Italy and Argentina and the United States and went into the five areas the 17th of November, and the highlands where we saw very local parties were put together by the different “juntas” or “Councils of Good Government.” I went out to Francisco Gomez with several other people from the Independent Media Center, and there was a picture where about 1500, 2,000 members of the communities, Zapatista communities from that zone, that Francisco Gomez, had come in and began to build their templates where they were going to have several different bands play and commemorate these ten years of autonomy. They — at 11:00, hour of the Mexican government or the 12:00 Zapatista insurgent hour, inaugurated the new year and they did so with speeches given by the Council of the Good Government, and several Commandantes that were at the scene. They wanted to reiterate the importance of the formation of the “juntas of the government” as a crucial movement in the struggle for Zapatistas in the autonomous projects they have been working on to maintain their own autonomy and to really implement what the federal government has never respected, which is the San Andreas Accords and self-determination for people in Mexico.

JUAN GONZALEZ: We’d like to bring in now someone we have in the studio, Clara Nieto, who has written an excellent book, 'Masters of War', 'Latin America and the Cuban Revolution through the Clinton Years'. Welcome to Democracy Now!, Clara.

CLARA NIETO: Thank you.

JUAN GONZALEZ: I’d like to ask you if you can, to put what’s happening in Mexico right now and the tenth anniversary of the Chiapas revolt, and what’s happening in Haiti in the larger context as Latin America moves forward into 2004. What are some of the major problems and forward motion that you see occurring throughout the hemisphere?

CLARA NIETO: Well, the question of the Zapatistas, I think, is —- to start with, is a totally different sort of revolution. In the sense, you know, they have not tried—- the military movements against — to take power. It happened in Argentina and Brazil, it happened in Chile, and it happened in Uruguay. There’s change in the government, but change in getting a conscience of the people about the importance of the indigenous people who are a very important part of Mexico. You know, the question of Haiti, and I think of course, they are — they are under a dictatorship that they have a tragic life about that, but they are struggling to get things done, to get justice done. You know, the question that I think is interesting in this moment in Latin America, is that things are changing. Today they say — there are many recent events that show that change. For instance, you know the movement, the indigenous movement of the — in Boliva that they achieved — you know, to put out the president because they — also in Ecuador, you know they were elected mainly with the support of the indigenous, and they are now — they are already only putting up with him because they don’t know — not doing what they promise in the campaign and you see, for instance, even we have to talk about what happened in Cancun, I mean, with the World Trade Organization and what happened with the American Trade Free — Free Trade Agreement, and I mean that this is the opposition of certain impositions from the United States. I mean, now we have the enablement of, you know, of — we don’t want to be more pushed by it, but let us do it in things, in ways that is better for our people and for our countries. I think it’s in that context, you know, I think that the Chiapas movement, the Mexican movement led by Marcos, you know. ..I think that it gave a message to the indigenous people in Latin America that you have, you know, in many countries, you have this very high percentage of indigenous — I mean, the way that they should work or get united to achieve something for them.

JUAN GONZALEZ: But in terms of the — as you’re saying, the turn in many of the countries in Latin America really what seems to be occurring not only as an indigenous movement that’s getting much more involved in the political battles, but also there seems to be more of a turning away, across the continent — from the neo-liberal policies of the 1980’s and 1990’s, backed by the United States, and by the forces of global capital, but this has happened before in Latin America. You have had Jose Santos Sallaya in Nicaragua in the 1900’s. You had the Allende government in Chile in the 1970’s. You had movements of democratization, but the United States seems to beat them back, and eventually reassert its dominance again and some people are questioning now whether Lula in Brazil is not already moving to accommodation more than when he came in. What’s your sense of the ability of the United States to reassert its dominance in Latin America?

CLARA NIETO: We are seeing that now. This is a very determined government in Washington. I mean, invade Iraq, invade Afghanistan. Promise to do — promise to change the regimes here and there. You know, for instance, there is no question in my country — in Colombia, does not question that he didn’t do it in Iraq, the government, the president is very much in accordance with what Bush is saying, and now we have military people taking care of our pipelines in Colombia.

JUAN GONZALEZ: U.S. military.

CLARA NIETO: Yes. U.S. military. You know something? It is said that he — the United States has responded inside the government with certain groups and people in power. You know?

AMY GOODMAN: Clara Nieto, on that note, I want to thank you for being with us. Her book is, 'Masters of War', 'Latin America and US Aggression, from the Cuban Revolution Through the Clinton Years'. That does it for our anniversary show from Haiti to Mexico.

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