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Zapatista Uprising 20 Years Later: How Indigenous Mexicans Stood Up Against NAFTA “Death Sentence”

StoryJanuary 03, 2014
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On the same day the North American Free Trade Agreement went into effect on Jan. 1, 1994, the Zapatista National Liberation Army and people of Chiapas declared war on the Mexican government, saying that NAFTA meant death to indigenous peoples. They took over five major towns in Chiapas with fully armed women and men. The uprising was a shock, even for those who for years worked in the very communities where the rebel army had been secretly organizing. To learn about the impact of the uprising 20 years later and the challenges they continue to face, we speak with Peter Rosset, professor of rural social movements in San Cristóbal de las Casas, Mexico.

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

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we mark the 20th anniversary of the signing of NAFTA. That’s the North American Free Trade Agreement. We’re turning to the Zapatista uprising. On the same day NAFTA went into effect, January 1st, ’94, the Zapatistas declared war on the Mexican government, saying that NAFTA meant death to indigenous peoples. This is Zapatista Subcomandante Marcos speaking in the 1990s.

SUBCOMANDANTE MARCOS: [translated] We are creating a general profile of what civil Zapatistas could look like, taking the essentials of armed Zapatismo to recognize not taking power, not wanting to hold public office. And the struggle continues for democracy, freedom and justice, and demanding that the government place itself at the service of society, to change the relationship in Mexican society between rulers and the ruled.

AMY GOODMAN: Joining us via Democracy Now! video stream from San Cristóbal de las Casas in Chiapas, Mexico, is Peter Rosset. He’s lived there since the '90s, was part of the New Year's celebrations this week that marked the Zapatista uprising. Peter Rosset is a professor on rural social movements and agro-ecology at ECOSUR Center for Research and Graduate Studies in San Cristóbal, also works with the global peasant and family farm movement, La Via Campesina. Still with us, Lori Wallach of Public Citizen; their report, ”NAFTA at 20.” We’ll link to it at our website.

Peter Rosset, talk about the celebrations this week on the 20th anniversary of the Zapatista uprising, the same day NAFTA went into effect.

PETER ROSSET: Well, good morning. The Zapatistas control about a third of the territory of the state of Chiapas, which they organized into five autonomous regions. And each one of those regions has a capital, a capital town or seat of administrative government called a caracol, which means “snail” in Spanish. So, in each of the five caracoles on New Year’s Eve, they had a 20 anniversary celebration with thousands of people from Zapatista communities, often wearing ski masks or bandannas covering their faces, dancing all night to live music, with thousands of people who came from all over Mexico and all over the world, in fact—from Europe, from Africa, from the Middle East, from Asia, from the United States—to participate in this celebration, a celebration on one hand of 20 years since the Zapatistas said “Basta” to NAFTA and neoliberal economic policies, but also to celebrate all the things that the Zapatistas have achieved in those 20 years in terms of constructing an alternative form of autonomous self-government in the territory that they control.


PETER ROSSET: It was very festive, and there’s a huge amount of energy here in Chiapas right now.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to another clip from the documentary Zapatista, when Subcomandante Marcos explains why the indigenous people of Chiapas rose up. After him, we hear from Comandante Zebedeo.

SUBCOMANDANTE MARCOS: [translated] The indigenous of Mexico were considered worse than animals, as if they were objects, as if they were rocks, plants, something that can or cannot be. So what the indigenous must do is fight to regain a space within society and to plant again the concept of dignity, which is not something that is understood in the head. It is something by which you live and die, something that is felt within the chest, within the essence of the human being.

COMANDANTE ZEBEDEO: [translated] We have never had these rights—freedom of expression, the right to organize, the freedom to set prices of our produce. When we produce something, it is the buyer who sets the price of our product, and that is where the exploitation begins. They pay us as little as one peso for our products, but don’t consider the work and sacrifice which we make in the bulk and the weight of our work. And this costs us work. It costs us hunger. It costs us the little money we have invested there. And when it doesn’t produce, when it does not bear fruit, we don’t benefit. Others benefit, and the true workers remain the same, with their arms crossed and their land exploited.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Comandante Zebedeo; before that, Subcomandante Marcos, from the film Zapatista, produced by Big Noise Films. Peter Rosset, if you can talk about—elaborate on what they were both saying.

PETER ROSSET: Well, what they’re saying is that indigenous people in Mexico, since the Spanish conquest 500 years ago, as they said, have been treated almost like animals in a very racist society—the poorest of the poor, the most excluded, most indigenous communities without running water, without electricity, without effective education or healthcare. And that’s one of the reasons why the Zapatistas rose up. They also rose up because they knew that that was going to go from bad to worse with NAFTA and with free trade.

I think the most important thing now, 20 years later, is that in one small area, the southeast of Mexico, where they control territory, they’ve managed to create a different system—a small vision of what an alternative society would look like with collective and rotating self-government, with their own autonomous education system, autonomous healthcare system, production cooperatives and societies, the recovery of the local economy, their own system of administration of justice—in other words, their own legal system, which is much fairer than the federal Mexican legal system—tremendous promotion of young people and of women into positions of importance in the self-government process. So, it’s really exciting to see what is possible to achieve if you control your own territory and if you have a different vision of how society could be organized.

AMY GOODMAN: After the Zapatista uprising, I went down to Chiapas, and I was able to attend the first news conference that Subcomandante Marcos and the Zapatistas held, and they only allowed in Mexico radio journalists. I mean, I was not from Mexico, but I did get in. They weren’t allowing in television, and that was because, Marcos said, of the way television and, overall, the media covered the Zapatista uprising. Peter Rosset, can you talk about the role of the media in Mexico and internationally in how they give voice to the grassroots or not?

PETER ROSSET: Well, I think we face in Mexico and in the world—in the United States, as well, and in many countries—what Subcomandante Marcos has called “media terrorism,” and that the mainstream media, what it does is it frightens people with unexplained images of threats and violence, making people support right-wing governments and repressive measures, and never really reports on what’s going on in the grassroots on what are the real causes of problems, what are real solutions, what do local alternatives look like when they’re actually functioning. We never hear anything like that. And I think the Zapatistas, amongst many other social movements, are fed up with that. And so, for example, in the New Year’s Eve celebration, they said it was open to everybody in the world except the news media, because they’re tired of the distorted and bad coverage. Of course, the media was there, and some of the alternative media, like Democracy Now! and like many other sources of alternative media, do have much more balanced and accurate coverage, but we don’t see that accurate coverage in the mainstream media, neither in Mexico nor anywhere else.

AMY GOODMAN: You know, when I was at that news conference, I got to ask a question, and I asked about the role of women in the leadership. You know, this was the first time that the Zapatistas were out in public, when they walked into the Cathedral of Peace in San Cristóbal de las Casas—of course, their faces were covered—that they were in the leadership. And some of the mainstream media afterwards, when I came out, came over to me and said, “What did you ask?” I said, “I asked about the women.” They said, “You had one question, and you asked about the women?” Well, it’s interesting. I want to play some footage from a recent gathering in Chiapas marking the 20th anniversary of the Zapatista uprising. This is Zapatista Commander Hortensia.

COMANDANTE HORTENSIA: [translated] Now is the time to strengthen and globalize the resistance and the rebellion, because we know that these lying thieves and criminals who call themselves the government will never stop attacking us. They will never stop persecuting us. They will never stop incarcerating us and trying to put an end to us and erase us from history. But they will not be able to, because our struggle has its just cause: democracy, liberty and justice. From Caracol II in Oventic, Resistance and Rebellion for Humanity, the high zone of Chiapas, January 1st, 2014.

AMY GOODMAN: Special thanks to Andalusia Knoll for this directly from Chiapas. Peter Rosset, the revolutionary role of women in this uprising over this last 20 years?

PETER ROSSET: Well, right from the beginning, before the Zapatistas even really came public, they already had a revolutionary law of women. And what they say is that their goal is that women should have 50 percent of all positions of authority in the self-governing process. We know that women are 50 percent of the Clandestine Revolutionary Indigenous Council, which is the maximum authority in the Zapatista movement. And things that one can see just in Zapatista territory is a whole generation of young indigenous women who have graduated from the Zapatista autonomous school system who are now, from 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20 years old and who are in positions of authority, who are participating in what they call the Good Government Councils, the Juntas de Buen Gobierno, who are articulate.

And something—it’s a small anecdote, but that really moved me the other day, a Zapatista agro-ecology promoter was in my office, and he was talking about how the young women, indigenous women now in the indigenous communities in Zapatista territory are different from indigenous women before, because, he said, they no longer look at the floor when you talk to them. They look you directly in the eye. And I think that’s a small thing, but it really sums up how Zapatistas—the Zapatismo is changing the role of women in indigenous society here in Chiapas.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, we just have 30 seconds, Peter Rosset, but the role of the current obstacles faced by Zapatistas today?

PETER ROSSET: Well, I think that the obstacles faced by the Zapatistas today, specifically, for them, are the counterinsurgency campaign the Mexican government carries out against them, which includes a negative media campaign, but also the problems that all of us in Mexico face. There have been tremendous reforms pushed through by the right-wing president, Enrique Peña Nieto, which are basically rolling back the remaining positive things left over from the Mexican revolution. So we’re facing very difficult times here in Mexico.

AMY GOODMAN: Peter Rosset, I want to thank you for being with us, professor on rural social movements and agro-ecology at the ECOSUR Center for Research and Graduate Studies in San Cristóbal de las Casas, Mexico, also works with the global peasant and family farm movement, La Via Campesina. And thanks so much to Lori Wallach of Public Citizen. We’ll link to that report, ”NAFTA at 20,” at

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