Will Mexico See a Zapatista President?

by Maggie Poulos

“The resistance of those from below is to wake those who sleep, to enrage those who are content, to force history to say what has been kept silent and to expose the exploitation, killings, displacement, contempt and forgetfulness that is hidden behind the museums, statues, books and monuments to the lies of those above.” – Subcomandante Galeano

Although the Zapatistas introduced themselves on to the world stage in response to the adoption of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), they had already been organizing in secret for over ten years. The group protests the impoverishment and oppression of indigenous peasant communities through neoliberal governmental policies. The movement is said to have been founded in the Lacandón Jungle in the early 1980’s as a self-defense group committed to protecting Mayan land in Chiapas. For nearly four decades, the Zapatistas have remained autonomous from the Mexican government, dissatisfied by its practices. In fact, one of the Zapatista movement’s central tenets includes the rejection of mal gobierno, or bad governance in Mexico. But recently, the Zapatistas made a decision to legitimize the very institutions they have detested. The movement will present an indigenous woman as a candidate for Mexico’s 2018 presidential election, representing movement participation in electoral politics.

Since its inception, the EZLN has vehemently opposed supporting the institution of government, so what could have accounted for this absolute reversal in tactics, and will it make substantial change?

The Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN), also referred to as the Zapatista movement, draws its name from Emiliano Zapata Salazar, the widely celebrated indigenous leader of the Mexican Revolution of 1910. To many, he represents the spirit (and sustained history) of indigenous peasant resistance and struggle. The group’s primary spokesperson, Subcomandante Galeano (also known as Delegate Zero or Subcomandante Marcos) recently rencounced his leadership. His primary motive for resigning was the model of autonomous, participatory, and communitarian democracy that the EZLN aims for in its governance structure. Interestingly enough, it would be two years later that the Zapatistas would announce the presentation of a presidential candidate. These two announcements together represent a paradox that now exists in the goals of the movement.

How will the movement rectify this contradiction between their loyalty to autonomy and newfound interest in political participation?

The announcement of a presidential candidate highlights the lack of female or indigenous presence in Mexican politics. The EZLN has also stressed that their “independent candidate” chosen from the National Indigenous Congress will be an alternative to the death, destruction, and corruption of modern Mexican politics. The movement has publicly said in a communique that “[their] struggle is not for power … [they] will call on indigenous peoples and civil society to organize [themselves] to stop this destruction.” Media outlets have questioned whether or not the candidate with be masked and anonymous, similar to the balaclava-cladded Subcomandante Galeano.

An important element of the Zapatista movement has always been strength and unity through collective identity. Most importantly, the EZLN has rejected participation in electoral politics since its inception. Prior to the 2006 election, the Zapatistas launched “The Other Campaign,” which encouraged political participation outside of voting, due to the infamously corrupt politics of Mexican elections. The EZLN maintained that “Mexicans should organize for a world in which the people command and the government obeys. While others wait for those above to solve problems, we Zapatistas have already started building our own liberty, from below.”


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The Zapatista movement came about as a result of organization around the ills and issues of Mexican society, as well as a lack of political opportunity within established institutions. In his piece, “Authoritarian Legacies and Democratic Consolidation in Mexico,” Claudio Holzner depicts the political system of Mexico as one, “in which citizens cannot hold government officials accountable; cannot request information with guarantees that it will be provided in a timely manner; in which the rule of law is tenuous, corruption is rampant, and human rights abuses go unpunished; and in which local authoritarian leaders manipulate elections before and after ballots are cast.” Without a political outlet, the Zapatistas forged an autonomous movement, with an incredibly socially diverse network of supporters, stressing the importance of a truly democratic structure and the willingness to listen to stories of resistance.

Following their initial uprising in Chiapas, the EZLN signed the San Andrés Accords with the Mexican government in 1995, with the hope of recognition for their collective rights and autonomy. Soon after the agreement was reached, it was clear that the federal government refused to actually implement the constitutional changes. Launching “low intensity warfare,” or “civilian targeted warfare,” the government sent one-third of its army into Chiapas, to establish checkpoints, army patrols, and alliances with paramilitary groups.

To this day, there continues to be a military presence in Chiapas, perpetuating violence and clashes between civilians and the authorities.

In response to the failure of the San Andrés Accords, the Zapatistas began to establish Aguascalientes — “centers of resistance that combined cultural and economic development with autonomous self-government.” The federal government was more concerned with the interest that foreign capitalists would have in investing in Mexico, which directly conflicted with the Zapatista belief in collectively owned land. This conflict continues today. The Mexican government’s endorsement of neoliberal economic policies since the adoption of NAFTA reflects its authoritarian political history and its oppression of indigenous peasants.

Recent events in Mexico prove that the situation of indigenous peasants has not improved. The 2014 mass kidnapping of 43 students from a teacher’s college in Iguala, Guerrero, underscores the violence and discrimination against indigenous peoples.

The Zapatista movement is presenting a presidential candidate and reversing its tactics because it wants to see change.

The autonomous nature of the movement is not benefiting its supporters substantially; violence and poverty remain widespread throughout their communities. A large portion of the Mexican population is indigenous, which could be used to their electoral advantage, but Mexican politics is also notoriously corrupt.

It is possible that once the EZLN promotes a presidential candidate, the movement’s structure will change entirely, from being a leaderless group to one focused on leadership (which could be interesting to compare to the rise of Evo Morales in Bolivia). The candidacy of an indigenous woman holds incredible potential for Mexico, and is a substantial step towards progressive change.

Although the move legitimizes democratic institutions that the EZLN once condemned, it may provide their movement more clout.

If their candidate is elected, it is likely that other indigenous movements in Latin America will follow suit and find new ways to pressure for representation. All of Mexico is anticipating the debut of the Zapatista candidate, but the 2018 election will decide whether she is given an opportunity.

Maggie Poulos is a junior Political Science and International Studies double major from Macalester College. She enjoys reading social and political theory, traveling, playing lacrosse, finding new recipes to try, and taking naps. While in college, she has completed internships and independent research projects in the areas of political and economic policy, human rights, social movements, indigenous peoples, and democratization. She has focused her studies largely on these areas, and in the region of Latin America. She is currently interning with The Advocates for Human Rights, where she interviews refugees seeking political asylum, and has written reports submitted to the United Nations, as well posts for their blog.

The views expressed in this article are those of the writer. The Contemporary takes no position on matters of policy or opinion.

The picture above was created by Mannheim Reinhard Jahn and is under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 license. It can be found here.

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