PCDForum Article #9, Release Date May 20, 1994
by Gustavo Esteva
At midnight on January 1, 1994, NAFTA the North American Free Trade
Agreement between Mexico, the US and Canada came into force. Barely two hours
later, thousands of Indians armed with machetes, clubs and a few modern weapons
occupied four of the main towns in Chiapas, a province on Mexico’s southern
border with Guatemala, and declared war on the Mexican government. Two dozen
policemen and an unknown number of rebels died in the assaults.
The following day, Mexican President Salinas dismissed the uprising as the
work of "a local group of professionals of violence, probably foreigners"
and launched a massive attack upon the rebels using tanks, Swiss airplanes, U.S.
helicopters and 15,000 troops. Nobody knows the full extent of the violence that
followed, but there were reports of civilian killings, torture, summary
executions and unlawful detention.
Within a few days of the rebellion, opposition groups all over Mexico came
out in support of the rebels’ demands for freedom, democracy and justice though
not necessarily of their violent actions. People occupied the streets, broke
decades of press control, and gained access to communication networks both
inside and outside Mexico. The EZLN declarations were broadcast to the outside
world through fax and electronic mail as soon as they were released.
In the face of this mounting opposition at home and abroad, the President
called a ceasefire and amnesty and made a number of political concessions:
changes in the cabinet, the removal of the inept interim governor of Chiapas,
the establishment of investigating commissions and committees, a pledge to
ensure "cleaner" presidential elections in August, and money.
Chiapas is one of the richest of Mexico’s provinces. It produces around a
hundred thousand barrels of oil and five hundred billion cubic meters of gas per
day; its dams supply more than half of the country’s hydroelectric power; it
accounts for one third of the national production of coffee; and a good
percentage of the country’s cattle, timber, honey, corn and other products. To
connect these riches with the capital and to bring modernity to Chiapas a
freeway is being built to Mexico City passing through the large El Ocote forest.
Yet Chiapas is also one of the poorest of Mexico’s provinces. A third of its
3.5 million inhabitants are Indians, who have suffered various forms of
oppression and discrimination for centuries, from both foreigners and from a
highly conservative local upper class. Over the last 40 years, the drive to
develop its resources has compounded oppression to the level of genocide.
Resistance to the occupation of communal land has been crushed by gross
violations of human rights. Thousands of people, mostly Indians, have been
displaced by dams, oil or cattle ranches and pushed into the Selva Lacandona
forest the biggest tropical forest in North America only to serve as a scapegoat
for its destruction by ranchers and loggers. Many Indians now live in desperate
poverty. 30,000 died last year of hunger and associated diseases in the area of
the uprising. Yet the money devoted to the entire social budget for Chiapas is
just a fraction of the cost of the new highway to Mexico City.
Over the last few years the Indians have used every peaceful means at their
disposal to present their grievances to the government: economic and political
organizations and presents manifestos, conducted demonstrations and sit-ins, and
even marched a thousand miles to Mexico’s capital. The Mexican government
delegated responsibility for dealing with them to the provincial administration.
The former governor of Chiapas, González Garrido, conceived a
three-pronged strategy: he protected armed landowners and cattle raisers in
their exploitation of Indian land and people; supported the creation or
strengthening of a pliant Indian elite to keep political control of the
villages; and gave a free hand to his police to operate under the pretext of
combating drug trafficking-all under the respectable cover of development and
modernization. The government poured money into Chiapas under "Pronasol,"
its "war against poverty" program described by the World Bank as the
best in the world. A sizeable proportion of the money was used to build new
prisons; the bulk of it was channeled into the villages through the corrupt
hands of the controlling elite.
Developed to Death
The Chiapas revolt was not a response to a lack of development a call for
cheaper food, more jobs, more health care and more education. Rather it was a
dignified reaction to too much development by a people who opted for a more
dignified form of dying.
There has been a constant allusion to death in the communiqués of the
EZLN. Alluding to the Federal Army, one of its captains said, "Let’s see
who is more ready to die, they or us". It is not a mere slogan. Expelled
from their lands, oppressed by a violent structure of power, with Death visiting
their children every day, they chose dignity. They knew they were confronting
forces infinitely superior and that there was no hope of a military victory.
They expected massive and brutal retaliation, killing most of them, perhaps all
However, this apparently futile gesture caught the imagination of millions
of people throughout Mexico. The EZLN seized the opportunity to launch an
eloquent and unprecedented attack upon the process of development.
Rather than demanding the expansion of the economy, either state-led or
market-led, the EZLN seeks to expel it from their domain. They are pleading for
protection of the "commons" they have carved out for themselves in
response to the crisis of development, ways of living together that limit the
economic damage and give room for new forms of social life. The EZLN has dared
to announce to the world that development as a social experiment has failed
miserably in Chiapas.
A New Kind of Movement
The EZLN rebellion is hard to categorize. It has no one leader, and its
collective leadership of elected representatives from 1,000 communities
consciously resists any form of personality cult. It owes little to the classic
model of a Marxist guerilla group since it eschews any political platform or
ideology. It is not a fundamentalist or messianic movement its members come from
different Indian peoples, profess different religions, and are explicitly
ecumenical. Nor is it a nationalist movement: it shows no desire for Chiapas to
become a small state, an indigenous republic, or an "autonomous"
administrative district, in line with the demands of minorities in some other
countries. The EZLN refused to become a political party. Furthermore, it is a
movement of illiterate peasants talking about NAFTA and transnational capital
and using electronic networks to gain national and international support for
The Chiapas uprising signals the efflorescence of a wider movement that
until now has been gathering momentum beneath the surface of social awareness
both in Mexico and elsewhere. It comprises networks of groups coalitions of
discontent that are deliberately open and allow for the participation of
different ideologies and classes; distrust leaders and centralized political
direction; and consciously avoid any temptation to lead or control the social
forces they activate. They opt instead for flexible organizational structures,
which they use for concerting action, rather than for channeling demands; they
explicitly detach themselves from abstract ideologies, preferring to concentrate
on specific campaigns (for example, against a dam, a road, a nuclear plant or
the violations of human rights); and they exhaust any democratic means and legal
procedures available before resorting to direct action or revolt.
Mexico may be on the verge of more violence. It will not be easy to
dismantle a political regime so rigid and entrenched, nor to stop all the forces
of development still behind the government. However, the non-violent reactions
of those coalitions of discontents have been so extended, so full of
imagination, strength and creativity, so well-rooted in people’s organizations,
that I still hold the hope that there will be no need of more armed violence and
that we will be able to stop institutional violence in a new regime.
I hope that the new coalitions will have the courage to persist in
non-violence so as to reclaim the commons and regenerate the art of living and
of dying with dignity. If so, much as Mexico saw the first social revolution of
the twentieth century, perhaps we will one day look back on Chiapas as the first
revolution of the twenty-first century.
Gustavo Esteva is a grassroots activist and a deprofessionalized
intellectual living in a small Indian village in southern Mexico, and a
contributing editor of the People-Centered Development Forum. This article was
prepared and distributed by the PCDForum based on his editorial in The
Ecologist, Vol. 24, No. 3, May/June 1994. He may be reached at Apdo. Postal 106,
Admon. 3, 68081 Oaxaca. Oax., Mexico. FAX (52-951) 52147.