Mexico’s Zapatista rebels, 24 years on and defiant in mountain strongholds

Source: The Guardian

The peasant rebels took up arms in 1994, and now number 300,000 in centers with their own doctors, teachers and currency, but rarely answer questions – until now

Diners in the Tierradentro cafe in the southern Mexican town of San Cristóbal de las Casas can choose between a variety of omelettes. The “Liberty” has the most ingredients, the “Democracy” looks the best, but the “Justice” costs the most – possibly because it comes with cheese.

The restaurant is one of many celebrating, or cashing in on, the Zapatistas, the indigenous peasant rights movement from dirt-poor Chiapas state, which took up arms and occupied San Cristóbal on 1 January 1994, the day Mexico signed up to Nafta, the North American free trade agreement.

The rag-tag rebel Zapatista national liberation army (EZLN) – one-third women, some in bare feet, others with wooden guns – freed prisoners, burned military posts and seized ranches in protest at centuries of what they saw as oppression by large landowners and the government. They became instant heroes of the left, and an inspiration to indigenous groups and political romantics around the world.

Twenty-four years on from the rebellion, the restaurants in San Cristóbal thrive on their reputation, sporting mannequins in balaclavas, playing revolutionary music and selling T-shirts. Images of Che Guevara mix with those of Subcomandante Marcos, the poetic, pipe-smoking political philosopher who led the Tzotzil, Tzeltal, Ch’ol and Tojolabal peoples’ armed rebellion and who famously declared that the “fourth world war against neoliberalism and oblivion” had started.

“Zapatourismo is big,” says Manuel Heredia, a young Chamula Indian who was brought up in what is now a Zapatista community. “We have many American, British, Italian and others coming here. Every day sympathisers come to San Cristóbal. They want to know about 1994, and what happens now.”

Today the Zapatistas, who have never disarmed, claim to control much of the state of Chiapas. “There are 50,000 families, or nearly 300,000 people in 55 municipalities. Their rules of ‘good government’ involve giving their time several days a week to the community, sharing food, helping to teach the young, and organising,” says Heredia.

“They are autonomous,” he adds. “Most villages are in the mountains and the great Lacandon forest. They have their own system of education, health, justice, government and security. They are still poor but they train their own teachers and doctors, and some have their own currency. The Mexican government mostly leaves them alone.”

Continue reading