1994 – Zapatista rebellion

On 1 January 1994, a small group of armed indigenous peasants in the south of Mexico shocked the world as they seized a series of towns and ranches in the southern state of Chiapas to protest the newly-signed North American Free Trade Agreement. Despite a constant campaign by the Mexican government to dismiss them as anti-development subversives, divide them with false promises, money and material goods, and defeat them with years of low-intensity warfare and paramilitary violence, the Zapatista communities of Chiapas continue to thrive, experiment and inspire social movements around the world.

Approximately 3000 armed insurgents led the dawn raids on 1 January 1994 that temporarily took over cities in Chiapas, and occupied large agricultural estates. The armed revolt launched in January 1994 only lasted 12 days, but it thrust the Zapatista rebellion into the international spotlight as it showed that neoliberal capitalism (represented in the form of agreements such as NAFTA) would not go unresisted. The Zapatistas articulated their struggle as a continuation of five hundred years of indigenous resistance, and by doing so helped spark waves of indigenous uprisings across the Americas.

Using innovative forms of internet communication in the early days of the new technology, the Zapatistas built a strong network of international solidarity and linked up with the broader alternative globalisation network emerging at the time. In 1996, the Zapatistas hosted 4000 activists from 43 countries at the Intercontinental Encounter for Humanity and Against Neoliberalism to share experiences and to build a network of solidarity.

Nine years later, the Zapatistas took the campaign on the road in Mexico in an initiative called the Other Campaign, to distinguish itself from the national electoral campaign that it denounced. These and other highly visible mass mobilizations punctuated years of quiet work building direct democracy at what the Zapatistas called “the speed of the snail”.

Along with resistance, the Zapatistas have placed a lot of emphasis on territorial autonomy as well as cultural decolonisation. Since 2003, they have formed Juntas de Buen Gobierno (Good Government Councils) to self-organise their communities under the banner of ‘leading by obeying’. These extra-constitutional governing structures carry out all functions of local government. Representatives are selected in community assemblies with an emphasis on frequent rotation of posts, transparency, respect for traditions and customs (usos y costumbres), decentralization of power and economic autonomy.

Their education and health systems emphasise indigenous learning, while economic development is rooted in the work of collectives such as coffee cooperatives.

There have been profound debates about the effectiveness and application of Zapatismo to different contexts – and frequent challenges to their rejection of Mexican electoral politics – however Zapatismo has had a profound ongoing influence on all international social movements.