The ‘peace march’ of the ‘Zapatistas’ to Mexico City Ruthless Criticism

Translated from GegenStandpunkt 2-01

The ‘peace march’ of the ‘Zapatistas’ to Mexico City:

A guerrilla group presents itself as a national power –
that’s all the Indians needed!

“Guerrilla movements” in Central and South America are commonly known for the forceful resistance with which they push back against the machinations of their state authorities. A few years ago in Mexico, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) also took a militant stand for the interests of the indigenous people and, out of necessity, used whatever force they could muster to oppose the power of the state and the terror of the large landowners who were contesting whatever remained of the Indians’ livelihoods.

And now this: the leaders of this guerrilla movement, accompanied by a colorful troupe of Indians, demonstrators and journalists, have embarked on a “peace march” to Mexico City – applauded by the Mexican president and escorted across the country by the police! They travel to the center of the same power that bloodily combated these guerrillas and anyone suspected of sympathizing with them – to make a speech in Congress before those who see the Indians with their modest survival requirements as nothing but a nuisance and a challenge to their apparatus of repression! A speech before the upper house on the “question of the indigenous population,” to which Congress would have to – please! – give a satisfactory answer. No doubt: A “political learning process,” which the world public is pleased to be notified about by ‘Subcomandante Marcos,’ has already taken place there – the only question is: what does it consists of?


The Zapatistas under the ideological leadership of the ‘Subcomandante’ have found a rather original answer to the ‘force question’ posed to them and their followers: Where the population is driven off their land by large landowners, where the state treats them as a useless and disruptive living inventory and all the efforts that are made in ‘civilized’ capitalist conditions to ensure the usefulness and obedience of the people are missing, where instead military and paramilitary forces do their work in the service of the state and the landowners, the Zapatistas have officially renounced guerrilla warfare and begun representing the interests of the indigenous population politically, i.e., registering them with the ruling circles and peacefully demanding that they be taken into account. Their ‘rebellion’ is no longer intended to disempower those responsible for the ruthless treatment of the indigenous masses, but rather to emphatically remind them of their political duty to include the cause of the Indians in their political activities in the name of the people and to decide on them accordingly:

“That is why we want to tell all the deputies and senators to carry out their duties, be true representatives of the people.” (Comandanta Esther in the Congress of the Union)

This guerrilla group has thus taken on the role of supplicant, appealing to its opponents to be politically responsible and warning them of a violent upheaval that could come not from them, but from an entirely different deviation:

“The ethnic question can lead here, as elsewhere, to the emergence of fundamentalist movements ready for any murderous folly.” (Le Monde diplomatique, March 2001)

As far as they themselves are concerned, then, as champions of the oppressed masses, they want to set a different example than earlier guerrilla movements with their demonstrative fighting spirit: not a model of a mass uprising, but one of national responsibility. They offer obedience to those in power if the Indians are finally integrated into Mexico, so that they too can see the state as theirs. This is what the “modern” struggle against misery and oppression in Central America aims at.


The misery and oppression have not changed at all, as can be seen in the idealistic list of demands which the Zapatistas present to the state authorities. The concise picture of everything that should be granted to the indigenous people by the state – “housing, land, work, food, health, education, independence, justice, freedom, democracy and peace” (Declaration from the Lacandona Forest) – is quite indicative of the real situation: None of the necessities of life and survival are secure for them; on the contrary, even the most necessary means of subsistence are constantly contested and forcibly withheld from them. What’s remarkable about this list, however, is the point of view from which the Zapatistas, who take up the rights of the oppressed Indians in such a “civil” way, address this situation. They see it as a single violation of all the good works that the state actually owes this group, but fails to do. If their most basic life interests do not count for anything, then it is because the state is withholding something higher from them: the respect they deserve on their side – in their character as members of the collective that is subject to its force. As such, they are something special in and with all their survival problems that deserve to be acknowledged from above. In the misery of the subsistence farmers and the other poor people, the representatives of the Indians are captivated by the tradition that this kind of people has to exhibit in this respect with its survival skills in Indian village communities, the culture found in these living conditions which makes this population infinitely great in all its misery. The “Indians deserve to be made full citizens.” As Indians they should be allowed to be respected citizens. In the Subcomandante’s view, being appreciated from above as its own proper people is a blessed prospect for a group fighting for survival:

“Of all the people of Mexico, the Indians are the most forgotten. They are seen as second class citizens, an embarrassment to the country. But we aren’t rubbish. We are people with a history and a wisdom that goes back thousands of years. We may be downtrodden and forgotten but we’re not yet dead! And our aspiration is to become citizens like everyone else. We want to be part of Mexico, without losing our identity, without being forced to give up our culture, without ceasing to be Indians. Mexico owes us a debt. A debt two centuries old, which it can only settle by recognizing our rights.” (Le Monde diplomatique, March 2001) “We want our manner of dressing recognized, of speaking, of governing, of organizing, of praying, of curing, our method of working in collectives, of respecting the land and of understanding life, which is nature, of which we are a part.” (Speech to Congress)

Hence they deserve “constitutional recognition” in their capacity as a national minority. For their special connection to the earth, guaranteed by their race: “We are the people who have the color of the earth” (Subcomandante Marcos); for a 500 year history of misery and terror in which not all Indians were exterminated; for the hardships endured together; for the modesty, forced on them by circumstances, which characterizes these patient victims; in other words, for a decent accommodation in adversity: This is the virtue that qualifies the Indians as a people’s collective which stands out so exemplarily from the moral image of a bourgeois competitive society with its “dirty” pursuit of wealth, with its “Americanization” and its “oppression of all minorities.” Political permission, secured by a statute of autonomy, to be able to feel at home in the state as an ethnic minority: This is the great desire with which the guerrillas are fighting against the violence that makes life difficult for the Indians every day. With state guarantees and support, they should finally be able to cultivate their ethnic characteristics undisturbed – through far-reaching self-government based on the ‘traditional model’ of village assemblies, ‘Indian jurisprudence’ and customs that have proven similarly effective in dealing with misery. From the cultivation of indigenous languages to the restoration of their communal land use rights, the Zapatistas can imagine, in the midst of the most desolate conditions, all the benefits of a state power that could enable the Indians to live their ‘own’ lives in “independence, justice, freedom, democracy and peace” – if only the attitude of the ruling elite towards the ‘marginalized’ would change.

This is not a pious wish; after all, the state leadership has an obligation to – at least in the opinion of the indigenous advocates who culturally-sociologically-morally interpret the Zapatista state ideology of “freedom and land” for the common people, which modern Mexico uses to present itself as a proper up and coming nation-state, and elevate it into the battle cry of a political recognition program. The 70 years long empty promises of the governments of the ‘institutionalized revolution’ – that they are especially committed to the peasant masses – is deliberately presented as the actual Mexican state purpose which they then see as unrealized – an injustice that entitles the indigenous wretch to cry out indignantly:

“The good men and women do not hear these cries because they themselves are the cry... So that the others know that their wealth is dirty, let this cry turn into an earthquake. One that this time is the color of the earth.” (Village speech of Marcos, 3/1).

As good people who have been deprived of their respect, the Indians are a role model for everything that an intellectual camping in the jungle has learned from the catchphrase of “civil society”: the rural poor, other ethnic minorities, lesbians and gays, women, but also critical spirits persecuted for their dissenting opinions . . . In the view of the fighters against ‘forgetting’ and ‘marginalization,’ they are all united in the legitimate desire for their needs to be first and foremost nationally respected rather than despised. Of all things, a state like Mexico’s, which mercilessly uses violence to keep its society’s useless masses under control and whose administrators therefore have little to gain from the civil liberties of a regulated democratic state, is honored with the idealism that it should quite undogmatically and non-violently make itself the guarantor of every possible deviant private, social and political need on the part of its citizens and ensure a happy coexistence which incorporates everyone who does not clearly belong to the ruling political elite, from the Indians to the country’s left-wing political poets and intellectuals:

“We want a country where difference is recognized and respected. Where being different or thinking differently is not a reason for being jailed, persecuted or dying.” (Speech to Congress, 3/28)

And what is to be done if the people in charge of the country have a completely different view of their responsibility and constantly make it clear that it is not about ‘differences,’ but about carrying out interests that forbid consideration? Then the proponents of a colorful political life from below simply deny responsibility to the governing patriots, organize unofficial referendums for more Indian rights, and ideally take the right to represent the ‘true Mexico’ out of the hands of the state representatives:

“We declare: FIRST – that from the federal government custody of the Motherland be taken; the Mexican flag, the justice system of the Nation, the Mexican Hymn, and the National Emblem will now be under the care of the resistance forces until legality, legitimacy and sovereignty are restored to all of the national territory.” (Third Declaration from Lacandona Forest) “Today we are marching for the Mexican flag to become ours, and in exchange we are offering the cloth of suffering and poverty.” (Le Monde diplomatique, March).

So these guerrillas march demonstratively through the country to serve their state with their own patriotic contribution to the success of the state. In the face of a state that forcibly denies its masses even the most basic necessities of life, the champions of “diversity” in political life come forward with the battle cry of ‘unity instead of division’ and present the downtrodden masses to the representatives of state power as Mexico’s best and most self-sacrificing supporters. They want to finally be able to stand by a state that does not need or appreciate them as a state-supporting base:

“That is how we zapatistas want Mexico to be. One where indigenous will be indigenous and Mexicans, one where respect for difference is balanced with respect for what makes us equals . . .One where, in the defining moments of our history, all of us rise above the differences to what we have in common, that is, being Mexican.” (Speech to Congress)

At the same time, the petitioners combine political recognition of ‘minorities’ with a far-reaching offer to the state. Internally, it is promised majority approval and thus a consolidated national base; externally, the country should finally free itself from its dependent relation on America, which it considers unworthy – an offer that, in their opinion, no supporter of Mexico can refuse. The guerrilla leadership in Congress reminds all Mexican nationalists that “ours” is

“a sovereign and independent nation. And not a colony where looting, unfairness and shame abound.” (Speech to Congress)

She in fact thinks that Mexico must first be forged into a real nation, by the state finally elevating even its ‘minorities’ to the rank of a true people’s militia.

They have found no such willingness on the part of the PRI, which they accuse of having usurped and selfishly monopolized the state for 70 years. Conversely, they see certain signs of this willingness in the new president – solely because he put an end to the PRI’s permanent rule by winning the election:

“Without a doubt, we were part of the forces that defeated the PRI. But in the end it was the non-organized society. It remains to be determined exactly what society is saying with this . . . Probably the ‘no’ did not mean approval for the right, not for the PAN, not for Fox. . . The country wants to create something new. And we . . . together with society . . . are creating a space as the Indian peoples that we are.” (Marcos interview with Ignacio Ramonet, El País, Feb. 25)

One only has to listen carefully to the voice of the people, which is hidden in the ballot marks, to realize that not only a new president has been elected here, but that nothing at all has changed in the decisive circumstances. Here the people have given a mandate for a new start, and thus a first decisive step towards its realization has already been taken. Where this leads remains to be seen, but a nice harmony with power has already been achieved in any case if candidate Fox’s election victory is a victory for the people. So it really doesn’t take much to open up suitable prospects for a ‘national dialogue’ to the guerrillas’ desire for reconciliation. If no one else will, they will open up their own prospects of not being completely excluded from a role in shaping national politics:

“How do you view this scene?
As a struggle between a clock operated by a punch card, which is Fox’s time, and an hourglass, which is ours. The dispute is over whether we bend to the discipline of the factory clock or Fox bends to the slipping of the sand. It will be neither the one nor the other. Both of us need to understand, we and he, that we have to assemble another clock by common agreement, that will time the rhythm of dialogue and finally of peace. . . .This too will be a dispute, over whether the agenda will be dictated by the political class or shaped by our requirements. Once again, I think it will be neither one nor the other. . . . There is no table at which to sit in dialogue with the government. We have to construct it. The challenge now is to convince the government that we need to make that table, that it should sit down and that it stands to gain by doing so.”
(Marcos interview with Gabriel García Márquez, Apr. 11)


This political emancipation program was certainly not the brainchild of the downtrodden wretches in whose name the ‘Zapatistas’ are standing up. To be sure, the fighters for the rights of the indigenous population claim that their demands are only giving a ‘voice’ to their very own requirements. But they themselves assume that the ‘forgotten’ are not able to adequately articulate their claim to a fitting role in the state. After all, the Indians – whether or not they are still halfway organized in village communities – are not conscientious democratic citizens who sue the authorities for the rights to which they are entitled by invoking the rule of law and democracy. Nobody follows such a civically arranged trajectory when their experience with the government has primarily been in the form of direct violence and domination and thinks that they are lucky to be left alone and not additionally harassed. From this rather powerless and long suffering attitude of the Indian population toward the power that constantly decides negatively over their fate, Marcos and his fellow fighters take up the task of representing them as interpreters and advocates of the Indian peoples’ right to have their concerns heard wherever national interests are decided. While the Indians languish in their circumstances, their advocates interpret the dissatisfaction and everyday concerns of this group in terms of a large ethnic citizens’ movement that longs for the preservation and cultivation of its own culture, and resolutely take the leadership.

So they validate the Indians in their miserable way of life, which they do not want to uproot them from, but whose care they have chosen to make their cause, exalting them and busying themselves with bringing the poor wretches they represent the higher meaning and political perspective they have identified in their lives and for which they are on the road, as their very own will. They achieve the corresponding political persuasion of their base through demonstrations of their popular solidarity, which are calculated to appeal to their simple subject minds: The EZLN carefully cultivates the memory of the great popular hero Zapata in its appearance, and where it is able to do so, the masses are allowed to enjoy a piece of alternative local rule with village assemblies and other elements of genuine Indian culture. For this, the alternative representatives of the people earn a lot of admiration from those in whose name they speak – who else cares about them? – but also some incomprehension, because the Indians’ ideas about their situation do not coincide with the grassroots interpretations and concerns of their advocates. Who doesn’t want secure land ownership in order to be able to exist and an end to terror? Everyone understands the “color of the earth” in one way or another, but less so what is supposed to follow politically and how it should be authorized through the recognition of their dignity.


But that doesn’t matter, because the interpreters of the Indians’ concerns are even more aware of it and, besides, their message appeals for support from elsewhere: from the national and international public. They see it as a powerful supporter of their cause. Because they believe they can change the minds of those in power through democratic methods, they see the sphere of public opinion as their real battlefield. They want to mobilize the opinion makers “against the forgetting and the lying,” as if sufficient publicity of the screaming injustice they have identified would have to result in a corresponding general outcry which then simply can’t leave the rulers cold any more. Because they are sure that all good people and patriots are basically united in their judgment:

“We fundamentally believe that all of Mexican society, as well as international society, is also convinced that the current situation of the Indian people is intolerable.” (Marcos interview with Ignacio Ramonet, El País, Feb. 25)

So it’s just a matter of “showing the world that there is a Mexico of poverty and despair,” again and again, emphatically enough, before success is inevitable. That’s why Marcos and his comrades-in-arms do their best to win public approval by presenting themselves accordingly: as active trendsetters of moral integrity in a common struggle for a more colorful and just world that unites all good citizens. The Subcomandante’s strategy for success is stitched together along these lines: Messages to the rulers of the world and mobilization of ‘solidarity’ clicks via the internet – this makes an impression and exerts pressure! For this struggle, the right man is someone who takes his political-economic insights from Shakespeare and other poets:

“So that when we got into Marx and Engels we were thoroughly spoilt by literature; its irony and humor. We went straight from the alphabet to literature, and from there to theoretical and political texts, until we got to high school....Don Quixote is the best book of political theory, followed by Hamlet and Macbeth. There is no better way to understand the Mexican political system, in its tragic and comic aspects: Hamlet, Macbeth and Don Quixote. Better than any political columnist.” (Marcos interview with Márquez)

Anyone who discovers in the banal interests of business and force the perpetual temptations of power and the tragicomic entanglements of the characters who wield it will never be at a loss for dramatic phrases castigating the bad world of the higher-ups:

“The powerful are birds of prey, money is shit, and when it’s all razed to the ground, God will speak.” (El País, March 11)

This is how Marcos speaks out time and time again, giving interviews to political poets in which he talks to them about the evil spirit of those in power, and presents himself to the world in his guerrilla outfit as a selfless fighter for a more humane rule: the very voice of the good people who gives eloquent expression to their insatiable desire for justice and peace and makes it heard everywhere. In this way, he really fights against ‘forgetting’ by making every effort to ensure that these issues are noticed by the public, that no opinion maker can be oblivious to good demands and that their moral justification and goodness can’t be refused recognition. The cause of the Indians should be present in the world public sphere, as if it were in the best of hands there.

This public relations work has produced the successes that it seeks. Marcos has become a leading figure: for opponents of globalization who share this point of view and see it everywhere; for Latin America’s critical intellectuals who also think that their countries need an inner renewal and to make peace in order to finally become proper nations – and in a certain sense even for a part of world public opinion which appreciates the moment of peace in this matter as well as the professionalism with which a non-established politician tries to win them over. The other part, of course, is the exact opposite, still detecting the will to revolt and having no better objection than the accusation that someone here is not really a representative of the people, is white and not earthy brown, is an intellectual instead of an Indian, and comes from somewhere else rather than being native – as if they would be okay with the Indians representing their interests themselves and in a genuinely militant way.

In this respect, the “peace march” to the capital and parliament, with the lively participation of the national and international media, represents a high point in the struggle of these guerrillas: following in the footsteps of the ‘people’s hero Zapata,’ they present themselves in the cities and villages as advocates for the people; show the whole country that one is respected and supported worldwide; are celebrated nationally as the bearer of hopes for a new, different Mexico; are a politically significant force in the state, publicly taking the new president to task with his phrases about a new Mexican awakening and suspecting him of having “no vision for the state” but in truth of being “a man of many words and few actions”; and finally, appear before the elected representatives of the people as the warning voice of a neglected part of the people: If this is not a success for guerrillas that think that attracting public attention is their best weapon! They are right to celebrate this success because for them the whole “change in the balance of power” consists of their public performance:

“In the future, nothing will work without us.”


In truth, only the calculations of the ruling figures have changed; they made the Zapatistas’ public propaganda campaign possible in the first place. First, it serves as proof that the new president is the new leader under whom everything will be better because he will finally be able to bring peace to the country. For this reason, he pursues a strategy of overwhelming the guerrillas with ostentatious sympathy for their concerns and impassioned messages of peace, and thus – backed with power – publicly disputing their luminary’s role as national renewer:

“A new light is shining in Mexico, the light of truth, the light of love. Let’s give peace a chance . . . Freedom, peace, unity, justice and development will prevail when no Mexican is denied opportunities and the freedom of every Mexican is respected . . . Let Zapatismo win! The Subcomandante shall win! Let Congress win! Let the congressmen win! That is our motto: win, win, win.” (Messages to the People, 3/2, 3/9, 3/10).

He touts to the Indians’ representatives exactly what they once stood up against as their material perspective for the future – the radical continuation of a program of national advancement and development within the framework of NAFTA. The government’s plans to promote infrastructure in the south – “railroads, pipelines, transmission lines, ports and airports” (message of March 8), as well as a large canal project to be an alternative to the Panama Canal – is not projected to improve the capitalist development of the south, which the indigenous population is only in the way of:

“Plan Puebla-Panama (an infrastructure development program) will not deprive indigenous people of territory, opportunities, natural resources, and certainly not dignity.” (El País, March 1)

No: This national project, if understood correctly, serves the purpose of finally allowing the Indians to participate in the progress of civilization which is otherwise already so flourishing in Mexico – “jobs . . . health care and the social network . . . clinics and day care centers . . . health and pension insurances.” So their concern is completely unfounded.

In practice, the new president hopes that by granting political autonomy status, which the old government already had as an option in its program, it will bring peace to the region, which will give the government and the business interests it wants to attract to Mexico unhindered access. This political initiative is part of the plan to make the country more attractive to international capital and to bring more investments from abroad to Mexico – a program in which the ‘crisis region of Chiapas,’ which is still far from being sufficiently developed to the government’s satisfaction, has been assigned a special role. That’s why the guerrillas are allowed to roam through the country with the president’s permission, present themselves as a force for national renewal, make a grand gesture of recommending their concerns to parliament – but then should also be satisfied with all of this and leave the further course of events to those in charge in Mexico.


And that’s what the alternative advocates of the people then do. After they have urged the elected representatives to adopt the Statute of Autonomy, which was negotiated years ago, they return home and wait for Congress to decide on their issue. It comes up promptly, as it must. Things continue as before without and for them because no agreement between them and the elected representatives of the people about how to take advantage of perception of the “new opportunity for reconciliation” exists. The bill is revised in key points – particularly in regards to land ownership – because the parliamentary majority wants to prevent anything that could even remotely look like an enforceable material right for the troublesome Indians. Ultimately, those in charge do not want to justify any expectations for a modest but self-determined indigenous life with a statute of autonomy; the interests of the large landowners and the state’s demand for order should certainly not be relativized by a far-reaching indigenous administration; rather, they want to quiet the annoying Indians, stow them away on a reservation, and thus restore the state’s command over the province in an orderly fashion. And just as promptly, the militant peace marchers report back from their jungle camp, express their bitterness that the unique opportunity for joint peace efforts has been missed, and once again call on all well-meaning national forces and world public opinion to put moral pressure on the rulers in Mexico and to

“demonstrate for the Mexican government to reform and fulfill the demand to actually enshrine indigenous rights and culture in the constitution.” (NZZ, May 2)

Otherwise, the good poor of Chiapas will continue to be denied what they need most urgently: to have their long-established characteristics and forms of community, in which they endure their hardships, elevated to the rank of a constitutional right. Not being allowed to make oneself at home as a true Mexican in one’s miserable circumstances – what a crime against Indians!