The Zapatistas and their iconic balaclavas

The Zapatistas and their iconic balaclavas (photo courtesy of google images)

Recent news coverage from Mexico has been dominated by drugs cartels and gang warfare. Some media reports have even warned that spiralling levels of violence may have the capacity to topple the government and incite civil war.

It is fifteen years on since the last major threat to the Mexican government. This was in the form of the now infamous Zapatista uprising in Chiapas in 1994. The ongoing struggle of this indigenous community is driven by their desire for autonomy and the right to control their own resources and land rights. To mark this fifteenth anniversary there have been a plethora of articles asking the same question – what has become of the Zapatistas?
At the time of the uprising academics and journalists alike hailed this as the first ‘post modern revolution’ and ‘cyber-war’. Fighting ensued for 12 days but since then this has been a war devoid of weapons and one of words and powerful rhetoric. The Zapatistas and their enigmatic leader, Subcommandante Marcos, have repeatedly used the internet as a way of publicising their programmes for economic and social reform and as a resistance towards mainstream media. The internet became a platform for garnering support and presenting an alternative view to that of the government controlled media. This movement is an example of citizen media tools being used to bring marginalised communities to the conversational web (global voices) to advance their needs and facilitate discussion. For many the internet has enormous scope for advancing third world development. Richardson (1998) argues that the internet facilitates community development and allows participatory communication in the form of bottom up flows of information.

There is no denying that the Zapatistas used the internet to spread their message to a global audience and counter cultural imperialism. They are now firmly part of the wider anti-globalisation and social movement. The ‘Zapatista Effect’ as it is now known influences social movements globally leading to net organised conferences, marches, uprisings and the development of the world social forum. They paved the way for the protestors all over the world to connect with one another; even though their struggles are local they become part of a larger fight against globalisation and media imperialism through this imagined online community.

But 15 years on what have they really achieved? Has this cyber war really made a difference to the lives of these indigenous communities? Has the internet facilitated discussion but failed to incite any real action in the long term? Have the revolutionaries fizzled out?

Recent media articles talk of the ‘failed’ revolution and claim that the Zapatistas have sold out and become commodified. Trendy clothing brands are using the ‘balaclava’ image to endorse their products. One article states that their sole achievement has been in “revolutionary tourism”. Instead of a centre for radical politics and revolutionary rhetoric Chiapas is now just another backpacker destination. There is no denying that the region today is full of hippies, backpackers and alternative types wanting a piece of the revolution for themselves. Ironically I was one of these backpackers last year attracted by the image of visiting the revolutionary heartland. San Cristobal de las Casas, the chic provincial capital of Chiapas, seemed an unlikely place for a revolution. As I explored the quaint and peaceful streets I stubbled across the Zapatista shop. A clear example of how the movement has embraced tourism and capitalism to a degree. It was full of revolutionary imagery from Che to Zapata, postcards, books, Zapatista balaclavas and even a replica doll. Admittedly I bought one of these mini Zapatistas and even went on an organised trip to the Chiapas highlands to ‘observe’ the indigenous communities. It all seemed a far cry from the scenes of the revolution.

The Zapatistas have had to change their methods in order to stay visible; their message is still the same but the form of communication has evolved. They use the tour groups and tourists as another means of promoting their cause to the wider global audience. A Comité de Explicación or Explanation Committee – a homespun PR department – has been set up to present the movement’s case to tour groups. Tourist trips now become PR exercises. Perhaps this is their way of reminding the world that they still exist and remaining visible in a country where the media is dominated by drugs cartels. Getting people to listen without weapons has proved difficult. This should not be seen as pure commodification but an example of the rebels’ creativeness. Tourism is just another form of communication for modern times where interest in their cause has waned on the internet.

Also is it not a positive thing that they use these non-violent communication forms to portray their ideas rather than turning to violence and terrorism like so many other radical groups.

One last comment. It is worth remembering that this dispute is about resources and the environment and crucially who owns and controls these resources. The Latin American Press recently published a brilliant article titled ‘Zapatista tourism’ examining this new alternative tourism trend. It argues that although there are many apparent benefits to this ‘revolutionary tourism’, heightened exposure to the movement and creating extra money for these impoverished communities, tensions are once again increasing between the indigenous communities and landowners over natural resources. New development, driven by tourism, puts the environment and the Lacandon jungle at risk. Ancient Mayan sites such as Palenque are being increasingly exploited and conflict has re-emerged over land rights to these sites. It is ironic that the very resources that the Zapatistas have been fighting for are the very same resources that are being put under threat from this new strategy of communication, this new form of tourism.

15 years on there has been little progress. Indigenous autonomy seems a long way off as this increasingly fragile network still requires a settlement with the government to survive. Their war of words continues – the same message but in a different form.