Armed insurrections are one of three methods that the left in Latin America has traditionally used to gain power (the other two are competing in elections, or mass uprisings often organized by labor movements as general strikes). After the triumph of the Cuban Revolution in 1959, guerrilla warfare became the preferred path to power given that electoral processes were highly corrupt and the general strikes too often led to massacres rather than a fundamental transformation of society. Based on the Cuban model, revolutionaries in other Latin American countries attempted to establish similar small guerrilla forces with mobile fighters who lived off the land with the support of a local population. The 1960s insurgencies came in two waves. Influenced by Che Guevara’s foco model, initial insurgencies were based in the countryside. After the defeat of Guevara’s guerrilla army in Bolivia in 1967, the focus shifted to urban guerrilla warfare. In the 1970s and 1980s, a new phase of guerrilla movements emerged in Peru and in Central America. While guerrilla-style warfare can provide a powerful response to a much larger and established military force, armed insurrections are rarely successful. Multiple factors including a failure to appreciate a longer history of grassroots organizing and the weakness of the incumbent government help explain those defeats and highlight just how exceptional an event successful guerrilla uprisings are.
The 1994 Zapatista uprising in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas was the culmination of centuries of repression and exploitation of the country’s indigenous minority at the hands of its Spanish and mestizo leaders and the landed elite. The Liberal Reform initiated in 1854, followed by the “modernizing” policies of President Porfirio Díaz (1877–1880; 1884–1911), and then the revolution that ousted him, would strengthen and institutionalize a new set of institutional frameworks, discourses, and practices that lasted through the 20th century. The Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (Zapatista National Liberation Army, or EZLN) emerged from a history of complex and volatile relationships between indigenous peoples of the impoverished state and its economic and political elite, relationships that began a process of redefinition in the 1950s. Zapatismo is one of the expressions of indigenous and working-class struggles in this social and historical context. It can be distinguished from other rural and indigenous movements by its repudiation of the strategies of protest and negotiation within an institutional framework, its adoption of armed struggle, and its rejection of the conventional objectives of land and commercial agricultural production in favor of territorial autonomy and de facto self-government.