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date: 25 March 2023

Zapatistas and New Ways of Doing Politicsfree

Zapatistas and New Ways of Doing Politicsfree

  • Richard Stahler-SholkRichard Stahler-SholkDepartment of Political Science, Eastern Michigan University


Scholars of Latin American social movements since the 1980s have sought to explain the apparent upswing in cycles of contentious politics, the innovative characteristics of these new movements, and variations in how they interact with or sidestep conventional institutional politics. The regional context for these developments is very different from the postmaterialist conditions said to have spawned European “new social movements” since the 1970s revolving around identity and values, such as ecology, peace, gay rights, and women’s movements. Relevant causal factors for Latin America’s contemporary movements include popular reaction against neoliberal policies imposed by international financial institutions and brokered by national governments. Another factor was the transition from military authoritarianism in much of the region, inaugurating a struggle between political elites with a liberal-representative vision of democratization and social movements favoring radical/participatory democracy. The era of globalization also brought reexamination of the citizenship pact and of the hegemonic (mestizo) construction of the nation-state, fueling a reinvigoration of indigenous movements, some with their own cosmovisions of buen vivir (living well) that destabilized mainstream notions of the political. The interplay between party-electoral politics and grassroots movement activism took place against the backdrop of the “pink tide” of elected leftist governments, which swept much of the region in the first decade of the 21st century and subsequently appeared to recede. Throughout this period, scholars and activists alike debated whether fundamental change could best be achieved by movements pushing parties and governments to use state power to enact reforms or by movements themselves adopting radically horizontal and inclusive patterns of organizing—“new ways of doing politics”—that would transform society from below.

The January 1, 1994, Zapatista uprising among mostly Maya peasants in the poor southeastern Mexican state of Chiapas, launched the day the North American Free Trade Agreement took effect, became emblematic of new ways of doing politics from below. What began as a rebellion of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional [EZLN]) quickly morphed into a social movement that both criticized national and global power structures and sought to empower local communities through everyday practices of de facto autonomy. Negotiations with the state over indigenous rights and culture quickly broke down, but the Zapatistas proceeded anyway to develop their own structures of self-government, autonomous education, healthcare, justice, and agrarian and economic relations, among other innovative practices. The Zapatista movement continues to raise important issues such as the role of culture and identity in popular mobilization, the social spaces for organizing in an era of globalization, the new characteristics of movements that practice alternative forms of prefigurative politics, and the possibility of redefining power from below. Scholars of the Zapatista movement have also posed probing self-reflective questions about the adequacy of conventional definitions of politics and Western positivist epistemologies and about the need for decolonizing research in indigenous and other oppressed communities.


  • Contentious Politics and Political Violence
  • Governance/Political Change
  • Groups and Identities
  • History and Politics
  • Political Anthropology
  • Political Sociology
  • Political Values, Beliefs, and Ideologies


The notion that Latin American social movements embodied “new ways of doing politics” began to gain currency in the 1990s. Earlier waves of popular mobilization in Latin America had been incorporated and co-opted under various modalities by political parties, populist leaders, or occasionally by states claiming revolutionary legitimation. The repressive, demobilizing military (bureaucratic-authoritarian) regimes that rose to power from the 1960s to the 1980s in much of the region, and the softer Mexican authoritarianism that included its own underreported “dirty war,” ushered in what has been called the politics of anti-politics, as independent unions and parties and institutions of political expression and competition were dismantled. The social impact of neoliberal policies, as well as the globalization of the human rights movement, contributed to the delegitimization of authoritarian rule. With conventional forms of politics still suppressed, social movements creatively politicized and occupied other social spaces such as neighborhoods, church, gender and motherhood, blackness and indigeneity, and peasant rootedness in the land. A combination of transgressive political activism and negotiated pacts opened space for political liberalization and the eventual return of electoral (restricted) democracy, beginning in the late 1980s and into the 1990s. Yet this conventional mode of politics left many excluded.

While institutionalist political scientists focused on the comparative study of “transitions to democracy” that produced party/electoral alternation in Latin America and southern Europe, social movement scholars questioned whether newly activated grassroots movements would simply fade back into the background and cede the political realm to party leaders and other political elites. In particular, they highlighted the movements’ attention to identity in the sense of forging new social subjectivities, solidarity built through horizontal and participatory practices, and autonomy from the state and from conventional political institutions. These attributes, suggesting “new ways of doing politics,” raised the possibility that socially and politically excluded groups might continue to mobilize in unconventional ways.

The Newness in Social Movement Practice

Debates continue on the extent to which contemporary movements represent a rupture or continuity with earlier patterns of popular organizing. Conditions and strategies may change, but social movements are always unconventional as one of their defining qualities, even as the parameters of “conventional” politics change across time and place. The literature on the evolving character of social movements has noted that the increased salience of multiple dimensions of identity does not negate the continued relevance of class as a key conceptual and organizing category. Horizontalism (Sitrin, 2006) and attention to democratic process within a movement does not imply an absence of structure or strategy. Similarly, movements can struggle to defend independent spaces without a “fetishism of autonomy” (Hellman, 1992) that ignores the relevance of parties and states as forces to be reckoned with.

The shift of focus from the state to the society as a locus of struggle can be seen in part as a response to neoliberal globalization. The debt crisis that began in 1982 ushered in a wave of structural adjustment programs featuring privatization, market liberalization, and public sector cutbacks to reinforce the new regime of global capital accumulation. States facing anti-austerity protests could deflect opposition by pointing the finger at the International Monetary Fund, parroting the Thatcherite slogan of TINA (“There Is No Alternative”).1 With the accelerated mobility of global capital and deregulation of flows of money and goods across borders, and the post-Fordist model of constantly shifting outsourced production sites to escape state regulation through a “race to the bottom,” unions and parties and other conventional ways of organizing to pressure capital and the state lost effectiveness. Innovative forms of transnational “network politics” took the shape of a decentralized “movement of movements,” proposing and enacting visions of a globalization from below, or alterglobalization (Maeckelbergh, 2011).

A symbolic turning point for social movement organizing in the era of globalization was the “Battle of Seattle,” the convergence of global movement protesters that confronted the 1999 ministerial meeting of the World Trade Organization. This was followed in 2001 by the first World Social Forum meeting in Porto Alegre, Brazil, which gave rise to the slogan “Another World Is Possible.” The Zapatista rebellion of 1994 actually preceded and added inspiration to both these events. The Zapatistas explicitly linked local struggles for freedom, justice, and democracy with a global structural analysis and critique of neoliberal capitalism, as reflected for example in their 1996 Encounter for Humanity and Against Neoliberalism, convened in the Lacandón Jungle of Chiapas.

In addition to global structural causes, evolving internal dynamics and subjective experiences within movements themselves played a role in shaping new ways of doing politics. By the late 20th century, with the Cold War winding down and revolutions in Central America and elsewhere coming to negotiated ends, many left movements began to shift their focus from the armed overthrow of the state to the radical transformation of society from the bottom up (Motta, 2014). Theories of revolution also began to shift from an emphasis on structure (of class, the state, and the international system) to a focus on agency and the factors shaping the emergence of new collective subjectivities. Holloway (2002) advanced the provocative thesis that the concept of revolution itself had been transformed, as empowerment from below replaced the goal of taking power by storming the ramparts of the state.

Feminist and postcolonial theories also highlighted the intersectionality of identities in popular struggles. These theorists focused attention on multiple politically relevant dimensions of identity (gender, race and ethnicity, class) that are interconnected in complex configurations of power and privilege. They also noted the situated nature of knowledge production, in which the positionality of the mainstream academic within gendered and colonial hierarchies obscured the relevance of identity and agency of subaltern groups. For example, the feminist insistence that “the personal is political” helped break down the public/private dichotomy in order to recognize the political character of struggles waged in previously overlooked spaces. Decolonial theorists and activists demanded the valorization of knowledge and ways of knowing of indigenous and Afrodescendant peoples, reflected for example in the creation in 2007 of a new “Otros Saberes” organized section of the Latin American Studies Association (for discussion of this development, see Hale, 2014).

With the nature of the modern state reorganized by the globalization of capital and empire, Negri (2009) and others argued that social and political struggles would be waged through the constituent power formed by the process of masses organizing, rather than by the constituted power of state institutions. In this view, the lasting transformative potential of movements would be forged in the crucible of often fleeting spaces that reinforced emerging new social subjectivities, such as the occupied streets and factories of the Argentine piquetero phenomenon, the land occupation encampments of Brazil’s landless rural workers’ movement (MST), or the barricades of the 2006 Oaxaca uprising in Mexico. Zibechi (2012) and others focused on the ways in which the new micropolitics of contention penetrated the interstices of societies, creating new “territories in resistance” in a variety of social spaces, suggesting that perhaps the term “social movements” itself should be replaced by a phrase such as “societies in movement” (Dinerstein, 2016). Yet other scholars argued that rather than a dichotomy, there is a dynamic interplay between the two ways of conceiving power struggles (i.e., institutions and “new ways of doing politics”; Ciccariello-Maher, 2013). Viewed from that lens, macropolitical engagement with the forces of the state remained relevant to the strategies of social movements.

The praxis of social movements around the world in the 21st century seemed to reflect these shifts toward new ways of imagining and doing politics (Vanden, Funke, & Prevost, 2017). Movements such as Occupy, the Indignados in Spain, the anti-austerity movement in Greece, social non-movements such as the Iranian Green Movement of 2009, the Arab Spring uprisings launched in 2011, and Latin American indigenous and environmental mobilization around concepts such as sumak kawsay (a Quechua term for “good living”) all suggested a new cycle of global protest among variegated social actors occupying new spaces.

Zapatista Autonomy and Resistance

The Zapatista movement has in many ways become emblematic of alternative ways of engaging in political struggle. When the rebels first rose up in arms on January 1, 1994, appearing with their trademark ski masks in a handful of towns in the state of Chiapas, they initially looked like other historic Latin American guerrilla movements. Yet despite the formulation of their First Declaration of the Lacandón Jungle as a declaration of war, the communiqué also appealed to the right of popular sovereignty as enshrined in Article 39 of the Mexican Constitution and outlined 11 very basic social justice demands expressed in everyday language.2 The Mexican government responded with overwhelming military force, and after only 12 days of fighting, huge national demonstrations of civil society pressured the government into agreeing to a ceasefire. This massive civic response, magnified by the international spotlight of globalization as the rebellion broke out on the day North American Free Trade Agreement went into effect, was a foreshadowing of the kind of network politics that would continue to accompany the Zapatista movement. As the rebels activated these networks and made effective use of social media, it soon became clear that their cause resonated with more widely felt grievances throughout Mexico and indeed across the world. Their symbolic impact was far greater than their military capacity, leading some to characterize their approach as more guerrilla theater than guerrilla movement.

The roots of the rebellion went back long before 1994. The Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (EZLN) was founded in clandestinity in 1983, and it in turn built on several earlier strands of organizing in Chiapas. These included peasant organizations that had sought a degree of independence from the corporatist structures of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (Partido Revolucionario Institucional [PRI]); radical organizers coming from northern Mexico, including Maoists and the nucleus of a guerrilla group called the National Liberation Forces (Fuerzas de Liberación Nacional); and liberation theology catechists of the diocese of San Cristóbal, a territory covering roughly the northeast half of the state where the historically marginalized indigenous population was concentrated (Harvey, 1998). Many of these early organizers encountered each other in the canyons that crisscrossed the Lacandón Jungle, an agricultural frontier that had served as an escape valve for an internal migratory stream of poor, mostly indigenous peasants since the 1950s. Some ended up tied to the land under the control of finca (estate) owners, while others established their own dispersed settlements in remote areas. Their long process of petitioning for ejido (communal) recognition of land rights under Article 27 of Mexico’s 1917 Revolutionary Constitution was often frustrated, making Chiapas the state with the largest backlog of unresolved agrarian redistribution claims. At the same time, the presence of the state was minimal in this remote region, so the settlers accumulated experience in self-governance alongside their dim view of state institutions.

The neoliberal policies enacted in Mexico since the 1980s, including the dismantling of price supports for peasant crops, had a devastating impact on the rural poor of Chiapas. A key detonator of the rebellion was the agrarian counterreform of 1992 that eviscerated Article 27, ending new land redistribution and allowing for the conversion of existing ejidos into private land parcels that could be sold on the market. These measures, combined with the opening of the Mexican market to U.S. agribusiness exports of corn (maize) and other crops, posed a severe threat to the subsistence of the rural poor. The Zapatista rebellion drew on grievances resulting from these global market forces and national policies, as well as historic abuses of local power by landowners and corrupt political bosses (caciques). In this sense, it was part of a broader pattern of new “glocal” movements responding to the intersection of global and local forces (Brysk, 2000).

The ceasefire that shortly followed the 1994 uprising led to negotiations, eventually resulting in the 1996 signing of the San Andrés accords on indigenous rights and culture. Yet the protracted process of drafting implementing legislation finally produced a 2001 Law on Indigenous Rights that gutted the content and spirit of the accords. In this official version, autonomy would still be subject to the approval of the constituted governmental authorities, and, crucially, indigenous people would not be considered “subjects of rights” as in the original draft but rather “objects of public interest.” In a final effort to prevent this derailing of the accords, the Zapatistas organized a March of the Color of the Earth, in which a caravan of supporters accompanied a Zapatista delegation to Mexico City and a ski-masked Commander Esther gave an historic address to the Mexican Congress. Yet the law was passed in its official version—despite being denounced by virtually all indigenous groups in Mexico and internationally—effectively ending negotiations.

The wrangle over the San Andrés accords illustrated a fundamental difference between the political model of the Mexican state and the Zapatistas. Like many Latin American countries, Mexico in 1992 had amended its constitution to include an official recognition of the pluricultural character of the nation, with a nod to indigenous identity. Yet this kind of neoliberal multiculturalism (Hale, 2002), merely acknowledging the existence of multiple original peoples without recognizing their group rights to self-governance and control of resources in their territories, fell far short of the Zapatista idea of autonomy. There was a marked difference between the idea of negotiating with the state for a concession of rights and a quota of authority and exercising the rights that the Zapatistas believed they already had. Thus throughout the protracted discussions over the language of the 1996 San Andrés accords and the 2001 Indigenous Rights Law, the Zapatistas proceeded to implement their autonomy project in their communities in Chiapas, without waiting for permission (Baronnet, Mora Bayo, & Stahler-Sholk, 2012). Harvey (2016) argues that the Zapatista autonomy project can be read as resistance to the state’s project of passive revolution in the Gramscian sense, that is, capitalist restoration through new configurations of economic management and political rule in the neoliberal era.

While many indigenous groups in Mexico and across Latin America had previously negotiated various degrees and modalities of autonomy—for example at the local level in the Mexican state of Oaxaca and regionally in Nicaragua—the Zapatistas pushed the envelope in the degree to which they exercised de facto autonomy. Their particular use of the term “resistance” included the norm that members of their support base communities (in the Chiapas highlands, jungle, northern zone, and border) would reject all official aid and refuse to participate in any programs of what they referred to as the “bad government” (Stahler-Sholk, 2014). They also banned political parties and party-electoral politics in their territories, favoring instead a more unifying process of participatory assemblies and rotating leadership from within the communities. In rejecting the framework of liberal-representative government, they asserted the right of indigenous peoples to govern themselves according to their customs and traditions (usos y costumbres), seeking to break the bonds of clientelistic control that had long characterized conventional politics in Mexico. They even kept networks of solidarity and nongovernmental organizations at arm’s length, taking care to ensure that their external alliance strategy did not compromise the commitment to decentralized community decision making.

In opting for de facto rather than negotiated autonomy, the Zapatistas ran the risk of having their supporters wooed away by post-1994 government aid programs designed as part of the counterinsurgency strategy of winning “hearts and minds.” As the state opened some legal and institutional space for recognition of local government by usos y costumbres, interesting debates about movement strategy emerged among scholars and activists in Mexico and beyond. Some argued that the whole point of grassroots mobilization and direct action was to win concessions from the state. Others cautioned that the “judicialization of politics” fostered the emergence of a professional political class that would lose touch with and potentially betray its base. The Zapatistas themselves warned that petitioning for recognition would only lead to co-optation.3

The Zapatista strategy of eschewing electoral politics was confirmed as early as 1995, when they held a “national consultation” in which 1.3 million sympathizers around the country reportedly participated, and a clear majority opposed the idea that the EZLN should become or merge with a political organization.4 In rejecting party-electoral politics, the Zapatistas were also criticized as spoilers by partisans of the center-left parties that had splintered from the long-dominant PRI, such as the Party of the Democratic Revolution (Partido de la Revolución Democrática) and the later breakaway National Regeneration Movement (Movimiento Regeneración Nacional) whose candidate, Andrés Manuel López Obrador (known as AMLO by his initials), won the 2018 presidential election by a landslide. Enthusiasts of AMLO argued that his election heralded the “fourth transformation” of Mexico, after independence from Spain in 1821, the liberal reforms of Benito Juárez in the 1850s–1860s, and the 1910 Revolution. In the Zapatista reading of political history, AMLO merely represented a continuity of elite rule covered by the illusion of electoral alternation.

Modeling their alternative practice of building power from the ground up, the Zapatistas in the run-up to the 2006 presidential election mocked official politics by launching their own “Other Campaign,” with Zapatistas fanning out across the country not for electoral purposes but rather to network with other popular struggles and highlight issues ignored by mainstream politicians (Mora, 2007; Zugman, 2008). In the 2018 electoral season, the Zapatistas teamed up with the National Indigenous Congress (Congreso Nacional Indígena [CNI]) to hold assemblies in indigenous communities across Mexico to select delegates to an Indigenous Council of Government (Concejo Indígena de Gobierno [CIG]), as a kind of non-party based parallel government. The CIG then met to choose an indigenous spokeswoman and launched an unconventional campaign to gather signatures to place her name on the presidential ballot. The would-be candidate, María de Jesús Patricio Martínez (known as Marichuy), a 57-year-old Nahua traditional medicine healer from Jalisco, made it clear that she was canvassing the country neither to ask for votes nor to call for abstention but to call upon the oppressed to organize themselves. As with the Other Campaign, the objective was not to seek elected office but rather to launch a grassroots parallel initiative in the form of the CIG and to expose the shortcomings of electoral politics. She did not manage to overcome the daunting institutional obstacles to gathering the requisite number of signatures to get on the ballot, but Zapatistas hailed the “Marichuy effect” of grassroots mobilization and network-building that grew out of her campaign. They subsequently proposed to expand the CIG into an international Network of Resistance and Rebellion, composed of activist collectives not limited to indigenous communities.

Whether or not the Zapatista movement contributed to the weakening of Mexico’s party system and of the PRI’s longstanding monopoly, it did widen the space for ways of doing politics outside the framework of party-electoral competition and state institutions. Many indigenous groups in particular were empowered by the idea that without seceding from the nation-state, they could alter their citizenship pact with the central state as well as patterns of social and political interactions within their reconfigured spaces. In terms of identity, the CNI was formed in 1996 as the first national network of Mexico’s more than 60 original peoples, in the aftermath of (and partly inspired by) the Zapatista rebellion. The number of people identifying as indigenous in Mexico rose from 14.9% of the population in the 2010 census to 21.5% in 2015, suggesting a significant increase in indigenous self-identification (see Instituto Nacional de Estadística y Geografía [INEGI]; 2010, p. 85; INEGI, 2015, p. 96). A growing number of communities invoked their right to govern themselves by indigenous customary law rather than by party-based elections of representatives. In contrast to the vanguard model of earlier generations of Latin American revolutionary movements, the Zapatistas did not seek to impose a specific ideology or form of autonomy but simply encouraged marginalized groups to organize and empower themselves as they saw fit. Other communities began to demand or enact autonomy in distinct variations, such as the Purépecha municipality of Cherán in the west-central state of Michoacán, which rose up and proclaimed autonomy in 2011, expelling political parties and eventually gaining control of the federal government’s allocation of resources to the municipality. The Zapatista movement was an historical referent for Cherán, but theirs was a quasi-negotiated autonomy in contrast to the Zapatista model of refusing all government funds. In short, the Zapatistas were an indirect inspiration to many seeking to chart their own political path.

Prefigurative Politics: Being the Change You Want to See

If social movements are in part a performance of contentious politics, the Zapatistas have clearly been attuned to the performative aspect of their movement. This has included the public discourse of the movement’s early spokesperson Subcommander Marcos (Henck, 2018); the multiplication of their presence resounding across the Internet; open assemblies or “encounters” (encuentros) with national and international civil society; tours (giras) and consultations (consultas) across Mexico; and a variety of artistic, cinematic, and academic representations (approved or unapproved) of their movement.5

All of these activities, which attracted a considerable amount of external attention, were peripheral to the main act, which was the everyday practice of autonomy in the Zapatista support base communities of Chiapas. National and international attention on the Zapatistas tended to wax and wane, largely in function of the volume of witty and ironic communiqués issued under the byline of Subcommander Marcos. After the 2001 indigenous rights law marking the collapse of the San Andrés accords, and the 2005–2006 “Other Campaign” stalled by government repression of supporters, the Zapatistas concentrated on internal development of the autonomy process in their communities, with minimal external visibility. That led some observers to assume that the movement had disappeared, a misperception corrected in December 2012 when the Zapatistas staged a silent march of 40,000 through city centers of Chiapas. They subsequently resumed outreach activities, having made the point that the core of the movement was in the everyday practice of another politics, not in public relations. The once-ubiquitous Marcos, one of the few Zapatistas who was not indigenous nor from Chiapas, stepped back from the limelight in 2014 after anti-Zapatista paramilitaries killed a teacher and community leader. Marcos announced that the persona of Marcos had died and that he would take the name of the fallen community member, Galeano. Subsequent announcements often bore the signature of indigenous Subcommander Moisés, seeming to suggest that external mediation of messaging had outlived its usefulness. All of this highlighted more general social movement dilemmas about voice and representation and about leader/mass dynamics.

In enacting the autonomy they wished to see, the Zapatistas engaged in prefigurative politics, a term first coined by political scientist and social theorist Boggs (1977) to refer to groups that organize and practice the social relationships they seek in the wider society. Their mottos of mandar obedeciendo (to lead by obeying) and caminar preguntando (to walk while asking along the way) suggested a model of horizontalism (Sitrin, 2006) and flexible decentralization, distinct from conventional politics, that was reflected in their governing structures.6 Autonomy from political parties and state structures created the space to experiment with other modes of decision making and social relations that would be participatory and empowering, a dynamic that Dinerstein (2015) identifies in various Latin American social movements as “the art of organizing hope” for a different future.

The Zapatista structures of self-governance start with their support base communities, which are organizationally separate from the more hierarchically organized insurgents of the EZLN. Communities choose their leaders through a direct assembly process, drawing on indigenous traditions of the cargo, or service to the community, to assign positions of responsibility, including, for example, health and education promoters (since the Zapatistas ejected any official government functionaries who previously filled these posts). In December 1994, the Zapatistas announced the creation of more than 30 Zapatista Autonomous Rebel Municipalities (Municipios Autónomos Rebeldes Zapatistas [MAREZ]) to replace the officially constituted municipalities. The communities corresponding to each MAREZ chose municipal governing councils, with people assigned to coordinate areas such as agrarian issues, administration of justice, and the health and education needs of the communities.

In 2003, the MAREZ were grouped into five clusters called Caracoles (referring to the Maya spiral symbol of the snail or conch shell), each governed by a Good Governance Council (Junta de Buen Gobierno [JBG]). Among the distinctive features of this governing structure, the Junta members were chosen from the communities in each corresponding MAREZ to be part of a three-year slate that would serve on a rotating basis for periods as short as a few weeks. The principle of rotation was designed to avoid the creation of entrenched hierarchies or professional politicians, instead developing decision making capacity and self-confidence among a wider base (González Casanova, 2005). In addition to the principle of rotation, the Zapatista political model included the power of communities to revoke the mandate of anyone who strayed from serving the people and the obligation of each shift on the Juntas to render accounts of their brief time in office. This organizational model meant slow decision making, as each newly entering shift of the Junta had to get up to speed and decisions had to be consulted with the affected communities and MAREZ, but it was fairly successful at avoiding vertical power structures. As the Zapatistas explained it, the rationale for creating the Juntas included ensuring that the communities rather than the military insurgents drove the process; making sure all MAREZ in a given area were represented equitably in decisions about allocating resources; and screening external proposals for development projects, so that relations with the larger civil society would not reproduce colonial hierarchies.7

Agrarian transformation was an important part of the autonomy project. Since the historic agrarian reform of the Mexican Revolution had been halted and reversed with the government’s 1992 modification of Article 27 of the constitution, the Zapatista restarted their own de facto agrarian reform. They “recovered” lands from finca owners, making those available for largely subsistence production by Zapatista poor or landless peasants. A portion of each recovered parcel was reserved for communal production, requiring collective participation in decisions about how to divide production tasks and how to use the produce for community benefit (Vergara-Camus, 2014). Beyond just self-sufficiency, this practice had a didactic and empowering effect of participatory decision making. Some productive projects were also supported by outside solidarity groups, and the JBGs created in 2003 took on the tasks of screening proposed projects, taxing donations to ensure equitable distribution among the communities, and exercising oversight so that the communities themselves maintained autonomous control over their communities. The Mexican government continued to use the issue of land and resource distribution for counterinsurgency purposes, fanning divisions among local populations that often included mixtures of Zapatistas and non-Zapatistas. This sometimes involved exploiting existing religious fissures between Catholics and evangelical Protestants. There were also disputes over land, some predating the rebellion and others complicated by the creation of Nuevos Poblados Zapatistas (New Zapatista Settlements) on land “recovered” from private owners. The Zapatistas made these lands available for use to families that were part of their movement, but sometimes non-Zapatistas and ex-Zapatistas attempted to reoccupy these lands, encouraged by implicit promises of government titling and support. Government sponsorship of paramilitary groups resulted in periodic outbreaks of violence, but for the most part the contest between the rebellion and the state played out in other terrains.

The government claimed the legal right to “regularize” the demarcation and titling of land and other disputes, but the Zapatistas developed their own customs and mechanisms of administration of justice. These won legitimacy as many non-Zapatistas chose to take their local issues to Zapatista autonomous authorities rather than to the distant structures of the state, since the Zapatista processes were typically conducted in the local indigenous languages, with less corruption or partiality, and with an emphasis on restorative rather than punitive justice. What amounted to an evolving customary law did not always interface well with codified Western jurisprudence or the officially recognized judicial institutions (Speed, 2008).

Another area of changing practice in the de facto autonomy project involved gender relations (Millán, 2013; Speed, Hernández Castillo, & Stephen, 2006). The Zapatistas issued a Women’s Revolutionary Law in 1993 that included the right to choose partners and a wide range of other rights of social and political equality. Advancing from law to practice remained complicated, as did defining a distinctly indigenous feminism that did not always match the liberal feminism of some solidarity supporters. The movement held several large “encounters” of Zapatista women and supporters that continued to provide a forum for women to highlight gender issues, where men were invited to stay outside and help with cooking and other support tasks and women had space to tell their stories across generations. Perhaps most importantly, women who previously had limited public leadership opportunities increasingly began to assume positions of responsibility in the movement.

Autonomous education and the role of the community-chosen education promoters were key elements of the Zapatista project of social transformation. By expelling government teachers and embarking on their own path of training community-based educators, the Zapatistas sought to develop what they called “real education,” with schools linked organically to the community through locally shaped curriculum and practice in function of the political project of autonomy and resistance (Baronnet, 2012). Their innovation in this area could be considered part of the effort to address the more general challenge for social movements, of how to reinforce the emerging social subjectivity and collective identity that sustain the movement (Stahler-Sholk, 2010, 2014). The autonomous education project was part of a larger strategy of pedagogical politics, in which the entire movement became a kind of school for community participants as well as anyone else who felt inspired by Zapatista principles. Mora (2018) refers to this idea as “kuxlejal politics,” using the Maya Tseltal word for everyday life, which is the space for Zapatista political praxis.

The pedagogical aspect of the Zapatista autonomy project extended to a long list of outreach initiatives aimed at the wider civil society, including numerous forums and encounters with open agendas held in autonomous territories, caravans and tours across the country, and efforts to encourage activist networking. A key example of this was the Sixth Declaration of the Lacandón Jungle, issued in June 2005 as part of what the Zapatistas called a “national campaign for building another way of doing politics,” or simply the “Other Campaign” (see EZLN, 2005). That statement of Zapatista thinking outlined an explicit anticapitalist position as well as a critique of mainstream politics (Reyes, 2016). It also invited other individuals and collectives who shared a perspective “from below and to the left” to subscribe to these principles as “Adherents of the Sixth Declaration,” forming a loose international solidarity coalition known as La Sexta. The outreach continued with the launching in 2013 of the “Little School of Freedom According to the Zapatistas.” In this Escuelita, supporters were invited to study the movement through short texts written collectively by Zapatista community members (EZLN, 2013), then spend a week with a Zapatista indigenous family, working alongside them in the fields and kitchen and discussing the texts at night. The Zapatistas continued to open dialogues with their networks of supporters in the Sexta about shared strategies for confronting what they called the “capitalist Hydra,” a reference to the many-headed serpent of Greek mythology (EZLN, 2015).

In addition to such conscious and direct pedagogy, the Zapatista movement had an outsized impact on political theory and practice beyond their own communities. Other indigenous peoples of Chiapas, some with longstanding autonomy traditions and demands of their own, were emboldened in the wake of the Zapatista uprising to recover lands or otherwise engage in innovative forms of contentious politics (Rus, Hernández Castillo, & Mattiace, 2003). Scholars focusing on the movement highlighted the decolonial nature of Zapatista practice (Forbis, 2016; Harvey, 2016), evident in their resolute refusal to allow others to define indigenous peoples’ identities, interests, or modes of social and political organization in their territories.

Reconsidering Epistemologies in Movement Research

Emancipatory movements in the Global South have long been studied from the optics of the Global North, reproducing the very structures of colonial oppression that those movements are battling. Studying the politics of decolonial movements may require an openness to new epistemologies (Santos, 2014) and a redefinition of politics that recognizes forms, values, and practices that escape the bounds of politics as framed by the institutions of states forged by colonialism and neocolonialism.

The idea of an “other” politics (Baronnet et al., 2012; Dinerstein, 2016) has been central to the way the Zapatistas view their movement, reasserting autonomy over their identity and actions so that the “other” is not defined from the perspective of the colonial center. Mora (2018, pp. 60–61), whose work in Zapatista communities is based on more horizontal and collaborative forms of engaged scholarship, contrasts this approach with the more traditional usos y costumbres of academics who position themselves above and outside the “object” of study, extracting surplus from the “primary material” of their words and actions. In this sense, the Zapatista movement suggests the possibility not only of other ways of doing politics but also other ways of approaching the production of knowledge.


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  • 1. For a succinct commentary on neoliberalism as an invisible hegemonic ideology, see Monbiot (2016).

  • 2. The declaration listed 11 demands: work, land, housing, food, healthcare, education, independence, freedom, democracy, justice, and peace. See “First Declaration of the Lacandón Jungle.” The original Spanish version can be found online.

  • 3. In a stinging communiqué likening party politicians to the repressive foremen on the finca doing the dirty work for the owners, Subcommanders Moisés and Galeano (2018) expressed the Zapatista view of the difference between official autonomy and real autonomy:

    [T]here is official autonomy, and there is real autonomy. Official autonomy is recognized by law, and this is its logic: “If you have an autonomous system and I legally recognize it, then your autonomy begins to depend on my law and not on your actual autonomous practices. When election season rolls around, you’ll have to support us, voting and promoting the vote for our party, because if another party takes office they’ll undo that law that protects you.” In that logic, we become political party peons, just as has happened to social movements all over the world. The actual function and defense of autonomy ceases to matter; the only thing that matters is what is recognized by the law. The struggle for freedom is in effect transformed into a struggle for the legal recognition of struggle.

  • 4. The results of the 1995 consultation were reported by the Centro de Documentación sobre Zapatismo (1995) .

  • 5. Examples of films that shaped the external image of the Zapatistas include Nettie Wild’s 1998 Canadian documentary A Place Called Chiapas, highlighting agrarian conflicts and paramilitaries; Big Noise Films’ 1999 documentary Zapatista, featuring music and commentary by Zack de la Rocha of the band Rage Against the Machine, emphasizing the armed uprising; and the 2008 feature film Corazón del Tiempo (Heart of Time), filmed in a Zapatista community without using professional actors and portraying gender and community dynamics.

  • 6. The Zapatistas explained their governing philosophy as “Rule by Obeying: to serve others, not serve oneself; to represent, not supplant; to construct, not destroy; to obey, not command; to propose, not impose; to convince, not defeat; to work from below, not seek to rise” (Subcomandante Insurgente Moisés & Subcomandante Insurgente Galeano, 2016).

  • 7. The Zapatistas explained the logic of the Caracoles in a seven-part communiqué (Enlace Zapatista, 2003) in July 2003.