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Zapatistas: Rebellion from the Grassroots to the Global

Zapatistas: Rebellion from the Grassroots to the Global

by Alex Khasnabish


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781848132085
Publisher: Zed Books
Publication date: 04/13/2010
Series: Rebels Series
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 232
Product dimensions: 5.00(w) x 7.70(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Alex Khasnabish is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Mount Saint Vincent University in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

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Rebellion from the Grassroots to the Global

By Alex Khasnabish

Fernwood Publishing and Zed Books Ltd

Copyright © 2010 Alex Khasnabish
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-84813-209-2


'We are the product of five hundred years of resistance'


All modern nation-states in the Americas are products of the 'encounter' between European colonizers and the indigenous populations native to these territories. Of course, for these diverse indigenous peoples, this euphemistically termed 'encounter' between peoples marked the beginning of five centuries of genocide, racism, slavery, neglect, repression, and the denial of their capacity for self-determination and autonomy. These five centuries have also borne witness to indigenous resistance to this colonial project of domination and erasure and, more recently, to the resurgence of indigenous peoples and their cultures (see Alfred 2005). Despite these broad trends, it is important to recognize that in different parts of the Americas the project of colonial domination and nation-state building was realized very differently in relation to the existing indigenous inhabitants of these territories, and these differences deeply inform the way that indigenous projects of resistance and resurgence have been articulated. For example, while in Canada and the United States the project of nation-building was predicated upon the attempted erasure of the first peoples inhabiting these territories, in Mexico, as in much of Latin America, the nation-building project drew explicit links to its indigenous — albeit highly mythologized — past.

Throughout the Americas, the concrete effect of colonization was — and in many cases continues to be — massive violence directed against the peoples indigenous to these lands, but the distinction between nations like Canada and the United States seeking a radical break with what they sought to displace and occupy and those like Mexico seeking to lay claim to this indigenous legacy is not insignificant. Indeed, imagining the nation as a place linked to the indigenous civilizations that preceded it would provide a particular kind of symbolic currency for indigenous movements of resistance and resurgence to mobilize vis-à-vis the state, as well as situating them within a certain kind of context. In order to understand the contemporary Zapatista movement and the complex and creative dynamics of resistance and alternative-building enacted by it, it is first necessary to place it within this rich, complex and contradictory historical space. As such, it is to this historical intersection of indigenous struggle with rebellion, revolution and nation-building in Mexico that I now turn.

A struggle for independence — by whom and for whom?

In the years following the Spanish invasion of Mesoamerica, indigenous peoples frequently sought ways — both 'legal' and 'extra-legal' — to resist Spanish rule (Cockcroft 1998: 35; see also Weinberg 2000). While the first acts of resistance often took the form of open warfare or flight, by the mid-1500s much of Mesoamerica had been militarily subdued by Spanish conquistadors while remaining a seedbed of rebellion waiting for any opportunity to erupt. Some of these acts of rebellion even made use of the Christian beliefs spread among — and often forced violently upon — indigenous peoples by Church missionaries to express their resistance. While the terms in which these acts of rebellion were expressed drew explicitly upon the religious system of the colonizers, this idiom was used to articulate demands that took direct aim at the colonial power structure, emphasized local autonomy, and defended local belief systems. An example of this is the Tzeltal Mayan Revolt which began in Chiapas in 1712 after a girl from the Tzeltal village of San Juan Cancuc claimed to have been visited by the Virgin Mary, who instructed the girl to build a chapel in her honour (Weinberg 2000: 23). When the villagers in Cancuc began the construction, they were ordered to be flogged by the local priest, who saw this as nothing less than devil worship (23). The Tzeltales resisted, driving the priest out and defying the authority of Spanish political and religious powers (23). Neighbouring villages sent people to Cancuc to be ordained in the new religious order even as they raised an indigenous army to confront their oppressors (23). Although the revolt was eventually put down, it stands as a testament to the spirit of indigenous rebellion and resistance which was never extinguished.

Of course, indigenous resistance to the new colonial order occurred for other reasons and on other terms. In 1847, Mexican dictator Santa Anna went to war with the United States over Texas, and the Yucatan declared independence from Mexico (Weinberg 2000: 25). The ladino — non-indigenous — elites in the Yucatan conscripted a Mayan army to fight for independence, buying loyalty with promises of land reform and the abolition of church dues, taxes, and debt labour. However, once the conscripts had been trained and armed, the ladino elite refused to honour the terms of the agreement and Mayan troops revolted (25). The governor of the Yucatan executed the leaders of the revolt — sparking a general Mayan rebellion known as the 'Caste War of the Yucatan' that nearly succeeded in capturing the capital city of the Yucatan and overthrowing the colonial power structure before it was defeated in 1848 (26).

Following the rebellion, Yucatan elites sought to punish the Maya for their defiance. Many Maya were forcibly relocated further south into the Yucatan's interior, their crops uprooted, even as Indian slavery was reinstated (Weinberg 2000: 26). Some Maya who survived this attempt at annihilation found hope in a cult of the 'talking cross' which emerged at a remote refugee settlement known as Chan Santa Cruz. The Maya cultists called themselves the 'Cruzob' — 'the Spanish word for cross with the Maya plural suffix' — and they were immediately targeted as a threat by Yucatan ladino elites (26). The Cruzob resisted and, playing on the political turmoil that engulfed Mexico in the mid-1800s, endured to constitute a significant threat to local and federal control of the Yucatan interior (26–7). Eventually, the Mexican federal army was brought in to deal with the Cruzob challenge, but while it succeeded in taking Chan Santa Cruz, it only drove the Cruzob deeper into the Yucatan interior where they continued to launch raids against non-indigenous villages and towns and to destroy projects aimed at building the state's infrastructure (27). Indeed, it would not be until the 1930s and the social, political, and economic reforms instituted by Mexico's post-revolutionary regime that some of the grievances — such as Indian slavery and land reform — animating the Cruzob War would be at least partially addressed and the Cruzob themselves effectively demobilized (28).

These examples illustrate the militant, armed face of indigenous resistance to colonial elites and their power structures. They are significant because they stand as testaments to the enduring spirit of indigenous defiance to colonial domination that could never be completely repressed. However, while resistance often took the form of open and armed rebellion, indigenous peoples also sought to resist Spanish plunder of their lands through Indian legislation which 'declared respect for the territorial patrimony of indigenous peoples' (Warman 1976: 29). While largely rhetorical and rarely respected, the colonial recognition of indigenous rights would prove foundational for the way that the nascent Mexican state and indigenous struggles would be positioned in relation to one another.

Beginning in 1810, indigenous resistance to colonial domination and popular struggles for Mexican independence from Spain would increasingly cross paths. Often remembered from a nationalist perspective as a 'Mexican' rejection of Spanish domination and a struggle for independence, the popular rebellion unleashed in Mexico during the Wars of Independence was, in fact, a complex and contradictory phenomenon. The independence movement comprised at least three distinct elements: the first, commercial-industrial-agricultural elites interested in gaining control over the 'bureaucratic pivot' of Mexico City; the second, elements in rebellion against 'centralized officialdom' of the colonial state; the third, actors seeking to realize a regime of social justice (Wolf 1969: 7–8). Representatives of this third element, Father Miguel Hidalgo and Father José María Morelos, raised peasant armies in opposition to the abuses and excesses of the colonial state and its masters (Cockcroft 1998: 55). The commitment to social justice was particularly evident in the insurrectionary leadership provided by Father Morelos. On 17 November 1810, Morelos proclaimed an end to discrimination, institutionalized racism, slavery and Indian tribute, as well as calling for a return of the lands stolen from indigenous peoples to them (Wolf 1969: 8). However, as soon as it became clear to Mexican elites that this rebellion was aimed not only at the Spanish Crown but at their own entrenched privilege in pursuit of a regime of social justice, the army, the Church and the powerful landholding families quickly came to the defence of the Spanish Crown and crushed the rebellion (9). Following this trajectory, independence from Spain would ultimately be won for Mexico in 1821 by elites seeking to protect their own advantage and wealth in the face of a liberalizing Spanish constitution. The revolutionary struggle for independence animated by social justice principles and mobilized by Fathers Hidalgo and Morelos was thus both exploited and ultimately crushed by an opportunistic and self-interested elite, a dynamic which not for the last time would characterize mass struggle in Mexico.

Following Mexico's elite-engineered independence from Spain, Chiapas was annexed by Mexico. Much like the national move to independence, the annexation of Chiapas from Guatemala was an elite-driven event aimed at preserving their commercial interests and maintaining their domination of indigenous labour (Benjamin 1996: 11). Much like the intra-elite power struggles beginning to play themselves out in central Mexico, following Chiapas's annexation, two elite factions began to struggle against each other over the control of land and labour (13). Located in the Central Highlands and the Central Valley respectively, these two factions became linked to the struggle that was playing itself out in central Mexico. Aligning themselves with liberalism, the farmers and ranchers of the valleys challenged the power of the highland heirs of the colonial oligarchy who — along with their allies in traditional sources of power and authority like the Church — identified with conservatism (13). Ideological differences aside, in Chiapas the primary prize at stake was the control and exploitation of the indigenous population and their labour (14). Nevertheless, as Chiapanecan elites came to identify with the liberal/conservative polarization of central Mexico, the significance of the national struggle which would explode in the 1850s and after increased dramatically.

The double-edged sword of modernization

The next chapter in the history of revolution in Mexico would take place in the 1850s. While the dictator Santa Anna had successfully managed to hold on to power by repressing, jailing, or executing his political challengers, he met his match in liberal leaders such as Benito Juárez backed by anti-government rebels in Guerrero (Cockcroft 1998: 70–71). Faced with this opposition, Santa Anna ceded power and sailed into exile, but while this act of power changing elite hands by no means signified lasting social peace in Mexico, it did entail some profound consequences. Once in power, the triumphant liberals ushered in the Liberal Reform, abolishing clerical and military special privileges and forbidding any 'corporation' from owning property (71). This liberal modernization of Mexican political, social and economic relationships enraged conservatives, yet the abolition of 'corporately held property' affected not only powerful institutions like the Church but peasant and indigenous communities as well. Ejidos, communally-held and worked land, were also a form of 'corporately held property' and their legal dissolution represented a profound challenge to traditional forms of peasant landholding (71). The first response to this liberalization of economic, political and social relationships came in a reactionary form as Mexican conservatives invited French military intervention against the liberal threat to their power and privilege. The result of this direct intervention was the installation of Mexico's new 'emperor', Austrian Archduke Maximilian, an imposition that resulted in civil war from 1862 until 1867 (72).

In order to finance their war against their conservative opponents and French invasion, the liberals accelerated the pace of land expropriation. The targets of this expropriation were largely indigenous, as they often could not 'prove' their ownership of the land (Cockcroft 1998: 72). While the Reform Laws were intended to 'free the individual from traditional fetters', they succeeded only in introducing new forms of bondage to the lives of people who already faced multiple forms of domination and exploitation (Wolf 1969: 13). In the words of Eric Wolf, 'Freedom for the landowner would mean freedom to acquire more land to add to his already engorged holdings; freedom for the Indian — no longer subject to his community and now lord of his own property — would mean the ability to sell his land, and to join the throng of landless in search of employment' (13). While the liberal Reform Laws effectively challenged certain powerful actors and their entrenched privilege, they also represented a new front in the assault upon indigenous lifeways in the name of 'progress'.

Far from the power struggles animating central Mexico, in Chiapas 'modernization' took on very particular dimensions in relation to indigenous communities. As a result of the Reform Laws, indigenous indebted servitude became 'one of the faces of ... "progress" in the 1870s and 1880s' (Benjamin 1996: 28). Ironically, 'revolution' or claims to progressive reform for Chiapanecos would all too often come to signify new and even more pervasive forms of domination and exploitation as the individual was 'freed' from the bonds of community to sell his labour on the open market. Ultimately, the radical destabilization that would result from this liberal-conservative conflict would culminate in the Mexican Revolution. In another sadly ironic twist, even as liberal and conservative elites sought to consolidate their privilege and power by pillaging the most vulnerable, the war against the French invaders was fought and won largely by peasants and workers engaged in guerrilla struggle (Cockcroft 1998: 75).

Revolution on the horizon

The liberal victory over the conservatives and their French allies secured neither peace nor prosperity in Mexico. What it did do, however, was to set the stage for the Mexican Revolution in 1910. Made vulnerable by debt, feuding and internal strife, in 1876 the liberal 'bourgeois-democratic' state gave way to an 'oligarchic-dictatorial' one led by General Porfirio Díaz (Cockcroft 1998: 81). During his 35-year rule, which ended only when the Revolution deposed him in 1911, Díaz would pursue the liberal modernization project for Mexico. Practically, this meant building industry and elite wealth on the backs of the peasantry and workers and brutally silencing opposition (81). Known as the 'Científicos' (scientists) due to their self-identification as positivist scientists pursuing Mexico's modernization through the application of enlightened knowledge and 'natural law', Díaz and his inner circle of advisors conceived of this project as one made possible only through the obliteration of the nation's indigenous element and the 'furtherance of "white" control, national or international' (Wolf 1969: 14). True to the spirit of an age that managed to combine 'scientific enlightenment' with racist theories of 'progress' and the 'civilizing' mission of colonial and imperial domination, under Díaz's paternalistic control, Juárez's liberal reform became a nightmare of modernization for indigenous peoples as it sought to undermine the few remaining bases of social and political autonomy afforded to them.

Under the charismatic and coercive leadership of Porfirian governors such as Emilio Rabasa and his successors, Chiapas would become 'one of the laboratories of modernization' (Benjamin 1996: 34). While modernization meant many things in Chiapas, including the building of transportation and communications infrastructure and the implementation of 'modern' techniques to everything from schooling to farming, perhaps its most significant manifestation was its goal of 'transforming Indians into yeoman farmers, free laborers, and Mexicans' (33). Modernization thus came to represent the obliteration of all that was 'backward' — that is, all that was indigenous. Through Governor Rabasa's programme of agrarian reform known as el reparto, the state sought to increase the number of small farmers and property owners in accordance with modern notions of development and progress. Under this program the assault on village ejidos only intensified (49). New forms of labour exploitation emerged and intensified as indigenous communities lost access to and control over their own lands. Indigenous peoples were forced into systems of 'indebted servitude, temporary migrant labor, and slave labor', with those not tied to large estates by debt working as day-wage labourers, sharecroppers or renters (89). The modernist dream of Mexican elites seemed to be proceeding perfectly, with indigenous peoples 'freed' from the shackles of tradition now free to sell their labour in exchange for survival.


Excerpted from Zapatistas by Alex Khasnabish. Copyright © 2010 Alex Khasnabish. Excerpted by permission of Fernwood Publishing and Zed Books Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Introduction: 'Enough!'

1. We Are the Product of 500 Years of Resistance': The Origins of Zapatismo

2. 'Everything for Everyone, Nothing for Ourselves': Zapatismo as Political Philosophy and Political Practice

3. 'Never Again a Mexico Without Us': The National Impact of Zapatismo

4. 'A World Made of Many Worlds': The Transnational Impact of Zapatismo

Conclusion: 'To Open a Crack in History'

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'Since their appearance fifteen years ago, Mexico's modern day Zapatistas have been a powerful, compelling, inspiring enigma - and a Rorschach test of sorts for scholars, activists, and policy makers alike. After millions of words - more than a few of their own - exploring and explaining the Zapatistas, Alex Khasnabish's smart and accessible book perceptively explicates their origins, deftly outlines their philosophy and practice - not least the move beyond bullets to words and actions, and astutely analyzes their national and transnational impact. Khasnabish's text provides our best lens yet on the twenty-first century's most intriguing revolutionaries.' - Eric Selbin, Professor of Political Science & University Scholar, Southwestern University'A remarkable achievement! Alex Khasnabish has written the clearest, most comprehensive account to-date of the origins, innovations, and significance of the Zapatista movement, on local, national, and global scales. This is a must-read for students, scholars, activists, and anyone who believes another world is truly possible.' - Jeffrey S. Juris, Arizona State University 'This book is a unique testament to the political creativity of the Zapatista movement that has inspired activists and scholars since the 1990s. Khasnabish convincingly demonstrates how this creativity is reflected, above all, in the Zapatistas' ability to combine and engage various levels of political activity from the local to the transnational.' - Thomas Olesen, University of Aarhus, Denmark (author of ¿International Zapatismo: The Construction of Solidarity in the Age of Globalization¿)