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Subcomandante Marcos Comes to Wall Street

I am sitting at a coffee place in San Cristóbal de las Casas, a misty town in Chiapas, in southern Mexico. I am told that occasionally Sub Comandante Marcos, the famed leader of indigenous people in the region, used to come here. I wonder if I will see him, although he has not made a public appearance in more than two years. He doesn’t come— or maybe I didn’t recognize him without his signature ski mask — so I spend my time reflecting on the consequences or legacy of his movement.

Sub Comandante Marcos' movement, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) took its name from Emiliano Zapata, the commander of the Liberation Army of the South during the Mexican revolution which broke out in 1910. The EZLN has largely defied political classification, being mainly a movement seeking to redress the unjust treatment by the government — largely in response to the new world economy — of the country’s indigenous people.

The movement went public in 1994. On January 1st, 3,000 armed insurgents briefly took several towns in Chiapas, including San Cristóbal de las Casas, the residence of the late Chiapas Bishop Samuel Ruiz, an almost legendary figure widely respected by the indigenous people in the state. The goal of the insurgents was to dramatize the harsh living conditions, poverty, and lack of governmental response to Mexico indigenous population’s serious situation, which had deteriorated markedly as Mexico rushed to become a player in the global economy.

In an essay written for Le Monde Diplomatique, Sub Comandante Marcos said that neo liberalism and globalization constitute the “Fourth World War,” since he called the Cold War the “Third World War.” “If the Third World War saw the confrontation of capitalism and socialism on various terrains and with varying degrees of intensity, the fourth will be played out between large financial centers, on a global scale, and at a tremendous and constant intensity,” he wrote.

The violent revolt and capture of Chiapas’ towns was met with fierce government response and ended 12 days later thanks to a ceasefire brokered by Bishop Samuel Ruiz. The Zapatistas took heavy losses and retreated to the jungle where they had come from.

Although the Mexican government allowed Bishop Ruiz to mediate its conflict with the Zapatistas, the government accused the Bishop of being the driving force in the rebellion. Bishop Ruiz, however, always advocated non-violence as a way of resolving conflicts, and repeatedly stated that a spiral of violence, once started, cannot be easily resolved once the weapons stop firing.


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“This war was not carried out to shed blood and take power but to be heard. When they [the insurgents] were heard they laid down their weapons and chose the pathway of dialogue,” said Bishop Ruiz in a movie called “A Place Called Chiapas.”

After the clashes with the much superior forces of the Mexican army, the EZLN decided to stop using their weapons, and to put special emphasis on the political solution of the conflict with the Mexican government. Ina 2009 article for Le Monde Diplomatique Sub Comandante Marcos stated, “We don’t want to impose our solutions by force, we want to create a democratic space. We don’t see armed struggle in the classic sense of previous guerrilla wars, that is, as the only way and the only all-powerful truth around which everything is organized. In a war, the decisive thing is not the military confrontation but the politics at stake in the confrontation. We didn’t go to war to kill or be killed. WE went to war in order to be heard.”

Sub Comandante Marcos made it clear that he wanted the government respond to what he saw as legitimate indigenous people’s claims for better education, more and better health services, equal work opportunities, and better roads to the indigenous communities. After the government sent an unprecedented amount of funds to Chiapas, and for what I saw during my visit there, most of these goals have, to an important extent, been accomplished.

However, there are still in Mexico 3.3 million indigenous people still unable to satisfy their basic nutritional needs, according to figures from the Ministry of Social Development. And the 2010 infant mortality rate in 2010 among indigenous people was 22.8 per 1,000 live births, compared to 14.2 per 1,000 live births for the population at large, according to the government’s National Population Council (CONAPO).

Although the Zapatista movement doesn’t have the same goals as the “indignados” in Europe who are now becoming every day more numerous in many U.S. cities, they share the aim for a more egalitarian society, where the greed of the few shouldn’t take precedence of the rights of the many.According to the U.S. Census Bureau one in six Americans were living in poverty last year, a situation that is hitting children the hardest.

“Here in Chiapas we have to speak of before and after Sub Comandante Marcos,” said Gustavo Flores Alfaro, a building engineer from this area. When analyzing the beginning of the Twenty First century perhaps historians will also talk of the situation before and after the “indignados” movement that is taking the world by storm.

César Chelala

César Chelala

Dr. César Chelala is an international public health consultant, co-winner of an Overseas Press Club of America award and two national journalism awards from Argentina.

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