- Zapatistas: Rebellion from the Grassroots
The early 1990s were a difficult time for many on the left. The collapse of the Soviet Bloc as an alternative model to capitalism, the electoral defeat of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, and the proclamations of free market triumphalism deprived many of hope for the future of socialist projects. It was a time when only author Gabriel García Márquez seemed prepared to defend the Cuban Revolution and when Mexican political commentator Jorge Casteñeda denounced the aspirations of the armed left in Latin America as “utopia unarmed.” From this apparent gloom emerged a new vision emanating from the Lacandón Jungle in the Mexican state of Chiapas. Alex Khasnabish’s Zapatistas: Rebellion from the Grassroots to the Global examines the regional, national, and global appeal of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (ezln), which took up arms against the Mexican state on the first of January 1994 after a decade-long period of clandestine organizing.
Khasnabish’s work is part of the new “Rebel” book series from Fernwood Publishing. This rebel qualifier essentially defines the parameters of his analysis. That is to say, the book seeks to analyze the Zapatistas as a rebel movement on their own terms, which permits Khasnabish to demonstrate their political uniqueness in the post-Cold War era. Immediately after the ezln’s New Year’s uprising which seized a number of cities in Chiapas, the Mexican state denounced the masked insurgents as narco-traffickers and terrorists. Khasnabish rejects this claim and places the ezln within a historical heritage of rebellion in Mexico which permitted them to be “adopted by Mexican and international civil society as rebels with all the allure, legitimacy, and righteousness [End Page 223] the term implies.” (2) Khasnabish spends no time theorizing the rebel characteristic or placing it in conversation with works such as Eric Hobsbawm’s classic Primitive Rebels that sought to historicize the rebel mystique of pertinent figures such as Pancho Villa. Rather, he takes the Zapatistas’ rebel status as given and places it alongside indigenous resistance to Spanish colonization since the 16th century, the proceres of Mexican Independence, and the martyred folk heroes of the Mexican Revolution. In this way, Khasnabish views the Zapatistas as part of a revolutionary pantheon buried deep within Mexican history.
Khasnabish argues that the trans-generational ruling clique that formed the Institutional Revolutionary Party (pri), which ruled Mexico in slightly different guises from the late 1920s until 2000, tried “laying claim to a revolutionary legacy they had actively sought to subvert” (44) so as to legitimize their efforts at state formation. And armed with appropriated revolutionary iconography, the pri set upon a corporatist model through which they quelled dissent by way of co-optation. The author suggests the corporatist state experienced difficulty perpetuating its claims to the revolutionary heritage as it was crippled by successive crises after the so-called Golden Age of the 1930s to the 1960s. Indeed, structural adjustment programs and the default of 1982 revealed that the pri’s association with the Revolution was ideologically bankrupt and its corporatist model was incapable of subsisting. The neoliberal technocrats’ coup de grâce that ended any pretenses to being the inheritors of the revolutionary tradition was the implementation of nafta, ostensibly guaranteeing Mexico’s entrance into the First World. However, nafta required changes to the Mexican Constitution that threatened small-scale farmers, leading the ezln to take up arms to end what they labeled a “death sentence” for Mexican indigenous people. In so doing, the Zapatistas seriously challenged the legitimacy of the established order in Mexico by rejecting the continued usurpation of symbols of the Revolution by those who betrayed its radical spirit.
After detailing the origins of the Zapatistas, Khasnabish examines their influence as a rebel movement, dedicating a chapter each to the effects that they had on local, national, and international events. Khasnabish’s most compelling contribution is his treatment of Zapatismo as a coherent political philosophy, for it is here that their rebel significance resides. Khasnabish views Zapatismo as an alternative to...