Marcos and his merrie men

Zapatistas: Why Western radicals love the guerrilla who fires off more emails than bullets.

Josie Appleton

Topics Politics

When Subcomandante Marcos and his 24 fellow Zapatistas arrived in Mexico City last week, after the 15-day ‘zapatour’ from the southern state of Chiapas, he was greeted like a popstar, with hotel rooms overlooking the main square reputedly charging $50 an hour (1).

But then, it has often been said that Marcos is more popstar than guerrilla. Everybody likes popstars, even the Mexican government, while real guerrillas spark fierce reactions from people who are for or against their ideas.

In recent years, Marcos and the Zapatistas have become the darlings of Western radicals. Critic of globalisation Naomi Klein describes how, after the guerrilla’s armed uprising in 1994, she watched Zapatista ideas ‘spread through activist circles’, and her friends head off for caravan pilgrimages to the Mexican jungle to plead for interviews with Marcos (2). He seems to hover beyond criticism, a Jesus-like icon. What is his attraction?

Subcomandante Marcos offers the appearance of ‘authentic’ radicalism – the dirt and sweat of the jungle, and the guerrilla accoutrements of arms, balaclava, and Che-style pipe – that the protesters of Prague and Seattle badly need. This is why several hundred Italian anarchists from the group Ya Basta!, key players in Prague, volunteered to provide protection for the zapatour: a couple of weeks trotting along in their white jumpsuits, and they will have earned no end of kudos at home.

Meanwhile, the destitute peasants who have been won over by the Zapatistas seem to make the movement ‘real’. Without such alignments, the protesters who throw chairs in McDonalds in the name of the world’s poor are just throwing a tantrum, rejecting the ‘big and bad’ because they don’t like it.

But the deeper reason for the Zapatistas’ appeal to Western radicals is that they offer the appearance of radicalism, with none of the substance. Klein likes the idea of this ‘revolution in miniature that says,”Yes, you can try this at home”‘ – that tells you ‘to fight with your own weapon…a video camera, words, ideas, “hope”‘ (3).

Marcos, Naomi Klein writes, is a ‘new kind of hero; one who listens more than speaks, who preaches in riddles not in certainties’. He tends to write in riddles and poems, not in theses (and his writings start with sentences like, ‘Once upon a time, there was a little seamstress…’). Hence his name: sub-commander, not commander. The real commanders are the dispossessed of the world – anybody who is marginalised or isolated. Through him, apparently, their will speaks.

‘Marcos is gay in San Francisco, black in South Africa, a Gypsy in Poland…’ the subcomandante once said, presenting his masked face as a mirror that reflects the struggles of the poor. Klein contrasts the Zapatistas favourably with ‘classic revolutionaries, who preach through bullhorns and from pulpits’.

It’s nice that Klein and her friends enjoy Marcos’ poems. But what do the Zapatistas do for the Mexican poor, their supposed constituency?

The Mexican dispossessed Marcos claims to speak for this week, as he marches to Mexico City, are its 10million ‘indigenous people’. As legend goes, these were the people who ‘taught’ him, when he arrived as an arrogant Marxist revolutionary in the 1980s, that he did not have all the answers to their problems. He listened to their stories and myths, and immersed himself in Mayan culture. ‘The more he learned, the less he knew’, says Klein approvingly.

But how can a political leader who claims to represent the poor be increasingly uncertain about the solutions to poverty?

Marcos’ uncertainty about solutions is seen by his fans as democratic, in the sense that he listens to people’s versions of their own problems, rather than imposing his own views upon them. In this worldview, democracy is seen as a situation in which all different points of view can exist merrily side-by-side. ‘It is necessary to build a new world. A world in which there is room for many worlds. A world capable of containing all the worlds’, said Marcos. His evasion of definite answers leads Western journalists to describe him as ‘mysterious’ and ‘enigmatic’; and this ‘mystery’ is seen as one of his main assets.

But in fact, the uncertainty about political solutions in the leadership of the Zapatistas means that the experience of poverty and marginalisation of those the movement ‘represents’ is left meaningless. This experience is translated into a mere fashion accessory.

The struggle against poverty only makes sense if it is seen as a problem with causes and solutions. Otherwise, the poor become children to indulge, to be ‘listened to’ – and figures to be held up, saying, ‘look: they have a right to be seen’. Marcos showed this, in his words delivered to waiting crowds in the central square in Mexico City: ‘We came here only to say we are here’.

An article in The Economist made the telling comment that Marcos had ‘transformed the 12-day armed rebellion into a permanent media performance that has made both him and the poverty of Mexico’s indians famous worldwide’ (4). Just as poverty becomes ‘famous’ through a ‘media performance’, so the marginalisation of indigenous people becomes an accessory – something to be put on to show you are on the right side. Zapatista merchandise – T-shirts, posters, key rings – sell like hot cakes, feeding the passions of, in Jan McGirk’s words, ‘guerrilla groupies’ (5).

This is not to say that the Zapatistas have not keyed into the very real concerns of the people of the Lacandon forest, the region of Chiapas where they have their main base. The Zapatistas’ anti-government rhetoric and demand for ‘autonomy’ chimes with people’s experience of a militarised and overbearing state, which has become increasingly militarised after the uprising in 1994. Their opposition to ‘neoliberalism’ and call for land chimes with the land shortage in the region, and the hardship resulting from the end of agricultural, particularly coffee, subsidies after neoliberal reforms in the 1980s.

But right from the beginning the Zapatistas have sought their real base, less in the problems of the some 62 impoverished tribes in the Lacandon forest, and more in the concerns of the international community. After the 1994 uprising, when the Zapatistas took over the town of San Cristobal, they called upon the international community to ‘watch over and regulate our battles’. Seven years ago, at the start of the Zapatista uprising, Marcos engaged in 12 days of armed conflict – after that, as McGirk says, ‘he quickly changed tactics and, from deep in the forest, fired a barrage of poetic propaganda by fax and internet postings’ (6). And these tactics have paid off – Klein estimates that there are now 45,000 websites dedicated to spreading the word of the Zapatistas, and in 1996 3000 international delegates travelled for a meeting in the forest.

The demands that Marcos takes to Mexico City, on the basis of which he will, in the words of Klein, ‘take off his mask and disappear’, are three: more demilitarisation of Chiapas, the release of Zapatista prisoners, and the passing of a bill on indigenous rights. The first two demands would simply return Chiapas to a pre-1994 state, before the Zapatista uprising.

All that would have been gained from seven years of struggle, then, is a bill of indigenous rights. This would give indigenous communities the rights to ‘respect’ for their cultural traditions – to adopt traditional social organisation and to be educated in their own language. This right to a bit of space within a pluri-cultural state contrasts with the bold promises of the Zapatistas when they first emerged in 1994 – for housing, freedom, democracy, work, land, education, independence, justice, and peace.

So when the Zapatistas say things like, in the words of Marcos on the zapatour, ‘Indian peoples throughout Mexico are living – no, surviving – in the most shocking conditions of poverty’, their description is right. But as the Zapatistas have no solutions to offer, the experiences of the poor become the badge of authenticity to use in the media war.

Marcos’ incoherent ramblings are often presented as bearing the influence of indigenous culture. He writes in pseudo-mysticism, using phrases such as: ‘The mountains spoke to us, the Macehualob, we common and ordinary people.…The kaz-dzul, the false man, rules our lands and has giant war machines, like the boob, half-puma and half-horse.’ According to Marcos’ publisher, Juana Ponce de Leon, the fact he shows many faces and becomes a ‘non-self’ makes it possible to speak on behalf of indigenous communities.

Naomi Klein writes of the ‘wonder, suspension of disbelief, myth and magic’ that Marcos found ‘in the mountains of Chiapas’. Maybe – or maybe he is merely making a virtue of indecision, and then blaming it on somebody else.

Ultimately, the Zapatista struggle is vacuous; and this vacuity is borne out by the self-conscious way they adopt the icons of struggles of the past. Their name comes from Emiliano Zapata, hero of the Mexican Revolution that began in 1910, who fought with his peasant bands up from the south to claim Mexico City, and the zapatour is plainly an allusion to this fight.

In Marcos’ ‘Tale of the little newsboy’ who sells old papers, he writes, ‘In the papers on sale today…you’d read that the Zapatistas are about to arrive in Mexico City.…You can’t quite make out the date, but it seems to be either 1914 or 1997’ (7). Che Guevara, the notorious Cuban revolutionary, is mimicked with the pipe that Marcos constantly carries.

These two struggles of the past, whatever their faults, had a political content and resounding consequences. The Mexican Revolution resulted in the defeat of the landed oligarchy and the construction of the modern Mexican state. Che Guevara and the Cuban revolutionaries dispatched the US-oriented elite. Today, Marcos is engaging in the hollow pantomime of a historical reenactment, and his international allies cheer him on.

The Mexican press has been more sanguine about the prospects for the Zapatistas. The political commentator Sergio Sarmiento wrote in La Reforma that the Zapatistas’ proposal for indigenous autonomous zones threatened the principle of equality before the law. Others have criticised the ‘Marcomania’ of the whole event.

This is not surprising: unlike the Westerners who gush about the ‘mysterious Marcos’ and the virtues of indigenous culture, Mexicans have to live with the consequences of Zapatista politics. His mysteriousness comes to seem more and more empty, and the prospect of having ‘indigenous’ and ‘non-indigenous’ jurisdiction seems divisive.

I doubt that the indians of the Lacandon forest would muster the enthusiasm of Klein. Only from afar, free from the political consequences of Zapatista action, can Westerners view the movement through such rosy spectacles. But then, this was why they went looking for their hero in Mexico in the first place.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Anti-capitalism

(1) BBC News Online, 11 March 2001

(2) Guardian, 3 March 2001

(3) Guardian, 3 March 2001

(4) Economist, 1 March 2001

(5) Independent, 8 March 2001

(6) Independent, 8 March 2001

(7) Our Word is Our Weapon, by Subcomandante Marcos, Serpent’s Tail 2001. Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


Want to join the conversation?

Only spiked supporters and patrons, who donate regularly to us, can comment on our articles.

Join today