IN THE BELLY OF THE BEASTPART III
NAFTA AND THE ZAPATISTA UPRISING
[the early and mid 1990s]
The end of the cold warthe collapse of the Soviet Unionwas a watershed for capitalism. But it was also a turning point for militants, labor unions, liberation movements and social-justice and environmental activists, some of the groups from which the global justice movement has drawn.
In the years before the North American Free Trade Agreement [NAFTA] was implemented, environmentalists like "deep ecology" theorist Jerry Mander linked up with consumer advocates like Ralph Nader, biodiversity activists such as Vandana Shiva, sustainable development advocates like Third World Network’s Martin Kohr, and a handful of sympathetic journalists like William Greider. They were drawn together because their disparate causes were all adversely affected by the GATT and by unprecedented developments in the global economy and the new international bodiesad hoc and otherwisethat were arising to guide and police that economy.
In 1993 these activists and a handful of others contributed essays to a collection edited by Ralph Nader entitled, The Case Against "Free Trade": GATT, NAFTA and the Globalization of Corporate Power. While these authors and activists were instrumental in the development of a global movement of NGOs that would become mainstays in the global justice movement [see sidebar on NGOs], their warnings against the social, environmental and economic destruction of free trade and neoliberal globalization were only the first stirrings of a more militant and grassroots upsurge in the movement. The energy that propelled the next phase of the movement erupted not in the US, but in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas, a region that had been especially hard hit by the Mexican economic crisis of the 1980s.
Most likely NAFTA would have been implemented without a blip on the world’s radar if the Zapatistas [the EZLN] hadn’t brought a new form of armed struggle to the world’s stage on the day that NAFTA went into effect. While the general public outside the global justice/anti-globalization movement largely became aware of its existence during the WTO protests in Seattle, and while the corporate media has created the illusion that the movement was born in Seattle, for those in the movement, if there is a birth date, it is January 1, 1994, the day that Subcomandante Marcos and the Zapatistas occupied six towns in Chiapas in armed struggle against NAFTA and neoliberalism.
A measure of the concern felt by the guardians of haute finance over the Zapatista's poorly armed, indigenous uprising can be taken from the infamous Chase memo, written on January 13, 1995 by an analyst for Chase Manhattan Bank, barely one year after rebellion began. The memo reveals a direct link between multinational banks in the North and state repression in the South:
While Chiapas, in our opinion, does not pose a fundamental threat to Mexican political stability, it is perceived to be so by many in the investment community. The government will need to eliminate the Zapatistas to demonstrate their effective control of the national territory and of security policy. (Analyst Riordan Roett)
When Counterpunch broke the story, it caused an uproar against Wall Street in the major news media and prompted a press conference by Representative Marcy Kaptur (Democrat from Ohio) to denounce the bank:
Suggesting the killing of innocent people, throwing electionsnone of this seems to bother Chase... anyone who honestly believed that Wall Street’s hands weren’t all over ... [U.S. policy towards Mexico] should take a good hard look at this memo. (Marcy Kaptur)
Meanwhile, the Zapatista uprising had a catalyzing effect on activists in the US. It is difficult to picture just how profoundly the uprising affected social- and environmental-justice activists in the US without first getting a sense of the isolation felt by those activists, who were just coming to grips with globalization. Brian Dominickdirect-action organizer and co-founder and editor of The New Standardgives a candid description on Z-Net in 2001 of just what a revelation the Zapatistas were:
A bunch of us were struggling to stop it [NAFTA]. And when I say a bunch, I mean a bunch. There were a few of us, in every community, who were sitting there scratching our heads, trying to figure what to do. There were some demonstrations, and they were pathetic by today's standards. I think I attended one; I can't honestly remember because it was just as small as a whole lot of other little things I did at the time. I mean, it was really nothing to write home about. We were trying to raise awareness. We were desperate for some way to raise awareness. We couldn't figure it out. We were writing op-ed pieces and trying to do whatever we could to get people in our communities to know that this was happening"
There were various interests-- environmentalists and lots of other groups-- who realized this would certainly be an important factor in their future, and the future of their interests. That didn't culminate into anything big at the time, and it certainly didn't culminate into a general awareness among the US public, or really even in Mexico or Canada at that time.
On January 1, 1994, that culmination actually did take place. All of a sudden something happened where people did realize all this. It came about as a result of activism. That activism I'm referring to, as most of you know, is the Zapatista uprising in Chiapas, Mexico, the southern-most state in Mexico, the poorest state in Mexico and one of the poorest places in the hemisphere. The indigenous people there, having organized for a very long time, but organizing explicitly as the Zapatistas for about ten years, chose NAFTA, the first serious, major manifestation in the hemisphere of this neoliberalism in the form of a free trade agreement that would a have massive impact on their future and on the future of Mexico, the United States and Canada. They said, "We're going to raise hell."
One of my biggest frustrations now, organizing in 2001, is that there are a lot of activists coming into the anti-capitalist globalization movement who don't even understand what happened there. The Zapatista uprisingwhich I played absolutely no role in and nobody up here didwas autonomous activism that came to invigorate support throughout Mexico very rapidly and to certain sectors of the radical left in the United States and Canada. That was a big boost for us. It was a big morale boost, and, not just that, but we began to learn lessons about how to organize against globalization. (Dominick 2001)
And what were those lessons? According to Zapatista leader, Subcomandante Marcos, they had to do with a break from the traditions of the politico-military, national liberation movements of the 1960s and 1970s. In 2001, Marcos said in an interview with Gabriel Garcia Marquez published in New Left Review:
If the EZLN perpetuates itself as an armed military structure, it is headed for failure. Failure as an alternative set of ideas, an alternative attitude to the world. The worst that could happen to it, apart from that, would be to come to power and install itself there as a revolutionary army.
We have seen that such victories proved in the end to be failures, or defeats, hidden behind the mask of success. That what always remained unresolved was the role of people, of civil society, in what became ultimately a dispute between two hegemonies. There is an oppressor power which decides on behalf of society from above, and a group of visionaries which decides to lead the country on the correct path and ousts the other group from power, seizes power and then also decides on behalf of society.
For us that is a struggle between hegemonies, in which the winners are good and the losers bad, but for the rest of society things don’t basically change. You cannot reconstruct the world or society, nor rebuild national states now in ruins, on the basis of a quarrel over who will impose their hegemony on society. The world in general, and Mexican society in particular, is composed of different kinds of people, and the relations between them have to be founded on respect and tolerance, things which appear in none of the discourses of the politico-military organizations of the sixties and seventies. Reality, as always, presented a bill to the armed national liberation movements of those days, and the cost of settling it has been very high. (Marcos 2001)
Due in part to the influence of the Zapatistas but also in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, Marxism was branded by many in the movement as retrograde, flawed, and authoritarian, often without any specific knowledge of the rich variety of Marxisms that have existed or without a long-term engagement with the Left in general.
The anti-Marxist tendency within the movement is more pronounced in the US than in Europe or Latin Americain part because the influence of Marxist ideas is more wide reaching in the intellectual and political traditions of Europe and Latin America than in the US. A critique of traditional revolutionary strategies is an important aspect of the Zapatista's message that the many American activists who travelled to Chiapas brought home with them.
The Zapatistas' identification with marginalized groups in historyparticularly with indigenous people, but also with gays, lesbians and transsexualswas another powerful influence on US activists. This perspective resonated with many who were active in movements for civil rights and gender and cultural identity. Furthermore, the Zapatista’s recognized the need for a global organization against neoliberalism, and they invited activists from around the world to come to the village of La Realidad in Chiapas. The first event they hosted, in 1996, was the International Encounter for Humanity and Against Neoliberalism. According to Harry Cleaver, in "Documents from the First Intercontinental Encounter:"
[The] Intercontinental Encounter organized by the Zapatistas took place at the end of July 1996 and brought together over 3,000 grassroots activists from 42 countries. The Encounter originated directly in a call made by the Zapatistas in January 1996 that suggested continental meetings for the Spring to be followed by an intercontinental encounter in the Summer. The backdrop to that call was the amazing global circulation of support for the Zapatistas and the struggle of peasants and indigenous people which had developed in the two years since January 1, 1994 when their struggles exploded into public view.
The Zapatista Call, which they issued with some trepedation, high hopes but low expectations, suggested a gathering to discuss the world-wide phenomenon of neoliberalism, the effects it has had on people, resistances which have developed and possible paths of further struggle. The Call generated a mobilization of a scope and depth that no other individual group has ever been able to do. It far exceeded the expectations not only of the Zapatistas but of their sympathizers.
Not only did thousands of people respond enthusiastically to the invitation and move quickly to organize a series of continental meetings, but the stimulus of those meetings provoked an outpouring of thinking, discussion, writing and other creative activities. Unlike international meetings organized by business, the state, or academics, these gatherings had no institutional funding, no high-tech conference facilities, and no promise of payoff [neither profits nor publication] except for the opportunity to accelerate the struggle to build a new world. That so many participated, in so many ways, with so much energy was truly remarkable. (Harry Cleaver, March 1997)
The Encounters between US anti-capitalist activists and the Zapatistas finally bore fruit in a way that came to the attention of the world in Seattle in 1999, for it was the People’s Global Networkformed in 1998 out of connections forged in La Realidadthat put out the first calls for N30, the protest against the 1999 WTO meetings in Seattle.