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Zapatismo without tears

30 June 2014

Sombrero tip to Barry Carr (LaTrobe University [Melbourne] and Colegio de Mexico) for this critique of the Zapatista movement, found in a review of a French collection of essays on the Zapatistas (Bernard Duterme et al. Zapatisme: la rébellion qui dure. Alternatives du Sud. Paris: Centre Tricontinental and Éditions Syllepse, 2014). The entire review is posted on the New Politics website.

Outside the Mexican Embassy in London,  2012 (Photo: Zapatista Solidarity Group, Essex)

Outside the Mexican Embassy in London, 2012 (Photo: Zapatista Solidarity Group, Essex)

The reviewer, Dan La Botz, questions the effectiveness of the Zapatista’s anti-politics and asks whether the Zapatistasreally are operating in the best interests of those they claim to represent  I’ve thought their “other campaign” … which sought more to discredit the State… accomplished nothing other than  assuing the election of Felipe Calderón and hastening the  downfall of the united left in Mexico.  While I support the contention that indigenous peoples are the ones who need to craft solutions to the challenges they face is a belief that it is perfectly legitimate to question.  At my crankiest, I often wonder whether those outsiders who come here to “learn” from the Zapatistas really have the interest of the Mayans (and rural communities in general) or are just buying into the “noble savage” myth, as La Botz hints at in his discussion of Zapatista health care.

The mythic idea held by some in the first days of the rebellion that the indigenous people were united in their opposition to the Mexican government and capitalism was, of course, never true. Many indigenous people had other stronger identifications: to their tribal group, to Catholicism or Evangelical Christianity, to the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), or simply to the status quo, which, however bad, was “the devil they knew.” The Mexican PRI government in power at the time, as it deployed the army or mobilized party loyalists to harass the Zapatistas, played upon such divisions and worked to accentuate them. Indigenous communities became even more divided. To escape government attack, the Zapatistas fled to the mountain forests and established temporary villages there, even more poverty-stricken than their original homes.


The central issue that this book presents to the reader is the Zapatista strategy of building autonomous communities. What is meant by “autonomy”? Several of the chapters describe how the Zapatistas answer this question. They define autonomy as the creation of villages and ideally regions that are entirely separate from the government. They refuse to join or work for any political party, arguing that the parties are all corrupt, and they will have nothing to do with government social welfare or development programs, not wanting to become politically beholden. One has to say that their view of the political institutions is certainly correct and their fear of political manipulation well founded. So they have decided that they will not send their children to the government schools, arguing that the mestizo teachers who live in urban areas and drive automobiles to the school look down on the indigenous communities and their students. They will not go to the government hospitals and health clinics, except in extreme cases, arguing that the doctors there do not treat them well or provide them decent care. They refuse government material aid for the improvement of their homes and villages, arguing that if they take it they are expected to work for the ruling political party. Unlike the historic parties of the left, they do not fight through social movements, coalitions, and political parties to take control of these institutions and force them to serve them fairly. They reject dependency on government institutions for the alternative of community self-sufficiency.

Alternatively, then, the Zapatistas build their own homes and villages, run their own schools, and maintain their own health program. Several of the authors suggest that this is a good policy because it empowers the indigenous people, and especially women, allowing them to create their own institutions and run them democratically. Yet, in general, the authors refuse to ask what this choice means for the indigenous people in these communities. Raúl Zibechi, for example, describes the health system, explaining how each group of eight families chooses a team of three health workers who have been trained by the community, usually mostly women: a woman who prepares cures from medicinal plants, an indigenous “osteopath,” and what is described as a “wise woman.” Zibechi suggests that because women are generally the health workers, by taking on this responsibility they develop as stronger and more equal members of the community. That may be. But one would like to know, does this do anything for community health? Do autonomous community health workers keep their communities healthy? Are they able to prevent illness? Can they cure disease? Are they improving community health overall? Where is the epidemiology? How do Zapatista autonomous communities compare with non-autonomous communities in areas of inoculations, prevalence of contagious disease, chronic disease, infant mortality, and longevity? It does not even occur to […] ask these questions, much less to answer them.

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