Guest Blog: Cian Warfield is Unearthing an Understanding of Zapatista Autonomy

I must confess that I never knew the existence of the Zapatista movement until I undertook a year-long research masters at my home university in Cork. A small collection of autonomous indigenous communities located in the southern corners of Mexico in the jungle infested state of Chiapas had somehow escaped my attention. My growing interest in international politics merged with my steadfast love of Hispanic culture and together they rotated an arrow that pointed directly at the Zapatista movement. From the first glimpses of this unique social movement, I was hooked. Many people became aware of the Zapatista movement on 1st January 1994 when large numbers of armed indigenous rebels seized strategic townships throughout Chiapas, the most notable of which was the famous colonial town of San Cristobal de las Casas. Before this time, many were blissfully unaware that the flames of rebellion were being fanned in the region. This uprising, too, took the Mexican government by surprise. Mexican politicians made great efforts to ignore any claims that indigenous rebels were organising in the jungles of Chiapas during the 1980s. The government was preparing for the implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and any upset on the Mexican political landscape would strike fear into the hearts of their American and Canadian counterparts. However, evidence suggested that an uprising was inevitable and while most Mexicans celebrated the dawn of a new year on the 1st January 1994, the Zapatista uprising commenced. From the 1st January, twelve days of intense violence erupted between the Mexican army and the indigenous rebels. The government used the military might of the Mexican army to attempt to annihilate the rebels and restore civility to the region. However, to the surprise of many observers, the government called a ceasefire on the 12th January. Under pressure from the media and from national and foreign sympathisers of the Zapatistas, the government reluctantly halted further advancements on the rebels. Following these twelve days of violent clashes, reports emerged that nearly five hundred rebels had lost their lives in the conflict, far more than the official number recorded by the Mexican government. The ceasefire became an opportunity for constructive dialogue to take place between the opposing sides and a chance for the government to begin to understand the grievances that formed the foundations of this indigenous uprising. In February 1994, government negotiators and members of the Zapatista high-command sat face-to-face in the cathedral of San Cristobal for the first time to begin what would be understood as an era of failed peace talks interrupted by periods of intense violence.

Throughout the turmoil, the Zapatistas sought indigenous autonomy. They wanted the indigenous to maintain their long-standing customs, traditions and cultures and to continue to speak in their native, tribal languages. They feared that the increase in economic prosperity throughout Mexico fuelled by the exploitation of Chiapas’ natural resources would risk the assimilation of indigenous youth to Mexico’s modernising economy. It was a new and different revolution designed to accentuate the needs of the indigenous over the economic desires of the Mexican government. Legally however, indigenous autonomy was unconstitutional and it required significant changes to certain articles of the Revolutionary Constitution of Mexico. Such modifications, however, were abhorrent to the political elite in Mexico. The Zapatistas declared that, for too long, the economic interests of Mexico towered above the demands of the country’s indigenous population. Land, healthcare, education, democracy, justice, food, housing, to list only a handful, were basic rights that the Zapatistas demanded. The Zapatistas firmly believed that indigenous autonomy would greatly improve their access to these basic necessities, freely allowing the indigenous to develop systems of healthcare and education. In 2003, despite the conciliatory tone adopted by President Vicente Fox of the Partido Acción Nacional (PAN) the Zapatistas declared their intention to deter from further contact with the Mexican government. The indigenous organisation had seemingly lost faith in finding a solution to the conflict by engaging with the political elite of Mexico. Instead, the movement assumed their position as an autonomous rebel organisation, free from the shackles of the State. Under this umbrella of autonomy, the Zapatistas worked to develop numerous independent services including healthcare and education, a fully functioning justice system and many economic cooperatives. Despite frozen negotiations between the State and the rebels, the Mexican army continue to surround the autonomous region, regularly patrolling the area. Regardless of this intimidation, as the Zapatistas see it, to this day the rebels remain steadfast in their commitment to maintain the development of this autonomy. The question emerges now however, of what exactly supports the growth and development of this autonomy and herein lies the core focus of my research.

Much of the research on the Zapatista movement dissects, in detail, the period between the uprising and 2003, with more authors charting the development of the rebel organisation throughout the 1970s and 1980s. However, fewer researchers seem concerned with understanding Zapatista autonomy and what exactly drives the on-going development of this unique indigenous independence. The thought that over one thousand indigenous communities live independently of the Mexican State became a point of fascination for me especially when these communities were considered some of the most deprived and needy in Mexico. I figured that, in order to understand this autonomous development and to analyse the success of installing this autonomy throughout these indigenous communities, I had to dig a little deeper and uncover its foundations. After further probing I discovered that the development and success of Zapatista autonomy rested firmly on the shoulders of the many independent services the Zapatistas had worked to develop including the likes of healthcare, education and justice. Given the limitations of my research project I settled on healthcare and education to form the focus of my analysis. In the end, I hypothesised that healthcare and education are community-oriented services and, as a result, the development and success of Zapatista autonomy depended on the steady growth of healthcare and education services throughout Zapatista communities. I spent considerable time examining the structure of these autonomous services, identifying the significant role the community plays in their delivery. It was discovered that healthcare and education are community-centred services, controlled by the community, for the community. If control of healthcare and education is important in maintaining the independence of each and every individual Zapatista community then, it is clear that both healthcare and education lie at the heart of Zapatista autonomy.


Cian has just completed this one year masters degree and is now a PhD candidate with the Dept. of Spanish, Portuguese and Latin American Studies, University College Cork.

Tweet @CianWarfield

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