Basta! Land and the Zapatista Rebellion in Chiapas: A Review

Basta! Land and the Zapatista Rebellion in Chiapas: A Review

[George Collier, Basta! Land And The Zapatista Rebellion In Chiapas, Oakland: Food First, 1994. $12.95. Distributed by Subterranean Company, Box 160, 265 South Fifth Street, Monroe, Oregon 97456. 1-800-274-7826]

by Harry Cleaver

The following book review was written for Love & Rage.

Before the Zapatista uprising that began on January 1, 1995, Chiapas was little known in the world except to its people, those who have profited from their exploitation, a few tourists and a handful of anthropologists who have long studied those people and their culture. Today, there can be little doubt that the world knows Chiapas almost entirely through the words of Subcommandante Marcos, the main voice of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) and the testimonies of journalists and human rights activists who have journeyed there to observe or stand between the people and a Mexican Army bent on wiping out the EZLN and intimidating its supporters into quiescence. Fortunately for the people of Chiapas, Marcos has proven to be an eloquent, indeed inspiring, spokesman and the journalists and activists have, for the most part, collaborated his words with graphic descriptions of the conditions of poverty which gave rise to the uprising and of the brutality of the military response. As a result, widespread protests both national and international, through marches and a wide variety of creative actions, quickly forced the Mexican government to declare a cease-fire and to pull back its troops from the Zapatista's most immediate zone of influence only weeks after the uprising began.

Over the last year, from the beginning of the cease-fire between the Mexican Army and the EZLN to the breaking of that cease-fire by the government on February 9, 1995 the primary terrain of struggle became the battlefield of words and political discourse. Throughout that period the Zapatistas, and the peasant and indigenous communities they represent, won victory after victory over the corrupt apparatus of the PRI party-state. From the war of public words, in communiques, letters and interviews, through the negotiations in the Cathedral of San Cristobal, and the brilliantly conceived National Democratic Convention held in the liberated jungle of Chiapas that drew over 6,000 participants from all over Mexico, to the post-election formation of a State Government of Transition in Rebellion, the Zapatistas and their supporters made great progress in winning the hearts and minds of the Mexican people and reorienting political discussion in Mexico.

As the PRI began to tear itself apart internally through a series of public disagreements and assassinations, the marginal "reformism" of its leadership was totally eclipsed by discussions of how to transform radically the Mexican political and economic system. Struggling to survive these traumas, the Salinas regime bought time with disastrous economic policies that sucked in short-term, hot money to finance its desperate attempts to hang on to dwindling popular support through and after the national elections of August. The final collapse of those policies in December --a collapse which brought a dramatic depreciation of the peso, massive capital flight and a jerry-rigged bailout package from Uncle Sam-- threatened the continued existence of the new Zedillo regime. Reeling from loses on both the political and economic fronts, and seeking to placate foreign investors, Zedillo played two very risky cards: a unilateral breach of the Chiapas cease-fire with a new military offensive to wipeout a primary source of his political woes and a harsh austerity program to force the Mexican people to cough up the money necessary to pay back domestic and foreign speculators.

With a viciousness that went beyond its depredations a year earlier, the Mexican Army jackbooted into Zapatista territory destroying as it advanced. Fleeing before the onslaught, some 20,000 peasants grabbed a few of their possessions and disappeared into the jungle. Ordered by their civilian leaders the Zapatistas retreated with them, deeper and deeper into the Lacandona as the Army advanced.

As the result of a year of successful mobilization, the Mexican people and large numbers of kindred spirits around the world rose up, once more, in protest against this violation of the peace process. Where a hundred thousand had marched a year earlier, hundreds of thousands marched in protest. Three times in less than a week gigantic marches rumbled through the streets of Mexico City and converged on the Zocalo to denounce Zedillo's actions. Elsewhere roads were blocked, consulates taken over, speeches pronounced, letters written, and Mexican government officials harassed. Once again, the Mexican government was forced to declare a halt to its offensive.

Unfortunately, unlike the previous time, the Mexican Army did not pull back. Indeed, there is some evidence that it continues its attack, plowing roads into the jungle to allow its armored vehicles to advance, sending patrols surreptitiously deeper into the forest to seek out and harass peasants and Zapatistas. One thing is certain, the Army has not pulled back from Zapatista territory, it occupies much of it and has inflicted a reign of terror on those left behind. It has imposed martial law, repeatedly violated rights guaranteed under the Mexican Constitution, tortured innocents, ransacked homes, destroyed houses outright, torn up crops, poisoned food supplies, shredded water systems and jailed both peasants and grassroots activists on trumped-up charges in an orgy of repression reminiscent of the Nazi drive into Russia in World War II or the American search and destroy missions of the war on Vietnam. Backed up by American military "observers", using American military equipment and aided by the assassins of the Argentine and Guatemalan counterinsurgency forces, the Mexican government has brought the iron heel of repression down on the people of Chiapas who have sought democracy, justice and dignity.

So overwhelming have been these events since February 9th that most of those who have become active in solidarity with the Zapatistas and the people of Chiapas have turned all of their energies to protest to stave off even worse horrors. And rightly so. The urgency of the situation demands just that committal of energies. Yet, activism can not be limited to marches and protests, demonstrations and sit-ins. More than two months have passed and the struggle continues. The Mexican Army has not withdrawn, and despite the renewal of negotiations between the EZLN and the government that began on April 10th and will continue on the 20th, the need for mobilization and the expansion of mobilization remains acute. No one can seriously believe that the Mexican government is willing to make any substantive concessions in the direction of democracy when it is defending its own autocratic rule. No one can seriously believe that the Mexican government is about to make costly concessions to the needs of the indigenous people of Chiapas in the midst of an economic crisis of its own making and after having promised its creditors to slash state expenditures.

Therefore, assuming that those already mobilized are already doing all they can, voting with their feet and voices and pens and bodies against military and economic repression, a major objective must be to expand the mobilization as widely as possible. To do that today, as in the past, it is necessary to convince people of the legitimacy of the struggle of the Zapatistas and of the grassroots movement in Chiapas, as well as of the illegitimacy and barbarism of the Mexican state. Thanks to the testimony of human rights and peace observers the later has become increasingly easy to document. The former, however, takes more work: work to understand --well enough to be able to explain, in some detail-- the conditions in Chiapas that gave rise to the rebellion and work to understand the position of the Zapatistas in relationship to those conditions. Reading the words of Marcos and his companeros provides plenty of material for such understanding, but less for providing convincing explanations to initially neutral third parties one might like to galvanize into action. For there is always the question of bias, of whether the Zapatistas have misrepresented or distorted their account to support their own policies and politics.

It is therefore invaluable to have complementary information and analysis from experienced, even professional observers who can verify or contradict the Zapatista story. Which brings me, at last you say?, to the book under review. George Collier's book Basta! provides exactly the kind of professional outsider analysis we all need to make the case for mobilization against the Mexican government's policies. Collier is an anthropologist with some 30 years of field research among the indigenous communities of Chiapas. He has drawn on that experience, as well as his knowledge of the similar work of others, to provide, in a dense but highly readable 150 pages, an excellent overview of the social, economic and political history of Chiapas that gave birth to the current rebellion. Useful historical sketches of 500 years of resistance (chapter 1) and of the more recent colonization and social mobilization in the East of Chiapas (chapter 2) are followed by even more useful analyses of the complexities of the social fabric in the areas of Zapatista influence.

From the writings of the Zapatistas, especially Marcos, those of us less familiar with Chiapas have received some insight into the diverse cultural and ethnic backgrounds of the indigenous who make up the bulk of the EZLN communities. We have learned something of Tzeltales, Choles, Tzotzils and other indigenous peoples. We have read of the difficulties of life for these people at the bottom of the Mexican social pyramid, exploited and discriminated against on the job and off. We have even gained a little understanding of some internal differences and antagonisms in their communities, such as those between men and women, women who felt the need to draw up and demand EZLN ratification of a revolutionary law of women's rights. But while Marcos has conveyed much, his preoccupation with painting a picture of the world the Zapatistas have been seeking to craft has limited his discussion of origins, of the complex communities which have generated support for and participation in the Zapatista movement.

It is here that Collier is invaluable. Speaking from outside the Zapatista movement, but from long experience, he is able to locate their origins within a larger framework of social antagonism and contradictory mobilizations. (chapter 3) Collier's emphasis, as the title of the book suggests, is on the fundamental connection between the people of Chiapas and the land. The social movements in Chiapas have primarily been mobilizations of campesinos, of peasants, many of whom, but not all, have been indigenous. Collier traces the history of conflicts over land from the conquest to the present. He sketches the theft of indigenous lands, the very limited gains of the Mexican revolution which mostly left the land in the hands of the thieves, and the ways the PRI long used the promise of land (and to some small degree actual land transfers) to gain support from the landless and the land poor while building up its own local power structure. He also provides useful detail of the evolution of peasant organization, both that arranged by the PRI from the top down, and that achieved by self-activity from the bottom up.

At the same time, he discusses the intersection of such organization around land with other movements, such as that for organizing landless peasant labor unions, or the struggle for rural credit, or that of local school teachers or that of various religious sects and finally that of leftist organizers who "went to the people" after the slaughter of students in Mexico City in 1968. As you might suspect these intersections produce a complex history of class factions, conflicts between organizations with different approaches and goals, ideological clashes, overlapping preoccupations and allegiances and repeated clashes between all of these and the party-state. With respect to the key area of Eastern Chiapas which would provide the base of the Zapatista movement, Collier writes:

"By the mid-1980s, the three movements --land-based, labor-based, and credit-based-- had spread through the historically undeveloped half of Chiapas from the region around Simojovel to the Selva Lacandona. The movements crossed over one another's original bases of power, sometimes in competition and sometimes in alliance, and established networks of communication across a vast landscape." (p. 75)

He goes on to trace the evolving interaction of various peasant organizations with each other and with the government and even to evaluate the EZLN's denunciation of particular groups for having sold out to the state.

"In what seemed like a blatant attempt to buy votes for the August 1994 presidential election, the government in May granted almost 6 million new pesos (approximately 1.8 million U.S. dollars) in credits to ARIC and other Union of Unions subsidiaries, lending credence to Marcos' accusation that the ARIC has compromised its principles for money." (p. 77)

Step by step, Collier traces the successes and failures of pre-Zapatista peasant struggles and argues that the EZLN can be seen as an organizational response to the bankruptcy of previous efforts that have been either crushed or coopted by the PRI --at the expense of the average campesino. In so doing he provides, both in his text and in its references, detailed information that both explains and justifies the resort to radical means to bring about any kind of real change in Chiapas. It is one thing to merely assert the bankruptcy of the PRI and the corruption of the Mexican State, as many in solidarity with the movement for democracy have done. It is quite another to be able to use the kind of information Collier provides to illustrate the repeatedly demonstrated futility of trying to "reform" the Mexican state and political system.

While Collier rightly focuses on the centrality of the land struggle in Chiapas, he also has pursued, in his research and in his book, the consequences of the failure of most campesinos to acquire access to adequate amounts of land. He analyses not only the consequent colonization movements into decreasingly fertile forest lands but also the recourse made by growing numbers of peasants to urban sources of income, from wages to informal sector actives, including small business enterprises in production and/or marketing. The viability of these alternative paths to survival and life, he traces through both the oil and hydroelectric boom of the 1970s and the subsequent debt crisis of the 1980s which drove many back to the land out of desperation while allowing some to use their earnings or newly acquired skills from the earlier period to finance new activities in the later one.(chapter 4)

Collier emphasizes how the subordination of Chiapaneco lives to this market "business cycle" contributed to the differentiation of communities between better and worse off and to the deterioration of the fabric of mutual aid and obligation that had traditionally held sway. In agriculture as in the urban economy, differentiation in income and access to investment finance led to a growing divide between better off farmers who could invest in more productive commercial inputs and those who could not, and hence to the growing concentration of land. He goes on to trace the consequences of such changes for interpersonal relationships, family life and political behavior. (chapter 5)

All of this leads to one of Collier's prime conclusions: namely that growing differentiation within and between Chiapaneco communities prepared the ground for the Zapatista rebellion. With the increasing abandonment by the state of any support for peasant agrarian development, from the withdrawal of price supports for coffee and corn to the rewriting of the Constitution to allow the privatization of presently common lands, the Mexican state has not only plunged a great many into deeper poverty but destroyed all hope of any change within the system. Basically, Collier provides evidence that the PRI has decided to complete the final enclosure of Chiapas, hand it over to agribusiness and natural resource exploitation (timber, oil, hydroelectric power, plantation/ranch agribusiness) and deal with its population elsewhere as it disperses North to the cities or across the border to the U.S. It is against this now quite foreseeable fate that the Zapatistas are fighting a last ditch battle.

Toward the end of his book, Collier writes: "I think there is merit to the claim that the ruling party has fostered factionalism in the peasantry in order to divide and rule in the Mexican countryside. But I also believe it is important not to overlook how such tactics resonate with and sharpen the class divisions fostered within peasant society by energy development and agrarian change . . . In this light the Zapatista rebellion becomes understandable as a response to the growing differentials between rich and poor, and between favored and excluded groups within the rural society of Chiapas. . . . But above all, we know that the conflict in Chiapas arises directly from a quarter of a century of Mexican development and modernization and that solutions must take this into account." (p.146)

Collier ends his book (chapter 7) with a brief sketch of possible future developments, not least of which was "the very real possibility of further armed confrontation". Unfortunately, that possibility has been realized by the state violating the cease-fire and rupturing negotiations. The struggle to bring their military offensive to a real stop continues, far beyond the mountains of the Mexican Southwest. Fortunately, for those of us involved in that struggle, Collier's book provides extremely useful information and analysis to make the case against the continuing barbarism of the state's approach to dealing with Chiapas. Beyond the barbarism of its military operations, Collier's book helps us demonstrate how the state's social and economic policies hold out nothing but disaster for most of the people of Chiapas, whether they support the Zapatistas or not. It provides us with vital ammunition in the war of words with the Mexican state and its American backers (in the White House, paid think tanks, and Congress) and it provides us with abundant material to convince and draw others to our side in this effort.

That's a lot to say about any book.

April 12, 1995
Austin, Texas