Zapatistas maintain suspicion of Mexico’s President-Elect Andrés Manuel López Obrador, “AMLO”

In Oventic, as in many Zapatista villages, the enthusiasm over AMLO, the center-left populist elected to the Presidency, is largely nonexistent. Image by Jared Olson. Mexico, 2018.

By Jared Olson |

This past summer, Gargoyle writer Jared Olson was awarded a reporting grant by the Pulitzer Center to pursue a solo journalism project in Chiapas, Mexico. Olson reported on the Zapatistas, a movement of indigenous Mayan campesinos. You can view the original articles here.

In the months following the political earthquake caused by the landslide July 1 victory in the Mexican presidential election of Andrés Manuel López Obrador, also known as “AMLO,” the Spanish world’s most-populous country has been electrified by levels of hope unseen in nearly two decades. After six years of deepening violence and corruption under President Enrique Peña Nieto—the establishment-scion of whose party once dominated 20th century Mexican politics—many exhausted Mexicans are now anxiously waiting to see if, following his Dec. 1 inauguration, the maverick López Obrador, a center-left populist, can carry out his sweeping campaign promises to purge corruption and gear down the blood-drenched war on drugs.

Compared to Hugo Chavez as frequently as he is to Donald Trump, the wildly popular AMLO, as a candidate, was singular in his power to draw massive crowds and generate voter excitement in a time when faith in national politics has descended to abysmal lows. Now that he’s secured the presidency, some have even suggested that a “New Revolution” is underway in the United States’ southern neighbor.

But in many parts of the southernmost state of Chiapas, the optimism which has inflamed the rest of Mexico is strikingly absent. The Zapatistas, a far-left, ostensibly-armed indigenous movement which maintains its self-governed “autonomous zones” in the state’s southeastern mountains and jungles continue to regard the presidential-elect with suspicion. Most recently, they have roundly denied supposed advances made by the incoming administration toward reconciling the quasi-conflict which has simmered between the government and the guerrilla-army-turned-social-movement for nearly a quarter century.

Oventic, a central Zapatista village, or “Caracol,” high in the misty Cañadas mountain region of Chiapas. Image by Jared Olson. Mexico, 2018.

“As was public, since sixteen years ago,” said a communique issued on the Zapatista website on July 17, “the EZLN (Spanish acronym for Zapatista Army of National Liberation) has not held dialogues with federal government.”

They rejected their supposed “disposition towards a dialogue” which had been proposed by Father Alejandro Solalinde, a Catholic clergyman and activist with close ties to the President-elect.

The Zapatistas first emerged in the public eye in 1994, when they revolted militarily against the Mexican government in a 12-day war to resist the implementation of NAFTA. Many people then worried—their predictions later borne out by voluminous evidence—that the sweeping free-trade agreement between the US, Mexico and Canada would displace millions of rural campesinos. These predictions later became reality when the Mexican market became bombarded with a slush of  cheap US-agricultural products against which the small farmers couldn’t economically compete. After receiving substantial expressions of solidarity from the Mexican population, the Zapatistas sat down at the table for peace talks with the Mexican government. They adopted a pacifist philosophy which centered around the creation of their own independently organized “autonomous zones,” free from the influence of the Mexican government. And though virtually no shots have been fired since the 90s, the simmering Zapatista conflict has yet to be completely resolved.

In the same July 17 letter, scribed by Subcomandante Insurgente Moisés, the Zapatistas expressed a deeper suspicion of conciliatory gestures by the government borne out by harsh experiences from the past.

“The EZLN already has the bitter experience of accepting contact with a man who would soon be declared President-elect,” the letter reads. “We are referring to the Mr. Ernesto Zedillo Ponce De León, who took advantage of those initial contacts to then plan the annihilation of the Zapatista leadership.”

All this comes in light of AMLO’s proclaimed desire to respect all the articles of the 1996 San Andrés Peace Accords, which sought to ameliorate the damages accrued in the years leading up to the Zapatistas’ 1994 uprising. Additionally, AMLO has expressed an indifference, perceived by many as being contemptuous, towards NAFTA.

The roots of the indigenous movement’s suspicion towards the president elect go back as far as the mid-2000s. AMLO was the mayor of Mexico City then. He had carried out his role to a chorus of approval, which came from many sides, thanks what were then perceived as progressive reforms. And the Zapatistas—now a backwater within Mexican political consciousness, far overshadowed by the deepening specter of drug violence—were still riding their zenith of publicity then, making “The Other Campaign,” a march to the nation’s capital to raise awareness of indigenous persecution, in 2006.

“It’s in the Sixth Declaration (of the Lacandon Jungle)” historian Gaspar Morquecho told me of the roots of Zapatista hostility to AMLO.

The Sixth Declaration—which expressed a desire to resist neoliberalism by forming political alliances outside of the electoral system, and was one of the lengthiest public manifestos of the Zapatistas—was released in 2005, just as the 2006 elections, which eventually saw AMLO defeated by a hair-thin margin, were getting underway. Many Mexicans have since come to believe that electoral fraud saw AMLO stripped of his rightful victory that year.

“It had been said by Subcomandante Marcos,” Morquecho said, “that if Lopez Obrador won the presidency, the Republic would not be for everyone.” He went on to explain that the Zapatistas believe that any “radical nature” perceived in AMLO’s proposed overhauls was merely a façade, concealing a lack of desire to fundamentally restructure Mexico’s economic system and a willingness to work with business class to which many campesinos see themselves as the exploited victims.

“When some people say, ‘they aren’t going to accept a dialogue with Andrés Manuel López Obrador,’” Jorge Santiago, a former member and spokesperson with the EZLN, told me, “Now, this (just) doesn’t correspond with the truth.” Santiago said that the Zapatistas would be open to dialogues with the government, but only on their terms, according to their principles of respect for indigenous autonomy.

Many Zapatistas felt that when such formal dialogues took place the last time, in San Andrés in 1996, that the government didn’t uphold their end of the bargain of negotiations, refusing specifically to support the autonomy articles pushed so heavily by the group. Disillusion became more acute as paramilitary violence spiked sharply in the years following San Andrés, with state governments turning a blind eye to the killings.

These events seemed to paint themselves as dark denouement to the five centuries of conquest by experienced by the indigenous people of Chiapas, whether it be at the hands of conquistadores, pre-Revolution landowners or neoliberal governments. Distrust in any form of dialogue with the government, thus, is not a new phenomenon, and if there is any to be had with AMLO, it will likely come slowly.

In 2018, the Zapatistas broke new ground by entering a fringe candidate, María de Jesús Patricio Martínez, known colloquially as “Marichuy,” into the Presidential elections. Marichuy had no desire to win: she was merely using the national stage of the campaign to amplify the concerns for indigenous peoples in Mexico. A member of the National Indigenous Congress, which the Zapatistas helped found in 1996, she harbored no ambitions for the elections beyond merely representing the voices of Mexico’s outcasted minorities. The dedication to radical change and unwillingness to “sell out” perceived in the Marichuy campaign is what many Zapatistas believe the more popular AMLO fundamentally lacks.

“AMLO does not represent real change,” said Gustavo Esteva, a writer and economist with close ties to the Zapatista movement. “It (MORENA, the political party founded in 2012 by the President-elect) pretends to be ‘the Left.’ And he’s more or less populist in the sense that he’ll have very good solid programs for the people- some of them designed by the World Bank. He has said so many times, ‘I would not like to replace capitalism, just cure it of its ills.’”

Many in the Zapatista communities seem similarly suspicious that AMLO’s progressivism is a façade disguising a fundamental indifference towards changing neoliberal capitalism—the very force to which they feel themselves victim and against which they revolted.

Here in the Zapatista caracol of La Realidad, in the heart of the Lacandon Jungle near the Guatemalan border, the optimism over AMLO’s Presidential victory is often strikingly absent. Image by Jared Olson. Mexico, 2018.

The public letter issued by the Zapatistas on July 5 to announce their convocation in a political meeting in the community of Morelia between August 3 and 5 consists, for the majority of its 2,896 words, of a bizarrely apocalyptic anecdote:

An unnamed man walks into a stadium closely resembling the FIFA World Cup, which was still in its early throes at the time of the letter’s publication. The crowd, awash with hysteria over the final results of the game, is too busy celebrating to notice that a woman was raped in one corner. In another corner, a collapsed chunk of cement that has killed dozens draw little attention from the masses, hypnotized as they are by the gaudy spectacle taking place midfield.

The man, confused by the celebration, sees a lone girl, who asks him who exactly owns the stadium. He is so overwhelmed by the lights and confetti that he can’t respond with certainty that he knows. “…the owner never loses,” says the little girl to the man. “It doesn’t matter which team wins and which loses, the owner always wins.”

To many, it makes for an uneasy allegory for a political culture in which the media treats opposing parties as if they were teams in the World Cup, but in which all are truly supplicants for the same corporate elites.

In a fitting symbol for the Zapatistas’ retreat into their own autonomous zones, the letter ends with the man and girl leaving the stadium:

“‘Why?” the man in the anecdote asks the girl as she anxiously leaves the chaotic roar of the grandstands.

“Gesturing to the foundations of the huge building, the little girl answers,

‘It’s going to fall.’”

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