The Zapatistas operate within incredibly complex and far-reaching systems and ideas. Their fight against NAFTA and Neoliberalism locates them within anti-capitalism and anti-globalization movements operating around the world. In order to understand their fight, it is important to place them in context of larger economic ideas and systems, as well as their own history.
Neoliberalism is the dominant interpretation of capitalism today.
Supporters of neoliberalism argue that the liberalization of trade, meaning an economy with few restrictions and controls, functions the best (Chomsky 1999). Adam Smith, usually seen as a pioneer of capitalism, argued for liberalization, which means neoliberalism is a resurrection of founding beliefs on capitalism.
Neoliberalism intertwines closely with the idea of globalization, which has two common definitions. On one side, it is the sharing of ideas around the world. On the other, it is the forced expansion of neoliberalism around the world.
The IMF, World Bank, and WTO are three organizations that play a large role in globalization and neoliberalism. They are institutions that actively spread neoliberalism around the world – usually dealing with “developing” nations (Peet 2009).
The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was signed on the 1st of January, 1994 between the US, Mexico, and Canada. NAFTA made “free” trade easier amongst these three countries. Since then, economists have argued, through numbers and data, that the amount of trade and money exchanged between the three nations has gone up, especially for Mexico and Canada (Weintraub 2004). Those who are against NAFTA argue that these statistics ignore the human element. By taking away regulations, NAFTA sends highly subsidized goods made in the US into Mexico, which forces business to close. This results in workers, especially farmers, to lose their jobs and be forced from the country into the city to look for work.
The EZLN identifies Neoliberalism, institutions that spread it, and specific actions caused by it, like NAFTA, as the primary threat and root problem that must be addressed in order to live freely.
The EZLN is informed by Marxism. To understand their critiques of Neoliberalism and NAFTA, and why they run their communities in the manner they do, it is necessary to understand Marxism. Fundamentally, the EZLN is against domination. They believe that neoliberalism, and thus NAFTA, systematically take advantage of the many to benefit the few. They use this understanding of domination to inform their critique and resistance to neoliberalism.
Thus, the Zapatistas employ a model of government in their communities in Chiapas that is based off of a combination of Mayan beliefs and Marxism/Anarchism. Their communities operate on direct-democracy, which means everyone truly has a voice in how the EZLN operates. When the EZLN was participating in the San Andrés Accords, the leaders returned to Chiapas to talk to the communities in order to communally decide what was best for the Zapatistas. This consensus-based decision making model takes a lot of time, but in the end all participants get to have their voice heard. This means domination occurs less within consensus than other forms of government.
The Zapatistas take their name from Emiliano Zapata, a leader in the Mexican Revolution who helped put agrarian reform into a constitutional amendment. Prior to the revolution, the wealthy rulers of Mexico controlled huge amounts of land, which really hurt the poor and small farmers. amendment, article 27, called for redistribution of land in order to attain more equality. It also allowed for community-owned lands to exist, which was important for the sustainability of indigenous groups (Wolf 1969).
In 1992, Mexico’s commitment to land reform was ended and community-owned lands no longer existed. This played a large role in the EZLN’s resistance, as community-ownership of lands was essential within the indigenous communities of Chiapas.
It is important to note the extreme poverty of the indigenous people of Chiapas. The history of colonization in Latin America killed indigenous people and culture. The indigenous have been systematically left behind by modern society.
These ideas cannot be summarized in a webpage. Further reading is necessary to fully understand these enormous ideas, especially from the Zapatistas’ standpoint:
Bablyon and Beyond: The Economics of Anti-Capitalist, Anti-Globalist, and Radical Green Movements by Derek Wall (2005).
The Enemy of Nature: The End of Capitalism or the End of the World? by Joel Kovel (2002).
Selected Writings by Karl Marx and edited by Lawrence H. Simon (1994).
The Murray Bookchin Reader edited by Janet Biehl (1999).