Northern Zapatista

By James Reich
July 2015

This piece was first published around five years ago by Bold Type Magazine and was written to express north-of-the-border solidarity with the Zapatistas. I decided to revisit it on the 37th anniversary of the Zapatista movement. It is unedited from its original form

“In the world of the powerful there is no space for anyone but themselves and their servants. In the world we want, everyone fits… Only those who give up their history are confined to oblivion.”

Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos, Fourth Declaration from the Lacandón Jungle, January 1996.

“It is a war against the globalization of the market, against the destruction of nature and the confiscation of resources, against the termination of indigenous peoples and their lands, against the growing maldistribution of wealth and the subsequent decline in standards of living for all but the rich.”

Andrew Kopkind, The Nation, January 31, 1994. 

Two decades after the ratification of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994, gagged representatives of the United States are contemplating the passage of its offspring, the Trans-Pacific Partnership. At the time of writing, there is still a substantial possibility that Hillary Clinton will become the next President of the United States in 2016, securing the second Bush-Clinton transit of a catastrophic global trade deal. NAFTA was drafted under George H.W. Bush and ratified by Bill Clinton, and even if President Obama gets what he wants, which is to ratify the deal drafted under George W. Bush, it will be during the last days of his presidency, leaving —perhaps— Hillary Clinton to preside over the fallout and ashes. It might yet become her deal by proxy. Hillary is prevaricating over TPP because she knows that Bill fucked up, just as he did on the Defense of Marriage Act, the Telecommunications Act of 1996, and drugs and mass incarceration. Bill knows this too, hence his latest bouts of mea culpa. Hillary Clinton has an opportunity that she has not yet grasped to repair the Clinton legacy. Can she reject TPP without repudiating another of her husband’s achievements? Robert Reich, Bill Clinton’s Secretary of Labor fails somewhat egregiously to mention NAFTA in his 2013 film Inequality for All. Reich understands now that NAFTA was a catastrophe. He is attempting to redress the economic damage of the past. Yet, his defense of labor in the present is quite different from his dismissal of their concerns before NAFTA in 1993, the devastation of which was documented by Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch in “NAFTA’s Twenty-Year Legacy and the Fate of the Trans-Pacific Partnership” (2014) and by director Lori Wallach in the Huffington Post:

Such outcomes include a staggering $181 billion U.S. trade deficit with NAFTA partners Mexico and Canada and the related loss of 1 million net U.S. jobs under NAFTA, growing income inequality, displacement of more than one million Mexican campesino farmers and a doubling of desperate immigration from Mexico, and more than $360 million paid to corporations after “investor-state” tribunal attacks on, and rollbacks of, domestic public interest policies. 

Now we come to the key to understanding the anxieties of both parties regarding the passage of TPP in the just over twenty-year context of NAFTA, and something vital about the mood of the United States. The passage of NAFTA on January 1, 1994, was the signal for the Zapatista uprising in Chiapas, Mexico. My contention is that the Zapatista insurgency provided vital impetus for a leftward swing in Latin American politics from the election of Hugo Chavez in 1998 onwards. Zapatismo, its ingenuity and indigeneity, its opposition to the remote oligarchies of global capital and neoliberalism are present in Seattle 1999, the Occupy movement, in opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline, etc., and arguably in the ‘unpredictable’ rise to national prominence of Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders — not unpredictable if you can admit that the leftward swing of the south, repudiating U.S. interference, has exerted a pull on the north, that sympathies have existed at the grass roots. With due irony, you might call this an instance of the tail wagging the dog. Elsewhere, the lurid balaclavas of Pussy Riot and the V/Guy Fawkes masks of Anonymous are reminiscent of the anarchic masked Mayan insurgents of Chiapas. Even if unconsciously, public resistance to austerity in Greece draws from this anti-colonial spirit. Predictably, the American forces that used to interfere with democracy in the south have turned themselves inward on the American people, so that our shared enemies are now corporatism and the apparatus of security. These entities, under the smog of free trade and the defense of liberty, have taken to manipulating our own elections with voter disenfranchisement and the passage of Citizens United, a soft coup d’etat perpetrated by corporatists. We are, most certainly, witness to what Sheldon Wolin termed inverted totalitarianism, where, in the subversion of democracy, the diffuse anonymity of capital replaces the charismatic identity cult of the conventional dictator. Under zip-code economic sanctions and a militarized and trigger-happy police, further low intensity warfare is waged against dissenting or ‘difficult’ citizenry: minorities, women and the poor. The people behind this inverted totalitarianism, reflecting their corporate interests, have virtually ‘off-shored’ themselves. They have no interest in the abstraction that is America, north or south. They aspire to the kind of non-domicile tax status enjoyed by certain perverts in the United Kingdom. 

From this context, the northern Zapatista (re)emerges. The 99% represents a newly self-conscious heterogeneous group that, having been colonized and organized by capital, must experience sympathy with the indigenous in a country rendered unfamiliar. The Bush-Clinton new world order of global capital is one of mass dispossession, exploitation and low-intensity warfare. Such as it is, increasingly, the North American middle class cannot recognize the landscape of capital. African-Americans have never been granted a part of that landscape. In different ways, many of us have never recognized or felt in possession of the landscape of capital. This is the logic of colonialism and capital upon which both Americas were founded. It is what Anibal Quijano interrogates in The Coloniality of Power. It is no secret that significant elements of the Republican Party, and the right are concerned about other demographic changes in the U.S. and the possibility of more immigrant socialism. Resistance to the normalization of relations with Cuba is entwined with this. The demonization of Latin American governments is entwined with this. Ethnically, North America and Latin America continue to narrow, and the right is petrified of this. Hillary Clinton seems ambivalent about this. The rest of us, indigenous and immigrants, should draw inspiration from resistance movements throughout the south and work in sympathy as low-intensity warfare is turned in upon us. Even as Pope Francis shares coca leaves with President Evo Morales in Bolivia, and admits Catholic responsibility for the menticide, brutalization and suppression of indigenous Mayans, as Hillary Clinton hedges her bets on TPP, North American citizens should recognize the potential for solidarity with the 1994 Zapatista revolution, and its persistent manifestations. The aims of the Zapatista revolution are consistent with iterations of the Left across the globe. There is some hope in the weight of the pendulum to continue its influence on the United States.  

—James Reich is the author, most recently of The Song My Enemies Sing, and four other novels. He is an ecopsychologist and educator in New Mexico. You can learn more at 

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