The Return of the Old Mole

by Luis Hernández Navarro

A lightning bolt in the darkness of Salinas’ neoliberalism lit up Mexico from below on the night of December 31, 1993. At the sound of the drum at dawn, tens of thousands of indigenous Zapatistas militarily occupied the municipal capitals of the main cities of the highlands and the jungle of Chiapas.

Founded on November 17, 1983, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) grew for years in silence, under the sod, until the time came to take up arms. The counter-reform to article 27 of the Constitution raised the white flag of agrarian redistribution and the entry into effect of the North American Free Trade Agreement turned the country into Maquilatitlán1; they were left with no alternatives on the horizon.

The first public indications of the existence of the insurgents appeared on May 22 and 23, 1993, when the Army found the rebel camp of Las Calabazas, in the Corralchen mountains of the Lacandon jungle. On May 24, the soldiers surrounded the community of Pataté, concentrated its inhabitants in the center and, without a search warrant, went into the houses. They found a few low-caliber weapons used for hunting. Eight indigenous people were detained. Later they randomly arrested two Guatemalans who were selling clothes. They were accused of treason. The region was militarized and new resources were poured into the Solidarity Program 2 But the path of rebellion continued.

A warning that something was happening in those lands could be seen in San Cristóbal de las Casas, on October 12, 1992. In an anticipation of what would become common in other latitudes over the years, a contingent of the Alianza Nacional Campesino Indígena Emiliano Zapata (Anciez) toppled the statue of the conquistador Diego de Mazariegos, during the march to commemorate 500 years of indigenous, black and popular resistance. From then on, Anciez ceased to act publicly.

Out of the spotlight of the press, major transformations began to take place in the grassroots organizations. More than a few democratic teachers had to leave their schools in the Cañadas (the canyons of the Lacandon Jungle) and moved to teach in other regions. In the assemblies of the cooperatives of small coffee producers, some of their leaders disappeared from the map, only to reappear after the uprising, no longer as coffee growers, but as Zapatistas. Others (many of them young) were absent for some time and returned with a surprising political formation. Several others, usually very active in the assemblies of their associations, visibly tired, stopped intervening in the meetings, while they dozed off leaning on the bundles of aromatic coffee. Later it would be known that they used the nights to train in other activities.

Simultaneously, a number of producers who for years had received loans from Solidaridad to finance their crops and had paid them back religiously, stopped paying them and used the resources for other things. Many sold their cows and pigs, and many stopped planting corn. They were preparing for something big. Meanwhile, the communities voted to declare war on the bad government.

The imminence of the armed uprising was an insistent rumor in Chiapas circles. There was talk that it would be on December 28, Day of the Innocents. It was uncertain whether it would happen, or the magnitude and the form it would take.

The Zapatista cry of Enough is Enough! on January 1, 1994, shook the entire country and reached the most disparate corners of the planet. Its manifestations were as unexpected as they were diverse.

At the height of the conflict, the National Coordination of Coffee Growers’ Organizations (CNOC), with a significant presence in Chiapas, became involved in the search for a peaceful solution to the conflict. Although it was mostly composed of indigenous people, its members did not usually identify themselves as such. But the uprising overturned this dynamic and awakened in them an enormous pride in belonging to the original peoples. In an assembly held in the former Ciudad Real, the teacher Humberto Juárez, a Mazateco president of the organization, unexpectedly began his speech in his language, addressing the attendees as indigenous brothers. The change was remarkable. In the meetings, they usually spoke in Spanish and the small coffee growers referred to themselves as fellow coffee growers. Similar developments were precipitated throughout the country.

Twenty-eight years have passed. Since those dates, the Zapatistas have not only survived. They have also built one of the most amazing and surprising experiences of anti-capitalist self-government and self-management. They have renewed themselves generationally. They are an exceptional countercultural ferment and a source of inspiration for thousands of alter-globalization fighters all over the planet.

Revolution is the old mole that digs deep into the soil of history and sometimes rears its head, said Karl Marx. As happened between 1983 and 1994, many of the transformations that the rebels have driven from below go unnoticed today. Sooner or later, that old mole will surface.

This piece was published originally in Spanish in La Jornada on December 27th, 2022. Translation by Schools for Chiapas.

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  1. A reference to the maquiladoras, factories in Mexico run by foreign companies for export and enormous profit
  2. Initailly Pronasol, a government welfare program used as a counterweight to the devastation of neoliberal policies implemented under Salinas de Gortari and carried forward under subsequent administrations. As with other clientelist programs, it was used to further the power the PRI party in the rural areas.
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