Zapatismo Has an Impact on Latin American Processes of Autonomy: Raúl Zibechi

Text: Daliri Oropeza Alvarez
Photos: Pedro Anza and Isabel Mateos

Photo: Pedro Anza

29 years after the EZLN uprising, journalist and popular educator Raúl Zibechi takes stock of the relevance of Zapatismo of Chiapas in Latin America’s social and indigenous movements and the processes they are currently undergoing in the face of progressive governments.

MEXICO CITY – Raúl Zibechi is a popular educator, journalist and writer who lives in Montevideo, Uruguay, where he has his library, when he is not traveling in Latin America. He is part of the Desinformémonos team, and collaborates in several media such as La Jornada, Gara or Brecha, a media created by Mario Benedetti and Eduardo Galeano.

Zibechi is a reference for the analysis of anti-capitalist movements. For him, the important thing about the uprising of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation in 1994 and what has been built in these 29 years in Chiapas is “to show that it is a possible path,” when speaking of autonomy.

He takes stock of the Zapatista Journey to Europe, the solidarity and the horizons it opens in Latin America for social movements. At the same time, he talks about the social context with the progressive governments for the indigenous movements, “they embody a possibility and at the same time a risk,” he assures in an interview.

He gives an overview of how progressive governments have amongst their ranks people who come from the struggles, and this implies a risk for social or indigenous movements.

The journalist has closely followed the process of Pueblos Unidos, Nahua communities that united for water in the Cholulteca region of Puebla, who shut down a Bonafont plant and managed to recover water from their own wells.

There, in the closed Bonafont plant, he gave workshops and presented books. Although they were evicted, Zibechi returned in 2022 to present his book, Mundos Otros y Pueblos en Movimiento, Other Worlds and Peoples In Movement: Debates on anti-colonialism and transition in Latin America.

In an interview, he describes how the processes of dispossession, whether by corporations or States, provoke division among indigenous peoples or social organizations, and speaks of avoiding conflict, in light of the difficulty of recovering the social fabric.

He asserts that we cannot forget that the subjects of decolonization are the peoples. He stresses that it is important to think collectively, and that is what Zapatismo has excelled in, in the act of simultaneous doing-reflecting.

He gives this interview from Montevideo, where he participates in a movement called Mercado Popular de Subsistencia (People’s Subsistence Market), a collective of 53 hubs in networks dedicated to the community purchase and distribution of food that they buy from recovered factories, from peasants directly, or from production cooperatives.

MARGARITAS, CHIAPAS, DECEMBER 31, 2018. Members of the General Command and the Good Government Councils, support bases and social organizations, joined the celebration of the 25th anniversary of the insurrection of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation, the event was held in the Zapatista Caracol “La Realidad”. PHOTO: PEDRO ANZA /CUARTOSCURO.COM.
The uprising and its contagion

—At 29 years, Why is it important to remember the Zapatista uprising?

It’s important because it marks a turning point in Latin America and in the world. But let’s stay in Latin America, at a time when real socialism had fallen. Between 1989 and 1991 there was an implosion of Soviet and Eastern European socialism and no social changes were in sight.

In the world there was a complete triumph of neoliberal capitalism. The ‘Consensus of Commodities’, as an Argentine sociologist calls it. On the one hand, and on the other hand, the protagonism of the native peoples, in this case the peoples of Mayan roots, marks an inflection in what used to be the previous struggles, they placed autonomy in a prominent place. The building of autonomies instead of the struggle for state power.

These two elements mark already in 1994 the emergence of a revolutionary force, and at the same time, the collective subjects that sustain them: the original peoples.

—How does the Zapatista uprising impact or benefit social movements in Latin America today?

—In Latin America Zapatismo had a very strong influence in the first years, logically. Later that impact changed in its intensity but today, now that almost 30 years have passed since “Ya Basta! (Enough is Enough!),” we have in Latin America, including Mexico, a great number of autonomous experiences… which I wouldn’t describe as daughters of Zapatismo, but that are following similar paths.

We see the Mapuche People or the different variations of the Mapuche People in the south of Chile, in the south of Argentina; Nasa and Nasa in the south of Colombia, in Cauca; the birth of two autonomous territorial governments in the north of Peru of the peoples: Wallmapu and Wampis, which have been formed in the last six, seven years, in 2015 the Wampis, in 2021 the Wallmapu.

Twenty to 28 autonomous processes in the Brazilian legal autonomous demarcation of territories in Amazonía; processes such as those of Cherán in Mexico; processes such as those of Guerrero and those of Oaxaca, some of which already came from before, such as the community autonomies of Oaxaca, but which were empowered in this period of the 90s and took their own paths, naturally.

Zapatismo has an impact on the processes of autonomy, it does not direct them, far from it, because that is not its objective, and furthermore, autonomy does not allow others to direct you, does it? Autonomy is autonomy, absolutely. So everyone takes their own paths.

We also have autonomy and processes of urban autonomous construction more or less known in different parts of the world and Latin America. And this seems to me to be very important: to create and confirm that we are in a process in which there is not only a part of the left and the movements that bet on the conquest of state power, but there is another part that sometimes collaborates or not, or remains at a distance. But then there is another part of that left, from below, that struggles for autonomy.

Something similar happens in the women’s movement, in one part they are more attached to state initiatives, and in another part more linked to autonomy projects or autonomy processes. Something similar happens among the peasants, among the black peoples who are at this moment, both in Brazil and in Colombia, in processes of expansion of their initiatives.

—We could say, then, that the uprising of the EZLN in 1994 and what was built as a result of Zapatismo, is a kind of trigger to make visible or announce these autonomies, which were already there, and to spread them?

—Yes, for those that were already there, and also to spread it to others that did not exist and to show that it is a possible path.

I do want to emphasize that what you call a trigger or a driver of these processes, is but not in relation to direction; there is no one who directs these processes because the autonomies are naturally self-directed, right?

Looking at Latin America

It has already been a year since the Zapatista Journey for Life where two delegations: one maritime, one aerial traveled to another geography which is Europe. What horizons does this experience open up in Latin America?

—I participated in exile in the 80s during the Uruguayan dictatorship in Europe, from the Spanish State, in processes of internationalist solidarity.

What the Zapatista tour does is to provoke a change in the political culture of solidarity. Not to provoke. To show that another culture of solidarity is possible, because I remember in my life it was leaders, especially of the Central American guerrillas, who visited Europe; commanders, to meet with European political leaders. It was always based on fundraising, wasn’t it, on material support?

In this case what we have is: women, especially men, girls and boys from communities and peoples with Mayan roots who visit another continent and meet with other people from below in Europe.

It shows that another type of link is possible, another type of relationship that does not go through the ways of the old political culture and is, to say it in a metaphorical way, an embrace between individuals and peoples from below. This is important because it also sends a different message that it is possible and necessary to forge another political culture even in international relations.

This was left there, and then people picked it up. I think it is interesting to point out that there are other ways and that they were shown. Other ways of doing solidarity, I call it political culture but there is no reason to call it that. Everyone calls things as they see fit.

AUSTRIA, September 14, 2021 – The extemporaneous delegation of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) arrived at Vienna International Airport. In the plane traveled 103 Zapatistas, including men, women and children, from Mexico City.
Photo: Isabel Mateos Hinojosa /

—Now there are more countries with progressive governments in Latin America, what does this mean for indigenous movements on the one hand and for social movements on the other?

—Well, you know that I am very critical of progressive governments. The ones I am most familiar with, logically, are those of the Southern Cone: Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Chile… they embody a possibility and at the same time a risk.

The progressive government of Gabriel Boric sent to Wallmapu, Mapuche territory, more armored vehicles and more soldiers than the neoliberal government of Piñera, militarized Wallmapu, so that shows the risk, doesn’t it, of the militarization of indigenous territories?

In his time, Lula, in his first two administrations, advanced an enormous infrastructure project of Belo Monte, the third largest dam, an initiative that not even the military of the Brazilian dictatorship from 1964 to 1985 could carry out due to the opposition of the Amazonian peoples, of the original indigenous peoples of the Amazon.

One says: Is Lula or Bolsonaro better? Obviously I prefer Lula to Bolsonaro, but this cannot obscure the enormous risks that the existence of progressive governments that have a strong presence in the movements represents. For the movements there is a risk, because many of them have been with the peoples, many of their cadres, especially in the media, have participated in the struggles of the peoples and when they go to the government, they take that knowledge to the government, so they can work better with them.

Now Lula is going to create the Ministry of the Original Peoples, of the Indigenous Peoples, because they were the spearhead of the struggle or of the resistance to Bolsonaro. There is already a whole mechanism created so that the leaders of a good part of these peoples are inserted in the ministerial structure, which will undoubtedly weaken the struggle and the organization of the peoples.

There are lights and there are shadows, and the shadows for the movements, for the indigenous peoples, are very great risks because once a people, once an organization is inserted into the institutions and co-opted by them, it is very difficult to recover autonomy.

Recovering Social Fabrics

“There are lights and there are shadows, and the shadows for the movements, for the indigenous peoples, are very great risks because once a people, once an organization is inserted into the institutions and co-opted by them, it is very difficult to recover autonomy.”

—What a panorama! There is a concern expressed by several indigenous peoples about the division caused by voracious capitalism or by governments, by dispossession. What alternatives do the social or indigenous movements have in the face of what you were talking about, the use of codes of struggle by progressive governments, in the face of division?

—I have no alternatives. What I see at a more macro level is that the ruling classes of the world and the international corporations have learned a lot from the peoples.

There we have the case of Soros and the Color Revolutions1, which are in so many places that one has doubts. We will not know if it is a legitimate movement, or if it is a movement that began as legitimate, whether you agree with it or not, but then it was manipulated by the media and the right wing. Something like this happened in Brazil in June 2013.

A mining corporation, for example, arrives in Peru or Ecuador, or in any country: Argentina, Chile, regardless of the government, arrives in a community and offers that community “aid” for schools, for sports centers, for a number of initiatives. What is its objective? To neutralize criticism of the mining project.

So the result is the one you mentioned: a division is promoted in the communities, because of the intelligence acquired by the large corporations: the mining companies, Monsanto, the soybean companies, etc., and a process of division of the struggles begins because there are always people in the communities who, even without bad intentions, see that the presence of this mining company or this international company is favorable to their interests.

This division inevitably weakens the struggle, the resistance. So what I believe is that we are facing a period in which capitalism, the teachings of capitalism, have managed to generate widespread confusion among the popular sectors and communities, and in this confusion, the extractive projects are deepening and accelerating, and this is very difficult to reverse.

The only way to reverse this is with a great deal of patience. With a lot of acceptance that the community is divided and that they are not good and bad. Sometimes there are some people bought by power, there is no doubt about that. But you cannot simplify between good guys and bad guys. What ends up happening is a situation in which the collective fabric of the communities ends up being damaged, torn.

And repairing that fabric is not at all easy. Sometimes it can’t be done. Sometimes it takes a long time. But in any case, confrontation must be avoided, because except for a very small minority of people who obtain positions or money, this division cannot be judged because what is at work are very strong powers.

—In your recent book, “Other Worlds and Peoples in Movement,” you place the peoples as collective subjects of knowledge and critical potential, as a subject within history with an emancipatory potential. How does Zapatismo fall within this proposed history?

—In this book I try to show,  to acknowledge one: that decolonization or decoloniality, as the academy maintains, has subjects that are the peoples, who are collective subjects.

Because sometimes in the academy it would seem that there is a lot of confusion, as everywhere, which is not anything special. But what one can see is that it is not clear in the writings of academics who the subjects of decolonization are. And they are the people.

That is an important first theoretical question, because otherwise the peoples would be the object of study, and I believe that they are collective subjects in thought and action.

And the second is to show how in this completely new period, as Immanuel Wallerstein says, we are sailing seas for which there are no maps, because we are in a systemic crisis of capitalism, of neoliberalism, and facing a civilizational crisis that includes environmental and other facets.

The peoples, unlike the old workers’ movement, are at the same time resisting the model but creating anew in health, in education, in justice, and not just in Chiapas.

I believe that Zapatismo does both things: creating a new world and reflecting on it. It has both facets, and in that sense it shows an important advantage because, although I believe that the creation of a “we” is already the heritage of many native peoples, blacks, peasants and even urban peripheries in Latin America, deep reflection on this is not yet the legacy of all movements.

But yes, this is where Zapatismo has stood out: in doing and reflecting, in reflecting on what we do, and this is very important because we need to think collectively in order to continue growing.

This interview was originally published in Pie de Página on December 31st, 2022. English interpretation by Schools for Chiapas.

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  1. Color Revolutions refer to electoral transformation, electoral “revolutions” and post-electoral popular uprisings taking place in the post communist world. These “tranformations, ” lauded and fostered by the U.S. are perceived as a mechanism to maintain U.S. hegemony, and attributed to meddling by billionaires like George Soros. Layers of disinformation abound.
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