During the 1980s and 1990s, Latin America caught up with international economic and political trends. Neoliberalism had become the only alternative, and technocrats — elected thanks to repressive strategies that destroyed left institutions and organized unions — implemented it. These conditions were enacted in a context of rising inequality, where poverty was presented, as a Mexican finance minister declared, as “just a great myth.”
By the early 1990s, backlash to these developments began to build, creating a strong opposition movement. Peasant and indigenous groups animated and sustained a challenge to Mexico’s neoliberalism.
On January 1, 1994, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) declared war on the state. The Zapatistas emerged from the disastrous neoliberal policies that affected all of Latin America. The middle class found itself in an increasingly precarious situation, while the poor not only saw their capacity to subsist severely undermined, but were completely ignored by the government and a significant proportion of society. In his first public appearance, Zapatista leader Subcomandante Marcos affirmed: “We are not interested in public office nor have any kind of political power, we want justice for the indigenous peoples.”
Since the EZLN entered the public sphere, they have never supported a political party. Instead, they focused on antiglobalization and anti-neoliberal social movements and on winning indigenous control over local resources, especially in the Chiapas region.
Before the 2000 presidential election — in which the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI) lost its first election in seventy-one years — the EZLN demurred:
The electoral time is not for the Zapatistas, especially considering the antidemocratic context, one in which the political forums are not working for the bottom, in which the words plebiscite or referendum are just lyrics hard to spell.
The EZLN’s abstentionist position gradually changed. In late 2005, the Zapatistas had developed a clear agenda based on Marxist socialism with some elements of anarchism. This new agenda, named “The Other Campaign,” called for the organization of a large national movement that would transform social relations, develop a national program, and write a new constitution. They urged social movements across Mexico to work together on an initiative to empower people from the bottom up, guided by an anticapitalist ideology and liberated from any registered political party.
Although “The Other Campaign” never called for a boycott against the 2006 election, it harshly criticized the mainstream candidates, including Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the social-democratic candidate who ran under the slogan “the poor first.”
Subcomandante Marcos stated the rebel position on that year’s electoral situation: “As Zapatistas we are not calling to vote or not to vote. As Zapatistas, we are what we do. What you can do is to invite people to be organized, to resist, to fight.”
Felipe Calderón of the conservative National Action Party (PAN) won the election by a .56-percent margin. Federal courts confirmed his victory in September 2006, and he was declared president. Andrés Manuel López Obrador, however, alleged irregularities in over 30 percent of the country’s polling stations, and after an unsuccessful judicial appeal, he continued to call for protests. He reported that the EZLN had guided socialist organizations not to vote for him, indirectly helping Calderón steal the election. Since then, the EZLN and López Obrador, the most iconic left contender in recent Mexican history, have had a tense relationship.
Before the 2012 election, the EZLN used its official magazine, Rebeldía, to dismiss mainstream politics once again. They wrote, the “electoral passion lives only in politicians, breathing far from the people.”
Between January and February 2011, Subcomandante Marcos and intellectual Luis Villoro exchanged four public letters to “try to understand Mexico.” In those documents, Marcos reflected on how capitalism was destroying social cohesion. He also said that the United States and its corporations were winning the war on drugs; meanwhile, for Mexico, “the result was a broken society, a devastated, depopulated, and irretrievably broken nation.”
In 2012, Enrique Peña Nieto was elected, and the PRI has been in power since, boosting neoliberal reforms in education, labor, and energy. In 2011, Marcos had predicted a bleaker outcome: he believed Peña Nieto would intensify the “war against organized crime with its trail of collateral damage.”
For twenty-three years, EZLN kept its promise to seek justice and fight against capitalism without taking state power. But that is about to change.
Time to Attack
On October 14, during the Fifth National Indigenous Congress (CNI) in San Cristóbal de las Casas, the EZLN announced a historic decision: they would support an independent candidate for the presidency in the 2018 elections. After this historic pronouncement Subcomandante Marcos — now called “Galeano” — ended with a short but significant battle cry: “The time has come to attack.”
Although they have not selected a candidate yet, they have announced it will be an indigenous woman, carefully chosen through a democratic process and extensive consultation with all communities. At the end of the conference, the CNI declared that it had decided to “remove the power . . . that only offers a panorama of death, violence, plunder, and destruction.”
The statement went on:
We confirm that our struggle is not for power; rather we are calling upon native peoples and civil society to organize to stop this destruction, to strengthen our resistance and rebellion in defense of the life of each person, each family, collective, community, and neighborhood. To build peace and justice working from below, from where we are what we are.
It is time for rebel dignity, to build a new nation for all people, to strengthen the power of the anticapitalist left, and to make offenders pay for the pain of the people of Mexico.
On January 1, 2017, the National Indigenous Council announced it had created the Indigenous Council of Government (CIG), which will serve as the voice for the 525 indigenous communities in Mexico. In May, the CIG will appoint an indigenous woman as spokesperson, and she will run in the 2018 elections. The platform will be presented after the candidate is announced, but it “will be based on the protection of mother nature, fair wages, universal and free health care, and public, scientific and secular education.”
Even though the Associated Press briefly mentioned the announcement, Mexican mainstream media did not cover the decision at all. Only some progressive publications provided analysis. In truth, people are still skeptical about the true scope and significance of this movement.
The pronouncement raised a firestorm of controversy. López Obrador publicly condemned the Zapatistas. He once again blamed them for his 2006 loss and excoriated them for not supporting him in 2012. Then he insinuated that their leaders were playing the same game as the government, and that the decision to support a candidate proves that the group does not have a real argument. López Obrador claimed that, in the indigenous areas with strong EZLN presence, people voted for the PRI, insisting that he is not afraid of their electoral initiative because “the people will not pay attention” to their candidate.
But López Obrador’s comments are wrong. In any political struggle unity is fundamental, but we cannot let unity be used as an instrument to censor a genuine champion of the Left. Accusing the Zapatistas and the CNI of pandering to the government because they intend to participate in the elections signals arrogance and intolerance.
As Pedro Salmerón, one of the best historians in Latin America, accurately expresses: the neoliberal right will present at least three candidates for the 2018 Presidential Election; if López Obrador — the only leftist candidate from an institutionalized coalition — doesn’t win, we cannot blame an authentic anticapitalist candidate for the outcome.
Data from the electoral map indicates that an indigenous female candidate could have a direct impact on twenty-eight districts where native peoples are dominant. The populations in these districts represent about 1 percent of potential voters.
Nevertheless, the timing of the EZLN’s decision to bring their cause into national affairs one more time is significant. Right now, President Peña Nieto is more concerned about pleasing President Trump than about working for the millions of poor people starving in Mexico.
As Jaime Bailón Corres, one of Mexico’s top experts on indigenous rights, notes, the official language of Peña Nieto’s government — specifically from director-general of the National Commission for the Development of Indigenous Peoples — has returned to the old paternalistic discourse that focuses on combating poverty. This position ignores the constitutional reform on indigenous rights and culture, recognized in 2001, which considers Mexico as a pluricultural society, based on a historical recognition of cultural heterogeneity rather than a monocultural model of society and focuses on equality of rights.
That is why the choice of an indigenous woman to run as an independent candidate represents a turning point in Mexican politics. It would be the first time in Mexico that an armed, socialist group entered the electoral scene. That their candidate will be an indigenous woman is good news for political representation.
This experience may be only the first step in the EZLN becoming a political and electoral alternative that genuinely represents the interests of the most oppressed groups in the country. This situation would not be new in the region: the Movimiento para la Liberación Nacional in Uruguay, the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front in El Salvador, the MR8 in Brazil, and the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia in Colombia — which has been an active electoral force in some regions — have all run candidates for office.
The state’s abandonment of indigenous people has created high rates of marginalization and poverty. According to the 2010 Census, the indigenous population representing 11 percent of the nation, has worse educational indicators — higher rates of illiteracy and lower educational achievement — than any other sector. They also have significantly less access to employment opportunities. This downgrading is not only reflected in economics, but also in political representation: only twenty of the 620 lawmakers in Congress have indigenous roots.
Even if an independent, indigenous woman is unlikely to win, the effort could help construct a national, grassroots movement that can push a range of issues related to indigenous rights back onto the agenda.
In this scenario, the electoral process would take on new gradations. Campaign messages would detail the reality in which indigenous communities live and highlight indigenous and poor people’s demands. But, above all, they would reveal the deep damage that government policies — aligned with savage capitalism and rampant imperialism — have caused, policies that have destroyed indigenous communities for centuries and that most people in Mexico have ignored.
The fact that the Zapatistas have proven experience in electing and ruling at the local level is evidence of the capacities of state transformation and the possibility of gaining political control at the national level. Now that the EZLN appears to see electoral participation as a site of resistance, organization, and struggle, we have great opportunity to democratize social and state institutions. Placing the anticapitalist left in the center of national politics could have a tremendous impact on the way people and governments prioritize public policies.
Discussion over this move should not focus on splitting votes against the neoliberal consensus government. A united movement against capitalism and imperialism should not exclude, but instead involve, many local fronts with democratic and electoral goals.
The alliances that the Zapatistas would have to enter would need to be guided at new working-class groups of the broadest kind, rather than liberal urban elites. It would offer the opportunity to present genuine radical ideas to the people. If there is anything to learn from electoral politics around the globe in recent years, it is that the ideology of moderation is in a state of collapse.
The style and culture of the radical left in Mexico has been historically shaped by intellectuals living in urban areas. They are a growing and diverse group; often they hail from modest backgrounds. But their priorities, rhetoric, and outlook is often radically different from rural and indigenous working-class people in small towns, most of them living in extreme poverty.
That must change. Unless the Mexican left is rooted in working-class communities, unless it speaks a language that resonates with working-class values or priorities, then it has no political future. A large coalition based in class is critical to build a victorious campaign.
The Zapatista movement’s electoral turn presents an opportunity to do just that. There is no other faction which can present a class-based program defending all exploited groups in the country, fighting against sexism, racism, homophobia, and at the same time oppose the neoliberal interests which have made the Mexican state into one that actively works to spread poverty throughout the country.
Ultimately, Mexican society in general, and the indigenous people in particular, will decide whether this path is useful for transforming the country. If an indigenous female candidate can unify the discontent of the lower and middle class in a coherent voice of equality, opportunities and rights for all, she will surely be a contender for the presidency.
The Zapatistas’ electoral campaign offers an opportunity to transfer political power to the streets, schools, factories, and rural areas — far from the presidential offices in downtown Mexico City.