With continued ability to surprise, Subcomandante Marcos, the enigmatic, masked spokesperson of the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (EZLN), announced this week in a communiqué his final words. The message was that he would cease to exist and that the chief spokesperson of the EZLN henceforth is Subcomandante Insurgente Moisés. The communiqué, entitled ‘Between Light and Shade’, is the latest crucial statement on the struggle of the Zapatistas and offers a glimpse into some of the key transformations of the movement. It also raises a number of questions. Has Marcos stood down from the EZLN? What is evolving in terms of the Zapatistas’ struggle for autonomy, for dignity, for indigenous rights, and for humanity against neoliberalism?

As context, the Juntas de Buen Gobierno (JBG) in Chiapas have been under increased pressure, accumulated over a number of years, from incursions by paramilitaries leading to disappearances, murders, and silences. Notably this included the brutal assassination of Zapatista activist, José Luis Solís López, or compañero Galeano, a teacher from the autonomous community of La Realidad, in May 2014, as well as the wounding of 15 other Zapatista rebels by the Independent Centre of Agricultural Workers and Campesinos – Historical (CIOAC-H). Rather than an isolated occurrence, the actions of the CIOAC-H reflect a series of attacks on the Zapatistas by campesino organisations with ties to the government. Significantly, Subcomandante Insurgente Moisés, prior to Marcos’ speech, insisted that the rage felt by the communities must be channelled, not against the individual perpetrators of this crime, but the structures of power that supported their action.

The May 24 statement from Marcos delves into this backdrop to reiterate the Zapatista commitment to a new form of territorial politics and autonomous organising in rejecting the old geographies of state power. Most recently, there has been the initiative of the Escuelitas Zapatista (Little Zapatista Schools), launched in August/December 2013 and January 2014, that aims to strengthen the communities of support in the face of state-backed paramilitaries by furthering autonomous education initiatives. Hence, in the communiqué, Marcos refers to the ‘war from above’ – the death, destruction, dispossession, and exploitation of Power – in contrast to attempts to reconstruct life from below that have been the Zapatista project. Rather than build militarily, the Zapatistas have therefore chosen the option to reconstruct life with an emphasis on turning ‘toward who we are, toward those who are what we are’ – the indigenous people of Chiapas, Mexico. To quote at length:

rather than dedicating ourselves to training guerrillas, soldiers and squadrons, we developed education and health promoters, who went about building the foundations of autonomy that today amaze the world. Instead of constructing barracks, improving our weapons, and building walls and trenches, we built schools, hospitals and health centres; improving our living conditions.

In organising territory and counter-spaces of resistance on the basis of ‘rule by obeying’ (mandar obedeciendo), Marcos also highlights the multiple and complex changes within the EZLN. There has been a generational change or handoff but also, importantly, changes in class membership within the movement linked to the centrality of indigenous peasants; race involving a shift to purely indigenous leadership rather than mestizo membership; a change in thinking from revolutionary vanguardism to ‘rule by obeying’; a change from taking ‘Power Above’ to the creation of ‘power from below’; and the inclusion of gender issues and the direct participation of women and the celebration of difference (compañero, campañera, compañeroas) in transforming everyday life.

Equally, though, there is a clear statement on the role and purpose of the Clandestine Revolutionary Indigenous Committee (CCRI), or joint command of the EZLN. As Marcos states:

We have not hidden the fact that we are an army, with its pyramidal structure, its central command, its decisions hailing from above to below. We didn’t deny what we are in order to ingratiate ourselves with the libertarians or to move with the trends.

Sub o no sub

Rocha, ‘Sub o no sub’ [La Jornada, 27 May 2014]

But there is clarification in that the army is intended not to impose but supplant: the EZLN’s ‘violence of below’ was central to tackling the ‘violence of above’ from state power. At the same time, it is acknowledged that the character of Subcomandante Marcos has become less of a spokesperson and more a distraction from the movement and its wider accomplishments. Dissatisfaction across quarters sympathetic to the movement has touched on the fact that for a good few years, since the Sixth Declaration of the Lacandón Jungle (La Sexta) in 2005, the character of Marcos has been too overshadowing. This character, the communiqué argues, has always been nothing but a colourful ruse, or hologram, that has not been necessary to the Zapatista movement for some time. Hence the handoff being announced as something that emerges in accordance with changes internal to the EZLN and planned long in advance.

There is also a riposte to critics on the orthodox left who have not forgiven the Zapatistas for their lack of support for Andrés Manuel López Obrador during the 2006 Presidential campaign and post-election dispute, or else have urged the movement to engage in more institutional forms of politics. To the charge that the Zapatistas are no longer significant and that the movement is a failure, Marcos retorts:

If being consistent is a failure, then inconsistency is the path to success, the route to Power. But we do not want to go there. It does not interest us. Within those parameters, we prefer to fail than to succeed.

And what are those above mentioned changes? Forthwith, as indicated earlier, the chief spokesperson of the EZLN is now Subcomandante Insurgente Moisés, again something in the planning for some time. Further, it is declared that the ‘character’ Subcomandante Marcos ceases to exist, for today ‘it is necessary for one of us to die so that Galeano lives’. The direct words are subtle: ‘he who is known as Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos . . . ceases to exist . . . Through my voice the Zapatista Army of National Liberation no longer speaks’.

One is left, then, with the conclusion that what we are witnessing is the birth of Subcomandante Galeano. This would not be the first time Marcos has adopted a different persona/character, becoming Delegate Zero during the 2006 Otra Campaña. This current change however is clearly more significant. Meanwhile, a basic tenet of Zapatismo is reiterated towards the end of the communiqué by the outgoing character Subcomandante Marcos: ‘don’t sell out, don’t give in, don’t give up’ [no venderse, no rendirse, no claudicar]. As Roger Peet’s block print ‘Aqui Seguimos’, accompanying this blog post similarly indicates, the Zapatistas don’t sell out, don’t surrender, but rather they remain and continue. The image of the pasamontañas on a washing line sums up the persistence and endurance of the Zapatista communities and their new spatial forms of governance within the autonomous communities of Chiapas.

The immediate headlines both in Mexico and around the world following the communiqué have been about Subcomandante Marcos stepping down from the EZLN. Whether Marcos, sorry Galeano, really is about to hang out his pasamontaña for good remains to be seen. However, the reality in La Realidad, and the other territories of the Zapatistas is that their collective struggle for dignity and justice continues. A less sensational headline but perhaps the more remarkable story.

Please note the image ‘Aqui Seguimos’ appears here courtesy of the artist Roger Peet.

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