The Zapatistas of Mexico have not gone away. And they have much to teach us in the United States.
Visiting the city of San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, on New Year's Day, I was lucky to witness an extraordinary event.
Thousands of indigenous people, men and women, adults and children, some wearing the traditional clothing of the Maya people of the region, most wearing the black ski masks emblematic of Mexico's Zapatista National Liberation Army (whose Spanish initials are EZLN), marched en masse into the city square.
The rally there, featuring speeches by EZLN leaders, marked the 12th anniversary of the uprising that first brought the group to international attention. It also touched off the beginning of a national tour the organization hopes will help build a new kind of democracy "from below."
The Zapatista caravan intends to visits all 31 states of Mexico and the federal district on a six-month tour ending up in Tijuana, some 2,500 miles from Chiapas. The group calls the tour, which coincides with the country's national presidential campaign, the "other campaign."
For the Zapatistas, however, the campaign is not a sideshow to the presidential elections. It is a challenge to the entire Mexican political class, which they view as promoting the interests of large corporations at the expense of Mexico's workers and peasant farmers, and especially at the expense of the country's indigenous people.
The Zapatistas are fiercely critical of the turn toward free-market, free-trade policies on the part of Mexico's main political parties, the Revolutionary Institutional Party (PRI), which ruled Mexico continually for more than 70 years, and the pro-business National Action Party (PAN), the current ruling party.
These policies, the Zapatistas say in a new manifesto, have left "many Mexicans destitute, like peasants and small producers, because they are 'gobbled up' by the big agro-industrial companies" while urban workers face factory closures, with the only alternative being low-paid work in the maquiladoras opened by multinational corporations. To the Zapatistas, this is the fullest expression of an economic system that generates wealth for the few while sowing poverty, inequality and exploitation for the many.
The Zapatistas practice a different kind of politics. In the areas of Chiapas where the EZLN is strong, they have not simply governed on their own authority, but have largely stepped back and allowed indigenous "autonomous communities" to decide how to govern themselves. Nor has the EZLN sought power through the ballot, in order to govern on behalf of the people. They have repeatedly submitted their decisions to popular ballot, an approach they call "leading by obeying," but they have not sought office.
The message of the Zapatistas is that there is more to politics than just electioneering, and that the people should not be satisfied with leaders who care about them only when they are looking for votes. People can take power and change the conditions of their own lives, collectively, the Zapatistas argue, without relying on politicians to do it for them.
That is a message with more than a passing relevance to the United States, where we often reduce politics to nothing more than elections, and where election campaigns rarely deal seriously with the blights, such as poverty and racism, which vex our society as they do Mexico's. We would do well to take to heart the Zapatistas' message: "We believe that a people which does not watch over its leaders is condemned to be enslaved, and we fought to be free, not to change masters every six years."
Alejandro Reuss is a doctoral candidate in economics at UMass-Amherst and an associate of Dollars & Sense magazine. He was born in Santiago, Chile, and has a graduate degree in Latin American history from Tufts University. He can be reached at email@example.com.