“The Dynamics of Social Change and Mexico’s EZLN”
The purpose of this essay, as stated by the author, is to provide a better understanding of Latin American social movements and to elucidate the apparent confusion and theoretical deadlock surrounding the study of Latin American social movements in the Mexican context. The author analyzes and identifies various forms of struggle and social movements, as they relate to the quest for social justice and political power sought by the peasant and indigenous communities of Chiapas and elsewhere in Mexico. The author attempts to explain the developments that led to and followed the January 1994 uprising of the Ejercito Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (Zapatista National Liberation—EZLN). This violent uprising suddenly shattered the belief on the part of the Mexican ruling that the country had achieved social peace and stability. The author presents two central arguments. First, the Zapatista rebellion served as a catalyst of various forces of opposition and resistance to the Mexican neoliberal project. The second main argument is that the postmodernist/Marxist/modernist view on social movements held by many intellectuals out of touch with the realities of contemporary Mexican society should lead to a fresh rethinking of class analysis.
First, Veltmeyer traces the development of a new social movement: the 1994 Zapatista rebellion. He explains why this movement flourished in Chiapas and not elsewhere in Mexico where similar economic and social conditions prevailed at the time. He sketches the conditions of extreme poverty endured by the Chiapas indigenous population—no access to potable water, lack of sanitary facilities such as drainage, lack of electricity in a third of the households, a 31 percent of illiteracy rate as opposed to the nationwide 13 percent to name only a few. This depth of poverty stands out in a state that accounts for 21 and 47 percent of the country’s oil and natural gas reserves, 35% of its coffee production and 55 percent of its electricity. In part these conditions are the result of institutionalized practices that date back for hundreds of years, while others are the result of the process of transformation of the ruling class of coffee producers and cattle ranchers into capitalists in agroindustry, commerce and transportation. The national government neoliberal economic policies subjected the Chiapas population as that of no other state to the conditions of unemployment and impoverishment generated by the globalization process supported by the the ruling class.
The deregulation of prices and markets caused the coffee economy to collapse and production fell as much as 20%. The production of corn and beans suffered similar drops. With the abandonment of government protective measures such as subsidies and credits, many medium sized enterprises were forced to close their doors in Chiapas as elsewhere in the country/
After tracing the birth of the Zapatista uprising, the author sketches the forms of struggle this social movement pursued in the years following the uprising (1994-1997) .The first form of struggle and perhaps the most effective because of its surprising effect on the country as a whole was the armed struggle. Though its effect weakened after the first few days, it acted as a catalyst unleashing social and political forces of opposition to the neoliberal project. This tactic effectively forced the government not only to acknowledge the demands of the indigenous peoples in Chiapas and elsewhere in the country, but to come to the negotiating table to address these demands. The second form of struggle adopted by the Zapatistas was the perusal of an active unification of indigenous organizations and national democratic movements to form a coalition of organizations and social forces independent of political parties The union of such groups led to the circulation of more than 800 land petition by many indigenous groups. Under pressure from these groups, the government was forced to deal with the Zapatistas, albeit reluctantly and to treat them with respect as the representatives of the indigenous peoples of Chiapas in charge of expressing their demands.
In the last phase of his paper the author describes the class struggles for political justice and power waged by various social groups in alliance with the EZLN. While the most active organizations in the struggle are peasant, the urban political organizational apparatus must not be overlooked in the struggle against the forces of globalization because Mexico is largely an urban nation. Some forces of opposition have sprang from within the established Partido Revolucionario Institucional (Institutional Revolutionary Party—PRI), while the most dynamic and major forces of resistance and opposition have come from movements originated in the rural sector. Many of these forces of opposition, however, have abandoned their goals and fallen into the trap of merging with the established political system, seriously weakening their aims of resistance. The issue for the Zapatistas as pointed out by the author, is what direction to take, for as he adds, the EZLN appears to be evolving in the same direction that many class-based organization did during the 1970’s and 80’s: a departure from direct action leading to social transformation and radical change in order to secure an expansion of space within which to organize and mobilizes its forces of resistance. For this reason the EZLN insists that any power achieved would not take the form of a political party or acceptance of positions that might be offered by the government. The author speculates as to whether the social movement started by the EZLN can avoid the pitfalls into which so many political groups have fallen over the years. According to the author the future of Mexico depends to a large extent on the EZLN ability to avoid these pitfalls in order to continue serving as a catalyst of social change in alliance with other political groups.
The bursting of the EZLN into the Mexican political scene in one of many events of contemporary history reported on the news. However, understanding the importance of this event requires an in-depth understanding of the causes that triggered it. In this respect, the author certainly helps the student of history to understand the political outcomes and achievements of the Zapatista uprising. However, the author does not discuss social movements as they play out in other Latin American countries. After reading the essay the student gains a better understanding of the political struggles and how the EZLN in conjunction with other political groups have exerted pressure on the government to hear their demands for social justice. Yet the theoretical disagreements mentioned at the beginning are hardly dispelled.