OVENTIC, Mexico – Thousands of people gathered in a southern Mexico rebel bastion on Wednesday to mark the 20th anniversary of the Zapatista movement’s New Year’s Day uprising.
“It is time to strengthen and globalize the resistence and rebellion,” Comandante Hortensia told the crowd at a midnight ceremony in Oventic, a stronghold of the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) where people celebrated with song and dance.
Led by the masked subcomandante Marcos, the EZLN emerged in the mountains of Chiapas state on January 1, 1994, sparking a 12-day conflict with the federal government that left dozens of people dead.
A peace pact was signed in 1996 but the Zapatistas’ demand of autonomy for their indigenous communities was never met.
The EZLN has since retreated into their mountain communities where they formed their own autonomous systems covering more than 30 towns, while Marcos has shunned the media.
Chiapas, meanwhile, remains Mexico’s poorest state, with poverty affecting three-quarters of the population.
Commander Hortensia said the EZLN is striving to improve health care, education and government in their communities, which lacked these basic services 20 years ago.
“Our struggle has a just cause and our weapons are resistence, rebellion, truth, justice and reason, which is on our side,” the rebel leader said after the crowd sang the national anthem. “But Zapatistas must work and organize ourselves more. It’s not just about resistence anymore, but organizing the resistence at all levels.”
Taking its name from 1910 revolution hero Emiliano Zapata, the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) appeared the same day that the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) came into force.
Many in Mexico at the time desperately feared free trade with the United States would crush traditional lifestyles and farming. But the emergence of thousands of leftist rebels on New Year’s Day 1994 caught the government of then-President Carlos Salinas de Gortari off guard, leading to the brief conflict.
Twenty years later, Mexico boasts a thriving manufacturing sector and a growing middle-class fueled by massive trade with the United States and Canada under NAFTA.
An old enemy of Marcos – the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) that was ousted in 2000 after ruling Mexico for 71 years like a single-party state – returned to power in 2012.
The new president, Enrique Peña Nieto, has pledged to lead a new, democratic PRI, even launching his “Crusade Against Hunger” campaign in Chiapas.
But despite the gains from NAFTA, Latin America’s second biggest economy remains mired in massive poverty affecting almost half of 118 million Mexicans.
The Zapatistas say the government has failed to fulfill the promises of the peace pact, including land rights, housing, employment and education as well as legal autonomy.
In 2001, the Congress passed a reform to give indigenous communities more rights. But the legislation lacked the autonomy demanded by the EZLN, leading the Zapatistas to suspend dialogue with the government.
Tired of waiting for the government, the Zapatistas have created their own autonomous justice, health and education systems in five “caracoles,” or shells, that oversee more than 30 communities.
Jaime Martínez Velóz, the government’s commissioner for Dialogue with Indigenous People, said he was confident Peña Nieto’s administration would revive the reform in 2014 to grant them the autonomy they want.
“The root causes of the conflict are the same, and we are convinced that they must be addressed by the Mexican state,” Martínez told AFP.
Marcos, meanwhile, stayed out of the spotlight again, releasing a missive last week declaring: “In December 2013, it is just as cold as 20 years ago, and today, like back then, the same flag protects us: that of rebellion.”