A decade on, the Zapatistas still inspire resistance, writes Mike Gonzalez.
In January 1994, some new and unexpected faces joined the public gallery of political images. Actually, the faces were barely visible - just the eyes through the slits in the woollen balaclavas they wore. The Zapatistas, unknown warriors from the Mexican south, had stolen the thunder of the three presidents meeting to announce the North American Free Trade Area (NAFTA) to the world's press corps. But their slick Armani suits made very boring pictures compared with the rough blankets and open sandals of the guerrilla fighters of Chiapas.
That was ten years ago. Today the indigenous communities of the Lacandon forest of Chiapas are still resisting, still surviving the relentless siege of the Mexican state whose armies have them surrounded. Their villages still lack water and electricity; their children still rarely get beyond primary school. And yet from time to time they break out of the siege. Three years ago, a procession of cars and buses carried them slowly through the southern states to the capital, Mexico City, a thousand miles from Chiapas.
The spokespeople of the communities spoke in the vast square built on the ruins of the Aztec capital and then addressed a Mexican congress which agreed to their demands for Indian rights. When they returned, of course, the arguments and compromises began - and the undertakings the politicians had given were gradually whittled away.
Once again, the Zapatista National Liberation Front had broken from its encirclement - and demonstrated to the world and the Mexican poor that it existed. The convoy that took the Zapatistas and their leader, the enigmatic pipe-smoking mestizo, Subcomandante Marcos, was accompanied along its route by the white overalls of the Tutti Bianchi.
In a remote corner of Mexico, communities who speak more than 30 obscure indigenous languages have come to symbolise a political alternative. It is a paradox. They are isolated and besieged. Since their rebellion began early in 1994, they have remained in their corner of Chiapas. Across Mexico and beyond solidarity committees were instantly formed, and there was a rising expectation that these unlikely revolutionaries would open a new chapter in the struggle for a better world.
Ya Basta was just one of the organisations formed to carry their message and their model to a movement waiting for a new direction. Although the Zapatistas, poor as they were, had very little power compared, say, with the combined forces of organised trade unionists, they seemed to have an enormous moral authority behind them. Excited commentators in Europe and north America proclaimed that this was 'the first postmodern revolution'. And when the internet flickered into life and started to bring messages from out of the south, that seemed to confirm their optimism.
The idea of postmodern revolution was a contradiction, of course. If, as the postmodernists suggested, we dealt only with the pallid reflection of reality, the shadows projected onto a video wall, then revolution was simply another illusion. And the mystery deepened when the daily bombardment of the thoughts of Subcomandante Marcos sped across cyberspace. How could you contain a revolution that was trapped inside a military circle, yet could have a constant dialogue with the world?
In the first year of the rebellion, Marcos offered an equally perplexing answer to the question of revolution. He seemed to thrive on paradox. How could we take power from those forces in Mexico City and beyond who were responsible for the poverty and despair of the Zapatista communities? How could the inspiration of that January rebellion materialise on the other fronts of struggle that were appearing every day, from the factories of South Korea to the villages of the Bolivian highlands?
The answer came from Marcos at first, until his place was taken by a beetle of uncertain origin called Don Durito. His enigmatic pronouncements and inscrutable pearls of wisdom seemed rooted in a different set of concerns. We can take power without taking power, Marcos suggested. There was universal laughter. It was a beautiful trick played on the military masters of the world wide web.
In one sequence of Don Durito's fables were to be found the solutions that the global movement of resistance had searched for since the fall of the Berlin Wall. We would use their technology to announce a refusal to speak their language. It seemed a perfect formula for avoiding the corruptions of Stalinism, the endless squabbling of the sect, the vexed problem of leadership that plagued a movement that yearned for equality and community.
What could be more powerful than a beetle in cyberspace! And yet, Don Durito never left Chiapas. The wisdom of the Lacandon forest proved too hard to translate into a wider world.
Ten years on, the Masters of War have failed to put out the flame that was lit by an indigenous rising in a remote corner of Mexico. But if it has stayed alive, it is because other fires were started, one after another, across the world; and because, as the struggle spreads, we will challenge the power of the global system. That is the only way to release Don Durito from the prison of cyberspace.