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The Roots Of Global Revolt: The 20th Anniversary Of NAFTA & Zapitistas

Zapata Vive: 20 Years of Globalizing Liberation

“Cheers, and here’s to celebrating our birthdays very happily, which is to say, in struggle.” –Subcomandante Marcos

It’s the 20 year anniversary of the January 1, 1994 Zapatista uprising and I’m looking back on the last two decades with gratitude to the people in communities in Chiapas whose thoughtful rebellion opened up a hopeful new political space in the world and a new cycle of movements. I’m also grateful to amazing comrades I have had the honor to collaborate with in the last two decades of furthering the rebellion begun in Chiapas in North America and beyond; Direct Action Network and global justice comrades, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, Occupy, Idle No More and friends in Bolivia, Argentina and everywhere.


I love Marcos’ description of the struggle we are locked in for the future of our communities and planet: “…two projects of globalization are in dispute. The one from above globalizes conformity, cynicism, stupidity, war, destruction, death and amnesia. And the one from below globalizes rebellion, hope, creativity, intelligence, imagination, life, memory and building a world where many worlds fit.” As I look toward continuing battles around tar sands and climate change, around foreclosures, the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), migration and economic justice and against wars and militarism,  I realize how profoundly the Zapatistas have contributed to the way so many of us in the US and around the planet organize, think and struggle.


Zapatista 20 yearsIt’s been 20 years to the day–January 1, 1994– since NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement) was imposed on the people of Canada, the US and Mexico. NAFTA was a kind of template for corporate globalization–or corporate rule– treaties to come. Public Citizens’ “NAFTA at 20” report is headlined, “One Million U.S. Jobs Lost, Mass Displacement and Instability in Mexico, Record Income Inequality, Scores of Corporate Attacks on Environmental and Health Laws”

It’s been exactly 20 years since the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional or EZLN) arose in the indigenous communities of Mexico’s southern state of Chiapas (after ten years of organization/movement building). They declared NAFTA “a death sentence for the indigenous people of Mexico” and rose up on the first day that NAFTA went into effect, January 1, 1994.  Raúl Zibechi wrote a great article today about what was kicked off that on that day writing:

“For the past twenty years since the Zapatista uprising on January 1st, 1994, social movements in Latin America have championed one of the most intense and extensive cycles of struggle in the world. Ever since the 1989 Caracazo, uprisings, insurrections and mobilizations have encompassed the whole region, delegitimized the neoliberal model, and recognized those from below — organized into movements — as central actors of social change. The rebellion begun in Chiapas would spread.” 

Exactly one year later, January 1, 1995 the World Trade Organization (WTO)—a brainchild of the annual ruling class World Economic Forum– was officially launched from out of the post-WWII General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs (GATT). The WTO was a bold new globalization-from-above scheme by corporations and wealthy governments–the global 1%–to remove any local or national regulation or limitations on turning every corner of the world into their giant sweatshop, spread Walmartization, and speculative capitalist casino.


People's global resistanceAt the same time our Zapatista-catalyzed globalization-from-below was emerging. The “Peoples Global Action (PGA)” network came out of the Zapatista-initiated series of “Encuentros,” (encounters) held first in Chiapas and then across the planet. This network coordinated resistance against the WTO and “free trade” globalization treaties and institutions. It was this network that began to mobilize worldwide resistance to the WTO and the G8 in 1998 and 1999 with unprecedented global days of action and coordinated street parties. Two folks from the Direct Action Network (that had begun to mobilize for a mass direct action shutdown of the WTO) went to the PGA coordinating meeting in Bangalore, India in August of 1999 and received the support of PGA for the WTO shutdown mobilization and the mobilization roadshow, convergence and skills workshops leading up to it. New York City activists organized a re-painted school bus caravan across the US to the WTO in Seattle, full of PGA activists from across the globe.

“The WTO protests were the Chiapas insurrection come to [North] America. Like the Zapatista netwar, the conflict was one of civil society networks versus markets.” wrote Paul de Armand in Black Flag Over Seattle, his amazing analysis of the 1999 direct action street confrontations and network organizing in Seattle.

WTO 1999For many of us inspired by Zapatismo, the Seattle WTO shutdown was our attempt to translate it into terms of our own location (inside the cab of the bulldozer called neoliberalism) and communities. Tens of thousands of people from across the US, Canada and around the world rose up against the WTO’s meeting in Seattle. We shut it down with mass nonviolent direct action and sustained street resistance all week in the face of martial law, police and national guard violence, arrests, teargas, pepper spray and rubber bullets. By the end of the week representatives of the governments of poor countries, emboldened by the street protests and under pressure from movements at home, rebelled and the talks collapsed. People across the globe took action in solidarity. In India thousands of farmers in Karnataka marched to Bangalore and over a thousand villagers from Anja (Narmada Valley) held a procession. Thousands took to the streets in the Philippines, Pakistan, France, UK, Portugal, across Europe, the United States and Canada. In 80 different French cities 75,000 people took to the streets and 800 miners clashed with police. In Italy the headquarters of the National Committee for Biosafety was occupied.


The next WTO Ministerial meeting (which occurs every 2 years) was held in November 2001 in the capitol city of Doha in the authoritarian country of Qatar, in an effort to escape the street heat of global movements. In the wake of September 11 attacks, the rich countries arm-twisted an agreement to a framework to keep talking–called the “Doha Round.” But, the 2003 WTO Ministerial in Cancun, Mexico collapsed under the pressure of global social movements. In Hong Kong in 2005 the WTO was fighting to merely survive as Asian movements filled the streets and followed Korean farmers and workers through police lines. The WTO continues to struggle just to survive; at their most recent Ministerial meeting in Bali the Our World in Not for Sale network summarized, “That avoiding a total meltdown has been touted as a breakthrough just shows how delegitimate the corporate-led model of trade liberalization embodied by the WTO has become.”

Because the WTO has failed to be the vehicle to impose corporate globalization on the planet, the global 1% has turned to smaller multi-lateral corporate globalization treaties. The “Free Trade Area of the Americas” was pushed on North, South and Central America after the failure of the WTO in Seattle, but confronted with mass movement opposition, went down in failure. Now we are facing the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement–a secretive corporate rule trade agreement being negotiated by the US, Japan, Australia, Peru, Malaysia, Vietnam, New Zealand, Chile, Singapore, Canada, Mexico, and Brunei Darussalam.  Negotiators are having trouble reaching agreement as the United States pushes extreme corporate power; at the same time a movement of movements against the TPP is growing as is congressional opposition to Fast Trade Trade Promotion Authority.  The key battle for the TPP begins in January as pro-corporate trade agreement advocates begin the push for Fast Track.


Bolivia water wars 'The Water is Ours, Carajo!' and 'Water For All'
Bolivia water wars ‘The Water is Ours, Carajo!’ and ‘Water For All’

Bolivia’s “Water War” began the month after the November-December 1999 Seattle WTO shutdown, and culminated in April 2000, when thousands of us in the US were occupying downtown Washington DC to disrupt IMF and World Bank meetings. In spring 2000, the people of Cochabamba, Bolivia rose up against the privatization of their water, forcing out the US based corporation, Bechtel, and forcing Bolivia’s neo-liberal government to back down.  In the political space opened up, there was widespread support among the social movements to replace the elite-dominated system of political parties, elections, and professional politicians with a directly elected Constituent Assembly.

Marcela Olivera, a participant in the Water War, an organizer with The Coalition in Defense of Water and Life, and a coordinator of Red Vida, explained the idea, “In Bolivia, for almost 20 years, the neoliberal system left the decisions in hands of an elite. So, we said: ‘Let’s change the rules of the system; let’s call for a constituent assembly where we, the people, can decide what kind of country we want to live in. That was not possible in the short term, but it happened when Evo Morales assumed the power. When Morales called for the constituent assembly, we realized that the parameters for the assembly to be were completely wrong. The different sectors that make up Bolivia—factory and other workers’ unions, indigenous, etc., couldn’t participate. Instead, the same political parties with other names were there—old leftists, old right wing, the same people.”

Following the Water War, Bolivian social movements fought the 2003 Gas War to reclaim Bolivia’s oil and natural gas from multinational corporations, still yet to be fully won. When the government responded to mass demonstrations and blockades with bullets, killing and injuring many, the country rose up in outrage, driving out President Gonzalo “Goni” Sanchez de Lozada, who fled to the US where he remains today. Two years later, Evo Morales was elected President of Bolivia, and together with his party MAS, has changed Bolivia and complicated–or some would say co-opted– the role of social movements. Reflecting back Oscar Olivera–a key Water War spokesperson, organizer and strategist said, “One lesson of the Water War stands out clearly; the need to dismantle the existing state.”


In wake of the December 2001 Argentine economic collapse (Argentina was called the “poster” child for the IMF and World Bank), Argentines rose up and toppled four consecutive governments and for the first time in history stopped IMF debt repayment by popular revolt. Perhaps more significantly they developed positive economic and political alternatives—100 occupied worker-run factories, networks of neighborhood assemblies, and the unemployed “Piquetero” movement who combined direct action, direct democracy with building self-managed alternative institutions. For those of us North Americas inspired by indigenous-informed Zapatismo, the Argentinian experiment with the new radicalism in an industrialized, largely non-indigenous rebellion was important to learn from.

Coalition of Immokalee Worker 2I never travelled to Chiapas, but I did meet people from Chiapas who had travelled to the US and were working and organizing as farmworkers, many displaced by NAFTA’s mass displacement of Mexico’s campsites or family farmers . The same week that thousands took direct action to shut down the World Trade Organization in Seattle, the South Central Florida farm worker town of Immokalee held a general strike. Long-time Coalition of Immokalee Workers organizer, Lucas Benitez, said:

 “At just around the same time as the protests in Seattle, we organized our third general strike in five years (we had our first general strike in 1995, a second in 1997, followed by the month-long hunger strike, and the third was at the end of 1999). Several members were arrested in the 1999 strike, on charges that were quickly dropped, and later we were told by the police that they had been on high alert due to rumors that ‘people from Seattle’ would be joining workers in Immokalee for the strike — there were, of course, no ‘people from Seattle’ in Immokalee, but it did affect the way the police reacted to the strike.”

In the years that followed, the farm workers would actively pursue alliances with students and anti-capitalists and take a lead in defining global justice organizing. Their organizing has won dignity and justice and put an end to modern day slavery of farmworkers in Florida in series of major victories over the largest fast food and grocery corporations on the planet and perhaps most profoundly, spread an effective organizing-from-below model across the US.

Ten years ago I edited Globalize Liberation: How to Uproot the System and Build a Better World. It was an anthology which tried to give voice to the Zapatista-inspired new radicalism in North America and across the planet. I wrote:

“A new radicalism has risen up across the globe. It offers the hope of building a better world by actively confronting and a uprooting the system that is the cause of our social and ecological problems. (Radical, like radish, comes from the Latin rad and means to get to the root of). In many places this new world is under construction. It’s time to throw out the old mythology that a single organization, ideology or network can effectively change the world. The era of monolithic movements and international political parties is over. ‘Correct’ political lines, one-ideology-fits-all, rigid blueprints, and cookie cutter solutions won’t work. Instead the new radicalism finds its hopeful possibilities in the diverse interconnected movement of movements that has risen up around the planet. New radical movements, while they are different everywhere, seem to share some common principles and spirit. Some of these are:

–         The commitment to uprooting the system that is at the root of our social and ecological problems. We cannot afford just to target the symptoms of the system or organize around single issues. Organizing with a holistic framework provides a convergence space where everyone who fights against the system (capitalism, empire, imperialism, neoliberalism, etc.) and its effects on our communities can make common cause. This overarching framework helps globally focused activists to anchor their work in local struggles against the impact of the global system (like workers’ rights, environmental justice, and anti-privatization fights) and local organizers to reframe their struggles within their global context (anti-corporate globalization), allowing our efforts to be complementary and cumulative rather than competitive or unrelated. It is not easy and goes against many conventions, but it is key to building a hopeful flourishing network of movements that spans the globe.

–         Doing it ourselves with people power and direct action.

–         Making change without taking power (capturing positions of state power without fundamentally changing the underlying relations of power).

–         Practicing direct democracy in our resistance and in the world we create.

–         Making our efforts a laboratory of resistance; nobody knows exactly how to change things. Developing new forms of resistance, communication and organizing is essential. Alternately, when we overuse a model or rhetoric that worked once or fetishize and base our identity on a certain device, not only can our tactics be more easily repressed or co-opted, but the general public can be inoculated against them. Our actions are experiments in a laboratory of resistance. The value of any experiment comes when we analyze and reflect together on what worked and what did not and why. Creating a culture of creativity, reflection and analysis is key.”

People before profitsAfter “Globalize Liberation” came out in 2004, the most insightful reflection on the book came from a magician.  John Michael Greer, a practicing magician, initiate of several magical orders and author of numerous books on magical traditions, wrote:

“Make an effort to experience the world around you as though today’s global corporate system isn’t a triumphant monster, but a brittle, ungainly, jerry-rigged contraption whose managers are vainly scrambling to hold it together against a rising tide of crises.  See the issues that engage your activism in that light, not as though you’re desperate, but as though the system is.  It’s a very different perspective from that of most activists, and reaching it even in imagination might take some work, but give it your best try. The point I’d like to make, once you’ve tried on both stories of the future, is that both of them — the story of corporate triumph and the story of corporate failure — explain the past and present equally well. Which of these stories is true?  Wrong question.  The events that define either story haven’t happened yet, and which story people believe could well determine which way the ending turns out.”

As commemorations take place in Chiapas and around the world, let us celebrate, continue to spread the rebellion begun in Chiapas, and remember in the words of Marcos:

“To those who that night put their rucksacks and their history on their backs, to those who took lightning and thunder into their hands, to those whose boots were shod with no future, to those who covered their faces and their names, to those who, without asking anything in return, died in the long night so that others, everyone, on a morning still to come, will be able to see the day as it should be seen, that is to say, from the front, standing, and with an upright gaze and heart.”

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