From the Fuerzas de Liberación Nacional’s “Dictatorship of the Proletariat” to the Zapatistas’ “Govern by Obeying”: A brief Recap
Zapatistas are well-known for many reasons. We know them for their uprising in 1994, the creation of autonomous municipalities or caracoles in 2001, and their long-standing resisting practices against neoliberalism and colonialism. Many know the Zapatistas for the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) and its charismatic former spokesperson, sub comandante Marcos, who died in 2014 to become sub Galeano.
In different degrees, we know them, we have heard of them. But what happened before the Zapatistas became Zapatistas? To try to answer this question in this post, we need to go back in time and look at a series of events that gave birth to the seed organization of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation, the National Liberation Forces (FLN).
The FLN and the Dictatorship of the proletariat
An event that left a deep mark in the contemporary history of Mexico is the Tlatelolco student massacre on October 2, 1968, ten days before the inauguration of the Olympic games in Mexico. That day the student movement was demonstrating peacefully in Tlatelolco square when a storm of bullets started falling into the demonstrators.
The military had the side streets of the square surrounded. On the rooftops of buildings of the square were the snipers. Among the people, men of the Olympia battalion wearing a white globe in one hand to identify among themselves were completing what was out of sight of those in the rooftops. All together left a yet not agreed number of hundreds of deaths. And yet, president Díaz Ordaz inaugurated the Olympic games the week after.
This event triggered a process of radicalization that saw the emergence of around 30 armed groups in the second half of the 20th century (Castellanos, 2016, p. 20).
In this act of state violence, many students saw a clear sign that democratic and legal ways to participate in the country’s political life were closed and heavily guarded. To produce a political and social change, some of them considered that the only way left out was to take power from the hands of those holding to it, and they saw no other way out but to take up arms. One of these organizations was the Fuerzas de Liberación Nacional, or National Liberation Forces (FLN).
Composed mainly by students from Monterrey, the FLN was formed as a Marxist-Leninist politico-military organization in on August 1969 by, among others, César Yañez Muñoz, Alfredo Zárate Mota, Mario Alberto Sáenz Garza, Carlos Vives Chapa, Mario Sánchez Acosta, Raul Perez Gasque and Graciano Sánchez Aguilar.
Like many other organizations in the 1960s and 1970s, the FLN aimed to take power from the bourgeoisie, establish a strong revolutionary state that would own the means of production, establish a government of revolutionary organizations, and form a single Marxists-Leninist party.
The FLN Statutes
These ideas are reflected in some points of the FLN 1980 statutes:
a) To install a socialist system that, through social ownership of the means of production, will suppress the exploitation of the workers and distribute among the population the wealth that it creates, according to the principle, “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs,” transferring land to the peasants and factories to the workers.
b) To integrate a popular government with representatives of revolutionary organizations that have participated in an outstanding and intransigent way on the various fronts of struggle (military, political, ideological) against the governing oppressor, in order to exercise the Dictatorship of the proletariat, so establishing a worker’s state, which will attend to the interest of the majority of the population, and in which work will be obligatory.
c) To form a single political party based on the principles of Marxisms-Leninism.
As Eldredge Fitzwater (2019, p. 19) points out in Autonomy is in our hearth, “the aspirations of good governance in the FLN statutes follow a model in which the desires of the people are submitted to the revolutionary state, which is conceived as their single legitimate representative and as the embodiment of their collective revolutionary achievement.”
When we look at the statutes of the FLN, one cannot but wonder how this idea of the “dictatorship of the proletariat” evolved to the autonomy practices that the Zapatistas built years later.
Despite that Marxist-Leninist core, and contrary to other armed organizations of that time, the FLN did not adopt a pyramidal structure and was far from dogmatism. Instead, the organization created a complex network of various nuclei operating clandestinely in different parts of the country. This structure allowed them to grow relatively fast and to have members in many states of the country, including Chiapas (Esteve Díaz, 2013, p. 131). Moreover, the FLN adopted a long-term vision, which led to the idea that confronting the state directly was disadvantageous. This idea avoided that the FLN to fall into the militarism that other organizations fell in those days (Esteve Díaz, 2013, p. 132).
In 1972 the FLN established a camp called “El Diamante” in Chiapas, from which the guerrilla nucleus “Emiliano Zapata” started its operations (Romero, 2014). Later on, after a series of attacks against the FLN, including the assault by the police and military to the “Big House” in Nepantla in 1974, resulting in five members of the FLN being murdered and 16 others arrested, the FLN adopted a low profile until 1983, in which the group worked in Chiapas building basis of support and organizing themselves.
It is in this period that the acronym FLN-EZLN started to appear in the guerrilla documents (for a more detailed story, see Romero, 2014).
The EZLN and the revolutionary laws
The EZLN was established on November 17, 1983, by three mestizo members of the FLN that went with the alias of Germán, Rodrigo y Elisa, and three Chol indigenous insurgents, Javier, Jorge, and Frank. The group established its first camp called La Garrapata or The Thick and started growing in silence, recruiting people from the Lacandon jungle. The encounters of the just-formed EZLN led the mestizos of the group to learn from the long-standing traditions of self-organization of the indigenous groups in Chiapas.
Between the foundation of the EZLN and the uprising, many things happened. Apart from events such as a fraudulent election in Mexico in 1988 and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), with the modification of article 27th which allowed the privatization of ejido land (community landholding) in 1993, during this period, the founders of the EZLN went through a profound transformation process, which led to what the Zapatistas ideals are nowadays.
These transformations are reflected in the Revolutionary Laws of the Zapatistas, established before the uprising, and that rule the Zapatistas territories nowadays. The laws cover political, social, and military aspects and reflect the vision of the Zapatistas.
- War Tax Law
- Law on the Rights and Obligations of the Peoples in Struggle
- Law on the Rights and Duties of the Revolutionary Armed Forces
- Revolutionary Agrarian Law
- Revolutionary Women’s Law
- Urban Reform Law
- Labor Law
- Industry and Commerce Law
- Social Security Law
- Justice Law
If we compare these laws with the statutes of the FLN, we can see that there are major changes concerning the role of civil authorities. The role of the civil authority described in the Law of Rights and Obligations of the Peoples in Struggle, for instance, says that all the peoples in struggle, regardless of their affiliation, religion, or race, are guaranteed the right
a) To elect, freely and democratically, their own authorities in whatever way they consider to be best and to demand that they are respected.
b) To demand that the revolutionary armed forces not intervene in matters of civilian authority or in the expropriation of agricultural, commercial, financial, and industrial capital, which is the exclusive power of the freely and democratically elected civilian authorities.
Compared with the FLN Statutes, the Revolutionary Laws give full power to local authorities, leaving the military organization the limited task of protecting the communities from the government and other enemies. Moreover, this reflects one of the core principles of the Zapatistas, namely “Govern by obeying.”
The change from a dictatorship of the proletariat of the FLN to a radical vision of autonomy and self-determination was largely the result of the indigenous cosmovision and tradition of resistance of indigenous groups (Romero, 2014).
An answer to the original question?
To the original question of who were Zapatistas before becoming Zapatistas? Many are the answers. The Zapatistas, before becoming the Zapatistas, were a group of people that saw no other way but to start an armed organization to fight for their political rights and against oppression in the 1960s. A group that was critical to its time and did not fall into militarism. A group that kept a long-term plan.
Before becoming the Zapatistas, they were forgotten indigenous peoples in Chiapas. They were indigenous groups with a long-standing tradition of resistance and political organization. They were the people from below, from the non-West, that taught the FLN that the real revolution resides in the unalienable right of self-determination and autonomy.
Jorge Durán Solórzano (he/him) is an independent researcher working on discourse, armed movements, and political violence in Mexico. Currently, he is writing his PhD dissertation on the argumentative discourse justifying political violence in communiqués issued by guerrillas in Mexico during the 1960s and 1970s. He has collaborated with Land Rights Now in the global mobilization campaign for the recognition of Indigenous Peoples and local communities land rights and he is a member of the Latin American section of Het Actie Fonds.
Castellanos, Laura (2017). Mexico Armado: 1943-1981. Bolsillo Era: Ciudad de México.
Esteve Díaz, Hugo (2017). Amargo lugar sin nombre: Crónica del movimiento armado socialista en México (1960-1990). Taller editorial la casa del mago: Guadalajara.
EZLN (1993). 1993, Archivo Histórico. In Enlace Zapatista.
EZLN (2014). Between lights and shadows. In Enlace Zapatista.
Romero, Raúl (2014). A brief history of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation, In Roar.