All posts by Robert Ovetz, Ph.D.

“We’re all Marcos now” – Subcommander Marcos and the politics of Zapatismo

Book Review: Subcommander Marcos: The Man and the Mask ($24.95 Duke, 2007), By Nick Henck, 499 pp.

The Zapatistas are widely credited with launching the anti- globalization movement on New Year’s day 1994, the first day the North American Free Trade Agreement came into effect. What is less known is that in doing so the Zapatistas created a new model that has made taking up arms compatible with simultaneously taking up the cause of grassroots democracy, a paradoxical phenomenon vividly illustrated by Nick Henck in his fascinating new book Subcommander Marcos: The Man and the Mask.

When I interviewed Subcommander Marcos and reported for CNN on the uprising on that day in San Cristobal de las Casas, it appeared as if they had emerged overnight, a spontaneous rupture in the supposed political calm of Mexico and the emerging web of a restructured global system. Nothing could be further from the historical record, a record Hick Henck, associate professor of law at Keio University in Japan, recounts and examines with exhaustive thoroughness and insight. The Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN or Zapatista) uprising was no spontaneous rebellion, but a model of revolutionary armed struggle refashioned by local indigenous communities facing the terror of local violent greedy landholders and corrupt local and state officials.

While never having met Marcos, Henck’s biography carefully explores countless published interviews, communiques, media reports, web postings, and the two other existing published books about Marcos. Although a biography, Henck’s focus is informed by his passion to understand the movement of Zapatismo from the perspective of the man who has become a charismatic, even sexy, icon of the rebellion. Subcommander Marcos makes a convincing case that Zapatismo transformed not only the global movement challenging to “neo- liberalism” and globalization but how the movement was organized.

Despite preparing for guerrilla warfare in the jungles and countryside for 10 long years, after a mere 12 days of conflict in 1994 the Zapatistas agilely transformed themselves from an “army of liberation” into a facilitator of mass mobilization of what they call “civil society”. That they were eventually successful in achieving significant progress towards three major objectives in less than a decade has remained the backstory to coverage about the enigmatic and secretive masked pipe brandishing icon Subcommander Marcos. The Zapatista uprising put indigenous issues center-stage with the Mexican media and public for the first time, with an indigenous rights bill being debated in both chambers of the Mexican Congress. This debate led to the passage of a watered down version of the San Andres Accords between the Zapatistas, its civil society allies and the government as a constitutional amendment. Although it is impressive that the government would amend the constitution in response to the Zapatista movement, the amendment has not lived up to claims that it expanded the rights of Mexico’s indigenous peoples. The amendment also did not reverse NAFTA’s rescinding of Article 27 of the constitution, which prohibited the privatization of communal ejido land, and some indigenous groups even consider it to be unconstitutional. Lastly, the Zapatistas were one of the primary forces that contributed to the end of the PRI’s seven decades of one party rule.

It appears that for Henck the transformation of the Zapatistas into Zapatismo is of much greater significance than either the story of the former professor turned revolutionary cell leader Subcommander Marcos or their ability to change government policy and provoke a political realignment. After a few years of being ignored in the jungles the handful of FLN (Forces of National Liberation or Fuerzas Liberacion Nacional) members who composed the cell in Chiapas found the locals were sympathetic to calls to pick up arms in self-defense against the theft of their lands by rancher death squads. But the indigenous only really responded to their calls to organize and arm themselves when Marcos and his compatriots realized that “in order to survive we had to translate ourselves using a different code…this language constructed itself from the bottom upwards.” (p. 94)

This was no abstract rhetorical exercise but took on tangible dimensions for those who joined, especially among women. As Henck so fascinatingly details, once local young indigenous women discovered that joining the Zapatistas protected them from being raped and forced marriages, they began to join in droves. (p. 100-101) And as the Zapatistas gained a few allies in assorted villages those allies used their family relationships and status in their communities to literally open the tap to a rush of recruits.

As Marcos so deftly recognized, after years of futile effort the number of recruits exploded from only a few dozen members to thousands in just a matter of a few months when they finally surrendered to the needs of the local communities and “decided it would be better to do what they said.” (p. 135)

Whether this sudden change in fortunes for the EZLN was catalyzed by Marcos’s own innate skill of organizing or something that was thrust upon him from below is less important than Marcos’s own flexibility in recognizing the need to break with his own inflexible model of insurgent politics. Eventually, the EZLN formally broke off from the increasingly irrelevant and inactive FLN.

The shift from a military to political strategy resulted in a shift in the man we know as Marcos. As Henck explains, “Marcos abandoned his own personal dreams of becoming a revolutionary guerrilla hero and, reacting to the general public’s response to the uprising, began to explore an alternative role for both himself and the movement. He and the EZLN had been gearing themselves for a decade toward a predominantly military role. Now, almost overnight, they opted instead for a predominantly political one. Few politicians and military men have abandoned so rapidly a course of action pursued so intensely, for so long, at such a high personal cost to adapt, revise, and reject their strategies when faced with the dawning realization that they were obsolete.” (p. 224)

This internal shift in Marcos’s thinking makes Henck’s book invaluable less as a biography than as a case study of the emergence and evolution of a new political model, one in which a marginalized top down political organization is reformulated by those it aspires to lead to being led by them. In this process of self-organization from below the movement’s objectives become indistinguishable from the model they choose to organize themselves. As a result the EZLN transformed itself from vanguard to facilitator of a horizontal political project of movement building and decentralizing and de- evolving power to local autonomous communities.

Soon after the ending of actual fighting, the EZLN became the framework for building a national movement of movements to challenge the neo-conservative restructuring forced upon Mexico by the PRI and NAFTA. The EZLN and its network of allies soon began organizing frequent Encuentros (or “encounters”) and nationwide tours to accompany numerous rounds of negotiations with the government. These efforts were facilitated by the charismatic Marcos becoming an irresistible media spectacle that could at once attract vast national and international media coverage and attention and facilitate a bridge across the diversity of interests among its allies in civil society.

Under the emblem of Subcommander Marcos, the EZLN gave birth to a new radical democracy that at once built a national movement to challenge the global capitalist agenda while linking up to the movement as a support network to defend its project of de-evolving political power to local autonomous cooperatively run villages.

Ever able to read political forces of change and adapt, Marcos early on recognized the shift taking place: “What other guerrilla force has agreed to sit down and dialogue only fifty days after having taken up arms? What other guerrilla force has appealed, not to the proletariat as the historical vanguard, but to the civic society that struggles for democracy? What other guerrilla force has stepped aside in order not to interfere in the electoral process? What other guerrilla force has convened a national democratic movement, civic and peaceful, so that armed struggle becomes useless? What other guerrilla force asks its bases of support about what it should do before doing it? What other guerrilla force has struggled to achieve a democratic space and not take power? What other guerrilla force has relied more on words than bullets?” (p. 235)

The answers to these questions are less important than the fact that they were being asked by the nominal leader of an armed guerilla “army of national liberation.” Merely asking these questions underlined a gradual shift of autonomous politics from the margins to the center of the methodology and strategies of the global resistance, anti-war, social justice and environmental movements that have blossomed over the past 13 years. Self-organized, de- centralized, bottom up, and horizontally organized movements, networks, affinity groups and campaigns have achieved a new level of respect, legitimacy and power since the emergence of Zapatismo. These models are exemplified by the higher profile anti-WTO/IMF/World Bank and environmental justice movements, the massive growth of the World Social Forum and less obviously the indie music, microcinema and freecycling movements to name just a few. We have Zapatismo to thank for the re-emergence of what some now call “horizontalism” since 1994.

Throughout Henck’s Subcommander Marcos its is hard to avoid asking the inevitable question of “why a biography?.” Despite all the glittering stardom for Marcos, his mask and pipe, the success of Zapatista movement is about far more than the man behind the mask. Even as he was “outted” as former UAM professor Rafael Guillén, his own identity no longer mattered. Like the similarly masked hero “V” in the film “V for Vendetta”, Marcos had become the anonymous face of those who dreamed of justice and flirted with the forbidden thoughts of escaping to the jungles and picking up a gun to get it. In Mexico at least, where millions answered his calls to mobilize against military repression, it was a dream shared by too many for either the PRI (the Institutional Revolutionary Party or Partido Revolucionario Institucional) or its successor the PAN (the National Action Party or Partido Acción Nacional) or needless to say the Zapatista’s “ally” the PRD (the Party of the Democratic Revolution or Partido de la Revolución Democrática) as well to ignore. As Henck generously concludes, “Marcos’s charisma served a higher cause than his own ego; it elevated the Zapatista struggle from a localized indigenous uprising to an internationally recognized symbol of resistance to neo- liberalism.” (p. 239)

If there is one failing in Henck’s biography is it exactly how Marcos was able to translate the hopes and aspirations of the indigenous led Zapatistas into an effective digital media campaign at the dawn of the internet age. Henck provides us with little to envision how Marcos’s skillful use of the internet and relationships to Mexican and international celebrities and elites could have possibly emanated from the remote EZLN jungle camps and low tech impoverished indigenous villages. But then again, that could be because it is a safely guarded secret tactic held closely to the chests of the Zapatistas. Despite the obvious need for secrecy, my insatiable craving to know how the EZLN not only crafted their message but actually got it into the right hands to build the national and international recognition and support that repeatedly halted the onslaught of the Mexican military and brought them back to the negotiating table has not been satisfied. For that one must turn elsewhere such as the writings of theorist Harry Cleaver for insights into the workings of the Zapatismo media machine.

For all my biases as the reportedly first journalist to break the story of the Zapatista’s new year’s uprising for the English language media , Henck’s Subcommander Marcos is less a biography than an enlightening case study of how one of the possibly most influential political movements of the 21th century was born, faultered and was then rejuvenated by those it sought to lead. Subcommander Marcos convincingly demonstrates that Zapatismo has created a new model in which taking up arms may finally no longer be incompatible with simultaneously taking up the cause of autonomy and democracy. This book has arrived just in time, when the anti-globalization movement appears to have run out of steam precisely because it has failed to provide a visionary model of the future in the present.

Robert Ovetz, PhD is an adjunct instructor of political science at College of Marin and of sociology at Cañada College in California. Write him at