Tuesday, January 12, 2010

¡Nuestras fuerzas, nuestra palabra!

One of the most complex and instructive case studies of image-making is the Zapatista rebellion launched with armed force in Chiapas, Mexico, on 1 January 1994, explicitly coinciding with the beginning of the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA. Confusion about the nature and intent of the armed forces of the Zapatistas is understandable; they were not Cold War-style armed insurgents bent on seizing state power, but neither were they a decolonization revanche project (Evans 2009).

It is true that the Zapatistas did employ and enjoy the revolutionary mystique of their namesake, Emiliano Zapata, one founder of the Mexican Revolution. Since the launch of the 1994 armed struggle, however, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional, EZLN) has not used armed force, claiming that they only did so initially in order to be heard.

The most sharply painful instance of the price of the image of violence and guerrilla clandestine activity was exacted on the Christian pacifist Mayan Chiapas villagers known as Las Abejas, the Nonviolent Bees, who were completely nonviolent and yet made the strategic and tragic error of announcing agreement with the goals of the Zapatistas, if not their methods.

The Bees were not only pacifist, they were open, transparent, and thus easy targets, and in fact on 22 December 1997 the ruling party PRI paramilitary forces slaughtered 45 of them who were praying in a local church in what became known as the Acteal Massacre.

While none of the PRI paramilitary were afraid of the Bees, they used the excuse that the Bees had endorsed the Zapatistas, conveniently ignoring that the Bees had explicitly not endorsed any violent means. The tarring of the Bees with the armed brush of the Zapatistas was a function of crude image management and offers a clear and unambiguous note within the unclear and ambiguous overall Zapatista experiment.

While ¡Nuestras fuerzas, nuestra palabra! (Our words are our weapons) is a Zapatista slogan, it was reality for the Bees, and they were massacred for not distancing themselves adequately from the image of the armed Zapatistas. With the usual cruelty of the armed revolutionaries, the Zapatistas have at times harassed Las Abejas for not being sufficiently revolutionary (Tavanti 2003).

Evans, Brad. 2009. Revolution without violence. Peace Review 21: 85-94.

Tavanti, Marco. 2003. Las Abejas: Pacifist resistance and syncretic identities in a globalizing Chiapas. New York: Routledge.

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