Books > One No, Many
Yeses > Extract
Chapter One: 'to
open a crack in history'
What may turn out to be the biggest
political movement of the twenty-first century emerged
from the rainforest remnants of southern Mexico on 1
January 1994, carried down darkened, cobbled colonial
streets by 3,000 pairs of black leather boots at precisely
thirty minutes past midnight. The owners of the boots
carried rifles and the odd AK-47 or Uzi. Those who had
drawn short straws carried fake wooden guns.
Three thousand faces, hidden by black
woollen ski masks, bore the distinctive features of
the Mayan Indians of Central America; a people outgunned,
outcompeted, pillaged, slaughtered or simply passed
over since the Spanish conquistadores first arrived
on their shores in the sixteenth century. Now, half
a millennium later, here in Chiapas, Mexico's poorest
and southernmost state, 'the ones without faces, the
ones without voices' had come to make the world listen.
The people of San Cristobal de las
Casas, the old conquistador capital of Chiapas, were
still groggy from their New Year celebrations when their
town came alive with the sound of marching boots. They
heard orders barked in Tzotzil, a local Mayan language,
by the black-haired major, carbine in her hands, pistol
strapped to her chest, who commanded this uninvited
army. And from the picturesque central square, the Plaza
31 de Marzo, its ancient yellow cathedral and colonial
government buildings framed by a clear white moon, they
heard the sound of gunshots. Those citizens brave or
curious enough to venture out into the square were met
with a sight they were unlikely to forget: dozens of
masked guerrillas were swarming around the Plaza. Some
were standing guard with their battered rifles, others
were surrounding the police headquarters, while a third
group, armed with sledgehammers, pounded on the great
wooden doors of the Municipal Palace. There could be
little doubt in the minds of the people of San Cristobal
about what they were witnessing. It was the first act
of a revolution.
By the time the rebels began carrying
furniture out of the Municipal Palace and using it to
build barricades across the streets, to check the expected
approach of the Mexican army, the Plaza was thronging
with locals, drunks, tourists and curious spectators.
Then, as they watched, a small group of guerrillas raised
a flag in the middle of the elegant square - a black
flag, printed with four red letters: EZLN.
As they did so, a masked figure emerged
on to the balcony of the Municipal Palace. In his hand
he held a piece of paper. It was a declaration of war
against the Mexican government: one which, on that same
morning, would be read aloud to the people of six other
towns in Chiapas which this 'EZLN' had also claimed
as its own.
'We are the product of five hundred
years of struggle,' he read as, in the background, more
gunfire and palls of smoke indicated that a rebel column
was storming the police headquarters. 'We are the inheritors
of the true builders of this nation . . . denied the
most elemental preparation so they can use us as cannon-fodder
and pillage the wealth of our country. They don't care
that we have nothing, absolutely nothing . . . There
is no peace or justice for ourselves and our children
. . . But today we say: Ya basta! Enough is enough!'
Five hundred miles away, Mexico's president,
Carlos Salinas, and his anointed heir, Luis Donaldo
Colosio, were celebrating the New Year in an exclusive
holiday resort on the Pacific coast. As the midnight
bells rang, Salinas and Colosio raised glasses of champagne
and toasted the official arrival of NAFTA - the North
American Free Trade Agreement - which, at the stroke
of midnight, officially came into operation. With the
sound of those bells, NAFTA had created, for the first
time in history, one great borderless free market between
Mexico, Canada and the USA. Mexico had officially entered
the modern world, and Salinas was celebrating his legacy.
Two hours later he was on the telephone,
listening to news of a development that would shatter
not only that legacy, but his successor's presidency
and his party's age-old iron grip on Mexican politics;
and which, later - much later - would begin to shake
the legitimacy of the global free-trade project itself.
The Secretary of Defense was calling from Mexico City,
and he had bad news. An armed insurgent force, calling
itself the Zapatista Army of National Liberation - EZLN
- had seized control of seven towns in Chiapas state
and declared war on the army, the government - and NAFTA
'Are you sure?' croaked the president.
Back in San Cristobal, a journalist
had collared the masked man who had led the assault
on the police station. Unlike the other guerrillas,
what could be seen of his face suggested not an Indian
but a ladino - a Spanish Mexican. The man wore bandoliers
across his chest, and a tattered green cap studded with
red stars on top of his ski mask. A pipe protruded from
his mouth. Ignoring Major Ana Maria, the Indian woman
who had led the invasion of the city - which, as an
Indian woman, was exactly what she had come to expect
- the journalist asked this tall white man with the
big nose who he was.
'Who am I?'
'Yes! Are you, perhaps, "Commander Tiger"?
Or "Commander Lion?"'
The man with the pipe looked at the journalist with
a mixture of weariness and amusement behind the black
wool of his mask.
'No,' he said. 'I am Marcos. Subcomandante Marcos.'
It didn't last. That day, around 3,000
Zapatista soldiers took control of seven towns in Chiapas.
The government responded swiftly and decisively: 15,000
troops poured into the state; helicopter gunships bombed
Indian villages, killing 150 people; specialist assault
teams hunted down the Zapatista units. The guerrillas
retreated from San Cristobal barely twenty-four hours
after they had arrived. Within twelve days the government,
responding to an unexpected surge of national support
for the masked rebels, declared a ceasefire, and the
EZLN melted back into the rainforest from whence it
As revolutions go it was, shall we
say, unimpressive. In less than a fortnight, it seemed,
the Zapatistas had been crushed, along with their insurgency.
An ignominious end to yet another ignominious revolt:
the latest in the long line of guerrilla uprisings that
Latin America just couldn't seem to grow out of.
And yet. As the truth about these
'Zapatistas' - a grass-roots peasant army who named
themselves after the followers of the slain hero of
the original Mexican revolution of 1910, Emiliano Zapata
- began to emerge, so did something curiously different.
These, it seemed, were no ordinary guerrilleros. For
one, they claimed that they had no desire to seize state
power. Unlike so many Latin American revolutionaries
before them, their aim, they said, was not to grab 'power'
on behalf of 'the people', but to dissolve power down
to the level of communities - to take back what they
claimed had been rightly theirs, before governments
and private economic interests stole it from them. 'Power
is not taken,' they would later be heard to say. 'It
Their language, too, was new. Where
was the talk of 'the proletariat', 'the bourgeoisie',
Marx, Lenin, Mao, permanent revolution? Why, instead
of appealing to 'the workers' to rise up and join them,
were they calling on something called 'civil society'
to stand between them and the soldiers of their government?
Why did they speak not of a dictatorship of the proletariat
but of a rebirth of democracy? Why was their uprising
directed not just at a government, nor even simply at
the usual capitalist stooges, but at an apparently innocuous
regional trade treaty?
Why did this Marcos character, who
spoke in poetry, stories and riddles, describe his homeland
as 'an object of shame dressed in the colour of money'?
And why were so many people beginning to describe what
had happened that day in the green high-sided canyons
of Chiapas as 'the first post-modern revolution'?
The answers to these questions would
take a while for the world to figure out. When it did,
this tiny indigenous rebellion in an overlooked part
of Central America would provide the spark that lit
a bigger rebellion all across the world. The Zapatistas
would become the unwitting, but not unwilling, forgers
of a truly global insurgency against history's first
truly global system.
Like most of the rest of the world,
I didn't notice the Zapatista uprising at the time.
I was at university, writing essays and finding myself
dragged into a mini-revolution of my own: the road protest
movement which was then spreading like a rash over what
was left of the British countryside. Up trees, down
tunnels, in squatted factories, padlocked to bridges
and balanced on top of digger arms I, like thousands
of others, was politicised by the road protests, and
began to make the links between what was happening in
Newbury, Winchester, Bath and Leytonstone and what was
happening to the wider world.
Over the next few years I got involved
in what seemed to be a putative but growing mass movement,
in Britain and beyond, which was taking those links
to the streets. As it occupied motorways, holding street
parties where previously there had been traffic jams;
invaded the shareholder meetings of oil companies; lobbied
parliament; refused to lobby parliament; marched, grandstanded
and grew, it talked of the global forces behind the
problems it was trying to tackle. It talked of 'neoliberalism'
(whatever that was); of powerful, unaccountable corporations,
of a grinding-down of democracy, of a global economic
machine spinning out of control, eating up the things
that people valued and spitting out share prices as
It began to talk, too, of these Zapatistas. I heard
that the EZLN were something new, radical, remarkable.
I heard that they had reinvented politics. I heard that
Chiapas was the lodestone of a new revolution. I heard
that they were anarchists, communists, reactionaries,
fools, poets, warriors. I heard that they were none
of the above. I heard that Subcomandante Marcos was
the new Che Guevara. I heard that they did an extremely
natty line in T-shirts.
In September 2000, I went to Prague,
and, with 20,000 others, tried to shut down the annual
meeting of the World Bank and the International Monetary
Fund. There I saw something extraordinary. Protesters
from all over Europe were joined by others from around
the world in an unprecedented coalition of the most
unlikely, and yet strangely united, forces. And on the
streets, among the banners, the flags, the tear-gas,
the batons and D-locks and stun grenades, the energy
and the ideas, thousands shouted a slogan first heard
in the San Cristobal Plaza on that January morning in
1994: 'Ya basta! ' Enough is enough.
Back home, after that, it was difficult
not to be disillusioned with the way the world was going,
and the people who were running it. The world was changing,
further and faster than anyone could remember, and none
of the old answers, from left or right or anywhere,
seemed to fit the new questions. On the streets, meanwhile,
something was massing. At the Ecologist magazine, where
I was working, reports were coming in every day, from
all over the world, of resistance, rebellion, uprisings
against the system. If you added up the numbers involved,
it totalled millions of people, in dozens of countries.
Few of the stories ever made the mainstream media. Something
big was happening out there, and nobody was listening.
I couldn't escape a growing conviction
that what I was seeing was the fumbling birth of a genuinely
new political movement - something international, something
different and something potentially huge. But what exactly
was it? Where had it come from? Was it really, as so
many claimed, 'global', and if so, what did that mean?
Did it have any substantial ideas beyond objecting to
the status quo? Was it a flash in the pan or a bushfire
across the political landscape? I felt a part of it,
whatever it was. I wanted to know.
It took me eight months of travelling
across five continents to get near to answering those
questions. I knew that to really understand this movement
I would have to go and see it at work - not simply in
the cities where the highly publicised protests happen,
but in the places where the movement was really born,
where its strength and numbers lie and where its essence
can be found - places which lie mainly in poor countries,
away from the camera's eye. Choosing some of the places
to visit was difficult, but one decision was easy to
make. I knew I had to go to where so many said this
whole thing had been born: I had to go to Chiapas.
I knew that whatever had happened,
and was happening, in Chiapas, would tell me a lot about
this movement, and about the hopes that kept it alive.
Hopes expressed by the shadowy Subcomandante two months
after he stormed the police station in San Cristobal,
in words which, as well as any other, provided an explanation
for the hard struggle into the light of something genuinely
'In our dreams, we have seen another world.'