After balaclava-clad Zapatistas seized control of a handful of southern Mexican towns on New Year’s Eve, 1993, and soon after became implicated in the first wide-scale use of the Internet in a warlike scenario, it was thought that the age of postmodern Internet warfare had arrived. However, while the centrality of the Internet to the movement’s relative success evokes romantic images of Zapatista rebels uploading communiqués onto the World Wide Web from remote mountain hideaways, these myths are dispelled when the impoverished living conditions of its indigenous Maya constituents are taken into account. Instead, the Zapatistas’ presence on the Internet is mediated by NGOs and other support groups who electronically publish hand-written Zapatista communiqués. While this paper demonstrates the political utility of information-age communication strategies for localised struggles for cultural autonomy, it is shown that, for the Zapatistas, these strategies work with, rather than against, traditional print culture.
The Zapatistas, NGOs and the Internet
Soon after the Zapatista uprising began, the New York Times, prompted by the movement’s rapid acquirement of an Internet presence, declared that the world’s first “postmodern revolutionary movement” had appeared in the unlikely location of the southern Mexican state of Chiapas (Burbach 116). Other analyses that investigate the significance of the Internet in the uprising define the EZLN as the world’s “first informational guerrilla movement” (Castells 79), and the “first social netwar” (Ronfeldt et al. 1). After such descriptions were assigned to the EZLN, an image of Zapatista rebels typing e-mails on laptops in remote mountain hideaways featured in many initial media reports. These ideas were still dominating much of the media a year after the uprising when the Mexican President ordered a raid on suspected EZLN hideouts in an attempt to capture the movement’s mestizo spokesperson, Subcomandante Marcos. Media reports at the time claimed that in some of the raids “they found as many computer disks as bullets”. There were also claims that “if Marcos is equipped with a telephone modem and a cellular phone [he could] hook into the Internet [directly] even while on the run, as he is now” (Knudson 509).
However, while the Internet contributed significantly to the advance of the EZLN struggle, this romanticised and mythologised imagery is far removed from the material impoverishment that led to the movement’s uprising and which still characterises the lives of its constituents. Indeed, the Marcos that I saw addressing a crowd in the Mexican city of Puebla during the EZLN’s 2001 March for Indigenous Dignity read his speech from an old-tattered notebook—the old-fashioned printed kind, not one from the Toshiba range. He stumbled over some sections, telling the crowd that it had been smudged by the rain earlier in the day. This may have been a move calculated to enhance the charismatic appeal of the pipe-smoking, poet-guerrilla, but it is also consistent with the impoverished circumstances from which the Zapatistas emanated and within which they continue to struggle.
There is a glaring anomaly between descriptions of the Zapatistas as postmodern or as the initiators of informational guerrilla warfare, or netwar, and the movement’s location in the most remote regions of an impoverished state, which has Internet hubs in only two of its towns and “no telephone or electricity at all in most of the rural areas” (Froehling 291). Indeed, the Zapatistas’ relationship with the Internet is mediated via a support network that, most significantly, includes NGOs. For the Zapatista word to reach a national and international audience the movement had to firstly rely on hand-written documents and old-fashioned means of covert communication whereby messages were
passed secretly from hand to hand, galloped inside a saddle satchel, hidden in a cyclist’s bag, slipped into a backpack, or perhaps thrust inside a sack of beans, then propped in the back of an open truck, crammed with indigenous villagers who make the hours-long journey to the closest market, or doctor, and our messenger to a contact person with Internet access. (Ponce de León xxiii)
The journey of the EZLN’s communiqués from the remote Chiapan highlands to a world-wide audience via its Internet-connected support network has created what Cleaver calls a “Zapatista effect” (1998). This effect demonstrates that by establishing an international electronic web of support, particularly between marginalised groups and NGOs, dominant political, economic and social policies can be effectively opposed and alternatives articulated. The Zapatista uprising marks the first time that the electronic media have been used as a strategy in their own right, producing “an electronic fabric of opposition to much wider policies”, rather than simply facilitating the “traditional work of solidarity” (Cleaver 622). Cleaver claims that this “Zapatista effect” has the potential to permeate and inform social struggles throughout the world and reweave “the fabric of politics” by demonstrating the ability of grassroots movements to form national and international collectives to challenge the power of the nation-state (637).
Investigation into the usefulness of new communication technologies in times of war and struggle has also been the focus of studies conducted for the US army, leading to the development of the concept of “netwar” (Ronfeldt et al. iii). Ronfeldt et al. contend that, as a result of what they claim is the increasing dependency of contemporary society on information, “more than ever before, conflicts are about ‘knowledge’—about who knows (or can be kept from knowing) what, when, where, and why” (7-8). The study concludes that the EZLN’s development of an NGO support network that could rapidly disseminate reports on human rights abuses, information about the intolerable living conditions endured by indigenous Chiapans, and the EZLN’s communiqués has been crucial to developing the movement’s support base. However, the movement’s establishment of an electronically wired NGO support network able to circulate information about the EZLN, its struggle and its aims relies on the movement’s ability to convey information to them, the “what, when, where, and why”, before it can appear on the Internet and in other media forms. It is not simply the publication and distribution of figures relating to disease, impoverishment and human rights violations that have contributed to people’s interest in, and support for, the Zapatistas. Rather, the intriguing content and style of their discourse, which is heavily indebted to the charismatic figure of Subcomandante Marcos, has also played a crucial role. The writings of Marcos are rich with poetic imagery, humour, symbols of Mayan mythology and references to Latin American and Spanish literary figures and styles, particularly magic realism.
Marcos’ innovative and engaging discursive style is particularly evident in the stories he tells of Don Durito, a beetle named Nebuchadnezzar who has assumed the nom de guerre of Durito, which literally means the little strong or hard one, a reference to his shell, fighting spirit and his status as a ladies’ man (Subcomandante Marcos 9). Don Durito has made the floor of the Southern Mexican Lacandón jungle his home, but in Marcos’s stories he often travels the world as a knight-errant, reminiscent of Cervantes’s delusional do-gooder Don Quijote. Durito also intermittently assumes the role of a detective and that of a political analyst, and it is in this guise that he first meets Marcos. This occurs when Marcos, unable to find tobacco to fill the pipe he is never seen without, notices a trail of the dried black leaves weaving away from his hammock. After following the trail for a few metres Marcos sees, behind a stone, a bespectacled beetle clenching a tiny pipe, sitting at a tiny desk studying, as we soon discover, neoliberalism “and its strategy of domination for Latin America” (Subcomandante Marcos 12). Marcos, unfazed by the discovery of a literate, smoking beetle is taken aback by his investigation of neoliberalism. Durito explains that his scholarly interest is quite pragmatic for it stems from a desire to know how long and how successful the Zapatista struggle will be so as to ascertain “how long us beetles are going to have to be careful that you [Marcos and the other members of the Zapatista army who are based in the jungle] aren’t going to squash us with your big boots” (Subcomandante Marcos 12). In these encounters with Durito the political analyst, Marcos is given lessons in politics and economics from an inhabitant of the jungle floor, from a beetle who recognises that the danger of being squashed by “big boots” in his small patch of land is intimately linked to the global issue of neoliberalism and its much bigger boots. Through these stories, Marcos highlights the detrimental impact that global economic policies have had on the Maya of Chiapas. The character of Durito also enables him to demonstrate the potential for small, seemingly insignificant individuals or groups to radically challenge these policies and articulate alternatives.
Such entertaining and lyrical prose enables the EZLN to present itself as a new style of social revolutionary movement, far removed from traditional Latin American revolutionary struggles. This has, arguably, broadened the movement’s international support network, a situation facilitated by the circulation and publication of these writings and communiqués on the Internet by the movement’s NGO support network. However, while the use of information-age technology to stimulate the creation of collective transnational support networks presents as a useful strategy for contemporary social struggles, it does not guarantee the procurement of significant political, economic and social change. Indeed, after more than a decade of struggle, the Zapatistas have not precipitated the radical reconstruction of the Mexican political system that they had hoped for.