Nick Henck’s “Subcommander Marcos”

Published online 20 January 2008.

This is a review of Nick Henck’s book on Sup Marcos, the military leader of the EZLN, the subversive movement in Mexico.

(Photo from the account of Whodisan215)

(Crossposted at Docudharma)

Book Review:

Henck, Nick.  Subcommander Marcos: The Man and the Mask.
Durham NC: Duke UP, 2007.

This is a biography of “Sup Marcos,” the EZLN spokesperson and overall figure of revolt against neoliberalism in the state of Chiapas in Mexico.  It’s a sort of second-hand biography, from someone who hasn’t interviewed Marcos himself; but it serves a purpose, most pointedly to counter the hack-job biography Subcomandante Marcos: La Genial Impostura by Bertrand de la Grange and Maite Rico with something more objective in its assessment of Marcos’ life and life-goals.

Mostly this is the tale of a guy, Rafael Guillen, who idolized Che Guevara in his youth, who read lots of radical literature in college, had a brief teaching career at a radical university, and then went off to Chiapas to become a guerrilla with the FLN, the ancestor organization of the EZLN, the Ejercito Zapatista de Liberacion National which was to become famous in 1994 with the uprisings in Chiapas.  Much is made of the fact that Guillen was, like Lenin, the fourth of eight children.  He went to the Instituto Cultural de Tampico, a Jesuit institution, and to UNAM for graduate work.  He wrote a dissertation in a then-chic form of Althusserian Marxism.

After graduation, Guillen taught classes at UAM (Universidad Autonoma Metropolitana), also like UNAM in Mexico City.  UAM was widely regarded as a hotbed of radicalism, and was a source of people who later turned up in the EZLN.  His classes were said to be “dynamic and placed great emphasis on class struggle.”  Guillen went to Chiapas in 1984 to join what was then a somewhat traditional Guevarist foco, and spent ten long, hard years as “Subcomandante Marcos,” learning to live with the locals and unlearning his middle-class upbringing.  Adaptation to the Chiapan forest was difficult for Marcos:

What separated Marcos from other cadres sent from the capital to Chiapas for their jungle training was that he remained there, whereas the vast majority of the others just did the basic minimum and returned almost immediately to city life. (75)

At that point, the EZLN, a southern wing of the FLN, had not yet made connections with the indigenous peoples of Chiapas.  The EZLN had to go through a long process in which its revolutionary project had to be adapted, ideologically and linguistically, to the people of Chiapas:

Marcos had to stop merely spouting an alien (Marxist) dogma in an alien (Castilian) tongue and to learn the language of the indigenous and also their cultural reference points.  “In order to survive we had to translate ourselves using a different code… this language constructed itself from the bottom upwards.”  Marcos elaborates further, stating: “It became necessary to assimilate, to resolve, to learn the language, but also to learn something more than the language itself: the use of language, of the symbol in communication, all that.  Moreover, the cultural references, icons, and symbols had to be exchanged for those of the region and in particular of the indigenous: “They have a different substratum, a complex prehistory of uprisings, so we modified our approach interactively.”  Messages were now explained in simple parables of direct relevance to everyday campesino life.  Indigenous myths, legends, and folklore were incorporated and utilized in these fables.  As a result, the guerrilla’s message became comprehensible, palatable indeed, and this in turn boosted recruitment.  (94-95)

All of the above explanation, part of the genesis of the EZLN, goes a long way to explain the eventual transformation of the EZLN from a Marxist-Leninist organization into a relatively nondoctrinaire organization fighting for the basic human rights of Marcos’s writings, which have been selected in a beautiful English translation with the name Our Word Is Our Weapon.  Much is made of the philosophy of a movement as ostensibly held by the people of Chiapas.  Philosophers such as John Holloway (Change The World Without Taking Power) have staked their careers upon this; books such as Mihalis Mentinis’ Zapatistas: The Chiapas Revolt and What It Means for Radical Politics attempt to integrate the Zapatista movement into the traditions of autonomism and of Hardt and Negri’s book Empire.  I tend to think of this writing as overblown; as Peter McLaren and Nathalia Jaramillo point out in Pedagogy and Praxis in the Age of Empire, changing the world means, in one form or another, actually having power.  The main difference between the Zapatistas and the others is that the Zapatistas are more democratic at what they do.

The actual substance of EZLN democracy, of “mandar obedeciendo,” of the “caracoles,” the “encuentros” and the “consultas,” is somewhat beyond the realm of Henck’s book.  I would direct the reader to consider Duncan Earle and Jeanne Simonelli’s Uprising of Hope, an ethnography of the Zapatistas.  This is indeed an interesting book in its own right, one which I may decide to diary soon.

Frankly, I think that Henck’s approach to Marcos’ philosophy is a good one for newbie readers in this subject: citing concrete statements to reveal the substance of their flexible approach to politics, one still within the tradition of Che Guevara, but more attuned to the realities of a post-Soviet world.  To illustrate Marcos’ philosophy, Henck quotes the Sixth Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle:

Are we saying that politics has no purpose?  No, what we mean is that THAT politics serves no purpose… It is useless because it does not take the people into account.  It does not listen to them, it does not pay any attention to them, it just approaches them when there are elections… And then just promises of what this one (politician) is going to do and what the other one is going to do, then it’s bye, I’ll see you, but you don’t see them again, except when they appear in the news when they’ve just stolen a lot of money and nothing is going to be done to them because the law – which those same politicians made – protects them. (357)

The EZLN’s alternative politics:

What we are going to do is to take heed of the thoughts of the simple and humble people, and perhaps we will… find something like a program that has what we all want, and a plan for how we are going to achieve the realization of that program, which is called the “national program of struggle.”  We are going to try to build, or rebuild, another way of doing politics, one which once again has the spirit of serving others, without material interests, with sacrifice, with dedication, with honesty, which keeps its word… We are also going to go about raising a struggle in order to demand that we make a new Constitution, new laws which take into account the demands of the Mexican people. (357)

We could certainly do with a “national program of struggle” here in the US, perhaps centered around the idea that the United States, instead of being the world’s consumer of last resort, should get back in touch with the natural heritage we joined when our ancestors moved to the New World, and instead try to be part of a global, ecologically sustainable society.

Marcos’ dismissal of the Mexican political class is also appropriate to our society’s relation to its political class.  Our political class is afraid to talk about the real issues of our time, of dollar hegemony, of an American economy so toploaded as to be sinking, of abrupt climate change and “Peak Oil,” and of the very motion of capitalism wearing down the workforce and the planet.  Thus we have no relationship with the political class.  For them, it is money that counts and not you and me, for we are mere people and our votes can be suckered out of us, whereas money can buy the propaganda which will do just that.  In fact, we are much cheaper dates than they make of us; whereas as of 2004 it took a bit under $400 million to run a successful Presidential election, most of the American public can be motivated simply out of fear that “the other guy will be elected,” and to vote for the “lesser of two evils,” in which case the (lesser) evil politicians need not even bother with appeals to the public.  We indeed do need a new way of doing politics.  I will leave it up to the reader to decide how the Zapatista movement is relevant to that new way of doing politics which we indeed do need.  It is hard to say that there will be any forested area left in the United States by the time a Zapatista movement arises here.  On the other hand, there is still much to learn from the Zapatistas.

At any rate, Marcos’ work through the late ‘80s and early ‘90s was in assembling a clandestine army, the Ejercito Zapatista de Liberacion Nacional, in the jungle in Chiapas.  Local residents had to be recruited and trained; arms had to be procured.  Guns were often gotten off of the black market, or from the “guardias blancas of the ranchers, trained by the security forces and the army,” or by requiring recruits to buy their own weapons.  There were also guns smuggled in from the United States through contacts that German (the then-leader of the EZLN) and Marcos had made there.

In 1987, both German and Marcos marry – Marcos to a woman known by the nom de guerre Ana Maria.  At “around 1990-1991,” the decision-making structure of the organization changes, and power went from the structure of the EZLN to the insurgent communities, which then had to be “asked permission” before major decisions were to be made (134-135).  This organizational change causes an explosive growth in the ranks of the EZLN.

On 23-25 January 1993, a meeting of the FLN’s highest leadership took place in Chiapas, and a “putsch” (Henck’s word) was organized in which “Marcos, German, and Lucia now comprised the three cornerstones of the FLN,” (167) and “Rodrigo and partner Gabriela completely cut out of the equation” (167-168) of FLN leadership.  Henck describes Rodrigo as a “diehard Marxist-Leninist veteran of the 1960s and 1970s.” (164)  War was declared, despite Rodrigo’s misgivings about it.  There was an “exodus” of EZLN members in Chiapas, including (importantly) “Subcommander Daniel,” who was later to turn state’s evidence against the EZLN in the Mexican government’s later attempt to prosecute and jail the entire organization.

A year later, on 1/1/1994, under pressure from discontented locals and seeing no other way forward, Marcos instigated the uprisings in Chiapas.  The battles as described in this biography are real enough; their motives seem rather unusual, if successful.  The EZLN briefly took over portions of Chiapas in order to get international attention for the cause, and the cause was (at this point) the basic human rights of the people of Chiapas, such as were being wantonly disrespected by the government of Mexico.

What was the EZLN’s military strategy?  Henck tells us:

It would thus appear that the rebellion was undertaken in the full knowledge that if the government did indeed choose to respond using the army, the Zapatistas would be crushed… At the same time, however, there was hope that somehow the uprising would not be crushed outright.  In the event, this hope proved justified, since world attention was turned toward Chiapas and Mexican civil society stepped in to ensure that the Zapatistas were not annihilated.  (188)

So, what we have with the 1994 Zapatista uprising is a war, against incredible odds, conducted as a public relations scheme.  To a certain extent, this (for me) clarifies the function of the Zapatista “stance” a whole lot.  To fight for basic human rights is something the Zapatistas needed (and need) to do; the global mass media would doubtless support a message demanding “basic human rights” (rather than, as was once meaningful, socialism).  At times, the Zapatistas will declare themselves to be against neoliberalism, or (more directly) capitalism.  Issues of “taking power” are secondary to those of democratic participation because otherwise power becomes a matter of community subordination to “leadership.”  The Zapatista movement is hemmed in by the political “situation on the ground”.  They can’t organize a general coalition of the Left in Mexico.  They see corruption in all of the organized political parties.  They have succeeded in creating a multicultural organization through a uniquely democratic process.  That’s what defines them, not “doctrine.”

In that regard, Henck links political and economic events as having precipitated the rise of the EZLN, especially in 1988-1989: a fall in the price of coffee (Chiapas’ main export product) coincided with the Salinas government’s militarization of Chiapas (which especially impacted people in its prohibition upon firewood gathering), and this drove people into the EZLN as it was the only organized resistance to the government in the area (125-129).  NAFTA, later, provided further economic impetus for the EZLN’s rise.

At any rate, there were four major actions in the 1994 uprising; there were takeovers of San Cristobal, Altimirano, Ocosingo, and Las Margaritas.  The one in San Cristobal was relatively peaceful; the EZLN took over the town, burned illegitimate property records, freed the prisoners, and then ran off into the countryside; the one at Ocosingo, Henck tells us, was violent:  “There the police resisted a Zapatista assault force of around four hundred troops for eight hours.” (209)  The end result was that “the EZLN officer in charge at Ocosingo executed the police chief.”  So there was some actual bloodletting.

After the 1994 uprising, a series of negotiations occurred between the government and the EZLN.  Most of the real struggle within these negotiations appears to be between the government and itself; the EZLN has no trust in any regime, whether it be PRI or PAN, and the government, while revealing itself to be completely untrustworthy, still struggles to avoid total disrepute in the eyes of public opinion, thus the expected genocide in Chiapas never occurs.  The Mexican government failed in its attempts to buy off the people of Chiapas through “development programs,” in its attempts to exclude foreigners from Chiapas, and in its attempts to destroy the EZLN leadership.  Still, the government’s militarization of the situation in Chiapas led to a massacre in 1997:

… three days before Christmas, of forty-five members – forty-six if one includes an unborn infant ripped from its mother’s body – of the Chenalho highland community of Acteal… the massacre at Acteal represented undoubtedly the grossest abuse of human rights in the state in recent years.  Although the massacre was not conducted by the Federal Army, the culprits were pro-PRI paramilitaries with strong ties to the party and the Mexican security forces.  To make matters worse, the killers were armed with government weapons, allegedly supplied by local security forces. (319)

The Zapatistas appear, largely thanks to Marcos, to have won the publicity war with the Mexican government, and established themselves as a force for good.  I have questions, however, that weren’t really answered by the book, as to the actual welfare of the Zapatistas.  We get a lot of interesting information about Marcos’s role in “putting on a show” and fighting for the cause, but little of an overall estimation of whether or not the cause has succeeded so far.  Life in the mountains is hard, as Marcos himself admits.  Has it gotten any easier?  What will history’s verdict be, upon the Zapatista movement?  My reflex says to wish it luck, for all the good that does.

Late in this narrative, Marcos disappears from the scene, most notably during the time when the Mexican government is hunting him down in the forests of Chiapas.  Henck’s narrative takes us to the beginnings of “la Otra Campana” at the beginning of 2006.  So the book doesn’t get around to analyzing the Zapatista’s abstention from the election of 2006, nor of the corrupted election of 2006, nor of Felipe Calderon nor of Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.  Yet there is a lot of really good basic information here about Subcomandante Marcos and the EZLN, a movement to inspire our times.  To a certain extent, Henck puts his own positive spin on the Zapatistas: he quotes Jorge Castaneda (always a slippery source) favorably:

Indeed, Marcos’ reasoning was novel precisely because it was so reformist: the EZLN did not seek to take power or overthrow Mexico’s one-party system by the strength of its arms; rather, it would use them to help those without arms achieve something like democracy in Mexico (267)

Compare this with the Sixth Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle, not sounding too reformist:

Thus neoliberal globalization wants to destroy the nations of the world so that only one Nation or country remains, the country of money, of capital.  And capitalism wants everything to be as it wants in its own way, and it doesn’t like what is different, and it persecutes it and attacks it, or puts it off in a corner and acts as if it doesn’t exist.

Then, in short, the capitalism of global neoliberalism is based on exploitation, plunder, contempt, and repression of those who refuse.  The same as before, but now globally, worldwide.

But it is not so easy for neoliberal globalization, because the exploited of each country become disoriented, and they will not say well, too bad, instead they rebel.  And those who remain and those who are in the way resist, and they don’t allow themselves to be eliminated.  And that is why we see, all over the world, those who are being screwed over making resistances, not putting up with it, in other words, they rebel, and not just in one country but wherever they abound.  And so, as there is a neoliberal globalization, there is a globalization of rebellion.

We can only hope.


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