Revolution as Tourist Attraction?

The Zapatista Liberation Front from the Mexican province of Chiapas, along with various hangers-on, is marching from its stronghold in the south to Mexico City to confer with Mexican president Vicente Fox, who has just assumed power and has made resolution of the largely indigenous-based revolt in Chiapas a relatively high priority. You won’t get me to predict whether a resolution of the conflict is likely or not. But the revolt in Chiapas has been a fascinating one, however it turns out, that could have implications for other groups seeking to get the attention of (as my friend Richard Cowan of always puts it) "the appalling people who rule us."

By all reports, the 1,800-mile, two-week trek to Mexico City has more of a carnival atmosphere than the aura of militant anger. As a piece by Laurence Iliff for the Dallas Morning News put it, "the script was different than first envisioned as rebels and sympathizers departed the colonial city of San Cristobal de las Casas where the uprising began in 1994.

Back then the pipe-smoking Subcommandante Marcos and his cohorts had envisioned or pretended to envision something like a military conquest of the oppressive central government in Mexico City. However, as Iliff put it, "Rather than confiscating tanks and military transport trucks and leaving behind defeated government soldiers, the Zapatistas began the first leg of their journey amid a parade-like celebration of rented buses and private vehicles, unarmed and prepared to talk.


A not-half-bad radio report from Gerry Hadden of National Public Radio added some color to the story. With Subcommandante Marcos something of a pop culture hero and supporters from around the world joining the march, the event had almost the atmosphere of a rock concert, said Hadden. More celebratory than angry, the Chiapas rebels seemed in a party mood. Whether they will be able to parlay their triumphalism into concessions from Vicente Fox (whom Marcos, in what might have been a downer moment, called a man "who talks a lot and listens very little") is another question.

Perhaps more important is whether the kind of concessions the rebels seem to want they’re a bit vague, centered around economic assistance from the central government to the poverty-stricken region would be good for the area if they were forthcoming. Grabbing goodies from a central government hardly seems like a formula for independence and pride.

But for now the mood is festive. Perhaps at this point the movement is more like one inspired by rock rebels like Frank Zappa than by revered 1910 revolutionary forebears like Emiliano Zapata.


Among the interesting aspects of the Chiapas rebellion highlighted by the NPR report is the fact that much of the recruiting, both conceptual and physical, for the Zapatista rebels has taken place over the Internet. The movement Web sites, according to Hadden, have played on a sense that the Chiapas indigenous people have the same cause as oppressed indigenous or powerless people the world over, from the Kurds of Iraq to the people of Brazilian and Indonesian rain forests.

This encouragement of a common identity of oppression has drawn college students from Mexico City and most of the European countries, Italian communists and U.S. peace activists, to support the Zappatista rebellion, not just with good wishes and occasional donations, but with their physical presence. Leftist causes that haven’t yet been blemished by the corruption and personal scandal that eventually overtake most movements for social change are hardly a dime a dozen these days, and Subcommandante Marcos and his friends have played on the desire to be a part of a lofty cause, to be a part of what seems to be the action.


So successful has the movement been at reviving tattered idealistic hopes that foreign visitors to Chiapas, hoping to make contact with the latest example of revolutionary fervor, have become an important aspect of the local economy. Gerry Hadden talked to several local shopkeepers, including some who didn’t have a business or much hopes of ever developing one before the rebellion started attracting foreigners with money to spend.

One merchant even suggested that if a peace agreement were reached it could have a deleterious impact on the local economy. Agriculture in the region is hardly flourishing and commerce and manufacturing are if anything in worse shape. So the businesses that have arisen to cater to foreign tourists in search of the frisson of being part of a revolutionary movement with little if any actual physical danger involved have become a larger share of the economy than might have been anticipated by anyone.


Now I don’t know if Subcommandante Marcos and the guerillas he leads are really socialists concerned about the dehumanizing effects of globalization or whether they mouth these trendy phrases because they know who their target audience is. If they are sincere in their desire for the subsidies and central controls that accompany socialism, of course, they are asking not for economic help and development but for isolation and continued poverty.

The most important requisite for a solidly based economic development, of course, is relative peace. Wars and conflicts do create opportunities for profiteers of various kinds, of course, and this one seems to have done so on a relatively small scale. But real economic growth is more often rooted in stability, predictability and willingness to make agreements with others whose ultimate interests may be a bit different from one’s own. Recognition of the importance of private property and something resembling a rule of law wouldn’t hurt either. But a semblance of domestic tranquility is the most fundamental precondition.


Whether they use the words or not, the Zappatistas may have a glimmer of understanding of some of these issues, and Vicente Fox has more than a glimmer. The experience of the rebels with Internet recruiting in some ways stands as a case study of the ability of globalization to reinforce local identities and causes. By creating an Internet-based virtual community of people who seem to or claim to share certain ideals and are willing to make a commitment to the essentially local cause, the Chiapas guerrillas have used globalization to strengthen localization.

Do they understand that this aspect of globalization – that a day is arriving when people in almost any part of the world can do business (in the broadest sense) with people in almost any other part of the world, which can make them less dependent on local and national political power structures and reinforce their uniques cultural or ethnic identities? I don’t know. Often people who have accomplished a conceptually important task are the last to understand its true nature.

Whether the Zappatistas will make a deal with the central government that reduces the level of violence and begins the process of facilitating economic development or not, the atmosphere of a rock concert is a more attractive way to run a revolution than the grim anger and killing that often accompanies a rebel movement. The Chiapas guerrillas seem somewhat ideologically befuddled. But it’s hard not to wish them well.

Author: Alan Bock

Get Alan Bock's Waiting to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana (Seven Locks Press, 2000). Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995).