by Raffaele Crocco

It was 1 January. If the first day of the year marks the beginning of something, or at least that’s how it’s perceived, then the 1st of January 1994 really marked the beginning of an adventure. On that day I found myself in Chiapas, having spent several months in San Cristobal de Las Casas seeking refuge from the war in the Balkans. By chance, I was the first European journalist to cover the beginning of the Zapatista revolution. It unfolded during the night as we left the restaurant where we had celebrated the New Year, immersed in alcohol and a hearty meal. The Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) took control of the city during the celebrations, strategically positioning themselves and occupying the municipal building. Confusion and panic gripped both tourists and the local population. It took some time for the events to sink in. It was only at dawn, in the Zocalo, the main square, that I asked a tall figure wearing a ski mask and smoking a pipe who was in charge. He looked at me and said, “I’m in charge. That’s when I met Subcommander Marcos.

Looking beyond the immediate memory, I later realised that on the morning of 1 January 1994 I had witnessed the dawn of a new era in world history. I’m not exaggerating; the events themselves tell the story, as does the aftermath. To unravel it, it is enough to reconstruct the years that followed.  In Chiapas, the desires and plans of some exploited Maya communities have given rise to the most serious and important attempt to challenge the dominant culture of neo-liberal turbo-capitalism. It appeared omnipotent and invincible, but the indigenous Maya proved otherwise. They illuminated spaces for rebellion and transformation. Admittedly, these spaces required active effort to claim, but they undeniably existed.

Let’s not forget that the United States had declared itself the “world’s cop” in those years. The collapse of the Soviet Union three years earlier had taken with it ideals and alternative models to US and European neo-capitalism. Dissenting voices were few, isolated and ridiculed. More importantly, there were no guiding principles; everything seemed preordained. People were resigned.

Suddenly, the light was rekindled. An alternative was emerging from Chiapas, echoing the cry of “Tierra y Libertad” (Land and Freedom). This idea offered an alternative vision of wealth distribution and universal rights, recentring humanity in everyday life and linking local indigenous and peasant identities with the international. It was a simple but powerful idea that halted the seemingly inevitable triumph of hyper-neoliberal capitalism, stripped of rules and humanity.

From Chiapas, the words of the Zapatistas reverberated around the world. Numerous alternative movements emerged, converging, reshaping ideas and declaring “enough is enough” through protests. Dialogues began, global forums were created, and different perspectives on pacifism and environmentalism emerged.

For almost a decade, alternatives seemed truly viable. Then things changed. The voices of the alternative were silenced or assimilated, chewed up and reworked by the system. In Chiapas, the indigenous revolution continues, but victory remains elusive. People are still dying of diarrhoea in homes that lack basic amenities, and the work in the fields continues, earning meagre wages that enrich others. The EZLN continues to defend the territory, but the revolutionary impulse has long since faded.

A failure, then? No, on the contrary. The Zapatista revolution is an enduring model for change. The 1st of January 1994, exactly thirty years ago, is a date that will go down in human history. It marks the day when men and women from a remote corner of the Americas told the world that change is possible. They took the first step. Now, it’s our turn.

In the cover photo, a mural of the Zapatista caracol of Oventic in Chiapas (photo by Alice Pistolesi)