On Jan. 1, 1994, the same day that the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) came into effect, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) seized control of several cities in the highlands of Chiapas, Mexico’s southern-most state.

Within a few days, it was clear that the group was Indigenous-led and that it had a charismatic spokesperson in Subcomandante Marcos. The movement also had expectations of social transformation that extended beyond the immediate goal of improving the lot of the Maya people of the Chiapas highlands.

From the outset, the Zapatistas put forward a vision of a world where there is respect for diverse ways of being human and of organizing political life, where there might be diverse expressions of truth in the face of supposedly universal truths like the one offered by business elites about the all-powerful “invisible hand” of the free market.

It’s hard to argue that NAFTA had any healthy impacts for ordinary people in any of its member countries. But with NAFTA and in the wake of the Sandinista rebellion, connections multiplied rapidly among civil society organizations in Mexico, Canada and the United States.

In a series of letters addressed to “Doña Sociedad Civil,” Marcos reached out to other social movements in Mexico and beyond, and ignited an on-going debate about civil society.

Multi-sector coalitions like Common Frontiers in Canada and the Mexican Action Network on Free Trade (RMALC) played a big role in bringing human rights defenders, ecologists, trade unions, and women’s and students’ organizations together so that they began to share each other’s struggles in ways not foreseen 20 years ago.

Civil society and respect for diversity

Enrique Maza, the Jesuit who is among the founders of Proceso magazine, says that civil society is not a simple idea and not homogenous.

“One of its parts is on the side of money and of power. Another part represents work, marginalization, exclusion, and commitment to struggle for justice and for the defence of human rights. Many do not have a clear awareness of what side they belong to nor to whom they are committed. As such, this part is a movement of persons who feel questioned by injustice, that constitute groups, associations, social movements, organizations and all the ways of grouping together so as to express opinions and to act in concrete tasks that improve the welfare of the people and of those who are in greatest need. It constitutes a struggle for a society that is more just and that is in solidarity with all….

“Not all parts of civil society respond in the same way. The engaged part invents the future, maintains a critical spirit and defends the criteria that safeguard identity and the social and mental ecosystem in the face of globalization and economic and information homogenization.”

The Zapatistas pressed for new ways of thinking about power—that leaders should obey their communities—and rejected the hegemony of political parties. The vision had a big impact on those who created the World Social Forum series of encounters that in turn have helped to transform politics in South America.

In many ways, the anti-system discourse of Javier Sicilia and the Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity is similar to that of the Zapatistas.

Profound change in Mexico is still elusive, perhaps because many of the groups that would be autonomous civil society in other countries are still embedded in the corporatist structure of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), and also because of the proximate influence of the consumerist “American Dream” fantasy: remittances sent home by family members in the United States help to keep the Mexican economy afloat.

The July 1, 2012, federal election will be the fourth since the Chiapas uprising. The Zapatistas have used a variety of strategies to have an impact on Mexico’s political culture. They won’t be silent in the coming months.

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