The Zapatista Army of National Liberation in cyberspace

 

For everyone, everything.

Subcomandante Marcos

Figure 1: Electronic Disturbance Theatre (1998), FloodNet screenshot.

 

Introduction

Back in 2010 The New Yorker published an article, written by Malcom Glandwell, which started with a very straight-forward statement: (…) the revolution will not be tweeted. This quote, laying right under the title Small Change, immediately affirms two things:

1.- That the author doesn’t believe that socio-political change can be achieved through online activism, primarily the one that develops inside social media and perhaps more specifically: Twitter.

2.- That the examples of online activism he’s approached hadn’t been successful and/or hadn’t brought a big change to the situations they manifest against. Idea that links back to the title of the article: Small change.

It is sensible to say that Glandwell’s opinion is widely shared, mainly by those generations who witnessed social movements develop throughout the 50’s-60’s but definitely not only reduced to that fragment of the population. We can see, for example, younger generations – or so-called digital natives – wonder if a tweet, a share, a like, and so forth are active indicators of change or if they are only a passive manifestation of low-key resilience, as Glandwell proposes. Yet, is this everything we should say about cyberprotests? Or are there other examples we should be looking at?

It is necessary to question to what extent the virtual manifestations of a current movement are operating and dissect those areas that are reshaping the common protest and actually engaging into a deeper conversation through the use of digital technologies.

It is clear that since the wide spread of internet connection, many forms of communication had to be reinterpreted. The World Wide Web, as envisioned by Tim Berners-Lee and Robert Cailliau, had the intention of “linking and granting access to diverse types of information, like a web of nodes where the users can navigate freely” (Berners-Lee, Tim; Cailliau, Robert, 1990) and as it began to spread, new ways of using this service were developed. What began as a platform for sharing news and recipes, quickly turned into an ocean of skills and resources.

It is not new that those in power have always found ways of maintaining certain order through the oppression and exploitation of those whose voices aren’t widely heard, and to keep this situations under control they tend to impose vast difficulties to those who manifest against their rules. Activists have always been targets of those who prefer to keep certain conditions undercover, yet these groups have always found a way of persevering and continue spreading their ideals. For many of them, the internet became a safe space, a tool, an ally and even more importantly: a weapon.

In this essay, I will address the following question: To what extent does cyber-protest give voice to the voiceless? by using the case study of the Zapatista Movement of National Liberation and its extensive cyber-activity.

About the Zapatista Movement of National Liberation

During the first hours of the 1st January, 1994, while New Year’s celebrations were getting to an end and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was about to be put into action, an army emerged from the rainforests of Chiapas, Mexico with the intention to take over seven villages, including one of the most important cities of the state: San Cristóbal de las Casas.

This army – named The Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) in honour of the Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata who created his own army and defeated the USA military while helping overthrown Mexican dictator Porfirio Díaz – also released the First Declaration of the Lacandona Jungle and the Women's Revolutionary Law. Without a warning, and with a strong “Today, we say enough is enough” as initial sentence, the armed group demanded "jobs, land, housing, food, health, education, independence, freedom, democracy, justice, and peace." (General Command of the EZLN, 1993).

This war declaration from the EZLN to the Mexican government started circulating via fax from the headquarters of the local newspaper Tiempo – leaded by Concepción Villafuerte and journalist Gaspar Morquecho – in San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas to Agence France-Presse in Paris, and later on to other international media; making it clear not only that the spoken/written word was a central part of the movement, but also that the use of electronic media would play a key role in the diffusion of their ideals.

Figure 2: VICE (2014) The Zapatista Uprising (20 Years Later).

The Zapatista Army of National Liberation’s up-rise in 1994 was the consequence of a series of talks and activities previously developed by the group. It was exactly 10 years before the up-rise that the first Zapatista meetings began to take place; the army – conformed by indigenous and mestizo people mainly from Chiapas – started with 6 members but it exponentially grew as their ideals spread across the South East of Mexico, and in just 5 years of activity they were already 1,200 members.

The EZLN reclaimed the political word through a history of struggle and built a strong community by doing what the government hadn’t done: listen to the people. In 1994, the army went from being perceived as the soldiers of the mountains to the people’s army, they believe in the democratic support and that’s exactly what has made them indestructible until this day.

We can identify three main axes of action inside the movement:

·        The military axis, which encompasses all the military activity and a strong ideology about weapons. Here, they think about the possession of guns mainly as an act of defence, where they can agree not to use them but wouldn’t give them up if asked.

·        The word axis, conformed by talks, written releases and, more importantly, the close dialogue with the civil society. This axis focuses in the power of language as well as the politics of poetry. This area is leaded by Subcomandante Marcos, writer and poet who is also known as Delegate Zero and Subcomandante Galeano. He is, perhaps, one of the most well-known figures of the movement due to his position as public spokesperson.

·        The creation axis, where all the development and organization of the Zapatista movement takes place. This area looks after the structure of independent villages as well as the movement itself. Leaded by various self-taught strategists who would weave together the ideals of the EZLN in order to create an appropriate environment inside of the group.

For this essay, I will focus on the word axis and how it became the main area to achieve socio-political change as well as a ground-breaking dialogue space where the conversations between various individuals/communities is encouraged.

 

Online presence and tactical poetics

On 30th January 1996, just a couple of years after the Zapatista up-rise, the army released the First Declaration of La Realidad for Humanity and against Neoliberalism where they called for an intercontinental anti-neoliberalism gathering. They went from talking to the Latin American people to approaching a worldwide audience – the EZLN message started pouring outside of the country with various acts of solidarity such as the song People of the Sun, written by Zack de la Rocha after visiting Chiapas and released in August 1996, performed by the American band Rage Against the Machine. – aiming to bridge ideas and open up the exchange of tactics that could potentially lead to change.

Figure 3: RATMVEVO (2011) Rage Against The Machine - People of the Sun.

In this new declaration, the EZLN stated:

“The Zapatista Army of National Liberation Speaks to all who struggle for human values of democracy, liberty and justice. To all who force themselves to resist the world crime known as "Neoliberalism" and aim for humanity and hope to be better, be synonyms of future. To all individuals, groups, collectives, movements, social, civic and political organizations, neighbourhood associations, cooperatives, all the lefts known and to be known; non-governmental organizations, groups in solidarity with struggles of the world people, bands, tribes, intellectuals, indigenous people, students, musicians, workers, artists, teachers, peasants, cultural groups, youth movements, alternative communication media, ecologists, tenants, lesbians, homosexuals, feminists, pacifists. To all human beings without a home, without land, without work, without food, without health, without education, without freedom, without justice, without independence, without democracy, without peace, without tomorrow. To all who, no matter colours, race or borders, make of hope a weapon and a shield. And calls together for the First Intercontinental Gathering for Humanity and Against Neoliberalism.”    (General Command of the EZLN, 1996)

According to this declaration, the socio-political situation in Chiapas represented only a small part of a bigger world-wide problem. They acknowledged the fact that the struggle for freedom and peace was the ultimate utopia and that it was worth dreaming big and hoping to get as close as that as possible; at the same time, they recognized that if we are to achieve freedom and peace the only real way of getting there was if every single corner of the planet was involved, because if not then the results would only be partial, therefore: fake.

However, this shift in scale required new means of communication in order to create alliances and to position the EZLN as part of a bigger army. It is clear that the internet, fax and alternative media communication had always played an important role in the movement, yet until that moment they hadn’t been fully explored as tools for change. It is also important to point out that the development and use of internet in Mexico was still at a very early stage – considering that the first internet exchanges were made during 1989 and that by 1992 the public commercialization of the internet was mainly focused on schools and businesses – and that the role it played in local communication wasn’t directed to individuals. However, the EZLN trusted that by using the internet they could secure international collaboration which would eventually lead to significant changes.

The way the EZLN understood the internet was as a weapon that could potentially mobilize large masses of people around the world. They knew that it would eventually become a big threat to the government; all of this under the logic that they would eventually be able to master a phenomenon that, until that moment, seemed only to be possible by those in power. This ideology was the one that led them to submerge fully inside the virtual world of the cyber left – term coined by Todd Wolfson in order to pull together all the fragments of contemporary social movements that have a real focus on the use of media and communications in their organization, and which places the internet as a breaking point between the so-called ‘old left’ and the ‘new left’– initially, by taking an active part inside blogs that shared their ideology and later on to upload an archive of their declarations so that they could be easily shared, translated and reinterpreted.

Figure 4: flag.blackened.net (2001) Screenshot of the Zapatista Index.

By 1997 they had already created an important online presence, as well as a structure that granted their members access to internet content as well as give them a voice inside online debates. Considering the fact that only very few cities inside Chiapas had internet access, and that most of the Zapatista villages were deep inside the rainforests and jungles, they had to develop a strategy to take part on the online forums. This strategy can be divided as follows:

1.- A member who had internet access would be actively looking for blogs and websites with similar ideologies to the movement and would select and print out the debates that were pertinent to discuss. Later on, he/she would copy them and send them to the Zapatista villages.

2.- The EZLN would share this prints with their members, and sometimes even translate them to their native language so that every member could take part on the debate. Alternatively, for those who couldn’t read, there would be sub-groups dedicated to sharing the information verbally.

3.- They would set up a meeting and write down their opinions and conclusions about the topic discussed. Once they got to a general consensus, one member would be in charge of writing and editing all the conclusions so that they could share a strong message.

4.- Another member would be in charge of personally delivering the written conclusions and opinions to the member with internet access.

5.- This member would post these conclusions and opinions in behalf of the movement.

After a couple of months of active online interaction, the Zapatistas started to get noticed not only because of their political views but also because of the importance they give to language and poetic gestures as acts of resistance. An important example of this is when in 3th January 2000, the alternative newspaper La Jornada printed the headline “The Zapatista air force attacks Mexican military”, it was a shocking title that instantly made the audience go to the article and read it. When the readers looked deeper into the story, they would realize that it referred to a peaceful protest where the EZLN was using colourful paper planes with messages of peace to ‘attack’ the military force.

The message was clear: Words as war, not words for war.

Figure 5: nitr0usmx (2010) The Hacktivists Digital Zapatismo.

The online figure of the EZLN was being followed by a strong diverse group of people that “(…) included, first and foremost, UseNet newsgroups, PeaceNet conferences, and Internet lists whose members were already concerned with Mexico's social and political life, secondly, humanitarian groupings concerned with human rights generally, thirdly, networks of indigenous peoples and those sympathetic to them, fourthly, those political regions of cyberspace which seemed likely to have members sympathetic to grassroots revolt in general and fifthly, networks of feminists who would respond with solidarity to the rape of indigenous women by Mexican soldiers or to the EZLN "Women's Revolutionary Law" drafted by women, for women, within and against a traditionally patriarchal society.” (Cleaver, 1995)

Which resulted in an important amount of people, both from inside and outside Mexico, travelling to Chiapas to look deeper into the movement. These travellers would contact the movement and fly directly to their headquarters inside the rainforests. These visits were the perfect connection between the digital and the non-digital and served as a way to increase their relationships with other movements worldwide, at the same time that they became a pool of opportunities that went from learning new languages and having access to foreign technologies, to learning to use and hack gadgets and building a community that superseded geographic boundaries, just to mention a few.

“The racist government believes that us, indigenous people, don’t know the world, but I want them to know that we do. We know it from all these men and women that have visited our villages as well as those that we’ve met through the internet. Through their words, we travel to the places they’ve seen and we also know about their fight for freedom (…) Long life to all the rebels from the world.” (EZLN, 2001)

 

 Electronic Disturbance Theatre and alternative online support groups worldwide

The active use of tactical poetics inside the Zapatista movement opened new doors for them to interact not only with similar movements and activists but also with artists and poets. One of the most important links created through the WWW, was the one the EZLN built with the Electronic Disturbance Theatre.

Co-founded by Ricardo Domínguez, the Electronic Disturbance Theatre is a group of activists, critical theorists, hackers and artists who have focused their activities in developing theory and practice regarding non-violent acts of protest mainly in cyberspace but not restrained to it. The EDT is formed by Ricardo Dominguez – artist, activist and associate professor of visual arts at UC San Diego –, Carmin Karasic – multimedia artist, activist and e-learning consultant–, Stefan Wray – writer, digital media professional and environmentalist– and Brett Stalbaum – research theorist specialized in information theory, database, and software development –  and since 1997 they have developed various computer-based events which normally result in mobilizing WWW networks to act in solidarity of cyber left movements.

Before creating the EDT, Ricardo Domínguez already had a close relation with the Zapatista movement and had already developed projects such as the Rabinal Achi/Zapatista Port Action; a composite work created in collaboration with Ron Rocco where Ricardo would perform an extant Mayan play about the battle between the Rain King and the Corn God, and he would use that as a space to have conversations globally about the Zapatistas initiating electronic civil disobedience. (Domínguez, 2016)

Figure 6: R. Rocco and R. Dominguez (1997), Rabinal Achi/Zapatista Port Action.

The first formal approach from the EDT to the Zapatista movement was made right after the Acteal massacre – a nefarious event where 45 civilians, mainly members of the pacifist movement Las Abejas and their families, were murdered by the paramilitary group Mascara Roja for the sole reason of being Zapatista sympathisers – which was, until today, one of the most violent attacks to the EZLN and their followers. This massacre tried to remain hidden by the Mexican government due to its nature, which can be compared to genocide. However, the Zapatistas were not going to let this massacre be swept under the rug and released several declarations about it, both on the internet as well as in public gatherings.

This particular event raised the attention of the EDT, already active followers of the Zapatista movement, who decided to join digital forces with them in order to develop a cyberprotest against the Mexican government. To do so, in April 1998 the Electronic Disturbance Theatre sent an email to a massive mailing list saying: "The New York Zapatistas are urging people around the world to send a powerful message to the Mexican government by committing electronic civil disobedience.” This email, linked to Floodnet.

Floodnet, is a symbolic gesture that became a powerful “weapon of collective presence” and conceptual artwork—an exercise in “tactical poetics.” (Den, 2016). Following the legacy of non-violent protests set by Martin Luther King and Gandhi, “Floodnet took the form of a Java applet that allowed users to send useless requests or personalized messages to a remote web server in a coordinated fashion, thereby slowing it down and filling its error logs with words of protest and gibberish—a kind of virtual sit-in (…)” (Rhizome, 2015).

This event was aimed to the Mexican president’s website, several Mexican banks, Frankfurt stock exchange and even The Pentagon. This tool became the perfect combination between protest and poetics. This call for non-violent direct action online spread fast across the web, inevitably crossing geographical borders to get a message of solidarity to the EZLN.

Figure 7: Electronic Disturbance Theatre (1998), FloodNet screenshot.

Furthermore, what made this tool even more powerful, at the moment, was the fact that the EDT members kept their identities public, decision based in the American Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, which allowed them to become recognizable figures inside the media and IRL. This represented a huge action since the Mexican government couldn’t state that the cyber-allies of Zapatista movement weren’t real any longer.

The outcome of this virtual sit-in was a press release from the Mexican government, condemning the actions in Acteal and promising to prosecute those involved, and in a different tone, The Pentagon firing back Java applets in order to crash the attacker’s system. These actions might seem small yet, for an event as the Acteal massacre this represented a fierce demonstration of world-wide solidarity, where online civil disobedience leaded to direct action and provided an alternative to those who thought their voices were weak.

Figure 8: Electronic Disturbance Theatre (1998), FloodNet screenshot.

Moreover, it is important to point out that Floodnet was the polished result of several previous actions being held on the web. One of the actions that inspired the EDT to develop Floodnet was an act of civil disobedience organized by the Italian group Anonymous Digital Coalition on 20th January 1998. The ADC, through The Thing website, called for a Netstrike for Zapata with the following message:

 “CALL FOR VIRTUAL SIT-INS AT FIVE MEXICO FINANCIAL WEB SITES

In solidarity with the Zapatista movement we welcome all the netsurfers with the ideals of justice, freedom, solidarity and liberty within their hearts, to sit-in the day 29/01/1998 from 4:00 p.m. GMT (Greenwich Mean Time) to 5:00 p.m. GMT (Greenwich Mean Time) in the following five web sites, symbols of Mexican neoliberalism:

Bolsa Mexicana de Valores (Mexican Stock Exchange): www.bmv.com.mx

Grupo Financiero Bital (Financial group Bital): www.bital.com.mx

Grupo Financiero Bancomer (Financial group Bancomer): www.bancomer.com.mx

Banco de Mexico (Bank of Mexico): www.banxico.org.mx

Banamex (Mexican bank Banamex): www.banamex.com (…)”

Followed by a series of technical instructions on how to perform the attack. This particular netstrike raised the interest of various groups since it was something that seemed quite new for online activists. The original message, written in Italian, got translated to more than 5 languages and the English version started with this message “Rarely have grassroots groups exercised cyberpower in this way. Clearly people in Italy are using their creativity and imagination. This is a unique opportunity to move into new terrain for coordinated world-wide action. Be part of what is probably the first globally coordinated virtual sit-in!” making it clear that this call for action was a key point in the development of the digital Zapatismo.

However, this netstrike wasn’t as successful as EDT’s Floodnet due to the fact that some people were not able to follow the technical instructions clearly. Yet it helped gain interest from the audience to engage in acts of online civil disobedience as well as opening new doors for online action.

Conclusion

During the evening of 31st December 1993, while the Zapatista up-rise was hours away of taking place, the journalist Gaspar Morquecho had an encounter with Subcomandante Marcos, during their short conversation Morquecho asked him "Are you going to win?" to what Marcos answered "We don't deserve to lose”.

This small, yet striking, line can actively represent the years that came after. While referring specifically to the role of the cyberprotests inside of the movement I’d like to quote Cleaver “through their ability to extend their political reach via modern computer networks the Zapatistas [wove] a new electronic fabric of struggle to carry their revolution throughout Mexico and around the world.” (Cleaver, 1995) because they constitute an essential part of the core of development. Moreover, in terms of what this cyber presence meant to the safety of the movement Chomsky resumes it clearly “the Mexican government tried to do the natural thing, which is to destroy them by force. However, the only thing that stopped them was that they got too much public support all over the place. Instead, they accorded a cease-fire and started negotiating with the EZLN (…)” (Chomsky, 1999).

In fact, this also led to help solve some of the issues that the movement complained about for example: access to free, quality education. With such large audiences watching worldwide, people from the internet became one of the main source of funding both, economically but also in kind. Organizations such as Schools for Chiapas, who since de mid-nineties have actively helped in the construction and development of free schools in the rainforests region of Chiapas.

 

Figure 9: Schools for Chiapas (2016), @ChiapasSchools tweet in relation to the creation of a new school. Avaliable at twitter.com/chiapasschools

On the other hand, this movement is still active and last year, during the Fifth National Indigenous Congress, they expressed their interest in actively participating in 2018 Mexican Presidential elections. During such meeting, they shared their intentions of launching an indigenous woman as an independent candidate for the 2018 Presidential elections and later on during April this year the Indigenous National Congress called its constitutive assembly to sort out who this candidate will be. The reason behind their decision of postulating an indigenous woman to represent the Zapatista movement in the Presidential elections is because they believe there's no minority group as unrepresented as an indigenous woman, therefore she will undoubtedly become the face of justice and more importantly: the face of change.

Furthermore, the EZLN asked the Mexican civil society not to see them as a political party, because this is a synonym of corruption, as well as understanding the role of this candidate much more as a spokesperson for the oppressed, a mere representative of those who have ever suffered the injustice and corruption of the Mexican government. Later on this year, the EZLN will launch their official candidate; an action that summarizes all this years of struggle.

This is the wakeup call we needed, and now just like the Mexican anthem says: let the ground shake upon its centre.

 

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Figure 1:

VICE (2014) The Zapatista Uprising (20 Years Later). Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3HAw8vqczJw  (Accessed: 15 May 2017).

Figure 2:

RATMVEVO (2011) Rage Against The Machine - People of the Sun. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=scyC9A6o_Ts (Accessed: 15 May 2017).

Figure 3:

flag.blackened.net (2001) Screenshot of the Zapatista Index. Avaliable at: http://flag.blackened.net/revolt/zapatista.html

Figure 4:

nitr0usmx (2010) The Hacktivists Digital Zapatismo. Available at: https://youtu.be/O-U-he8LN3k (Accessed: 15 May 2017).

Figure 5:

R. Rocco and R. Dominguez (1997), Rabinal Achi/Zapatista Port Action. Available at http://artnetweb.com/port/participants/rabinal.html

Figure 6:

Electronic Disturbance Theatre (1998), FloodNet screenshot. Available at http://archive.rhizome.org/anthology/floodnet.html

Figure 7:

Schools for Chiapas (2016), @ChiapasSchools tweet in relation to the creation of a new school. Avaliable at twitter.com/chiapasschools