Wander the markets of San Cristobal de las Casas and you can’t help but notice the recurring image of the black ski mask, printed across t-shirts and stitched onto woolen souvenirs. It’s the informal motif of the Zapatista Army for National Liberation (EZLN), and the trademark garb of Subcomandante Marcos, the most in/famous member of the EZLN.
Marcos shares the pantheon of EZLN heroes with Emiliano Zapata and Che Guevara. While the army names and styles itself after the rogue general Zapata, Marcos has more in common with Guevara. Guevara and Marcos both came from well-educated, middle class backgrounds, but found themselves drawn towards the plight of the campesino. Both are known for their writings and declarations, the eloquent mouthpieces for the voiceless, the illiterate and uneducated.
Marcos does more to liken himself to Guevara though; his ski mask is Guevara’s red beret, his pipe is Guevara’s cigar. In 2006 Marcos embarked on a tour of all 31 Mexican states, the so-called ‘Other Campaign’ that coincided with 2006 Mexican presidential campaigns. During this campaign Marcos apparently travelled by motorbike, an homage to Guevara’s early travels in South America.
There’s no real need to further elaborate the similarities; what I’m interested in are the divergences, the different trajectories of Guevara and Marcos/the EZLN. Any opportunity to expound upon my fascinated ambivalence towards Guevara.
The EZLN came to international attention in 1994 when, to coincide with the North American Fair Trade Agreement, they took up arms, storming Chiapas towns, freeing prisoners and seizing power. They were in control for about a day; the Mexican army descended on the state and swept the guerillas back out into the jungle.
Guevara obviously had far more success in his early days as a guerilla; Cuba still somewhat resembles the state he fought to bring into existence. More telling than the victories though are the defeats, or the threats of defeat. When Guevara was faced with defeat – such as he often was during the Cuba campaign, or during his African campaign which in his journals he called a “history of a failure”, or in his Bolivian campaign which achieved nothing besides his death – his answer was always to radicalise and revolutionise further; to execute dissenters, to spout rhetoric, to cling to a vague image of global armed revolution and call for “two, three, many Vietnams” (could that possibly be palatable to anyone?). Eventually he became too much for Castro and there was really nowhere left for him to go except an unmarked grave in Bolivia.
Marcos and the EZLN, on the other hand, seem to better understand subtlety, moderation and compromise. They reconceptualised their defeat by and obvious powerlessness before the Mexican army as a necessary first step. According to Marcos “we didn’t go to war in order to kill or to be killed. We went to war in order to be heard”.
Since then the EZLN has gained a reputation as a post-modern revolutionary movement, still wearing their ski masks but avowedly non-violent, fighting not with guns but with words and negotiations and participation in broader global counter-culture movements. They have stores and market stalls down in Chiapas where you can find indigenous handicrafts and fair-trade products and posters bearing slogans like “it is possible to produce without destroying nature” or “women with rebel dignity”. There is never a gun and rarely a ski-mask in sight (unless it’s on the woolen Zapatista dolls for sale).
While Guevara preferred to die on his feet rather than live on his knees, Marcos and the EZLN have managed to find some sort of stable middle ground. They have survived where Guevara and his particular brand of total revolution have not. They may not have toppled any dictators nor overthrown neoliberalism and all those other capitalist demons, but they are sticking to their grassroots guns and working away at alternative models of democracy and production in their communities in Chiapas.
Perhaps the simple difference between Marcos and Guevara is realism. Perhaps the difference is patience. Whatever you want to call it, Marcos and the EZLN are still at work in Chiapas, and if anything their fan base is expanding as they continue to attract international interest without reverting to bloodshed. Their revolution, it seems to me, has matured, although part of that maturity is perhaps reducing their goals to more reasonable, reachable ones. The revolution of Guevara, on the other hand, remained young, hotblooded, implausible, and perhaps ultimately well suited to the t-shirts that continue his struggle today. No doubt Guevara will remain one of the glamorous heroes of the revolution for the EZLN, but in the slow-burning Marcos they may have found a more suitable, sustainable hero, and one that won’t lead them off on a mad crusade to an early grave.
[If you've read all the way to the end of this post leave a comment and tell me what you think! How do you see Che/Marcos?]