Subcommander Marcos: the man and the mask

Published in Book Reviews, Issue 4 (Jul/Aug 2008), Reviews, Volume 16

Subcommander Marcos: the man and the mask
Nick Henck
(Duke University Press, $25)
ISBN 9780822339953On 1 January 1994 an indigenous rebel army occupied several towns in south-east Mexico, launching an uprising against the government. They came out of nowhere and announced their intention to advance towards Mexico City to overthrow the corrupt regime. The Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) demanded land, justice and freedom, but few observers anticipated anything but death and destruction.
Mexico was governed by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which had ruled the country for six decades, suppressing dissent with brutal efficiency. In addition, Mexico’s President Carlos Salinas had just signed the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), copper-fastening political and business relations with the US and Canada. Instead, as one observer noted, ‘We went to bed in the first world and woke up in the third’.
The Mexican army was dispatched to subdue the uprising, and soon there were reports of civilian deaths and collective punishment against rebel villages. The familiar Latin American narrative of rebellion and reprisal looked set for a rerun. This time, however, history took a different path. Mexicans took to the streets in large numbers, rejecting the military response and demanding a peaceful solution to the conflict. A Zapatista spokesman emerged, smoking a pipe. He was Subcomandante Marcos, a mysterious, middle-class Mexican with a superb gift for the written and spoken word. He also delivered a shock to the Left around the world—‘We don’t want power’, he said.
The Mexican government bowed to the popular pressure and declared a ceasefire. Talks soon followed. Meanwhile, Marcos became a household name in Mexico and a symbol of rebellious hope around the globe. Marcos understood the language of the emerging global citizens’ movement that became visible in Seattle during the WTO protests in 1999. There would be no ‘end of history’, just a new beginning.
The rebel leader delivered a blizzard of communiqués in which he explained the rebel cause, combining history lessons with literary allusions and references to popular culture. Mexico has a weakness for the masked rebel battling overwhelming odds for a noble cause. Marcos combined the theatrical gesture of the ‘lucha libre’ tradition (popular freestyle wrestling in which fighters wear masks representing good and evil) with the very real bullets and bandoliers of revolutionary hero Emiliano Zapata, betrayed by the Mexican government in 1919.
The title of this book is highly appropriate. The biggest surprise of the book is that it is the first biography of the Mexican rebel leader to be published in English. Latin American bookshelves are creaking with the weight of all the books written about Marcos and the EZLN, while cyberspace is also clogged with thousands of pages dedicated to analysis and debate.
Author Nick Henck explains at the outset that he never interviewed Marcos himself, relying instead on the traditional tools of historic biography. The absence of personal contact with his subject is the weak point in what is an otherwise well-written and comprehensive account of the rebel leader and the movement he represents. As someone fortunate enough to have met Marcos on many occasions, I can say that any encounter with him has a way of forcing the interviewer to look deeply into his own soul and reflect upon the gap between detached research and the urgency of committed activism. Such a debate would be a healthy antidote to the stagnancy of much academic output. Henck, a Visiting Associate Professor in the Faculty of Law in Keio University, Tokyo, remains an unknown quantity. Marcos is a living, breathing presence in the jungles of south-east Mexico, where the Zapatistas are building an autonomous rebel zone, combining food security with local democracy.
To his merit, Henck takes all the available material on Marcos and moulds it into a coherent narrative, touching on all the relevant themes. The most important aspect of Marcos’s personal journey inside the Zapatistas was the meeting of two worlds—the orthodox Marxist stepping into the indigenous world. In that battle the indigenous organising structures clearly won out, and Henck’s retelling of this history is a vital element in comprehending the emergence of the Left in Latin America today. In a nutshell, the outsiders learned to listen, a lesson largely lost on the Left, which is far too fond of hearing its own voice.
The story of Marcos is, of course, unfinished. The Zapatista movement has built autonomous democratic structures in the areas under its influence, despite military siege and a flood of state resources to villages willing to abandon the rebel cause. Marcos has revealed himself as a brilliant strategist suffering occasional lapses of egomania that sometimes distract from the vitality of the Zapatista message. This book is an excellent place to begin its study.

Michael McGaughan is the author of The price of our souls: Shell, gas and Mayo (Afri Publications, 2008).

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