The picturesque colonial town high in the mountains in southern Mexico is filled with relics of the rebel Zapatista movement that rocked the region with violence in 1994 and catapulted it to worldwide fame.
Thousands of tourists and sympathizers go there every year to drink mojitos at a bar called Revolucion, visit nearby Zapatista communities with masked guides and pick up souvenirs emblazoned with the image of Subcomandante Marcos, who thrilled leftists across the globe and won comparisons with Che Guevara.
Twenty years after Marcos led armed indigenous insurgents in Chiapas State in a “declaration of war” against the government the day Mexico opened its borders to free trade, the Zapatistas have faded from national view and their legacy is in question.
Named for Mexican revolutionary hero Emiliano Zapata, the Zapatista National Liberation Army sparked a 12-day battle with the Mexican army that claimed at least 140 lives, becoming an early symbol for supporters of the antiglobalization movement.
Today, Chiapas remains Mexico’s poorest state, and Marcos, the Zapatistas’ masked poet leader, has all but disappeared.
Skilled in courting publicity, the pipe-smoking Marcos has not made any major public appearances since 2006, when he rode across Mexico on horseback to condemn its political class. He banned all media from the 20th anniversary celebrations.
“It’s December 2013. It’s just as cold as it was 20 years ago, and today, like back then, the same flag protects us: that of rebellion,” Marcos wrote in a 3,000-word communique published this week that railed against Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto, former Mexican president Felipe Calderon and the “paid press.”
The Zapatistas brought to prominence the plight of the region’s impoverished Maya Indians, who were once so ostracized that they could not even walk on San Cristobal’s sidewalks.
While money has flowed in from the government and private donors, many of Zapatistas’ demands, especially for reform to grant the movement autonomy, have not been met.
In 2001, the Mexican Congress passed legislation to give the indigenous people more rights. However, it was not enough for the Zapatistas, who set up their own autonomous justice, health and education systems in five municipalities in Chiapas known as caracoles, meaning shells.
During a visit by reporters to the Zapatista community of Oventic, the atmosphere was cheerful.
The gates were decorated with flowered wreaths, music played as footage of the Mexican army’s strike played on televisions and stalls sold revolutionary T-shirts and Zapatista figurines.
Murals honored the movement’s namesake and spelled out slogans like “Slow, but we’re advancing.” However, every request to interview or photograph Zapatistas was denied by a community spokesman, who later forced the reporters to leave.
By contrast, hundreds of camera-toting fans were allowed in: coach buses crammed the narrow, mountainous road to Oventic, bringing visitors from as far away as France and Italy eager to participate in the Zapatista experience and buy trinkets.
Neil Harvey, a New Mexico State University professor and author of The Chiapas Rebellion, said about 150,000 people live in the Zapatista communities, where indigenous leaders have raised living standards, including outlawing alcohol, improving women’s rights and creating Maya language schools.