The EZLN have relied heavily on sympathetic organisations, public relations and the internet to present the group's ideology to Mexicans and to people around the world. In so doing, they successfully circumvented and undermined the propaganda systems that had previously prevented large-scale peaceful movements from expressing essentially the same objectives.
The EZLN is largely an indigenous peasant based movement with some urban intellectual leadership most notably Subcommander Marcos the groups spokesperson. The organisation has its roots in Mexico's most southern and poverty-stricken province, Chiapas. A province dominated by indigenous Indian communities and largely excluded from any capitalist development. Ninety percent of indigenous households in the state are without electricity and running water.
Democracy, freedom and justice are the EZLN's three central objectives. The democracy they envisage is consensus based, direct and participatory. Their goal of freedom is required to facilitate indigenous autonomy and self-determination. Social and economic justice, a critique of neo-liberal ideology is a key objective considered necessary to gain respect for indigenous culture and alternative ways of life. Combined they cover other more specific demands like improved housing and education and the protection of Indian culture.
Chiapas had long voted for the ruling Revolutionary Institutional Party (PRI) in relatively larger numbers than any other Mexican state. People were mostly forced by the local landowning elites to vote in this way. This gives some clue as to the all-encompassing grip the PRI maintained on Mexican society in Chiapas. It controlled the mass media, the few schools, the unions and the peasant organisations. The only significant counter balance to the PRI was the Roman Catholic Church. Thus, the rebels combined forces with the church to help organise peasant communities and support their struggles. By working alongside with what are generally the most trusted and revered members in Mexican peasant communities the rebels were able to slowly earn the trust and support of the local peasants. Sharing the hardships and general state of hopelessness with the peasants changed the rebels own perspectives to a point where the two became inseparable. Thus the guerrilla leadership did not take up arms and then call for local support. They consulted widely and thoroughly with local communities first until a consensus in favour of armed struggle was achieved.
The Zapatistas hence practise at every step the local autonomy, democracy and justice they preach. This lack of hypocrisy undeniably helped win over the active support of the people of Chiapas. As well Marcos and other Zapatistas have used the "language of storytelling and poetry rather than political dogma" to communicate their dreams and ideas to the local population and later the world. Thirty percent of people in Chiapas are illiterate and another thirty two percent speak only their native Indian language. Storytelling was thus crucial in ensuring the guerrillas earned the support of the most deprived people in Mexico. Active and widespread participation was crucial as armed resistance has historically led to harsh elite led repression. Military and state backed terror was indeed the PRI's and the Chiapas landed elite's response. Hired guards and other paramilitary groups were entrusted by the state to terrorise the local population into subjugation and submission. The peasants responded by sending their men into the jungle in support of the guerrillas while the women folk did their best to continue their way of life in the face of military occupation. The guerrilla leadership foreseeing this response sought to create national and international support networks with any organisation that shared in part or all of the movement's vision. These networks and the support they produced created an effective shield that prevented the Mexican state following a path of complete repression against the Zapatistas.
Mexico in 1994 was firmly under the one party hegemony of the PRI. Opposition movements were uncoordinated and prone to cooptation, repression or marginalisation. Mexico's mass media were either state controlled or closely watched by the PRI state. Interlinking personal relationships amongst the elite also helped to consolidate party control. In October 1990, the Mexican government hired the largest public relations firm in the world, Burson-Marsteller to gain Mexican acceptance of the North American Free Trade Zone. In the early 1990s the Mexican state had a coordinated and successful propaganda machine at its disposal.
In response to the Chiapas uprising the Mexican state tried to bolster the structure of political representation in Chiapas. Through the National Solidarity Program large amounts of money were spent in attempts to reconstruct the apparatuses of state domination in Chiapas. The landholding class received compensation for lands taken over by peasants. Municipal mayors were given extra funding and efforts were made to revive campesino and producers organisations.
However by courting independent journalists, supportive groups and by using the internet the Zapatistas were able to circumvent the Mexican state's stranglehold on information. Initially Marcos directed his communiqués to sympathetic newspapers La Jornada in Mexico City and El Tiempo of San Cristobal de las Casas among others. La Jornada published every EZLN communiqué verbatim and many interviews with Marcos and other spokespeople. The Zapatistas ski masks and Marcos's ever present pipe provided good photo opportunities and thus helped increase their newsworthiness. Combined with a welcoming and joking attitude towards journalists the Zapatistas received unprecedented media coverage. Marcos banned all members of the EZLN from talking to the largest Mexican television network, Televisa as he believed the network attempted to marginalise and subvert the movement. This move created positive returns as other reporters resented Televisa and enjoyed the opportunity to get one up on the network.
The Zapatistas where possible, communicated directly with mass organisations. Their appeals for democracy, freedom and justice resonated with large parts of Mexican civil society and the wider world. A vast and diverse group of "unions, neighbourhood associations, women's, student's and ecologist's associations, of Leftist parties…. of associations of debtors, peasants and indigenous communities" have supported the Zapatistas. All share the objective of transforming Mexican society from the bottom up and their courting by the Zapatistas ensured the guerrillas were never isolated in Mexican politics and society. This mass network of activists allowed the Zapatistas to consult straight with the Mexican people though processes of consultation and referendum.
Connecting all these organisations is the internet. In the 1990s, the La Neta computer network was established to link up Mexico's numerous non-governmental organisations. La Neta arrived in Chiapas in 1993 and subsequently played a key role in distributing information to Mexico and the world during the Zapatista uprising. Through this network and the wider internet government fax machines were overloaded and large marches in Mexico City were organised in ways that completely bypassed the state propaganda machine. Government announcements concerning Chiapas were posted on this network and rebutted and classified as propaganda before they were able to gain traction and acceptance. The EZLN successfully used the internet to rally domestic and international support for their objectives.
The world's mass media have ignored or attacked the Zapatistas. Western governments have closed ranks behind the Mexican government and championed NAFTA as a giant step forward towards ending poverty in Mexico. NAFTA's numerous side effects were ignored or explained as necessary short term costs to achieve long-term prosperity. Mass media from the developed world accepted this argument and viewed Mexico and the Zapatistas from a pro free trade perspective. They have thus acted in defence of Mexico's neo-liberal project and ignored as much as possible alternative visions like that of the EZLN. As mass media is thoroughly interlinked with government and corporate elites this is hardly surprising. Various experts, researchers and think tanks also defended NAFTA and the Mexican government. These reports were in turn cited by the mass media to reinforce the status quo.
On the other hand, the Zapatistas successfully seduced various smaller media outlets and interest groups as a counter to mainstream media. In the same way as the elusive masked guerrillas appealed to independent Mexican media, they also achieved a cult status among Western journalists. Above all their enchanting anti-capitalist ideology gave leftists everywhere hope of an alternative to capitalist domination when everything else signalled the inevitable march of capitalism and the triumph of neoliberalism.
The Zapatistas have also utilised the internet to communicate directly and indirectly with sympathetic organisations and individuals around the world. Audiences initially interested in the Zapatistas included PeaceNet conferences, Usenet newsgroups, humanitarian groups, indigenous peoples and feminists. Spontaneous and sometimes even near instantaneous reposting and translating of EZLN communiqués became common. As this activity has grown people have attempted to collate and summarise the numerous sources to provide relevant information to interested people. This mass of information encouraged many activists and journalists to make pilgrimages to Chiapas. These pilgrimages provided both a human shield for the Zapatistas and also a steadily increasing flow of information back on to the internet. The effect was a snowballing of grass roots interest in Chiapas that kept various spotlights on Chiapas that seriously limiting the military options available to the Mexican government.
Local support was earned over a long period of consciousness raising and agitation to improve the lives of peasants. These efforts alone could not shake a co-optive PRI managed state. Only by presenting a military threat and adroitly using the worldwide interest it gained to undermine elite interests could the Zapatistas shake the foundations of the Mexican system of government.