The EZLN – A look at its History (Part 3): The Option for the Poor

The EZLN is a synthesis, a social process which manages to bring together a wide range of social demands, traditions of struggle, and currents of critical thought present throughout the history of Mexico and the world; at the same time it recovers new approaches relevant to their times.

The Role of Liberation Theology

November 17, 2013, marked the 30th anniversary of the formation of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN), and on January 1, 2014 they will celebrate 20 years since their first public appearance. As a form of tribute to the men and women who made that cry of ENOUGH (YA BASTA) echo worldwide, we started a series of instalments which try to look at the history of the actors who linked together to give rise to the EZLN. The first two parts of this work, the Guerrilla Nucleus and the Millenarian Resistance, were published recently in this space. In this third and final instalment we address the current of the Catholic Church which, under the leadership of Bishop Samuel Ruíz García, had done previous work in the region.

It has not been our intention to speak for the Zapatistas, they have told their story and still do so (See Rewind 3.) Our only goal here is to contribute to the dissemination of their experience, which undoubtedly represents the most advanced alternative in the world.

III. The Option for the Poor

Source: SubVersiones

During the war of conquest and the process of colonization, there were figures who denounced the atrocities carried out by the representatives of the Spanish crown against the indigenous. These voices found an important resonance within the Catholic Church. An exemplary case is that of Fray Bartolomé de las Casas. Centuries later, during the war of independence, two priests again played an important role: Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla and José María Morelos y Pavón. However, it is not until the second half of the 20th century that the role of the church and some of their representatives accompanying social movements was analyzed in depth.

In an attempt to renew and strengthen the Catholic Church, Pope John XXIII convened the Second Vatican Council, which took place between 1962 and 1965. At that meeting ancient differences within Catholicism surfaced, especially those between the “anti-modern” and the “modernist.” As part of this Council, Pope Paul VI – who succeeded John Paul XXIII after his death – called on the Latin American Episcopal Council to renew its vision and practice to make it more consistent with the reality of the continent.

In response to this call, various priests in Latin America set out to the task of preparing for the Second General Conference of Latin American Bishops in Medellín, Colombia, in August and September 1968. The conference had a global impact on the Catholic Church due to its composition, the issues addressed and the conclusions it reached.

We emphasize some of these elements:

a) ​​The concluding documents of the conference not only addressed issues that went beyond the scope of the Catholic Church, but openly revealed a political position in local contexts. Some of these documents addressed issues of lay movements, media, justice, poverty, pastoral popular (popular religion), and so on.

b) Many of the ideas expressed during the meeting in Medellín strengthened the opinion that the church should denounce the systematic oppression of the poor and the exploitation of societies in the Third World.

c) Not only priests participated, there were also religious, laity, and an important representation from the Base Ecclesiastical Communities – a social movement born in the same context – which meant an open willingness to work with the society, in strategic actions as well.

d) The attendees put a strong emphasis on the historical and structural differences between Latin America and Europe; so, despite assuming themselves to be part of the same church, they said that their roles were different.

e) The attendees agreed not only to take on the role of denouncing exploitation and oppression, but also to pass to the sphere of action and to assist in any way necessary so that, in an organized way, impoverished people could succeed in modifying their state of poverty.

The results of the Medellín Conference encouraged religious and lay people to study in depth the role of the church in Latin America, looking at the characteristics of a continent marked by strong and noticeable exploitative relationships, generated by the structures – colonial and capitalist – of material production.

This renewed interest in the role of the Catholic Church in Latin America led several intellectuals to rediscover the role of some priests who were close to the social struggles, and to build a historical view of that role, giving rise to the Theology of Liberation (TL, as per the Spanish acronym.)

The philosopher Enrique Dussel identifies three generations of theologians of liberation: the first is the one which during colonial times undertook a criticism of the Spanish crown and sided with the Indians. Certain figures stand out, such as Fray Antonio de Montesinos, Fray Domingo de Vico and Fray Bartolomé de las Casas. The second generation would be represented by José María Morelos y Pavón, Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla and Fray Servando Teresa de Mier; they led the fight to make Mexico a free and independent nation. The third generation appears in the second half of the 20th century and becomes articulate after the Medellin Conference. Some figures stand out, like Gustavo Gutiérrez (Peru), Leonardo Boff (Brazil), Camilo Torres (Colombia), Ernesto Cardenal (Nicaragua), Jean-Bertrand Aristide (Haiti), Fernando Lugo (Paraguay), Oscar Arnulfo Romero (Salvador), Sergio Méndez Arceo and Samuel Ruíz García (Mexico).

TL’s point of departure is the concrete analysis of reality and the historical processes that bring about that reality, but always from the theological level. Franz Hinkerlammert notes that TL considers poverty as the “denial of mutual recognition between subjects” and that a society with poor people is a society without God. “This absence of God, however, is present wherever someone cries. The absence of God is present in the poor. The poor are the presence of the absent God. It is a matter of a visible case of negative theology, in which the presence of God – an effective presence – is given by absence, an absence which cries out, and by necessity.” [1] For this reason, the liberation theologians choose to help the poor so they abandon by themselves their state of poverty, which would result in the recognition of all subjects and in building the kingdom of God on earth.

The response of the orthodox currents inside the Vatican and some local governments was immediate: a smear campaign began against the position and work of liberation theologians in which they were accused of being influenced by communist groups and having relations with the guerrillas. Under this reading, the liberation theologians were promoters of hatred and violence, so they were not worthy representatives of the Catholic Church.

In this way there came about throughout Latin America a kind of symbiosis between Marxism and Catholicism. Therefore, the liberation theologians were not interested in being part of the hierarchical structure of the church. Their work was more focused on the social organization, working with the poor and with the proletariat.

As the debate went beyond the discursive and intellectual level, in their practice the religious critics continued their grassroots work with the “poor and oppressed.” Alongside the episcopal meetings, in Latin America the movement formed by Base Ecclesiastical Communities (CEB, as per the Spanish acronym) was gaining strength, and they found in Brazil and Nicaragua a space of reference. Some expressions of this movement even became political parties.

In Mexico the CEB mainly found wide acceptance among the most marginalized sectors of society. In this regard, Miguel Concha said that “the CEB in Mexico originate in the poorest rural and city areas, among those who suffer a socio-political and economic reality of exploitation, hunger, repression, and misery. Its main actors are the indigenous and the campesinos, the workers, the underemployed and unemployed who – accompanied by pastoral workers, priests, religious and lay people, whose life is devoted to the preferential option for the poor – have discovered in the CEB Movement the seed of hope in the Church of Latin America in general and Mexico in particular.” [2]

The work methodology of the members of the Base Ecclesiastical Communities includes five elements, which are highly descriptive of the dialectical relationship between thinking and doing:

To see. To be aware of what is happening, to have contact with reality, and to analyze it with “collective and individual eyes.”

To think. In the light of the Word of God and the guidance of the Church, to pronounce a judgment of faith about what is SEEN (first step) and to develop evangelical action plans.

To act. To carry out what was planned, with global vision and local action – articulated, organized – based on a community project.

To evaluate. To assess the achievements, understand the failures, learn from the path taken and redirect actions.

To celebrate. It is in the celebration of faith and community celebration where we thank the presence of God in our journey and prepare to carry on.

The CEBs and the Diocese of San Cristóbal de las Casas – with Samuel Ruíz Garcia at its head – played an important role in the indigenous communities. For example, they actively participated in the convening and undertaking of the First Indigenous Congress in 1974. Reproducing the resolutions of the Conference of Medellín, the religious people began to impress on the indigenous the idea that the kingdom of God had to be expressed on earth and that it would have to be based on justice and truth. The work of the diocese strengthened the internal organization of indigenous peoples and allowed them to build networks of contacts with similar organizations in the state, in Mexico and the world.

However, as happened with the Forces of National Liberation, the work of the diocese also saw itself overturned by the particular cosmovision of the indigenous peoples, to the degree that a kind of “indigenous church” began to form, composed of 2,608 communities with 400 pre-deacons and 8,000 catechists, which, although they coordinated with the structure of the diocese, also had a certain autonomy.

During the phase of the “accumulation of forces in silence” of the EZLN, a large number of militants were found among Indians who had worked with the CEBs and the Diocese of San Cristóbal de las Casas. Not that their integration was planned, but it happened that the work Samuel Ruíz had led in indigenous communities became the ideal prelude to the political work which was later developed by the neo-Zapatistas. Thus, many of the indigenous who had been pre-deacons and catechists of the “indigenous church” also chose to join the ranks of the EZLN.

As we have seen throughout these three instalments, behind the EZLN that declared war on the Mexican army on January 1, 1994 there lies a complex web of political and cultural visions that intertwined to highlight a reality of oppression and exploitation towards a large section of society. It is not only a struggle for indigenous peoples – if we look closely at the First Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle we will not find a single mention of them – their struggle is much broader, it is “for the Mexican people.”

The struggles against colonialism and conquest, the struggles to make Mexico a free, independent, and sovereign nation, and the struggles against capitalism in its imperialist form are the historical substance of the indigenous rebellion which shocked the world and inspires – even today – great sympathy.

Thus, the EZLN can be understood as a movement calling for a national liberation which makes possible a fair and equitable development. But their struggle is also to make Mexico into a democratic nation, putting an end to the “one-party dictatorship” which ruled this country for more than 70 years, and is now back in government.

There is also much new about the neo-Zapatistas. We will mention just one aspect, of great importance. Their struggle is not to seize state power and then establish a socialist or communist regime, as happened in most of the countries of Latin America and the world where there were armed rebellions. On the contrary, their first demands were merely demands for the minimum necessary for the development of a decent life: “work, land, shelter, food, health, education, independence, freedom, democracy, justice and peace.”

Seen in this way, we can say that the EZLN is a synthesis, a social process which manages to bring together a wide range of social demands, traditions of struggle, and currents of critical thought present throughout the history of Mexico and the world; at the same time it recovers new approaches relevant to their times. For these reasons, today, 30 years after its formation and almost 20 since its first public appearance, after intense and varied processes, of rebuilding and building history; there are many of us, throughout the world, who are still shouting ‘Long Live the EZLN!’

Translation edited by Nancy Piñeiro.


[1] Hinkerlammert, F. (1995) “Teología de la Liberación en el contexto Económico-Social de América Latina: economía y teología o la irracionalidad de lo racionalizado” (“Liberation Theology in the Social – Economic context of Latin America: economy and theology or irrationality of the rationalized.”) [Online] In Revista Pasos, no. 5, p.2. Available at: [Accessed 15 October 2012]

[2] Concha, M. (1988) “Las comunidades eclesiales de base y el movimiento popular” (“The ecclesial communities and the popular movement.”) [Online] In Dialéctica Magazine, no. 19, July, p.159 Available at: [Accessed 3 November 2012]