Oventik minder
A masked man acts as a minder for foreign visitors to Oventik. Avedis Hadjian

OVENTIK, Mexico -- On a recent visit to the Society of the Americas in New York, Mexican writer and journalist Elena Poniatowska was asked about the Zapatista Revolution. She evoked her enthusiasm in the early days, when she visited its leader, the elusive Subcomandante Marcos, who had sent his driver to pick her up and take her for an interview in the Lacandon Jungle, where the guerrillas were hiding.

A chatty, friendly woman, Poniatowska engaged in small talk with the driver. She asked him if he liked his job. Of course he did, he said -- Marcos was a great man. “But if I had a university degree, I would be the president’s chauffeur,” the driver said, referring to then-Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari, whose forces the Subcomandante was fighting at the time.

The anecdote elicited a big laugh from the New York audience, and then Poniatowska’s tone became somber. “I am disappointed,” she said of Marcos, on whom Mexicans had pinned great hopes only to be let down, with the revolution half-finished and restricted to the five caracoles, or autonomous municipal jurisdictions, that the Zapatistas run in Chiapas, a federal state on the border with Guatemala far from Mexico City.

Twenty years after it started with a big bang and spectacular visuals -- Marcos, his face hidden behind a balaclava, smoking a pipe and riding a white stallion, and posters depicting the iconic Virgin of Guadalupe with her mouth covered by the Zapatistas’ red bandana -- the uprising is now for most people a distant memory. Faded red stars painted on walls along the roads in Chiapas are a fitting symbol for the twilight of the revolution. Signs announcing, with intended menace, “You are entering Zapatista territory: Here the people rule and the government obeys” scare nobody, and people drive past them with the indifference of the chickens often seen milling around on the shoulder of the highway.

San Pedro Polho townhall
The townhall in San Pedro Polho, frankly dedicated to the Zapatistas rebels. Avedis Hadjian

, the residents of San Cristóbal de Las Casas -- the biggest city the Zapatistas held, briefly, at the outset of their uprising on Jan. 1, 1994 -- are often too polite to openly display their political colors in front of strangers, and a keen perception of nuances makes them disinclined to make strong statements.

But when a foreign reporter commented on the quixotic nature of the rebellion and how smartly the Mexican government had avoided further escalation of the conflict, a soft-spoken government official who was originally from the state of Veracruz reacted with a smirk that could have passed for a smile. “Ah, yes, these good fellows… a friend of mine, a conscript at the time, was a parachutist with the army, and as they were descending from the sky, the Zapatistas fired on them as on sitting ducks… I think that was against the laws of war,” the official, who requested anonimity, quietly said.

His friend survived what he described as a carnage. It is possible he was referring to Operación Arcoiris, or Operation Rainbow, a counterinsurgency operation in the early period of the uprising involving troops from the Grupo Aeromóvil de Fuerzas Especiales (Special Forces Airmobile Group, or GAFE). There are very few details available on the operation, but according to some accounts that could not be independently verified, several soldiers and Zapatistas died, as well as civilians, including women and children. According to other uncorroborated testimony, so many were killed that bulldozers were used to bury the dead in common graves.

After that early clash, things settled into a more or less peaceful standoff. Does this mean the revolution is over? When thousands of Zapatistas marched in the rain in December of 2012 in several Chiapas cities, after years of absence from the public scene, commentators discussed whether they were still relevant. Observers wondered if there was any substance behind the rich iconography the Zapatistas so prolifically produced, and the communiqués issued with growing infrequency by Delegado Zero -- Subcomandante Marcos’ new alter ego -- in which he lambasted Mexican politics-as-usual in his baroque, magical-realism Spanish and somewhat obscure sense of humor.

Many of the answers lie with Marcos himself. But he’s not very accessible, even though in San Cristóbal it is not that hard to get tantalizingly close to one man or one intermediary away from the Subcomandante. At the time, he was said to be somewhere in the city, apparently living in a very simple abode in a working-class neighborhood. A community leader said he had seen him one year ago, but his attempts to meet him again -- without having told the Subcomandante that a foreign visitor would sneak in as well -- fell through. “Marcos wants to know what for I want to see him and my reasons apparently are not convincing him,” the community leader said.

The Subcomandante re-emerged last week. In a communiqué issued from the “Mountains of Mexico's Southeast” on Nov. 4, “el SupMarcos” (as he signs his messages) denounces the “climate of hysteria” prevailing in Mexico, saying the “structural reforms” pursued by the government of President Enrique Peña Nieto are “ill-disguised petty thieving.”

Officials and the media have speculated that the man behind the mask is Rafael Sebastián Guillén Vicente, and that his “capital” may be considered to be here, in Oventik, a hamlet that looks like a Potemkin village to the untrained eye. There is a small, very low watchtower from which a woman in a typical black balaclava appears to serve as a lookout, though you can tell from her eyes that she is smiling. Four men, also with their heads covered by the ski masks, guard a wide gate that opens onto the street running through the village. They check the passport of the foreign visitor and discuss something in Tzotzil, with one of them answering a voice coming through a croaking walkie-talkie. They do not respond to questions addressed to them in Spanish. It becomes apparent that they barely speak the language of the conquerors, except to warn against taking photographs of people or of the very few cars on the one-street Oventik. The walls of every building and house in the village, like the other caracoles, display the revolutionary iconography in huge murals, from which Emiliano Zapata watches passersby intently and a smiling Che Guevara looks up to the sky.

A meeting is taking place in Tzotzil in a barn the size of a movie theater. Five or six men sit behind a table at the front, addressing at least 200 people gathered there, with women chitchatting among themselves in the back and children playing around. Almost the entire population of Oventik appears to be there. One of the discussants spots the stranger and asks his masked Zapatista minder to escort him out. The street is empty, except for two girls, impeccably dressed and coiffed in the Tzotzil style, like every woman in the village. They look like sisters, and at the first attempt at communication the stranger makes, they scurry away, smiling, through a side passage.

One Zapatista official, who grants the shortest of interviews, is a woman with her mouth covered by a red bandana, sitting in an office dominated by the pictures of the Subcomandante and the late Bishop Samuel Ruiz, considered the spiritual mentor of Zapatismo. Her sufficient command of Spanish allows her to answer either “No” or “No es posible” (“It is not possible.”) The walls are covered with a thick collection of flags, posters and pamphlets of leftist organizations and liberation movements from all over the world.

Later, on the road to the Zapatista municipality of San Pedro Polhó, a cheerful truck driver offers a ride in the back. Two other passengers, very much resembling him to the last feature, including the mustache almost mandatory in this part of the world, are riding with him on the front seat. All three have open Corona beer bottles between their legs. They are listening to Protestant choral music in Spanish.

An armored personnel carrier of the Mexican military overtakes the truck. As a reporter is getting ready to take a picture, the army vehicle suddenly stops a few meters ahead, and the truck screeches to a halt. An officer holding an assault rifle jumps from the APC and runs towards the truck. The driver comes out and opens the back. The officer points the gun at the passenger traveling in the back, quickly scans the truck bed and leaves, without saying anything.

San Pedro Polhó looks like a ghost town, an outpost of a forgotten revolution with the paint peeling on the walls of its empty, one-classroom school and a column erected (or converted) to commemorate the guerrillas’ Zapatista National Liberation Army, EZLN in Spanish. A town hall meeting is under way, and no strangers are allowed into the caracol. From the back of a makeshift store on the side of the road, the open-air gathering can be seen in the distance at the bottom of the hill, with one speaker addressing the public in barely audible Tzotzil. A stray comrade is getting a haircut on some kind of terrace outside the barber's, who is meticulously concentrating on his scissors, oblivious to the stranger asking for a photo and the children screaming around him.

Administrative office Oventik
Administrative office Oventik Avedis Hadjian

For all this bucolic idleness, the Chiapas conflict is still simmering on slow burn. The Zapatistas regularly denounce harassment or attacks by paramilitaries, not infrequently relatives or former neighbors who have fallen out over disputes often involving the ever-scarce arable land in Chiapas. After those splits, some have chosen rival political bands or even switched religious allegiances, converting from the Catholic Church to one of the several Evangelical denominations that are active in the area.

Yet to the credit of both the Zapatistas and the Mexican government, the conflict has not escalated and little blood has been shed since the Acteal Massacre of 1997, in which 45 Tzotzil peasants in this municipality next to San Pedro Polhó were murdered by armed irregulars. Since the Zapatistas put down their weapons in order to carry out a peaceful revolution, the state has been mostly calm and has so far avoided the drug wars raging elsewhere in Mexico.

The EZLN is the offshoot of one of the leftist armed groups born in Mexico in the late 1960s, the National Liberation Forces (Fuerzas de Liberación Nacional, or FLN), to topple the government of the Revolutionary Institutional Party (Partido Revolucionario Institucional, or PRI). The PRI ran the country uninterruptedly from 1929 to 2000, when it lost in a presidential election to the National Action Party (Partido Acción Nacional, or PAN).

The FLN was virtually disbanded after a crippling shootout with the army in 1974. Five of its militants founded the EZLN on Nov. 17, 1983, in Chiapas.

Like so many Marxist revolutionary movements that emerged in the 1960s, the FLN wanted to transform Mexico and change the world, riding the wave of an inexorable revolution that historical determinism predicted would come. But by 1994, when the Zapatistas declared war on the Mexican government, the Soviet Union had disappeared and leftist parties across the globe were ideologically bankrupt.

In the same way that birds may be the direct descendants of dinosaurs, shrunk to survive on a planet with much less to eat and much more competition, the Zapatistas have adapted to a world grown more inhospitable to utopian movements. Their mother caracol is in the village they have renamed La Realidad, or The Reality. They are now transforming this remote corner of Mexico one caracol at a time. Caracol is the name of the geographic area where they first created this autonomous government unit, yet it is not lacking in symbolism: The word in Spanish means snail. Their autonomous areas have elements of socialism and of traditional Mayan communal life, but it is an entirely unprecedented experiment, like trying to decipher and give new significance to ancient prayers whose meaning has long been forgotten.

The caracoles are run by Juntas del Buen Gobierno, or Good Government Councils, administrative bodies that rely heavily on permanent deliberation for collective decisions and the frequent rotation of officials, in order to prevent the consolidation of power cliques. Coffee cooperatives run by the Zapatistas provide a good part of the money the caracoles use for self-sufficiency.

Life in Oventik and San Pedro Polhó certainly looks humble and simple. Yet the concept of poverty seems elusive. When there is neither hunger nor sordidness, and there is health and work, the lack of discretionary material items may not amount to destitution.

The rural self-reliance model can hardly expand elsewhere in a country with some of the biggest cities in the region and the world, including Mexico City and its 20 million inhabitants. In Chiapas, however, it has helped uproot drinking -- a major problem among Mexico’s indigenous population -- and even critics acknowledge the dignified treatment it affords to women, who are active and empowered members of their communities, as well as free from the abuses that are still not unusual elsewhere.

On the way out of San Pedro Polhó, a foreign visitor stops outside a home to ask for directions. A TV set is blaring a love drama played out in a telenovela in Spanish as a girl leans from a window to help. She must be 17 or 18, and despite her obvious willingness to assist the wandering visitor, the only words in Spanish she can say are the names of streets or one or two landmarks.

“So this is what you wanted electricity for,” Marcos is rumored to have said, according to San Cristóbal-based analyst Gaspar Morquecho, when he was visiting Zapatista communities and people shut doors and windows so the Subcomandante would not hear the TV sets. Then again, television and Coca-Cola, as well as cars and mobile phones, seem to be the few intrusions by modernity into these corners of Chiapas, where the conquest of the Americas has been left unfinished.

Here, fragments of the pre-Columbine past are alive and pristine, and the indigenous communities are trying to recreate a small new world.