The Indians of Chiapas knew what they were doing when they chose Emiliano Zapata as the patron saint of their insurgency. There are few figures so compelling in the history of Mexico, and no one more eminent in the pantheon of the Mexican Revolution.
From all the reports from Chiapas as to the aims and purposes of the soldiers of the Zapatista National Liberation Army -- to wrest the land of their fathers from the cattle barons who have stolen it -- they are truly Zapata's children. And like Zapata they are almost certain to lose. Revolutionaries in Latin America almost always do.
In the United States revolution is a debased word used to describe minor change, to sell things, or hype small-caliber concepts. In Latin America it is an idea frequently made fact and in certain regions it retains an almost religious political connotation.
It wasn't always that way. During the period between the arrival of the Spaniards and the revolt of their colonies over 300 years later, Latin America remained a relatively peaceful place. During that time in Europe a variety of philosophies were refined -- socialist and communist ideas, republicanism, anarchism. They all proved to be incendiary notions and occasionally set the old continent afire. These ideas arrived later in Latin America, where they had the same effect.
There are not many places in the world outside Latin America that have produced such commitment to the idea of revolution, nor so many modern texts on the subject, everything from a practical handbook of revolution by the Brazilian Carlos Marighela to the more religiously fervid ''Theology of Liberation'' by Gustavo Gutierriez.
The Indian rebels of Chiapas are said to have been training for years for their debut on New Year's Day. Sendero Luminoso, the Maoist insurgents currently ravaging Peru, had their beginnings back in the 1960s. Emiliano Zapata became an active revolutionary in Mexico in March, 1911, and was still at it when he was ambushed and shot to rags in April, 1919.
The preoccupation with the process of change through revolution in Latin America is as prevalent as its success is rare. Despite the triumph of three revolutionary movements in this century in Latin America -- Mexico, 1910; Bolivia, 1952; Cuba, 1959 -- Latin America remains a graveyard for revolution. Hundreds have failed. Yet they keep trying. Chiapas is only the latest. Insurgencies continue in Colombia and Guatemala; Peru was mentioned, and the insurrections of El Salvador and Nicaragua are only a decade behind us.
Carlos Rangel, a Venezuelan journalist and commentator, once wrote that Latin Americans are addicted to a myth he called the Myth of the Good Revolutionary. He made it quite clear he regarded it as an idea thoroughly inappropriate to the times and inadequate before the staggering challenges that beset the region today.
But the myth lives, he says, in the image of the armed man who has taken to the hills to challenge the legitimacy of an oppressive state. He holds out there, sustained by a pure and holy motive. Soon he is joined by others with whom he will liberate the nation, sweep away all squalor, privilege and inequity.
If this is what the modern Zapatistas think they are going to do, they ought to think a little further on the subject. After they've taken Chiapas, what remedy would they offer to curb the choking fecundity of the Mexican people? Can they provide gainful work to the millions who are without it and struggle north each year to find it? What would be their remedy for Mexico City, the largest conurbation in the world, where mere residency is virtually an invitation to brown lung?
One of the evident differences between the Zapatistas then and now is their strategy, if not their tactics. The new Zapatistas are more ambitious. Not only do they want their land back, they announced their intention of overthrowing the state.
From the moment he began, to his end, Emiliano Zapata never wavered from his single goal. Nor did he expand upon it. He wanted the return of ''the land, woods and water which have been usurped,'' as stated in his Plan of Ayala. He wanted little to do with the rest of Mexico. His universe was Morelos and the south, his patria chica, the little fatherland.
This refreshing lack of ambition didn't save him, though, or bring success. He failed. Had he not, there wouldn't be an uprising in Chiapas today.
Which is not to say such uprisings have no effect. The Revolution of 1910, of which Zapata was one of the principals, certainly changed Mexico. It brought into being the first modern state which promised a place for the indigenous people in the national destiny. That promise was hardly met as the regime that grew out of the upheaval of the revolution evolved into a corrupt one-party political system under the control of the Institutional Revolutionary Party.