MEXICO CITY — In any given week, Manuel Camacho Solis may be the black sheep of Mexican politics or his nation's great conciliator.
This particular week, he is the man who is bringing Indian rebels to the negotiating table, giving President Carlos Salinas de Gortari the chance to save Mexico from a bloody Central American-style guerrilla war.
This week, Manuel Camacho Solis is a national hero.
"In Mexico, the perception of power is power," said political scientist Denise Dresser, a former student of his. "That is why, now, many people are rallying around him when two months ago they were like rats jumping off a sinking ship."
Forgotten is November's petulant resignation as appointed mayor of this troubled capital, when Camacho said he was quitting because Luis Donaldo Colosio beat him out as the ruling party candidate in this year's presidential election.
That breach of party discipline would have ended most political careers. Predictably, Salinas appointed his old college friend as foreign minister, a move most observers interpreted as a dignified step on the road to oblivion in a country where foreign policy is subordinate to economic and trade considerations.
Then came the New Year's Day uprising of Mayan Indians in southern Mexico and international condemnation of the army's brutality in suppressing it. Salinas needed a peace commissioner who could be taken seriously and trusted by all sides. He needed the wavy-haired, bespectacled, 47-year-old Camacho.
One of Salinas' political intimates, Camacho has credibility as someone who can speak with authority for the government. He is the son of a general, which gives him insight into an army so hermetic it resembles a secret fraternity as much as a fighting force.
Further, Camacho is known in the political circles of Chiapas, the state on the Guatemalan border where the rebellion occurred. His late wife was the daughter of a former governor.
In 1986, as undersecretary for regional development, he wrote an economic plan for the impoverished state. He felt so strongly about the proposal that he asked to be demoted to state delegate in order to implement it, a request that was denied because, instead, he was named minister of urban development and ecology.
Camacho is a negotiator par excellence. He talked street vendors out of Mexico City's historic downtown and into stalls in new municipal markets. He reached an agreement with opposition parties before the 1991 midterm elections that eliminated accusations of ballot-rigging in the capital--even after the ruling party won 45% of the vote, compared with 28% in 1988. And later this week, he is expected to begin peace talks with the Indians in the southern state of Chiapas.
Environmental activist Homero Aridjis has closely observed Camacho's technique across the negotiating table.
As urban development minister, Camacho invited him to the re-inauguration of an electric plant that had been converted from fuel oil to cleaner-burning natural gas. The conversation on the way to the ceremony turned to a march that Aridjis had organized for the next morning, April 30, observed as Children's Day in Mexico. Children from all over the city planned to march on Los Pinos, the presidential residence, demanding a cleaner environment.
Camacho wanted the march called off because it put then-President Miguel de la Madrid in a tight spot. Aridjis refused but offered an alternative: "Why not have the president come out and offer a gift to the children of the nation? He could establish a sanctuary for the monarch butterfly that migrates from Canada to Mexico every year."
The minister agreed, and the result was five sanctuaries totaling 35 acres. The president saved face by committing the government to protecting the migrating butterflies, endangered by logging that destroys the trees where they live in winter.
After years of constant confrontation with authorities, Aridjis and other environmental activists initially were wary of the Camacho approach.
"People were afraid of losing their independence, the problem of being too close to the government," Aridjis said. "But, finally, we opted for a relationship of cooperation.
"He knows how to respect grass-roots organizations," Aridjis said. "He listens. That is what makes him a good negotiator."
Camacho enjoys give and take, said Dresser, the political scientist. "He is fascinated by bringing people to the table to negotiate. He has tremendous belief in the transforming power of ideas."
That reputation made him the natural choice to try to end the Chiapas uprising peacefully. With characteristic audacity, rather than being grateful to Salinas for reviving his flagging career with the appointment as negotiator, Camacho set conditions for accepting: He needed full authority to commit the government in the talks, he would serve without salary and would not tolerate any bureaucracy to grow up around the talks. Salinas agreed.