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NEWS ANALYSIS : Peace Would Be Rabbit Out of Salinas' Hat : Mexico: Rebel delegates head back to jungle to present pact to communities. President's term may not end in disaster after all.


SAN CRISTOBAL DE LAS CASAS, Mexico — As rebel delegates headed back to the jungle Thursday to present the peace agreement they negotiated with the government to their communities, the effects of the pact were beginning to ripple through Mexican politics.

The likelihood of a peaceful end to the conflict that began Jan. 1 is another rabbit pulled out of President Carlos Salinas de Gortari's top hat. His six-year term may not end in disaster after all.

But the magician could pay a high price for this last trick.

The agreement addresses the rebels' complaints but provides no commitments from them, not even a hint of the conditions under which they might be willing to lay down their arms.

In addition, the conflict--and agreement--put in evidence several uncomfortable facets of Mexican politics and public life.

Many of the sectors that have most ardently supported Salinas' free-market economic reforms are those most leery of the kinds of political reforms contained in the agreement.

Even before the pact was announced, business leaders worried it might signal a turn to populism, always a strong possibility during a president's last year in office.

"Nothing would be more dangerous than to leave the process of economic modernization incomplete," warned Ricardo Dajer, president of the National Chambers of Commerce Federation.

Further, Salinas' willingness to consider breaking up large land holdings as part of the agreement cannot be comforting to agribusiness, which has already proven reluctant to invest in troubled Mexican farming.

But the most serious indictment of national politics may be the clauses of the agreement--the great majority--that are not controversial: Most of the government's reply involves promises to provide health care, teachers, electricity and clean water.

These are all services it was supposed to furnish all along.

The agreement proves the point of Commander Juan, one of the rebel delegates to the talks, who said: "The Zapatista National Liberation Army took up arms against misery and bad government."

As one government source observed: "The neglect makes you angry."

Nevertheless, the people responsible for the neglect are the same people who have delivered the state of Chiapas' votes, election after election, to the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, which has ruled Mexico for six decades.

The redistricting plan in the government proposal would probably put those people out of power in an election scheduled for the same day as the presidential poll: Aug. 21.

Combined with the federal election reform now under discussion, those changes will increase the pressure on PRI candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio, whose campaign is already suffering from two months in the shadow of the Chiapas revolt.

Despite Salinas' repeated statements of support for Colosio, rumors are still rampant in the Byzantine corridors of Mexican politics that the candidate who registers for the PRI on March 15 will be not Colosio, but the government's peace negotiator, Manuel Camacho Solis.

But beyond the threats of political scheming--inevitable at any time and rampant in an election year--Salinas appears to be emerging from the conflict relatively unscathed.

No other groups have actually taken up arms, although the threat of "joining the Zapatistas" has become a popular cry for everyone with a gripe, from street vendors to farmers with loans coming due.

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