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LOS ANGELES TIMES INTERVIEW : Manuel Camacho : The Negotiator on Chiapas Navigates Mexico's Dangerous Shoals

March 27, 1994|Sergio Munoz | Sergio Munoz is the editor of Nuestro Tiempo, The Times' weekly Spanish-language edition. He interviewed Manuel Camacho Solis in his office near the Mexican White House.

MEXICO CITY — Jan. 1, shots were fired in Chiapas, in southern Mexico. The grandchildren of Emiliano Zapata--Indians, peasants, the dispossessed--had taken up arms, demanding land, liberty and justice. Surprised by this military action, President Carlos Salinas de Gortari responded in kind. Yet, the Zapatistas held the moral high ground, and public opinion turned in their favor. So two shrewd political minds--Salinas and his old friend, Manuel Camacho Solis-- combined to shift the battle from its military context to the political realm.

But political violence broke out again Wednesday, when Luis Donaldo Colosio, the leading presidential candidate, was assassinated in Tijuana. This left Mexico's ruling party, the Institutional Revolutionary Party, with the task of selecting a new candidate. It is not expected to be Camacho, who had already been passed over for the job.

In any case, Salinas had asked Camacho to deal with the situation in Chiapas. He valued his friend's astute political instincts and his smooth negotiating skills and, in early January, appointed him peace commissioner.

While working toward an agreement, Camacho's political star has been rising. For a while, it looked as if he would challenge his party's official candidate in the Aug. 21 national elections. But early last week, Camacho, 47, ended the speculation--declaring he would not run for the presidency this year. He pointed out, during an interview several days before Colosio was shot, that with the conflict in Chiapas unresolved, he still has a job to do. Asked to choose between a candidacy for the presidency and working toward a dignified peace, Camacho said he would always choose the latter.

Camacho, a widower, graduated from Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School of International Affairs. An acknowledged political scholar, he has written extensively on the need to modernize the PRI. He has a cool, analytical mind and acts in a self-assured manner.

Deciding to forgo the presidency now does not mean Camacho's political career is over. In fact, by waiting six years, he cannot be seen as capitalizing on the tragedy of Colosio's death. For Camacho is sowing the seeds for Mexico's political future--one that includes democratic procedures and viable parties.

Question: Has there been an agreement to end the conflict in Chiapas, as some people in the government have said, or is Zapatista leader Subcommander Marcos right when he says that is not the case? Have you reached an agreement with the Zapatistas?

Answer: Subcommander Marcos is right. We must make a clear distinction between an agreement and a negotiation. In San Cristobal, we exchanged a list of demands and proposed an answer that could establish the foundations for a series of political commitments toward a dignified peace. Until this is approved by their constituency, we cannot move on to the next issue--the agreements. In Mexico City, the solution is on the right track because there is political agreement.

Q: Do you believe this conflict can be solved politically?

A: I not only believe the issue can be solved politically, but I also believe that if it is not done politically, there will be no solution in Chiapas.

Q: At the bottom of the Chiapas conflict lies a human-rights problem. Shouldn't Mexico address this by creating and enforcing a human-rights policy?

A: In the last few years, through the work of the church and local and international human-rights organizations, human rights in Mexico has become a cause for the civil society. There is also the work of the National Commission on Human Rights, which has helped to stop many abuses. It has been precisely the presence of all these forces that contributed to stopping the dynamics of conflict in Chiapas, and they play an important role in the political solution being negotiated.

Q: The ancestral inequalities that characterize Mexico can be seen most clearly in places like Chiapas. How much longer will it take until a substantial change occurs and the people's demands are met?

A: The list of demands that the EZLN (Zapatista Army of National Liberation) made were so tough they did not allow for compromise. It was an intellectual challenge to create a satisfactory public-policy response to the EZLN--given their specific mind-set, social reality and tough political demands. We are facing the challenge of creating respect and equality for the indigenous communities.

It touches on agrarian reform, because it seeks to satisfy the most urgent land demands in a place where there is not enough land to give away.

But it is also a matter of justice, because we must establish a procedure that allows the communities to participate in the selection of judges and the district attorney's office.

This issue changes reality in the communities, because the main reason for the outburst of violence were the abuses of the authorities against them.

Q: What is your impression of Subcommander Marcos?

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