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MEXICO ON THE CUSP : The Tale of a Revolutionary and an Assassin

August 14, 1994|Victor Perera | Victor Perera, who just returned from Mexico, is author of "Unfinished Conquest: The Guatemalan Tragedy" (California) and co-author, with Robert D. Bruce, of "Last Lords of Palenque: The Lacandon Mayas of the Mexican Rain Forest" (California). His memoir, "Rites: A Guatemalan Boyhood" is due out in paperback from Mercury House this fall

SAN CRISTOBAL DE LAS CASAS, CHIAPAS — "Poor Salinas de Gortari," goes a recent joke at the expense of Mexico's president. "On Dec. 30, he went to bed thinking he was North American. On Jan. 1, he woke up knowing he is Guatemalan." The New Year's Day Zapatista uprising near Mexico's Guatemalan border in Chiapas, six days after Mexico ratified the North American Free Trade Agreement, and the assassination, 12 weeks later, of presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio in Tijuana are two reminders of how far Mexico has yet to travel to awake as a first-world nation.

The proliferating fissures in the Institutional Revolutionary Party have rendered obsolete Mario Vargas Llosa's mordant assessment of the PRI as "the perfect dictatorship," because it was able to maintain an iron hold on the country behind a carefully orchestrated illusion of democracy.

The assassination of Colosio and the uprising of more than 1,000 dispossessed Mayan Indians who make up the Zapatista Army of National Liberation at the opposite poles of the country have done far more than crumble Mexico's democratic facade: They have exposed the fragility at the core of PRI's--and the country's--post-revolutionary structures and awakened fears of an accelerated drift toward violence and disintegration that could turn Mexico into our hemisphere's Yugoslavia.

As the dust begins to settle, two men are seen to bear a disproportionate responsibility for this unprecedented reversal in Mexico's fortunes--and in its conception of itself. A preliminary government inquiry has determined that Mario Aburto Martinez acted alone when he assassinated Colosio on March 20. Fifteen hundred miles south of Tijuana in Chiapas, Mexico's poorest state, the enigmatic Subcomandante Marcos has emerged as the architect and guiding genius of the Zapatista uprising.

It is hard to imagine two more disparate figures bound by a common resort to armed violence to achieve political objectives. And while the poker-faced Aburto's justifications for shooting Colosio remain mired in murky, self-serving rhetoric, Marcos has exploded on the public arena as a loquacious exponent of revolution, craftily blending Emiliano Zapata's passion for social justice with Che Guevara's gift for phrases that can appear to alter history.

But this only hints at Marcos' gift for language, which has enthralled Mexico's political and intellectual Establishment, along with millions of disaffected peasants and laborers in Oaxaca, Hidalgo, Guerrero, Michoacan and other poor Mexican states. Marcos' almost daily missives to the press are enlivened by witty asides, Aesopian fables and flights of lyricism that create a sense of intimacy with Mexicans from a wide range of social and economic backgrounds.

For all his literary talents, Marcos' greatest coup may be his success in protecting the mystery of his identity even as he turns into Mexico's most familiar public icon. Chamula Indian vendors here have started a cottage industry of ski-masked Marcos dolls they sell to tourists, and his effigy appears on a brand of condoms marketed as "El Levantamiento," the Uprising.

Marcos' disguise draws on a Mexican tradition of masked crusaders from El Zorro to the caped Super Barrios of Mexico City's slums. His mask allows him to claim kinship with homosexuals, college-educated professionals and illiterate peasants, not to mention the millions of Mexicans who have crossed the northern border in search of economic betterment (one rumor has Marcos living for a time as a gay waiter in San Francisco).

Behind the black ski mask and pipe and the bullet belts strapped across his chest, Marcos is continually evolving. Following the bellicose tone of the Zapatistas' Second Declaration from the Lacandon Jungle, which called for armed revolution if the government refused to step down, Marcos has heeded his mentor Carlos Monsivais, as well as Carlos Fuentes and other members of the influential San Angel group, and has begun to move from the "Professional of Violence" to his emerging status as Professional Conciliator. For the national democratic convention celebrated last week in the Zapatistas' Lacandon jungle outpost, Marcos invited peasant and labor union delegations from around the country, but he also extended invitations to writers and intellectuals of right, left and center, whom he addressed in graceful epistles published in La Jornada. The polished replies by Monsivais, Fuentes, Enrique Krauze and other prominent writers and shapers of public opinion have helped revive what Monsivais calls "the nearly extinct" art of epistolary discourse.

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