MEXICO CITY — An armed rebellion is in transition when: director Oliver Stone rides into a jungle hide-out on horseback for a fireside chat on Oscar night; Italian clothing manufacturer Benetton woos the rebels to lend their name to a new line of chic camouflage; and aging French revolutionary Regis Debray drops in for a news conference to praise the group for "not gambling everything on an armed resolution."
As formal peace talks reopened last week between the Mexican government and the armed rebel movement that has been the object of all this celebrity attention, a former French first lady added her name to the revolution's guest list.
Danielle Mitterrand, the widow of French President Francois Mitterrand, is now in the jungles of Chiapas, the latest in a steady stream of foreign visitors so eclectic that a reporter asked 1960s revolutionary Debray last week whether the headquarters of guerrilla leader Subcommander Marcos was becoming "a worldly salon for international jet-setters."
"I'm not a showgirl," Debray shot back. "I came here as a student of the communication media because the Zapatistas have a very strong presence in the European media."
But in past weeks, the Zapatista National Liberation Army that rose up against the government in Mexico's southernmost state on New Year's Day 1994--leaving about 145 dead in 10 days of fighting--has found itself more often in the fashion and feature sections of this land's newspapers than on news pages.
For most Mexican analysts, Marcos' recent guest list is an important sign of the times--the clearest indication yet that the pipe-smoking, ski-masked symbol of the indigenous revolt, which once captured the imagination and support of much of the country, is transforming himself from an armed freedom fighter into fireside philosopher.
The sight of Marcos presenting a wool mask and a wooden pipe to filmmaker Stone and appearing in the March issue of Benetton's Colors magazine are symbols of a new phase in a rebellion that is now more talk than fight.
"One could argue that the movement never was viable through military force," observed Emilio Zebadua, a political science professor at Mexico City's Colegio de Mexico. "And these visits are part of this transition to a political movement. In the transition, the first step must be to break the government's attempt to isolate them--to minimize and marginalize their movement."
Zebadua says the celebrity visits "mean the Zapatista cry of protest has an echo beyond the borders of Chiapas and beyond the borders of Mexico. The echo has attracted the personalities who visit Chiapas not only to express solidarity but also to use their name and fame as a shield against potential aggression."
There was not even a trace of aggression as Zapatista leaders again gathered to bargain with Interior Ministry negotiators Friday. The session in the Chiapas town of San Andres Larrainzar opened the second major round of talks after the rebels and the government signed their first accord in January, which guaranteed expanded rights for Mexico's indigenous communities.
So peaceful was the opening of the Zapatista session that it hardly merited mention in the Mexican media. It took up only a tiny fraction of the space devoted to visits by Stone, Debray and Mitterrand--and the Benetton spread, which was widely reprinted here.
"You have to go to war. But what to wear?" declared the caption beside a composite photograph of the Zapatista commander in Colors. "Camouflage visual dynamic: light, photogenic . . . ideal for the soldier who goes from war to war and doesn't have time to change."
Earlier this month, Marcos announced that he was turning down Benetton's offer to make him a spokesman.
"Companeros," he told reporters through his mask, "we have decided that it is not suitable to wear sweaters in the jungle." The next day, a Benetton designer in Rome was quoted as saying Marcos missed "a great opportunity" to publicize his cause.
The international attention lavished on Marcos these days also is linked to his own carefully crafted image, which nearly came undone a year ago when Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo verbally unmasked him by identifying him as a middle-class leftist intellectual.
In the past year, Marcos has raised his standing as a revolutionary, largely through communiques and speeches that keep up a hard line against the government, which maintains a large army presence in and around Zapatista strongholds.
Marcos has hosted international forums on human rights and has used the attention accompanying the recent celebrity visits to push his political agenda.
"Stone realizes that our movement is just and represents the desires of a sector of society that has been forgotten," Marcos told reporters after he met the Hollywood director last month.
Sergio Sarmiento Silva, a sociology professor at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, said the visits are a key part of the rebels' new strategy.
"The people they invite to visit Chiapas have a certain profile," he said, "a particular political point of view."