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NEWS ANALYSIS

Zapatistas Vault Onto Political Stage in Mexico

Latin America: The Indian rights caravan to the capital underscores the shift of rebels from insurgents to far leftist activists seeking a voice in policy debates.

February 26, 2001|JAMES F. SMITH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN CRISTOBAL DE LAS CASAS, Mexico — Seven years after he and his ragtag band of Maya Indians seized this placid colonial city in an armed rebellion that stunned the world, Subcommander Marcos was back, armed this time not with a gun but with a speech.

In that moment this weekend, the Zapatista rebels' struggle for indigenous rights shifted from a military theater where the guerrillas had no prospect of victory to a political stage--one where they may well be capable of challenging the new national government as agents for change.

Thousands of Zapatista supporters, many of them villagers wearing ski masks and bandannas to cover their faces, crowded into San Cristobal's plaza Saturday night to hear Marcos formally inaugurate a 16-day caravan to Mexico City to lobby for Indian rights. It felt like the start of an uncertain new phase in Mexico's complex political evolution.

Standing before the crowd, Marcos seemed more a poet than a rebel leader as he summoned all his considerable rhetorical skills to retake momentum from the other charismatic leader who has shaken Mexico's recent history, President Vicente Fox.

Fox, whose election in July ended seven decades of one-party rule, has sought to portray himself as a champion of the same indigenous rights that Marcos has demanded since his Zapatista National Liberation Army seized the plaza here on Jan. 1, 1994. Fox has even welcomed the Zapatista march through 12 states, calling it the march of peace.

On Saturday, Marcos chided Fox for assuming the right to name what is the rebels' first serious attempt to break out of their jungle isolation and enter the national political fray in Mexico City, the home turf of the nation's political elite, when the caravan arrives there March 11.

"Mr. Vicente Fox wants to give a name to the step we take today," Marcos declared, in a speech rich with imagery. "He says, 'This is the march of peace,' and he keeps our brothers prisoner for the worst crime in the modern world: dignity. He plans to convert our history into a marketing exercise.

"But our steps speak another, truer language," Marcos added. "This is the march of indigenous dignity, the march of the color of the Earth."

The caravan set off Sunday for a stop in Tuxtla Gutierrez, the state capital of Chiapas, before continuing to adjacent Oaxaca state and on to other heavily indigenous parts of Mexico, following a schedule that is to include 33 public gatherings, all designed to build national support for Indian rights legislation.

Original Rebel Leader to Serve as Go-Between

Zapatista commanders disclosed Saturday that Fernando Yanez, identified by the government in 1995 as the original commander of the rebels, will serve as go-between with the Congress and political parties for expected meetings in the capital. The silver-haired Yanez was arrested in 1995 but freed soon after in an amnesty resulting from preliminary negotiations. He then dropped out of public view until he reappeared with the commanders Saturday night.

Marcos, Yanez and the 23 other Zapatista commanders making the trek to Mexico City did not arrive here furtively, as they did in 1994. While their supporters, many with headbands saying "Peace With Dignity," paraded around the plaza, the commanders arrived in a blue-and-white tourist bus and were greeted like rock stars as they lined up on a stage facing the city's stately cathedral.

The event illustrated the transformation of the rebels from Marxist revolutionaries who in 1994 declared their intention of over-throwing the state to reformist revolutionaries seeking a place in a nation where Fox's election took the wind out of longtime complaints about an illegitimate one-party regime.

With this shortening of the playing field on both sides, it is no wonder Marcos is squabbling with leaders of Mexico's conventional left, whom he regards as sellouts. He has publicly attacked Foreign Minister Jorge Castaneda, the most prominent and articulate leftist in Fox's rainbow government, accusing him of trying to maneuver the rebels into peace talks even before Marcos' basic conditions for restarting negotiations are met.

Even with all this jockeying, however, the prospects for progress toward ending the deadlocked conflict in Mexico's poorest and southernmost state have never been better in the seven years that Marcos has spent holed up and surrounded by army troops in the mountain highlands and valleys of northern and eastern Chiapas.

In two months, Fox has shut four army bases, released more than 50 prisoners and, most significantly, sent far-reaching legislation to Congress to reform the constitution to recognize indigenous autonomy and cultural and judicial rights. Fox told the nation Friday night: "The march will be an opportunity to discover the great country that is Mexico."

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