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World Perspective | Mexico

Rebels, Government Find That Conflict May Be Indigenous

Zapatistas harden their stance on a peace deal even before substantive talks begin.

March 17, 2001|JAMES F. SMITH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MEXICO CITY — It didn't take long for the euphoria over the Chiapas rebels' peaceful caravan journey through Mexico to give way to insults, suspicion and hardball politics.

The 16-day motorized march by the 24 commanders of the Zapatista National Liberation Army ended Sunday in Mexico City's main square, the Zocalo, with a rally that was more Woodstock than the revolution the Zapatistas envisioned when they rose up Jan. 1, 1994.

But if anyone thought the Zapatistas had abandoned their antipathy toward the Mexican government, the rebel high command quickly made clear this week that a final peace deal will not come easily.

The rebels ventured from their redoubt in the southern state of Chiapas to pressure Congress to adopt legislation that would grant extensive autonomy rights to Mexico's indigenous people, who make up about 10% of the population.

At first glance, that legislation doesn't seem controversial. After all, it was submitted to Congress by President Vicente Fox just days after his Dec. 1 inauguration and flowed from 1996 peace negotiations.

On Monday, the congressional mediation panel for Chiapas visited the Zapatista leaders at their temporary encampment at the National School of Anthropology and History in southern Mexico City. The legislators invited the rebels to meet with a delegation of 10 senators and 10 lower-house deputies to discuss the bill.

A day later, however, guerrilla leader Subcommander Marcos angrily rejected the proposal--demanding instead that the rebel leadership be allowed to address the entire House and Senate chambers from the podium.

Marcos used hostile language reflecting his view that Fox is no different from his predecessors, even though the president has bent over backward to accommodate the rebels and welcome them back into the political arena.

Marcos' tone appeared to harden the determination of the rebels' foes to not make more concessions. By late in the week, the prospects for negotiations any time soon looked cloudy at best.

The rebels' response also suggested that they felt fortified by the substantial, if not overwhelming, turnouts they received during their trek through 12 heavily indigenous states, to an extent that they could scoff at the congressional proposal.

In rejecting the offer, Marcos said that "the legislators do not hear the clamor of the people of Mexico and of national and international public opinion."

He added: "The proposal is humiliating and indignant. It relegates a historic demand to the level of an appearance of a second-rank functionary."

That was just the ammunition Fox's foes needed to argue that the new president had already gone too far in meeting many of the rebels' conditions for resuming peace talks, such as closing army bases in Chiapas and releasing Zapatista prisoners.

Columnist Carlos Ramirez, writing in the Universal newspaper, said that "with his all-or-nothing position, Marcos does nothing but hand the game to hard-line sectors of Congress."

With the march now past, debate is starting to focus on the content of the Indian rights legislation. Objections are coalescing that could lead to modifications that might prove unacceptable to the rebels.

But even before the content is fought over, the role of the Zapatistas in the debate has overshadowed the fine print.

Columnist Jorge Fernandez Menendez wrote in the daily Milenio that giving the congressional podium to the Zapatistas--"when there is still no contact at all, when negotiations haven't started, when points of view haven't been exchanged--is absurd."

An address by Marcos to Congress would do nothing for the law "but plenty for Marcos," Fernandez added. "The picture would go around the world of the 'subcommander' speaking in Congress. It would be a tremendous image boost."

Responding to such criticism, Carlos Monsivais, a respected leftist social critic who is sympathetic to Marcos, argued in a La Jornada newspaper column that the Zapatistas have earned a congressional forum because they have "provoked the greatest debate on record over culture, ways of life and the extremely grave problems of the indigenous people."

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