MEXICO CITY — Masked Zapatista rebels took the floor of Mexico's Congress on Wednesday to argue for an Indian rights bill, a historic appearance that raised hopes for an end to their seven-year conflict with the government.
Two dozen Zapatistas, unarmed and wearing their trademark ski masks, filed past congressional deputies and took seats in two rows directly in front of the speaker's lectern. Joined by scores of supporters, the rebels then made their case for the rights of indigenous Mexicans during a five-hour session before two congressional commissions.
Enigmatic military leader Subcommander Marcos, the rebels' spokesman since their January 1994 uprising in the southern state of Chiapas, did not attend, underscoring the movement's new focus on politics over arms. His putative leader, Commander Esther, gave the rebels' principal address. She expressed in strong terms their willingness to negotiate peace.
"Our warriors have done their job," Esther said to an audience that included about 280 deputies and senators, less than half the total members of Congress. "We make clear our disposition for dialogue, the construction of agreements and the search for peace."
"We want no handouts," she said. "We want a society in which indigenous people don't have to take up arms to be heard."
The rebels were accompanied by more than 100 supporters from Mexico's indigenous communities, many of whom were dressed in colorful native costumes. The backers sat on the main floor and in the balconies, providing a stark contrast to the lawmakers in their business suits and the somber surroundings in the cavernous hall.
At the very least, the rebels and their followers attained a long-standing goal set by Marcos that Mexico's indigenous be "inside the security ropes" during important political events and not outside in the streets.
"This is an unprecedented moment in the 200 years of the republic to restore rights to the indigenous that have disappeared," said Hector Sanchez Lopez, a member of the Chamber of Deputies' Indian issues commission. "We hope the members leave convinced that the initiative won't divide the country but unite it."
Televised nationally, the spectacle held much of the country in thrall and may be the first step in furthering rights and protections for Mexico's 10 million indigenous people. Or, it could end up as just a dramatic high point in a failed bid to provide a new concept of sovereignty for the nation's 62 indigenous communities.
The Zapatistas and their supporters want sweeping changes in the constitution to ensure judicial, territorial and cultural autonomy for indigenous people. They have the support of President Vicente Fox, an apparent majority of the public and deputies in the lower house of Congress for some form of a rights bill.
But Fox's National Action Party, or PAN, which almost unanimously opposed allowing the rebels access to the floor of Congress, rejects the Zapatistas' rights bill, especially provisions giving indigenous communities judicial independence and territorial rights to water and other natural resources. The PAN holds 210 seats in the 500-member Chamber of Deputies, the lower house, which hammers out details of most legislation.
Attendance was optional for members of Congress, and the PAN urged most of its deputies and senators to boycott the session.
Marcos' mocking criticism of the PAN during the past two weeks for opposing the rebels' visit left a bitter aftertaste that has hardened the party's resistance to any reform, said Federico Estevez, a political scientist at the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico.
"This was nice today and so on, but there is really no getting around the fact that the PAN voted unanimously against even the symbolic issue of letting them speak in the well of the chamber," Estevez said. "People today are minimizing the importance of that, but I refuse to."
With the rebels' appearance in Congress behind them, the hard part begins: negotiating the finer points of a complex indigenous rights law, which will require just the sort of give and take that the rebels have so far refused to engage in.
Up to now, the rebels have been inflexible in their demand that Congress adopt a proposal drawn up in 1996 by the Commission on Concord and Peace but never voted on.
But the PAN may prove to be equally tough. At Wednesday's session, party members who did attend indicated forcefully that any new law would be thoroughly negotiated, not rubber-stamped.
"You said you don't want charity. We agree with you. We don't want to give you 70 more years of promises and charity," said PAN Deputy Alba Leonila Mendez. "That is why we want to decide with intelligence and the wisdom of our ancestors, as you were saying a few minutes ago."