Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
29 March - 4 April 2001
Issue No.527
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Marcos in, PAN out

Subcomandante Marcos continues to win on both the political and media fronts, notes Peter Orr

The Mexican Congress finally voted last Friday, 220 to 210, with seven abstentions and 18 deputies absent, to allow Zapatista rebels to address the assembly. Subcomandante Marcos had threatened to return to his jungle stronghold in Chiapas, thereby forcing the Congress to act. The tight vote offered the somewhat farcical spectacle of members of the former ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) joining left-wing Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) members in voting against members of President Fox's own party. Fox himself has said that he is willing to accede to the rebels' conditions -- closure of seven military bases in rebel zones in Chiapas, release of National Zapatista Liberation Army (EZLN) prisoners, and the right to address the Congress -- before peace talks begin. But his right-wing National Action Party (PAN) is largely against them, the majority of PAN's congressional deputies voting against the Zapatistas.

On the same day, President Fox promised the closure of two remaining army bases in Chiapas and the release of all Zapatistas still in prison. He had already ordered the army, over its objections, to close five bases. The Zapatista address to Congress was scheduled to take place on Wednesday, with Subcomandante Marcos expected to urge the assembly to pass a bill guaranteeing Mexico's indigenous population (10 per cent of the country's 100 million inhabitants) cultural and political autonomy.

The enigmatic Zapatista leader welcomed news of the close vote, saying, "The door to dialogue seems to be opening." He then issued a whimsical fourth condition to holding talks with the government. He mocked PAN's Senate leader Diego Fernandez de Cevallos and his cronies for voting against the measure, stipulating that the PAN faction should be provided with a "reasonable quantity of antacids and tranquillisers" so as to better swallow their defeat and the upcoming Zapatista appearance in Congress.

"Don Diego" has publicly denounced President Fox for being Marcos's greatest promoter and constantly rails against the EZLN's allegedly "perverse intentions." Marcos responded to the latter concern by suggesting to the PAN leaders that they could learn all they wanted of Zapatista intentions from various public speeches and interviews to the press -- rather than resorting to spy satellites and high-powered microphones.

In one such interview, published by journalist and Nobel Prize-winning author Gabriel Garcia Marquez in Mexico's Reforma newspaper, the Zapatista leader confirmed that the rebel movement will continue to favour political methods over armed struggle. In fact, since the rebel movement first appeared on the scene on 1 January 1994 to protest the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and continuing neglect and harassment of Mexico's indigenous population, it has carried out no major military actions. Even then, fighting lasted only 12 days, the EZLN and the Mexican Army quickly settling into an uneasy standoff. Serious talks evenThe Mexican Congress finally voted last Friday, 220 to 210, with seven abstentions and 18 deputies absent, to allow Zapatista rebels to address the assembly. Subcomandante Marcos had threatened to return to his jungle stronghold in Chiapas, thereby forcing the Congress to act. The tight vote offered the somewhat farcical spectacle of members of the former ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) joining left-wing Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) members in voting against members of President Fox's own party. Fox himself has said that he is willing to accede to the rebels' conditions -- closure of seven military bases in rebel zones in Chiapas, release of National Zapatista Liberation Army (EZLN) prisoners, and the right to address the Congress -- before peace talks begin. But his right-wing National Action Party (PAN) is largely against them, the majority of PAN's congressional deputies voting against the Zapatistas.

On the same day, President Fox promised the closure of two remaining army bases in Chiapas and the release of all Zapatistas still in prison. He had already ordered the army, over its objections, to close five bases. The Zapatista address to Congress was scheduled to take place on Wednesday, with Subcomandante Marcos expected to urge the assembly to pass a bill guaranteeing Mexico's indigenous population (10 per cent of the country's 100 million inhabitants) cultural and political autonomy.

The enigmatic Zapatista leader welcomed news of the close vote, saying, "The door to dialogue seems to be opening." He then issued a whimsical fourth condition to holding talks with the government. He mocked PAN's Senate leader Diego Fernandez de Cevallos and his cronies for voting against the measure, stipulating that the PAN faction should be provided with a "reasonable quantity of antacids and tranquillisers" so as to better swallow their defeat and the upcoming Zapatista appearance in Congress.

"Don Diego" has publicly denounced President Fox for being Marcos's greatest promoter and constantly rails against the EZLN's allegedly "perverse intentions." Marcos responded to the latter concern by suggesting to the PAN leaders that they could learn all they wanted of Zapatista intentions from various public speeches and interviews to the press -- rather than resorting to spy satellites and high-powered microphones.

In one such interview, published by journalist and Nobel Prize-winning author Gabriel Garcia Marquez in Mexico's Reforma newspaper, the Zapatista leader confirmed that the rebel movement will continue to favour political methods over armed struggle. In fact, since the rebel movement first appeared on the scene on 1 January 1994 to protest the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and continuing neglect and harassment of Mexico's indigenous population, it has carried out no major military actions. Even then, fighting lasted only 12 days, the EZLN and the Mexican Army quickly settling into an uneasy standoff. Serious talks eventually took place in 1996, culminating in the San Andres Accords which promised increased autually took place in 1996, culminating in the San Andres Accords which promised increased autonomy to indigenous communities, but were never ratified by the Mexican government.

While events on the ground stagnated, Marcos adopted a different, and ultimately more successful, tactic, using satellite telephones and the Internet to send out the Zapatista message from his base in rugged Chiapas to the rest of Mexico and the world. The Zapatista Web site -- featuring images of Marcos smoking his trademark pipe through the hole of his black mask and samples of his eloquent, even poetic, writing -- was a great success. Marcos attracted followers from around the world, tapping into an international Left still reeling from the fall of Soviet-style Marxism and nostalgic for the days of Ernesto "Che" Guevara.

The EZLN leader proved to be a different kind of Che, faceless but endowed with a gift for theatrics. Soon film stars, movie directors, assorted intellectuals and other, more ordinary, Zapatista groupies were flocking to San Cristobal de Las Casas, where elderly Mayan women sell black-masked, gun-toting Zapatista dolls for a few pesos. Revolutionary tourism was all the rage.

On 26 February, Marcos started his own tour. The two-week, 3,000km "Zapatour" garnered support and put the new, democratically elected government of Vicente Fox to the test. Fox allowed the march to take place over the strong objections of the army, the business community and members of both the PRI and his own party. The new Mexican president even took credit for the march, claiming that it was proof that his election last year, the first of a non-PRI president in 71 years, had ushered in a new era of democracy. By the end of the march, Fox himself was crying, "Long live the Zapatistas, long live Marcos!" for the benefit of reporters.

Fox is in a quandary. He publicly recognises that the Zapatistas are at the height of their popularity, but in doing so isolates himself from his party's support base. In the run-up to presidential voting, he distanced himself from the arch-conservative PAN, promoting a maverick image, so Friday's split vote did not come as a surprise. It could, however, signal a difficult mandate for Fox. Without the loyal support of his own party, he risks having difficulty in carrying out the major political and economic reforms promised in his campaign. Mexican political commentators give him even odds on his ability to play the maverick and work with the PRI, the PRD and other parties.

As for the Zapatistas, Mexico City is some 1,000km from their base in the Lacandon forest and a different world altogether. While both the Zapatour and the final rally in Mexico City's enormous Zocalo (central square) were wildly popular, the EZLN must now prove itself in the more mundane -- yet treacherous -- arena of parliamentary politics. Marcos has said that he is eager to remove his mask, but is reluctant to transform his rebel movement into a political party. In the short term, negotiations with the Mexican government could prove difficult: the Zapatistas, not known for having a light touch when bargaining, have named a hard-liner to lead their side in the upcoming talks and Friday's vote proves there are still plenty of Zapatista-resistant law-makers. On the line is not only Mexico's "new democracy"; the Zapatistas now serve as an example to indigenous populations in other Latin American countries, such as Ecuador and Peru, and as an ally in the growing anti-globalisation movement.

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