Spurned Mexican official's career rejuvenated by revolt of Maya

January 15, 1994|By Ginger Thompson | Ginger Thompson,Staff Writer

SAN CRISTOBAL DE LAS CASAS, Mexico -- The stellar political career of Manuel Camacho Solis seemed doomed last month when Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari passed over his old college friend in the selection of a successor.

But as a rebel uprising pushed this country dangerously close to explosion, the president has once again turned to Mr. Camacho for salvation.

The popular former mayor of Mexico City may be the only one who can restore the image Mr. Salinas was trying to create of a country finally making its way out of historic corruption, indifference and class warfare.


The 47-year-old politician has been called many times over the last 15 years to build bridges with government opponents and settle tense disputes, including nationwide protests over election fraud and desperate demands for housing for those displaced by the 1985 earthquake.

But in the last two weeks, the country has suffered its most violent uprising since the 1910 revolution.

Mayan peasants armed with little more than machetes and wooden rifles ravaged six towns in the southern state of Chiapas, including this one. More than 200 people have been killed in the takeovers and in battles with the army.

Analysts say Mr. Camacho is perhaps the only leader of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party who could bring a peaceful end to the bloodshed.

The key to his negotiating strategy seems simple enough, but one that political analysts say is rarely exercised in Mexico: respect for those sitting on the other side of the table.

Shortly after he arrived here to start his mission, he delivered a message of peace to the rebels in their own Mayan dialect.

"We, who are working to build bridges with these communities must recognize these communities: their voice, their difference, their identity," Mr. Camacho said. "If we want them to talk in our language, then we will never communicate."

"All we want as Mexicans is respect. We want for our opinions to count," said Sergio Aguayo, a political analyst who is often critical of the government and has known Mr. Camacho for more than 20 years. "He respects my opinions, and I respect his."

Reported to Salinas

Mr. Camacho returned to Mexico City yesterday to report to President Salinas. In line with a rebel suggestion, he named as his on-the-scene representative Bishop Samuel Ruiz, an Indian rights advocate.

Mr. Camacho has enjoyed an outstanding political career. His first major job was secretary of Social and Ecological Development Ministry in 1986, a year after an earthquake devastated Mexico City. Faced with violent protests by poor people whose homes had been destroyed, Mr. Camacho negotiated an agreement that brought peace.

In 1988, he served as secretary general of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), struggling to soothe nationwide tensions after Mr. Salinas took the presidency. Opponents cried fraud, after the computers tallying the votes inexplicably failed for three days.

When the dust settled, Mr. Salinas named Mr. Camacho to be Mexico City mayor, a position in which he won friends on both the left and the right.

But in December, Mr. Salinas anointed Luis Donaldo Colosio to be the PRI's candidate for president. Mr. Camacho broke with PRI etiquette and told the press he was disappointed in the president's decision. He resigned as mayor of Mexico City and was named foreign minister, a Cabinet post with little power.

Career resurrected

But his appointment as peace commissioner changed that.

"Camacho is one of the country's best politicians because he can combine his personal political aspirations with social interests," said Primitivo Rodriguez, a political analyst of the American Friends Service Committee. "There is no doubt that his appointment means a personal political resurgence."

Since he arrived in Chiapas, Mr. Camacho has said he recognizes this as one of the most difficult challenges of his career.

Not only will he need to build bridges with the rebels, but he will also have to build bridges with church leaders, accused by the government of instigating the rebellion and the wealthy landowners who might resist any concession to the Indian rebels.

"He didn't sleep all night preparing for his trip," said Bishop Ruiz of San Cristobal de las Casas. "And he didn't sleep today because he had so many questions about the people and the problems of their lives. He really wants to understand."

After a day in Ocosingo, a town that saw some of the heaviest fighting between rebels and army soldiers, the bishop remembered, "One woman said to him, 'Mr. Camacho, what am I going to do because I have no milk for my children?' He told her that he would personally make sure that she got some milk the next day."

Political analysts say Mr. Camacho's appointment to negotiate a settlement indicates a victory for the rebels.

Guerrillas 'won'

"With Camacho, the guerrillas know they have won politically," Mr. Rodriguez said. "They have won something they themselves probably didn't expect to win so big, so clear and so quickly. They have achieved more in a week than the opposition has in the last five years."

The appointment of Mr. Camacho also indicates a "silent revolution" within the government in which the old-line conservatives of the ruling party have been forced to turn over more power to its liberal leaders.

"[Mr. Camacho] is one of the most prominent government figures who has worked to open the country to democracy and give a meaningful response to the millions of people left out of Mexico's economic reforms," Mr. Rodriguez said. "He embodies the democratic and socially-oriented wing of the government."

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