Mexico's fate tied to battle of ideologies

Zapatistas: Despite president's conciliatory approach, rebel group leader won't budge in his push for autonomy.

April 08, 2001|By George W. Grayson

MEXICO CITY -- President Vicente Fox and Zapatista rebel Subcomandante "El Sub" Marcos are locked in a smash-mouth ideological fight over Mexico's future -- with ramifications for other Latin American nations gravitating to the global economy.

An avid student of Marx, El Sub trumpets increased rights and municipal autonomy for the "dispossessed," especially the country's 10 million Indians, while screaming epithets at "North American imperialism." Fox, a former president of Coca-Cola for Mexico and Central America, has also committed himself to uplifting the "have-nots." But he favors political pluralism, democracy, free-market practices and integration with the world economy as the best way to create jobs, combat poverty and impel development

Marcos burst onto the international stage Jan. 1, 1994, when he and his Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) captured a half-dozen towns in the southern, poverty-afflicted state of Chiapas. The EZLN, named for early 20th Century revolutionary crusader Emiliano Zapata, was protesting "500 years of struggle" against the exploitation of the indigenous population, most recently by the long-ruling "dictatorial" Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). In addition, the rebels' "Declaration of War" lambasted the regime's dependence on foreigners, crystallized in the North American Free Trade Agreement, which took effect on the same day as the EZLN uprising.

After 12 days of bloody encounters with the army, the Zapatistas and the government agreed to a cease-fire to pave the way for protracted negotiations. In February 1996, allies of the media-savvy Marcos and government officials signed the San AndrM-is Accords. Although never implemented, this pact called for respect for the "diversity" of indigenous municipalities, greater participation of these communities in making decisions and spending public monies, and "autonomy" of Indian communities and their right to "free determination" within the law.

Fox, dubbed the "Marlboro Man" because of his 6-foot- 5-inch height and craggy good looks, endorsed these accords during his successful race against the PRI last year. In his Dec. 1, 2000, inaugural address, the new president pledged to submit the agreement to Congress. Several factors explain this bold gambit. First, Fox, a devout, socially conscious Catholic, has repeatedly voiced moral outrage at the PRI's "reprehensible" treatment of indigenous peoples.

Second, he has worked to highlight the differences between his conciliatory approach toward the EZLN compared with the "repression" displayed by his PRI predecessors.

Finally, he was eager to propitiate European diplomats and organizations, which have criticized human rights abuses and desultory violence in Chiapas.

Skeptics have even attributed his promise as a move to bounce a political hot potato from his plate onto that of the legislators.

Rather than graciously accept the tendered olive branch, though, Marcos warned darkly of possible "tricks" and "deceits," ignoring Fox's resounding mid-2000 victory on a pro-change platform. The ski-masked, pipe-smoking guerrilla honcho demanded that the government show its good faith by responding to "three signals" before he would return to the bargaining table: implementing the San AndrM-is Accords; releasing about 100 Zapatista prisoners; and closing seven army bases in the Chiapan "conflict zone."

El Sub proclaimed that he and 23 fellow comandantes would journey to Mexico City to "lobby" recalcitrant legislators on behalf of the San AndrM-is measure, known as the Indigenous Rights and Culture legislation. This announcement presaged a two-week, 12-state "Zapatour" that arrived in Mexico City early last month, 100 days after Fox had taken office.

For his part, Fox has dismantled the military installations near the EZLN enclave, withdrawn more than 2,100 soldiers, halted flyovers of the conflict zone and freed 84 jailed Zapatistas.

Yet the bright lights of the capital's TV cameras only sharpened Marcos' diatribes against the "duplicitous" Fox and his "system of exploitation." He summarily rejected invitations to meet with either 20 key lawmakers or the chief executive. The media-savvy Marcos even threatened to hightail it back to Chiapas unless he was allowed to address the entire Congress.

Fox's center-right National Action Party (PAN) adamantly opposed this demand. Its powerful Senate leader, Diego Fernandez, accused Marcos of "provoking war and opposing peace," and the Senate turned thumbs down on playing host to the comandante. Opposition parties in the 500-member Chamber of Deputies, however, overrode PAN's objections, and voted to give the Zapatistas -- masks, invitees and all -- access to their bully pulpit.

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