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Zapatista march draws attention

Special to the National Catholic Reporter

The masked leader of the Zapatistas, a movement in open rebellion against the Mexican state for more than seven years, has pulled off his biggest public relations coup to date with a symbolic 650-mile march to Mexico City. The march from Chiapas, the Zapatistas’ guerrilla stronghold, has generated strong support and excitement along the way.

The effect is to put pressure on the government to make peace with the rebels, who have taken up the cause of Mexico’s downtrodden in their demands for indigenous rights. With massive publicity from Mexican media and heavy coverage internationally, Subcomandante Marcos, the Zapatista leader, emerged from the forests of Chiapas Feb. 25 to lead the march. Leaving their weapons behind, wearing their trademark bandanas, 24 Zapatista leaders set off in a caravan of 30 automobiles and 27 trucks with a carefully planned itinerary.

The group’s march into Mexico City recalls a triumphal march to Mexico City in 1914 by peasant champion Emiliano Zapata, from whom the Zapatistas take their name. Zapata was assassinated during peace talks five years later.

Several times along the way, Marcos has lambasted President Vicente Fox and the Mexican business establishment, saying that Fox’s words have not been followed by actions. Fox, who took office Dec. 1, has repeatedly said he is committed to indigenous rights. He has described the march as a “bridge to peace.”

Fox’s first act on taking office was to send the contested Indian rights bill to Congress. He has released scores of jailed sympathizers and closed four of seven military bases near the rebels’ stronghold. Yet Marcos continues to express distrust and has criticized Fox for taking credit for promoting peace before implementing the agreement on Indian rights, known as the San Andres Accords.

For four years before Fox took office, there had been a total breakdown of negotiations between the Mexican government and Zapatista rebels. The government had reneged on the accords, though they had been signed by former President Ernesto Zedillo and Marcos in the presence of Samuel Ruiz García, then the bishop of San Cristóbal de Las Casas in Chiapas.

The agreement gave the indigenous communities control over public expenditures, participation in development plans, control over their administrative and judicial affairs, and autonomy or self-government.

The long stalemate diverted public attention from the Zapatistas, but a new political and social dynamism is now evident. Some 500 groups are busy collecting signatures and organizing meetings to pressure Mexico’s Congress to act. Marcos and his associates stopped in Nurio, Michoacán, for a 3-day meeting of the National Congress of the Indigenous, at which hundreds of observers from Italy, Switzerland, France and Argentina were present.

The impact of Marcos was electric. The 3,700 delegates from 40 indigenous groups insisted that the San Andres Accords are “not negotiable,” and they called on the government to demilitarize all indigenous regions, especially Guerrero, Oaxaca and Veracruz, as well as Chiapas. The delegates decided to send representatives to accompany the Zapatistas to Mexico City.

Gov. Ignacio Loyola Vera of Queretaro had warned publicly that he would shoot any Zapatista who set foot in the state. The federal government, however, took steps to ensure safe passage, and the governor kept a low profile as the caravan passed.

Everywhere thousands turned out in greeting, offering food and shelter. Only one incident occurred. The driver of one of the caravan’s buses lost control, causing a pile-up in which a police officer serving as an escort was killed. There were rumors of sabotage, but apparently they were without foundation.

While the two big TV networks, both government-controlled, have tended to minimize coverage, most of the major newspapers are giving substantial space to the march and generally favorable comment. Excelsior of Mexico City, for example, sees the social unrest in the southern states as justified because “it seeks to end control by caciques, or bosses, to get better help and education, a voice in public spending, more jobs and fair wages.”

The six southern bishops who form the Episcopal Commission for the Indigenous commented, “We think the proposals of the Zapatistas are designed to ensure dignity, justice and development for all Mexicans.”

Noting that practically every Mexican has indigenous blood, the bishops said they hope that discussion of the San Andres Accords will lead to more just and equitable legislation for all minorities.

The next several weeks will be decisive. A Zapatista spokesperson has had discussions with a government commission to arrange the place and time for a meeting in Mexico City between the Zapatistas and the Senate. Some senators of Fox’s party openly oppose legislation favorable to indigenous rights.

Nobody thinks, however, that all issues will be quickly resolved. The demands of the Zapatistas as a preliminary to negotiations have as yet been only partially met. Three of seven military bases encircling the Zapatistas encampment in the Lacandon forest remain open, and 60 of 100 Zapatista sympathizers remain in jail.

Gary MacEoin’s e-mail address is gmaceoin@cs.com

National Catholic Reporter, March 16, 2001