SAN CRISTOBAL DE LAS CASAS, MEXICO — ON the first day of peace talks, the Mexican government and Mayan Indian guerrillas managed to agree on at least one thing: This is a home-grown rebellion.
It is not a spinoff from Central American guerrilla groups, as the Mexican government claimed after the armed rebels occupied five towns in the southern state of Chiapas on New Year's Day, suddenly shattering the image of a politically stable nation. ``The EZLN [Zapatista National Liberation Army] is an organization that is Chiapan, Mexican, and predominantly indigenous,'' conceded Manuel Camacho Solis, the chief government negotiator.
During the half-hour press conference Feb. 21 inside the Roman Catholic cathedral where rebels and mediators are meeting after weeks of delays, Mr. Camacho appeared sullen and irritated. Surrounded by a three-ring human shield, he stared straight ahead, never looking at the EZLN delegation sitting on either side of him.
One by one, 18 members of the EZLN delegation (17 men and one woman) stood and introduced themselves, each stating he or she was ``100 percent `Chiapaneco' and Mexican.'' Some struggled through the litany in broken Spanish, sometimes reverting to their native tongues of Tzeltzal, Tzotzil, Chol, or Tojolobal. Some wore colorful hand-stitched traditional Indian garb. All wore dark ski masks.
Their propaganda-savvy spokesman, who calls himself Subcommander Marcos, pulled out a three-foot-wide satin Mexican flag and silently held it in front of himself. ``Instead of speaking with rifle fire, perhaps it is the right moment to speak the words that come from the hearts of true men,'' Marcos said.
The private talks, according to mediator Bishop Samuel Ruiz Garcia, are being conducted with ``seriousness,'' ``sincerity,'' and ``mutual respect.'' This first round is focused on setting an agenda for continued dialogue.
Before the talks began, Camacho reiterated the government's position that the agenda would be limited to local - not national -
issues. But he left the door ajar by saying ``certainly there will be discussion of national issues.''
The EZLN wants to use the talks to make significant national electoral and constitutional reforms. In an interview published Feb. 20 in Proceso, a Mexican weekly news magazine, Marcos repeated the EZLN call for President Carlos Salinas de Gortari to step down, but added, ``There are two options: Reform the [federal] electoral law to make it impartial, or the federal government can resign and a transitional government can be formed.''
For many years, Mexican opposition parties have alleged that the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party has held on to power for 65 years by fraudulent means. The EZLN demand for honest presidential elections in August finds plenty of allies.
``Our common interest is clean, transparent elections,'' says Amalia Garcia, a member of the center-left Democratic Revolutionary Party. ``The only way to create security is by working to guarantee there is democracy.'' Mrs. Garcia sides with the EZLN, arguing that Chiapas is not a localized problem. ``Peace, justice, and democracy are issues important to everyone in Mexico.''
Another difficult issue for the government is the EZLN demand for an autonomous indigenous government. In many indigenous communities in Chiapas, local government is a mix of traditional Indian hierarchical rule under ``modern'' Mexican rule. What will be sought, Marcos says, is a constitutional change that would create a system of state governors who would share equal power with ethnic Indian governors.
The EZLN is also challenging constitutional changes made by the Salinas administration that brought an end to a decades-old agrarian system. Prior to the Salinas reforms, every peasant had a constitutional right to a parcel of land. But the land belonged to the state, so farmers could not legally sell it or borrow against its value. The reforms were necessary, Mr. Salinas said, because of the widespread poverty in the countryside and the shortage of land.
The EZLN rejects the lack of land argument, saying there are many prosperous non-Indian ranchers with more than their fair share of property. It wants the property divided among the poor, much to the consternation of property owners in Chiapas.
Given the complexity of the EZLN demands, it is unlikely this round of talks will accomplish much. Marcos says the Zapatistas will not lay down their weapons prematurely. ``We've been waiting 500 years [since the Spanish conquest], say my compatriots. We can wait another 500.''