No Kid Gloves for Mexico's New Rebels

Just as Subcommander Marcos and his Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) suddenly burst onto Mexico's political stage on Jan. 1, 1994, the People's Revolutionary Army (EPR) stormed into the spotlight late last month with armed assaults or propaganda blitzes in six states. Both movements have employed violence, excoriated the perfidy of the government and the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, and denounced market-focused economic policies spearheaded by former President Carlos Salinas (1988-94) and his successor, Ernesto Zedillo.

Three out of 4 Mexicans viewed the Zapatistas' goals favorably, while 35 percent applauded the use of arms against a regime deemed more sympathetic to fat-cat United States investors than to campesinos in the dirt-poor Chiapas state, according to national opinion polls conducted in early 1994. Despite similarities in the two guerrilla bands' repertoires, analyst Jos Antonio Crespo points out that the same public - quick to lavish bouquets on the Zapatistas - now hurls catcalls at the EPR.

Even Cuauhtmoc Crdenas, the salient figure in the leftist-nationalist Democratic Revolutionary Party who sedulously courted Marcos and his shadowy troupe, has dismissed the EPR as "pantomime" revolutionaries. After several nasty battles between the Army and the Zapatistas, Mr. Salinas spurned repression for negotiations with the rebels. Although continuing these parleys with the EZLN - recently suspended by Marcos for tactical reasons - Mr. Zedillo has unleashed the military and police on the EPR. What explains the public's embrace of the EZLN but rejection of the EPR? Why the kid-gloves strategy toward the former compared with the iron fist brandished at the latter? Several factors account for the different approaches:

*The Mexican economy was still growing in early 1994, 12 months before the "Christmas crisis" slashed the peso's value by 40 percent, plunged the country into a deep recession, and shifted the middle class's attention from the guerrilla spectacle in Chiapas to holding on to jobs, homes, appliances, and cars amid a spiraling inflation rate. Now most Mexicans regard insurgents as a menace to economic recovery, not a romantic diversion.

*The Zapatistas, pragmatic performers of guerrilla theater, seek not to vanquish the armed forces but to dramatize the "oppression" suffered by indigenous peoples for 500 years. By contrast, the better-financed, armed-to-the-teeth EPR doggedly attempts to ring down the curtain on a regime that has ruled for 67 years. To date, they have gunned down 16 people and wounded 28, concentrating their fire on police and military officers.

*Marcos exhibited a certain star quality, thanks to a self-deprecating sense of humor, soft-spoken avoidance of ideological cant, poetic musings, and his omnipresent black ski mask complemented by a Zapata-style bandolier - with red shotgun shells incompatible with his AR-15 rifle. For their part, the EPR protagonists, possibly products of a failed Marxist insurgency in the 1970s, display the grim demeanor of true-believers determined to accomplish a root-and-branch upheaval.

*Unlike Salinas, who had stressed economic liberalization over political reform, Zedillo has implemented a local version of glasnost, most evident in sweeping electoral initiatives that he propelled through Congress earlier this summer. Though no panacea, Zedillo-inspired changes have addressed many of the issues raised by the Zapatistas 30 months ago, challenging their portrayal of Mexico as a "crass dictatorship."

Doubtless, the several-hundred-member EPR will launch more bloody forays before crack army units capture, extirpate, or chase them back into the grim hills of Guerrero and Oaxaca states.

Still, the EPR soldiers' lack of public acclaim - even from impoverished but remarkably conservative peasants more concerned with tilling land than tilting at windmills - suggests that these guerrillas will prove themselves villainous bit players, not show-stoppers of the Zedillo administration.

*George W. Grayson teaches government at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Va, and is the author of "Mexico: From Corporatism to Pluralism?" (Harcourt-Brace).

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