On the Verge of Peace Talks, Mexican Government Shifts Tactics on Chiapas Rebels

FACE-TO-FACE talks between the Zapatista rebels in Chiapas and the Mexican government could begin any day now. But as both sides approach the negotiating table, they are digging in their heels on a key issue: national electoral reform.

Last week, Manuel Camacho Solis, the government's chief negotiator, praised a ``clean elections'' pact signed by the major Mexican political parties as ``an advancement of democracy'' which was ``vital to a solution in Chiapas.'' But Mr. Camacho also made it clear that the rebels' demand for ``democratic'' reforms at the national level would not be on the negotiating agenda.

``The government had to preempt the rebels and try to remove the electoral reforms from the talks,'' says Arturo Sanchez of the Mexican Institute of Political Studies, a Mexico City-based private consulting firm. ``The government can't open the door to constitutional change via armed rebellion. No state could allow that precedent,'' he observes.

The omission also fits with the Mexican government's strategy to portray the Chiapas uprising as an isolated problem, local analysts say. In Davos, Switzerland, for a world economic forum on Jan. 29, President Carlos Salinas de Gortari described the Chiapas insurrection that has turned Mexican politics topsy-turvy since Jan. 1 as ``a local problem which occurred in a region of profound poverty.'' He denied it was an indigenous movement, although most participants appear to be Indians of Mayan descent.

And while the uprising has created thousands of refugees from dozens of villages across about one-quarter of the state, Mexican officials often note that the uprising took place in only four of some 110 municipalities in Chiapas.

At the local level, President Salinas is proposing measures to improve the lives of Chiapas peasant farmers.

On the economic front, the government is meeting with indigenous and farming groups seeking suggestions for investment, and pledging big boosts in spending. On political issues, Salinas has replaced the much-criticized state governor and proposed reform of the state penal code used to repress opposition groups.

Nationwide reform needed

But the rebels, known as the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN), are equally adamant that their demands are national as well as local. They've demanded that Salinas step down and that ``clean'' presidential elections be held in August.

``The democracy which Salinas talks about is a joke for us,'' says ``Commandante Javier,'' of the EZLN governing body, the Clandestine Revolutionary Indigenous Committee. He calls the ruling party's landslide victories - by margins of 90 percent or more in Chiapas in recent years - ``pure fraud.''

``Even though we don't vote, we're counted as if we had,'' said Javier in an interview with La Jornada, an independent Mexican daily newspaper. ``Even if Salinas says a thousand times, a hundred times that there's democracy, there is absolutely no democracy in our country.''

The EZLN leadership discounts the recent replacement of Salinas's hard-line interior minister with a more politically independent appointee. It discounts the unprecedented recent agreement among the political parties that calls for audits of the voter roll, equal media access, and other electoral changes. ``They're changing the leaves on the tree, and it's the roots which are rotten,'' says Subcommander Marcos, in another interview from the EZLN's jungle hideout.

The government not only dropped the issue of national political reform, but also seems to be backpedaling on recognizing the rebels as a military and political force. In earlier statements, Camacho had conceded to calling the rebels the ``EZLN.'' But Camacho now describes the EZLN as a ``political force in formation.''

The EZLN reaction - made known via communiques to the Mexican press - is one of insult and outrage. ``What does that mean? That the misery of the Indians doesn't exist but is only ``in formation?,'' says a letter published Feb. 4. ``What class of citizens are the Chiapas Indians? Citizens in formation? For the federal government, the Indians continue to be small children, that is ``adults in formation.''

Negotiating tactics

Mexico expert John Bailey suggests that the government's position going into the negotiations may hint at a tried-and-true tactic used successfully in the past with groups that oppose the Mexican ruling party: divide, co-opt, and conquer. ``Camacho will be trying to split the EZLN into soft- and hard-liners. He will try to win over those who may be ready to sell out. Then, he'll `Satanize' the rest as a fringe element. They'll be declared outlaws and bandits and the Army will be sent in,'' predicts Mr. Bailey, a Georgetown University professor.

Statements by ``Marcos'' published Jan. 7 indicate that even if a negotiated solution is reached quickly, the EZLN may hold on to their weapons until after the August elections.

``In the electoral process, there are always declarations and promises,'' ``Marcos'' says. ``My companions say that the delivery or nondelivery of arms has to be a process which comes after the negotiations and if the accords are being complied with.''

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