Charming Rebel Snares Mexican Imagination

`WHO is Subcommander Marcos?''

The mysterious, ski-masked spokesman of the Chiapas rebels, known for his piercing political wit and laughing green eyes, is captivating the Mexican public.

``Viva Marcos,'' shouted tens of thousands of demonstrators in Mexico City's central plaza on Feb. 13, where center-left and leftist opposition parties held a ``100-Hour March'' to demand clean elections, also a rebel demand. In the carnival-like atmosphere, venders hawked ``I'm a Zapatista'' T-shirts and black ski masks worn by guerrillas in the Zapatista National Liberation Army.

``Subcommander Marcos and the Zapatistas are a rallying symbol of those who want to end authoritarian, single-party rule in Mexico, oppose the agricultural reform, and support indigenous rights,'' says Bertha Luthan of the Authentic Workers Front, an independent trade union that is sending food to Chiapas refugees.

Normally, the Mexican public would be wrapped up in the process of political courtship by presidential election candidates. Instead, it is entranced by the unidentified ``voice'' of the armed Indian rebels who took over town halls and battled the Mexican Army during the first two weeks of January.

About 100 people died in the conflict. A cease-fire is in place, and peace talks are expected to begin soon.

But as the government and rebel leaders meet for the first time, the general public may be more interested in trying to peek behind the wool balaclava of this emerging folk hero than focus on the substance of the talks.

Political cartoonists are having a field day with the hooded leader. One mock poll asks: Is Subcommander Marcos a Sex Symbol? The poll ``results'' show 30 percent say ``yes.'' Another 40 percent say ``yes, but he doesn't have a car.''

In terms of recognition, Marcos is a marketer's dream. In a recent opinion poll, 70 percent identified Marcos as the head of the Zapatista guerrillas. ``That's very high,'' says Miguel Basanez, director of Marketing and Opinion Research International in Mexico City. A similar poll last year about who was the mayor of Mexico City (a high-profile post) produced only a 45 percent name recognition.

Part of his appeal, analysts say, is that he does not parrot a Marxist dogma familiar to leftist movements elsewhere. ``Marcos speaks a language free of cliches and different from the traditional left. Although he's not Indian, his words reflect the Mayan view of the world. It's fresh, direct, and humorous,'' Ms. Luthan says.

Most of what is known about Marcos comes via his frequent communiques sent directly to the Mexican press. Analysts call his writing insightful, thoughtful, and at times poetic. His letters have alluded to popular Mexican soap operas, and poked fun at different aspects of the conflict, including his own popularity.

A government composite sketch (in ski mask) released in early January includes a description of Marcos that sounds like a personal ad: brown hair, about 25 years old, green eyes, speaks two languages (Spanish and English), ``secure in what he does,'' and ``has much aplomb.'' Marcos responded in a letter agreeing his nose is big, but ``not as handsome as the sketch suggests.''

Originally, the government described him as a foreigner. He says he is Mexican. The government is not pushing the issue. ``His command of Mexican politics, history, and the military is remarkable. Have you read his letters?'' asks one admiring government official.

In one passage, Marcos compares the controversy over his identity to the ``false'' facade of a modern Mexico ``sold'' to society by the current government.

``We could show our faces, but the big difference is that Marcos has always known his real face, and the civil society is just awakening from the long and lazy dream of `modernity' imposed at all cost to all. Subcommander Marcos is ready to take off his mask. Is Mexican civil society ready to lift its mask?''

And when asked if there were many Ladinos (non-Indians) among the Zapatistas, Marcos quipped: ``The immense quantity of three.''

The government and Army are not amused by the propaganda victories won by Marcos. Gen. Miguel Angel Godinez says, ``If he wears a mask ... he's a delinquent.''

Government officials and some conservative party officials warn against ``glorifying'' lawbreakers.

A Mexican columnist observes that Mexico's first indigenous uprising in five centuries has a ``white cult leader as its most prominent personality.''

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