Good Faith in Chiapas

THE news that Indian rebels in Mexico's southern state of Chiapas are set on Feb. 16 to hand over a prominent mayor held hostage since Jan. 2 is welcome.

According to Manuel Camacho Solis, President Carlos Salinas de Gortari's negotiator, the move represents a ``gesture of good will, of good faith.... They [the rebels] would not have taken this decision if they did not have the intention of going to the negotiating table.''

In addition, both sides are expected to announce a date this week for face-to-face talks.

Such progress should help reinforce the position of those in and out of government who want to see the uprising settled peacefully, rather than through force, as hard-liners in the government still advocate.

Such an ``in your face'' response, especially to grievances that not only are longstanding and justified, but are widely shared in Mexico, would fuel further resentment and class violence. Within the past two weeks, peasants staged a protest in the usually quiet Chiapas town of Teopisca, seeking the ouster of a long-serving mayor who is a member of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). Similar protests have occurred in other towns and villages in the state.

The Jan. 1 rebellion by the Zapatista National Liberation Army clearly has tapped deep-seated anger over political and economic inequities. ZNLA communiques published elsewhere in Mexico often are the talk of the street.

Those in the United States who accurately foresaw that passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement would lead to social unrest in Mexico were right, although many take little comfort in that, given the deaths resulting from the Chiapas uprising. Yet progressive moves often bring ferment.

If a negotiated end to the rebellion brings the beginnings of substantive political and economic reforms, those who held that NAFTA's approval would act as a catalyst for social and political change will also have been right.

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