Mexico's Chiapas Rebels Keep Pressure on Salinas


IN another display of political cunning, the Zapatista rebels in southern Mexico have rejected the government peace accord negotiated last March. But both sides want a continued cease-fire to the Indian guerrilla uprising that claimed at least 145 lives in January.

The rebels, known as the Zapatista National Liberation Army, are betting they can cut a better deal after the August presidential elections, political analysts say.

``Once again Subcommander Marcos [the Zapatista leader] is demonstrating a great capacity for analysis of the current situation,'' observes Sergio Sarmiento, a columnist for El Financiero, an independent Mexico City daily.

The Zapatistas did not endorse the center-left presidential candidate Cuauhtemoc Cardenas Solorzano when he visited their jungle hideout in Chiapas in May. By the same token, the rebels are not going to give the ruling party a boost by settling the Chiapas insurrection quickly, Mr. Sarmiento says.

Indeed, why should the Zapatistas accept the deal offered several months ago by a lame-duck president whose party's candidate is floundering in the popularity polls, Mexican political analysts say.

Since the preliminary peace agreement was struck in early March, the ruling party's candidate has been assassinated. His replacement, Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Leon, fared poorly in Mexico's first televised debate between presidential candidates on May 12. Some recent polls show the conservative National Action Party (PAN) candidate Diego Fernandez de Cevallos leading Mr. Zedillo for the first time.

``Given the uncertainty of the election outcome, the Zapatistas don't want to give away any bargaining power to this administration if they will have more leverage after the elections,'' says Alex Saragoza, director of the University of California Mexico Studies Center here.

Mr. Saragoza adds that whoever wins, ``the candidate will desperately want to reach an agreement with Zapatistas, because he won't want the Chiapas situation to blow up again during his first weeks in office.''

IN rejecting the preliminary peace pact as insufficient, the Zapatistas are returning to their original 34 demands - calling for jobs, housing, education, land, and agricultural reforms in one of Mexico's poorest states. But the Zapatistas are putting special emphasis on the demand for clean, democratic elections nationwide, which is one of the two demands that the Mexican government refused to negotiate with the Zapatistas. The indigenous rebels, consisting mostly of Tzotzil, Tzeltal, and Chol tribes, are calling for a national convention of ``progressive forces'' to discuss ``democracy, liberty, and justice.''

The government's chief peace negotiator, Manuel Camacho Solis, responded to the rebel rejection June 12 by announcing that the Mexican Army would continue its cease-fire. Mr. Camacho also affirmed that the Chiapas governor would implement 32 of the 34 Zapatista demands - relating to economic, social, and political development in Chiapas alone.

It is not clear yet how this setback for peace in Chiapas will affect the political career of Camacho. The former foreign minister and ex-mayor of Mexico City was hurt and angered when he did not get the nod from President Carlos Salinas de Gortari to be the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) presidential candidate. Conventional wisdom dictated that a successfully negotiated peace agreement could rekindle Camacho's political hopes. Failure could mean exile to a distant foreign embassy.

It is no surprise that Zedillo, the PRI presidential candidate, reacted to the Zapatista announcement by not-so-subtly blaming Camacho. ``We're living a great illusion. We were sure that the negotiations were a success, and now the truth is that they are a failure,'' Zedillo told reporters after a campaign rally June 12.

``Zedillo is trying to eclipse what is left of Camacho's political sun,'' Saragoza says.

Political speculation about Camacho's intentions is already starting. Many professional and armchair observers here are concerned that whichever party loses the elections, it may stage street protests that could turn violent. One of the scenarios is that the instability will force President Salinas to call for new elections and appoint an interim president or special mediator. ``In this scenario, Camacho rides in to the Zocalo [the central plaza] on a white horse, negotiates a quick settlement with the Zapatistas, and saves the country,'' Saragoza says.

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