ZAPATISTA guerrillas invited more than 5,000 people to go with them to the hills near their hideout to demonstrate they were a force to be reckoned with in Mexico's upcoming elections.
Hosting a National Democratic Convention in the southern state of Chiapas from Aug. 6-9, the Zapatistas asked participants to unify against the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), form a transitional government, and write a new constitution.
The guerrillas, who specially designed a meeting camp in an isolated valley in the Lacandon rain forest, pledged to remain armed until after the Aug. 21 ballot. But they said they would not fight unless asked to by political parties or independent groups who could determine the government tried to steal the presidential election.
The Zapatista National Liberation Army, made up of mostly Indian peasants, surprised the country when they launched a sudden attack on New Year's Day, taking over several towns in southern Mexico.
In a dramatic nighttime speech Monday, the ski-masked Zapatista leader, known only as Subcommander Marcos, said he would not rule out the possibility of launching another attack. He added that the peasant rebels were willing to respond with violence to any urban protests, highway blockades, or worker strikes that could be provoked by a fraudulent vote.
``The role of the Zapatistas is not to direct the Mexican people, but to support them, and, when it is necessary, to act in their favor,'' Marcos said. ``This convention is to give form to the peaceful struggle for democracy and justice.''
Uprising set election tone
The gathering came seven months after the ragtag band of campesinos, or peasants, took over several Chiapas towns. The attack shocked the country and threw a cloak of uncertainty over this year's presidential campaign.
With just 10 days to go before the most hard-fought presidential election ever, the Zapatistas stressed that their rebel army is not determined to resume fighting with the more than 40,000 Mexican soldiers who have surrounded the Zapatista camps since January.
Nonetheless, Marcos asserted that the rebels will not disband until significant political changes are achieved. ``The Zapatista army has never offered to put down its arms, but to open up space for a peaceful transition,'' he said.
The Zapatistas spent the last month constructing the giant amphitheater complete with a wide stage, shelters, a press room, library, and a medical facility. Powerful lights and an ample sound system were trucked in to the convention site.
The participants arrived via a lumbering caravan of more than 150 buses that left the colonial mountain city of San Cristobal de las Casas Sunday morning.
A huge camp out
But once everyone arrived in this small valley a mile to the east of the Indian hamlet of Guadalupe Tepeyac, the gathering quickly took on the look of a camping trip. Indian boys dressed in fatigues moved through mazes of brightly colored tents. The smells of canned tuna, coffee, and tortillas wafted across the convention site - named Aguascalientes by the rebels for a 1914 convention - which is thought of as the height of the Mexican revolution's populist period.
Under a giant tarpaulin spread above a wooden stage extending up a hillside for more than 150 yards, members of community organizations, students, campesinos, and university intellectuals talked politics and discussed how best to oust the PRI, which has governed Mexico without interruption since 1929.
``This whole thing is 80 percent from the heart and 20 percent from the brain,'' said Javier Livas, a National Action Party activist.
Many were moved. ``We want change in Mexico,'' said Alberto de Jesus Lopez, a campesino from the tiny village of Tlalauchitlahuaca in Guerrero State. ``The people have suffered long enough. What Marcos said is true.''
The difficulties of turning eloquent words into unified action were clear. When Marcos left the convention site, he gave a group of intellectuals the unenviable task of unifying a convention made up of groups as varied as Marxists, human rights activists, progressives, and even mainstream PRI-istas disenchanted with the direction of their party.
Within a half hour, however, a tremendous rainstorm drenched the convention site, and the giant tarpaulin collapsed on a nearly panicking crowd. Lights went out, and the meeting was adjourned.
``It wasn't going to be easy,'' said Luis Javier Garrido, a political scientist at the Autonomous University of Mexico in Mexico City who was handed the microphone following the opening speeches. ``The rain cleansed any possibilities of friction.''