Mexican Rebels Arm for the Next Round

SHOULD Mexican president-elect Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Leon expect a honeymoon after he takes office Dec. 1, the embattled southern state of Chiapas is telling him, ``Don't even think about it.''

After several months of surface calm, the state that exploded with an indigenous rebellion Jan. 1, 1994, appears on the verge of renewed conflict.

Although a cease-fire between the government and the rebels is holding, every day brings new conflicts between landowners and campesinos (peasants), and between local officials and a poor population emboldened by the rebels' example.

The first and prickliest pear that Mr. Zedillo will have to dethorn is the controversy surrounding the state's governorship. Just one week after the new president takes power, the nationally ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) gubernatorial candidate is to take office here in the Chiapas capital.

Governor-elect Eduardo Robledo Rincon is largely supported by the state's urban class and property owners who say his election was fair. But Mr. Robledo's opponents, including the indigenous rebels, insist the Aug. 21 election was fraudulent, and are sending ominous signals about the consequences of a Robledo inauguration Dec. 8.

Breakdown of trust

New Year's Day came with a jolt as Mexico awoke to its first indigenous rebellion since the Spanish conquest. A well-organized army of Indians in Chiapas, calling itself the Zapatista National Liberation Army, seized five towns and demanded land rights and democratic reforms.

Talks with the government led to a March cease-fire. But the Zapatistas broke off contacts with Mexico City Oct. 10. The rebels have complained that the Army was beefing up troops and weaponry near rebel bases in a remote jungle region. They have threatened to renew their uprising if Robledo is inaugurated.

Amado Avendano Figueroa, gubernatorial candidate for the opposition Revolutionary Democratic Party (PRD) and Robledo's principal opponent, recently called on thousands of cheering supporters here to ``take the government palace'' Dec. 8 to prevent Robledo from assuming power.

The Zapatista leader, known publicly only as Subcommander Marcos, says from his enclave in the Chiapas highlands that Robledo's installation would be a ``declaration of war'' likely to end the negotiated cease-fire.

Leaders on both sides say their chief interests are ``peace'' and ``justice,'' but with no talks going on between the two, the governor's inauguration day grows in symbolic importance, and Chiapas slips closer to armed battle.

Mayors of small villages are run out of town under threat of machetes and hanging ropes. Land seizures by campesinos are increasing. Ranchers are taking back formerly seized lands, leading in some cases to killings.

``Time is running, but the eighth of December is a fixed date,'' says Raymundo Sanchez Barraza, member the National Intermediation Commission, a government-approved peace group.

``None of the underlying problems like land ownership and political representation can even be addressed as long as something that has become a casus belli [an act or issue provoking war] remains unsolved,'' he says.

Smoothing the conflict

In what could be an encourging sign, though, former PRD presidential candidate Cuauhtemoc Cardenas Solorzano met with Marcos last week, sparking rumors that he could be named as a peace negotitor when Zedillo takes office.

The state's current governor, Javier Lopez Moreno, who has won plaudits from all sides for his evenhandedness during the conflict, says the ``two sides'' disputing the governorship - the PRI and the PRD - owe it to Chiapas and Mexico to negotiate a settlement, while opening the way to solving broader problems of unequal political representation.

Mr. Lopez Moreno, appointed governor in January by President Carlos Salinas de Gortari after his predecessor resigned, has rankled local PRI powers for negotiating the resignations of PRI municipal officials in several of the state's tensely divided villages.

``The side that won'' the governor's race, he says, referring to the PRI and Robledo, is looking for a peaceful solution to the gubernatorial controversy. ``The other side doesn't seem to want one, although I don't believe they've spoken their final word.''

Indeed, indications are growing that the PRD and the many Chiapan grass-roots organizations supporting it may be backing off from confrontation Dec. 8 in Tuxtla Gutierrez. But if they are, it is likely to be in favor of a statewide insurrection.

Some PRD activists are suggesting an alternative strategy to the blocking of the government palace: a takeover of more than half of the state's municipal governments by ``the [indigenous] communities and the people'' - between the national holiday on Nov. 20, which marks the anniversary of the Mexican Revolution, and Dec. 8 - to form a counterweight to the state's traditional landed powers.

``If Zedillo wants confrontation and decides on the hard line and installs Robledo as governor, he can do it,'' says Concepcion Villafuerte, Mr. Avendas wife and editor of the San Cristobal daily newspaper, Tiempo. ``But that doesn't mean Robledo will be able to take power in Chiapas.''

One scenario

The result would be two tiers of power in the state, she predicts. Robledo would govern Tuxtla Gutierrez, a city of 100,000, with campesinos and other rural representatives governing much of the rest of the state.

That seems unlikely, but attempts to accomplish it could result in increased and unpredictable levels of conflict. This is why some analysts say the governorship is the crux of the Chiapas problem, and they suggest that the way it is resolved could lead to or avert renewed fighting.

To ensure that nothing even close to that happens, most analysts, including the local bishop, say that neither Robledo nor Avendano should be governor.

Some Chiapas insiders suggest that one of the members of the National Intermediation Commission might be named by Zedillo as interim governor until new elections could be held.

But Robledo continues to speak in his public appearances very much like a governor-elect, while PRD leaders and sympathizers insist that in the continued absence of dialogue, whatever happens Dec. 8 and after will not be their fault.

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