Stay in Fatigues or Don Suits? Chiapas Rebels Ask for Vote

IN case Mexico and the world had forgotten about Chiapas and its armed rebellion, the southeastern state's Zapatista guerrillas have called a national referendum this Sunday on the rebel army's future.

Sincere impetus to Mexico's sputtering democratic process - or desperate public relations ploy?

The Zapatistas got the respected pro-democracy group Civic Alliance to hold the referendum for them. With that backing, the government grudgingly agreed to their plans.

The national vote has been called ''unprecedented'' in the history of guerrilla movements by some observers here. The Chiapas rebels are asking Mexicans to put their two-pesos' worth into Zapatista deliberations, which could decide if the group that surged onto the world stage with an 11-day ''war'' against the Mexican government in January 1994 becomes a political party.

On the other hand, the charismatic leader of the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN), Subcommander Marcos, has said the voting results will not be binding and will not alone cause the guerrillas to lay down their arms. That position has led some Mexicans to dismiss Sunday's vote as an attempt by Marcos to put his group back into the limelight.

The referendum is made up of six questions, the most crucial of which asks if the Zapatistas should become a political party, or if they should unite with other groups in a new political movement.

The government has been mum on the referendum, even though it supports the idea of the Zapatistas dropping arms to become a political group. Government critics say the silence reflects the government's primary desire to discourage anything that could suggest the Zapatistas retain public sympathy.

Many political observers, including some staunch Zapatista supporters, warn against the rebel group taking the political-party route. Agustin Perez Carrillo, law professor at Mexico City's Autonomous Metropolitan University, says a Zapatista army transformed into a political party would suit the Mexican government because it would remove the thorny problem of an armed rebellion without giving any guarantees that the problems that caused the uprising would be addressed.

Several left-wing groups cite the failure of guerrillas-turned-politicians in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Colombia, as evidence of the poor prospects a Zapatista party would face.

But perhaps the most important question Sunday's referendum will answer is whether Mexicans care enough about Chiapas and the Zapatistas to go out and vote about it. The response is important, because it will help determine the Mexican government's approach to the so-far stagnant Chiapas peace talks that are set to resume Sept. 5.

CHIAPAS and the Zapatista rebellion have gradually slid from Mexico's center stage as fighting stopped and Mexico found itself in a deep recession.

''Much of last year's intense interest in Chiapas has been lost,'' says Cesar Morones Servin, director of the Center for Opinion Studies in Guadalajara. The firm's recent polls in various Mexican states show ''the Zapatistas are increasingly scorned, and the peace talks are largely dismissed as a game,'' Mr. Morones says.

Yet Mexicans retain an interest in Chiapas for its extreme poverty and the marginalization of its indigenous population. And since the way those problems are addressed will reflect whether Mexico addresses in general its problems of poverty and democratic representation, Chiapas remains a national issue.

In an unofficial poll taken in Alameda Park here, about half of the people questioned had not heard of Sunday's vote; most who knew of the referendum planned to vote.

''In Mexico we need somebody like the Zapatistas around to confront a government that has been negative for all of us,'' says Pedro Nunez, a financial-services planner.

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