SEVEN months after ordering the Mexican Army into the Chiapas jungles to arrest the Zapatista rebels as political outlaws, President Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Leon is now calling on the guerrilla group to take part in a national dialogue for political reform.
The president's change of heart - or change in strategy, as the case may be - follows the results of a national referendum the Zapatistas called Aug. 26, which suggested that Mexicans want the rebel army to lay down its arms and become a political force.
Mr. Zedillo on Saturday instructed Interior Secretary Emilio Chauyffet Chemor to find a way to bring the Zapatistas into a dialogue among Mexico's political parties on completion of the country's transition to a better democracy.
With the sixth round of so far unfruitful Chiapas peace talks between the government and the rebels set to begin today, Zedillo's proposal is seen as a way to strengthen the government's hand in the negotiations, while at the same time offering a possible solution to the nagging problem of an armed rebellion in the country's impoverished southeast.
The president's call puts the ball back in the Zapatistas' court, analysts say, leaving them to either act on the results of the referendum they themselves called, or to look undemocratic - and increasingly irrelevant.
The Zapatista guerrillas took control of a half-dozen Chiapas towns on New Year's Day 1994 before retreating to the jungles to push demands for democratic reforms, land distribution, and justice for the indigenous population. Initial peace talks failed, as did Zedillo's brief attempt in February to end the rebellion militarily.
About 1 million Mexicans voted in the recent ''national consultation'' organized for the Zapatistas by the independent pro-democracy organization, Civic Alliance.
In the poll, an overwhelming majority favored the Zapatistas' transition into a political organization.
Slightly over half said the rebels should form a new independent group, such as a political party, while just over 40 percent favored a merger with other ''like-minded'' organizations.
Zedillo's proposal offers the Zapatistas the national breadth they have always claimed. But, Zedillo's offer may not be all that attractive to the rebels, since the national dialogue he proposes they join is itself hung up on squabbles between the government and the chief opposition party.