Celebrities Beat a Path To Lair of Mexico Rebel

Is it a desire for peace - or merely radical chic?

THE jungle paths of Chiapas are being worn deep by a procession of international personalities who are making a visit with Mexico's masked rebel leader, Subcommander Marcos, the world's latest "correct" pilgrimage.

American filmmaker Oliver Stone, French intellectual Rgis Debray, Argentine human-rights activist Hebe de Bonafini, and most recently Danielle Mitterrand, France's former first lady, are among the luminaries who in recent days have made the trek to the remote Mexican jungle. Some critics dismiss the parade as mere radical chic, but others say it is a legitimate expression of a global desire for peace and of international solidarity with a just cause.

In any case the visits, coming at the invitation of the bearded, pipe-smoking, and often horse-mounted Marcos, are clearly designed to rekindle both national and international interest in the southern Mexican state's two-plus-year-old Indian rebellion.

Despite his confinement to a reduced section of the Chiapas jungle, the charismatic leader of the Zapatista National Liberation Army is fully aware that over the last year the armed rebellion that exploded onto the Mexican scene on New Year's Day 1994 has lost much of its drawing capacity among Mexicans. At the same time, it has retreated from the news pages and TV news hours that form international public opinion.

"This is very clearly part of a strategy to maintain national and international attention on the Zapatista movement," says one Mexican government official. "Marcos himself has confirmed this in some of his comments with visiting media."

With the Zapatistas having concluded with the government an indigenous-rights accord and now involved in drawn-out negotiations on such complex issues as democratic reforms and land-access guarantees, the rebel movement is no longer high drama.

But Marcos and his fellow Zapatistas appear to be convinced that the government still considers a military operation one option for ending the rebellion. And the best way the rebels see to rule out such an alternative is to maintain international interest in the Zapatista movement.

Do visits weaken image?

According to prominent Mexican political observer Jorge G. Castaneda, writing in this week's Proceso magazine, the foreigners' parade risks making the Zapatista movement look weak and desperate. But he says Marcos is willing to pay that price if it forestalls a "government offensive." For their part, adds Mr. Castaneda, the foreigners are willing to lend their names to what they consider to be a "just cause in a difficult moment."

Yet, aside from some recent military activity in the conflict zone that the Army says was limited to antidrug operations - the zone is used both for narcotics cultivation and transshipments - the government has refrained from any action against the Zapatistas for more than a year. And with the peace negotiations going on and the government finding itself with such bigger fish to fry, like a sunken economy, any military movement against the rebels would seem to be out of the question.

"As our presence at these negotiations demonstrates, we have accepted the path of reform, and not the path of arms, which for us is unacceptable," government negotiator Aln Arias Marn said in remarks at a weekend session of the peace talks.

Still, some government representatives and political commentators have expressed irritation with the burgeoning trail of international figures setting off to be photographed alongside Marcos, calling it an affront to Mexican sovereignty. These circles don't care to see an international elite celebrating one of the factors that gave Mexico the image of instability in 1994 and led to the country's deepest economic crisis in 60 years.

No celebrities, please

Sensitivity over the sovereignty issue hit a high point when Mrs. Mitterrand showed up at the April 19 negotiating session seated between two masked members of the Zapatista delegation. "According to the Constitution, no foreigners are allowed to participate in Mexico's political affairs," read a hasty communique from the government's Chiapas conciliation commission. Commission member Heberto Castillo told Mitterrand she would have to leave because she did not represent any of the negotiating parties.

But Mitterrand disarmed growing tensions by praising the government for initiating the peace dialogue, adding, "You are building a peace not only for Mexico but for all mankind." She told the negotiators that "today the world has become small," and that problem-solving is no longer done simply among the people of one country, but with the whole world looking on."

Mitterrand's words notwithstanding, it may be that what Marcos fears more than the Mexican Army is public indifference, both Mexican and international.

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