Zapatour: a ride into history?

On Sunday, Mexico's Zapatista rebels expect to cap a two-week tour of the country to promote Indian rights.

As the 40-bus caravan led by unarmed, masked guerrillas rolls toward Mexico City, crowds line roads to wave and cheer.

"Marcos!" they chant as the leader of the Zapatista indigenous movement rides by.

"I just think he's cool," says Victor Mellado, a 15-year-old who had skipped class to come to the Zapatista rally in Queretaro, a city 250 kilometers northwest of Mexico City. "I like the way [the Zapatistas] think," says the teenager, wearing a black T-shirt draped over his head, an effort to imitate the Zapatista ski masks.

The charismatic Subcomandante Marcos and 23 lesser known Zapatista leaders are now 11 days into a grueling two-week trek across southern and central Mexico on their way to Mexico City to lobby Congress to pass an Indian-rights law that has been stalled for the past five years.

One goal of Zapatour - as the trek is being called - is to build support for the Zapatista cause, which has waned in the seven years since their brief armed uprising in the southern state of Chiapas. In major cities, Zapatour has drawn turnouts between 10,000 and 15,000, and among young people he has achieved something like rock-star popularity.

A brilliant orator and savvy media figure, Marcos has delivered speeches that are alternately poetic, funny, and filled with blistering criticisms of politicians.

Instead of lobbing criticism back, Mexican President Vicente Fox, an equally charismatic figure, has welcomed Zapatour, and even provided a federal escort to safeguard the caravan, which includes hundreds of Mexican and foreign sympathizers and press.

In office since December, Mr. Fox appears to be gaining on Marcos in what seems to be a public relations contest.

One of Fox's first actions as president was to close military checkpoints in the Zapatistas' highland area and four of the military's seven bases there. He has also released more than 50 Zapatista prisoners, and has sent the indigenous rights bill to Congress and is pressing for its passage.

Marcos calls these moves a "good sign" but wants peace negotiations toward the closure of the remaining three bases, the release of all Zapatista prisoners, and the signing of the bill, which would guarantee Mexico's 11 million Indians the right to govern themselves with their own laws. The question is how far Indian autonomy would go.

Fox responded by welcoming the "march for peace" of our "indigenous brothers." In subsequent days, for every rebuff from Marcos, the president has made a new overture.

Many analysts say the march may be the Zapatistas' last stand, at least in the form that the group currently exists. The Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) - which was in power when the Zapatistas rose up in arms against the government in 1994 - was defeated, after 71 years of rule, with the election of Fox of the conservative National Action Party.

With the rebels' main enemy - the PRI - vanquished, and the president making concessions, many Mexicans are asking what more the Zapatistas want. Political observers are saying that with the new president's overtures, the Zapatistas must reinvent themselves into an unarmed political force to survive.

The Fox-Marcos game of one-upmanship has kept the country entertained.

After Marcos was given a baston (a ceremonial stick) by Indian leaders to anoint him as a leader and spokesman, Fox, in an obvious take-off, spoke on TV a few days later holding a baston with a green, red and white ribbon - the national colors - tied around it.

Fox was accused of stealing the Zapatistas' thunder during a Zapatour stop in the town of Actopan, Hidalgo, where the crowd was waving flags with doves. "There's a fierce battle going on between the federal government and the EZLN [Zapatista National Liberation Army] right now - over that dove," Marcos said. "Fox wants to convert [the dove] into a publicity logotype...."

Throughout the march, Marcos and the other rebel leaders have jabbed at Fox, calling him "Mr. Lies," and saying he can't be trusted. Yet, analysts say, it is precisely the new political space created by Fox's presidency that has made the march possible.

When the rebels reach Mexico City's main plaza Sunday - where they are likely to be cheered by hundreds of thousands of supporters - Marcos will be under pressure to not appear to be obstructing peace.

While Fox may be finding it hard to convince the Zapatista rebels of the sincerity of his offer for peace talks, he is also finding it difficult to convince his own party, the PAN, to back efforts to meet the demands posed by Marcos.

Fox and Marcos, in fact, need each other, says political analyst Federico Estevez, and are in a way "co-orchestrating the passage of this bill" - Marcos by rallying support throughout the country with the march, and Fox by making concessions and repeatedly offering to meet with the rebel leader.

"It will be difficult for congressmen to oppose this [the bill] now," said Estevez, a political scientist at the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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