Out of the jungle, a global hero

Subcomandante Marcos has enchanted the world's nostalgic leftists and seminars of European intellectuals ever since he emerged as a force from the Chiapas jungle seven years ago with his Zapatista indigenous army.

But his star has never been brighter than in the anti-globalization cosmos.

There to greet Marcos's triumphal arrival in Mexico City's central square Sunday - at the conclusion of his two-week "Zapatour"- was French farmer Jose Bove. Mr. Bove is famous for leading a vandalistic attack on a McDonald's restaurant in southern France to protest globalization.

Orbiting around Mexico's masked rebel leader as security guards during his indigenous rights march across the country were the monos blancos, white-jumpsuited members of a mostly Italian anti-globalization group.

Ostensibly, the Zapatista delegation - Marcos plus 23 lesser-known Zapatista leaders - is here to negotiate passage of Indian rights legislation, one of the Zapatistas' key conditions for reopening peace talks with the government.

But as the flock of anti-globalization activists accompanying the Zapatista caravan suggests, the rebels, and especially their enigmatic leader, are emerging as the grand marshals of the worldwide anti-globalization parade.

That's why Bove was here Sunday amid the crowd of some 100,000, lauding the Zapatistas as "an important phenomenon for the global small-farmers' movement" and "part of our struggle against the free-market system." Also attending were American, Canadian, and European veterans of the mobilizations against the World Trade Organization in Seattle in 1999, and last year's protests against the World Bank in Washington and the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Portuguese Nobel literature prize laureate Jose Saramago, a longtime Communist, and even Danielle Mitterrand, widow of former French president Francois Mitterrand and now a prominent international human rights activist, also came to greet Marcos.

The Zapatistas are recognized as the world's original globalization detractors, because of the date they launched their attack on the Mexican government: Jan. 1, 1994, when the North American Free Trade Agreement among Mexico, the United States, and Canada, took effect. Though battles in the Chiapas war lasted only a few days, the first shots fired - by Indians refusing to lose their identity in Mexico's leap into the modern world - are now considered by many the first volleys in the war on globalization.

But it is also Marcos's postmodern prose, transcending a merely national cause and disseminated around the world thanks to the former Marxist academic's deft use of the Internet and the worldwide web, that have earned him hero status.

In a recent Mexican TV interview, Marcos offered some of the rhetoric that thrills developed-world "globophobes" and can prompt the losers of globalization in the developing world - small farmers, the unskilled, the laid-off workers of privatized services - to think: "I, too, am an Indian."

Referring to the agenda of Mexico's pro-free-market President Vicente Fox, Marcos said, "The world Fox is preparing is one of homogenization, where all would be equal because of buying power. We are preparing a world," he countered, "where we have the right to be different." The Indian with his differences, he added, "only fits in the globalizing free market as a low-cost laborer."

For some observers, Marcos is emerging as a kind of social conscience, awakening many to the realization that globalization's promise of shared prosperity is not being kept.

"Marcos and the Zapatista movement have opened many eyes to an advancing dual society," says Rafael Fernandez de Castro, director of Foreign Affairs en Espanol in Mexico City. "Many Mexicans and Latin Americans see themselves only growing poorer as an elite minority reaps the system's material benefits. Marcos reminds people," he adds, "that they are not partaking of the fruits of globalization."

Marcos's praise of difference appeals to those who oppose a standardization of cultures. "The Zapatistas' struggle has caught on because it is emblematic of groups in other countries seeking recognition from the state," says Augustin Gutierrez Canet, dean of international studies at Mexico City's Ibero-American University.

Mr. Gutierrez says perhaps the greatest paradox of Marcos is that he is a product of the very thing he protests. "The rise of a symbol like Marcos, through new means of global communication like the Internet, would not have been possible without globalization," Gutierrez says.

Some Zapatista supporters say that while the technological globalization that sprouted a Marcos is not reversible, the other globalization - with increasing concentration of wealth and standardization of everything from culture to food - is. Hopes for such a reversal may end up working against Marcos and his Zapatistas signing a peace accord with the Mexican government, some observers believe.

"Marcos would cease to be a symbol for the anti-globalization forces if he signed a peace treaty," says Gutierrez. "The aura of enchantment would be lost."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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