Masked rebels grab spotlight in Mexico's Congress

The Zapatista rebel march that began Feb. 25 ended in triumph this week, with a milestone appearance before Mexico's Congress to plead for passage of an Indian-rights bill.

When they departed from their jungle stronghold in Chiapas state, the 24 masked men and women did not know if they would be allowed to speak in the halls of government. But they won this, and took the opportunity to make a peaceful overture.

The rebels acknowledged President Vicente Fox's actions in meeting Zapatista demands to restart peace talks. This week the president closed the last three of the government's seven military bases in the Zapatista region, which has been occupied by tens of thousands of soldiers since 1995.

"His orders have been a sign of peace. We too will give orders of peace to our people," said a Mayan woman who calls herself Comandante Esther, addressing the lower house, the Chamber of Deputies.

Rebel leaders say the appearance marks a transition for the Zapatistas - from guerrilla movement to political force. Notably absent from the Zapatista delegation before Congress was Subcomandante Marcos, the rebels' well-known, charismatic leader and main military strategist.

The appearance also put Mexico's nascent civil rights movement in the spotlight. But many were not applauding.

The Zapatistas addressed a half-full chamber, after many legislators boycotted Wednesday's extraordinary session. Earlier, the president's own conservative National Action Party (PAN) narrowly lost a vote to scuttle the appearance.

Comandante Esther, a short Indian woman in sandals, was the first to take the podium, with a huge Mexican flag behind her and an array of national and international press and colorfully dressed indigenous leaders in attendance.

Referring to Marcos' obvious absence, Comandante Esther said, "Subcomandante Marcos is just that, a subcomandante. We are the comandantes, those who command. We gave him the mission to bring us here.... Now it's our hour." Esther also said that Marcos has been ordered "not to make any military advances."

The Zapatistas staged a brief armed uprising in 1994, in which about a hundred, mostly rebels and soldiers, were killed. A cease-fire was declared almost immediately, but low-intensity hostility, largely instigated by paramilitary groups, has continued.

Esther, and the three male rebel leaders who spoke after her, spent much of their impassioned speeches decrying centuries of ill-treatment of the nation's indigenous peoples, who suffer disproportionately high levels of illiteracy, unemployment, malnutrition, and infant mortality.

Although the rebels had said they would not reinitiate official peace negotiations until their other demands - the passage of the bill and the release of all of their political prisoners - were met, a TV news program reported Wednesday that the rebels' designated negotiator had already had an initial meeting with the president's envoy to restart talks.

The president, in office since Dec. 1, has bent over backwards with friendly appeals to the Zapatistas. He welcomed the rebels on their two-week trek through Mexico. He supported their appearance before Congress, and announced to the nation that he was willing to bet his political capital on achieving peace in Chiapas.

But Fox, whose election overthrew the 71-year domination by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), cannot count on the support of his own party. "The great paradox is that the PAN is not supporting the president [on this bill] - and the PRI is," says Carlos Elizondo Mayer-Serra, director of the independent think tank Center for Economic Research in Mexico City.

Mr. Elizondo says the PRI has nothing to lose in supporting the bill now - since it can't pass without PAN's support - but if it gets closer to passage, they may change their vote. "It's all politics," he says.

Based on the San Andres peace accords signed in 1996, the bill proposes allowing indigenous groups to govern themselves at the local level and promote the use of their own languages, customs, and systems of justice. It would also allow them greater control over their land.

But the parameters of these proposed expansions of Indian autonomy have yet to be defined and are at the heart of the congressional debate. Those opposed to it - principally PAN deputies - say it will balkanize the country and won't protect nonindigenous minorities living in indigenous municipalities. Others say it would sanction abuse against women, already prevalent in some Indian communities.

Esther touched on those objections in her speech. "Those who say this proposal will balkanize the country forget that the country is already divided," she said, adding that the rich live very different lives from the nation's 40 million poor.

Political observers say the bill faces an uphill battle: Because it would require constitutional amendments, the bill would need a two-thirds majority in the Senate and the Chamber, plus a majority of the country's state legislatures, for passage.

Fox, who has said improving the lot of Mexico's indigenous is a key objective of his presidency, reiterated again Wednesday his recognition of the Indians' plight.

"Peace ... is only a starting point for our country to pay this enormous debt we have to 10 million indigenous who live in extreme poverty," he said speaking before the Chamber of Transport and Tourism.

After their speeches, the Zapatistas announced they would return Thursday to Chiapas. The Zapatista's task now is to organize at the grass-roots level, says Federico Estevez, political analyst at the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico. "It's like a civil rights movement," says Estevez. "It's like Martin Luther King - that's exactly what it's like."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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