The little Chiapan highland village of Oventic was recently the scene of a big party - Zapatista style. Nearly 10,000 masked Maya gathered with supporters to dance, play basketball, and celebrate. They were ringing in the start of the new "good government committees" formed to administer the 30 Zapatista townships.
In the past, this might have provoked Mexico's government - with which the rebel group is technically still at war. But last week, the interior secretary gave a nod of support, calling it a "welcome step."
The government's cautiously positive response to the Zapatista actions is nearly unprecedented in the 10 years since the bloody uprising in January 1994, when the Zapatistas demanded indigenous autonomy and protested the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement. Some have prematurely declared it an acquiescence to rebel demands - the most important being self-rule for indigenous communities.
In a sense, the Zapatistas are unilaterally implementing the San Andrés Accords, which the Mexican government and the Zapatista Army for National Liberation (EZLN) signed in 1996. The accords promised wide-ranging autonomy for local communities, many of which have had de facto independence for years.
The government never implemented the accords and has been trying to renegotiate their terms ever since. The Zapatistas' chief demand and condition for a return to dialogue has been that the government honor the accords. "This part of the accords is easier for the government to accept," says Rafael de la Garza, of the National Autonomous University of Mexico. More difficult, he says, would be accepting "autonomous townships if they start exercising control over local resources."
Mr. Garza says the Fox administration has waited for an opportunity to ease the confrontation in Chiapas, both to improve its party's election chances and to facilitate development plans for the region that include highways, public projects, and ecotourism.
After taking office in 2000, President Vicente Fox ordered the removal of the army from positions near rebel villages - a source of great tension - and announced that military action was no longer a serious option for resolving the conflict.
The EZLN recently revealed that it would no longer set up checkpoints or collect fees from people passing through its territories. Interior Secretary Santiago Creel Miranda said the announcement was a positive sign.
"We see the possibilities of dialogue have increased, provided that we are talking now about a civil movement, not a military one," he said recently. Still, during recentspeeches, EZLN commanders emphasized their role in defending the interests of the villagers.
The changes seem to mark an effort to clarify the role of the EZLN and demonstrate what it has claimed: that it follows the orders of the villagers. "I was impressed ... that Marcos is taking a step back and following the lead of the communities," says Mario Galván, an American member of the Zapatista Solidarity Coalition. "It was clear that they were the ones in charge."
Subcomandante Marcos has also announced that he will no longer serve as spokesman for the autonomous townships, but for the EZLN only. The move could diminish his role in the movement, as well as the international cult that has sprung up around him since he emerged from the jungle to help lead the indigenous struggle 10 years ago.
The five new seats of local Zapatista government, called caracoles, or "snail shells," are to serve as communication centers and reception points for delegations from the rest of Mexico and other countries.
In the capital of the northern state of Durango, a meeting of the National Indigenous Congress released a statement of support for the Zapatista initiative, and said they are considering establishing caracoles of their own.
"The main founding act of the EZLN was learning to listen and then to speak...." Marcos writes in one of his opaque communiques. "After years preparing for firing weapons, it happens that it's words which have to be fired."