Published on Monday, March 12, 2001 in the Independent / UK
Hundreds of Thousands Cheer Mexico's Peace Caravan
Rebellious Road Show Reaches Its Destination
by Jan McGirk in Mexico City
Two dozen masked warriors from Mexico's Zapatista Liberation Army, led by the mysterious rebel Subcomandante Marcos, were hailed by hundreds of thousands of cheering Mexicans on rooftops and streets yesterday as they rolled through Mexico City in a dramatic climax to their 15-day peace caravan from the Lacandon jungle to press for indigenous rights.
"I'm sure the guy who works in the office behind me is applauding wildly," Marcos said, referring to the National Palace, which dominates on side of the plaza. "It's time for Fox to see us, to listen ... to one thing: constitutional recognition for Indian rights and culture."
Before this bizarre road show even got under way, the Zapatistas had stashed their weapons and cartridge belts back at base camp in La Realidad and had ventured out of their stronghold unarmed. Mobile phones and microphones are Marcos's only visible battle gear, appropriately enough since he has not fired a shot since the opening skirmishes of the 1994 uprising, when nearly 200 died in 10 days.
The tour has apparently boosted the Zapatistas' popularity. On Wednesday, Reforma, a Mexico City newspaper, said a telephone poll showed that 45 per cent of people had a favorable view of Marcos, up from 34 percent in February. Other polls show increasing numbers of Mexicans consider the Zapatistas a political rather than a military organisation even though they are avowedly at war with the government.
Seven years after declaring war on the Mexican government in the name of landless Maya peasants, the Zapatistas were escorted through the countryside for a fortnight by their nominal enemies federal security troops plus a host of leftist tourists, anti-globalisation campaigners and would-be foreign revolutionaries who clearly were exhilarated to take part in this historic freedom ride.
For the tour's grand finale, French fervour was added to the cheering squad of 280 Italian anarchists in white jumpsuits who have clustered around the commandos at every stop. José Bové, 47, the anti-globalisation activist who famously took on the McDonald's fast food chain, came as a strategist and was soon puffing away on his pipe between pronouncements, just like the legendary Zapatista leader does. Danielle Mitterrand, the widow of the former French president, was on hand to champion the human rights of indigenous people and watched when supporters garlanded Marcos and his warriors near the old Aztec floating gardens of Xochimilco as the tour approached the capital's outskirts late on Saturday.
When the new Mexican President, Vicente Fox, welcomed Marcos's peace march at its outset, the guerrilla leader was clearly peeved.
Stridently, he took the President to task and reminded him that peace had to be negotiated and only after all three of the Zapatista demands were complied with: closure of seven army bases in Chiapas, freedom for all jailed Zapatista sympathisers and the ratification of an Indian Bill of Rights.
The peace caravan was transformed into a "March for Dignity" not just for the Maya of Chiapas but for every marginalised indigenous group in Mexico "people the colour of the earth", in Marcos's rhetoric.
When last year's elections removed the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) at both the state and national level, after seven decades of rule, Marcos's struggle was at risk of seeming anachronistic without his repressive old foes in power.
President Fox, a conservative rancher, former Coca-Cola executive and flamboyant businessman touting free markets as the way of the Latin American future, soon became a new nemesis in spite of his conciliatory gestures. His very first act as President was to send the Indigenous Rights Bill to Congress and he closed four of the seven military bases in Chiapas and liberated scores of imprisoned Zapatistas. But when Mr Fox invited the rebel chief to engage in a dialogue at the presidential residence, Los Pinos, Marcos bridled. "It's a trap," he said, accusing the President of trying to hijack the march.
"Welcome Subcomandante Marcos, welcome to the Zapatistas, welcome to the political arena, the arena of discussion of ideas," President Fox said in a radio address on Saturday.
Today, Marcos and his 23 hooded comrades-in-arms will go to Congress to present the Zapatista message and he has vowed to camp in the capital until the long-delayed Bill of Rights is passed. This may be problematic, since the Mexican legislature has more representatives from the PRI than from Mr Fox's National Action Party. And Marcos is intent on antagonising the entrepreneurial cabinet ministers who want to set Mexico's agenda.
"Lower your voices, you men of wealth," Marcos intoned to an enraptured crowd. "There's another voice that has not come to steal and to impose itself but something far more serious: to take its rightful place."
The Zapatista caravan looped through cities and impoverished hamlets, attracting curious throngs. The itinerary retraced part of the route taken by the national hero, Zapata, who led landless Indians into Mexico City before he was assassinated. The mystique of the masked warrior is spelt out on Zapatista banners: he represents faceless peasants ignored by the government for 500 years.
© 2001 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd.