The Zapatista leadership addressed an extraordinary session of Mexico's parliament called to hear their demands for constitutional recognition of the country's 10m indigenous people yesterday, without their iconic leader, Subcomandante Marcos.
The rebel leadership filed into the huge chamber of deputies masked but unarmed. "The subcomandante is just that, a sub, and we gave him the mission to bring us here. Now it's our hour," said Comandante Esther in the main Zapatista speech, which received a standing ovation.
"My name is Esther, but that's not important. I'm a Zapatista, but that's not important either. What is important is that I am indigenous and I am a woman and I am speaking in this symbolic place," she said.
The Zapatista delegation was allowed 220 special guests in the parliamentary front row, many of whom wore traditional costume.
Zapatista leader Subcomandante Marcos greets supporters at a rally outside the Mexican Congress in Mexico City, Wednesday, March 28, 2001, after 23 Zapatista leaders attended a special session at the legislature to promote an Indian rights bill. Marcos did not attend the session. (AP Photo/Marco Ugarte)
Last night's session was due to last five hours, with the Zapatista leaders' speeches in favour of an indigenous rights bill granting autonomy to indigenous communities to be followed by questions.
The bill's approval has been the rebels' key remaining condition for accepting President Vicente Fox's often repeated offer of peace talks anytime, anywhere. But last night Esther said initial contact with the government peace commission could start before that was achieved.
Most parliamentarians from Mr Fox's conservative National Action party (Pan) had said they would boycott the session to display their distaste for the presence of masked rebels officially at war with the state, and their objection to what they view as the president's capitulation.
The bill stems from a peace accord signed in February 1996 but blocked by the then president Ernesto Zedillo, prompting the Zapatistas to abandon negotiations.
It was dusted off by Mr Fox who, despite the tensions within his own party, has made his search for peace in Chiapas a pillar of his claims to be dismantling the authoritarian structures of 71 years of one-party rule by the Institutional Revolutionary party.
Marcos seized the opportunities presented by Mr Fox to break years of isolation in jungle strongholds and politically relaunch the militarily weak guerrilla faction.
"They no longer existed on the political agenda but now they have recouped an important place not only on the national agenda, but also internationally," said a political analyst, Carlos Elizondo.
But since they arrived in Mexico City the going has got tougher for the Zapatistas, with Pan insisting that the rebels should only talk to small groups of deputies in back rooms.
Other parties invited the Zapatistas to speak after Marcos had threatened to take his rebels home and was holding a "goodbye" rally in the city.
In an interview given to the Colombian-born writer Gabriel Garcia Marques, Marcos said the Zapatistas were "condemned to failure if we continue with an armed structure".
But before last night's session, Miguel Alvarez, who was a peace mediator in the early years of the conflict, had warned that even the approval of the bill, which is expected to be put to the vote next month, is no guarantee of a peace deal.
"It would be a further step, but Fox wants a quick peace deal while the Zapatistas want a more profound negotiation, and they are not in that much of a hurry," he said.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2001