Guerrilla Fiesta Shows Mexico's Changes

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Get on the Bus: Subcomandante Marcos leads the 'Zapatour'

If you're a Mexican political figure and you've nearly filled Mexico City's mammoth central plaza, you've done a good day's work. The mostly young crowd that gathered on the Zocalo to greet Subcomandante Marcos and his fellow Zapatista Army commanders on Sunday took up a good 85 percent of the plaza. Crowd estimates were wildly inconsistent, but the order of magnitude is tens of thousands of people.

Marcos and the other 23 Zapatista leaders, their ski masks firmly in place, rode a flatbed truck onto the jammed, sun-baked plaza, then trooped onto a stage whose backdrop was the massive National Palace, which fills an entire city block. Standing on pedestals that flank its main entrance, young Zapatista sympathizers waved red flags.

That spectacle alone shows how much Mexico has changed since Marcos — the pseudonym of a non-Indian former university instructor born Rafael Sebastian Guillen Vicente — led a few hundred Mayan Indian guerrillas in the southern state of Chiapas into a brief armed uprising in the first days of 1994. Back then, the National Palace and most other governmental offices were still occupied by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which had ruled Mexico for close on seven decades. But its hold on power was already slipping, and an insurgency invoking the name of a the fabled and beloved early-20th-century revolutionary hero Emiliano Zapata depressed the PRI's stock even more. Last year, Mexicans finally booted it out, electing the first opposition president in 71 years.

In the new Mexico, the Zapatistas are an army in name only. Their leaders rolled into Mexico City after a two-week tour of southern and central Mexico aimed at building political support for a campaign to press Congress to pass legislation expanding Indian rights. That demand is considered perfectly reasonable even by President Vicente Fox Quesada, and Sunday's event lacked the charge of demonstrations in the old days when outraged citizens filled the Zocalo to demand free and fair elections. The crowd that gathered for this last stop on the "Zapatour" couldn't even be bothered, most of them, to chant slogans.

Still, there was no doubting their sympathies. And no doubting, either, that Marcos has recaptured Mexico's attention. The tour, coming in the opening months of President Fox's term, confronts the business-oriented president with a voice that claims to speak for oppressed Indian communities.

Virtually no one in Mexico disputes Marcos's claim that the Indians of Chiapas have endured centuries of oppression. At the same time, as such eminent Mexican intellectuals as historian Enrique Krauze has been pointing out, Chiapas doesn't represent all of Mexico. And then there's the question of Marcos's mandate: It isn't only political conservatives who note that, unlike Fox, the masked guerrilla leader with the poetic touch has never actually stood for election. "Fox has legitimacy," said a friend of mine from the Mexican left, as she surveyed the crowd in the Zocalo. But Marcos keeps dissing Fox, omitting his title when referring to him and questioning his motives in embracing the Indians' cause and the Zapatour itself.

From the moment the Zapatistas marched out of the Lacandon jungle on New Year's Day in 1994, Marcos styled himself an enemy of the North American Free Trade Accord (NAFTA), and his recent speeches include attacks on the market-oriented approach embraced by Fox, a former Coca-Cola executive. Exactly what Marcos would replace it with remains unclear.

Curiosity about what Marcos will do now that he's arrived in the capital may be one reason that the crowd went silent when the Subcomandante, who must have been broiling under that ski mask, took the microphone. His 15-minute speech provided no clues to his next move. But it did show that Marcos considers political speechmaking a form of performance poetry.

"We are the color of the earth," he said. "The time has come for this country to shed the shame of wearing only the color of money."

That's a color, of course, that many Mexicans wouldn't mind wearing some more of. And they might not see that as incompatible with calls for economic justice. If Marcos can come up with a way to marry those goals — poetically or otherwise — he may yet fill the Zocalo again.