'Zapatistas Want to Give Fox a Chance'

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Hardly a day after his inauguration, President Vicente Fox had withdrawn his troops from villages in Chiapas and vowed to send a stalled bill to congress giving unprecedented recognition to the rights of Mexico's indigenous people. And the Zapatista rebels had agreed to revive negotiations with the government. Was any of this expected?

"Well, ever since he won the election, Fox's people have been sending out feelers to the Zapatistas about the prospects for resolving the conflict in Chiapas. And remember, Subcomandante Marcos is the front man and voice of the movement, but the EZLN [Emiliano Zapata Front for National Liberation] is run by a council of Mayan tribal chieftains. Since Fox sent these feelers out, most of the other people on the Zapatista council have been willing to give the new president a chance. In fact there was a break within the ranks of the EZLN on this question, and we didn't see anything of Marcos in public for many months — in fact, he was not seen since the election.

"By coming out and laying down conditions for a meeting that can easily be met by the government, such as the release of some pro-Zapatista prisoners and the gradual withdrawal of armed forces from Chiapas, it seems likely that he will indeed go ahead and meet Fox in February, and this will be a historic moment. Whether he takes his ski mask off or not, we'll have to wait and see."

Why is there such a big difference in attitude between Fox and the previous government over how to respond to the Zapatistas?

The old PRI government represented a lot of vested interests in Chiapas who didn't want to see their business interests jeopardized by big changes in the state's political situation. Many of these local PRI leaders and businessmen even created their own paramilitary groups. But Fox realizes that the indigenous people of Chiapas have legitimate complaints. They've always been treated like a colonized people by successive Mexican governments, and Fox wants to change that.

How has the move played with the wider Mexican public?

"Pretty well. Most people have a certain degree of sympathy for Subcomandante Marcos and the people of Chiapas. For Fox to create conditions for dialogue was a very popular decision."