SAN CRISTOBAL DE LAS CASAS, MEXICO — Just two weeks before the Mexican presidential election, the Zapatista peasant guerrillas are again breaking the rules of Mexican politics.
Seven months after the 5,000-member rebel army surprised the nation by briefly taking over several towns in southern Mexico, the Zapatistas are playing host to a gathering of more than 6,000 people from independent groups and community organizations throughout the country.
The unusual assembly, billed as the National Democracy Convention, is widely seen here as the product of the Zapatista uprising and the maturation of Mexican `civil society.’
“This has been a long time coming, but it is the first true linking of the many groups and individuals that form what we call a civil society,” said Luis Javier Garrido, a political scientisy a the Autonomous University of Mexico.” This meeting never would have taken place if it weren’t for the Zapatistas.'”
The Zapatistas’ New Year’s Day rebellion set the year’s political tone and increased pressure on the government to hold a clean election later this month.
While the Zapatistas themselves did not attend the convention on its first day, five workshops around the city were filled with an uncommon mix of students, poor peasants, intellectuals, and workers.
The Zapatista Convention, as attendees call it, fulfills the initial claims by the charismatic rebel leader, Subcommander Marcos, that their uprising was a response not just to local problems in Chiapas, where over 50 percent of the people live in poverty, but to national issues such as political and electoral reform.
Since the Jan. 12 cease-fire that halted the conflict, Marcos has become a celebrity, enjoying visits from well-known intellectuals and foreign journalists. His face, obscured by an omnipresent ski mask, has become an icon of Mexican politics.
But participants here emphasized that their focus wasn’t just on the Zapatistas, but a variety of issues from public health and police brutality to education and the environment.
The Zapatistas, meanwhile, see the hundreds of loosely connected human rights and community groups spread across the country, as their logical allies.
Indeed, the government was forced to call a cease-fire following angry protests that criticized President Carlos Salinas de Gortari for moving heavy weaponry to the region and rocketing civilian areas where Zapatistas reportedly had been seen.
“Civil society awoke on Jan. 1, and with it a citizen consciousness that will translate into the voting booths on Aug. 21,” the Roman Catholic Bishop Samuel Ruiz Garcia said in a stirring sermon delivered the night before the convention. Bishop Ruiz, who has long come under fire for his support of the Indians, served as a mediator between government officials and the rebel army.
The Mexican government, meanwhile, is trying to undercut the convention and a surge in public support for the Zapatistas that could turn into votes for opposition candidates.
This past week, the Commerce Secretariat announced a $1.5 billion program to create infrastructure and industrial development projects in Chiapas. The money is earmarked for 19 agriculture, fishing, and maquiladora projects that will create 14,000 jobs, say government officials.
But participants here say that more than money is needed to improve the living conditions of the more than 40 million Mexicans who live in poverty.
Rumors abound that the rebels will break the cease-fire if fraud is widely reported, especially by the independent election monitoring groups who have attended the convention. In a letter sent to Mexico City newspapers last week, Marcos warned that “if the election process proves to be a disaster, it will then be apparent that it was the sole responsibility of the government.”
Opinion here is divided over whether the Zapatistas should remain armed or renounce violence. Rosario Ibarra de Piedra, a Nobel Prize nominee for her work on mothers of “disappeared” children, argues that the government’s action will ultimately determine the Zapatistas’ actions.
“If there is violence after the election, it is because the government cheated,” says Ms. Ibarra.
Today, the convention will move southeast to Zapatista-controlled territory in the Lacandon Rain Forest, and a clearing the Zapatistas named Aguascalientes, after the 1914 convention of revolutionary forces that led to the rewriting of the Constitution.
Many are calling the gathering a “Zapatista Woodstock.” The Zapatistas have been building an amphitheater on the side of the hill. Hundreds of people, young and old, peasant and wealthy, Mexican and foreign, will head into the forest for three nights of camping out with the Zapatistas.
“This gathering may not have a precedent in all of Latin American history,” says Enrique Cemo, a Mexican and an historian at the University of New Mexico. “It is a chance for an armed movement to merge with a strengthening civil society. It has the makings of an extraordinary event.”