mexico city -- the two men glareat each other across the long oak table in the Mexican Senate. There's no love lost between them. One is an Indian, a Mixtec from Oaxaca, Faustino Santiago, a translator and bilingual teacher, and the representative of the National Indigenous Congress (CNI), an assembly of Mexico's 50-plus distinct Indian peoples.
The other is Diego Fernandez de Cevallos, a bearded hacienda owner and the leader of the Senate's right-wing National Action Party (PAN).
Fernandez de Cevallos's latest mischief has been to gut the essence of an Indian rights bill, for which the rebel, largely Mayan Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) and the CNI have battled for much of the past decade. The gutted law passed in both houses of Congress in April with nearly 500 out of a possible 628 votes, a landslide that jolted the Zapatistas into breaking off all contact with the government of President Vicente Fox.
The Indian is the first to speak. "We ask you to look into your heart and give us back our autonomy and our territory," Faustino says softly.
"Autonomy?" rasps El Jefe Diego ("Diego the Chief"). "With your autonomy you are dividing the nation. We are the guardians of the whole nation. Our laws are not made in the jungle."
El Jefe Diego is hitting his stride now, playing to the cameras. Faustino has become a prop.
"We have resisted your yoke for 500 years," the Indian has the audacity to interrupt, "and you treat us as if we were mental retards...."
But the PANista only waves him off.
"The Indian law is decided. It is out of our hands. Do not let your people starve by obstructing this legislation any longer," Fernandez de Cevallos gestures, implying that President Fox might turn on the money spigot if only Faustino Santiago, the CNI and the EZLN would accept the gutted law.
"Señor, we do not speak your language." The Mixteco translator rises, gathers up his great floppy felt hat and abandons the chambers.
Sixteen out of 31 Mexican states have ratified the gutted Indian rights law, the required simple majority that guarantees passage. All that remained was for President Fox to promulgate the legislation, which happened earlier this week.
The President, who sent a very different Indian rights bill to Congress -- one drawn up by the legislative commission (COCOPA) that oversaw peace talks between ex-president Ernesto Zedillo and the Zapatistas -- had few options. Because the legislation includes constitutional amendments, Fox could not veto it.
The Indians' objections boil down to the substitution of a single word in the revised text. The accords designated Indian communities as "entities of public interest," i.e. entities with the legal power to autonomously govern their own affairs. The new law makes them "subjects of public interest," that is, subjugated to the rule of the mestizo Mexican state.
Moreover, Jefe Diego's law negates the collective use of land and natural resources in favour of private property ownership, thereby opening up Indian lands to transnational exploitation.
The rush is on to test the law's constitutionality before Mexico's increasingly independent Supreme Court. But EZLN comandantes, encamped in the hills above La Realidad, deep in the Lacandon rain forest, have not been heard from for more than 90 days. Their silence weighs heavily on Fox. Some Zapatologists fret that the rebels' silence is frittering away the political bonanza they reaped during their historic March for Indigenous Dignity to Mexico City last spring.
In July, the Zapatistas' anthem was heard in Mexico City for the first time since 160,000 citizens sang its choruses in Zocalo plaza in March. But only 50 pro-Indian demonstrators showed up outside the Senate to protest the bill.
After seven years of the Zapatistas' protracted rebellion, many Mexicans who do not grasp the arcane fine points of the Indians' objections seem prepared to move on and let the Indians live with the new law. "What else do they want?" asks Armando Penalosa, a downtown waiter and long-time PANista.
It is a question that Vicente Fox has often asked.
In light of the EZLN's silence, the PAN, which is often at odds with Fox, seems to be hardening its line against those who oppose the Indian rights law. Recently, a crony of El Jefe Diego, Fernando Perez Noriega, called for the activation of arrest warrants against the Zapatista leadership if the comandantes do not agree to resume "dialogue" with the Fox government.
The EZLN's tight-lipped opposition to the new law has impelled the Fox braintrust to change its focus in Chiapas. The peace commissioner no longer talks of future negotiations with the comandantes but rather of resolving the "root" causes of their rebellion: poverty, poor health services, bad housing and no jobs. This tack echoes the Zedillo years, when billions of pesos were sunk into social programs that favoured anti-Zapatista communities in an effort to isolate the rebels.
Fox and his Chiapas team miscalculate the realities. The root cause of the Zapatista rebellion is grounded less in a demand for social programs than in the Indians' thirst for justice, democracy and an end to the racist posturings so stereotyped by El Jefe Diego.