mexico city (march 26) -- the 24
leaders of the EZLN's general command currently encamped in Mexico City have been embroiled in a high-stakes chess game ever since they arrived in the capital after their 3,000-kilometre March For Indian Dignity.
At every stop along their dusty trail to the capital, the Zapatistas advised cheering throngs of their intention to address the 628 deputies and senators from the podium of Congress. The chess match over taking that podium, a potent patriotic and political symbol, was joined hours after the EZLN filled the central square, the Zocalo, with 160,000 jubilant supporters.
The COCOPA, the multi-party legislative commission that oversaw the 1996 Agreement On Indian Rights And Culture between the rebels and the government (the source of the proposed new law), came knocking on the gates of the National Anthropology School where the EZLN had set up base camp. COCOPA was there to deliver an congressional leaders' invitation to a meeting with 20 members of commissions assigned to introduce the Indian rights bill in Congress.
This was not quite the appearance before Congress that the EZLN had in mind.
Labelling the invite, which was unsigned and typed on blank white paper, "humiliating," the comandantes turned it down flat.
After rebuffing Congress's first offer, the rebels hunkered down at the anthropology school to await a second overture. To while away the hours, they met with Indians and students and members of prominent rock and roll bands.
One day the comandantes toured the Indian suburbs of the megalopolis. With its million-plus Indian residents, the greater Mexico City area holds the most important concentration of indigenous people on the continent.
The Zapatistas also made the rounds of Mexico City universities. At the more working-class National Polytechnic Institute in the industrial north of the city, Subcomandante Marcos fanned the flames of class warfare: "The rich think this country is their hacienda and we are the peons who do the work."
For a week, the comandantes waited for a fresh overture from the nation's Congress, and when none was forthcoming, Marcos took the microphone at the daily press conference down at the anthropology school to announce that the EZLN, which had vowed to stay on until Indian rights were incorporated into the constitution, was going home to Chiapas. A virtually all-white Congress had closed its doors to the March For Indian Dignity.
The meaning of the EZLN's decision to return to Chiapas was painfully clear. Mexico, a nation steeped in 500 years of racism, had refused once again to listen to its first peoples. The Zapatistas' threatened leave-taking doused President Fox like a pail of cold water, too. Since his inauguration last December, Fox has invested virtually his entire political credibility in achieving peace in Chiapas -- and now the rebels were going home, dashing hopes of an early settlement.
The president offered a flurry of enticements to head the comandantes off at the city limits. Two of the three "signals" the Zapatistas have demanded as preconditions for the resumption of dialogue with the government were immediately met: a handful of remaining EZLN-affiliated prisoners were immediately set free, and three military bases close to EZLN strongholds were dismantled and converted by edict into "indigenous community development centres."
The comandantes responded to this gambit by reminding Fox that the military bases had been illegally sited on Indian lands in the first place.
Parlaying his personal popularity, Fox also offered to meet with Subcomandante Marcos "face to face and eye to eye." But the EZLN was adamant. The comandantes had not come to Mexico City to afford Fox a photo op, but rather to address the legislature.
Moreover, the third signal they had asked for, the passage of the Indian rights bill, was still hanging fire before a Congress that would not listen to them. They were packing. A farewell rally was scheduled for March 22 outside the Chamber of Deputies.
Even as the rebels' supporters gathered by the thousands outside Congress, word spread that across town the Mexican Senate had opted by a razor-thin five-vote majority not to allow the Indians into their august chamber. Angry epithets filled the hot afternoon. "Portazo! Portazo!" ("Break down the doors!"), the seething crowd began to chant.
Then, with 20,000 Zapatista sympathizers prepared to storm the premises and the comandantes mournfully tendering their goodbyes from a flat-bed truck parked on a street ironically named for the rebels' namesake, Emiliano Zapata, deputies began to vote.
The results stunned the nation. Contrary to all expectations, deputies voted 220 to 210 to allow the EZLN to address the nation from Congress. The decisive votes were cast by the PRI, long-time Zapatista foes, who voted for the insurgents' to "chingar el PAN" ("fuck the PAN").
Outside, on Emiliano Zapata Street, tens of thousands jumped for joy. But although the EZLN has won the chance to defend the Indian rights bill before Congress, its passage is not assured. Many of those who voted to allow the comandantes to speak have expressed vehement opposition to the bill. Indeed, the five-vote net margin of victory March 22 is nowhere near large enough to enact constitutional changes, which require a two-thirds majority in both houses.