mexico city -- the ski-maskedMayan rebels of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) were about to address Congress last Wednesday (March 28) from the most symbolic podium in the land, in defence of an Indian rights law.
As the Indian warriors filed into the cavernous Chamber of Deputies, reporters called out the nommes de guerre of the comandantes: Esther, Zebedeo, Tacho, David, Bulmaro, Moises, Maxo, Mister, Fidelia, Susana, Yolanda, Alejandro, Abraham, Abel, Daniel, Gustavo, Eduardo, Filemon, Isias, Omar, Javier, Sergio, Ishmael....
To the newsgatherers' consternation, one was missing: Subcomandante Marcos, the only mestizo in the ranks of the EZLN's otherwise all-Mayan general command. Penned up in the crowded press box, the reporters groused sullenly. The media star of this historic pageant was a no-show. Now they would have to listen to the Indians.
Despite the media's irritation at Marcos's conspicuous absence, the five-hour appearance before a half-empty Congress made it abundantly clear that the Indians can speak for themselves.
"Marcos is only a sub-commander," Comandante Esther, a plump, middle-aged leader explained to the 207 senators and deputies (out of a possible 628) who bothered to show. "We are the commanders who guide in common with the will of the people. The Mexico the Zapatistas want is one where the Indians are both Indians and Mexicans."
Comandante Esther's generous, savvy speech, and those of three EZLN compañeros plus reps of the National Indigenous Congress (CNI), an assembly of most of Mexico's 56 distinct Indian nations, crowned the Zapatistas' month-long March For Indian Dignity.
Throughout the Zapatistas' dusty, poignant caravan to the capital, cameras and tape recorders were trained on the garrulous spokesperson. When the Indians with whom Marcos shared the stage began to speak, the lights clicked off. The subcomandante's vanishing act March 28 was a necessary corrective to the white-is-right bias of the media, an attitude echoed by neophyte president Vicente Fox, who insists on meeting "eye to eye" with Marcos but never mentions the sub's commanders.
Marcos was not the only missing voice at what the Indians would later dub "a fiesta of words." Fox's party, the overwhelmingly white, right-wing National Action or PAN party, which holds half the seats in Congress, stayed away in droves.
The once-ruling (71 years) Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), now splintered into multiple factions, turned out at about half its congressional strength, reflecting a deep internal schism over possible passage of the Indian rights law.
On the left side of Congress, the Party of the Democratic Revolution and the Party of Labour assembled all 60 of their senators and deputies and offered unqualified support for the impending legislation.
Questions posed to the Indians by congressional representatives who did attend the session are a good indication of the areas in which the new law will have a rocky go of it.
Indigenous autonomy, which would allow the nation's nearly 60 Indian peoples to define their own territory, form of government, judicial and bi-lingual educational systems and other facets of community life, is imperfectly understood by many legislators. They worry that autonomy opens the door to Indian secession.
One key concern is what would happen to non-Indians living within autonomous territories. Who, in fact, an Indian is troubled several members of Congress. Opponents of the Indian rights law also argue that the selection of authorities at traditional community assemblies violates the secrecy of the ballot and encourages the perpetuation of rule by "caciques," or rural bosses.
The marginalization of women in many Indian communities is also decried by opponents. "The marginalization of women is not limited to Indians," Nahua lawyer Maria Patricio reminded lawmakers at the conclave.
Conservatives also complain that the legislation's call for the "collective" use of land and natural resources is an attack on private property. Not so, contended attorney Adelfo Regino, an architect of the agreement on which the law has been based: Indian peoples have always held such collective rights.
Having accomplished what they came for, an audience with Congress, the comandantes headed home to Chiapas, abandoning the Indian rights legislation to an uncertain fate.
Fernando Yañez Muñoz, aka Comandante German, reported supreme commander of the EZLN's predecessor, the Forces of National Liberation, has stayed behind as liaison with both Congress and Fox's peace commissioner, PANista elder Luis H. Alvarez. Tentative contacts between Yañez and Alvarez, the first in three years between the rebels and the government, constitute the initiation of dialogue, President Vicente Fox trumpeted in a speech to the nation's bankers.
German and the 85-year-old peace commissioner will fly to Chiapas to inspect military bases that the president ordered dismantled . The EZLN has demanded the withdrawal of forces from these bases before they will return to the peace negotiations interrupted in 1997.
The designation of German, said to represent the most radical wing in the Zapatista constellation, as the EZLN's conduit to a government with which the rebels are still technically at war, is a signal from the comandantes that peace is possible, Marcos explains. Other analysts, such as Sergio Aguayo, a national security expert, say it signals that if Congress fails to pass the Indian rights law, resurgence of the armed option could be in the wind.
Following March 28's "hour of the Indians," the comandantes, joined now by Marcos outside Congress, mounted a stage replete with noted musicians to announce they were going home. "It's over -- we accomplished what we came for," Marcos, struggling to hold back a tear, told several thousand diehards in the street. "We're really going this time!"
On Friday morning, March 30, the 24 leaders of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation merged with Mexico City rush-hour traffic and headed south for their home bases in the mountains and jungles of Chiapas, to await the decision of the nation on the fate of the Indian rights law.