san cristobal de las Casas -- the current fascination with the Zapatistas and their March Of Indian Dignity, which left the Mayan highlands of Chiapas February 25 and is slated to arrive in Mexico City March 11, signals an amazing bounce-back for a rebel band that had disappeared from public view.
Despite desertions from its ranks and a lack of material gain to show for seven years of feisty resistance in the jungles and highlands of Chiapas, the EZLN has recaptured the public imagination both inside and outside Mexico.
The catalyst for this sea change is Mexico's new president, Vicente Fox, who has extended an olive branch to the rebels. Although Fox has yet to meet the three conditions the EZLN has demanded in exchange for returning to peace talks, he has sent an Indian Rights And Culture law to Congress.
The ostensible purpose of the Zapatistas' two-week trek to Mexico City is to lobby that august body for passage of this landmark legislation, which would grant the nation's 57 distinct indigenous cultures limited autonomy over political, judicial, cultural, agrarian and environmental affairs.
"This is a march of those who are the colour of the earth," the rebels' Subcomandante Marcos declared to 10,000 supporters cramming the cathedral plaza of San Cristobal de las Casas on the eve of their departure.
As the conscious vanguard of indigenous militancy, the EZLN, whose ethnic base includes five Chiapas Mayan subgroups, will follow a deeply Indian route on its march to the capital. From Chiapas, the delegation -- 23 members of the rebels' command plus its mestizo spokesperson, Marcos -- will travel into Oaxaca, a state in which 16 distinct Indian cultures account for half the population, before entering the Nahua (descendants of the Aztecs) heartland of Puebla, Veracruz, Tlaxcala, Hidalgo, Queretero and Guanajuato states.
The EZLN leadership then heads for the Michoacan sierra, home ground of the 300,000-strong Purepecha nation. There the Zapatistas will sit in session with the National Indigenous Congress, a formation that includes reps from most of Mexico's 57 indigenous peoples and one the EZLN was instrumental in assembling five years ago.
The travellers will pass through Morelos and Guerrero states to pay homage to their namesake, revolutionary martyr Emiliano Zapata, a Nahua farmer who fought for the land of his village. The rebels will follow Zapata's old trail before finally touching down in Mexico City.
Despite efforts by the Fox administration to smooth the way, the rebels' route is fraught with dangers. Just getting out of Chiapas, where ranchers and members of the no-longer-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party are viscerally irate at the turnaround in Zapatista fortunes, could be sticky. Several business federations have called for the arrest of the EZLN leaders, pleading with President Fox that the caravan will be bad for business.
Leaders of Fox's conservative National Action Party (PAN) in both houses of Congress are stridently opposed to the insurgents' appearance in their sacrosanct chambers unless the rebels take off their masks.
All along the route, the risk of provocation is latent. Four non-EZLN-affiliated armed groups operate in the territories the Chiapas rebels will traverse, and some, like the Popular Revolutionary Army, are not friendly.
Although Fox has promised police and military escorts, the EZLN asked the International Red Cross to help ferry the comandantes up to Mexico City. When the Red Cross claimed that participation in a political event is beyond its mandate, Marcos accused foreign secretary Jorge Casteneda, a former leftist, of forcing the Red Cross from the march and setting the rebel leadership up for ambush.
Even if they arrive unscathed in the capital, the EZLN march is a big gamble -- they must draw crowds equal to or surpassing the number of supporters who have turned out for three previous forays to the capital. Even if the turnout is considerable, it's doubtful that Congress will pass the Indian rights bill.
For Fox, the Zapatista march is an equally serious gamble. "I am risking my political capital," he frankly told reporters on the eve of the march. After lavishing his attention on the Chiapas rebels, Fox's credibility now hangs in the balance. Defeat of the Indian rights bill would torpedo any chance of the peace Fox has promised Mexicans.
Gunfire, arrests or a no vote in Congress aren't the only hazards facing the EZLN. The shadow of co-optation also falls across their path. One example: two halves of the nation's television monopoly, long at war over ratings, have declared a truce to stage a much-hyped Concert For Peace In Chiapas in Mexico City's biggest soccer stadium. Both are waging a "sign up for peace" campaign that seems designed to portray the EZLN as intransigent.
"I'm not the Ricky Martin of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation," Marcos says, confirming his boycott of the Concert For Peace.
Ironically, although the EZLN has been in the forefront of the battle against globalization, the globalization of the event threatens the integrity of the march. Many luminaries -- former French first lady Danielle Mitterand and U.S. novelist Susan Sontag -- along with several thousand international solidarity workers, are expected to accompany the Indians to the capital.
Combined with the lionizing of Marcos as an international pop idol, the inevitable media carnival could smother the very Indian nature of this historic march. *