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February 24, San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas, MexicoThe ZapaToura caravan of the Zapatista Army for National Liberation (EZLN) and several thousand Mexican and international supportersis a unique event in both Mexican and international history: a cross between a rock concert tour, an evangelical revival, and the Freedom Rides of the American South. After seven hard years in the mountains of the Mexican southeast, 24 Zapatista rebel leaders set out on a two-week march to press the Mexican congress to pass constitutional recognition of indigenous rights and autonomy. Accompanying them were more than 35 brightly painted buses and 40 trucks filled with 1500 international and national supporters.
The ZapaTour left from San Cristóbal de Las Casas, the colonial city the Zapatistas first took by force on January 1, 1994. In the main plaza vendors sell everything from olives to small dolls wearing ski masks and carrying rifles. Sounds of Tzotzil, Tojolabal, Chol, and Tzetal, the indigenous languages of the area, mix with Spanish, Italian, and English. By the time the Zapatistas arrive,the plaza has swelled with more than 20,000 people. As the crowd shouts "EZLN!" the rebels ascend the painted wooden stage. A profound silence descends when Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos begins to speak: "Brothers and Sisters, indigenous and nonindigenous, we are the forgotten heart of Mexico. . . . We take to the road to say: 'Nevermore a Mexico without us!' "
Two hundred fifty Italians from Ya Basta! clad in matching white jumpsuits are here, they say, because the Zapatistas are leading the movement against the international free-trade policies that have devastated poor people worldwide. "As the Zapatistas wear their ski masks, we wear these white suits, as symbols of the invisibility of the poor," says Luca Casarini, a spokesperson. For Mercedes Marquéz, a Mexican American from Los Angeles, the caravan resonates with her experience as a civil rights lawyer for farm workers. "What most inspires me is that instead of coming to the United States to be exploited, these people are staying on their own land and creating change," she says. Many of the foreigners say the Zapatistas helped inspire their protests in Seattle, Prague, and Davos, Switzerland.
Less than a year ago, the Zapatistas were isolated in the mountains, surrounded by an openly hostile military, still reeling from the massacre of 45 indigenous women and children at Acteal in December of 1997. The Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), in power for 71 years, had vowed to wipe them out. Then, last July, Vicente Fox, of the National Action Party (PAN), was elected president with the promise of a new regime and a solution to the problem in Chiapas. The Zapatistas saw an opening and broke their silence with the announcement of the march to the capital.
The Zapatistas have staked their movement on the caravan. It is a one-way, 1900-mile trip. Once the masked rebels have entered civil society it seems unlikely they will return to the armed war in the mountains.
Oaxaca, OaxacaThe buses travel as much as 10 hours a day. For food, the caravan depends on sandwiches thrown through open windows, and on the hospitality of the host communities. Often there's a marked difference between the enthusiasm of the crowds outside and the exhaustion of those on the bus.
Those who came hoping to get time alone with Marcos have mostly given up. Whether waving out the window or speaking to the crowd, the Zapatistas are building popular support along the road without losing the mystique that has followed them from the mountains. They are never seen without their ski masks and give only two brief press conferences during the trip. They have none of the let's-stop-and-chat feel of a visiting Bill Clinton.
It doesn't seem to matter to those who line even the barest stretches of highway to welcome the caravancrowds of schoolteachers, construction workers, taxi drivers, housewives, and anarchist punks who wave white T-shirts as flags. Ten thousand people turn out in Juchitán; more than 30,000 in Puebla and Oaxaca. Parents hold tiny children in the air, so they can tell them, years from now, that they saw the Zapatistas on their historic trip. A few come to jeer, to yell "Go home!" The Zapatistas respond with silence, fists raised in the air.
As the number of people increases, so does the intensity of the press wars between the Zapatistas and the government. Fox wants the rebels to begin peace talks as soon as they reach the capital. At each stop of the caravan, the Zapatistas reiterate their conditions for talks: the release of all Zapatista political prisoners, the closure of seven of the 259 military bases in Chiapas, and the passage in congress of the San Andrés accords, an agreement reached between the Zapatistas and a government-appointed representative in 1996, which was signed but never sent to congress. The accords incorporate indigenous rights into the constitution, including some political autonomy.
"We want indigenous autonomy not in order to separate ourselves from the country and to add one more poor country to those which already exist in abundance," says Marcos. "We want indigenous autonomy because it is the only visible means of preventing this country from ending up in pieces and squandered."