Part 2: Public Relations War


Oaxaca, Oaxaca — While the Zapatistas are using the caravan to Mexico City as their pulpit, President Vicente Fox has been making daily statements to the press and on his radio show. So far, according to many analysts, Subcomandante Marcos is winning the public relations war. The Mexican president, who is reminded constantly of his campaign promise to solve the situation in “15 minutes,” is under national and international pressure to bring, as he recently promised President Bush, “stability to the region.”

At each stop of the caravan, the Zapatistas have reiterated their conditions for beginning peace talks: the release of all Zapatista political prisoners (of the more than 100, Fox has released 50); the closure of seven of the more than 250 military bases in Chiapas (four have been closed); and, perhaps most important, the passage in congress of the San Andrés accords.

The San Andrés accords are the result of dialogue between the Zapatistas and a government-appointed peace representative in 1996. They incorporate indigenous rights into the constitution, including some political autonomy. The passage of the San Andrés accords would be a huge victory for the Zapatistas, the culmination of a war that has been fought without a single shot since 1994.

As the caravan prepares to join the fourth National Indigenous Congress on March 2, Abelardo Torres Cortez, a delegate from Michoacán, says, “I think, optimistically, that one day soon a more just and democratic Mexico will become a model for the world.”

In the past three days, the caravan has made 12 stops in four states. Along even the barest stretches of highway, well-wishers frantically wave homemade signs. Ten thousand people turned out in Juchitán; more than 30,000 in Oaxaca. Parents hold tiny children in the air, so as to be able to tell them, years from now, that they saw the Zapatistas on their historic trip for “the people who are the color of the earth.” The 24 Zapatistas travel with minimal security (following the refusal of the Red Cross to accompany the caravan), reaching out the windows of their green-and-white bus to grasp straining hands. They sleep in churches or sports stadiums, joking as if they are at home in each state they pass through.

Marcos speaks to the crowds: “The powerful tried to exterminate us five centuries ago, and they called their war of destruction and looting ‘civilization.’ Now the same war against us has taken another name, ‘modernization.’ But the powerful forget that those who wanted to exterminate us no longer exist, and we are here. Indian peoples throughout Mexico are living — no, surviving — in the most shocking conditions of poverty.”

In Juchitán, Monday afternoon, Marcos received a death threat, the second thus far. Passed through an open window on his bus, this letter came from the paramilitary group Corta Mortajas (Mortal Blows). “We take it very seriously and hold Fox directly responsible, for the paramilitaries in general and the threat in particular,” Marcos said in a press conference the following morning. Marcos claims it is Fox and the government who are not reigning in the paramilitaries.

At times it’s hard to see the caravan through the press cars that flank the Zap bus. One local observer jokes, “Who is this Marcos, anyway? A football player?” The caravan is being used as a tool to rouse support for populist, leftist politics, and is unlike anything that has happened in Mexico before. “They make Che seem old, says Danté Limón, a writer from Mexico City. “The Zapatistas have changed the way Mexico thinks.”

“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.”

Next: the caravan’s passage through the the state of Querétaro, where local officials have vowed to block the caravan; a report back from the National Indigenous Congress; and a look at the role of foreigners in the caravan.

Related links:

The Zapatista Index

The Narco News Bulletin

We Are Everywhere

Solidarity groups on the road:

The NYC Ya Basta! Collective

Little Yellow Schoolbus for Peace

The Mexico Solidarity Network

Official site (in Spanish):

Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional: Zapatistas’ site

Next dispatches:

Part 3: Road Kill

Part 4: Indigenous Woodstock

Part 5: Cult of Personality

Part 6: Rebels Enter Capital

Previous dispatch:

Part 1: Mexico City or Bust

On the Road With the Zapatistas is a two-week, on-the-scene series that will chronicle the historic trek of Subcomandante Marcos and the Zapatistas from the Lacandon jungle to Mexico City to demand rights for indigenous peoples.