Commentary: Mexico: The Olive Branch Could Bear Fruit for Fox

Rebels are moving in on the capital. On Mar. 11, the charismatic leader of Mexico's Zapatista National Liberation Army, Subcomandante Marcos, along with 23 other ski-masked guerrillas, will arrive in Mexico City after a two-week journey from their impoverished southern state of Chiapas. Marcos and his group will lobby Mexican legislators to pass an indigenous-rights bill that President Vicente Fox sent to Congress just days after taking office on Dec. 1. In doing so, Fox pushed the seven-year-old conflict between the government and the rebels to the top of a crowded agenda.

Many in Fox's conservative National Action Party (PAN) and Mexico's Establishment wonder why Fox is wasting political capital on a bunch of guerrillas in the southern jungle when he has more important matters on his plate. Indeed, Fox must contend with a slowing economy and urgently needs to work with Congress to pass key reforms, including a tax overhaul and a controversial opening of the state-run electricity sector.

The President also faces challenges from the long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which is having trouble adjusting to Mexico's being a full-fledged democracy. A case in point: Governor Victor Cervera of Yucatan, who has defied a federal court's order to dissolve the state electoral council, which is packed with his supporters. Fox is also under pressure to deliver on his campaign pledges to fight corruption, crime, and poverty.

UPPER HAND. But Fox is right to turn his attention to Chiapas now, for moral and practical reasons. While Mexicans are divided in their support of the Zapatistas, there is overwhelming public backing for their quest to improve the living conditions of Mexico's 10 million indigenous people, who have been socially and economically marginalized for five centuries. Success in Chiapas could well strengthen Fox's hand in the upcoming congressional battles.

In fact, Fox could hardly have picked a better time to try to restart talks. The Zapatistas drew much of their legitimacy from their struggle against a system they claimed was corrupt and repressive. But the July 2 presidential elections ended 71 years of autocratic PRI rule. Fresh from that victory, Fox is moving quickly, hoping to strike a deal with the Zapatistas while he is still enveloped in a democratic glow.

There are also good economic reasons for negotiating with the rebels now. On the campaign trail, Fox promised to work to narrow the divide between Mexico's fast-growing north and center and its miserably backward south. To achieve this goal, his administration must work to promote job creation in southern states, thereby lifting living standards there and easing migration pressures on the country's northern cities.

With salaries rising in the north, investors in industries such as apparel assembly are already scouting for lower-wage labor in other parts of the country. But they are wary of conflict--not only in Chiapas but also in Guerrero and parts of Oaxaca, which are home to bands of insurgents. If Fox can defuse tensions with the Zapatistas, companies may be more inclined to move south.

LEERY. Unlike the PRI, Fox has secured the high ground in his talks with the Zapatistas. He has made partial concessions to Marcos' demands, including releasing Zapatista prisoners and pulling the army back from some positions. But the rebels have not made any concessions of their own. They have yet to meet with Fox's respected peace negotiator, Luis H. Alvarez, or a multiparty congressional mediating commission, whose members drafted the rights bill in 1996. Marcos' stubbornness may hurt his own cause. Many legislators in both the PRI and the PAN are leery of granting self-rule to indigenous communities, and may want to water down the bill. Marcos may walk away rather than accept a compromise deal.

Even if Marcos does stalk off, Fox could benefit. He has already gained strength in voters' eyes by presenting himself as a conciliator. "It's a gamble," says Federico Estevez, a political analyst at the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico. "But the decision to bring Marcos to the center was a savvy one." With so many potential payoffs, Fox has decided that making peace with the Zapatistas is a risk worth taking.

By Elisabeth Malkin

Malkin covers politics and economics in Mexico.

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