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Profile : Mexico Turns to Its Master of Compromise : * Manuel Camacho Solis proves indispensable despite his maverick ways. But can he bring peace to the troubled Chiapas state?

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In any given week, Manuel Camacho Solis may be the black sheep of Mexican politics or his nation’s great conciliator.

This particular week, he is the man who is bringing Indian rebels to the negotiating table, giving President Carlos Salinas de Gortari the chance to save Mexico from a bloody Central American-style guerrilla war.

This week, Manuel Camacho Solis is a national hero.

“In Mexico, the perception of power is power,” said political scientist Denise Dresser, a former student of his. “That is why, now, many people are rallying around him when two months ago they were like rats jumping off a sinking ship.”

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Forgotten is November’s petulant resignation as appointed mayor of this troubled capital, when Camacho said he was quitting because Luis Donaldo Colosio beat him out as the ruling party candidate in this year’s presidential election.

That breach of party discipline would have ended most political careers. Predictably, Salinas appointed his old college friend as foreign minister, a move most observers interpreted as a dignified step on the road to oblivion in a country where foreign policy is subordinate to economic and trade considerations.

Then came the New Year’s Day uprising of Mayan Indians in southern Mexico and international condemnation of the army’s brutality in suppressing it. Salinas needed a peace commissioner who could be taken seriously and trusted by all sides. He needed the wavy-haired, bespectacled, 47-year-old Camacho.

One of Salinas’ political intimates, Camacho has credibility as someone who can speak with authority for the government. He is the son of a general, which gives him insight into an army so hermetic it resembles a secret fraternity as much as a fighting force.

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Further, Camacho is known in the political circles of Chiapas, the state on the Guatemalan border where the rebellion occurred. His late wife was the daughter of a former governor.

In 1986, as undersecretary for regional development, he wrote an economic plan for the impoverished state. He felt so strongly about the proposal that he asked to be demoted to state delegate in order to implement it, a request that was denied because, instead, he was named minister of urban development and ecology.

Camacho is a negotiator par excellence. He talked street vendors out of Mexico City’s historic downtown and into stalls in new municipal markets. He reached an agreement with opposition parties before the 1991 midterm elections that eliminated accusations of ballot-rigging in the capital--even after the ruling party won 45% of the vote, compared with 28% in 1988. And later this week, he is expected to begin peace talks with the Indians in the southern state of Chiapas.

Environmental activist Homero Aridjis has closely observed Camacho’s technique across the negotiating table.

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As urban development minister, Camacho invited him to the re-inauguration of an electric plant that had been converted from fuel oil to cleaner-burning natural gas. The conversation on the way to the ceremony turned to a march that Aridjis had organized for the next morning, April 30, observed as Children’s Day in Mexico. Children from all over the city planned to march on Los Pinos, the presidential residence, demanding a cleaner environment.

Camacho wanted the march called off because it put then-President Miguel de la Madrid in a tight spot. Aridjis refused but offered an alternative: “Why not have the president come out and offer a gift to the children of the nation? He could establish a sanctuary for the monarch butterfly that migrates from Canada to Mexico every year.”

The minister agreed, and the result was five sanctuaries totaling 35 acres. The president saved face by committing the government to protecting the migrating butterflies, endangered by logging that destroys the trees where they live in winter.

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After years of constant confrontation with authorities, Aridjis and other environmental activists initially were wary of the Camacho approach.

“People were afraid of losing their independence, the problem of being too close to the government,” Aridjis said. “But, finally, we opted for a relationship of cooperation.

“He knows how to respect grass-roots organizations,” Aridjis said. “He listens. That is what makes him a good negotiator.”

Camacho enjoys give and take, said Dresser, the political scientist. “He is fascinated by bringing people to the table to negotiate. He has tremendous belief in the transforming power of ideas.”

That reputation made him the natural choice to try to end the Chiapas uprising peacefully. With characteristic audacity, rather than being grateful to Salinas for reviving his flagging career with the appointment as negotiator, Camacho set conditions for accepting: He needed full authority to commit the government in the talks, he would serve without salary and would not tolerate any bureaucracy to grow up around the talks. Salinas agreed.

In his first speech as peace commissioner, Camacho said, “We have to reconstruct the political process in the region. We have to find a dignified political out for everyone.”

The words echoed a phrase from 19th-Century Prussian Gen. Karl von Clausewitz that Camacho often quoted when he was a professor at the respected El Colegio de Mexico:

“We see, therefore, that war is not only a political act, but also a real political instrument, a continuation of political commerce, a carrying out of the same by other means.” While Camacho’s approach has won him public accolades, it has also strengthened the disapproval of those who were already his enemies. In the first week of the uprising, labor leader Fidel Velazquez, 93, spoke out so enthusiastically for crushing the revolt along with the rebels that cartoonists drew him in Rambo gear for days afterward.

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Velazquez already distrusted Camacho for the professor’s scathing evaluations of union corruption in his academic writing. However, many of Camacho’s political enemies, notably former Interior Minister Patrocinio Gonzalez Blanco Garrido, were politically destroyed by the uprising. That makes the task of renewing his career easier, if the talks succeed.

Now that Camacho is back in the limelight--with his peace proposals far overshadowing news of Colosio’s lackluster presidential campaign--there are rumors of a revived presidential bid. The ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party has never in its 65-year history switched presidential candidates, but that is not likely to discourage Camacho.

“He has always believed that he was different, that different rules applied to him,” Dresser said.

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For example, after graduate school at Princeton, when other classmates were busy finding themselves cushy government jobs, Camacho traveled around Mexico for a year, working as a day laborer. He spent eight years in academia, then called on his old friend Salinas for a political job in 1981.

And even for a Mexican politician, he is intensely circumspect about his personal life.

“His private life is private,” said Rafael Segovia, who was director of El Colegio’s International Department when Camacho taught there. So much so that, despite intense speculation for the past three months in the nation’s gossip columns, his marital status is as carefully guarded as if it were a state secret. No one is willing to say whether he has married bank executive Monica Vanderbilt.

And unless the great conciliator is elected president--with his wife taking on the corresponding responsibilities of First Lady--the public may never find out.

Biography

Name: Manuel Camacho Solis

Title: Commissioner for peace and reconciliation in Chiapas.

Age: 47

Personal: Born in Mexico City. Bachelor’s degree in economics from National Autonomous University of Mexico. Master’s degree in public administration from Princeton. Served in various government and political party posts during the last 22 years, including foreign minister, mayor of Mexico City and minister of urban development and ecology. Closely guards his personal life.

Quote: “The death and suffering can only be stopped if we build a great national movement for peace with justice and democracy. We must all open the doors to dialogue and recover our respect for the dignity of indigenous people and communities.”


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