LOS ANGELES TIMES INTERVIEW : Manuel Camacho : The Negotiator on Chiapas Navigates Mexico's Dangerous Shoals

Sergio Munoz is the editor of Nuestro Tiempo, The Times' weekly Spanish-language edition. He interviewed Manuel Camacho Solis in his office near the Mexican White House.

Jan. 1, shots were fired in Chiapas, in southern Mexico. The grandchildren of Emiliano Zapata--Indians, peasants, the dispossessed--had taken up arms, demanding land, liberty and justice. Surprised by this military action, President Carlos Salinas de Gortari responded in kind. Yet, the Zapatistas held the moral high ground, and public opinion turned in their favor. So two shrewd political minds--Salinas and his old friend, Manuel Camacho Solis-- combined to shift the battle from its military context to the political realm.

But political violence broke out again Wednesday, when Luis Donaldo Colosio, the leading presidential candidate, was assassinated in Tijuana. This left Mexico's ruling party, the Institutional Revolutionary Party, with the task of selecting a new candidate. It is not expected to be Camacho, who had already been passed over for the job.

In any case, Salinas had asked Camacho to deal with the situation in Chiapas. He valued his friend's astute political instincts and his smooth negotiating skills and, in early January, appointed him peace commissioner.

While working toward an agreement, Camacho's political star has been rising. For a while, it looked as if he would challenge his party's official candidate in the Aug. 21 national elections. But early last week, Camacho, 47, ended the speculation--declaring he would not run for the presidency this year. He pointed out, during an interview several days before Colosio was shot, that with the conflict in Chiapas unresolved, he still has a job to do. Asked to choose between a candidacy for the presidency and working toward a dignified peace, Camacho said he would always choose the latter.

Camacho, a widower, graduated from Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School of International Affairs. An acknowledged political scholar, he has written extensively on the need to modernize the PRI. He has a cool, analytical mind and acts in a self-assured manner.

Deciding to forgo the presidency now does not mean Camacho's political career is over. In fact, by waiting six years, he cannot be seen as capitalizing on the tragedy of Colosio's death. For Camacho is sowing the seeds for Mexico's political future--one that includes democratic procedures and viable parties.

Question: Has there been an agreement to end the conflict in Chiapas, as some people in the government have said, or is Zapatista leader Subcommander Marcos right when he says that is not the case? Have you reached an agreement with the Zapatistas?

Answer: Subcommander Marcos is right. We must make a clear distinction between an agreement and a negotiation. In San Cristobal, we exchanged a list of demands and proposed an answer that could establish the foundations for a series of political commitments toward a dignified peace. Until this is approved by their constituency, we cannot move on to the next issue--the agreements. In Mexico City, the solution is on the right track because there is political agreement.

Q: Do you believe this conflict can be solved politically?

A: I not only believe the issue can be solved politically, but I also believe that if it is not done politically, there will be no solution in Chiapas.

Q: At the bottom of the Chiapas conflict lies a human-rights problem. Shouldn't Mexico address this by creating and enforcing a human-rights policy?

A: In the last few years, through the work of the church and local and international human-rights organizations, human rights in Mexico has become a cause for the civil society. There is also the work of the National Commission on Human Rights, which has helped to stop many abuses. It has been precisely the presence of all these forces that contributed to stopping the dynamics of conflict in Chiapas, and they play an important role in the political solution being negotiated.

Q: The ancestral inequalities that characterize Mexico can be seen most clearly in places like Chiapas. How much longer will it take until a substantial change occurs and the people's demands are met?

A: The list of demands that the EZLN (Zapatista Army of National Liberation) made were so tough they did not allow for compromise. It was an intellectual challenge to create a satisfactory public-policy response to the EZLN--given their specific mind-set, social reality and tough political demands. We are facing the challenge of creating respect and equality for the indigenous communities.

It touches on agrarian reform, because it seeks to satisfy the most urgent land demands in a place where there is not enough land to give away.

But it is also a matter of justice, because we must establish a procedure that allows the communities to participate in the selection of judges and the district attorney's office.

This issue changes reality in the communities, because the main reason for the outburst of violence were the abuses of the authorities against them.

Q: What is your impression of Subcommander Marcos?

A: Up until now, he's followed through with everything he said he would do. And when you participate in a political-military organization like the EZLN, and you have that political sensibility and the responsibility to accomplish it, then, I think, you are facing a person with exceptional political attributes.

Q: What about Bishop Samuel Ruiz Garcia?

A: Don Samuel is a man who has worked for the same cause for 32 years, and has never gotten tired. He is a man of proven convictions, exceptional intellect and sensitivity. His message is sometimes radical--due to the contrast between the needs of the people and the realities they face in Chiapas. He's a traditional, 16th-Century bishop continuing in the defense of the Indians, and an efficient 20th-Century mediator in this conflict.

Q: In one speech, you said, "The democratic transition (in Mexico) should be guaranteed." What do you mean?

A: In every process of democratic change, the guarantee factor is a must if it is to succeed. If there are no guarantees, all the sectors that provided the past political equilibrium oppose change. Given these guarantees, change does not disrupt either the political stability or the economic one.

Q: Your critics say there are two Camachos. One who accepted the rules of the game after the announcement of Colosio's candidacy, and another that wants to change the rules after Chiapas. Is this criticism valid?

A: I have always thought of politics as institutional. For 20 years, I have written about ways to reform the institutional life in Mexico. We have seen the great risks run when change does not come accompanied by institutional reform. We should reinforce the institutions so that they can respond better to the new political and social realities of the country.

Q: There is a quote from Colosio, saying: "Camacho played according to the rules and all of us who want to be candidates must play by those rules." The criticism is that you are not following the rules.

A: Times are changing in Mexico! We must adapt the rules to the times that have already changed!

Q: Give one example of the changes.

A: The legal and constitutional reforms of the Federal Electoral Institute, and the new autonomy it has, make an impartial election possible. That is a change of the rules!

Q: Another change of the rules would be to admit international observers to monitor the elections. Do you like this?

A: I believe we Mexicans should take care of the Mexican political processes. We have a civil society that is strong enough to guarantee it. We must reinforce the necessary institutions and be open to the world. The legitimacy of the process must come from the acceptance of the Mexican people.

Q: But there seems to be a problem of credibility in Mexican elections.

A: This problem must be understood at two levels: the political forces and the conscience of the citizens. The political forces must learn to accept the results of the elections to improve our democratic life. The citizens' conscience presents a profound cultural problem that has incubated for decades. The solution will come with time--if it is accompanied by a process of civics formation and political participation that can really transform the citizens' conscience so they demand absolute cleanliness in the process and be able to recognize it when it happens.

Q: You have spoken of "guaranteeing the possibilities of political competitiveness." What do you mean?

A: That means there should be no preference for any political force within the IFE, equal access to the media, limits to campaign financing. We should have a political regime that guarantees competitiveness and stability and allows society to have the representation it demands.

Q: Do you believe you have to adapt the globalization of the economy to the realities of Mexican poverty?

A: Chiapas has shown us that the changes in the Mexican economy--which were necessary, given the economic globalization--have to take into account not only the effects they are having on the people, but also to register those sectors that have not been incorporated into the new dynamic of change and bring them in. Market forces won't solve this problem. We need to compensate this truly poor region of the country.

Q: But isn't that a return to the failed statist policies of the past?

A: Clearly, the subsidy policies of the old bureaucracies have failed. But simply fixing the macro will not bring about change. If we don't help those underdeveloped regions within the framework of NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement) and the global economy, they will pay the costs of globalism without any of the benefits. But if we deliberately institute a policy of work creation--small factories for 100 workers spread across 100 communities in Chiapas for which there is already a market through NAFTA--well, that changes the economic condition of thousands and thousands of Indians. No investor will ever go by himself to these communities, and that is precisely the fundamental role the government can play.

Q: But what would that role be?

A: To ease the transition process, to fiscally support a part of the process, to build infrastructure, to retrain the workers, to assist with marketing and commercialization and provide counseling. The government has to offer incentives for the investor to venture there instead of into the already-developed cities. It also has to become a bridge, a promoter for investment where the private sector does not dare to go.

The government must open possibilities for the Indians to have their own businesses. Without a deliberate policy of job creation and improvement of the levels of productivity in the poorest regions of Mexico, the disparity will keep growing and this will lead to conflict and violence. Without properly functioning national states, there is no way to translate the global benefits into local benefits. Only a democratic government that can respond to the priorities established by society can re-establish equilibrium and prosperity in these societies.

Q: Do you believe the confrontation with Colosio will force you to break away from your party?

A: The PRI is such a big political reality in Mexico that unless you take it into account, there can be no change. That enormous political organization has to have a way out, and I do not believe that the solution is simply to confront it or alienate it. No, we must establish new rules where the PRI and the opposition parties all have their own space. What we need is to build up a new order in the party system and stop the breakdown of the one in place now. In this sense I have no conflict with the PRI; I am looking for a scenario in which the PRI and all the other parties can fit.*

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