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Zapatista ‘Democracy Convention’ to Push for Change : Mexico: Rebels call meeting to discuss demands for political reform. Skeptics write off the gathering as a ploy to regain the initiative before the election.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

This weekend could be either Woodstock without music or the most important strike for Mexican democracy in six decades.

The ragtag Indian fighters who marched out of the jungle Jan. 1 declaring war on the Mexican army have beat their guns into shovels. At the edge of the rebel wilderness stronghold here in the southern state of Chiapas, the Zapatista National Liberation Army has felled trees and dug terraces to build an outdoor auditorium the size of the Greek Theater for an audacious, non-military attack on the regime: a three-day convention to discuss what amounts to a peaceful overthrow of the government.

The rebels say they want to rewrite the constitution, but they will probably settle for a resolution demanding a clean election in the Aug. 21 presidential poll, placing their movement once again in the vanguard of Mexicans clamoring for democracy.

An impressive list of organizations has signed up to send more than 5,000 representatives, and the government is providing transportation, food and logistic support for what in many countries might be considered a meeting of subversives.

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The National Democracy Convention is the latest twist in an uprising that has evolved with the surrealism of a novel by Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Since the initial 12 days of fighting, which left at least 150 people dead, the rebellion has become increasingly unconventional and inextricably enmeshed in election-year politics.

Zapatistas in ski masks and red bandannas initially captured the national imagination and international headlines with their demands for democracy and decent living conditions in their impoverished region.

Since then, the world’s attention has moved on to bloodier uprisings, and in Mexico the cry for democracy is now heard most clearly through the voices of intellectuals and politicians in Mexico City.

The Zapatistas are surrounded militarily and increasingly isolated politically. They are largely forgotten by everyone except the angry ranchers whose land lies within territory that the guerrillas still hold. Military intelligence indicates that divisions are emerging within the rebel ranks, as some members insist on the kind of national political reform that this weekend’s convention envisions, while others want to take advantage of the government offer of economic development programs for their region.

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Both economic and political issues were included in the rebels’ original list of demands. In the ensuing months, the economic demands have produced concrete proposals from the government with timetables for performance, while the political concerns have remained vague and were pointedly ignored in the government’s peace offer.

Against that backdrop, skeptics write off the convention, which begins today, as a rebel ploy to regain the initiative before what promises to be the most closely contested presidential election in Mexican history.

“This is just more politics; it has all been politics,” one high-ranking Mexican army officer said nonchalantly in a rare conversation with a reporter. “This is a political situation, not a military one. They are trying to keep themselves in the public eye, shouting that they are still alive. I don’t believe that this will come to much.”

The chairman of the conservative National Action Party dismissed the gathering as a “a leftist Tower of Babel.” Nevertheless, other politicians say privately that they will be watching the turnout as a measure of rebel support across the nation.

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Even within the rebel ranks, the purpose of the convention is muddled.

Communiques inviting civic groups to attend said: “The National Democratic Convention is an effort to peacefully organize the society against the (ruling) party and for the transition to democracy, liberty and justice. It is an organized and peaceful effort to reach a government of transition to democracy and a new constitution for our Mexico.”

But rank-and-file Zapatistas speak of less ambitious goals.

“It will be a chance for us to share experiences with organizations in the north, Oaxaca and Guerrero,” two other impoverished southern states, said Valentin, a Zapatista leader here in San Miguel, a village of wooden huts with dirt floors at the edge of rebel-held territory.

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Unlike Guadalupe Tepeyac, the village nearest the convention site, San Miguel has no electricity and no hospital. Since the cease-fire, a Red Cross team has been posted here, providing better emergency care than nearby villages ever enjoyed before.

“We can join forces and coordinate efforts,” Valentin said, squatting beside a makeshift roadblock of three logs that guards one of the two main entrances into a rebel-controlled area about half as big as Orange County. He is not talking about coordinating armed attacks on military targets, but rather jointly marketing coffee and sugar while pressuring the government to pay attention to the problems of peasant farmers.

“We don’t want money,” he said, explaining why the government’s year-old agricultural subsidies program is not the solution. “We want work.”

The seven months of the cease-fire have been difficult, complicating transportation problems for villages where the nearest dirt road can only be reached after hours of hiking over muddy paths. Zapatista guards cut off trucks and cars at San Miguel and Guadalupe Tepeyac, but the perimeter of the rebel-held zone is far from sealed.

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Security inside the village also has become less rigid. Although Zapatistas still ask that their last names not be used, many who once covered their faces for pictures now invite a photographer to take their portraits.

“Why should we be afraid?” said Gustavo, a Zapatista. “The government knows who we are. Let them come after us. Either we will die or they will die. Then we will see who knows how to fight.”

A rival peasant group that refused to take up arms has turned over detailed information about the Zapatistas to the Mexican army. Soldiers said they have an exact count of how many rebels are in each village and who their leaders are, thanks to the head of the pacifist group, who is also the ruling party’s congressional candidate in the district that includes the rebel stronghold.

Since mid-January, the role of the 10,000 troops sent to Chiapas has been confined to gathering information and manning roadblocks.

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Army officers said their orders are to allow unarmed travelers complete freedom to move about the area. “We have our mission to protect the towns and keep order,” said an officer, who spoke on the condition his name not be used. “Good soldiers leave politics to the politicians.”

The people most frustrated with the standoff are the ranchers whose lands the rebels occupy.

“We have been waiting seven months for a solution,” said Jorge Constantino Kantor, whose 136-acre cattle ranch is behind Zapatista lines. “What kind of a game are they playing?”

In the weeks after the uprising, the young rancher was often characterized as a reactionary symbol of the problems that led to the uprising. But lately, his ideas have gained sympathy as a backlash has developed against the rebels.

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He has been elected head of the regional ranchers and property owners association and was nominated as a ruling party candidate for the Mexican Congress but decided not to run. He now leads a sit-in of ranchers at the state capitol in Tuxtla Gutierrez.

The protesting ranchers’ ranks have been reinforced as squatter groups inspired by the Zapatistas have invaded an estimated 300 ranches in the state outside the guerrilla-held area. In addition, merchants who depend on the ranchers for business have also demonstrated support. They estimate business is down 40%.

Since May, the government has paid ranchers $6 an acre per month in compensation for occupied land. But that is far from the solution the ranchers want.

“We want a return to the rule of law,” Constantino Kantor said. “Marcos has been painted as some sort of Robin Hood. Well, this is not Sherwood Forest. This is my ranch.”

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