MEXICO ON THE CUSP : The Tale of a Revolutionary and an Assassin

"Poor Salinas de Gortari," goes a recent joke at the expense of Mexico's president. "On Dec. 30, he went to bed thinking he was North American. On Jan. 1, he woke up knowing he is Guatemalan." The New Year's Day Zapatista uprising near Mexico's Guatemalan border in Chiapas, six days after Mexico ratified the North American Free Trade Agreement, and the assassination, 12 weeks later, of presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio in Tijuana are two reminders of how far Mexico has yet to travel to awake as a first-world nation.

The proliferating fissures in the Institutional Revolutionary Party have rendered obsolete Mario Vargas Llosa's mordant assessment of the PRI as "the perfect dictatorship," because it was able to maintain an iron hold on the country behind a carefully orchestrated illusion of democracy.

The assassination of Colosio and the uprising of more than 1,000 dispossessed Mayan Indians who make up the Zapatista Army of National Liberation at the opposite poles of the country have done far more than crumble Mexico's democratic facade: They have exposed the fragility at the core of PRI's--and the country's--post-revolutionary structures and awakened fears of an accelerated drift toward violence and disintegration that could turn Mexico into our hemisphere's Yugoslavia.

As the dust begins to settle, two men are seen to bear a disproportionate responsibility for this unprecedented reversal in Mexico's fortunes--and in its conception of itself. A preliminary government inquiry has determined that Mario Aburto Martinez acted alone when he assassinated Colosio on March 20. Fifteen hundred miles south of Tijuana in Chiapas, Mexico's poorest state, the enigmatic Subcomandante Marcos has emerged as the architect and guiding genius of the Zapatista uprising.

It is hard to imagine two more disparate figures bound by a common resort to armed violence to achieve political objectives. And while the poker-faced Aburto's justifications for shooting Colosio remain mired in murky, self-serving rhetoric, Marcos has exploded on the public arena as a loquacious exponent of revolution, craftily blending Emiliano Zapata's passion for social justice with Che Guevara's gift for phrases that can appear to alter history.

But this only hints at Marcos' gift for language, which has enthralled Mexico's political and intellectual Establishment, along with millions of disaffected peasants and laborers in Oaxaca, Hidalgo, Guerrero, Michoacan and other poor Mexican states. Marcos' almost daily missives to the press are enlivened by witty asides, Aesopian fables and flights of lyricism that create a sense of intimacy with Mexicans from a wide range of social and economic backgrounds.

For all his literary talents, Marcos' greatest coup may be his success in protecting the mystery of his identity even as he turns into Mexico's most familiar public icon. Chamula Indian vendors here have started a cottage industry of ski-masked Marcos dolls they sell to tourists, and his effigy appears on a brand of condoms marketed as "El Levantamiento," the Uprising.

Marcos' disguise draws on a Mexican tradition of masked crusaders from El Zorro to the caped Super Barrios of Mexico City's slums. His mask allows him to claim kinship with homosexuals, college-educated professionals and illiterate peasants, not to mention the millions of Mexicans who have crossed the northern border in search of economic betterment (one rumor has Marcos living for a time as a gay waiter in San Francisco).

Behind the black ski mask and pipe and the bullet belts strapped across his chest, Marcos is continually evolving. Following the bellicose tone of the Zapatistas' Second Declaration from the Lacandon Jungle, which called for armed revolution if the government refused to step down, Marcos has heeded his mentor Carlos Monsivais, as well as Carlos Fuentes and other members of the influential San Angel group, and has begun to move from the "Professional of Violence" to his emerging status as Professional Conciliator. For the national democratic convention celebrated last week in the Zapatistas' Lacandon jungle outpost, Marcos invited peasant and labor union delegations from around the country, but he also extended invitations to writers and intellectuals of right, left and center, whom he addressed in graceful epistles published in La Jornada. The polished replies by Monsivais, Fuentes, Enrique Krauze and other prominent writers and shapers of public opinion have helped revive what Monsivais calls "the nearly extinct" art of epistolary discourse.

Another gift of Marcos is his ability to turn the mesmerized media into Zapatista mouthpieces, and supposedly impartial mediators into allies and stalking horses for his initiatives. Not only La Jornada and the prestigious weekly Proceso on the left, but even the staid Financiero--Mexico's rough equivalent of the Wall Street Journal--have become sounding boards for Marcos' political agenda. President Salinas' special envoy, Luis Camacho Solis, enhanced Marcos' image as a skillful negotiator far more than he helped his own reputation, after the peace agreement they signed was rejected by the Zapatista rank and file.

The mediation of Bishop Samuel Ruiz of Chiapas between the government and the Zapatistas nearly foundered when he and Marcos were discovered to see eye-to-eye on replacing the PRI with a government responsive to the needs of the poor and disenfranchised. Ruiz's thinly veiled support for the Zapatista cause has further strained his relations with the Vatican over his espousal of the leftist theology of liberation, and fueled his longstanding feud with Chiapas' right-wing politicians and cattle ranchers.

If Salinas and the PRI make good on their promise to guarantee a clean and swift election, and declare a winner on the same day, Salinas and Marcos could emerge as unexpected allies, co-protagonists of the country's transition to democratic reform. Regardless of which candidate is elected, it is increasingly evident that no party will be able to govern Mexico without the support of the others. Both Cuauhtemoc Cardenas' left-leaning Democratic Revolutionary Party and the right-of-center National Action Party--whose candidate, Diego Fernandez de Cevallos, is running second behind the PRI's Ernesto Zedillo--lack infrastructure, and the PRI is morally bankrupt.

In the extraordinary climate of distrust prevailing in Mexico, hardly anyone believes the polls that show Zedillo far ahead of his rivals. And the majority of Mexicans remain convinced that the PRI's old guard had a hand in the assassination of Colosio, who was attempting to return PRI to its grass roots.

The restraint shown by both Salinas and Marcos during the first days of the Zapatista uprising prevented a much-larger blood bath in the Lacandon jungle, where fewer than 200 combatants and civilians were reported to have been killed. On the other hand, if Cardenas' prognostication of a massive fraud is borne out--he is charging that 5 million ballots have been duplicated by PRI officials--Mexico could turn in the direction of Aburto: more magnicidios , and uprisings by armed peasant groups throughout Mexico, as Marcos has predicted, in an ominous preamble to civil war and Balkanization.

There is ample precedent for both options in Mexico's 1910 revolution, which produced Zapata and land reforms, but also led to the assassinations of three presidents and two revolutionary leaders--Zapata and Pancho Villa--in fewer than 15 years.

In the just-concluded convention in the Lacandon jungle, the 5,000 delegates and the Zapatistas called once more for the resignation of Salinas and the dissolution of the PRI. And they threatened to mobilize a general strike that would paralyze the country if the PRI fails to deliver on its pledge to conduct "squeaky clean" elections.

A week before the presidential vote, Mexico sits on the cusp, poised on the threshold of peaceful transition to a democratic phase of Mexico's uncompleted revolution, or a return to the assassinations, armed insurgency and incipient civil war of the 1920s, and the first 90 days of 1994.*

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