Governor’s Race Is Test of Democracy in Chiapas : Mexico: State still tense months after uprising. For many, long shot’s campaign embodies the possibility of real change.


Few political candidates end their campaigns the way Amado Avendano Figueroa did.

Making his first public appearance since he was badly injured in a suspicious car wreck, a weak Avendano was steadied on stage by his sons as his daughter read out his final campaign message: “I am alive, and I am determined to fight to the ultimate consequences.”

If Sunday’s elections are a test of Mexico’s commitment to democratic change, then nowhere is the test more crucial than in this tense state of Chiapas. Here, almost eight months ago, a bloody Indian uprising plunged the country into unprecedented crisis.

And Avendano’s long-shot race for governor of this state has come to embody for many here the possibilities of real change that would end single-party dominance and give a voice to those left out of Mexico’s entrenched, antiquated political system.


Yet he barely made it to Election Day. A tractor-trailer ran Avendano’s car off the road July 25, killing three campaign associates and leaving the candidate with broken ribs and a pierced lung.

Avendano, 55, the publisher of a tiny newspaper who is running on the ticket of the leftist Democratic Revolutionary Party, has taken up the demands first pronounced by rebels of the Zapatista National Liberation Army, whose New Year’s Day rebellion stunned Mexico and the world. In fact, it was the masked Subcommander Marcos who encouraged Avendano to run, and the candidate’s open sympathy for the rebels has earned him both a loyal following and harsh criticism.

If elected, Avendano says, he would install a constituent assembly and write a new constitution for Chiapas designed, among other things, to end centuries of inequitable land distribution.

That kind of talk frightens the powerful Chiapas elite of ranchers and cattlemen, already angered that Zapatista-inspired Indians have taken over tens of thousands of acres in recent months. Polls, though not reliable in Mexico, give Avendano little chance of victory.


“Amado is a good man, but he is being carried away by some extremist elements,” said Guillermo Munoz, 64, a businessman and real estate salesman who plans to vote for the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI).

Still, Avendano’s candidacy as a voice of the rebels’ demands has left an indelible mark on the race and highlights the far-from-resolved social and economic issues that fueled the armed revolt. Even his opponent, Eduardo Robledo Rincon of the PRI, was forced to shift his rhetoric, going so far as to invite Zapatistas to join his government.

Avendano closed his campaign in a brief, emotional appearance at a rally Wednesday in San Cristobal’s central plaza, which was filled with several thousand Indians, peasants and other supporters waving banners and listening to mariachi bands.

On Friday, he was at his home in the working-class neighborhood of San Diego. Family members said he remains temporarily unable to speak because of damage to his throat caused by the time he spent on a respirator. He communicates by typewriter.


“If the people of Chiapas vote for Amado Avendano Figueroa, they will be voting for a government of transition,” he said in the statement read by his eldest daughter, Elia, 26, at the closing rally. “A government of transition means Chiapas will move from illegality to legitimacy, from a government sponsored by a national regime to one sponsored by the will of the people.”

The Avendano home also doubles as its newspaper office. A real mom-and-pop operation, the Tiempo newspaper was the first to publish accounts of the Zapatista guerrillas and broke the story of the uprising. It serves as something of a clearing house for Zapatista communiques, which arrive regularly by fax. No fewer than three photographs of Marcos with Avendano, as a working reporter, hang in the cluttered office.

The collision that injured Avendano occurred at the height of his campaign, as he drove to a breakfast with the current governor.

The government arrested the driver of the tractor-trailer that ran Avendano’s car off a remote stretch of rural highway, then concluded the crash was an accident. But the Avendano family insists it was an assassination attempt.


Reflecting their deep-rooted suspicions of increasingly discredited authorities, many Mexicans do not believe the government’s version. Thousands marched in Chiapas to protest Avendano’s “accident,” and for a time it threatened the tenuous cease-fire between the Zapatistas and the Mexican army.

The rebels are watching these elections closely and have threatened reprisals if there is fraud. This week they announced plans to withdraw from the mountainous jungle villages they occupy to allow Sunday’s voting to take place. But they warned election officials, journalists and observers to leave the area by Monday night.

Given the history of fraud in this country, many Mexicans fear but expect post-election violence.

If the elections are not seen as clean, demonstrations are planned Monday by those who participated in the National Democratic Convention, a 5,000-member grouping of pro-left and grass-roots organizations that met in the jungle earlier this month at Zapatista invitation.


Especially in Chiapas, a sense of uncertainty and quiet tension was evident Friday. Even as federal police fanned out to distribute ballot boxes to villages in the war zone, residents were hoarding food and gasoline. Army soldiers, at highway checkpoints, stopped motorists and asked for identification.

Roman Catholic Bishop Samuel Ruiz, the mediator between the government and the Zapatistas, appeared on local television to urge peace and calm, amid fears that the cease-fire that has been in effect since January might be shattered.

“There are lots of rumors, lots of rumors,” said a pharmacist. “People just don’t know what’s going to happen. It is truly a big unknown.”