ECONOMY : Democracy Comes to Mexico--BUT AT A PRICE : Rediscovering the Revolution

Victor Perera is author of "Rites: A Guatemalan Boyhood" (Mercury House) and of "The Cross and the Pear Tree: A Sephardic Journey," due out from Alfred Knopf next month

Peasant rebellions, intraparty magnicidios allegedly linked to drug lords and the collapse of the Mexican peso are forging an unholy alliance among President Ernesto Zedillo, Subcoman dante Marcos and Chiapas Bishop Samuel Ruiz. They have become three improbable midwives to the tortuous birth of an indigenous democracy, 85 years after the start of Mexico's revolution.

Zedillo's determination to pursue the investigations into the murders of Francisco Ruiz Massieu, the PRI reformer, and of presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio has shaken the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party to its foundations. It has also tempered, for the moment, his appearance of vacillation, which was aggravated by his botched military incursion into the Zapatistas' jungle stronghold in Chiapas. The incursion, called off after tens of thousands of protesters marched on the Zocalo in Mexico City, failed to apprehend the unmasked Subcomandante Marcos, who remains a fugitive.

But it was the arrest of Raul Salinas de Gortari, the brother of the former president, as an alleged mastermind of Ruiz Massieu's assassination, that most undercut Zedillo's image as a weak and indecisive leader. In turn, he is being buffeted by the right-wing "dinosaurs" in his party--who have called for the elimination of the Zapatista leaders and of Bishop Ruiz--and U.S. bankers, who are alarmed by the peso's continuing volatility.

Nevertheless, in a crab-like but irreversible movement, Zedillo is groping toward a middle course between economic austerity, a no-quarter campaign against high-level crime and corruption, and a willingness to heed the pleas of the poor and marginalized embodied by Bishop Ruiz and the rank-and-file Zapatistas, led by Marcos.

In one of his few communications since he went into hiding, Marcos remained defiant, describing with almost loving tenderness the "300th bullet" that is meant for his temple after he expends the remaining 299. In his absence, Major Ana Maria, a rebel spokesperson, is demanding the withdrawal of army troops from the Zapatista jungle base before talks can take place on the government's amnesty offer.

In San Cristobal de las Casas, hundreds of Mayan peasants rallied to Bishop Ruiz's defense two weeks ago when he and supporters were attacked in the cathedral by 500 right-wingers led by cattle rangers and coffee planters, who called him the Zapatista rebels' supreme commander. The bishop, who was named, in 1960, to head the San Cristobal diocese by Pope John XXIII, has, over the years, been the target of numerous death threats because of his embrace of liberation theology and his advocacy for Mexico's poor and landless peasants.

As a successor to Chiapas' first bishop, the saintly defender of the Indians, Bartolome de las Casas, Ruiz is under constant attack from his enemies outside of and within the church, among them Cardinal Bernardin Gantin of the Vatican Congregation, who may move to reopen a 1993 Vatican investigation of Ruiz. A Zapatista rebel captured by the Mexican army claimed that Ruiz had been in contact with the Zapatistas since 1990, and knew of their planned operations. But Maria Gloria Guevara Niebla, alias Subcomandante Elisa, later retracted her written declarations before a judge, claiming she had been psychologically tortured.

Ruiz readily admits he knew of the Zapatista rebels training in the Lacandon jungle years before they marched on San Cristobal on Jan. 1, 1994, and that he had tried to dissuade them from a military course of action. "The government knew of the Zapatistas as well," Ruiz counters, alluding to their widespread net of orejas (informers) "and they did nothing about it. Was I supposed to inform the informers?" In the face of mounting pressures for his resignation, Ruiz still heads an intermediation commission authorized to negotiate with the Zapatista rebels. Without his mediation, a peaceful resolution is unlikely any time soon.

In a recent issue of L'Osservatore Romano, which has been critical of Ruiz in the past, the Vatican newspaper claimed Ruiz is the target of death threats for heeding "the just claims of the poor and exploited masses of his diocese." Apparently, the last thing the Vatican wants is another martyr on its hands on the order of the assassinated Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero, to whom Ruiz is often compared.

To the tens of thousands of marchers in Mexico City who shouted, "We are all Marcos," the unmasking of the subcomandante as a 37-year-old university graduate from Tampico enhanced rather than diminished his appeal. Like most of the university students, fortyish housewives and professionals who marched on the Zocale, Marcos was politically educated by events during the turbulent '60s, which culminated in the massacre of hundreds of unarmed protesters in the Plaza Tlatelolco.

In his metamorphosis as Subcomandante Marcos, Rafael Sebastian Guillen Vicente, led his peasant followers back to the beginnings of the Mexican revolution, before Emiliano Zapata gave his life fighting for his dream of a just, egalitarian Mexico composed of idyllic neolithic villages. For all of Marcos' belligerent first proclamations from the jungle--meant to establish the Zapatistas as combatants protected by the Geneva Conventions--he was always driven by a political and social agenda rather than a military one. In playful parables and sometimes brilliant political rhetoric, Marcos expanded Zapata's egalitarian village into a grass-roots democratic movement whose inspiration is as Mexican as Coatlicue, goddess of death, or the Virgin of Guadalupe.

The ties that bind the armed rebel Marcos and the pacifist Bishop Ruiz are exquisitely timely, as they have exposed the core contradictions that are tearing apart Mexico's ruling party. Above all, Marcos and Ruiz have underscored the absurdity of dragging Mexico into the First World as a burgeoning capitalist nation without taking into account the impoverished campesino and urban-worker majority, which remains mired in the Third World. Ruiz and Marcos understand that a free-market economy remains alien to the founding myths and principles of Mexico's unfinished revolution. Capitalism can never be a defining strand of Mexico's social and economic fabric, as it is in wealthy European nations and the United States.

Pressed from all sides, Zedillo is struggling to gain control of his party and his country. Perhaps unwittingly, he may also have started a movement of national renovation that could grow to resemble a Mexican equivalent of Mikhail S. Gorbachev's perestroika . His persistence in democratic reform comes at the cost of his standing with his party's powerful "dinosaurs"--not to mention his ties to his former mentor, Carlos Salinas--as well as at the expense of Mexico's fraudulent and illusory version of the American Dream.*

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