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Mexico as Metaphor

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With a ruling party that has been coopting its opposition for 60 years and an Internet-savvy rebel leader, Mexico is grist for a modern-day Swift

By Victor Perera

ON JAN. 2, 1994, the day after the Zapatista National Liberation Army sent shock waves through Mexico by taking over key towns and cities in Chiapas, hundreds of helmeted laborers went back to work on an $11 million opera house in San Cristóbal de las Casas.

The designers of the huge theater, commissioned by President Carlos Salinas' Revolutionary Institutional Party, or PRI, insisted that a complete air-conditioning system be installed, in full knowledge that the highland state capital of Chiapas has a cool climate the year round. In any event, only a tiny minority of the ladino, or non-Indian, residents of San Cristóbal will be able to afford tickets for an opera performance, if any are ever held.

Two years earlier, an enormous, state-of-the-art hospital was erected by the government in the remote Chiapan Mayan village of Guadalupe Tepeyac, in the heart of Zapatista-controlled rain forest. President Salinas flew in for a photo opportunity in front of the huge hospital. In the following weeks, most of the medical staff followed the president north, leaving behind a luxurious, empty shell in a remote, sparsely populated corner of Mexico's southernmost and poorest state.

Were he alive today, Jonathan Swift would have delighted in these two events, and worked them into a latter-day Gulliver's Travels. He would also have been piqued by an "Institutional Revolutionary Party" that has kept itself in power for more than 65 years by subsidizing all the opposing unions, newspapers and political parties, and even paying for the guerrilla uprisings mounted to overthrow it.

"Cooptation" hardly begins to describe the outlandish devices resorted to by the PRI to neutralize its enemies. The PRI's opponents are effectively ingested into a one-party governing body with a paper-thin democratic facade, an arrangement that novelist Mario Vargas Llosa has named "the perfect dictatorship."


More about Mexico and Perera:

Highlands High Road: Santa Cruz activist risks life
and limbs working for peace in Chiapas.

Links to a variety of sites about the Mexican rebel Subcommander Marcos.

Victor Perera on novelist Isabel Allende's search
for meaning in the suffering of her daughter.


Opera Bouffe Politics

IN HIS NEW BOOK, Bordering on Chaos, Andres Oppenheimer, a Miami Herald reporter born in Argentina, another Latin country with opéra bouffe inclinations, attempts to find a semblance of logic in the events precipitated by the Zapatista uprising of January 1994 and the assassination, eight months later, of the PRI presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio.

What he found was a smoke screen of Machiavellian deceptions that concealed high crimes among the PRI's elite families, involving millions upon millions of drug-tainted dollars, contract killing between relatives and in-laws, and corruption and power lust on a scale that dwarfs even the drug mafias of Cali and Bogotá. (And in fact, economist Jorge Castañeda suggests that President Carlos Salinas invited the Cali cartel to Mexico to ease the balance of payments.)

It does not take a satiric genius like Swift to perceive in these machinations a metaphor for the deeply divided soul of late-20th-century Mexico, and the symptoms of disintegration that sparked the Zapatista uprising and the mind-numbing chain of events that have followed it.

In this climate, the good guys, the not-so-good guys and the outright bad guys are impossible to tell apart, as one day's heroes turn into the next day's villains.

Oppenheimer, a tested investigative reporter and Pulitzer Prize winner, is "flabbergasted" when the courageous assistant attorney general who exposes the assassination of his brother, the attorney general, turns out to be in cahoots with the man who ordered the killing, none other than the older brother of the outgoing president.

Carlos Salinas won global acclaim (and President Clinton's unflinching support) for the far-seeing economic policies--most notably his ratification of the North American Free Trade Agreement--that lifted Mexico over-night into the company of First World nations.

That illusion proved particularly short-lived. Salinas was exposed as the villain when he refused to honor the timeworn tradition of devaluating the peso before leaving office and leaving his appointed successor a clean slate.

Instead, Oppenheimer speculates, Salinas may have conspired to create a climate of instability with the murders of Colosio and Attorney General José Francisco Ruiz Massieu as a pretext to void the constitution and remain in office, much as Alberto Fujimori has done in Peru and Carlos Menem in Argentina. One of the signs of Mexico's drift toward the abyss is that this scenario is now believed by a majority of Mexicans, and they are clamoring for Salinas' head.

To lend credibility to the conspiracy theory, Oppenheimer retells the bizarre tale of the two infant Salinas brothers, Raúl and Carlos, who at ages 5 and 3, respectively, shot their nanny to death with a .22 rifle. "I killed her with one shot," Carlitos is reported to have declared. "I am a hero."

The obvious response to this anecdote is numbed stupefaction, and yet Oppenheimer expresses fresh consternation and shock at each new revelation, as if shockability were the credible journalist's last resort when the rug is pulled out from under him once too often.

Raúl Salinas is in prison awaiting two trials, one for the murder of Ruiz Massieu and the other for "inexplicable enrichment." This poignant charge could be applied with greater justice to 10 or 12 billionaire cronies of the Salinas brothers, who have amassed the largest fortunes in Latin America.

Catherine Ryan

Postmodern Rebels or Romantic Revolutionaries?: Zapatista soldiers on maneuvers in Chiapas.

Zedillo Struggles Not to Be Forgotten

ALTHOUGH HARDLY a hero, current President Ernesto Zedillo has carried the burden of scapegoathood with a gritty resolve and plainness of speech that elicits the veteran observer's sympathy. Zedillo is a persevering technocrat and a grind who has never fallen under a cloud of suspicion for malfeasance.

After the $50 billion emergency bailout by President Clinton last year, the Mexican economy has rebounded from its disastrous collapse and currency devaluation, caused in part by Zedillo's blunders. As an honest broker for reform, he has neither the vision of a Mexican Gorbachev nor, apparently, the clout to abolish the corrupt PRI and hold new elections for a government of democratic transition. (For another thing, he must be keenly aware of Gorbachev's fate as the forgotten man of democratic Russia.)

With the economy in recovery mode and the huge loan repaid, Zedillo no longer speaks of structural reforms in the government or the dissolution of the PRI. As a distinguished Yale graduate in economics, he must know that the conditions are still in place for another economic crash and a further devaluation and collapse a year or two hence, as has happened three times following economic rebounds in the past 20 years.

Today's nerdy hero is bound to be, as sure as rain and volcanic eruptions, tomorrow's nerdy villain, but Zedillo, who won a relatively clean election with the lowest margin of victory in 65 years, can count on another four years in office to insulate himself against another debacle.

Marcos the Postmodernist

THE MOST enigmatic figure in the book is Subcommandante Marcos, known as Rafael Guillén when he studied communications and graphic arts in the University of Mexico, and as "Zacarías" when he began as insurgent commander with the National Liberation Forces in the 1970s.

The ski-masked, unacknowledged "máximo líder" of the Zapatista Liberation Army is an accomplished poet and essayist, trained in the rhetoric of social justice by his Jesuit high school teachers. As a committed rebel for nearly two decades, the 38-year-old Marcos has demonstrated a remarkable ability to reinvent himself.

Far from dimming his charisma, Marcos' "unmasking" by Zedillo and a guerrilla turncoat two years ago gave him added cachet with thousands of Mexicans who were radicalized, as Guillén was, by the government's massacre of hundreds of student protesters in the Plaza of Tlatelolco in 1968.

Oppenheimer betrays his ambivalence toward Marcos by simultaneously twitting his narcissism while conceding his genius at publicizing his cause.

Marcos' clever use of the Internet to connect with supporters around the globe has earned him a reputation as the first postmodern revolutionary.

But what sets him apart from earlier romantic rebel icons like Ernesto Ché Guevara, to whom he is often compared--above all by Marcos himself--is his success in winning over Chiapas' poor peasants to the Zapatista cause. Ché Guevara never won the loyalty of Bolivia's peasants during his years in the Andean jungle, a failure that cost him his life.

Marcos' other coup, of course, was his brilliant timing in mounting his insurrection on the day the North American Free Trade Agreement went into effect. The images of masked Mayan peasants with wooden rifles taking over the municipal palace of San Cristóbal were beamed around the world and awakened nostalgia for the opening decade of Mexico's revolution and its heroes Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata.

For two years, Marcos consolidated his reputation with his brilliant polemics and parables, published in La Jornada and Le Monde.

Marcos' bombastic literary rhetoric played well with European intellectuals like Régis Debray, who relished the gringo-baiting reminiscent of Pancho Villa and Ché Guevara, but Marcos also won a following in the U.S. with leftist Hollywood types like Susan Sarandon, Edward James Olmos and Oliver Stone--who donned a ski mask and pipe to ride mule back with "El Supo" near his jungle hideout.

Back to the Future

IN HIS RECENT reinvention as a peaceful negotiator, Marcos and his Zapatistas have drafted a new Mexican constitution that grants equal rights to indigenous communities, gays and women, and forges a historic new synthesis by borrowing from both the U.S. Bill of Rights and Mexico's 1910 constitution.

Marcos, however, has been stymied by the snail's pace of the peace negotiations with the government and the growing restiveness of his indigenous followers, who have waited 65 years to reap the benefits of Mexico's revolution.

Oppenheimer's book ends pessimistically as armed confrontations are breaking out in Guerrero and other poor Mexican states. In the past months, these skirmishes have erupted into a full-scale military campaign by a radical guerrilla group known as the Popular Revolutionary Army (EPR).

Marcos' EZLN and the EPR have common roots in the Marxist guerrilla organization born in the ferment of the late '60s and '70s. But the brazen military tactics of the EPR, whose pro-Maoist founder, Lucio Cabañas, was killed years ago in a shootout with the army, have driven the two groups further apart.

Marcos has gone out of his way to distance himself from the more bellicose EPR, and Zedillo has widened the wedge by conceding "social" roots to the EZLN, while denouncing the EPR as a gang of unprincipled criminals.

The dimming of Marcos' star may be temporary as he crafts his next incarnation. In the meantime, more and more of his followers are joining the EPR, which has cells in Oaxaca and Chiapas and other poor agricultural regions with indigenous minorities. By resisting the military pressures of the EPR, Marcos may earn concessions from Zedillo to move the peace process off the table.

But whatever his new guise, Marcos is likely to resemble less the postmodern rebel and look more and more like the last of the romantic revolutionaries. Behind the toy wooden rifles wielded by many insurgent Mayas were hundreds of AK-47s that Marcos bought in the black market and resold to his Zapatista followers at two and three times their dollar value.

A contemporary Swift would surely have seized on that macabre paradox of revolutionary capitalism, and perhaps used it as grist for an end of the millennium version of A Modest Proposal.

Bordering on Chaos: Guerrillas, Stockbrokers, Politicians, and Mexico's Road to Prosperity by Andres Oppenheimer; Little, Brown and Co.; 367 pages; $25.95 cloth.

Victor Perera, who teaches at UC-Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism, is author of Unfinished Conquest: The Guatemalan Tragedy (UC Press) and The Cross and the Pear Tree: A Sephardic Journey (UC Press).

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From the October 31-November 6, 1996 issue of Metro

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