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15 March 2001 Edition

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Zapatistas March Into Mexico City

The Zapatistas' 3,000-kilometres tour around Mexico finished on Sunday 11 March in Zocalo Square, the heart of Mexico City. Around 200,000 people gathered to welcome the group of 24 Zapatista rebels and their many supporters into the Mexican capital. The rebel tour has passed through 12 Mexican states since 24 February.

However, as 24 Zapatista commanders, including Subcomandante Marcos, entered the city's main square on a flatbed truck, decorated with a banner reading ``March for Indian Dignity'', it appears the movement initiated by their upraising in 1994 is irreversible, after more than 500 years of First World oppression.

After putting down their weapons and leaving their jungle stronghold, the Zapatistas became the first rebels to openly ride into Mexico City since revolutionary leaders Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata did it in 1914. In fact, the Zapatista delegates met one of the sons and the daughter of Zapata along the way to the capital, and the image of the handshake between Marcos and Diego Zapata was particularly powerful.

``Mexico, we are not coming to tell you what to do, we are not coming to lead you anywhere, we are coming to ask you humbly, respectfully, to help us. Don't let there be another dawn without the (Mexican) flag having a place for us, those who are the colour of the earth.... The hour of the Indian has come. We are here as rebels who cry out: democracy, justice, liberty,'' Marcos said, referring to the 10 million indigenous Mexicans.

In a nation where most of the population of 100 million are of mixed Spanish and Indian blood, the Zapatista demands have also touched the deprived and landless. The 24 rebel commanders rode into the city's main plaza to chants of ``You are not alone'' from the crowd. Large banners hung from buildings overlooking the square, one bearing the slogan: ``We Are All Indians of the World''.

The march has demonstrated the appeal of their message, as hundred of thousands of people came out on Mexico's roads and in villages to express their encouragement to the rebels in their struggle for real democracy.

And if the rights of the Indigenous are what caused the Zapatista upraising in January 1994, this was also the main reason behind their decision to go to the Mexican capital. The masked indigenous rebels - who found they had to hide their faces in order to be seen - are urging passage of an Indian rights bill, a sweeping series of constitutional amendments that would guarantee greater political autonomy for Indians and expanded rights for their cultures. They assured they had no intention of seizing power.

On Monday 12 March, the 24 Zapatista leaders met with a congressional commission to press for the bill to be passed. ``Once again, the federal government and Congress have a chance to choose between peace with dignity and justice, or war against the indigenous peoples,'' said rebel leader Comandante David.

``Welcome Subcomandante Marcos, welcome to the Zapatistas, welcome to the political arena, the arena of discussion of ideas,'' newly elected Mexican President Vicente Fox said in a radio address on Saturday 10 March. Fox said the rebel tour was proof of the new democracy ushered in when he broke the former ruling party (PRI) 71-year grip on the presidency.

Still, the rebels repeatedly expressed wariness of Fox. In an interview published in the magazine Proceso, Marcos said he and Fox were ``diametrically opposed''.

``We are part of the world moving toward recognising differences, and he is working towards hegemony and homogenising, not just the country, but the world,'' Marcos said.

Commander Esther more directly attacked Fox's promise to use market forces to give Mexicans a better standard of living. ``We don't want a little business, a compact car and a television,'' Esther said, repeating one of Fox's frequent phrases. ``We want recognition of our rights.''

The rebels have vowed to stay in Mexico City until a bill is passed protecting the indigenous culture.

Fox's first act in office was to send the Indian rights bill to Congress and to free several Zapatista prisoners. But both actions fell short of the minimum Zapatista demands - the release of all Zapatista prisoners, demilitarisation and the implementation of the St Andrés Agreements signed between the Mexican government and the Zapatistas in 1996, granting basic rights to indigenous people.

Marcos led a 10-day armed uprising against the government on 1 January 1994, the same day the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) between Mexico, Canada and the United States went into effect. The uprising in support of indigenous rights left 200 army and rebel soldiers dead.

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