Village names in the Mexican state of Chiapas read like a rosary of Indian aspirations and frustrations. There’s Liberty, Solitude, Hope, Sigh, Alliance, Future; Triumph lies not far from Revenge. As poet and stage-manager of the three-year-old Zapatista insurrection, the EZLN leader Subcomandante Marcos can’t have been unaware of the resonance of choosing poor, forgotten Reality as his base in the eastern part of the state. ‘We are together in Reality ... dreaming is both possible and necessary,’ Marcos announced confusingly at the close of July’s Intercontinental Encounter. ‘To find anyone to answer your questions,’ I was told on New Year’s Day by a ski-mask (as opposed to a rank-and-file bandana), ‘you’d have to be in Reality.’ I was certainly in the wrong place, at Oventic rather than La Realidad, misled by assurances that I would find the local leader, Comandante David; I was stranded where not much was happening for the third anniversary of the uprising. But was I the only one who was not ‘in Reality’?

After all, the Zapatista movement likes to appear as something of a phantom, expressing itself in concealments and italics and elusive wordplay; but such opacities are an acknowledgment of the fact that the Indian rebels and the people who speak through them have not yet won a public existence for themselves. Performance also happens to be the mark of both the contemporary and the archaic realities in which the rebels live. The wearing of masks allows the rebels to shout ‘We are all Marcos!’ while lending them the faceless, hieratic authority of a Greek chorus. The same will-to-indifferentiation has led to the five visible Zapatista centres all being called Aguascalientes, after the original 1917 Zapatista Convention in the town of that name: a historical reference has become a new common noun – italicised, like all important Zapatista terms. Huge camps of logs and branches civilising the wilderness for potential get-togethers, the Aguascalientes are primarily symbolic and usually empty, although building them must have helped work off energies during the years of quasi-peace.

I gambled on the one near Oventic for the promised fiesta, because it’s accessible (on the rather long and winding road to Reality, where the senior masks were to be found, national immigration and Intelligence checkpoint officials are said to deport journalists without proper visas). I found San Diegans for Dignity and Democracy in Mexico, earnest Uruguayan agronomy students, and girls who knew campfire songs in Old German. Not a ski-mask to be seen that night, though it was certainly skiing weather, both things making me wish I’d smuggled some tequila in defiance of the Zapatista dry law. It was strangely reminiscent of Chile Solidarity in the Seventies – the admirers and visitors quite backward-looking in a way the Zapatistas are not.

Then I came across a bundled figure with cloth cap and glasses, holding forth in the dark to an awed circle of San Diegans. ‘When we take power, by reason or by force, ha-ha ... ’ He seemed to incarnate the chatterer on the fringe of any hermetic movement, until he mentioned surviving a much-publicised road accident which had killed three people. Here was the hero I’d been asking after for days. ‘Yes, I’m the governor-in-rebellion,’ he chortled. ‘I’m a symbol too.’ Amado Avendaño, the homely, campaigning editor of the San Cristóbal journal Tiempo, had suddenly become the candidate of the old-left Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) for the governorship of Chiapas in 1994. He lost to the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) in irregular circumstances, quite apart from that suspicious collision with an unmarked trailer. He had then dropped his electoral flag of convenience to set up an errant, non-affiliated governorship-in-rebellion that now has only Zapatista support, and even they don’t take much notice. This serious buffoon epitomises many paradoxes of the present deadlock in Chiapas.

One is the practical importance of symbol and theatre. As a politico-military force that has chosen to seek political change by means of the ceasefire (held in place by its proven readiness for death), the EZLN has little room for action. For the moment, it has tied its own trigger-finger and is physically encircled by the Mexican Army, and so must churn out images directed both inwards and outwards with inventive abandon. Marcos’s self-indulgent poetry, the battl re-enactments in Reality, the photo opportunities and Web pages should not be too hastily dismissed; even the EPR, the first of a number of retro Marxist-Leninist armed groups appearing in other states, have tried fielding a few Shakespeare quotations (but it doesn’t suit them).

Avendaño looks blankly sad when he is not in fits of mirth. Around the EZ, the Zapatista Army, every absurdity has its underlying doom. The ‘Governor’ is a bit of a joke, but when relieved from symbolic office, he will abandon his job and family to take up arms. The EZLN risks its gravitas when celebrities like Oliver Stone queue up to visit Marcos; humourlessry the Government had Nixon pulled from the cinemas. There’s nothing cornier than the foreigners’ congas in the Oventic Aguascalientes, or the EZLN calendar for 1997 with the Thoughts of Sub-comandante Insurgente Marcos and cartoons of his pet beetle, while EZLN discourse is dominated nowadays by bland invocations to truth, hope, dignity, memory, dream and, most insistently, word. Yet without sustained national and international sympathy for the cornered Zapatistas, the Mexican Army that has already burned down one Aguascalientes would finish off the rest and anyone associated with them. Activists already brave kidnappings, arbitrary detentions with torture, murders (4.2 per day in Chiapas), firebombings and trumped-up arrests that do not square with the Government’s rhetoric of peace.

Avendaño’s speedy dropping of his PRD persona highlights another key issue. The Zapatistas have come to scorn electoral politics and power; their alliance with the PRD opposition is tactical and they appeal to an unprecedented phenomenon in Mexico known as ‘civil society’. Members of the year-old civilian branch of Zapatismo, the Front (FZLN), are required to renounce any public office or party affiliation. Asked whether the Front was a stab at de-nativising the movement in order to amplify its relevance, local member Jesús Sánchez replied: ‘On the contrary, it’s a matter of nativising the rest of society!’ The nascent FZ committees work like an Indian assembly, with rotational posts and strictly consensual decisions; elected authorities remain answerable, and can be removed at any moment. A kind of ancient, rooted socialism emerges here, offering an attractive alternative at a time of global disillusion with party politics and the very notion of progress – except, of course, for the endless discussions involved, fertile ground for bureaucracy when we imagine such a system on the large scale. The Zapatistas’ consultations with their bases are impeccable but, oh dear, even the children vote.

In this, at best, transitional moment, the clash between indigenous and conventional political definitions is proving troublesome. An apparent interest in parties other than the PRI only arose in rural Chiapas in the wake of Zapatismo: for the first time since the old pact between Indians and the ruling party was eroded under President Salinas, who withdrew institutional support and opened previously protected peasant land to the market, Indian organisations started calling themselves indistinctly PRD or EZLN before invading lands and demanding rights. These were not technical labels in most cases: they signified only that the Indians had had enough. At the same time the challenge to the paternal/repressive status quo led to the arming in the north zone of the feared Ch’ol paramilitaries, championed by the local PRI as ‘authentic Indians’ – anti-foreign, anti-change and manipulable. In other areas, there is simply an electoral stand-off. San Andrés Larraínzar, famous as the site of talks between the EZLN and the Government, is a good example.

In 1995 the village held its traditional election of a leader by show of hands, Indian-fashion, and Juan López González won. But then, López recalled, ‘the people decided that the winner had to register not with the PRI, as he always used to, but with the PRD. The loser and many who were priistas at heart went to one side and conferred until morning.’ The young schoolteacher was telling his story in the town hall he still occupies as municipal president-in-rebel-lion. Outside by the almost bare market stalls, a row of latrines was all that remained of the months of talks, the processions of tiny masked figures and government delegations, the peace cordons with their odd assortment of enthusiasts from around the world. Something had clearly rubbed off on the villagers, and the PRI had to put up its own candidate for the later, official ballots. López’s supporters abstained on principle and the PRI’s man now receives all the state and federal funds, ‘giving them to his friends’. And what does López do? ‘It is enough to show that we are still here. The people have always worked to live, we don’t need the Government’s alms.’

If the accords signed here in February 1996 were already in the Constitution as planned, Indian electoral procedure, informally operative for centuries, would be legally enshrined, and López would be the official authority of this municipality. This is just one of the EZLN proposals for Indian rights and autonomy that are intended to transform Mexico. Last October, under the slogan ‘Never More a Mexico Without Us’, the National Indigenous Congress (the first such event organised by the Indians themselves) ratified the accords on behalf of all ethnic groups. In exchange for becoming political and economic subjects, the Indian peoples would update their own ‘uses and customs’ before these were elevated into law. In most groups, for instance, women are chattels, yet here was the Congress demanding ‘full citizenship for women, the right to political parity with men and to own land’. Too good to be true? The EZLN has inspired nothing if not the right to dream.

The masked women I saw the next day in Oventic – the bashful ones who wouldn’t talk, and the baleful ones like the mayora whom I was advised not even to approach – have helped change their people’s world for ever, even if the accords, now in a Bill put forward by an all-party commission, don’t become law. And it seems they may not. There was no big gathering at Oventic because the people are full of foreboding and out of patience. The Government has stalled for months, concerned with a more pressing war within the decaying PRI itself: as right and left opposition groups gain ground everywhere, the Party seems unable to accept the end of its 67-year-old dicta-blanda or co-optive dictatorship. Split into hostile factions, it flails like a puppet jerked by competing hands. In its dealings with the EZLN it has offered an incoherent series of conciliations and provocations, which led the talks to break down last year.

In December President Zedillo admitted he hadn’t been accurately informed of the accords his envoys signed in February, and asked for two weeks to have another look. The EZLN warned it would not renegotiate. By now, these accords on Indian self-determination have themselves become symbolic, as though the awesome constitutional and administrative problems entailed were secondary. Either the Government stops playing for time or it’s war, according to everyone I talked to. ‘We can’t go on like this. There’s not even a decent dictator. We shall return to arms, call it suicide, we are already dead,’ cried Avendaño, one of several predicting the return to war with varying degrees of relish. This is open to the ‘they would, wouldn’t they’ objection, for while civil society finds its feet, the rebels’ only weapon is their weapons. The other view is more cautious: it’s Zedillo’s move, but the EZLN, committed to a political solution, will never fire the first shot.

Back in the Aguascalientes of La Realidad, the Clandestine Committee’s New Year message did not specify how war might start. ‘There will be no peace while oblivion continues to be the only future ... Whether this fourth year is one of war or peace will depend on whether or not the supreme power accepts history.’ The vagueness of the EZLN is more encouraging than the equivocation of the Government.

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