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Zapping the Fox, or Out-Foxing the Zaps? A Report From Mexico

Porfirio Díaz, one of Mexico’s only indigenous presidents and general of the rebel army that ran Napoleon III’s French colonial forces out of Mexico City on Cinco de Mayo, 1862, had a saying—somewhat cliché by now—“Poor Mexico, so far from God, so close to the United States.”

Díaz, like the generations of elitist presidents that followed him, saw the United States as both an economic bully and a cultural Caliban, an imperial power at once greedy and devoid of any genuine indigenous culture. Yet in the current media propaganda war between the mysterious Subcomandante Marcos and the ex-Coca Cola executive, now President of Mexico, Vicente Fox, Mexico appears to be moving even closer to the United States.

Suspicion of Yankee aggression is even written into the Mexican constitution of 1917: all major industries—and most importantly, the petroleum industry (called PEMEX)—are nationalized, while foreigners are prohibited from owning any land in the country. All this may soon change under the new pro-free trade Fox administration, thus upping the ante in the Zapatista’s agrarian struggle in Chiapas. And while the new president has shown more willingness to dialogue with the Zapatistas than the previous administration, many analysts watching the movement are beginning to feel that Fox is all smoke and mirrors.

“PR is one thing, action is another,” says Harry Cleaver, a University of Texas at Austin economics professor and contributor to Zapatistas!: Documents of the New Mexican Revolution (Autonomedia, 1994). “Fox talks a good game but his party (the right-wing PAN) is blocking passage of the San Andres Accords.”

The accords, which require a change in the constitution, would grant autonomy to the indigenous population of Mexico and at the same time extend a wide range of social justice programs and economic benefits to indigenous communities. The EZLN, or Zapatista National Liberation Army, has said that passage of the San Andres Accords is one of three conditions for restarting dialogue with the government—the other two being the release of all EZLN prisoners held in federal prisons and the demilitarization of seven army bases in Chiapas. While Fox has publicly committed to all three conditions, as of early April, some Zapatistas were still pointing fingers at Fox for biding his time in releasing all prisoners, fearing that he was stalling until the intense media spotlight had once again shifted from the man in the mask.

At the heart of the split between Fox and his party is the issue of constitutional reform. Unlike its American counterpart, the Mexican constitution makes provisions for economic equality. Article 27, an amendment put forth by the original Zapatista, Emiliano Zapata, radically proclaims, “The Nation reserves the right to regulate private property to ensure a more equitable distribution of wealth.”

What this actually means, however, has been subject to debate for some 80 years, and the arguments are only growing fiercer under the new Fox administration. For some, these provisions have meant that Mexico is pseudo-socialist, a sort of Latin Scandinavia, while others point out that extensive state regulation has only led to epidemic levels of corruption and cronyism that penetrate al aspects of Mexican society. Strengthening regulations on the free market also flies in the face of the philosophy of groups like Coparmex—a sort of Mexican Fortune 500—that, coincidentally, helped elect Fox in the first place. Jorge Reyes Espinas, president of Coparmex, has been unequivocal in his denunciation of Marcos, whom he calls a “blackmailer, a utopian and an irresponsible demagogue,” as well as of the entire indigenous movement, which he recently called “ignorant and perverse.”

At present the constitution, called the Carta Magna in Mexico, is under fire from both right and left. Just as 70-plus years of one-party rule by the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, were unexpectedly ended last July by Fox’s victory, so the blueprint of the nation may now be rewritten to accommodate “the people the color of the earth”—Marcos’s heroic moniker for the 10 million indigenous people of Mexico.

Right-wing free trade advocates in Fox’s own party, the PAN, however, are pushing for deregulation of industries and expansion of NAFTA. They seek “fast track” approval for a free-trade corridor from Puebla to Panama as well as privatization of the oil and electric industries, acts which would also require a constitutional change.

The PAN “offers up an idyllic world where there are no borders,” Marcos said in a recent interview. “Not only will borders not disappear, but they will multiply and the US will extend its border to Milpa Alta (a Mexico City suburb). The indigenous people that remain on this side of the border will disappear because they don’t fit into the neo-liberal model. No one will invest in them.” Fox and Company disagree, arguing that more trade in Chiapas will equal more jobs. Fox, for example, has his own plan to distribute small loans of about $30 apiece to “small businesspeople.”

Yet for many Mexicans, this idea sounds just a little too close ideologically to the United States. “We don’t want to make trinkets for tourists anymore,” said Antonio Aranda on March 11, the day the Zapatistas took over the Zocalo. Aranda is a Mexico City activist coordinating housing for the international supporters for the Zapatistas who have decided to stay until Congress approves the Accords. “We envision a different kind of Mexico,” he said, echoing Marcos’s proclamations.

But just what this “different kind of Mexico” consists of politically is still somewhat of an enigma. “For me, Marcos is a folk hero and a mystery,” the ex-ambassador under the Clinton Administration, James R. Jones, said. “I still don’t know what his real game is.”


While the Zapatour turned out to be a feel-good event for Mexican politicians, the media, and the economy (thousands of foreign “Zapatourists” turned out to catch a glimpse of the man in the mask and buy some t-shirts of him as well), the proverbial feces is now hitting the fan as Marcos and a recalcitrant Mexican Congress find themselves at loggerheads over the legality of the San Andres Accords.

During his campaign for the presidency, Fox claimed he could solve the problem in Chiapas “in 15 minutes” by sending the accords to Congress. It was the hated PRI regime of Ernesto Zedillo, after all, that created the agreement between the Zapatistas and the government in the first place. Conventional wisdom would then have it that with a PANista president riding a mandate of peace into office, and a reeling PRI party agreeing to the accords it originally created, the problem could be solved if not in 15 minutes, perhaps in 15 days. Yet, in mid-March, Fox passed the 100-day milestone in his presidency with peace seeming more distant than ever. Fellow PANistas in the Congress hurled epithets at the Zapatistas while Marcos mocked Fox’s attempts to cast himself as a friend of the indigenous peoples. Nevertheless, despite the absence of nearly half the Congress, and the even more glaring absence of the EZLN’s highest profile leader, Marcos, the Zapatista high command held forth on March 28 in front of the most important legislative body in Mexico.

The Zapatistas’ political victory, however, was bittersweet and short-lived. Marcos, calling “el Fox” a man “of much talk but of little capacity to listen,” then decided to reject the mayor’s invitation to stay in the capital “as long as they wanted.” Instead, he called for a return to the forest in order to restart the fight—only this time without weapons. Fox, on the defensive, sent a personal messenger to Marcos promising that he would immediately fulfill the other two Zapatista demands for dialogue. In late March, Marcos, after weeks of condemning Fox’s “doublespeak,” agreed to meet with Fox personally.

Reactions to this decision by Marcos varied wildly. While some Mexicans see Marcos as obstinate and mean-spirited, others see Fox as a slick PR genius with little understanding of policy—rather akin to George W. Bush. “For me, Fox might as well be Putin or Bush, it’s all the same,” said Aranda. “He only wants to conserve his image and the status quo.” By contrast, Marta Resnikof, a minor soap opera star and longtime Mexico City resident, declared, “[Marcos] should take off his mask if he is serious. What is he so afraid of?”


This is the larger context in which Mexico’s two leading men—in both the Hollywood and the political sense—are currently squaring off. Marcos and Fox both agree that the underlying economic principles that have guided the country since the revolution of 1917 must either be reformed or thrown out completely. Yet behind the sex appeal of Fox, called “Mexico’s most eligible bachelor” by the Mexican tabloids, and the even more seductive veneer of Marcos, a postmodern Che with pipe and ski mask, are two fundamentally different visions of Mexico in the era of globalization.

Not that the outside observer would ever notice this difference by listening to the effusive calls for peace and justice by both men, of course. As the Zapatistas’ popularity increases, Fox seems to take his cues from Marcos. Thus, in a strange turn of events that would be inconceivable in this country, a right-wing conservative president is echoing a leftist rebel. Before his recent trip to California, Fox proclaimed, “Where there were weapons, there will be hearts and wills to promote the dignity of our indigenous brothers and sisters.” Fox’s rhetorical plagiarism of Marcos went even further, however, when he said, “We all want peace to be a reality, but true peace springs from justice.” That Fox’s calls for peace and justice were beginning to sound more and more like Marcos’s trademark call for “democracy, liberty, and justice,” did not go unnoticed by the green-eyed rebel leader who quipped, “[Fox] is a copycat.”

Amidst the PR war, there are two questions yet to be answered: is Fox really willing to go against his own party for the sake of the San Andres Accords, and, conversely, is Marcos willing to unmask not only himself but his vision of a “new Mexico”—one which is presumably closer to God than to the United States? Stay tuned.


Russell Cobb

Russell Cobb is a leading artist illustrator based in the U.K.


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