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Lawmakers in Mexico agree to listen to rebels

MEXICO CITY — Mexico's Zapatista rebels refused to negotiate with Congress and snubbed President Vicente Fox's repeated overtures, but in the end the government gave them what they wanted.

Lawmakers narrowly approved a proposal Thursday night letting the ski-masked pro-Indian rebels speak before an informal joint session of Congress.

But now that the Zapatistas have what they want, many are questioning whether they are in a position to take advantage of it. They claim to represent all of Mexico's indigenous people, but many Indians don't agree with their goals or methods.

And while their two-week march from the jungles of southern Chiapas to Mexico City has been met by cheering crowds and reignited their cause, their refusal to negotiate with the government despite efforts to meet their demands has alienated many Mexicans.

"I sort of wonder what it is that the Zapatistas really, ultimately want — or if they know," said Roger Bartra, an anthropologist at Mexico's National Autonomous University. "It is sort of important where this all develops. Indian autonomy could go in all sorts of different directions."

The Zapatistas gained worldwide attention on Jan. 1, 1994, when they rose up in arms and seized six towns in Chiapas. More than 145 people were killed before a cease-fire took hold 12 days later.

Peace talks stalled in 1996 after the government of former President Ernesto Zedillo rejected a proposed bill to enact an Indian rights agreement. Fox, eager to draw the Zapatistas back to the negotiating table, sent that bill to Congress as his first act after taking office on Dec. 1.

Fox, meeting the Zapatistas' demands, also has ordered seven Chiapas military bases closed and all Zapatista federal prisoners freed. He welcomed the march into Mexico City and brushed off the sometimes personal insults by Zapatista leader Subcomandante Marcos, pleading with Marcos to visit him at the presidential offices.

On Friday, he answered the rebels' criticism that he hadn't fully complied with their demands, saying one of the last three bases had been closed and the two others had been officially slated for conversion into community centers. He also named several prisoners who were to be freed.

But the Zapatistas have shunned Fox, noting that they have been burned before. Many of the rebels lost faith in the government after Zedillo sent paratroopers into the jungle to arrest Marcos in 1995 during peace negotiations. They were also furious that the government rejected the Indian rights bill its own negotiators had drafted.

They have pushed for the right to speak to Congress — which they want to pass the Indian rights bill — and threatened to return to their jungle hide-out if the lawmakers refused. They have been in Mexico City for two weeks.

They postponed their planned departure Friday after Congress reached a last-minute agreement to let them speak before at least 100 members of an informal joint session in Congress' chambers.

"I think one of the reasons they can get away with that is because there really is no perceived cost to ceding to their demands. They don't represent a real military threat," Washington analyst Delal Baer said. "In some ways, it's become more of a public relations battle."

Both Fox and Marcos have succeeded in turning the nation's attention to peace in Chiapas. Mexico's two main television stations sponsored a giant concert for peace, while student activists wear T-shirts with Marcos' masked image — many of them with his middle finger raised.

No one seems to want to appear responsible for a return to the low-level hostilities of recent years.

Still, most Mexicans — even most Indians — don't support the Zapatistas. It remains to be seen how the Indian rights bill before Congress, which grants broad autonomy to Mexico's 10 million Indians, will change that.

And with many legislators, especially those from Fox's own party, expressing concerns about the Indian rights bill, there could be a long battle before it is approved and the Zapatistas get their final prize.