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19 March 2001

A little bit of Che, a little bit of Posh

Hailed by the left as Mexico's liberators, are Marcos and his Zapatistas simply clever marketing men

By John Carlin

In the age of the almost – but not quite – smart bomb, of world leaders who hatch schemes to render us immune from nuclear attack, of battles waged not by soldiers but computer hackers, Subcomandante Marcos is way ahead of the game. Bloodless war is the dream of the masters of the 21st-century universe but, from a rudimentary base deep in the jungle of southern Mexico, the purportedly “military” commander of an outfit that grandly calls itself the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) has already beaten everyone to it.

Whether it was Marcos’s original intention or not, he has patented a style of warfare beyond the imagination of Sun Tzu, Che Guevera or Stormin’ Norman Schwarzkopf. Marcos is a virtual guerrilla commander, the EZLN is an imaginary guerrilla army and the wonder of it all, oh brave new world, is that it works. The message gets across.

Marcos, born Rafael Guillen (son of a comfortably-off furniture shop-owner), pretends that he is a reincarnation of el Che, makes believe that he heads vast infantries of Indian insurgents – and the rest of the world goes along with him. The upshot is that, in the end, he has achieved quite as much as most conventional guerrilla armies have done in Latin America, and the world over – that is to say, his political objectives of winning hearts and minds. And he did so without resorting to the dreadful bloodletting – and general hard work, sacrifice and grief – that had previously been considered indispensable to achieve the twin goals of mobilising the masses and intimidating the enemy.

Marcos’s “war” lasted precisely 12 days. It began on 1 January 1994 with the takeover of a picturesque mountain town that never knew what hit it; and it was over by the middle of the month. Some 200 people were killed, most of them ill-trained, ill-advised Native Americans (or “Indians”), some of whom Marcos sent into battle against the Mexican army carrying make-believe rifles made of wood. In conventional terms, the EZLN has proved to be the most incompetent guerrilla movement in Latin American history.

Since then, Marcos has not ordered one attack in more than seven years, but consider what has happened. The Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), the brilliantly corrupt apparatus that ran Mexico from 1929 to the very end of the 20th century and beyond, has fallen. Which is not exclusively down to Marcos. But by alerting people to the plight of the sector of society most neglected and abused by the PRI machine – Mexico’s ten million Indians – and by generally making the sort of noises that helped raise the population’s outrage levels, he contributed to the creation of the national mood necessary to prod the cunning old tyrants out of office. If the PRI chose not to rig the vote on this occasion, it was probably in part because its leaders feared that someone might take Marcos’s revolutionary rhetoric at its word. Better to bow out, with money safely in the bank, than to be hung, drawn and quartered.

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People will debate about the degree to which Marcos contributed to the PRI’s downfall. But since the matter is not susceptible to scientific measurement, the argument will never be resolved. So let us look at his most tangible success, the culmination of his seven-year looking-glass war: the march he has just completed from Chiapas, the southern state where he has staged his crusade, to Mexico City, complete with his address from the gates of the National Palace before a crowd of 100,000 people

OK. It was not quite the march that was advertised. It was a bus ride. A road show. The “Zapatour”, as the Mexican press called it. Like everything Marcos has done of any note, it was an extravaganza that had more in common with the Spice Girls or Man United FC than with the exploits of Fidel’s barbudos, the bearded ones, in the Sierra Maestra.

It was, actually, the wildest buffoonery. An extraordinary pantomime. But he prepared his stage brilliantly and, when the time came to put on the show, the whole world wanted to watch.

Here you have a white-skinned, left-wing intellectual who claims to be the leader of Mexico’s impoverished Indians, a profoundly conservative people whose misfortunes started when the white-skinned left-wing intellectual’s Spanish forebears arrived in town 500 years ago. This descendant of the conquistadors then sends a few dozen Indians to be killed in an unfair contest, summons the world’s press to his mountain hide-out, issues endless communiques on the World Wide Web (his favoured terrain of struggle) and declares himself to be waging a guerrilla war not only against the oppression of the Mayan Indians of Chiapas, but against neoliberalism and globalisation – against capitalism itself.

Which in turn extends his constituency to every corner of the globe, especially those corners of Mediterranean Europe inhabited by the diehard nostalgic left. French, Italian and Spanish intellectuals make pilgrimages to see Mexico’s answer to Robin Hood. They marvel at his wise words; thrill to his masked Zorro get-up, his Sherlock Holmes pipe; gasp at the savage nobility of his native followers; put on T-shirts that read “I am an Indian too”; and return home with the proselytising zeal of an army of Saint Pauls.

The triumphant final act, the march on the capital, took place a couple of weeks ago. Marcos emerged from his jungle hide-out sporting a ski mask, a cap kept in place by a set of headphones, camouflage trousers and a pipe; he boarded a bus – equipped with video screen and laptop computers and mobile phones – which took him, under police protection, to the Mexican capital. Here he proceeded, without hindrance of any sort, to address a rally outside the National Palace. Among the admiring throng was a host of international camp followers which included 200 Italian anarchists in white jump-suits, gay and lesbian groups, and Danielle Mitterrand.

Marvellous to behold was the complicity of the declared “enemy” in all this. Rarely in the history of human conflict can a government have extended such largesse to a self-proclaimed “insurgent” leader. And yet, there was Subcomandante Marcos in his address outside the National Palace declaring – whether unblushingly or not, we will never know – that he had stormed the capital “to shout for democracy and liberty”.

What next? Well, President Vicente Fox, Mexico’s first democratic leader, has indicated that he is prepared to succumb to two of Marcos’s three demands: to release the hundred or so Zapatista prisoners and to withdraw troops from Chiapas. Which is the sort of thing the IRA, to name but one conventional “liberation army”, spent decades of real-life slaughter to achieve.

The third requirement is that the Congress approve a Bill of Rights granting Mexico’s Indians a high measure of autonomous rule. Fox, a canny former Coca-Cola executive, says he is right behind Marcos on all three points, but will have to await the pleasure of the Congress to see if the bill goes through. If it does, it will entrench Indians’ rights to rule their territories according to ancient “custom and practice”.

What does that mean? Maybe it means the Indians will be less exploited. Correction: that Indian men will be less exploited. Marcos’s bill would entrench a tradition where fathers sell their daughters to prospective husbands; where rape is unexceptional and rarely punished; where, as a glance around any Indian community in Chiapas will reveal, all the men wear shoes, while almost all of the women – who do almost all of the work – go barefoot.

It remains to be seen whether a Bill of Rights will do a great deal more than appease the multiculturalist zeal of the worldwide Zapatista brigades, or do anything substantially to address the excruciating poverty of the Indian population.

No matter. Such details are not of paramount importance in Marcos’s virtual-reality wonderland. He has achieved a triumph of marketing, the likes of which the neoliberal globalists he denounces can only admire. Turning the enemies’ weapons brilliantly on themselves, he has identified his consumers, tailored his message to their needs and, with minimum investment, sold his product around the globe. Whether the product will have a more beneficial impact on mankind than the Spice Girls or MUFC, well, that is another matter altogether.

The author, a former correspondent in Mexico for the Independent, now writes for the Spanish newspaper, El Pais

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