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Mexican Talks Progress; Sides Target Local Issues

Preliminary agreements for improved Indian rights have been reached

THE ``Peace Cathedral'' is living up to its name.

Talks between Mayan rebel peasants and the Mexican government inside this large, but less-than-lavish, Roman Catholic edifice are progressing.

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``We are advancing with greater speed than I expected at the start of this round,'' said a pleased Manuel Camacho Solis, chief government negotiator.

After three days, preliminary agreements have been reached on rebel demands for improving education, health care, communication, respect for their culture, tradition, and rights of Mexican Indians.

Subcommander Marcos, as the spokesman for the 19-member indigenous guerrilla group's negotiating team calls himself, characterizes this round of the talks as 25 percent complete. ``[Mr. Camacho] has listened with complete patience to my companions. No government official has done that since Hernan Cortes,'' Marcos says, referring to the 16th-century Spanish conqueror. ``They place great value on someone who listens.''

A Mexican official said that Zapatista National Liberation Front (EZLN) delegates were not making outrageous demands.

In what appears to be a tactical concession to the government strategy of portraying the armed Chiapas uprising on Jan. 1 as a localized incident, the peasant rebels are focusing on local demands. National demands for electoral and agricultural reform are going on a back burner.

``National democracy is beyond the San Cristobal negotiating table, and the reforms to Article 27 of the Constitution [governing land distribution] are beyond the San Cristobal table,'' said Marcos at a press conference Wednesday. ``At this level, we can resolve [problems of] liberty, democracy, and justice in the state.''

The Zapatistas are seeking more autonomous Indian rule, suggesting that each elected non-Indian official at the state level have an Indian counterpart, from the four Mayan ethnic groups represented by the Zapatistas. But both sides imply that these agreements may affect other Mexican indigenous groups. The talks deal with ``political commitments for a dignified peace in Chiapas, and part of these commitments are issues concerning indigenous communities throughout the nation,'' Camacho says.

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Already, the Chiapas uprising's resonance is growing among other Mexican indigenous groups. Several hundred Nahuatl Indians from Guerrero, descendents of the Aztecs and one of the better-organized Indian organizations, are marching to the nation's capital with a list of demands similar to the Zapatistas.

To address the national demands, Marcos called for a broader dialogue. ``We can't tell the country, `That's it, we've negotiated democracy in Mexico....' There has to be a movement bigger than us....The [negotiating] table has to be the entire country from Baja California to the Yucatan and the Caribbean.''

If there were to be a national initiative for electoral and agricultural reforms, Marcos makes it clear that the EZLN would participate. But the Zapatista spokesman who has become a popular cult figure in Mexico denies that the rebels have plans to evolve into a political party, as did some of the guerrilla movements in Central and South America. Nor will they back any other existing political parties in the August presidential elections.

``My companions have been very clear that the Zapatista Army isn't looking for power, and a political party seeks power ... so why become a political party? Aren't there enough already?'' Marcos asks.

The Zapatistas are seeking to establish a commission (without officials from political parties or the government) to guarantee compliance with the accords. But Marcos says the rebels won't turn in their weapons ``in exchange for a yet another promise.'' They want evidence of compliance first. ``We can't hand over the only thing we have left; we didn't have land, nor a roof, nor education, nor health care or anything.

The peace process is expected to take weeks, if not months. When this round finishes, perhaps next week, the Zapatista delegates will take the agreements to their supporters in the nearby mountains for approval and Camacho will go to consult with President Carlos Sa-linas de Gortari.

Meanwhile, accusations that the Mexican Army violated civilian human rights during the uprising continue. The Mexican government's National Human Rights Commission issued a report Tuesday that, for the first time, implicated the Mexican Air Force in the killing of a civilian child and wounding two adults in a rocket attack on Jan. 3. The CNDH also says it has received assurances that the Army's own attorney general is investigating the ``probable'' summary execution of five people in Ocosingo in January.

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