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LAS AMERICAS Macondo in Mexico When the rain falls in a town in Chiapas that doesn’t exist BY BARBARA BELEJACK ON THE MORNING OF August 7, 1994, some 6,000 people gathered at the outskirts of the colonial city of San Cristobal de las Casas and waited to board 200 buses, vans, trucks and jeeps bound for Aguascalientes, Chiapasa place that does not exist. They were campesinos from Oaxaca and Michoacan, an Argentine poet, a European film crew and a Mexican film star. They were back-to-Aztlan-ers from Mexico City and Colorado, professors from California, and law students from Guerrero. Along with the rest of the press and those sporting press credentials, was Gordon from Granta, the British magazine, who had reported from Vietnam in the ’60s and now wrote travel adventure articles, and swore that in his entire career he had never seen anything quite like this, the one and only Convencion Nacional Democratica convened by Subcomandante Marcos and the Ejercito Zapatista de Liberacion Nacional, a movable non-feast that began in relative ease and comfort in San Cristobal and ended in what Mexican reporters coyly liked to refer to as “somewhere in the Lacandon jungle.” Depending on your point of view, the idea of a convention in rebel-held territory just weeks before the August 21st presidential elections was a singular act of craziness and illegality or the greatest act of political imagination since French students went around scrawling things like: “Be realistic. Do the impossible.” It was a monument to the once and future Left in Latin America, a monument to the elusive, catch-all basket of hopes called sociedad civil, or a monument to the monumental ego of Marcos, the rebel commander who first captured the hearts and minds of the international media during the January uprising in Chiapas and two months later during peace negotiations in San Cristobal de las Casas. It was a masterful work of theater, or maybe just a masterful hoax. As a Barbara Belejack, former Observer Mexico City correspondent, lives in New York City. member of the Telemundo crew would remark after the 30-hour journey to Aguascalientes, “This is war. And we in the media are the soldiers.” The conversations in the cathedralthe meeting of masked Zapatistas and government peace negotiatorswere definitely high theater. But by the beginning of summer, the extent of what had been accomplished during those high-profile negotiations was doubtful. The war was over, but there was no peace. After weeks of consultation among the communities in Zapatista territory, Marcos reported a vote remarkably similar to an old-style, governmentparty, winner-take-all vote: More than 98 percent had voted not to accept the agreement negotiated in March. At the same time, the Zapatistas called for a national convention to discuss Mexico’s transition to democracy and propose the writing of a new constitution. In a year when everyone played with historic symbols, it was inevitable that the convention would become one more piece of symbolism. The convention would take place at “Aguascalientes,” an open field in the Lacondon jungle. It would take its name from the site of the 1914 convention that tried to unite the forces of Emiliano Zapata and Pancho Villa. Throughout the summer, Marcos was busy writing to Mexico’s intellectual elite, selling them on the idea of the convention: “I know it seems like an enormous paradox,” he wrote to Carlos Fuentes, “that an anonymous, illegal army would call for the strengthening of a peaceful, civic, legal movement in our country. I know it might seem absurd, but I’m sure you will agree with me that if there is anything that distinguishes this country, its history and its people, it is this absurd paradox of contradictions … past and future, tradition and modernity, violence and tranquility, military and civilian…” Throughout the summer, the intellectuals were busy writing back to Marcos. Fuentes wrote of his indebtedness to the Zapatistas: “once again you made us question what we mean by modernitya modernity that ex cludes, that leaves some on the side of the road? … What do we mean by ‘progress’ if the majority of citizens in our country are not progressing along with the rest of us? What do we mean by progress if it’s not nourished by tradition?” Carlos Monsivais wrote of the Zapatistas’ triumph over government triumphalism: “I am convinced that the Mexican political system is worn out … the Zapatistas did away with the triumphalist aura of the regime, its habit of resolving problems on paper, with publicity, reports and interviews.” Historian Enrique Krauze sought to engage Marcos in a battle of minds. “This man, Marcos, is noteworthy, sensitive. You want to talk with him and build a peaceful democracy with him,” Krauze wrote in a 16-page letter published in the Mexico city daily Reforma. Fernando Benitez, the octogenarian journalist and champion of Mexico’s Indians, also sought common ground with the Subcomandante: “You, like me, are a man of the university. Your proposals for liberty and justice have been mine for 40 years as a journalist … I only wish that you, my esteemed subcomandante Marcos, would have confidence in me, and that our conversation would benefit all the Indians of Mexico and the democratization of our beloved country.” To all, Marcos sent invitations to the mythical Aguascalientes under construction in the Lacandon junglealong with invitations to Mikhail Gorbachev, Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela, Rigoberta Menchu, and “the honest businessmen of Mexico.” Most declined politely. But writer Elena Poniatowska, treated as Dulcinea to Marcos’ Don Quixote, arrived early at the convention site. She described the construction of a primitive amphitheater and library in the middle of nowhere and conversations about literature and politics with the Subcomandante, whose last pre-convention dispatch was all but unreadable. Something about being the commander of a ship and a shipwreck. Something that would not become clear for days. 10 SEPTEMBER 30, 1994