Charming Rebel Snares Mexican Imagination

Article excerpt

`WHO is Subcommander Marcos?"

The mysterious, ski-masked spokesman of the Chiapas rebels, known for his piercing political wit and laughing green eyes, is captivating the Mexican public.

"Viva Marcos," shouted tens of thousands of demonstrators in Mexico City's central plaza on Feb. 13, where center-left and leftist opposition parties held a "100-Hour March" to demand clean elections, also a rebel demand. In the carnival-like atmosphere, venders hawked "I'm a Zapatista" T-shirts and black ski masks worn by guerrillas in the Zapatista National Liberation Army.

"Subcommander Marcos and the Zapatistas are a rallying symbol of those who want to end authoritarian, single-party rule in Mexico, oppose the agricultural reform, and support indigenous rights," says Bertha Luthan of the Authentic Workers Front, an independent trade union that is sending food to Chiapas refugees.

Normally, the Mexican public would be wrapped up in the process of political courtship by presidential election candidates. Instead, it is entranced by the unidentified "voice" of the armed Indian rebels who took over town halls and battled the Mexican Army during the first two weeks of January.

About 100 people died in the conflict. A cease-fire is in place, and peace talks are expected to begin soon.

But as the government and rebel leaders meet for the first time, the general public may be more interested in trying to peek behind the wool balaclava of this emerging folk hero than focus on the substance of the talks.

Political cartoonists are having a field day with the hooded leader. One mock poll asks: Is Subcommander Marcos a Sex Symbol? The poll "results" show 30 percent say "yes." Another 40 percent say "yes, but he doesn't have a car."

In terms of recognition, Marcos is a marketer's dream. In a recent opinion poll, 70 percent identified Marcos as the head of the Zapatista guerrillas. "That's very high," says Miguel Basanez, director of Marketing and Opinion Research International in Mexico City. A similar poll last year about who was the mayor of Mexico City (a high-profile post) produced only a 45 percent name recognition.

Part of his appeal, analysts say, is that he does not parrot a Marxist dogma familiar to leftist movements elsewhere. …