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Truth in packaging: Mexico elections in 1994

Stan Gotlieb

In a place where the image of something can attain more significance than its substance, the propaganda war is waged without letup. Just like at home... (The wall of the governor's official residence, pictured here, is a favorite place to post antigovernment propaganda.)

So here I was in April, 1994, at this press-conference / announcement, and Bob, a famous AP world correspondent (now retired) turns to ME and asks "Who is that guy?" He's Diego something-or-other, the presidential candidate for the National Action Party (PAN). "Who are they?" They're the Mexican equivalent of Buchanan Republicans: the big-business, big-money guys, pretending that the poor schleps they pay lip service to really count. They still believe in popular democracy -- but they have doubts.... "What's he saying?" Something about the Zapatistas. Let's wait for the handout.

"Here", by the way, is a hotel courtyard in San Cristobal de las Casas. As in Chiapas, Mexico. A twelve hour, two-checkpoint bus ride from Oaxaca. This particular hotel houses most of the foreign press corps, and contains a working press center and a well stocked -- and well attended -- bar.

Just after Diego finishes reading his announcement, this guy who looks a lot like a retread of Duarte, the late and unlamented onetime head of the Salvadoran government, ambles over and introduces himself. Doctor Derecha, graduate of a prestigious U.S. medical school, a gynecologist in Tuxtla Gutierrez (the capitol of Chiapas), and a national director of PAN. He is introduced to Bob's wife. He bows low over her hand, remarks on her beauty, and offers her his professional services, gratis. Honest. How could I have made that up?

He tells us that if it were not for irregularities in the last election, PAN would now be the ruling party -- a claim also made, with a good deal of convincing evidence, by the left-leaning Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD). Can he estimate PAN's chances this year? Fifty-fifty. We thank him for his inestimable attentions and take our leave. We stop at the door to ask a local Party guy what he thinks the chances are. "About 100 to 1, same as our representation in the Chiapas legislature".

The handouts, when we get them, would do any politician proud. Full of double talk and patriotic fervor. On the one hand, he supports the peace talks between the government's peace negotiator and the Zapatistas. On the other, he opposes any decision that gets made by "a single representative of a temporary political administration and a self-appointed representative of the aggrieved peasants" (so much for the legitimacy of the talks). Puzzled by this seeming-contradiction, I ask a bilingual U.S. expatriate if I am translating correctly. She laughs. "Last week, he said he would never engage in dialogue with anyone who wears a sock on his head" (the Zapatistas wear ski masks to hide their identity). Thus ends my first day in the War Zone.

Next morning, I buy two local newspapers. La Noticia asks, in banner headlines, a question which has been on everyone's lips: Is Subcomandante Marcos a Homosexual? The answer: Without doubt! It seems that while in California, El Sub was recruited and trained in terrorism and press manipulation by an unnamed communist-terrorist pervert, and sent back to Mexico to disrupt the lives of innocent Chiapanecos, overthrow the government, and bring down the Bolsa de Valor de Mexico (the Stock Exchange). Guess whose side this newspaper is on.

Expreso Chiapas reports on a solemn ceremony held in rebel territory the previous evening, in which Emiliano, a 76-year-old volunteer, was promoted to Honorary Major. Emiliano, according to El Sub, who officiated, had been in every important engagement in the conflict. He was tireless, selfless, obedient. His life is a living example to the people. Even in his hour of glory, he displayed his true humility by crying over the memory of fallen comrades and asking only for more chances to serve the revolution. Guess where this newspaper's sympathies lie.

These two newspapers illustrate the problem confronting anyone who tries to find out what has been / is / will be happening here. What you hear depends on who you ask. This is a deeply divided place, and a lot of axes are being ground. However, one thing remains clear to all sides (and there are many more than two: for instance, a large percentage of the peasants in the mountains just wish everyone would go away and leave them alone), and that is that a foreigner / press presence in this area is keeping the hotheads in check.

La Noticia says that Chiapanecos are "sick and tired of being slandered and degraded as a bunch of Kukluxklaneros by a foreign and national press corps with no concern for the feelings of the people, in order to sell more newspapers by distorting and sensationalizing a small local problem". Marcos, on the other hand, has repeatedly said that a foreigner / press presence here has kept the Army from committing genocide against the indigenous people. Either way, the average person can easily draw the appropriate conclusion: no news is good news, in a war zone.

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Photography by Diana Ricci

Published or Updated on: September 1, 1994 by Stan Gotlieb © 1994
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