Jo Tuckman in Mexico City writes for The Guardian, May 12:
Man in the mask returns to change world with new coalition and his own sexy novel
A bead of sweat is visible through the eyehole of his famous black balaclava. Latin America’s most celebrated living rebel must be feeling the heat, but a glass of water would mean taking off the mask and that is out of the question. He makes do with a puff on his pipe, and a subject that is close to his heart.
“My new book’s coming out in June,” Subcomandante Marcos announces with relish during the first interview he has given to a British paper in years. “There’s no politics in the text this time. Just sex. Pure pornography.”
There has been a literary component to Marcos’s revolutionary persona ever since he led the ragtag Zapatista indigenous army out of the jungle in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas on New Year’s Day 1994. It began with lyrical communiques on Mayan Indian rights, passed through a stage of barbed sarcasm and scatological put-downs, and recently included a crime novel featuring a rebel detective.
Now even his erotic imagination has been harnessed to the Zapatista cause as a fundraiser. “I’m sure it will sell if we put a lot of Xs on the cover.”
Still, Marcos says that his next writing project will be a work of political theory analysing the forces he believes are pushing Mexico towards social upheaval. From dispossessed indigenous communities powerless to stop dams and agribusiness destroying their lands, to street vendors evicted from the capital’s kerbs to make way for the retail magnates, he says the country’s poor and exploited are close to their limit.
The former orthodox Marxist-Leninist turned anti-globalisation guru, who is not himself indigenous, predicts that the subconscious power of the year 2010 – the 200th anniversary of the war of independence and the 100th of Mexico’s revolution – will ignite a fuse laid by American efforts to secure the bilateral border, leaving millions unable to escape to jobs in the north. “Mexico will turn into a pressure cooker,” he says. “And, believe me, it will explode.”
Marcos says that Mexico’s politicians, the media, and even earnest leftwing academics are oblivious to the radicalisation he sees bubbling just under the surface. He points out that they also had no idea that the reputedly docile indigenous population in Chiapas was on the point of armed revolt 13 years ago. Not that the Zapatista rebellion fitted the traditional mould of macho Latin American armed struggle, or Marcos ever looked or sounded like rebel leaders elsewhere. Even the “sub” in his title – designed to imply an improbable subordination to a council of indigenous commanders – subverted the concept of military discipline employed in most other guerrilla armies.
“We left the jungle to die,” Marcos recalls, remembering how poorly armed his fighters were. “It sounds dramatic I know, but that’s the way it was.”
The Zapatistas were beaten back by the Mexican army within days, but not before triggering a wave of sympathy across the country and the world that forced the government to call a ceasefire, as well as agree to peace negotiations that would eventually crumble.
In less than two weeks the Chiapas Indians became an international cause celebre and their mysterious mask-wearing, pipe-smoking, and poetry-spouting leader emerged as the closest approximation yet to the romance of the martyred Che Guevara. They have hardly done any fighting since then.
Sitting in a sweltering back room of a Mexico City internet cafe, Marcos admits that the message in those early years would sometimes get lost in the fascination his persona inspired. He even confesses to occasionally letting celebrity go to his head. “But there was always the acerbic humour there to say ‘tone it down, remember you are a myth, you do not really exist’.”
It is certainly a durable myth, which has survived despite the world’s attention shifting to more dramatic conflicts and the government’s revelation that the man behind the mask is a former philosophy lecturer called Rafael Sebastián Guillén.
Still, the subcomandante does always seem to be looking over his shoulder at himself, which is perhaps one explanation for his periods of near total silence. The longest came in 2001, shortly after the so-called Zapatour in which the Marcos bandwagon travelled the country accompanied by hundreds of international sympathisers and a police escort.
Elections had just ended 71 years of one-party rule in Mexico and the Zapatistas had decided to test the new democracy with the demand for an indigenous bill of rights. When parliament ignored the pressure, the rebels returned to the jungle and concentrated on putting indigenous self-government into practice, with or without constitutional sanction. Marcos disappeared from view, emerging four years later with a new concern to build alliances beyond the indigenous movement.
“This is the last battle of the Zapatistas,” he says of the strategy, which relies on the government deciding not to reactivate old arrest warrants for fear of sparking more sympathy for Zapatista. “If we don’t win it we will face complete defeat.”
The subcomandante’s specific aim in his current low-key tour of the country is to consolidate the broad and loose collection of marginal left groups known as The Other Campaign. Marcos hopes this rather chaotic mix of everybody from radical transvestites to Marxist trade unionists will eventually play a leading role in channelling the discontent he is sure will soon be raging into an unarmed civilian movement organised around the principle of respect for difference.
“We think that what is going to happen here will have no ‘ism’ to describe it.” His voice becomes wistful. “It will be so new, beautiful and terrible that it will make the world turn to look at this country in a completely different way.”
Such talk could be seen as contrary, perhaps, at a time when the left has taken power in much of Latin America through the ballot box, but Marcos is unimpressed by elections he views as primarily a mechanism for ping-ponging power within the elite. So while he gives Evo Morales in Bolivia a nod of approval for his links to a radical indigenous movement, he describes Hugo Chávez in Venezuela as “disconcerting”, and brands Brazil’s President Lula and Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega as traitors.
Mexico’s politicians on both left and right receive nothing but his scorn. Is it easier to claim the moral high ground when your face is hidden?
Marcos acknowledges that the mask helps, although he stresses it is also a burden. It can be itchy and uncomfortable, and it is so intertwined with his revolutionary persona that to take it off in public even for a few seconds would be the end of the subcomandante.
“The mask will come off when a subcomandante Marcos is no longer necessary,” he says. “I hope it’s soon so that I can finally become a fireman like I’ve always wanted. Firemen get the prettiest girls.”