Out of Mexico: A rebel president pitches up in the central plaza

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The Independent Online
MEXICO CITY - Some people collect stamps. I seek out acceptable lavatories in the centre of Third World cities. It may be less lucrative but it's a sight more useful.

That's why I found myself on the seventh and top floor of Mexico City's colonial Majestic Hotel. The loo itself is rudimentary but you get there via a chauffeur-driven lift and it could hardly be better placed. Having taken advantage of it, I was enjoying the view.

On a clear day, you can see the two famous snow-capped volcanoes 50 miles to the south-east. There's the Popocatepetl - that's the pronouncable one - and one that begins with an I. Barring freak conditions, of course, such as high winds and holidays when enough of its 3 million cars leave town, there are no clear days in the smog- choked metropolis. So my gaze was restricted to the gigantic zocalo, or central plaza, probably the world's third-biggest after Tiananmen Square and Red Square.

A colossal red, white and green Mexican flag fluttered from its 50ft flagpole in the centre of the square but what really caught my eye was something at the foot of the flagpole - a dash of blue, apparently a tiny tent, the kind your feet would stick out of if you tried to sleep in it. I took the lift down and strolled to the zocalo for a closer look.

The cardboard placards around the base of the big flagpole explained all. The tent, though barely high enough to crouch in, was the provisional headquarters of the 'Interim government of Mexico'.

And there to greet me was the 'Provisional President of the Republic' himself, Rodolfo Macias Cabreras, a former architect. Although nearby photos showed him in suit and tie, posing alongside the national flag, he was in jeans, shirt and baseball cap.

This may all sound somewhat off-beat but Mr Macias Cabreras is far from nuts. Brave, yes. Perhaps bordering on the eccentric, given the unlikelihood of President Carlos Salinas de Gortari relinquishing power to a man in a tent in the foreseeable future. Let's just say that John Lennon might have taken to the stocky, moustachioed

40-year-old who, like many of his countrymen, considers Mr Salinas and his government 'illegitimate'.

When Mr Salinas was declared winner of the 1988 presidential election with over 50 per cent of the vote, a mysterious computer failure on election night cast doubt on his victory. The main opposition candidate, Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, refused to recognise Mr Salinas as president but backed off from a potentially explosive confrontation.

Mr Macias Cabreras did not back off. Sacrificing his architect's job, he set up his own party, Mexicans for Democracy, and, alongside the statue of South America's liberator, Simon Bolivar, in Central Park in New York, declared himself 'Provisional President of Mexico' on 1 July 1989. He has since lobbied against the government outside UN headquarters and the US Congress.

He set himself up in the zocalo after a six-month march from the Statue of Liberty and is now in direct daily confrontation with Mr Salinas's soldiers who raise and lower the flag. Last week, the officer in charge roughed Mr Macias Cabreras up and had his men dump him into the 'provisional presidency'. But he refuses to go away.

Looking down upon him later from the same Majestic terrace, I couldn't help thinking of the Chinese youth with the plastic bag who faced off a squadron of tanks. Few people in the zocalo take any notice of Mr Macias Cabreras but, given Mr Salinas's growing problems, history may just hold a footnote for the man in the little blue tent.