Shroud of secrecy hides Mexican convention

SOME 5,500 Mexicans from diverse walks of life and every corner of the country, meeting in the heart of the Lacandon jungle, are hoping to alter the course of the nation's history.

There was no way of being sure, since they have been cut off from civilisation since Sunday night, but the so-called National Democratic Convention organised by subcomandante Marcos of the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) guerrillas was assumed to be continuing today at a jungle clearing dubbed Aguascalientes in guerrilla-held territory.

Worker, peasant and student representatives from all over Mexico, as well as leading writers, intellectuals and at least one national newspaper editor answered Marcos' call for a convention. Its aim is to create a new constituent assembly and a 'transition government' to bring real democracy to Mexico, as well as to organise 'civil resistance' if the country's upcoming elections on 21 August are considered fraudulent.

After initial working sessions in the town of San Cristobal de las Casas on Saturday, the delegates set off on Sunday in a 196-vehicle convoy of lorries, buses and vans through Mexican army lines for the long, bumpy all-day drive east through the state of Chiapas into the guerrilla-held zone. At a final army checkpoint at Las Margaritas, where the paved road ends, an officer warned the delegates and 700 accompanying journalists: 'You're on your own now. Good luck.'

The convoy, accompanied by Mexican Red Cross officials and given the green light by the authorities, was assumed to have reached its destination during the night of Sunday to Monday.

Marcos and his men had spent weeks creating a jungle clearing and building a Roman-style amphitheatre from felled trees. They named the site Aguascalientes after the city where a renowned convention was held in 1914 during the Mexican revolution.

That convention resulted in the so-called Ayala plan, which changed the shape of the revolution. Marcos, already being compared with Emiliano Zapata, Pancho Villa and other Mexican revolutionary figures, clearly hopes his jungle assembly will be of similar historic import.

Effectively, while garnering broader civilian support, he is preparing the ground for rejecting an election victory by either the long- ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) or the conservative National Action Party (PAN). Both favour neo-liberal economic policies which he says are detrimental to the vast, poor majority of Mexicans.

Even if the convention agrees on the EZLN's call for a rewritten constitution and a transition government, no one knows what the next step might be. It seems doubtful whether Marcos would accept even a PRI-led coalition government. Should whoever wins the election not heed the conclusions of the jungle convention, however, Marcos retains the option of a return to armed struggle.

Among those invited to the convention were Mikhail Gorbachev, Yasser Arafat and Nelson Mandela. Since Marcos' communiques 'from the mountains of south- eastern Mexico' take days or weeks to reach their destination, it seems likely those invitations are still winging their way to the intended recipients.

Government and other critics ridiculed the convention as a 'masked ball' - a reference to Marcos' famous balaclava - or a 'Zapatista Woodstock without the music'. Perhaps with the latter in mind, the guerrilla leader banned alcohol and drugs among delegates, observers and journalists. He also insisted newsmen hand in mobile telephones before setting out for the jungle, imposing a news blackout and barring anyone from leavng until the convention ends tonight or tomorrow

The guerrilla leader's democratic ideals were also questioned by scores of journalists barred because their publications or networks were considered anti- EZLN. Mexico's big Televisa TV channel was among those left behind. Assuring the journalists it was 'nothing personal',' the organisers said each could come along if they quit their jobs on the spot. None did.