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Sunday, 8 July, 2001, 20:57 GMT 21:57 UK
Mexico's paradoxes
Mexico City
Mexico has the largest debt with the World Bank
By David Loyn in Mexico

"I'm washing upstream of the horse". The laconic demand of my Australian cameraman rang across the clearing in the jungle.

Mexico is a laboratory of economic experimentation, like a country living on a faultline of globalisation

After a couple of days sleeping in a hut with a mud floor to see if we would get an interview with the Zapatistas, and eating nothing but beans and the fiercest chillis ever grown, we had been told that we could go to the river to wash.

But we found that the Zapatista cavalry had got to the bathroom first. While we were waiting for them to finish another horse splashed through.

It was black, and it looked as if it had been travelling for a while. Its rider, a short fit man spurred it on down through the village. He was in a hurry.

'Anti-globalisation crusader'

About an hour later, when we came back cooler and a little cleaner after washing in the river, we heard what his message had been: "Subcommandante Marcos would not be talking to the BBC."

Mexican mural
"Freedom for political prisoners" - a Zapatista mural
It had always been a risk, driving seven hours into the jungle to wait and see. The Zapatistas, the guerrilla army of Mexico's indigenous people in the south, have been silent since the government turned down their main demands for autonomy and control of their mineral rights after their march on Mexico City earlier this year.

But it seemed to be worth a try. I had sent a message to say I was coming, and I was carrying a letter recommending an interview from an intermediary who they trust.

Marcos, the guerrilla spokesman with a face mask and pipe, is a man of paradoxes - an icon although no one knows what he looks like; a guerrilla fighter who has not fired a shot for more than six years, who is fighting not for independence but for the right of indigenous people to be Mexicans; an anti-globalisation crusader whose message is carried on thousands of websites through that most globalised of networks - the internet.

Soft-drink executive

Up to now he has been able to click his fingers and the world's press will drop everything and make the difficult journey through the jungle to meet him.

Mexican President Vincente Fox
The new president is a former Coca-Cola executive
I wonder if it will be so easy in the future. Time moves on. The Mexican President Vicente Fox, elected a year ago this week, has been telling his people that the indigenous problem is settled, and he is a persuasive salesman.

In a detail about his life which a novelist would not dare to make up for the leader of a country engaged in major controversies about globalisation, the new President is a former Coca-Cola executive.

This is a country of gigantic extremes. It has the largest debt with the World Bank, but more billionaires than Britain. It signs every free trade offer going, letting in foreign banks, and privatising what it can, while the poor suffer low wages and bad conditions in sweatshops as bad any in the world.

Back in Mexico City, the most extravagant symbol of the country's gigantic appetite, I was being driven around in a VW Beetle, which are still made under licence here.

Railway 'disappeared'

The driver, Maria Atilano, is the fiercely radical head of an anti-free trade group, whose English could not quite keep up with the speed of her thoughts, which flashed like the lightening which lit up the sky as the evening cooled the tropical day.

Zapatista leader Marcos
Enigmatic figure: Subcommandante Marcos
And then she said something which took me off that road and suddenly made the novels of Latin America's magical realists seems obvious.

"That was where the railway ran," she said. "'But it disappeared." Surely, only in Latin America would you use a word like this.

I had visions of Gabriel Garcia Marquez spiriting the railway away with one stroke of the pen, like he conjured up a Spanish galleon in the middle of the jungle in One Hundred Years of Solitude, the first book he wrote in Mexico City, selling his furniture to pay for food while he was writing.

"What do you mean disappeared?" I said.

"It was privatised," Maria told me, "a few years ago. But the private companies could not run it at a profit, so nearly all of it was shut down. I used to be able to get to my home town for a few pesos by train. Now the only public transport is a coach, and that is very expensive."

Economic experimentation

Looking down over the motorway bridge, we could see the weeds growing through the disused tracks. Rather careless, I thought, to let a railway disappear. Even Railtrack never quite managed that.

Indigenous people
The poor suffer low wages and bad conditions in sweatshops
But Mexico is a laboratory of economic experimentation, like a country living on a faultline of globalisation. They have been living with the debate over globalisation for so long that they even have a name for opponents of free trade like my guide Maria.

They call them "globalifobicos", although she reminded me quickly enough in words which rattled over the loud air-cooled sputter of the VW that it is not a word she liked much.

Back in the centre of town, at a junction on the Paseo de la Reforma, a man stood in front of the cars, juggling sticks which were lit at both ends as we waited for the lights to change. It was a madly dangerous trick.

But commonplace in this country where a soft drink salesman runs things, the indigenous people are fronted by an anonymous and reclusive man in a mask, and where railways can disappear.

See also:

30 Jun 00 | Business
Mexico's economic fears
26 Jan 01 | Business
Mexico pushes for free trade pact
01 May 01 | Americas
Zapatistas renew struggle
15 Mar 01 | From Our Own Correspondent
In the footsteps of Zapata
03 Jul 00 | Americas
Profile: Vicente Fox
29 Mar 01 | Country profiles
Country profile: Mexico
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