On first day of office, Mexican president scores first victory

OAXACA, Mexico - On his first full day as Mexico's president, Vicente Fox scored a major political victory Saturday, bringing to the negotiating table a band of rebels who had frustrated his predecessor for six years.

As Fox toured Mexico in a victory lap after defeating the party that has ruled the country for 71 years, word came from the southern jungle that the elusive ski-masked leader of the Zapatista rebels, Subcomandante Marcos, would restart peace talks with the government. The rebels had walked away from the table four years ago.

Immediately upon taking office, Fox had made ending the seven-year-old revolt for greater Indian rights by the Zapatista rebels a priority, sending an Indian rights bill to Congress for approval and ordering troops to withdraw from sensitive spots in Chiapas.

''The Zapatistas have accepted dialogue. There's a new attitude, a new way of thinking,'' Fox said at a rally Saturday night in the northern city of Monterrey. ''Let's have dialogue.''

But amid the good news, there were rumbles that all might not be so rosy for Fox in the future.

About 10,000 teachers, laborers and poor Indian farmers marched down the tourist-filled, cobblestone streets of Oaxaca Saturday afternoon to demand justice and aid.

They were stopped by a police line about a block from the plaza where Fox spoke to a smaller crowd to stress his commitment to Mexico's poor and Indians.

''I am always open to listen,'' Fox told protest leaders who were brought into the plaza to meet him. ''There is no need for violent demonstrations or blocking streets,'' he said, though the protest appeared to be peaceful.

Fox vowed to concentrate development efforts in Oaxaca and other poor, heavily Indian states in Mexico's south, and to treat Mexico's Indian people with greater respect.

''We can close our eyes to infamy - to the rule of bosses, to discrimination, to public and private policies that have tried to marginalize Indian communities - but that is unacceptable,'' said Fox, who was accompanied by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

The 6-foot-5 president sailed like a ship through a sea of much shorter men and women in traditional Indian clothing who swarmed him, hugging him, frantically passing letters appealing for help.

Fox has pledged to combat poverty with a national microlending program, and to channel the revenues from a growing economy into improving education and health services.

He told the crowd his economic program ''is not meant to achieve successful statistics. It is going to be an economic project to improve the life of each person.''

Fox also planned to sign an agreement with the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson, to promote human rights in Mexico.

The protesters organized by local teachers unions claim that Fox's economic policies threaten public health and education and do nothing to help the poor. Demands ranged from greater funding for schools to lower prices for cooking gas.

''We do not believe in his speeches, in his pretty words,'' said Astofo Sanchez, a 39-year-old Mixtec Indian teacher.

''We are going to be a thorn in his side until our problems are solved,'' said Eliseo Ruiz, 48, another teacher.

About 20 masked men and women carrying pistols and automatic rifles appeared in nearly Nazareno Etla Friday night to say they would continue to fight against Mexico's capitalist economic system despite the moves toward dialogue with the Zapatistas.

They said they were members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of the People, one of several groups that have broken off from the Popular Revolutionary Army. The latter movement was involved in 1996 attacks that killed at least 19 people in several states. There have been numerous smaller clashes since.


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