Protests heard, campers leave tent city in capital


MEXICO CITY -- On Tuesday night in Mexico City's main plaza, workers were hurriedly preparing the stage for the annual Independence Day celebrations.

Swirls of green, white and red lights were blinking on the sides of the city office buildings and the hotel that overlook the square. And heavy red velvet drapes were being hung on the door of the main patio of the Presidential Palace.

From there, President Carlos Salinas de Gortari was to deliver the traditional cry for liberty called "El Grito" last night, re-enacting the call by Roman Catholic priest Miguel Hidalgo 183 years ago for his followers to rise up against Spanish rule.

But this year, the people threatened to rise up against President Salinas and crash his party, one which will be attended by dignitaries from around the world.

In the midst of the plaza, called the Zocalo, hundreds of people from various parts of the country had built a tent city of plastic and cardboard and warned they would not leave until the president responded to their protests.

On the eve of "El Grito," government officials worked through the night to reach agreements with protest leaders so that the tents would be disassembled and the protesters could return to their homes.

"If the government does not answer us, we will not leave," said Salvador Hernandez, a fruit farmer from Michoacan. "And when the President yells 'Viva Mexico,' we will not applaud him. We will be silent."

Farmers from the states of Michoacan, Tabasco, Jalisco and Oaxaca had been camped in the square for a month demanding relief from overdue loans that they say they are unable to repay because Mr. Salinas' reforms have eliminated price guarantees for most crops and have lowered tariffs on imports.

There were groups of fishermen from the state of Tabasco who said that their boats had been repossessed and that, while the interest rates on their debts increased, they had no means to work to repay the banks.

And there were ranchers who blocked a main street of the Zocalo with trucks and vans purchased in the United States. The ranchers were protesting the high duties they are charged when bringing those vehicles across the border.

"In five years I couldn't buy a truck in Mexico because they are too expensive," said Mario Cruz, 37. "But in a year, I was able to buy two trucks from the United States."

Sitting around small fires built to cut the chill of the night air, many of the protesters talked about what they have endured the last few weeks: sleeping with rats the size of rabbits, having very little food, afternoon rain storms and sheer boredom.

"I just want to go home and forget about the last month," said Adrian Robledo Peregrino, 26, a farmer from Coahuayana, Michoacan. "I miss my wife and son."

Protests are an almost everyday occurrence in the Zocalo, the center of the city's political and commercial activities since it was ruled by the Aztecs.

Laborers, teachers and opposition political parties often stage rallies there, even though most federal officials, including President Salinas, now work in offices far away.

But as the independence day celebrations approached, government officials became more and more tense about the protesters ruining the president's image in front of all his special guests -- particularly those from the United States,where legislators are examining the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Then just before midnight Tuesday, the farmers from Michoacan received word that they were going home. The government made a last-minute proposal to renegotiate their overdue loans, pardon the penalties for nonpayment and cut half the interest accumulated on their debts.

"It doesn't resolve all our problems. We have won a battle, but not the war," said Elvira Roldan Guillen, a teacher from Mexico City who joined the farmers' protests a few weeks ago.

"If the government conceded, we must concede too," said Marta Estela Rivera Campo.

"Besides, they sort of told us that we can take accept this proposal and leave peacefully, or they can force us to leave."

It was unclear how the government had persuaded the other groups of protesters to leave the Zocalo.

But by early yesterday, street sweepers had removed all signs of the tent city.

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