OVENTIC, Mexico -- They came to the Chiapas conference from 42 countries on five continents -- die-hard French leftists and aging American hippies, Italian anarchists and Canadian college kids talking about a revolution.
Some indigenous Mexicans showed up, too.
"The Intercontinental Encounter for Humanity and Against Neo-Liberalism," whose windy title bears the mark of the Zapatista leader, Subcommander Marcos, closed yesterday after a week of meetings in the mountain hamlet of Oventic and four other Chiapas communities sympathetic to the rebels.
About 2,200 people, 10 percent of them from the United States, dropped in to rail against capitalism and embrace the newest darlings of the international left: the Zapatista National Liberation Army and Marcos, the latest in a line of would-be Che Guevaras.
Among the forum participants were serious social activists, hungry to learn more about the Mexican rebels and exchange tips about defending the interests of the poor.
But there were also poseurs, eager to show off their radical chic.
Veterans of faded leftist movements in Europe and the Americas came, a little bitter and certainly wistful about the turning of the ideological worm. And so did young people, envious of the experiences their parents had in the 1960s and chasing the romance of revolution.
"We're here because we're all committed to social justice and fighting against worker exploitation," said one participant. Then, with a slight smirk conveying a refreshing self-awareness: "You know, the usual code words."
Given the left's current worldwide isolation, some participants in Chiapas packed a healthy dose of caution into their knapsacks. But many let themselves get swept up in the happening.
"The Zapatista army can keep up an offensive for 10 years," said Geordie Pickard, 19, a political science student from Victoria, British Columbia.
As Pickard foresees it, the Zapatistas would grow big enough to topple the Mexican government. That threat would force the United States to send in troops, causing riots at home.
"San Francisco and Los Angeles will explode," he continued apocalyptically. "The black power movement will revolt because they don't want black men being sent down to fight in Mexico. This will be messier than Vietnam."
Never mind that the Mexican army surrounds the outnumbered and outgunned Zapatistas. Or that the rebels are talking about laying down their guns and joining a social movement.
There was a lot of that spirit flying around, with anti-U.S. banners on display and people actually referring to one another as "comrade." Platitudes and e-mail addresses were swapped freely.
The conference participants in Oventic were welcomed by hundreds of Mayan Indian peasant farmers from the Chiapas highlands, many dressed in bright traditional clothing, some wearing ski masks or bandannas.
The large majority were Zapatista sympathizers, not guerrillas, nervous that their faces might be shown on television and their allegiances exploited by political enemies in their home communities.
Most came not as participants but as supporters of the Zapatismo movement and its demands for justice, democracy and a fairer sharing of the wealth. They also came curious.
"We've come to get to know people from other countries, to see what they look like, what color hair they have, how tall they are," said Juan Jose Perez, 25, a peasant farmer from Tenejapa. "Because, well, we've never known other places."
For other participants, the conference was old home week.
Robert March, a 48-year-old math professor from Paris, has worked for leftist causes for two decades, including stints with Sandinista and Cuban solidarity movements. He praised the Zapatistas for something that even the legendary Che could never pull off: uniting indigenous communities with worldwide leftist groups.
Pub Date: 8/04/96