An editorial in the Washington Post hails the passage last week of an overhaul of Mexico’s energy industry, saying Mexico is proving to be “a model of how democracy can serve a developing country.”
It’s a great example of how things can look very different from afar than up close.
What transpired in Mexico over the past week on the ground was far from an exercise in a citizenry fully debating and coming to a consensus on one of the most sweeping changes to the state in recent decades. Instead, it was a blunt show of political party discipline, fortuitous events, and roughshod politics.
In the end, it may be good for Mexico. But in the absence of widespread polling on the issue of energy reform, I’d say politicians acted against popular sentiment. Indeed, that’s why some call it a third-rail issue in Mexico, akin perhaps to gun control in the United States. Sure, stricter gun laws might be effective in bringing down US gun violence – but try ramming it past the voters. Moreover, while it may be good for Mexico, acting against popular sentiment also carries risks.
First, here’s a recap of what happened. The Senate spent barely two days debating the wisdom of opening Mexico’s energy industry to private investment, overturning a 75-year ban. The issue was sent to the Lower House, which held some 20 hours of debate and approved the measure along strict party lines last Thursday, with the backing of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party and the center-right National Action Party.
Within three days, legislatures in a majority of Mexico’s states also approved the measure, [enshrining it in the constitution].
President Enrique Peña Nieto, on a state visit to Turkey, issued a statement from Ankara [Monday] noting the “ample consensus that exists in the country” regarding energy reform and hailing state legislatures that have acted “very fast” to approve the constitutional changes entailed in the overhaul.
He added that the reform would make energy “cheaper for the population in general, for industry, and this will permit us to become a more attractive and competitive country…”
In reality, despite heavy government spending on publicity hailing the benefits of foreign investment in energy, my feeling is that many Mexicans still have doubts. So here are the risks: If the populace does not feel the benefits over the next two or three years, discontent about the energy overhaul could meld with unhappiness over other issues. Social stability in Mexico is not a given.
Maybe instability won’t happen. Maybe energy reform will bring faster growth and new jobs to Mexico in a few years, palpably changing life for a majority. Whatever happens, though, what unfolded this past week was more an exercise in political engineering than an expression of the public will.
– Observations about Mexico and Central America from Tim Johnson, Mexico Bureau Chief for McClatchyDC.
Read more here: http://www.mcclatchydc.com/2013/12/16/211864/mexicos-oil-reform-and-public.html#storylink=cpy
Book vendor Antonio Manriquez hauls some 50 titles in a small suitcase six days a week through the Mexico City metro. He used to pay 3 pesos (less than $0.25) for his 30-minute commute, but that ended last Friday, when the Mexico City government raised the one-way fare to 5 pesos.
The controversial price hike is an attempt to stem the metro system’s financial losses and improve services in a transportation option famed for crisscrossing one of the biggest cities in the world, but notorious for neglected infrastructure, pickpockets, and overcrowding.
“It was a drastic measure by the government,” Mr. Manriquez says outside a metro station near the Chapultepec Park, where his books – ranging from Nietzsche to Beatles song sheets – are spread out on the sidewalk.
“If our earnings aren’t going up, it’s kind of difficult raise metro prices,” he says, noting that none of his wares are selling especially well this year.
The Mexico City metro transports more than 5 million passengers daily and is considered a necessity by workers like Manriquez, who have to travel large distances every day.
But the long-subsidized system is unsustainable and service has slipped, according to the Federal District government, which wants to put the increased revenues into improvements for the Sistema de Transporte Colectivo, as the metro is formally known.
The state of the system is cause for concern for the administration of a city that has cleaned up its air over the last 20 years. Officials are encouraging commuters to leave cars at home by expanding dedicated lanes for the mass-transit bus service known as the Metrobus and promoting a popular bike-sharing service, which has signed up nearly 100,000 subscribers thus far.
It's also creating controversy as protesters organizing with the hashtag, #PosMeSalto ("Well, I’ll Jump") have swarmed metro stations and hopped turnstiles en masse to avoid paying fares. Party allies of Mayor Miguel Ángel Mancera have jeered him publicly over the increased fare.
Poverty, polls, and problems
The metro was born in 1969 as a highly subsidized transport system, says Aldo Muñoz Armenta, political science professor at the Autonomous University of Mexico State.
“This created a culture of appreciation and defending its low costs,” Mr. Muñoz says.
The metro system has 12 lines and 140 miles of track, and is a lifeline for many of Mexico City’s working-class ridership who toil in the informal economy with a daily minimum wage of $5, says David Lozano Tovar, economic studies professor at the National Autonomous University of Mexico.
The Federal District of Mexico City, dubbed “DF” by locals, is home to 9 million residents; another 11 million live in municipalities in outlying Mexico state, which surrounds DF like a horseshoe.
Coordination between the distrct government and surrounding Mexico State is lacking, leading to inefficiencies and higher costs for riders, says Gabriel Tarriba, who studies urban issues for the Mexican Competitiveness Institute, a Mexico City think tank.
“The underlying problem is that there’s not public transit planning for the [entire] metropolitan area,” Mr. Tarriba says.
A study commissioned by Mancera's administration and released in November found that 30 percent of all trains are broken down and out of service. The trains remaining in rotation have mechanical problems three times more often than in 2007. Poor ventilation, meanwhile, causes temperatures to top 85 degrees in some tunnels.
Slightly more than 50 percent of survey respondents at metro stations told pollsters they would pay more to ride the trains. (Mr. Lozano and Muñoz allege the polls were designed to induce such answers) The survey also found that 50 percent of respondents said the first train arriving at their station was too full to take on more riders.
The study also identified corruption in the system. This is mainly manifested through vendors at metro stations hawking anything from pens and pencils to CDs – peddled by people with big speakers strapped to their backs, blaring music in confined spaces. This despite rules against such practices and a police presence .
“People are bothered by the [fare] increase, but above all because they feel that they’ll pay, [but] things will stay the same,” Tarriba says.
Is it the beginning of the end of conservative drug policies in Latin America?
Perhaps. Uruguay is set to become the first nation in the world to legalize the cultivation, sale, and use of marijuana after the senate yesterday gave its support in a 16-13 vote. The legislation now awaits President Jose Mujica, who is expected to sign the bill into law before the end of the year.
“Einstein said there’s nothing more absurd than trying to change results by always repeating the same formula,” President Mujica told La Republica newspaper. “That’s why we’re trying other methods.”
Uruguay’s move has been described as an attempt to curb its costs in combating drug trafficking, the price tag of which is $80 million annually.
The financial and social cost of drugs across the region has grown in recent years. And many Latin American countries have started stepping out to question the status quo of zero tolerance on drugs.
Mexico's "drug war" has spurred gruesome violence by cartels there, and spilled across borders into Central America. And eradication efforts in Bolivia have prompted questions about a leaf that, while used to make cocaine, has been a sacred part of Andean society for thousands of years.
In an in-depth story for The Christian Science Monitor last year, Sara Miller Llana noted a “fundamental shift in the drug war in Latin America – one that is creating a tense new relationship between the US and its southern neighbors.”
The relationship between Latin America and the US has always been at its most fraught over the war on drugs, ever since Richard Nixon launched the initiative in the 1970s. Nowhere has Washington's scolding finger been more in the face of its Latin American counterparts. Nowhere has Latin America felt it has fewer options than to just acquiesce, dependent as it is on US aid and military might to overcome the cartels that control narcotics trafficking.
But in the past five years, frustration has mounted. Gruesome drug crimes have brought record levels of violence to swaths of Mexico and Central America, despite the billions that the US has poured into the antinarcotics fight.
Uruguay now appears to be on the front line of the drug policy revolution.
Latin American prisons are notoriously overcrowded, with many people behind bars on drug-related charges. One-third of Uruguay’s prison population is incarcerated for drug-trafficking-related crimes, reports Reuters.
Uruguay, a country of 3.3 million people situated between Brazil and Argentina, is one of the safest countries in the region, and experiences limited drug violence. However, it’s a key trafficking route for cocaine and marijuana from Bolivia and Paraguay, respectively.
"There is a desperate call from Latin America for peace, which includes a new model for drug policies," Milton Romani, Uruguay's ambassador to the Organization of American States (OAS) told the Monitor last year.
Hundreds of pro-legalization and alternative drug policy groups are enthusiastic about Uruguay's move, which is garnering praise from politicians including former Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso (who also chairs the Global Commission on Drug Policy), and dozens of Mexican legislators. But the majority of Uruguayans are not in favor of the change.
A recent poll by Equipos Consultores found that 58 percent of citizens oppose the legalization of marijuana. Critics say the bill, which limits the drug’s sale to 40 grams per registered user per month, will encourage addiction and only add to Uruguay’s drug woes. It’s also viewed with a weary eye from neighboring nations that fear potential spillover from a legalized marijuana market.
Uruguay has long been on the forefront of social reform, with Mujica, a former guerrilla, legalizing gay marriage, for example. But he isn’t alone in looking for a new approach to tackling the drug problem in Latin America, even among more conservative politicians. “Mano dura,” or iron-fisted, Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina called last year for an entire rethink of the war on drugs, including the option of the government running a legally regulated drug market. Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos floated similar ideas, in 2011 stating that the war on drugs was stuck on a “stationary bike.” As the Monitor wrote in its cover story:
The idea of pursuing more liberalized drug policies rather than harsher punishments is hardly novel in Latin America. But such notions are usually championed by intellectuals and academics on the left. They have rarely been promoted by sitting presidents.
Yet 2009 marked a hinge moment: A Latin American commission on drug policy headed by three former presidents, from Mexico, Brazil, and Colombia, published a report declaring the war on drugs a failure – one that desperately needed to shift from repression to prevention. Two years later, the group pulled former officials and business leaders from around the world into the Global Commission on Drug Policy, which went further, rallying nations to consider ways to regulate drugs rather than just crack down on their use.
Latin American leaders have not necessarily agreed with Mujica’s proposal in Uruguay, however, with some saying legalizing marijuana misses the larger point: cocaine is the much bigger problem.
Uruguay’s bill gives the government 120 days to set up a regulatory commission to oversee quality, cultivation, price, and consumption.
That’s because official state TV and Granma, the Cuban Communist Party’s official newspaper, omitted the salutation from its coverage of former South African President Nelson Mandela’s memorial ceremony. [Editor's note: subsequent broadcasts did include footage of the handshake.]
While the handshake quickly went viral, lighting up media sites worldwide, Cuban blogger Yaoni Sánchez was quick to point out on Twitter that government-controlled TV stations failed to even show the encounter, much less hypothesize what it symbolizes for Cuba-US relations.
If Cuba’s press ignored the handshake, should we also be wary of staring too hard at the tea leaves?
“It is probably unwise to read too much into Obama’s handshake with Raúl Castro,” says Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington. “To have refused to greet Castro – especially at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service – would have stood out as small-minded, and completely at odds with Mandela’s generosity of spirit.”
Mr. Shifter highlights that, after the handshake, Mr. Obama pointedly criticized governments that do not tolerate dissent from their own people, a veiled reference to Cuba, China, and Zimbabwe, whose leaders were all in attendance.
“The Obama administration is open to improving relations with Havana, and this mostly symbolic gesture underscores that openness, but there is a long way to go before one can talk about a meaningful thaw,” says Shifter.
The handshake shakeout is likely to garner mixed reactions from Cubans: with left-leaning Cubans enthused to see any potential warming that could lift economic sanctions, while right-leaning Cubans push back against any friendliness toward the Castro government, according to Shifter. Miami-based blog Babalu, which is written by Cuban-Americas, for one, criticized Obama for lending “credence and recognition to a vile and bloody dictatorial regime.”
Here’s a video of the handshake, which shows Obama approaching Castro and Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff. Brazil has cast itself as a protector of the island nation and a mediator between Latin America and the US. The last time Cuba’s leader shook hands with a sitting US president was more than a decade ago, when Fidel Castro bumped into Bill Clinton at the United Nations in 2000. Nothing came of what Mr. Clinton’s aides dismissed as a “chance encounter.”
Larry Birns, director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, says there may be something more to today’s handshake. Mr. Mandela was a peacemaker who openly embraced former Cuban leader Fidel Castro (who handed leadership to his brother Raúl in 2008).
“Mandela represented a policy that Obama talked about during his election campaign but has failed to deliver,” says Mr. Birns. “It is almost as if Mandela has reached from the grave and committed one more act that he’s been so richly praised for.”
While local elections are not usually high-profile affairs, Venezuela's municipal elections this year have taken on a decidedly red carpet air.
The government's United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) is showcasing a slew of celebrities – from Major League Baseball players to pop stars – as it tries to hold on to its sliding popularity ahead of municipal elections.
Many are calling Sunday's contest the first major electoral test for Nicolás Maduro's administration, as it faces sky-high inflation and a long list of economic woes. With 337 mayoral posts up for grabs, high-profile PSUV candidates have their names on the ballots in a number of crucial cities across the country.
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Among the celebrity candidates are retired MLB All-Star Magglio Ordóñez, who is running for mayor of the coastal city Puerta La Cruz, and former model and host of a reality-TV hit Winston Vallenilla, who is seeking to win over voters in the Caracas suburb of Baruta. Running to be mayor of the working-class municipality of Sucre in Caracas is baseball-turned-reggaeton sensation Antonio 'El Potro' (the Colt) Álvarez.
Still, a ticket packed with a who's who of pop culture is turning heads.
A single famous name on a political ballot "is something that you see maybe, at the most, once a year," says Emilio Bolívar, a computer-engineering student speaking a few days before elections. "But when you see so many, it's surprising."
Some here are left wondering if star power can actually translate into an election victory. In the case of Mr. Vallenilla, a former teen heart throb, "he's seen here as a sex symbol," says Sarai Lemos, a university student.
"He's trying to change his image now," Ms. Lemos says. "But I'm not sure people are ready for it."
El Potro's campaign finale drew thousands supporters this week when another reggaeton star, Don 'El Rey' Omar, came out to stump for the mayoral hopeful.
Salsa-blared and women screamed as the candidate took the stage. Some critics have been quick to dismiss the seriousness of the celebrity campaigners, characterizing them as opportunists.
Despite these doubts, not everyone is quick to count out these rookie politicians.
"You don't need experience to be a politician, what's important is initiative and motivation," says Jonathan Medina, an off-duty police officer who came out to support the former Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder, El Potro.
"Besides," Mr. Medina says. "He's playing for a good team, [The PSUV]"
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[Editor's note: Due to a production error, an earlier version of this story misstated the day of the election.]
On any given day, city residents here wait in long lines to cross the border and shop for bargains in Arizona. Gaby Medina is one of them. She visits the stores in Nogales, Ariz., at least twice a month to look for deals on clothes, which she says are often less expensive than in the border state of Sonora, Mexico.
Earlier this week, she filled several plastic bags with tops she bought for herself and relatives who lack a visa to visit the United States. Come January, Ms. Medina may head to the United States more frequently, she says. That's when Mexico's new sales tax will take effect, increasing to 16 percent from 11 percent in Mexico's border cities and towns.
The sales tax is part of broad fiscal reforms that President Enrique Peña Nieto pushed through with support from his Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) to bolster tax collection in Mexico. The government, which had allowed the reduced rate in border areas to encourage consumer shopping in Mexico, is bringing the region in line with the rest of the country. The president says the broad reforms will ensure a robust future for Mexico's development, but critics contend the law will hurt the growing middle class and jeopardize the country's economy.
Medina has her own reasons for disliking the changes.
"It's really going to affect our family budget," the mother of three says. "It would be good if people's salaries also went up to compensate for the tax increase."
The tax hikes sparked strong resistance from Mexico's conservative opposition National Action Party (PAN) as well as many businesses and citizens around the country. The final plan includes higher income taxes for top earners and places levies on soft drinks and junk food.
Some say the changes will mean more business for US merchants because of the lower sales taxes. For example, Nogales, Ariz. shoppers pay 8.6 percent tax on their retail purchases. Farther north, in Tucson and Phoenix, it is 8.1 percent and 8.3 percent, respectively.
Mexican visitors already are a boon for businesses on the US side of the international boundary. One University of Arizona study found that over a one-year period between 2007-08, Mexican shoppers spent $2.69 billion in the state.
"It's going to be good for our economy because people are going to come to Nogales, Ariz.," says Olivia Ainza-Kramer, president of the Nogales-Santa Cruz County Chamber of Commerce. "Maybe this is a good opportunity for us to create some incentives."
Medina will return to the Nogales shops soon, she says, provided the peso doesn't keep weakening against the dollar.
Businessman Dale Smith hails from New Zealand, which is tied with Denmark as the world’s least corrupt nation, according to watchdog group Transparency International. But Mr. Smith is working in Brazil, which is ranked 72nd worldwide and is located in a region notorious for corruption.
The result, he says, is compromise.
“If you came here and did everything correctly, you’d fail,” says Smith, who has several businesses in Brazil. “You’ve got to flow with the river a little bit.”
That reality is underscored by Transparency International’s annual Corruption Perceptions Index, released today. The report found that corruption worsened in Latin America over the past year as economic heavyweights Brazil and Mexico didn’t improve and gang-plagued Central America worsened. The index reveals that all of the Americas – spanning from Alaska to Argentina – are now perceived as more corrupt than all of Asia-Pacific – a region that Transparency International classifies from secretive North Korea to war-torn Afghanistan.
That should be a “wake up call” to Latin America in particular, says Alejandro Salas, Americas director for Transparency International. The region often proclaims loudly that it’s against corruption, with 31 countries now signatories to the Organization of American States' Convention Against Corruption. Meanwhile, 17 countries participate in anti-corruption initiative Open Government Partnership, which requires participants to deliver an action plan and commit to independent progress reporting. Now the region needs to embrace those laws more fully.
“Latin America has a lot of anti-corruption infrastructure in place,” Mr. Salas says. “The difference is when you take it into practice and actually enforce the laws that you are signing.”
According to Berlin-based organization, the Americas' most transparent nation is Canada (9th worldwide) while the least is Haiti (163rd worldwide). The US ties with Uruguay for 19th place, while Brazil and Mexico rank 72 and 106, respectively. The 177-nation ranking is based on 13 data sources, from the World Bank to the Economist Intelligence Unit.
In Latin America, Guatemala showed the greatest increase in corruption over the past year, falling 10 places in the index to 123rd as gang violence and drug trafficking continues to spill over from Mexico. Regional neighbors such as Costa Rica, which has also seen an uptick in violence, also fell one spot to 49th.
“Organized crime and violence are undermining the strength of institutions,” Salas told the Monitor by telephone. "[W]hen we look at a country like Costa Rica, which has always been a good example for the region, lately it’s more common to read about it being part of drug trade route where we are discovering corruption schemes.”
Brazil and Mexico are also criticized for failing to improve in the rankings, he adds.
“Countries like Brazil should be an example for how to improve governance and corruption,” he says, suggesting that Latin American nations are more interested in justifying corruption than in tackling the problem. “There is no excuse for countries like Brazil to not improve.”
Salas points to examples of corruption across Latin America: rampant police-bribing in Bolivia, vote-buying in Venezuela, and political nepotism in Paraguay. All are part of a culture of corruption that has failed to disappear despite the region’s economic growth and democratic reforms.
There are signs of improvement. In Brazil, the judiciary has taken on a major corruption case against dozens of high-profile politicians and bankers connected to former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. The case, known as the Mensalão, or "the big monthly payoff," resulted in its first prison sentences this month.
The trial is important because it shows that “it doesn’t matter if you’re a close ally to the president, you will still pay if you engage in corruption,” Salas says. “They (Brazil) have to do more, but this is a start.”
• A version of this post ran on the author's blog, riorealblog.com. The views expressed are the author's own.
If you are one of this city’s 1.4 million (22 percent of the population) who live in a favela (slum), if you work as an architect, urbanist, or social scientist, or are simply a concerned carioca, now may well be the perfect moment to paint some new protest banners and get out on the streets to march.
Morar Carioca (Carioca Living), the favela upgrade program hailed only three years ago as a key social legacy of the Olympic Games – and which mobilized scores of architectural firms in a project contest held by the Brazilian Institute of Architects — was meant to bring the city’s favelas up to standard by 2020. In January 2011, mayor Eduardo Paes happily announced that work would begin in March of that year. Yet not much has happened, except for some scattered projects.
When asked, government officials, who still include Morar Carioca in their Olympics and other presentations, say the program has met with unexpected difficulty but will soon get under way.
The program was to have taken Rio’s pioneering 1990s favela urbanization approach, Favela Bairro, one giant step further. Based on a philosophy of urban equality, it would have focused on integrating Rio’s informal and formal territories, and could have shown the way for urban integration efforts around the world.
To succeed, it would have to have developed effective community participation strategies. So far, most of the city’s transformation has taken place from the top down, suggesting that all those concerned face difficulty in listening to, organizing, articulating, and negotiating needs.
For almost three years, since the contest results were announced in December 2010, the question has been posed: Where is Morar Carioca? Forty teams were selected, most of which still await a call to action.
Over time, the answers have changed. Initially, the delay had something to do with contracts, the bane of Rio’s transformation. Then it was murmured that the city, having spent millions on infrastructure and having failed to create private-sector housing-related incentives, had run out of funds and was looking to the federal government.
Now, a City Hall source concludes, the problem is political: the municipal housing secretariat, SMH, is run by a Worker’s Party (PT) member, Pierre Batista. That was fine, given the city’s governing PT-PMDB alliance — until the PT decided to field a candidate of its own in the October 2014 gubernatorial contest. Senator Lindbergh Farias plans to run against the mayor’s PMDB party’s candidate, Luiz Fernando “Pezão” de Souza.
If Morar Carioca were to move forward now, credit for any success would go to the PT, instead of Mayor Paes’ PMDB. Thus, the source says, Morar Carioca is once again put off, at least until after the election.
In the absence of an urban revolution, City Hall is counting on good old public works to please its citizens. Under the aegis of the municipal public works secretariat, SMO, over $900,000 are being spent on the Bairro Maravilha program in the North and West Zones, which, after decades of neglect, do need their own upgrades. In addition, the City Hall source says, Mayor Paes has been meeting with residents of many neighborhoods, jotting down their needs, and pushing his secretaries to attend to them. TV Globo’s noon news program seems to be on board with this approach, as reporters point out a variety of problems across the city, talk to residents, set up deadlines and pressure those responsible.
“It’s all done without any planning,” the source pointed out.
And, in the absence of Morar Carioca, mobility will surely be Rio’s Olympic legacy, with Mayor Paes’ new dedicated bus lanes connecting the West Zone to the rest of the city, better-organized bus service and the virtual extinction of the largely informal (and to a great extent run by paramilitary groups) van transportation service. This is an admirable achievement, and, in addition to the state government’s extension of the Metro’s Line 4, will truly change the face of Rio de Janeiro. It also poses new challenges, such as the need to integrate the Metro with the existing Supervia train service and keep growth in the West Zone to a minimum.
The absence of Morar Carioca also means that many of those 1.4 million favela residents continue to live in dreadful conditions. The public policy challenges of improving their lives are daunting and explain much of the slow pace, both at the municipal and state levels of government. But a visit to the alleys and rubble-strewn lots of the North Zone Manguinhos favela complex, is such a stinky, devastating experience that it’s impossible not to conclude that its official 55,000 residents are still simply off the map.
And this is a pacified favela where federal funds have allowed the state government to build a fabulous library and to hire world-renowned architect Jorge Jauregui to design a project to raise the train tracks and create a linear park.
According to people who have been working on the upgrade in that area, the lack of coordination between state and city government agencies, difficult negotiations with residents to be relocated, plus tragic sewage and water supply conditions, have led to a situation where the park is unfinished, nails have been stolen from faux-wood planking, sewage flows out of manholes and has taken over local streams, residents remain in condemned homes with cracked and crooked walls, and water pipes leak enormous amounts of water more often than not.
In addition, efforts to transfer residents’ at-home commercial enterprises to ready-made kiosks near and under the train tracks have not been wholly met with success, despite a training program. Ownership and maintenance issues have arisen. Though each kiosk was meant to sell something different, they all sell the same products, including beer, which is illegal.
“Social integration cannot be built,” notes a person who has been involved in work going on Manguinhos. “This is a big question in all these projects. You don’t make social change by way of infrastructural change”.
This was the exact conclusion that planners and urbanists drew from the Favela Bairro experience. It was social integration that Morar Carioca was supposed to address.
The Manguinhos area is perhaps less hellish for most than before its pacification in January 2013, (though residents claim pacification police killed a helpless 18-year-old ten days ago), but so much is still lacking, particularly in the realm of water and sewage.
CEDAE, the state water and sewage concession, will only come under Agenersa‘s regulatory scrutiny in 2015. This past week, much of the city of Rio was without running water; only 30 percent of all sewage is properly collected and treated. The state government has just proudly announced that it will clean up a number of Rio beaches, but in fact this merely involves collecting additional sewage and sending it out to sea.
Clearly, both for favela and non-favela residents, the concession is yet another “black box” that demands attention; the digital activism group Meu Rio is working on this.
Meanwhile, Where is Morar Carioca? The drawings were so beautiful; the reality so ugly and demeaning. The program was included in the mayor’s Strategic Plan, early this year, but the selected architects — and thousands of favela residents — are still waiting.
Politicians, presumably under pressure from the Olympic Committee and FIFA to reduce street violence, worried about their political careers, are paying better attention to many demands. And, while the “Where’s Amarildo?” campaign hasn’t turned up his body, it did unleash perhaps the most sweeping and efficient police inquiry into a favela death ever seen in Rio.
According to the City Hall source, mayor Paes has put a halt to virtually all removals, to avoid demonstrations (maybe this is why people in Manguinhos are living in condemned homes).
So it might just be a good time to remind him, peacefully, to fulfill his promise for suitable living quarters for everyone in Rio de Janeiro.
– Julia Michaels, a long-time resident of Brazil, writes the blog Rio Real, which she describes as a constructive and critical view of Rio de Janeiro’s ongoing transformation.
• A version of this post ran on the author's blog. The views expressed are the author's own.
For the last few weeks [leading up to] the Honduran election, no surveys of the electorate can be published. But really, the only poll that matters will take place this coming Sunday, Nov. 24. According to the Tribunal Supremo Electoral (TSE), 5.3 million Hondurans are eligible to vote.
Throughout the country, people in five thousand election centers will place their ballots for president, congress, and municipal mayor in three separate ballot boxes.
What happens then? What ensures that the ballot cast is counted and reported accurately? How reliable should we expect the numbers to be? In part, what you think the answer is depends on how you assess the procedures set in place by the TSE.
Each individual ballot for president has a Mesa Electoral Receptora number, the name of the voting center, and the department printed on it. Each of these ballots also has a unique number, with the name of the municipio preprinted on it.
Each Mesa Electoral Receptora (MER) has a custodian. In previous elections the churches, through the Catholic Church and the Evangelical Church Association, supplied the custodians. Most of the custodians this time around are students from the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Honduras (UNAH).
Each MER has one representative, and an alternate, from each political party. Each has a president, secretary, watcher, and members, all appointed to office by the TSE. All procedural votes are by simple majority, with the president of the Mesa abstaining unless there is a tie.
The charge to the MER technical custodians is
- to make sure there is adequate access by voters from the starting hour to the ending hour of voting.
- to observe the rights of the citizens
- to maintain order in the voting centers
- to be yourself transparent and responsible, absent of any authoritarianism.
- to respect the popular will when counting the votes and inscribing the results on the tally sheet
- to return the voting boxes with the tally sheets to the TSE.
Those tally sheets are key to linking the count made at the Mesa and the outcome the TSE reports.
A separate manual for each department of Honduras has detailed instructions including how to count and record the votes from each of the ballot boxes. Observers, both national and international, may be present but must not reveal any results nor advocate for any candidate. The members of each Mesa fill out and sign an opening form that records how many ballots they have for each office (in numbers and written out in words).
To prevent voters selling their vote, cell phones and cameras are newly banned from voting booths. The voter is given a ballot for the presidential vote, congress, and municipal mayoral election, signed on the back by members of the Mesa. The voter folds each of the three ballots in half to obscure their vote, then brings them back to the Mesa where members verify they have the required signatures on the back.
Counting of the votes begins with checking the ballot for the required signatures and stamp, then the voter's markings are evaluated. Each ballot has a photo of the candidate, the party flag, and a space to mark the vote. But a mark anywhere on the candidate or the flag counts, as long as most of the mark is in the space of a single candidate.
Vote counting is done in public. Anyone can watch, but must remain silent.
First the President takes an inventory of the leftover supplies, stamps each as "left over" and records the counts on the accounting form. The president then hands the sealed ballot box to the examiner who opens it and extracts a vote.
The examiner qualifies the vote as valid, null, or blank and indicates to which party (if valid) it belongs. It is shown to the members of the Mesa, then passed to the president, who ratifies it. The secretary records it on the appropriate tally sheet with a tick mark for the party, null, or blank.
The president sorts ballots into piles by party, null, or blank, then gives each pile to the Secretary who seals them in plastic bags and puts them back in the voting place briefcase. Once all the votes are counted, the Secretary fills out the vote count section for each candidate as well as tallying the number of citizens, and Mesa members, who voted. This, along with the annotation of the number of blank ballots received, plus those left over, finalizes the form. The numbers are then transferred to the closing tally form which is signed by the Mesa members.
Getting the vote tallies to the TSE in Tegucigalpa has been a point of potential weakness in the whole process. In 2009, the tallies were read over cell phones, and entered into the computer in Tegucigalpa based on the phoned-in counts. The results were, to be charitable, incredibly inaccurate.
This year, the TSE is trying a new approach, used successfully in Guatemala and the Dominican Republic. Completed closing forms for president, congress, and the municipal election will be scanned, and sent to the TSE either through a wired internet connection or through a wireless modem across the cell phone network.
500 voting centers lack electricity or an internet connection, so those votes will not be counted until opened more than a week later in Tegucigalpa.
In addition to scanning and transmitting the closing form, each custodian will print out a copy for the representative of each political party, and for any member of the Mesa that desires a copy. Once sent, the original closing form will be stamped by the custodian with a stamp indicating it has been transmitted (all copies will be stamped).
The president of the Mesa will then aggregate all the official forms into an envelope to close out the polling place. All papers will be returned to the briefcase, sealed for return to the TSE.
In the past, the TSE then recounted every ballot box, and entered the data into a new computer file. The TSE has said it will not announce results the night of the election, only "trends". Meanwhile, Hagamos Democracía, an NGO that produced exit polling that was more accurate than the TSE in 2009, will be operating again this year.
A fairly fragile system for such a consequential election.
– Russell Sheptak, the co-author of the blog Honduras Culture and Politics, specializes in the study of colonial history and economic anthropology in this little-reported corner of Central America.
Mexico’s last shot at making the World Cup kicks off this afternoon with the first leg of a home-and-home series with New Zealand, and Mexican productivity is expected to plunge as fans tune in to the match. Even Congress is planning to break from its annual budget debate to watch.
But the business of soccer and the corporate interests behind the senior national side have left some supporters with little to cheer for, while more than a few fans are privately pulling for a loss.
“The way that soccer is organized has the same vices [that] society and the business class suffer from,” says César Velázquez Guadarrama, public policy professor at the Iberoamerican University in Mexico City.
GALLERY: FIFA World Cup 2014: Who is in?
Some observers like Mr. Velázquez cite Mexico’s soccer system as an example of some of the country’s most problematic practices – such as companies colluding or keeping competitors under control, instead of embracing competition – which limit player development in the domestic league and leave the national team ill-equipped for international tournaments.
It produces sub-par performances on the pitch, too – as the team stumbled against Central American minnows in recent qualifying matches complete with coaches and players in constant conflict and, at times, a distinct lack of effort.
“The players weren’t running,” Eduardo García, a soccer fan and publisher of the online publication Sentido Común, recalls of a qualifying match against Honduras (ending in a draw) that he attended in September.
“They need to be taught a lesson” by missing the World Cup, says Claudio Hall, a chef and soccer fan unhappy with the team and its organizer, the Mexican Football Federation (FMF).
Those organizational vices – like a lack of effort and perceived lack of preparation – were apparent on the national team as it scraped through qualifying rounds and only advanced to the last-chance series thanks to some assistance from a US national side that itself qualified easily. Some fans fear those vices will become visible once again now that "El Tri," as the Mexican team is known, must defeat New Zealand in a two-match, total-goal playoff (scheduled for Nov. 13 and Nov. 20) to make it to Brazil.
Just 56 percent of respondents in a GCE poll said Mexico would beat New Zealand; only 55 percent thought their team deserved to qualify for the World Cup. For a team that has traditionally been a lock for World Cup qualifying, the numbers show significant doubt among Mexican fans.
The FMF “worry only about money and not the sport,” Mr. Hall says. “That is why they are in this situation.”
The pessimism about the senior soccer side comes as Mexico once again achieved success at the junior level. The U-17 squad recently finished runner-up in the World Cup for its age group and has won the tournament twice since 2005. But the secret of that success hasn’t translated to the senior level.
“What you see with the kids winning … is at that level there are not so many business interests. ... Their hearts are in it,” says Mr. García.
With the Mexican league paying comfortable salaries and not offering the sternest competition, effort seems to slide, García says.
Big business interests?
Velázquez sees in Mexican soccer too many vices that he says are common in the country, too. He starts with the system of promotion and relegation, common to leagues around the world, in which only one team – the one with the worst record – is demoted and the winner of the second division is promoted. But in Mexico, the rules are created in such a way that a team must struggle for three seasons before being demoted – something that favors the wealthiest clubs, which are unlikely to lose for so long, and makes it difficult for upstart squads to establish themselves.
Then there are the alleged gentlemen’s agreements – never officially acknowledged by the FMF – in which owners will not sign a player who left Mexico for another league, unless he was under contract with them prior to leaving.
Some owners also have had multiple soccer franchises, in violation of a policy set by FIFA, the sport’s governing body. It’s something Velázquez compares to public figures and big companies running roughshod over the rules, “and nothing happening.”
Other observers say the league's decision to squeeze two short seasons into each calendar year and crown two champions produces profit, but not necessarily the best on-field product.
“This scheme … contributes to the teams’ instability,” says Gerardo Esquivel, economics professor at the Colegio de México.
“They fire coaches all the time and don’t search for stability over the long-term that could be beneficial” for developing talent.
Alleged meddling by owners is another matter.
"It was more or less the club owners that decided how the national team should be run, at least that's how things ran before I got there," ESPN FC reported former Mexico coach Sven-Goran Eriksson, who was fired during the 2010 World Cup qualifying rounds, saying in a recently published autobiography.
"There it was important to make allies with the people high up in the football establishment, as if that would help the national team win games."
Mexico has cycled through four coaches in its 2014 World Cup qualifying season. It most recently turned the reins over to Miguel Herrera, coach of league champion and perennial power Club America, who brought ten of his team’s players.
The move was met with skepticism in some circles. The Club America owner, broadcasting giant Televisa – which is polemic for its alleged influence in the country’s political and cultural affairs – was accused of appropriating the national team for its own commercial ends. The national team is a strong symbol and considered a unifying force in Mexico.
“The team has stopped being something national and became something belonging to Televisa,” says Ilán Semo, political historian at the Iberoamerican University.
“A loss for the national side is seen as a loss for Televisa. That’s why some people want the team to lose,” Mr. Semo says.
GALLERY: FIFA World Cup 2014: Who is in?