Time proposal sets off alarm at US-Mexico border

North Mexico residents say shrinking daylight saving would put them out of step with the US and cost money.

Does anybody really know what time it is?

That's what folks living along the US-Mexican border may soon be asking, if Mexico enacts a plan to reduce the number of months it observes daylight saving time.

"A lot of people are going to be missing a lot of appointments," says Don Michie, a business consultant with the private firm NAFTA Ventures in El Paso.

In places like Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, where personal and professional lives straddle the border with El Paso, Texas, the change would mean four one-hour changes to keep track of every year.

The same would be true for the thousands of El Pasoans who work in Juarez's hundreds of manufacturing plants, many of which are US-owned, or for other business people - industrial plant developers, parts suppliers - whose livelihood depends on the larger city to the south.

Border residents criticize the plan as an obstacle in efforts toward greater economic integration that began with the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994. With economic interdependence growing, Juarez and El Paso managed in 1998 to get on the same time year-round.

"The impact will be very negative for a city like ours, living in the globalized world," says Javier de Anda, spokesman for Juarez Mayor Gustavo Elizondo Aguilar. "Businesses that work on the just-in-time system [a supply technique that reduces stocking costs by delivering parts just before their use] will face all kinds of problems if they have to worry about which time they're talking about." The mayor has asked federal authorities for an exemption

"This is a bad deal for those of us who have a business life over there, and for the Mexican middle class that operates on both sides," adds El Paso consultant Michie.

For those who find just one "spring forward, fall back" a year disorienting enough, imagine the following schedule:

In April, El Paso, like the rest of the US - except Arizona, Hawaii and part of Indiana - moves an hour ahead. One month later, Juarez moves one hour forward, like the rest of Mexico, thus re-synchronizing with El Paso.

In September, Juarez turns back an hour. A month later, El Paso joins Juarez time again, "falling back" an hour at the same time as the rest of the US.

The inconvenience of repeatedly resetting clocks and computers and keeping track of shifting work and school schedules has border residents grumbling about interference from the federal government. "We're totally against centralism, no matter where it comes from," says Mr. de Anda. "We all remember from past experience the costs of living out of sync with our neighbor and economic partner, and we don't want Mexico City telling us we have to go back to that."

Ironically, the impetus for the new initiative was the Mexican government's reading of popular sentiment. Preening his populist feathers, President Vicente Fox said he wanted to accommodate Mexicans who have chafed at daylight saving time ever since it first took effect in 1996. Many Mexicans have complained that daylight saving disrupts their biological rhythms, and in some areas, entire towns have refused to change their clocks.

But with Mexican Autonomous National University (UNAM) studies showing the practice saving Mexico more than $600 million a year in energy costs, the government has recognized it cannot responsibly ignore the advantages of daylight saving.

So Fox came up with a compromise position: Instead of spanning seven months - from April to October, what Mexico calls the "summer schedule" - observance of daylight saving time would be cut to five months, trimming one month off each end.

The proposal, which would take effect May 6, has stirred up a hornet's nest. Several national congressmen and local officials rail against what they consider a half-baked proposal, inspiring calls for referendums to see what the public really wants. Others say the Fox initiative raises the public's expectations of participatory democracy over an issue they say can't be decided by referendum. Two Mexican border states, Baja California and Sonora, have already been granted an exemption from any change, allowing Tijuana, for example, to remain in sync with San Diego.

The time controversy demonstrates that, even with a new-style president like Mr. Fox, a former Coco-Cola executive, Mexico's historical centralist tendencies remain strong. Always mistrustful of the northern border states' allegiance to Mexico City, federal officials were already reluctant to allow the north to tick along with US time. UNAM studies maintain, however, that time differences have no effect on the north's relationship with the center.

Meanwhile, economists are reminding Mexico City that when it comes to shrinking daylight saving, time is money. "Energy prices are fairly high and should remain high, and Mexico's energy use is growing, so it's not a good time to do something that will cause energy use to increase," says Tom Fullerton, a University of Texas at El Paso economist specializing in the border economy. "This is a measure that has a price tag on it."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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