Thursday, April 29, 2010

Daniel Ortega's Nicaragua

The show goes on

Apr 29th 2010 | MANAGUA
From The Economist print edition

More blows against democracy

THE smashed windows and broken doors have been replaced, but daylight still shines through holes punched into the porch of the Holiday Inn in Managua by home-made mortars. On April 20th the hotel became the latest battleground in Daniel Ortega’s struggle to remain president of Nicaragua after his term ends early in 2012. Faced with dismal poll ratings and constitutional obstacles, Mr Ortega has taken to unleashing mobs.

The constitution allows a maximum of two, non-consecutive terms. So Mr Ortega, who was president from 1985 to 1990, is doubly barred. But last year his political allies in the Supreme Court ruled the relevant articles “inadmissible”. Faced with losing his majority on the court, Mr Ortega decreed an extension of the terms of the obliging judges. He also extended the tenure of senior officials at the national election council, which had allowed his party, the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), to claim victory in municipal elections in 2008—elections that the opposition and observers denounced as rigged.

Opposition parties, which together hold a majority in congress but seldom agree on much, have united against all this. That prompted Mr Ortega’s ruffians to block access to the National Assembly. When the opposition assembled at the Holiday Inn, that became a target. The following day, a group of legislators was trapped in a meeting room by another violent crowd.

Some in the outside world are losing patience with Mr Ortega’s thuggery. The Organisation of American States piped up to express its “deep concern” about the latest skirmishes. Britain, Sweden and Denmark have cut off aid to Nicaragua, while the United States, the European Union, Germany and Japan have either scaled back theirs or imposed more conditions. This matters in a country with an income per head of $2,600 a year, the lowest in Central America, and where horses and carts still plod the streets of what passes for the business district of the capital.

But it matters less than in the past. Mr Ortega has a firm ally in Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, who provides loans and cheap oil worth up to $400m a year—about a third of the government’s total income—according to opposition leaders. Mr Chávez is even more anxious to prop up Mr Ortega since his other Central American ally, Manuel Zelaya in Honduras, was overthrown in a coup last year.

Nobody expects Nicaragua’s army to intervene as its counterpart in Honduras did. And though a poll last month put Mr Ortega’s popularity rating at just 27%, his supporters are well-organised. Even if next year’s election is fair—a big if, requiring international observers and a new electoral council—Mr Ortega might still be hard to beat. He won in 2006 with just 38% of the vote, because the opposition was split. “If we don’t have a sole candidate, the Sandinistas could win again,” admits Eduardo Montealegre, who leads the Independent Liberal Party and came second last time. “But if we do, they don’t stand a chance.” The mobs have other ideas.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Mexico's population

When the niños run out

Apr 22nd 2010 | MEXICO CITY
From The Economist print edition

A falling birth rate, and what it means

FENCES, soldiers, infra-red cameras: the United States goes to great lengths to hold back the teeming masses across its southern border. But the masses are teeming less. Mexico’s birth rate, once among the world’s highest, is in free-fall. In the 1960s Mexican mothers had nearly seven children each (whereas women in India then had fewer than six). The average now is just over two—almost the same as in the United States. The UN reckons that from 2040 the birth rate in Mexico will be the lower of the two.

The fall follows a government u-turn nearly 40 years ago, when a contraception campaign replaced the previous nation-building policy. Today, four out of ten married Mexican women are sterilised, a radical measure that partly reflects the continuing lack of other contraception in some areas as well as strict laws against abortion everywhere but the capital. Broader changes, such as more women in education and work, and pricier housing, have pushed down the size of families even more. (Brazil, where the government has promoted contraception less forcefully, has experienced a similar baby bust.)

The slowdown provides both relief and trouble for the state. In the 1970s each school year was 4% bigger than the last. But Carlos Welti, a demographer at Mexico’s National Autonomous University (UNAM), points out that 2m new Mexicans are still minted each year—exactly the same number as during the 1970s. Some public services are more oversubscribed, not less: UNAM used to accept nearly all applicants but now turns away more than 90%. Mexico’s total population will not peak until 2043 (at 130m).

Nevertheless, Mexicans are rapidly ageing. This trend, which took a century in Europe, has happened in three decades, Mr Welti points out. In 1980 the average Mexican was 17 years old; he is now 28. At the moment, one in ten Mexicans is aged 60 or over; within three decades, the figure will be almost one in four. A health-care system geared towards women and children must be recalibrated to deal with geriatrics.

So too must social security. The poor who clean windscreens and sell pirate CDs in Mexico City include a growing number of elderly people. Only about one in five of the over-75s has a pension, and today’s smaller families will find it harder to care for elderly relatives. Two reforms are needed to defuse this social-security time-bomb, says Jorge Rodríguez of the UN’s Economic Commission for Latin America. More of Mexico’s enormous black market must be brought into the formal economy, so as to get more companies to contribute to employees’ pensions. And a fund must be built up to help those without a contributory scheme. Other analysts, such as Santiago Levy, a former Mexican official now at the Inter-American Development Bank, point out that a fund of that kind might undermine the incentives for firms and workers to go legal.

All this could have a profound impact on the United States, which in recent years has absorbed about half of each new Mexican generation. By 2050 there will be 20% fewer Mexicans in their 20s. Farming, construction and health care in the southern states, which rely on migrant labour (documented or otherwise), will have a smaller pool from which to recruit.

Or will they? Mexicans are healthier than they were. Those prepared to make the arduous crossing are now drawn from a wider age-range; once there, they may stay up to a decade longer before heading home for their final years. In addition, Mexicans in the United States are more fertile than their counterparts back home. “Mexico has impregnated the United States,” says Joel Kotkin, an urban historian at Chapman University in Los Angeles, who points out that Mexican genes will proliferate north of the border even if immigration falls. Higher wages mean that it is easier to afford a decent family home in Houston than in Mexico City.

History teaches caution in assessing the link between demography and migration. The Mexican baby boom of the 1950s coincided with lowish emigration, whereas the exodus to the United States kicked off in the 1980s, just as Mexico’s birth rate was plummeting. Today’s falling fertility rate will curb the flow. But the main motors of migration will still be economic boom or bust—on both sides of the border.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Mexico's culture wars


Apr 15th 2010 | MEXICO CITY
From The Economist print edition

As the capital grows more liberal, conservatives are rallying elsewhere

BLOOD streaked the faces of the scores of young men dragging heavy wooden crosses up a hill in Iztapalapa, a suburb of Mexico City, on Good Friday. Looking on at this annual re-enactment of the crucifixion were tearful crowds of blue-veiled “town virgins”—and on a billboard in the background, a giant, nearly-nude model, advertising condoms with a wink. Religiosity and militant secularism have long rubbed along together in Mexico City and in the country as a whole. But the gap in attitudes between the freewheeling capital and deepest Mexico is widening, stoking culture wars of the sort more familiar north of the Rio Grande.

Since 2006 the Federal District, encompassing much of Mexico City, has been governed by a left-of-centre socially liberal mayor, Marcelo Ebrard. In March his officials performed 88 gay marriages, the first in Latin America. Paperwork is in train for the first adoptions by gay couples. Mr Ebrard’s administration has also simplified divorce and allowed the terminally ill to refuse treatment. Most polarising of all, in 2007 it approved a law granting women the right to abort in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy—something previously unheard of in Latin America outside Cuba. More is to come: a bill to legalise prostitution is pencilled in for next year, and discussions are under way to extend drinking hours to 5am.

As Mexico City liberalises, much of the rest of the country is moving in the opposite direction. Since the 2007 abortion reform, more than half of the country’s 31 other states have preventively amended their constitutions to define life as beginning at conception. Last year four states went further, introducing laws that double the penalty for abortion if it is found that the woman is of “ill repute”. Prison sentences can be lengthy: some states treat abortion as murder. And even when abortion is permitted, such as in cases of rape, the cumbersome authorisation required often makes it impossible.

Some wonder if a similar backlash may be looming with respect to gay rights. The Supreme Court, which gave the green light to Mexico City’s abortion law, is mulling whether its gay weddings infringe the constitution. Human Rights Watch, a New York-based group, hopes that the court will issue a ruling broad enough to establish a constitutional right for gay couples to marry across the country.

Paradoxically, one reason for the rude health of social conservatism is the spread of political liberalism. The Institutional Revolutionary Party, which ran Mexico for seven decades until 2000, persecuted the church with varying vigour and imposed secularism. Divorce was notoriously free and easy (Marilyn Monroe was one satisfied customer). It is an irony that “the dismantling of an authoritarian regime has led to the emergence of intolerance” regarding homosexuality, reproductive rights and religious minorities, notes Soledad Loaeza, a political scientist at the Colegio de México, a graduate school.

Conservatives are limbering up for a battle to lift the longstanding ban on religious education in public schools. But the tide may yet turn again. Mexico is not immune from the paedophilia scandals that are enveloping the Catholic church. Marcial Maciel, a Mexican priest who founded the Legionaries of Christ, an ultra-conservative Catholic movement, was a serial abuser. The conservative National Action Party, which has held the presidency since 2000, is flagging in the opinion polls, and its younger members are restless. Some state institutions are loosening up: the National Commission for Human Rights, an official body, which opposed Mexico City’s abortion law, has a new director and is not against gay marriage.

Migration is helping to spread liberal attitudes. North of the border Hispanic voters are often seen as conservatives. But Mexican politics is being influenced by migrants returning from the United States with liberal ideas they have picked up there. Less cheerily, the travails of migration all too often pose a challenge to the traditional family. Mexican wedding services have been known to include prayers for the couple to stay together should one of them move to the United States.