Thursday, July 29, 2010

Mexico's environment

A breath of fresh air

The capital’s filthy atmosphere has improved at last

HEMMED in by mountains and volcanoes, Mexico City is the perfect smog-trap. At its altitude of 2,250m the air is already thin; on days when the toxic “cream”, as the familiar brown cloud of pollution is locally known, descends on the city, it is hard to breathe. Locals used to joke that the only life that could survive in the skies was jumbo jets.

Yet the smog is lifting. The average concentration of ozone, one of the most common pollutants, is about half its level in the early 1990s, when the air was at its dirtiest (see chart). In those days the national ozone limit of 0.11 parts per million was breached for at least an hour on nine days out of ten. Yet last year over half the days were below the cap. Joggers are back in parks and wildlife is airborne once more: a hummingbird regularly looks in on The Economist’s offices.

The revival began with the closure of some of the city’s heavy industry. The oil refinery in the borough of Azcapotzalco, which was said to belch out up to 7% of Mexico City’s air pollution, was shut in 1991. Some of its land was converted into a park.

More recently, a car crackdown has helped: old bangers are checked twice a year for emissions, and all but the newest cars are forbidden from driving in the city on one day of each week. Every Sunday 22km of roads in the centre are roped off for bikes and pedestrians. From next year taxi drivers will be offered tax incentives to use electric technology. Mexico City’s pollution has been so severe that cleaning up the environment “is not a theoretical thing—it’s about life and death,” says Marcelo Ebrard, the mayor.

The air is still dangerous. “The only thing that is good is the trend,” says Arón Jazcilevich, an atmospheric scientist at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, who says he checks pollution readings before going running. He fears that in the state of Mexico, which borders the capital and contains most of its suburbs, regulation of industry and checks on motorists are weaker. The capital ought to improve public transport links with its neighbour too, he adds.

As the capital’s air improves, attention will turn to Mexico’s other big cities. One of the reasons for Mexico City’s infamy was its diligence in recording its own failings: the government keeps hourly readings of eight pollutants across 34 weather stations, some going back to 1986. Less well-measured places may actually be worse. Last year Monterrey, the country’s industrial capital, clocked a higher reading than Mexico City on its index of particles smaller than 10 microns, a form of pollution that is no less dangerous than ozone.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Honduras's post-coup president

Patching things up

The new government is doing better abroad than at home

IT IS over a year since Honduras’s leftist president, Manuel Zelaya, was bundled out of his home at dawn by the army and exiled to Costa Rica. Yet friendships, business deals and families are still split by rows over the events of June 28th 2009: whether Mr Zelaya’s illegal attempt to rewrite the constitution, seen by many as a bid to hang on to power, justified his removal at gunpoint; and whether his expulsion, backed by Congress and the Supreme Court, was a coup or a “constitutional succession”. Tegucigalpa, the small capital surrounded by empty silver mines, remains scarred by graffiti denouncing the coup’s authors, and their mothers.

The squabbling has been no less furious on the international stage. In response to the coup, Honduras was kicked out of the Organisation of American States (OAS), and lost promised foreign aid worth 6% of GDP. Constitutional order formally returned when Porfirio Lobo, who won a reasonably fair election held under the de facto regime, was inaugurated on January 27th. But Mexico and most South American countries still do not recognise his government. In May Brazil, which housed Mr Zelaya in its Tegucigalpa embassy for 129 days to shield him from arrest, stopped Mr Lobo from attending an EU-Latin America summit by warning that at least ten countries would skip it if he did.

Mr Lobo has tried to mend fences. He formed a unity government with five opposition parties—although it is unified in name only—and set up a truth commission, which will report in 2011. He also got an amnesty passed for Mr Zelaya, who is now in the Dominican Republic. However, since it only covers political crimes, Mr Zelaya could still be tried for corruption.

Abroad, this effort has begun to pay off. Honduras says it has reopened relations with 86 countries, and is expected to borrow $122m from multilateral lenders this year. The Central American Integration System, a regional political block, readmitted Honduras on July 21st, and the OAS could welcome it back by August. Even Brazil is softening: one of its diplomats says he hopes the group readmits Honduras this year. That would allow various UN agencies to resume work in the country.

But making peace at home looks harder. Mr Lobo cannot please everyone. One group of Hondurans thinks Mr Zelaya is still the president, while another wants him jailed. Although a strong “resistance” movement sprouted to oppose the coup, it has stagnated with its leader in exile. And the many leftist politicians who dislike the populist Mr Zelaya hold little power.

That has freed Mr Lobo to placate the right, by putting former military officers in charge of the departments of migration, civil aeronautics and merchant shipping, plus the state telecommunications firm. The army’s return to politics may be one long-lasting effect of the coup. Mr Lobo himself said last month that he had discovered a plot to overthrow him, backed by hard-liners from his own party.

Perhaps the most worrying trend has been an outbreak of violence against reporters. So far this year eight journalists have been killed; another fled after her teenage daughter’s murder. In April Reporters Without Borders, a Paris-based watchdog, declared Honduras the world’s most dangerous country for journalists.

Since Honduras already has the planet’s highest murder rate, at 67 per 100,000 people, it is hard to know whether these killings were linked to the victims’ work, and whether they were politically motivated. The government points to street gangs and drug traffickers. Yet it has proven hopeless at solving the crimes. “The state has not conducted any serious investigation and…has not given the human-rights prosecutor the tools needed to conduct the investigation,” says Santiago Canton, the head of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. “Particularly since the coup, impunity has been the rule, not the exception, for human-rights violations.” The government has enlisted help from Colombia, Spain and the United States to crack the cases. It will need their aid to remove the stain on its reputation.

Friday, July 16, 2010

From the "Gulliver" blog

Internet is the new breakfast

Jul 16th 2010 | TEGUCIGALPA

LIMP toast and tepid milk: yours for just $15. Most hotel breakfasts are such awful deals that the only people who would consider them are those who are a) horribly busy and b) spending someone else’s money. Business travellers, in other words. The evidence is there every morning in the dining-rooms of posh hotels: apart from a few holidaymakers too dazed to have worked out the currency-conversion rate, almost everyone else is in a suit, charging the bill to their expense account.

After a few recent trips, I’ve noticed a new ruse that may be squeezing even more out of the wallets of the AmEx-wielding business set: internet access. Like a speedy breakfast, it’s something that most holidaymakers can live without, but business travellers really need—and it is priced accordingly. At the moment I’m in Honduras, one of the cheapest countries in the Americas. Yet at the Tegucigalpa Intercontinental, one day of Wi-Fi costs nearly $17 (or roughly three-and-a-half days’ pay for the average Honduran). What’s more, it’s $17 per computer, which in the age of internet-ready iPhones is a pain.

When it comes to hidden charges, the rule seems to be that the higher the up-front cost of the room, the more the guests can expect to pay for extras. Most of the cheap hotels I’ve stayed in recently have had free Wi-Fi—heck, you even get it free in McDonald’s these days. B&Bs usually also charge less for things like phone calls and laundry, favourite money-spinners for the smart hotels. And they are more generous with extras such as bottled water in the rooms. (The litre-bottles here at the Intercontinental cost $4.)

Is it so surprising that expensive hotels come with expensive extras? Maybe not, until you consider other travel industries, such as airlines. Go with a pricey carrier and you tend to get a meal thrown in, allocated seating, and so on. Budget airlines, meanwhile, sell tickets for peanuts but whack you later with eye-watering luggage charges and expensive nibbles on board. In the hotel world, it seems like the smarter chains somehow get away with a double-whammy: British Airways prices for the room, and Ryanair prices for the extras.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Cycling in cities

Shifting up a gear

Rent-a-bike projects are cropping up in unlikely places

Life in the slow lane

THIN air, thick smog and bad drivers make Mexico City hard going for cyclists. But a new fleet of 1,200 smart red “Ecobici” pay-as-you-go rental bikes, at 85 docking stations, marks the most ambitious recent addition to a global trend of municipally endorsed cycling. Since February 7,000 people have signed up, and between them they have taken more than 200,000 trips.

A low-tech scheme started in the French town of La Rochelle in 1974. Copenhagen launched the first big automated project in 1995. German cities, including Berlin, have tried versions paid for by mobile phone. But the most successful is the “Vélib” in Paris, with 20,000 bikes available for users with swipe-cards. In London the transport authority and Barclays Bank will launch a 6,000-bike programme on July 30th. Users can pay at one of the 400 docking stations, or use a key with a chip.

The vulnerability for most schemes is theft. Thousands of the Parisian bikes disappeared in the scheme’s early stages, turning up as far afield as Romania and Morocco. Portable locks have proved a weak point: the mandatory use of docking stations is more secure. “We were expecting people to steal them, but that hasn’t happened,” says Marcelo Ebrard, Mexico City’s mayor. Only one of the 1,200 bikes in the scheme has gone missing to date.

The paradox of urban cycling is that bad traffic is both deterrent and incentive. When demonstrations or traffic-signal failures bring Mexico’s streets to gridlock, businessmen can be seen strapping their briefcases onto Ecobicis.

Cyclists in places like London and Mexico City yearn for proper cycle lanes, of the kind commonplace in countries such as Germany. A second-best solution is the right to ride (gently) through parks and on pavements without being fined. On that score at least Mexico’s traffic police, the scourge of motorists, are charm itself.

For now, the hope is that new bike-hire schemes help raise cyclists’ numbers enough to change motorists’ behaviour—and thus erode the perception of danger that keeps people off their bikes.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Mexico's state elections

Joining forces

A motley political alliance scrambles the presidential race

DURING the campaign ahead of Mexico’s state elections on July 4th, many feared that the gruesome run-up to the vote would overshadow the results. Two candidates were murdered, and countless others were intimidated: one would-be mayor found a decapitated corpse deposited outside his home. The atrocities, including four dead bodies hung from bridges on election day, were attributed to drug gangs reminding the country who rules the roost.

Yet the vote itself, in 14 of Mexico’s 31 states, provided a surprise that could redraw the country’s political map. The opposition Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which ruled Mexico from 1929 to 2000, took over the lower house of Congress from Felipe Calderón’s conservative National Action Party (PAN) in 2009. It had been forecast to sweep all 12 of this year’s contests for governorships before winning the presidency after Mr Calderón steps down in 2012. Instead, it took just nine, the same number it held before the vote.

The three states it lost, Oaxaca, Puebla, and Sinaloa, had been ruled by the PRI for 81 years. They are bigger and more important than the three states the PRI snatched back in return: together, they represent 11% of the country’s population and 6.9% of its GDP, against 3% of the population and 2.3% of GDP made up by the PRI’s new acquisitions. Other PRI bastions also looked wobbly: the party clung onto Veracruz, the largest state in contention, by less than 3%, and held the smaller Durango by less than 2%.

The PRI lost its fiefs to an unlikely alliance between the PAN and the leftist Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD). The pair have been bitter rivals since the PRD’s 2006 presidential candidate accused Mr Calderón of stealing the election. They are ideological opposites. But as Alejandro Poiré, the under-secretary for immigration and a former political-science professor, notes, the two teamed up in the past to end the PRI’s monopoly on power. Jesús Zambrano, a senior PRD leader, sees a marriage of necessity. “Some PRI members are prehistóricos”, he says of their longing for one-party rule. “We can’t just sit there with our arms crossed.”

The parties are likely to repeat the tactic in next July’s race for governor in Mexico state, the country’s most populous. It includes most Mexico City suburbs and is seen (often misleadingly) as a political barometer. In 2005 the PRI’s candidate there, Enrique Peña Nieto, won easily. Thanks to his popularity in the state, able advisers, engagement to a soap-opera star, and wide media exposure, he is now the front-runner for the PRI’s presidential nomination.

But the PAN and PRD’s combined vote in 2005 exceeded Mr Peña Nieto’s. If the two parties can find a candidate who could capture most of the anti-PRI vote next year, they might be able to stop him from installing his chosen successor in the governor’s mansion and sap his momentum. “The main thing he has going for him is his inevitability,” says Jorge Castañeda, a former foreign minister. “If he is knocked down, the PRI has no substitute, because they’ve bet the store on him.”

The new alliance could affect policy as well as the horse race. Almost all of Mr Calderón’s legislative initiatives have been diluted or defeated in Congress. With PRD support, Mr Calderón could almost scrape together a legislative majority. That would let him pass laws that do not entail constitutional amendments by picking off just a few PRI members or their allies.

Most big issues, such as allowing private investment in energy, involve changing the constitution. That requires a two-thirds majority, and thus the PRI’s backing. But Mr Calderón could also use the PRD as a bargaining chip, agreeing not to field alliance candidates in some states in exchange for the PRI’s votes in Congress.

Such a strategy might enable him to pass a political reform that would help prevent legislative gridlock in the future. He has proposed permitting limited re-election for legislators and mayors (currently capped at a single term), letting the president order Congress to vote on at least two of his bills in each session, and adding a run-off vote to presidential elections. The PRI is wary of these ideas: a run-off, for instance, would allow the PAN and PRD to field their own candidates and then unite behind whichever one did best.

That Mr Calderón’s “alliance against nature”, as some priístas term it, has beaten expectations does not mean he is out of the doldrums. As Mr Peña Nieto notes, “It was everyone against the PRI, and despite that the PRI triumphed in nine states [out of 12].” The PRI still holds Congress and 19 of the 31 governorships. But the July 4th vote has opened up new possibilities in a previously paralysed system.