Mexicans face national debate over 'saving' daylight

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The Independent US

Less than two months into Mexico's renewed democracy, the national debate isn't just over the rebellion in Chiapas state or the drug war. It's over daylight-saving time.

Less than two months into Mexico's renewed democracy, the national debate isn't just over the rebellion in Chiapas state or the drug war. It's over daylight-saving time.

The spring-ahead, fall-back debate was launched when Mexico City's leftist mayor, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, proposed a referendum on doing away with daylight time, even though the federal government says it saves almost dlrs 600 million annually in energy costs.

Imported in 1996 from the United States, the time change has yet to win the hearts and minds of Mexicans, many of whom - most according to some informal polls - feel it disrupts their biological clocks.

One leftist congressman even blamed it for stealing sleep and disrupting Mexicans' sex lives.

"Get rid of it," says Marcelino Bernadino Garcia, 50, who has to get up in predawn darkness - "just when muggings are most frequent" - to catch a bus to the street stand he runs in Mexico City.

His three children, he says, go to school sleepy and don't eat as well - all because of daylight-saving time.

Housewife Silvia Sonyaga, 38, voices a common belief: "It steals an hour from us every morning. It's terrible."

Some had expected a more serious debate to emerge from Mexico's experiment with full democracy, which began Dec. 1 when President Vicente Fox took office, ending 71 years of near one-party rule.

"If you want to talk about crime, great, let's debate. But this is like asking airlines and financial markets to adjust because Mexico wants to sleep an hour later in the morning," says author German Dehesa.

Others see it as a logical result of the new era of democratic politics.

Considered a prime contender for the next presidential elections in 2006, Lopez Obrador has sought to hold referendums on divisive issues - like how to regulate protest marches that regularly block traffic in this city of 8.5 million people.

But his proposal could wreak havoc by creating a one-hour difference between Mexico City and its suburbs, where most of the 10 million residents commute to jobs in the city.

"If everything is put to a referendum, we're going to get referendum-itis," says Ruben Mendoza, mayor of the suburb of Tlalnepantla. "We are one country, and everyone can't go his own way."

Without the time change, the Mexico City stock exchange would close one hour earlier than New York, something "that would undoubtedly create imbalances" in stock prices, says market analyst Sergio Garcia of Value Brokerage.

Lopez Obrador's party has also used the issue to attack the perceived pro-American attitude of Fox, the first opposition candidate ever to win the presidency here.

Daylight time "is just part of a desire to automatically imitate the United States and Canada," according to an editorial in Fuerza, the Democratic Revolution's newspaper.

Fox has offered to shorten daylight time by two months, but not cancel it.

The campaign by Lopez Obrador - whose party lost ground in the most recent national elections - plays on core Mexico values: resistance to change and a deep suspicion of government programs.

In parts of rural Mexico, many people still stubbornly count in "old pesos" eight years after a new currency was introduced to simplify transactions, and entire towns have simply refused to adopt daylight time.

"That's government time. We have our own clock here," notes Mije Indian Leandro Perez in the Oaxaca mountain town of Mixistlan, referring to a reporter's watch set to daylight time.

Lopez Obrador "has his eyes set on the 2006 elections," Dehesa says. "He wants to create this pretty myth of himself as El Zorro, the prince of democracy fighting against the arbitrary decisions of Fox."

Even Mexicans who say they have no problem with daylight time say the referendum idea is a good one.

"Sure, there are some things you can't put to a referendum, like taxes," says Mexico City lawyer Manuel Aranda. "But it's about time the public opinion is taken into account."