28 March 2010

More hard luck for Cd. Juárez

Things just went from bad to worse in Ciudad Juárez - at least in sporting terms - as the hard-luck local soccer team, Club de Fútbol Indios de Ciudad Juárez, was relegated to the Liga de Ascenso, or Mexico's second division. The relegation comes as little surprise: Indios - also known as El Tribu, or The Tribe - only snapped a 27-game winless skid last weekend and had needed to win its remaining six games to have an outside chance at avoiding relegation.

Atlante put Indios out of its misery with a 3-0 victory in Cancún on Saturday night, however.

Relegation in Mexican soccer usually comes down to a nail-biting final weekend as the team with the worst cumulative record over the past three years is demoted. The Liga de Ascenso winner, meanwhile, is promoted. Since Indios suffered through such a miserable season, such nail-biting was avoided this time around.

Ciudad Juárez, of course, has been in the news for all the wrong reasons. A turf war between rival drug cartels and the gangs working for the cartels has intensified and soldiers and federal police have been patrolling the streets. The 2010 death toll in the state of Chihuahua now stands at 585, according to Grupo Reforma, and an estimated 400,000 residents of Ciudad Juárez, a former boomtown on the Chihuahua-Texas border, have decamped for presumably safer places such as neighboring El Paso - one of the safest cities in the United States.

Perhaps making the Indios story so much more sad is the team's unfortunate reversal of fortune. Founded in 2005, Indios was promoted to the top division for the season beginning in the summer of 2008. It became the little team that could: El Tribu made an improbable playoff run by defeating the defending champion, Toluca, before bowing out to Pachuca in the semi-finals.

Then the misery and losing began - and the team never snapped out of it.

Adios to Indios. Teams relegated to the Liga de Ascenso are usually not missed - a few Necaxa fans might disagree - but the Inidos just might be.

20 March 2010

Tensions mount between Catholic Church, liberal Mexico City government

Why the Mexico City gov't and local archdiocese don't get along (originally published by Catholic New Service in March 2010 ...)


By David Agren Catholic News Service

MEXICO CITY (CNS) -- Mayor Marcelo Ebrard was witness to five same-sex marriages March 11 in Mexico City's old government building, the first such unions in the country and the first ones under new laws approved in the Mexican capital.

The Mexico City Archdiocese, meanwhile, expressed disappointment. Father Hugo Valdemar Romero, archdiocesan spokesman, said in a statement March 11, "It's clear that Mr. Marcelo Ebrard is responsible for the approval and execution of these laws that are destructive to the family and he doesn't conceal his aversion to the churches and the majority of people he governs, who profess the Christian faith and reject the perversion of their most cherished values."

The disagreement escalated tensions between the archdiocese and the local government. During the last three years Mexico City also decriminalized abortion during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy -- and paid for abortions performed in public hospitals -- and liberalized euthanasia laws.

It also marked a further departure from the good relations the archdiocese and local government shared prior to Ebrard taking office in 2006.

Previously, "Relations between the archdiocese and the Mexico City government had always been cordial," Father Jose de Jesus Aguilar Valdes, director of the radio and TV for the archdiocese, told Catholic News Service.

He emphasized that current relations with the national leadership of the left-wing Democratic Revolution Party -- which dominates politics in much of Mexico City -- are cordial. But with the Ebrard administration and local assembly, "there's been a distancing" and little direct contact, he said.

The distancing runs counter to the current thawing of relations between church and state in Mexico, where the institutions officially had been kept separate for 150 years.Relations between the two often have been strained.

Political observers say current church-state relations are marked by political parties and candidates courting church support even though Catholic leaders have said they don't take sides.

"Church support is not usually the deciding factor (in elections) ... but it helps," said Aldo Munoz Armenta, political science professor at the Autonomous University of the State of Mexico.

Munoz traced the origins of the discord to electoral politics. Specifically, he cited the tight 2006 presidential contest, which former Mayor Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador narrowly lost and considers to have been rigged.

During his 2000-2005 administration Lopez Obrador developed a cordial relationship with the archdiocese. His government even provided money for renovations to the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe and the Metropolitan Cathedral.

Enoe Uranga Munoz, a Democratic Revolution Party member of Mexico's lower house of Congress, told CNS that Lopez Obrador thwarted attempts by the Mexico City Assembly to decriminalize abortion.

"He did it out of conviction, but also because he saw himself as a presidential candidate and had the need for an alliance with the church hierarchy," Uranga said.

For its part, the archdiocese disapproved of a 2005 attempt to impeach Lopez Obrador -- a move that would have disqualified the early frontrunner from the 2006 election. But false assumptions by Lopez Obrador that the church would back his presidential campaign caused relations to deteriorate, Father Aguilar said.

Lopez Obrador and his backers view the 2006 election as a "betrayal," said political historian Ilan Semo Groman of the Jesuit-run Iberoamerican University.

Semo added that the church traditionally seeks good relations with whichever party wins power and recognized President Felipe Calderon's narrow victory.

Lopez Obrador organized mass protests after the election and declared himself, "legitimate president" of Mexico. He refused to recognize the legitimacy of the Calderon administration and, like Ebrard, maintains that posture to this day.

Ebrard won office at the same time as Calderon and, almost immediately, began pursuing a socially liberal agenda. Political observers say he pursed that agenda out of a need to separate himself from Lopez Obrador and lay the groundwork for a possible presidential bid in 2012.

The pursuit of that bid could lead to a worsening of relations between the archdiocese and local government.

"They're using confrontation with the church as their primary weapon," said Uranga, who is openly gay and supports much of the Ebrard agenda -- if not his political tactics.

Some observers see political profit in antagonizing the church, however, mainly because Mexico City is more secular than other parts of the country, due to having an intellectual and political class with anti-clerical attitudes.

"The conflict between Marcelo (Ebrard) and the church is electoral," Munoz said.

"Your enemy is electorally important, and you'll use it as it suits you. Being anti-clerical, for Marcelo (Ebrard), for where he is, is something very convenient."

12 March 2010

World's richest man dominates Mexican economy


Peces, a seafood restaurant in Mexico City's Col. Roma, uses the slogan, "The only one that doesn't belong to Slim," a reference to the world's richest man, Carlos Slim.

By David Agren, Canwest News Service

MEXICO CITY — News of Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim Helu topping the annual Forbes list of the world's wealthiest individuals came as little surprise to many in Mexico, including social-activist-turned-restaurateur Marco Rascon.

Famed for previously masquerading as "Super Barrio" — a portly protest leader clad in wrestling tights and "lucha-libre" mask — Rascon has turned his mischievous instincts in recent years toward highlighting the enormous influence of the country's richest man on the national economy and his apparent ability to run roughshod over regulators.

As an example, Rascon's seafood restaurant — Peces, or Fishes — goes by the slogan, "The only one that doesn't belong to Slim." Rascon has tried living beyond the reach of Slim's empire as much as possible by avoiding the billionaire's companies, which dominate the telecommunications sector and have a strong presence in retail, construction, tobacco and banking — among other industries. He's mostly failed in his attempts.

"It's a fantasy," he said flatly of any attempt to avoid patronizing Slim's companies.

"You almost can't breath in Mexico" without paying him something.

Such is Slim's dominance of the Mexican economy, which long has been characterized by the enormous concentration of wealth, monopolies and limited competition in sectors such as telecommunications, broadcasting, cement and brewing, and perceptions the federal government and regulators are unable or unwilling to abate monopolistic business practices.

Slim's dominance of the economy is so expansive that nearly anyone in Mexico making a cellphone call, surfing the Internet, smoking a Marlboro cigarette, sipping coffee in the ubiquitous Sanborns chain, shopping in his malls (anchored by Sears, which he owns in Mexico) or driving on the roads built by his construction company puts money in his pocket.

It's estimated his companies at one point comprised roughly one-third of the Mexican stock exchange's value, while his telecommunications companies — fixed-line operator Telefonos de Mexico (Telmex) and cellular operator America Movil — have been accused of charging some of the highest rates in the industrialized world.

Telmex and America Movil deny charging exorbitant rates, while Slim has denied being a monopolist and says on his personal website that Telemex has more than 600 competitors. Industry analysts credit Slim with transforming a monopoly with antiquated technology and a reputation for surly customer service into a world-class company.

Read the rest of the story at the Ottawa Citizen website.

05 March 2010

Desperately seeking tourists

From FFWD Weekly (Calgary)

Honduras is fine for a holiday, despite last year's coup

by David Agren

Dinner is always served immediately after sundown at Hacienda San Lucas, a rustic inn set in the Honduras hills overlooking this colonial town of cobblestone streets and whitewashed buildings with red-tile roofs near the Guatemala border. The four-course dinner of salad with a hibiscus vinaigrette, vegetable tamales, chicken with a secret adobo sauce and a candied papaya dessert is prepared in a country kitchen outfitted with old-style wood-fired ovens, enjoyed by candlelight and washed down with South American wines.

In past years, reservations were always a must for such feasts — as were reservations for the hacienda, a collection of eight guest rooms with breathtaking views of the town and easy access to nearby Mayan ruins that, in recent years, put this isolated corner of northwestern Honduras on the tourist map.

But then Honduras suffered a coup last year — and tourism plunged. Hacienda San Lucas owner Flavia Cueva says her occupancy rate has dropped from 98 per cent to two per cent.

“This political crisis is killing me,” she says over drinks on an autumn evening, when just three tables on her expansive patio were occupied.

Such is the state of tourism across Honduras, the second-poorest country in the hemisphere and a place that dominated the headlines throughout the latter half of 2009 for all the wrong reasons.

The June 28 coup ousted president Manuel Zelaya from office and was marked by soldiers ushering him out of the country for allegedly violating a Supreme Court decision forbidding a referendum on holding a referendum on whether to rewrite the constitution. Zelaya supporters call his removal an old-fashioned coup and allege suffering heavy-handed repressions at the hands of the de facto government. (A new president, Porfirio "Pepe" Lobo, took office Jan. 29, but his government is not recognized by many countries in the hemisphere.)

Subsequent images of violent protests in the capital, Tegucigalpa, and stories of curfews and border closures have dissuaded many visitors from coming to Honduras, where a nascent tourism industry was beginning to grow and places such as Copán Ruinas and the white sand beaches of the Bay Islands — reputedly the cheapest place in the Caribbean to dive — were gaining fame.

Guatemalan officials, meanwhile, aggravated the situation by spreading erroneous information of dangerous unrest and border closures to keep tourists from crossing into Honduras, an area long treated by guide books as an appendage of Guatemala — a country with a thriving tourism industry, despite crime and murder rates as bad or worse than those of Honduras.

The impact was immediate. Belgian expatriate Geert Van Vaeck, former director of the local tourism council, says his daily tourist bus from Antigua, Guatemala, used to arrive full. The day after the coup, it had two passengers.

But the situation in Copán Ruinas, Van Vaeck says, never descended into violence or disorder — spare the day Hondurans spilled into the streets to celebrate the national soccer team miraculously qualifying for the World Cup.

Those arriving in Copán Ruinas instead find a traditionally Honduran town, where locals convene markets brimming with fruits, vegetables and handicrafts, three-wheel taxis dart through the hilly streets and hoards of foreign missionaries — complete with their blond hair, ties, nametags and Bibles — are easily spotted.

Talk of politics has certainly been rife in Copán Ruinas, but almost in a dismissive sense.

“I just want these two clowns (Zelaya and the then de facto president, Roberto Micheletti,) to get lost and for someone else, anyone else, to take over,” says a self-confessed party girl named Fanny, while lounging at Van Vaeck’s hotel bar, Via Via.

The party scene is somewhat subdued these days in Copán Ruinas, although during happier times, Peace Corps volunteers, backpackers and Hondurans from other parts of the country would pour in for weekend junkets.

They would lounge on couches and take in DJ performances on weekends at Via Via, while next door at Tun Club, patrons would sip mojitos and bottles of SalvaVida — or Life Preserver, the national brew — while sitting on saddles next to the bar, enjoying live performances by bands covering Latino hits.

Others would come for a more laid-back, almost quirky vibe. At the Carnitas Ni’a Lola, for example, the restaurant serves up massive steak dinners for $10 and the waitresses carry drink and snack orders to the tables on their heads.

Still more would come for the outlying attractions, which provide much of Copán Ruinas’s true charm. Those places include Macaw Mountain, a sanctuary for exotic birds. In the village of La Pintada, a short walk from the Hacienda San Lucas, indigenous Maya Chortí women weave cornhusk dolls to provide incomes that support entire households. (Sales are scant these days.) And, of course, there are the Mayan ruins, which, while less grand in stature in comparison to other Maya ruins such as Tikal in Guatemala and Palenque in Mexico, feature a large number of sculptures.

Further afield, the El Cisne coffee and cardamom plantation takes guests for horseback tours of its working farm, swims in the local hot springs and overnight stays that include feasts prepared from the locally grown bounty.

Over a breakfast of passion fruit juice and fried yucca, El Cisne owner Carlos Castejon boasts of the potential of his corner of Honduras and even figures the political unrest might ultimately work to the country’s advantage — in a tourist sense.

“The whole world now knows about us,” he says, adding, “There’s no such thing as bad publicity."