Marcelo Ebrard, Mayor of Mexico City
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Marcelo Ebrard, the battle-hardened
and reforming mayor of Mexico City
By Rodrigo Aguilar Benignos, Senior Latin America Correspondent
10 June 2010: A mayor with a thousand battles behind him, Marcelo Ebrard, the leftist Mayor of Mexico City, has proved that he is a liberal reformer and pragmatist, who is not afraid to challenge Mexico’s orthodoxy. He has championed women’s and minorities rights and has become an outspoken and internationally respected advocate on environmental issues. Mayor Ebrard has been awarded the 2010 World Mayor Prize. He discusses his city's affairs with City Mayor’s Special Correspondent in Latin America.
| Mexico City | Governance | Transport & the Environment | Social issues |
Mayor Ebrard has been involved both as citizen and public official in three crises - the 1985 earthquake, the environmental catastrophe of the 1980s, and more recently the swine flu outbreak of 2009. He managed the swine flu outbreak to international acclaim. He was responsible for laws allowing same-sex marriage and abortion in a deeply Catholic country. Now he faces his next battle, in which he hopes to lead other mayors around the world in taking on climate change - once and for all. Proud of being a public servant, Ebrard recognises that there is still a great deal to be done for the people of Mexico City - particularly the poorest.
City Mayors: What is the most recent satisfaction you have derived from the City?
Marcelo Ebrard: The greatness of the people of Mexico City recently manifested itself during the swine flu crisis, which, as the world knows, began on a large scale in our city in 2009. This was such an enormous crisis - a vast and terrible problem with an unknown virus. It was lethal. I basically asked all citizens to stop all activities for almost two weeks. We shut down everything, from schools to theatres. And they did so. We didn’t have to use force, which shows the civic awareness and responsibility of the people of Mexico City. A mayoral colleague from another big city told me that he couldn’t have done a similar thing in his city. He told me he would probably have needed to use the police to enforce such measures in a crisis like swine flu. So, what is the challenge now? To use that capacity, that civic awareness, or civil response of society, to tackle other causes not related to crises but to confront ongoing critical issues for our city. Take, for instance, water. We have a huge problem with water supply and we need to change the way we use it. Mexico City wastes a great deal of it. In order to change this we need to take advantage of this same civic response, of which we are capable. Another example of what needs to be done is to truly achieve gender equality, not with rhetoric but with reality. Women are still afraid to use public transport, parks, and other public spaces because they feel they are not respected. We must make a huge effort as a society to change all this.
C M: What makes you passionate about Mexico City?
M E: First, its people; and then the fact of its great and majestic cultural heritage, one of the most recognised in the world. We have more theatres and museums than New York. Just near my office, for example, there are more than 30 museums. In addition, there is the innovation and creativity of its people. We produce 75 per cent of all scientific research and development in Mexico - patents, developments, ideas, books, theories, and so on.
C M: In which barrio (neighbourhood) have you lived and how would you describe your current barrio?
M E: I spent my childhood in the neighborhood of Coyoacan, on Ignacio Zaragoza Street. I then moved to Colonia del Valle in my grandmother’s house and I now live in La Condesa (the Countess). I love my barrio, it’s special. La condesa’s design was inspired by the European urban model of the 1930s, which means that besides the architecture, it is a ‘walking’ neighbourhood that gives priority to public space over density. It is an area that is nothing like a suburb. There is an active community of neighbours. Many people cycle. Recently we have enjoyed positive change because a lot of young people have moved into the barrio bringing in their wake artists, painters, and musicians. There is great social diversity.
C M: Which part of the city most concerns you as mayor of Mexico City?
M E: I’m worried about what happens in every single part of it. However, I would say that I’m concerned about those areas with irregular settlements, or poor areas where you have an obvious erosion of public space - for example, the massive public housing buildings of “Rosario” in Azcapotzalco occupying some 864 acres. Then there are the areas with insufficient basic services, or scarce public services, such as part of Santa Catarina in Iztapalapa, or the most orographically complex zone of Alvaro Obregon such as Barrio Norte, or the working class parts of Santa Fe. I have those areas on my mind. I could give you a long list of many others but those, with that kind of profile, are the ones we have to work hard on in order to include them, to provide them with basic services, to build a sense of community with them.
C M:Which barrio is the one that gets you emotionally involved because of its situation?
M E: I wish there were only one!
C M: Which political system best suits Mexico City?
M E: I believe the city needs more autonomy. We come from a regime where the city did not have its own life. We did not have mayoral elections, but a regent appointed by the president. The Federal Congress decided, and still does, the amount of debt for the city. The Mexican Senate can remove the Mayor; we witnessed one such attempt with former Mayor Lopez Obrador. The Mexican President still authorises certain appointed officials, particularly on security matters. The Federal government still does not allow the passing of certain laws of local interest, and so on.
All of this comes from 1997 and extends to the present day, and it has to change for good - so how do we resolve this? Let’s put aside all the friction with the current federal authority. This is the capital of the Mexican Republic. This is the home of the federal powers, ok, that is fine. Let’s put aside all the intrusive elements in the city’s life; let’s give the local assembly the power to make laws that are in the interests of the citizens of Mexico City - it is our own congress, it is our own representative body.
Let’s give Mexico City the same treatment as any other State in the country. I don’t know why it should be different. All of this would require the creation of a local constitution; there are people opposed to the idea of calling it “State”, well, it is Mexico City - period. Why do we need to fight about the name? It doesn’t make any sense. What matters most is the functionality of the system. In sum, let’s avoid all the potential points of conflict or ambiguity and let’s have a government system that can work in the long term.
C M: What are the roles of the 16 delegations and the barrios for the governability of the city?
M E: The delegations were formed a long time ago, under a different regime; the original idea of the delegation was to have a closer relationship between government and citizen. Today we need to redesign the dimension of the delegations because when you have delegations with more than two million people, it no longer works. We must then create a sort of representation or a form of neighbourhood intervention from the barrios and villages in order to include them in decision-making.
The role of the barrios is pivotal to our governability. We introduced a program that reinforces the identity within the barrios and is helping to create community there. It is helping us to make things better and to avoid frustration and permanent conflict. We are a city of nine million people. There have never been so many in such a small space while at the same time we’ve never felt so lonely and away from one another. It’s a paradox; what we must try to do is to build a bridge between one thing and the other.
C M: Considering the current increase of violence related to drug trafficking in the country, why do you think Mexico City is fairly distanced from this?
M E: The recent violence with regard to drug trafficking has been tremendous in our country. It is related to the control of the routes that go all the way up to the United States. We have also managed things in a different way in terms of a relative social cohesion. We have a whole class of students with scholarships (around 230,000 high school students) who used to drop out of school because they didn’t have enough money to study. As a result of this program, the rate of students dropping out of high school has decreased from 22 per cent to 5 per cent. Another example is that we have 500,000 elderly people with food pensions. All of these social programs are certainly building a better social cohesion than in other cities in Mexico.
I explained all this in the National Council for Security; I proposed that we do this at national level instead of buying a lot of weapons, because this is not the solution. This is essential to resolving the current situation. Just consider this: How many young people between 15 and 19 are absent from school in Mexico? More than half! What do you think is going to happen? What are we waiting for? We should be focusing our energy on education and schools and this should be a national priority and fulfilled in a reasonable period of time, otherwise we are going to lose to the drug traffickers.
TRANSPORT AND THE ENVIRONMENT
C M: What transport system (size, features) does Mexico City need for public transportation to be a real option for the people?
M E: We have 124 miles of subway plus 14 miles we are building right now. We need to build around 105 miles of bus lanes, trolleybus and other forms of route such as light rail and the new RTP (Public Transport Network). The idea is that besides everything we are doing on public transport right now, what else can be done in order to make the citizen reflect: “Why should I use the car today?” We are considering two ways for increasing public transport services: 1) Commuting time and 2) Future gas emissions. When we suffered the environmental crisis of the 1980s, during which birds actually dropped dead onto the street from polluted air, the strategic approach was to restrict the use of the car to once a week, allowing us to take away 250,000 cars. But in the end this came with high social and political costs. We did, however, reduce the numbers of cars in the city.
It has been traditional in Mexico City for streets and highways to be publicly financed. What we are now doing is charging the user a fee for using these new roads, not the rest of the people. This is an important political change. In this sense, we increase the investment on public transport but every time you use your car it is going to cost you more. This is our policy. Now, it is a fact that as citizens in Mexico City increase their economic levels, they significantly increase their use of cars to an extent that far surpasses the rate of economic growth. The great risk is that we could face a collapse in the city in the next 10 years if we don’t do what we are doing. I’m thinking in the long term here.
C M: Can you say something on the regulation of taxi cabs and minibuses in the city?
M E: When we took office, we had taxi cabs of all kinds, including illegal pirates without plates. This led to safety and pollution problems. What we’ve been doing over these past three years is to force all such vehicles to seek permission and plates. This single action was hardly noticeable but extremely significant.
Through a very complex program we exchanged around 67,000 old vehicles for new ones, allowing us to improve air and transport quality. This year we need to exchange another 11,000 taxi cabs. Additionally, we have phased out around 4,000 micro-buses or vans for regular clean-air buses on 11 important highways. We need to force current owners to modernise their organisational model because it is very old and dysfunctional. These changes haven’t been at all easy, but we’ve changed Reforma Avenue and Periferico. We are talking about routes that transport around 300,000 people daily.
C M: Should, or could, mayors take a more active role on climate change owing to the recent failure of the Copenhagen Summit?
M E: Mayors or cities don’t have time. Our city can’t afford to negotiate a plan for 10 years. The risks we are facing on climate change are of today. I had it made obvious to me last week with extremely high temperatures in our city, and I’m going to face the problem again during the rainy season with unpredicted rains. We are facing the risks right now, and we need to act now. In the Copenhagen Summit we made a comprehensive collection of data of all the investments that cities are making in all these matters to reduce emissions. We presented our case during the Summit, and what cities are trying to do now is to align decisions that no one else is making. For example, what types of technology are we going to use in public transport? Well, this is something that cities can answer together. We made a first agreement for electric vehicles for next year and 11 cities are participating in this. We’ll introduce these vehicles with the same features at the same time; this opens a different market at a different speed because if I wait until the federal government makes a decision on this I’ll see you in ten years - when are they going to resolve this? Who knows? I can’t wait.
Mayors can certainly align decisions; we are also working on the strategic energy norms. Where are we going with this? Because we set the regulation on all buildings, we create the markets in a way. What else can we do as mayors? Those countries that are sending more emissions into the atmosphere are not transferring resources in real terms to their cities in order to go faster in stopping this. We are also thinking about having available resources (like fund partnering with institutions), on which cities can present their projects and compete for direct resources, in addition to the local resources they have.
International resources are taking too long - for example, the Mexico city Metro-bus project, a surface transport system of the clean-air bus with designed stops, is a success story and other cities in Mexico and the world are going to adopt the model. In order to gain access to international resources for this project, we worked six years and got only 2.5 million USD. This happens to other cities as well. Take, for instance, the carbon offset bonds and other international initiatives that have not been implemented. They are slow, expensive, and inaccessible. We propose a direct way of allocating resources; all those millions of dollars, let’s take a part of that money, make those resources available, let’s set the rules, let’s get the job done because we don’t have time - otherwise it’s all bla bla bla, just talk.
C M: Can cities also coordinate to get better deals on common purchases?
M E: Absolutely, we should do this. We are exchanging information about the mentioned electric vehicles, but also gas vehicles, solar energy and other alternative energy sources, water reuse, and so on. We need to buy equipment and technology for this. At the last meeting of Capital Cities of Iberoamerica, we realised we were buying exactly the same equipment and the suppliers were selling at whatever price they wanted.
C M: Which social program has your administration started that has had a major impact?
M E: The youth program, as I told you, is a whole class of high school students of 230,000 scholarships. It’s been working, makes sense, and we have had positive results. The most valuable program we continued from the past administration has been food for the elderly, which enables 500,000 people to eat; otherwise they would have no way of surviving.
C M: What are the current challenges on discrimination in Mexico City?
M E: Our discrimination problems are related to three cultural pillars that we must change: 1) How women and children are treated in our society, 2) How we characterise people with disabilities and minorities such as the ethnic groups that do not speak Spanish. 3) Economic discrimination as a result of terrible social inequality.
We are working on changing those three pillars. We have in hand a lot of initiatives to change this culturally that will take me a long time to explain. Just to mention one, we have just conducted a recount of how many ethnics groups are represented here in Mexico City (Zapotec, Nahuatl etc.) and what immigrants we have had and what their backgrounds are. This month we are going to present the facts on all this. You would be surprised how much these ethnic groups contribute to Mexico City.
Moreover we’ve been working with local legislative bodies, approving laws such as the “legal interruption of pregnancy”, “gay marriage” - or in other words, to let people love whomever they wish. All of these things help us to change cultural models in our society in order to transform it into a more equal one.
Mexico City has a long tradition of liberal values. That is why the left has been governing all this time, yet we still have polarisation due to these issues. For example, when we proposed the “legal interruption of pregnancy law,” we had all the right-wing groups and the Catholic Church across the country in opposition to the law. All they said about the upcoming disaster didn’t, in the end, happen; they said that most of the people who would end pregnancies would be teenagers, but it turned out to be false. They said that Catholic women would not undergo abortion, yet 80 per cent of them are Catholics. They said that the decision would be something that couples would generally disagree on false. Most of the people go to the clinic as couples. All of these things are documented now and it has turned out to be a big defeat for the conservatives and has proved us right in that this has been a successful public health policy.
The same is happening now with the law that we passed that allows you to love whomever you wish. There have only been 346 gay marriages, not the “million” the opposition said we would have. I’m telling you all these numbers because this is progressive; the cruelty and oppression over the gay-lesbian community has been so fierce that they still prefer not to get married. All of these changes will take time for our society to digest, to process; they are polemic but fundamental changes. We can no longer be a city with a Human Rights Commission, a society that has signed International Human Rights agreements, and at the same time actively persecute people who think and act differently. That is the battle.
We are currently analysing another controversial issue for our city - the regulation of sexual services, or prostitution. What we have now is the reality in many of our Catholic-Hispanic societies; what I mean is we currently ban prostitution but we allow it, and then we punish those involved. It is a total nonsense. Additionally, we don’t take care of the public health aspects of this, which is totally unacceptable. The current model is in crisis. It is double-talk. It is a mockery. It is one of these cultural issues we need to overcome. The goal is to protect those who work as prostitutes, because at the end of the day it is their own decision and we can’t forbid this. What we certainly forbid - and will always prosecute is human trafficking, which is totally illegal. Mexico City has a number of success stories in prosecuting that type of criminal act. We also need to protect the users of the service.
C M: Does this double-talk, this mockery, apply to the legalisation of marijuana?
M E: Absolutely. In this case it is total. First of all in our current federal law marijuana consumption is not a crime. In other words, it is legal to consume, therefore it is already legal to smoke marijuana in Mexico because there is no sanction against the person who consumes. The only problem is that once you get someone consuming, you take it to the police and take him into the whole bureaucratic process that favours acts of corruption. So, we are in a war on drugs but the consumption is allowed. We have an ambiguous, contradictory and ineffective system of laws on this matter and it doesn’t work. Besides, what is the option? To overcrowd prisons with young people? I don’t think so. Let’s focus on prevention, to attend to and guide young people. Hard line measures are not the solution to this; it is a total failure today in Mexico. We should be more concerned about the level of alcohol consumption. Some 52 per cent of young people between 12 and 15 in this city has contact with alcohol three or more times a week against 10 per cent of marijuana consumption by this same group of young people.
C M: How do you deal with migration in Mexico City?
M E: Even though it is a federal matter, we’ve just created an area of government that deals with these issues, particularly on collecting data to help us to understand this phenomenon. Who is coming to the city? Who is going away? Where and why are they going? Mexico is a transit city for migration movements to the north, particularly from Central America to the US, and we also receive a huge amount of internal migration from other parts of Mexico. We have identified around 400,000 citizens from Mexico City in the US. The strategic approach with them is to help them while they are in the US but also to increase the level of opportunities here in the city. We need to speed up the economic growth of the city and opportunities in order to keep them here.
C M: Finally, what can other cities in the world learn from Mexico City’s experience?
M E: We all learn from one another. I prefer to use the term “exchange”. I would say that out biggest advantage is Crisis Management, the high degree of vulnerability that we have has given us a certain culture, or way of confronting these crises, in an unusual and remarkable way. This is something rare in cities of this size. On the climate change action plan, some cities have asked me for a copy. On how we are preparing for the green economy, well, some mayors seem to look to our social policy, as well as to the initiatives we have taken on urban mobility and public spaces. These are the topics that other mayors ask me questions and seek information about. Mayors must act in concert. Together, we can take a more active role on global issues. Our cities are the sources of wealth, but also of pollution. Environmental matters are common areas of exchange, since we are all linked in the same dire destiny unless we soon enhance our cooperation and our actions.
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