In search for a better future and lasting peace

What I am slowly realizing, a bit more than two years after having moved to Mexico, is that the place I come from is much more abnormal, globally speaking, than the place I am currently living in.

I am German, I have been born and raised in Germany, and until I was 24, I have nearly exclusively lived in Germany, besides a year as an AFS exchange student in Japan. Then I went to the US and the UK to study and work. It was not until 2002, that I started living, for the first time, in a developing country – in Mexico.

Europe – or should I better say Western Europe – has always been my point of reference. I see the negative aspects of daily life in Mexico – impunity, corruption, underperforming government, traffic, contamination, the non-existent service mentality when it comes to monopolies or oligopolies such as Telmex, Telcel, banks, the state electricity company, internet service providers, you name it – and I compare them to how life in Western Europe is. And I see two very different realities.

But, globally speaking, actually billions more people live in conditions similar to the ones in Mexico, or far worse, than to the super high standards of Germany, The Netherlands, Austria, or the likes – legal certainty and transparency, in general good governance, excellent public services such as education, health, transportation, etc. Western Europe is actually a tiny island in the huge sea of countries struggling for a better life. With hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants coming into Western Europe, people there get a glimpse of life beyond their borders – a world, a lot of Germans, Dutch and Austrians have been busy for years, if not decades, to forget and not be bothered with too much.

The current crisis should remind Europe why it is so important to take on global responsibility. Every human being has the right to try to achieve a better future for themselves and for their children – if this right is denied for too long in their country of origin, some will take the chance and search for it somewhere else. Migration might not be a human right, but it for sure is a reality. Mexicans search for better lives mainly in the US – about 12 million of them live there, that is more than 10 percent of their total population. They risk their lives trying to make their way across the desert. Africans, Central Asians and people from the Middle East might opt for Europe, basically because it is closer. They risk their lives, and lots of them loose it, trying to make their way across the Mediterranean.

After having lived for some time outside my Western European comfort zone, I can understand why some Mexicans, Nigerians, Pakistani or Afghans get on the migration trail.

The case of Syrians is even much more dire. They flee from war in their country – something most of us, fortunately, have never faced and never wish to face. I cannot imagine how frightened and vulnerable you must feel in a place like Syria right now. And I can empathize with any Syrian, particularly fathers and mothers, leaving their home, starting a journey to someplace safe.

I do not have a plan for peace in Syria, unfortunately. But it is imperative that the international community takes responsibility to protect the people of Syria. How come that humans can fly to the moon, split atoms, and cure cancer, but have come across so many situations of  war that we have not satisfyingly ended. We should put our smartest minds to trying to address these conflicts and bring more and lasting peace to the people. 25 years after the fall of the Iron Curtain, we have to invest in finding solutions to the new threats we face.

Contra la mega-urbanisación de la colonia Del Valle

Un foto puede decir mucho mas que 1000 palabras. Yo tengo dos fotos que les quiero compartir. Es la vista de mi sala.

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El primer foto es de hace mas o menos un año. El segundo es de hoy. Los dos no tienen exactamente el mismo ángulo. Tampoco son de gran calidad fotográfica, francamente. Pero donde hace un año estaba una casa individual con un jardín grande, hoy en día hay una construcción que llena hasta el ultimo centímetro cuadrado del terreno.

La Cuidad de México, o mas propiamente el Distrito Federal, tiene casi 9 millones de habitantes. Es una ciudad muy densamente poblada, en muchas de sus zonas. Yo vivo en una zona céntrica, se llama la colonia Del Valle, en la delegación Benito Juárez. Hasta los fines de la década de los 1970s, era una colonia con muchas casa grandes, con jardines – como la que estaba atrás de mi edificio hasta hace un año. Era una colonia con calles con camellón en medio, con arboles, muy tranquila y residencial, de hecho. Desde los años 1980s, empezó una transformación de construir mas edificios con departamentos y también oficinas. Pero hoy en día ha llegado a un punto que ya no es nada sustentable, y tampoco agradable para los habitantes.

Es totalmente lógico que la capital política, económica y cultural de un país como México que tiene una población que todavía crece año por año, también crece. La megalópolis alrededor de la Ciudad de México tiene ya como 28 millones de habitantes; el país llega casi a 120 millones. Y también en México, como en todos los países desarrollados, la gran mayoridad de la población vive en centros urbanos. Entonces construcciones de nuevas viviendas son totalmente necesarias – no hay de otra.

Pero en la colonia Del Valle, por casi cada casa vieja que se vende, desarrolladores construyen un edificio con seis, ocho, diez departamentos o más. Y usan su terreno al máximo – que es totalmente legal; nada mas tienes que dejar menos que un medio metro alrededor de tu edificio por razones sísmicos. Ese resulta, lógicamente, en mucho menos áreas verdes, mas gentes, mas tráfico, y mas demanda a la infraestructura publica que abastece per ejemplo agua y electricidad y que se encarga de la basura. Si sigue ese desarrollo, en pocos años la Del Valle va tener nada mas edificios, asfalto y coches. Y unos pocos arboles adentro de unos pocos parques públicos.

Como habitante de la Del Valle, me gustaría que mi gobierno local a lo menos trata que la colonia no se convierte en un mini-Manhattan. No estoy hablando de parar la construcción de edificios – pero a lo menos introduce algunas reglas que se debe conservar áreas verdes, que se llena un terreno 98% con ladrillo y cemento. Hasta ahora, no veo mucho de los representantes oficiales aquí contra la mega-urbanisación de mi colonia.

Der Chronist der Winde

Am Montag dieser Woche starb der schwedische Autor Henning Mankell. An genau dem Tag sprachen wir in unserem deutschsprachigen Literaturkreis in Mexiko-Stadt über sein Buch “Der Chronist der Winde”.

In dem Roman, 1995 erschienen, erzählt Mankell die Geschichte vom Straßenkind Nelio, zehn Jahre alt: Sein Dorf wurde von Banditen brutal überfallen, seine Schwester barbarisch ermordet, der Junge von seinen Eltern getrennt. Von Heimat und Familie beraubt, flieht Nelio in die Stadt – angelehnt an Mosambiks Hauptstadt Maputo – und kämpft dort jeden Tag ums blanke Überleben. Er schließt sich einer Gruppe von Straßenkindern an und wird schließlich deren Anführer. Durch seine besondere Art schafft er es, dass die Jungen kleine Dinge tun, die sie aus ihrer Unsichtbarkeit heraustreten lassen. Er regt sie an, Träume zu haben. Gemeinsam erfüllen sie den Wunsch des einen, und den Traum des anderen. Dabei wird Nelio angeschossen, und stirbt neun Tage später an seinen Wunden. In den Nächten bis zu seinem Tod erzählt er seine Lebensgeschichte einem Bäcker, den die Begegnung mit dem weisen Jungen schwer beeindruckt.

Kurz vor seinem Tod sagt Nelio zu José Antonio Maria Vaz, dem Bäcker:

“Mein Vater war ein sehr kluger Mann. Er lehrte mich, zu den Sternen aufzuschauen, wenn das Leben schwer war. Wenn ich den Blick dann wieder auf die Erde senkte, war das, was eben noch übermächtig war, auf einmal klein und einfach.”

Mankell starb im Alter von 67 Jahren an Krebs. 1973 reiste der Schwede zum ersten Mal nach Afrika; seitdem lebte er abwechselnd in Maputo und in Stockholm. Der Autor, weltbekannt durch seine Kriminalromane, setzte sich für den Kontinent Afrika und seine Menschen in Armut, Not und Verfolgung ein. Der “Chronist der Winde” ist ein beeindruckender Roman. Der Junge Nelio macht mit seinem Blick zu den Sternen allen Leidenden Mut – heute genauso wie vor 20 Jahren, als Mankell ihn für uns erschuf.

Viva Hidalgo! Viva México!

Today, Mexico celebrates the 205th anniversary of its independence. In the early hours of 16 September 1810, the Mexican Catholic priest Miguel Hidalgo encouraged a group of people to free themselves from Spanish colonial rule. Hidalgo, the most important of Mexico`s independence heroes, had the church bells ring and supposedly shouted “Death to bad government!” that night, in the town of Dolores in the state of Guanajuato. In the subsequent months, Hidalgo gathered an army of 90,000 mainly poor farm workers from indigenous or mestizo origin who fought against the ruling elite in the country – Spaniards and “criollos”, descendants from Spaniards born in the colonies.

Hidalgo was captured and executed not even a year after his famous “grito”, i.e. shout. The Mexican War of Independence lasted another ten years, until the country finally achieved its sovereignty in 1821. The question is, if it has also overcome bad government.

Mexico is a great country. It covers nearly 2 million square kilometers, more than five times the area of Germany, of beautiful coastlines, tropical forests, pristine mountain ranges, fertile plains and deserts with a unique biological, cultural and ethnic diversity. It brought corn, tomatoes and cocoa to the world; to name just a few of the goods. Its 120 million people are friendly and hard-working. Its economy ranks 15th on the global scale – thanks to the growing manufacturing industry, the sluggish oil and gas sector, tourism and the remittances of more than 12 million Mexicans living in the United States.

But nearly 200 years after Mexicans could again fully decide for themselves and choose a government they deemed appropriate, the country could be and should be in better shape. In 2014, 55 million Mexicans lived in poverty – that are even two million more than two years earlier. 28 million did not have enough to eat, 22 million suffered from a serious deprivation in basic education, the same number did not have proper access to health care. The ones that are doing better work overtime and spend every peso they can to send their children to private schools and attend private doctors – despite the fact that the government provides both for free. But a lot of people are just not content with the quality of public services.

Insecurity in the country is a definite issue. Impunity is widespread – according to the Financial Times, only 0.5 percent of crimes went punished in 2013. The papers conclusion after the disappearance of 43 students in Iguala last September: “It is remarkable Mexican criminality is not higher still.” And Mexico ranked even worse than in previous years in 2014 in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index – it came out as 103rd on a list of 175 countries.

Seven in ten Mexicans say that they are dissatisfied with the way things are going in their country, according to a latest poll by the Pew Research Center: Rising prices, crime, lack of employment opportunities and corrupt political leaders were the top concerns.

The Mexican President, state governors and city mayors honor Hidalgo’s contribution to the country by shouting out his name and the ones of several other independence heroes on the night of 15 September. President Enrique Peña Nieto did that yesterday at 11 pm from the balcony of the Presidential Palace in Mexico City. He has three years left of his six-year term – he, and any other elected official in the country, should use that time to continue the fight Hidalgo started and make bad government truly a feature of the past. The Mexican people deserve it.

El poder de los consumidores en México – bancos

Tengo que escribir este “post” en español, porque afecta principalmente a mis amigos mexicanos. Pero también muestra a la gente afuera de México que en un país en desarrollo, como México, los consumidores tienen mucho menos poder que en un país desarrollado.

Hace algunos días me informó mi banco aquí, Bancomer, el segundo mas grande en el país, que el sueldo promedio mensual que tengo que tener en mi cuenta ya son 8000 pesos. Punto. Muchos saludos y adiós. Nada mas. Averigüé y vi que antes eran en 4000 pesos. Si no tienes el sueldo promedio mensual en tu cuenta, te cobran, al mes, 370 pesos de comisión, mas IVA, que sale al cliente en mas que 400 pesos.

Para recordar a la gente afuera de México: Hablamos de un país con un salario mínimo de alrededor de 2000 pesos, entonces ahora mi banco quiere que todos sus clientes tienen a lo menos cuatro veces el salario mínimo en su cuenta, si no, les cobran mas que 400 pesos, al mes. Una ayudante de casa en la Cuidad de México, la zona mas cara del país, gana 300 pesos al día. Entonces tiene que trabajar mas que un día para pagar para el servicio de tener una cuenta bancaria de cheques con Bancomer. Porque nunca va estar en la posición de tener 8000 pesos en su cuenta, sin usarlos. Porque ella gana 6000 pesos al mes. Pero me olvidé – nada mas 39 par ciento de los mexicanos tienen una cuenta bancaria, y lo mas probable es que una ayudante de casa esta adentro de los 61 par ciento de la población que no tiene ninguna. México mejoró en el punto de inclusión financiera en los últimos años, pero todavía esta mucho atrás del resto de América Latina.

Para mi cuenta en Alemania pago menos que 5 euros al mes, alrededor de 90 pesos. Como, francamente, puede ser que los bancos mexicanos cobran mas a sus clientes que los bancos europeos? Operan en un entorno con mucho menos gastos – pagan sueldos mucho mas bajos, sobre todo. Pues, cobran mas porque lo pueden hacer. Porque los otros bancos también te piden un sueldo mínimo o te cobran comisión. Y es una lata cambiar banco, porque tienes que llevar muchos documentos, invertir a lo menos una hora para abrir una nueva cuenta, regresar después de unos días para recoger tu chequera (si, todavía se usa mucho en México), esperar otra vez. Las colas en los bancos mexicanos son legendarios.

Logico que el banco no da interes al cliente para sus 8000 pesos que están en la cuenta.

Lidiar con bancos es algo muy frustrante en México. Es como lidiar con el ex-monopolista de servicios telefónicos fijos (Telmex) o mobiles (Telcel) – nunca te dan el servicio que tu crees que mereces porque pagas mucho dinero, mucho mas que pagarías por el mismo servicio en Europa. Que a mi me gustaría es ver a los consumidores mexicanos levantarse, quejarse, no dejarse tratar como clientes dependientes, pero demandar, si exigir, que les dan un buen servicio.

Playing hardball and crossing a line!

Yesterday (Tuesday) morning, a recording of a private telephone call between the President of Mexico’s National Electoral Institute (INE) and the organization’s executive secretary was leaked to the public. In the call which took place in April, INE head Lorenzo Córdova tells his colleague about a meeting he had with indigenous leaders and mocks the way one of them was speaking.

Definitely, what Córdova said in the phone call, was offensive and – if you want to use that concept – not politically correct. INE’s function is to make sure that parties in Mexico act according to the rules and that elections are organized in a free, fair and effective way. There are elections coming up in less than three weeks, on 7 June. Córdova very often seems like a mum telling her fighting children to stop and behave – campaigning can be a messy business in Mexico. I still have not found out which institution fulfills the role of INE in my country, Germany. I actually think, there is no one counterpart, but that responsibilities are held by different bodies, if at all. Maybe politicians also just stick to the rules more there. In México, compliance with and enforcement of the law are some of the biggest problems.

We all know that we live in a world where government institutions such as the secret service survey phone calls, messages, emails, etc. By doing so, they infringe on basic human rights, for example our right to privacy. That is not okay, and in a lot of parts of the world there are debates going on as to how far surveillance should go. Usually the argument of those using these techniques is that they are necessary for protecting national security. I do not think that the head of Mexico`s national electoral body should fall under this category.

We also know that there are, let’s call them “free agents”, who know how to infringe on people’s privacy. Making a private phone call public, however, is even a step further. INE yesterday filed a formal penal complaint, so it will be up to the attorney general’s office to find out who did the recording and who leaked it. Taken Córdova’s position, it seems the most likely that some party official has decided to play hardball. What he or she might not have considered is that with choosing the action he or she did, a line was crossed!

Mexico’s democracy is already plagued by corruption, cronyism and elected officials’ indifference to the people they represent. It is under severe threat from organized crime. Now another unlawful instrument has made its way into the toolbox of some acting in the political arena. I hope that investigators find the culprit – because he or she has not only damaged Mr. Córdova or the INE, but the whole country.

More on the story can be found here:

http://www.animalpolitico.com/2015/05/ine-denuncia-ante-pgr-filtracion-de-llamada-en-que-lorenzo-cordova-se-burla-de-indigenas/

Mexico’s “Green” Party

Parties that call themselves green usually define as one of their main goals to protect the environment. Using earth’ resouces in an efficient and respectful way, trying to adapt one’s consumption patterns in order to mitigate the dangerous developments of global warming and climate change – all those are usually policies pushed for by green parties.

It is particularly important for politicians that their words are followed by appropriate actions – a President claiming to fight corruption should not receive favors by a big government contractor; a governor claiming to protect human rights should not ignore when police in his state uses violence and torture.

Yesterday, on a highway outside Mexico City, I came across this car.

Yesterday at a highway outside Mexico City.

A Chevrolet Suburban, black, darkened windows, quite popular in Mexico, actually. Depending on the model, the Suburban has at least a 5.3-liter engine and 320 horsepower and a fuel economy of, in the best case, 15 miles per gallon in the city and 21 miles per gallon on the highway (for my European friends: that is roughly 15 liters on 100 km in the city and 10 on the highway).

The car displayed huge stickers with the slogan “Partido Verde – Sí cumple“, meaning that the Green Party fulfills the promises they make. I was wondering what the political promises and goals of Mexico’s Partido Verde were when I got overtaken by that car. I think, the party has some catching up to do on their own environmental consciousness.

Traffic

Mexico City is a big city, with a serious traffic problem…But today, several negative factors came together. Just so that you get an idea of what it is like to live in a megapolis of an emerging market:

1. Today is Friday – Friday evening rush-hour is the worst of the whole week…I guess it is not that more people go to work than from Monday to Thursday, but that people go out on Friday night or leave the city heading for their weekend homes.

2. Today is the second Friday in the month, i.e. people get paid (Mexicans get paid every quinzena, every “15 days”). And when Mexicans get paid, they like to spend it; so more people go to cantinas, bars, restaurants and cinemas on “quinzena” Friday than the other one.

3. Today it rained. Despite the fact that it rains nearly half of the year in Mexico (from May to October, usually), every day, traffic becomes so much slower when it does. It has to be said, though, that we are in March, when rain is extremely unusual here. And, on top of that, hail came down today…

4. Today is the last school day before Easter vacation, the most important family vacation in Mexico besides the xmas holidays.

My son attended a birthday party today. The girl, who invited all the kids of their grade, lives about 10 kilometers away from us. Unfortunately, the route is prone to traffic congestion. Parents organized car pools to pick up the kids. My phone has been in constant reception of WhatsApp messages commenting on how heavy the traffic is, etc. I am calculating that it will take my son and his friends about 90 minutes to get home…That is what it is like to live in a megapolis of an emerging economy.

Ecobici – trying to make a megacity more liveable

For the last five years, little red bicycles have helped to make the heavy Mexico City traffic a little less dense and polluting. The service – run by Mexico City’s local government – now offers more than 6000 bikes at more than 400 bike stations. An annual membership costs 400 pesos (27 USD or 24 Euros); lately, short-term memberships for one, three or seven days have been introduced. According to Ecobici, nearly 150.000 users have registered so far for the service which is the biggest in Latin America.

And right on their 5th anniversary, the Ecobicis have made their way into our neighborhood, the borough of Benito Juárez.

The only thing lacking now is educating local drivers that they are not the only ones on the streets. Might be an even tougher job than what Ecobici has reached so far.

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