Marcelo Ebrard and the Politics of Fun
While Mexican president Felipe Calderón fractured his arm in a biking accident over the weekend, the news was generally overlooked by American newspapers. This morning, however, in an act of poetic irony, The Washington Post published a fantastic five-page profile of Mexico City’s firebrand mayor, Marcelo Ebrard — a man who refuses to accept Calderón as Mexico’s president — which began with an account of his dangerous and unusual monthly routine, biking to work.
Aside from refusing to acknowledge Calderón as president — Ebrand maintains that he committed fraud to win the 2006 election — Ebrand has gained attention for his dynamic and unconventional approach to mayoral politics, earning the label of “the Mexican political world’s master illusionist.” Since becoming Mayor on the Democratic Revolution Party (PRD) ticket in late 2006, Ebrand has set an agenda for Mexico city that interweaves progressive social policies — decriminalizing abortion, legalizing gay unions, revamping the public transit system — with splashy, media-grabbing public events, including setting up an ice-skating rink in Mexico City’s Zocalo Plaza five times larger than the one in Rockefeller Center. Also, he’s gained international attention for setting up public beaches throughout the city during the summers. As a result of these tactics, as well as an aggressive campaign to green the notoriously polluted Mexico City, Marion Lloyd described him in a Houston Chronicle profile as “a public face that blends populist theater… good government and a behind-the-scenes reputation as part geeky environmentalist and part shrewd political operator.”
As mayor of one of the most dangerous and environmentally stunted cities in Latin America, Ebrand certainly has his work cut out for him. In his efforts to battle the city’s staggering inequality and notoriously corrupt political infrastructure, Ebrand has focused on Mexico City’s underclasses, pursuing a brand of politics marked by traces of populism, and weirdly enough, magical realism:
This chaotic metropolitan area of nearly 20 million doesn’t live up to Ebrard’s hopes — it is a place plagued by some of the world’s worst air pollution, chronic flooding, brutal traffic, corrupt police, drug-trafficking gangs, rampant car theft and a vicious wave of kidnappings. So, while he is setting about trying to fix those problems, Ebrard, 48, is also forever concocting set pieces, staging cities within his city, realities within his reality. They are productions aimed at Ebrard’s best audience, the vast legions of the poor in Mexico City who swarm to each new incarnation in Marcelo-land for a taste of what this city’s entrenched elite can fly elsewhere to get.
But while Ebrand has been celebrated for his mission to make Mexico City “the most liberal in Latin America,” his approach has also been met with criticism from opponents and analysts. One rival accused him of “Irresponsibility. Populism!” (a potentially successful slogan for other parts of the continent) and according to George Grayson, professor of Mexico studies at the College of William & Mary in Virginia, “He is motivated overwhelmingly by politics… Before he hugged a tree, he would want to make sure that tree was going to vote for him in the next election.”
Ebrand has made no secret of his 2012 presidential ambitions, foregrounding economic reform and social equality as his main objectives, and eventually hoping to revitalize the party that saw its previous candidate, Manuel López Obrador, meet defeat in 2006. With approval ratings currently hovering at around 60%, Ebrand could be the next face of the Mexican presidency, and a big step forward for its progressive politics. In a recent interview, René Cervera, Ebrand’s chief-of-staff commented, “All of these things that Marcelo is doing — the beaches, the ice rink — there’s a goal behind them. It’s about equality. It’s about finding a social equilibrium.” In a city in which this is so sorely lacking, perhaps an ice rink isn’t such a bad idea.