Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Early spring

Central and southern Mexico’s climate, as is true most anywhere in the tropics, is determined more by elevation above sea level than by latitude north or south of the equator.  Climate is quite constant throughout the year; if it weren't for an awareness of the traditional four seasons of our northern neighbors, seasons here would simply be rainy season and dry season. That's probably how, through the millenia, they were known by native peoples. 

With the invasion of the Colonial powers in time past came the imposition of Summer, Fall. Winter, and Spring even though these seasons in Mexico bear little to no resemblance to how they are thought of in Europe or by Mexico’s northern neighbors. It is Summer -- when the rains fall -- that brings greenery and planting. The Spring months are frequently the hottest and driest of the year.  

Though usually thought of as occurring on March 21, this year the spring equinox was on March 20.  Last Wednesday was the day on which the sun -- on its apparent trip north from the Tropic of Capricorn -- crossed the equator on its way towards a rendezvous with the Tropic of Cancer (which runs through northern Mexico) on June 21. 

Of the four seasons, in Mexico Spring seems to take precedence over the other three in being commented, and written about.

For a number of weeks we've been reading about the tourism bonanza Mexico's Caribbean coast is enjoying.  "Spring breakers", usually written in italics, has entered Mexican Spanish media lexicon without even a need for translation.  They make up a steady flow of tourists for a couple of months.  Mainly college aged -- from the US and Canada -- they come for fun and sun and most seem to share a lack of inhibition. However, they come with thick wallets full of dollars; even staid Mexican government and law enforcement officials realizing the boon to the economy, bend the rules to accommodate and welcome them.

Here on the home front, away from the southeastern resorts, March 21st has traditionally been a Mexican holiday -- Benito Juarez's birthday -- fortuitously guaranteeing free access to archeological sites for those wanting to welcome the arrival of spring by charging themselves with energy at archeological sites.  Those that participate in this rite are part of a relatively new Mexican religious phenomenon that has drawn its ideas from all of the world's religions.  They believe God is universal and has certainly acted among all peoples on earth, hence there are valid religious ideas in all of the worlds traditions!  They have no name for their movement, but others needing a name for them call them "La Mexicanidad."  Those that want to put them down -- especially church authorities -- call them "new agers".  They dress completely in white and often meet at archeological sites.  Some will also wear a red bandana around their forehead.

It was common for Teotihuacan to draw a million visitors dressed in white on March 21.   When Juarez's birthday became one of the holidays observed on a Monday, it became hard for the employed to welcome spring midweek. Such was the case this year when visitors dressed in white at Teotihuacan on Thursday were counted in only the tens of thousands.

That same day, I was at Xochicalco -- Morelos' most visited archeological site.  The white clothing of those welcoming spring contrasted with the black banner they held expressing their protest against Esperanza Resources Corporation's intention to initiate open pit mining on the hill adjacent to that UNESCO World Heritage site 

One often hears the expression, “Easter is coming early this year.”  But, the timing of both Lent and Holy Week are far from random.   They, too, are events determined by the Spring Equinox.  

Resurection Sunday (Easter) is the first Sunday, after the first full moon after the vernal equinox.  Jewish Passover is also linked to the Spring Equinox. It cannot occur until after the equinox.  This year Passover will be celebrated March 25-April 2.  

So, in 2013 events are happening in quick succession.   Yesterday was the beginning of Passover, tomorrow the moon will be full.  Sunday will be Easter.  Those who follow the Mexicanidad have already had their equinox celebration but many of them will also participate in Passover or Semana Santa.  Even the young tourists, celebrating in the sun at Caribbean resorts may take time from their revelry to observe these sacred holidays. 

Just as the arrival of "los spring breakers" is set by school calendars, so is the travel frenzy in Mexico that is going on this week and next.  All of Mexico is on the same school calendar which is enjoying a two-week vacation.  Wouldn't it be better for the tourism industry, as well as for vacationers, if Mexico's Secretariat of Public Education staggered the two-week vacation?

Regardless of how you celebrate these first days of Spring, don't miss the majestic beauty of the purple flowered jacaranda trees lining Mexico's streets and highways.  

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Mexican ID

 We grow accustomed to all the red-tape paperwork while living in Mexico. But there is an interesting exception. Written into the Mexican Constitution, Article 11 tells us that all people have the right to enter the Republic, leave it, travel through its territory and change their domicile "without the need of a security card, passport, safe conduct pass, or any similar requirement."  The clause goes on to say that this rule is subordinate to rules that can be imposed by judicial, administrative, and health authorities on emigration, immigration, and pernicious foreigners residing in the country.  Yes, pernicious is the word used in the constitution. 

A Mexican's right not to carry an identification cards differs from most other Latin American countries where adult citizens are required to carry and produce on demand an identification card or in many cases a booklet identifying the citizen. 

I remember that while in high school in Colombia I carried a small, hardbound, many paged "cédula de extranjería" (foreigner's identification). My friends who were citizens carried a "cédula de identidad".  I've seen similar booklets in Guatemala with the identification information entered in elegant handwriting, authenticated by a national seal applied with a rubber stamp.

Because of Article 11, Mexican immigration authorities have had to come up with ways to differentiate between Mexican citizens and foreigners.  In most cases it's done by skin color, physical stereotypes, or by detecting regional accents. But that doesn't work with many Central Americans, especially Guatemalans.  Ethnically the state of Chiapas is virtually identical to Guatemala.  Until 1824 Chiapas was part of Guatemala. 

When in doubt immigration authorities resort to asking questions only Mexicans are able to answer. They’ll say "sing the national anthem."  Or use words that are particularly Mexican.  In a "good cop-bad cop" situation the good cop will offer the detainee a soft drink, along with a carefully structured question "would you like your coca with "popote" (Mexican word for straw)?" A Guatemalan, supposing popote is a seasoning, might reply "just a little" and fall right into the trap. 

Arriving one day in Tijuana on a flight from Mexico City, I passed through a line where a Mexican immigration officer was doing work for the U.S. Border Patrol. He was picking out undocumented Central Americans before they even got to the U.S. border.  When the man ahead of me was asked "where are you coming from?" he answered "Chiapas."  The officer came back with "what's the capital of Chiapas?"  I could see my fellow traveler stumbling over his answer and about to be caught, so I whispered "Tuxtla Gutierrez." He told the officer “Tuxtla Gutierrez” and was waved through. Phew!  It was interesting to see the officer respect the Constitution and let the man of dubious nationality proceed.  My 28-page FM-2 immigration booklet occupied his attention until the Guatemalan blended into the crowd.  I hope he made it.

Traveling without ID is one thing, but cashing a check is quite another.  Banks and other institutions need to verify a person’s identity.  In the United States a driver’s license has become the acceptable means of identification. My U.S. passport card was turned down as ID in a New York City pharmacy when buying cold medicine. Without an address printed on it there would be no way to track me down if I purchased too much Sudafed!  A drivers license is so ubiquitous in the US that state departments of motor vehicles also issue non-drivers identification -- and charge just as much for them as they do for a driver's license.

A driver's license is not accepted for bank transactions in Mexico.  Instead, a voter registration card has become the acceptable identification.  People from other countries may not even know where their voter's registration card is, but most Mexicans carry it with them in their wallet.  Known as their "IFE" (Federal Electoral Institute) card, it is a credit card-sized identifying document containing the citizen's full name, address, photo, gender, age, electoral code, polling booth number, thumb-print, and signature.  There’s also a magnetic strip on the back of the card with who-knows-what additional information.

In the 1980’s when the IFE first started issuing the current style card, acquisition was so simple it was scandalous.  To demonstrate the ease of requesting multiple fraudulent cards, a National University (UNAM) student wrote a term paper about procuring five different voter's registration cards delivered to her own address plus that of four friends.  Rather than being thanked for whistle-blowing, she was accused of a crime by the IFE.  Now the process is very secure. Banks will accept IFE cards dated as of 2012 as solid proof of both identity and address -- without requiring a recent utility bill a proof of address.    

As a bonus, since voting is both a right and responsibility, the IFE card is free.  The Constitution says there is no restriction on changing domicile, but for purposes of voting, one's address determines one's polling booth.  Fine print on the IFE card requires reporting an address change within thirty days. 

Using voters registration cards as identification is an unusual though subtle and effective way of complying with the Constitution.       

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

The great IVA debate

Mexico's value added tax known as the IVA (Impuesto al Valor Agregado) is set to be a heated topic in the news.  Federal congress will soon start discussions on whether to charge the IVA on food and medicine. 

Value added tax generates tremendous revenue.  France, the first country to put it into effect, generates close to 50% of the national government's tax income with its value added tax. Mexico, where it generates a little over 40%, is not far behind. This type of tax is used by the great majority of nations instead of sales taxes.  The big exception is the United States.

One of the IVA's closely guarded secrets, and the basis of its success, is that it converts every vendor in the formal, above-board economy into a tax inspector. 

IVA is collected in Mexico on the sale of all goods and services.  Most items are taxed 16%.  Even the government collects IVA on its sales.  We pay it on postage stamps, highway tolls, and on gasoline sold by Pemex.  

Some goods are taxed 0% (yes, zero) -- such as non-processed food, medicine, and books.  Therein lies the upcoming debate.  If medicine and food are taxed it will not be a new tax, it will be an increase in the rate, from 0% to something else -- maybe only 3%.  

The IVA rate is 5% lower in border areas -- you might consider purchasing a new car in Chetumal and enjoy touring Mayaland on your way back to central Mexico courtesy of the tax differential.

The fascinating nature of this tax is that only the final consumer pays IVA on the purchased item.  All the other participants in manufacturing and selling of the item are refunded the IVA tax they paid. When they resell an item, the middlemen are refunded the full amount of IVA they paid out when they purchased it -- by only turning over to the national treasury the difference between what they collected when they sold it to their customers and the IVA they had originally paid out when they purchased material.  This is where they become volunteer tax inspectors.  Strict rules govern the bills of sale known as "facturas" guaranteeing that both seller and purchaser are registered taxpayers.  Only valid facturas may be used to document IVA refunds.

Suppose we sell widgets in Mexico.  If we buy them from our supplier for $116 pesos that means that the widgets cost $100 plus $16 pesos in IVA.  If sell them for $232 pesos our factura would show $200 for the widget and $32 for IVA.  Of that $32 we would keep the $16 we paid to our supplier and only deliver the remaining $16 to the national treasury.

The final consumer, who in many cases is not a registered taxpayer, ends up paying the full IVA. 

If a customer does not supply the vendor with appropriate taxpayer registration information the vendor is not required to issue a factura which could be used for a IVA refund.  In that case customers may receive a cash register receipt, or a receipt that does not contain the taxpayer identification of the seller or the buyer.  Nevertheless, whether or not a factura is issued, the vendor is required by law to collect the IVA on all sales. 

When we purchase an item off-the-shelf in Mexico we pay the posted price.  Quite unlike purchasing something in U.S. states with sales taxes where each time we step up to pay for an item we pay 5 to 10% more than the posted price due to local sales taxes.  That's always an irritant to the customer.  Imagine the irritation if the tax added by the cashier were 16%!

Though the IVA is a very successful generator of government revenue, it is criticized as a regressive tax since it is paid at the same rate by wealthy as well as poor.  Even those who live in poverty and are exempt from income tax pay 16% on most items they purchase in the formal economy.  

Formal and informal economy are a set of terms used frequently in Mexico.  Informal economy is "off the books".  Street vendors are a good example.  It also refers to those stores in which we are told, "if you want a factura, I will charge you the IVA."  When I'm told that, what I hear the vendor saying is "I'm a tax evader." 

I recall purchasing corn on the cob from a street stand in Italy and being given a printout of the sale from a printer attached to the vendor's belt.  I told him "I don't need it."  He insisted, saying "I could be reported for tax evasion if you don't take it."    

I'm not foolhardy enough to envision fiscally valid facturas being issued in public markets, but I do wonder how much revenue could be generated if there were a tax office to which we could report shops that want to add the IVA to the posted price, in order to issue us a factura? 

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

A red shoe chronicle

Upon reaching the age of 75, Cuernavaca's world-renowned bishop Sergio Mendez Arceo presented his resignation to Pope John Paul II in 1982.   He was frequently asked if he didn't object to having to retire while still physically strong and mentally alert. Indeed after his retirement he traveled and spoke extensively on the lecture circuit.  He would always point out that he had voted in favor of a bishops' mandatory retirement age, and abided by it willingly.  I remember him drawing laughter when he told his congregation about his suggestion to "his brother bishops from around the world" gathered in the Second Vatican Council that the pope should have a mandatory retirement age too.  

Don Sergio presented his suggestion as an amendment to Pope Paul VI 's request to the bishops meeting in the Vatican Council that they approve a change in the tradition of lifetime appointments. Pope Paul VI’s requested that bishops offer their resignation "when faced with the increasing burden of age or some other serious reason. . . "  As to be expected, Paul VI's request was approved and Bishop Mendez Arceo's amendment was rejected. 

Pope Paul VI set retirement age for priests at 70, for bishops at 75 and restricted voting for a new pontiff to cardinals under the age of 80.

The bishops stuck with tradition regarding the pope – no retirement age. He serves for life.

Thirty-nine year-old Joseph Ratzinger, later to be Benedict XVI, certainly heard Bishop Mendez Arceo's outlandish words.  Not yet a bishop, Father Ratzinger participated in the Second Vatican Council as a theological consultant.

I remember Don Sergio -- as Bishop Mendez Arceo is known in Cuernavaca -- pointing out that Paul VI did great damage to the Church by staying on beyond when he could handle running an organization as large and important as the Catholic Church.  Don Sergio did not live to see the last years of John Paul II's papacy, but I'm sure he would have had the same to say.

Last Sunday I met with a close collaborator of Don Sergio's, Father Angel Sanchez, with the hope of gleaning further insight into Don Sergio's suggestion.  No luck.  He told me "you'll probably find some of his insights in the letters he wrote from the Vatican Council meetings."  Indeed Father Angel is releasing those letters with comments that put them in perspective on the 50th anniversary of each letter's dateline. He didn't offer to give me a preview.  However Father Angel did tell me "Paul VI either didn't want to retire or the Roman curia wouldn't allow him to do so.  Had he retired at 75 that would have become the norm for popes, as bishops of Rome.  At that time the curia was strong and the pope was weak.  But now the door has been opened to the idea of retirement.  The next pope won't be required to retire, but he will be thinking about it."

Father Angel went on to tell me that the Vatican Council is also referred to as a Synod of Bishops.  Synod, a word with a Greek root, refers to walking together.  The word council has a Latin root referring to convocation or assembly. Father Angel said that bishops prefer the idea that the government of the Catholic church is of bishops working together with the Pope as the Bishop of Rome being the highest ranking bishop.

With that interpretation popes would be subject to mandatory retirement.  

Pope Benedict XVI surprised the world on February 11th with the announcement of his resignation on less than three weeks notice, effective last Thursday, February 28.  Within that short time a church which has not dealt with such an event for 700 years has agreed on a title for him, Emeritus Pope, found him a place to live and, within an institution in which symbolism plays a important role, has even determined what clothing he will wear, all without infringing on his successor-to-be's role as pontiff. 

The Emeritus Pope will still wear white, but he has given up his red shoes.  Vatican spokesman the Reverend Federico Lombardi says that Benedict XVI will replace the popes' signature red shoes with brown shoes made by Mexican craftspeople in Martin Dueñas' shoe factory in Leon, Guanajuato. They were gifted to him last year when he visited Mexico. 

If Don Sergio's words resonate in Benedict XVI's mind, and he's now wearing shoes from Guanajuato, could we say Mexico has him covered from head to toe?