Local Politics on Ice

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Henry Romero / Reuters

People skate on a giant ice rink in Mexico City's historic Zocalo square.

Construction worker Macario Lopez has queued for four hours, along with his brothers, children, and nephews, to swap his cowboy boots for a pair of ice skates. He could never afford to take them to a commercial rink at $5 a head, he says. But the Christmas season has brought a colossal 34,400 square-foot open-air skating rink to the heart of Mexico City, in the central square known as the Zocalo. It's the largest rink in the world, its boosters claim, and more importantly, it's free.

Tens of thousands of eager Mexico City residents have turned out to skate, slide and stumble onto the ice for the first time in their lives. "This is really great, especially for the kids," says Lopez. "At least the mayor is giving something back to the people. Most of our governors give us nothing."

The free mega rink is the brainchild of leftist Mayor Marcelo Ebrard, as part of his campaign to make this heaving mountain capital a more pleasant environment. Last spring, he shipped in tons of sand to build four urban beaches that were also a hit with residents, while inspiring dozens of comedy skits about plump sunbathers walking through gridlocked traffic. Ebrard has also built miles of cycle paths, on which he's posed for cameras atop his mountain bike on sunny Sundays.

Surrounded by towering models of candles and a vast canvas of a moonlit lake, the rink is a surreal spectacle in the midst of Mexico City's grinding traffic, colonial churches, and endless protest marches. To add to the illusion of escape offered by the rink, huge speakers play sweet Spanish ballads as the skaters glide along the white surface.

Skating is a novel experience for most of those venturing onto the ice, and teams of white-helmeted city workers are constantly rushing to help citizens who've fallen on their faces.

"Don't form chains," a supervisor urges over the public address system. "Don't smoke on the rink. Don't talk on your cell phones. It's for your own safety."

Not everyone is cheering, of course. Detractors accuse the leftist mayor of spending public money to provide circuses for poor Mexicans in exchange for their votes. Ebrard is having none of it, retorting that such criticisms come from the rich elite that can afford to take vacations on the beach or at ski resorts. The mayor is laying on recreation for the city's millions of have-nots, who can barely afford to feed their families let alone take a holiday in the sun or snow.

"The ice rink has been an incredible success," the mayor recently told reporters. "Look how may people have come." He promised to open two more free ice rinks on the outskirts of the city, claiming that the project would also raise the level of Mexican contestants in figure skating tournaments. U.S. and Canadian skating champions whizzed round the rink at its opening, while a German team performed a choreography from Grease to applause from some 60,000 spectators.

But political analyst Federico Estevez said that Ebrard's ice rinks and beaches are camouflage for a mayor with no significant policies. "You can't fool the middle class that they are in Rockefeller Center," Estevez said. "Where is the policy here? How about trying to attract some investment?"

Being mayor of Mexico City is a traditional apprenticeship for presidential candidates of Ebrard's leftist Democratic Revolution Party. But after a year in office, Ebrard shows no sign of becoming his party's anointed champion. He is constantly overshadowed by his mentor and predecessor, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who gained immense popularity with pension schemes for the poor and construction projects for the middle class. Lopez Obrador lost the 2006 presidential race to conservative Felipe Calderon by less than 0.5 percent of the vote in an election that was decided in the courts. The charismatic silver-haired leftist claims he was robbed, and calls himself "Mexico's legitimate President" at mass meetings and marches, where Ebrard sometimes takes second place on the stage.

Lopez Obrador's shadow even reaches as far as Ebrard's ice rink. "Support the legitimate President. Down with the usurper Calderon," militants handing out pamphlets at the rink shouted, recently, as skaters raced round the rink in the polluted Mexico City dusk.