A Freewheeling Mayor

By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, September 1, 2008

MEXICO CITY The mayor's got his blue pinstriped suit pants tucked into his dress socks. Bike helmet strap hiked up snug.

And he's off.

Zooming. Penny loafers planted on pedals, long legs pumping, suit jacket flapping.

He blasts past the palm-tree shaded park and the early-morning taco vendors -- trailed by his entourage of a dozen cycling bodyguards and city officials. B-list bureaucrats position themselves along the route, knowing this may be their only chance at face time with "El Jefe," Mexico City Mayor Marcelo Ebrard.

"It's great," Ebrard says, admiring his own neighborhood as he pulls up at a stoplight a few blocks from his center-city penthouse.

And he's off again, mid-sentence, chugging merrily into an avenue that is curiously, and momentarily, devoid of rush-hour traffic.

At the back of the pack, Raúl Abreu Lastra, a private think-tank director along for the ride, laughs and shakes his head.

"It's surreal," Abreu says. "It's like the Red Sea parted."

Welcome to a place many here call Marcelo-land. Happy place it is. In Marcelo-land, you can bike to work without risking sudden death in the demolition-derby gridlock. Never mind that this particular bike ride is cocooned by motorcycle escorts, a logistics van, and police at every major intersection -- amenities not necessarily available to the average Mexico City commuter.

In Marcelo-land, "el presidente de Mexico" isn't the president. Ebrard and his political party -- the Party of the Democratic Revolution -- refuse to officially recognize President Felipe Calderón.They insist he committed fraud to get elected in 2006, a position rejected by Mexico's Supreme Court in a case that drew comparisons to the 2000 Bush v. Gore tangle. Nevertheless, Ebrard still won't allow himself to be photographed shaking hands with Calderón or even to address him as "Mr. President."

In Marcelo-land, there are artificial marvels such as beaches where there is no ocean, and a huge holiday ice rink on a plateau that virtually never sees snow. Poor girls get debutante-style coming-outs, sort of like the rich girls.

All this has been conjured, nurtured and promoted by Ebrard, the Mexican political world's master illusionist, a splashy creative force with a soap-opera star for a wife and a penchant for crowd-pleasing spectacles aimed at making this frequently unlivable city seem, well, livable.

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