July 17, 2011
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Mérida, Yucatán – The year was young and we were still getting used to writing “2011” when the Ayuantamineto announced that it had scored a big one: Colombian cantante Shakira would appear in town on July 16 for a free concert open to all. Excited planning occupied much of the next five months, with talk about the stimulus the performance would provide to local commerce. But now the international star and her road show crew have packed their bags and are winging their way to the next stage, gone almost as quickly as they arrived. The year is half spent, students will return to school in just a few weeks and yet all of the familiar problems remain, not the least of which is a very anemic local economy still feeling the effects of a worldwide downturn which began in 2008. Nothing seems to have been changed much by the long-awaited Big Event – nothing, perhaps, except that near La Plancha, the hastily-prepared concert venue, some have been flooded out of their homes by the combination of fervent municipal earth-moving efforts and predictable summer rains. The city has promised to help them, it should be noted.
If officials had hoped or planned to give things a jump start by importing an international entertainer, the plan arguably misfired. About that “free concert,” for example. Free for anyone who wanted to queue up and get a general admission ticket, true. But the municipality itself paid full price, to the tune of $21 million pesos (about $1.75 million USD – and that’s the performer’s fee, which doesn’t include wages paid to city workers who labored almost 24/7 for weeks to prepare La Plancha). When the first installment of $7 million pesos was wired to Shakira’s organization months ago, Mérida’s city council quickly assured citizens that that it would recover the full cost from private contributors and “investors.” There is no evidence that it did so, apart from a self-serving, last minute press release issued early Friday, proclaiming that “51 sponsors” had contributed an aggregate “$24.5 million pesos.” But the City has flatly refused to release meaningful details, despite repeated requests. When it comes to peso-collecting this is a competent, well-organized municipality, and had it recouped a significant portion of the concert outlay we surely would have had the supporting spreadsheets waved in our collective face. The Ayuntamiento’s failure to produce a formal accounting, followed by a manipulative press release full of gimmickry and the most blatant political posturing, demonstrates gross contempt for transparency in public affairs and the management of public funds.
Then there was a rumor that Shakira would donate a portion of her earnings to charitable causes, or to aid the needy in Mérida and surrounding communities. Her organization firmly denied the story. Of course, Shakira is under no obligation to donate anything to anyone; that was not part of her contract with the city. But one more potential reason to cheer evaporated.
Shakira’s appearance in Mérida was very much a local event. It did not draw substantial visitors from afar. There is no indication that hotel bookings were up significantly last week, or that any other portion of the metropolitan economy particularly benefited. People who were already in town, or an easy journey away, took advantage of the free music and entertainment. That may have translated into a few more restaurant customers on Saturday, or improved sales for street vendors, but little else. Mayor Angelica’s claim last week that the concert had both “national and international significance” for the Yucatán, in that it would demonstrate Mérida to be a safe place, which in turn would eventually attract more tourists, which in turn would someday lead to more local investment – if that is not desperately pulling out every trick in the hat, what else then?
Like most major metropolitan communities, Mérida has an endless laundry list of public works projects awaiting attention and funding. Water collects and stands in many streets for hours or days after the summer rains, and the entire city infrastructure is more than a little aged. The Mayor’s last-minute justification, “we restored La Plancha (Merida’s decaying railway grounds),” is entirely beside the point. Did the city need to pay Shakira $1.75 million dollars to motivate itself to clean up its own untidy back yard? With so many urban deficiencies yet waiting, it’s not unfair to ask if a 100 minute concert was really worth one-third of the cost of the Glorieta de la Paz underpass construction.
At the end of the day we are left with a simple question: why did Mayor Angelica and her team decide to bring Shakira to the Yucatán in the first place? What was the business plan – or was there one? Twenty one million pesos is not pocket change even in good times, and far less so in challenging ones. Public funds – taxes – were the primary if not exclusive source of revenue employed to bring the famous entertainer to Mérida. What, arguably, did the city get back in return to benefit its citizens and its many struggling comerciantes? If there is something which has escaped notice, the city would do well to bring it to the community’s attention.
Everybody enjoyed watching Shakira under a full moon last night, doing what only she can do. But when the footlights went down and the stage was empty after the last encore, both the value and the wisdom of this deal were very hard to see.
© Edward V. Byrne 2011. This article may be briefly quoted but not reproduced in full without express permission of the author.