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Road to ruin

Costa Rica

Bad drivers of Costa Rica beware. This year, fines are going up from $36 (€26) to as much as $410 (€300) (one month’s wages for an office worker). And drunk drivers and anyone driving faster than 150km/h could face up to three years in jail.

Some say the new regulations are too ambitious for a poor country. They include fines for zig-zagging (even though the roads are full of potholes) and for squeezing too many people into a vehicle. Spot checks for police have also been introduced to prevent bribery.

Civil liberties

USA

New York City has hired Danish urban planner Jan Gehl – famous for helping to transform Melbourne, Copenhagen and other cities – to make the streets more pedestrian and cyclist-friendly.

The plan to “Copenhagenise New York” will include closing down certain streets to allow only bike traffic, adding bike paths, increasing public green spaces, expanding sidewalks and adding more public seating.

Gehl says, “New York is very focused on people walking purposefully from one place to another and there are hardly any public places to sit. There are only 15 public seats per km of street – Melbourne has 300 per km and Copenhagen has 450 per km. It could, however, be as long as a decade before New York’s five boroughs see any progress.

View from Washington

Monocle's new column reporting on President Obama's administration

By Sasha Issenberg

Obama promised shortly after his victory to establish the White House’s first Office of Urban Policy, but he had already begun to win over US urbanists with his personal real-estate decisions. Obama chose to place his post-election office, from which he managed the transition to the presidency, in a high-rise deep in Chicago’s busy downtown, the Loop. He has also pledged to hold on to his Georgian-revival mansion on the city’s South Side, even as he resettles in Washington. “He’s resisted all the pressure the Secret Service has no doubt put on him to move to a ranch or farm,” says John Norquist, a former Milwaukee mayor who heads the Congress for the New ­Urbanism, a group that advocates dense, mass-transit-friendly planning.

“He’s resisted all the pressure the Secret Service has no doubt put on him to move to a ranch or farm,” says John Norquist, a former Milwaukee mayor who heads the Congress for the New ­Urbanism, a group that advocates dense, mass-transit-friendly planning.

Obama, a Chicago legislator and previous resident of both Jakarta and New York, is the first big-city dweller to become president in nearly half a century. Californian Richard Nixon was practising law on New York’s Upper East Side when he was elected, but the Bostonian John F Kennedy was the last real urbanite to enter the office. Obama’s election already marks a cultural departure for a country where politics has long been driven by suburban priorities.

Locals are hoping Obama will show his big-city values by withdrawing from George Bush’s minor war against the capital’s urbanism, which included a permanent strategy to keep traffic off the main downtown thoroughfare.

“I hope the new president will consider re-opening Pennsylvania Avenue and hauling off some of the barriers that blight the town,” says Mark Salter, a John McCain speechwriter and long-time Washington-area resident, who laments “the depressing, never-ending barricading of Washington and the sense that it has suffocated what had been one of the city’s great republican charms, a preference for intimacy and openness between the governing and the governed”.

Obama has demonstrated some instinct for such symbolism, inviting inaugural spectators to fill the great lawn of the National Mall. But others before have mastered the token gesture: after his election in 1992, Bill Clinton strolled down a Georgia Avenue retail strip wracked by crime, snacking on fried scallops as a gesture of solidarity. He was rarely seen around town afterwards. Not since Harry Truman, who would exit the White House gates for a stroll accompanied by a lone Secret Service agent, has a chief executive shown any affection for the quotidian life of the city around him.

Even if presidents don’t get out much, the capital can soon reflect their sensibility, thanks to an inrushing armada of like-minded staff. People still recall how the Bush crowd, upon arrival in 2001, drove large cars through downtown streets as though still on Texas highways. The Obama minions are showing a different sensibility, house-hunting in dense neighbourhoods in the city, not the suburbs.

Obama says he will try to return with his family to his Chicago home every two months, telling a newspaper he had no use for the type of coastal Maine town the Bush family used as a vacation compound. “My Kennebunkport is on the South Side of Chicago,” he said.

Team Building

Nicaragua

In the aftermath of Nicaragua’s hotly disputed municipal elections last November, President Daniel Ortega’s problems have ballooned. But an unexpected distraction may have come to his rescue: baseball. Nicaragua’s national baseball team (pictured) beat Venezuela last October in a surprise upset to qualify for the September 2009 Baseball World Cup in Russia.

Amid a wave of baseball mania, Ortega has revived the Germán Pomares Ordoñez baseball league – named after a former member of the Sandinista Liberation Front. The league – around during the Contra War in the 1980s – lost government support when the Sandinistas were voted out of power in 1990. From the end of January matches will be a regular weekend fixture again with 14 teams from around the country competing. Will the rekindled baseball spirit help create political unity in Nicaragua?

What's the beef?

Argentina

The era of the great Argentine steak may be coming to an end. Years of price controls, subsidies and export bans – not to mention the recently ended boom in food prices – have pushed many ranchers to convert their pasture land to crops and fatten their once free-range cattle in pens. About a third of Argentine cows used feedlots in 2008, compared to almost none a decade ago. The Argentine Feedlot Chamber predicts that the number will grow to between 50 and 80 per cent within five years.

Latin primer

Latin America & Cuba

Latin Americans know the region won’t be Barack Obama’s top priority. But they do expect he will be less patronising than his predecessors. Even a few symbolic gestures would go a long way. For example, closing down Guantánamo will be cheered in a region long subjected by its northern neighbours to human rights lectures. So what will the president really change for Latin America and Cuba?

Cuba: No US policy has more symbolic importance in Latin America than the failed embargo, and Latin Americans will be disappointed if Obama does not lift it. But Florida’s changed politics (it voted Democrat) do give Obama some flexibility.
Venezuela: Hugo Chávez will miss his perfect foil in George Bush. Not only will falling oil prices and problems at home complicate his grandiose ambitions, he will have trouble portraying Obama as the “devil”.
Colombia: Obama’s centrist cabinet picks have eased many Colombians’ worries about his opposition to the pending free trade agreement. But Obama must satisfy demands for greater human rights protection in Colombia before the deal has a chance in the US Congress.
Mexico: Over 5,000 people were killed in drug-fuelled violence in 2008. Mexico could quickly become a top-tier issue for Obama
Bolivia: Some compare Evo Morales, the country’s first indigenous president, to Obama. Both made historic breakthroughs. Bolivia may have drug trafficking problems and gas reserves but it is less important to the US than neighbouring Brazil.
Nicaragua: In response to Daniel Ortega’s power-grabbing tactics in Nicaragua, the Bush administration was restrained and Latin America has remained silent. The question is whether the Obama team will use the Nicaragua case to try and re-energise a credible, multilateral approach in defence of democracy.

Crossing the line

USA

With construction of the US-Mexico border wall in Eagle Pass, Texas (500 out of 670 miles is complete), several landowners are suing the federal government. They claim the US Department of Homeland Security took their land without negotiating with them.

Now, the wall’s opponents have reason for hope: President Obama. In 2006, he voted for the wall. But his choice of Homeland Security chief, former Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano who opposed it, has heartened critics.

“She knows how little effect the wall has had,” says Scott Nicol of the Texas-based No Border Wall Coalition.

Choosing Napolitano shows Obama “will take a careful look” at border security.

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