Change comes rarely to time. Standard time -- our system of twenty-four time zones -- has become a fact. Like the stock market, lost in its ubiquity is the fact that it once didn't exist.
Last week, mercurial Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez turned a few heads when he announced that in September, the nation would turn its clocks back by half an hour, officially adopting Greenwich Mean Time minus 4.5 hours.
This is not the first time Chavez has done something critics have said is either eccentric or authoritarian. In recent memory he has asked to be allowed to rule by decree, asked to have the term limits for the presidency abolished, undercut the World Bank and IMF, become very popular with the poor in Venezuela, privatized many Venezuelan companies and called President Bush the devil. He seems to hang in the American imagination somewhere between Kim Jong Il and Che Guevara, depending on whom you ask.
But no one really seems to know what to make of the time change. Chavez, backed by his Science and Technology Minister, claims that the change will provide a more "fair distribution of the sunrise" especially for poor children, who have to get up early to go to school. He did not say why making school start half an hour later would have been more difficult than making the sun rise earlier.
This isn't about the poor. This is about making a break with the political and symbolic history of the international time system.
The international time system was created in 1884 because an explosion of transportation and communication technologies in the late nineteenth century made the lack of a coordinated time system an absolute disaster for the spread of the railroad and telegraph.
The movement had to be cooperative internationalist. It was not easy for France and Britain to agree on where the prime meridian would lie, but they, and other Western nations, saw it as a global necessity. At the time there was an enormous hope for the future of international travel and communication. Even so, it took decades for the standard time system to be adopted globally (Venezuela didn't officially take on GMT minus four hours until 1965).
So Chavez may not be that eccentric. The system into which he is throwing the wrench is profoundly internationalist, and he is profoundly nationalist. It was created primarily by, and in some sense for, Western nations (Japan was the primary non-Western nation represented) that were associated with colonialism and slavery, and Chavez is concerned about neocolonialism from the same nations. The system is meant to facilitate communication and transportation for travel and commerce, and he has privatized companies and isolated Venezuela, at least from many of those nations for which the system was originally created.
Consider the company he joins. Iran, Afghanistan, Burma and the Canadian province of Newfoundland are on the half hour. Nepal runs 5 hours and 45 minutes ahead of GMT. China is on the hour, but while it technically should span four time zones, the whole country runs on just one. With the exception of Newfoundland, which has a unique geographical position and history with its time zone, these are nations known for being isolated, particularly from the West; incurring sanctions from Western nations' having authoritarian leaders; and having isolated populations.
Time divorced from nature when the mechanical clock was invented. It became political when the prime meridian was established through the world's best observatory in Greenwich, England. Half an hour isn't going to untether Venezuela from the rest of the world. But it is symbolic statement and the polarizing leader of the nation knows what he is trying to say.