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Last Updated: Wednesday, 12 December 2007, 12:37 GMT
Venezuela and the politics of time
By Stephanie Holmes
BBC News

Schoolchildren in Caracas will be waking up in daylight this week following a decision by the country's president, Hugo Chavez, to shift the entire country into its own unique time zone.

Fog and sunrise over Caracas, the capital of Venezuela
Second time around: Venezuela was in a unique time zone 1912 - 1964

The move to put the clocks back half an hour adds Venezuela to a small club of nations out of sync with global standardised time.

These states - which include India, Iran, Afghanistan, Burma, Sri Lanka and parts of Australia and Canada - operate in what are known as fractional time zones.

A string of 10 Pacific islands east of New Zealand, the Chatham Islands, are even more exceptional - being an eccentric 45 minutes out of sync.

So are Nepal and a strip of Western Australia which, although home to just 200 people, has its own, unofficial time zone - Central Western Time - some eight-and-three-quarter hours ahead of GMT.

Such differences can create curious patterns - travellers can lose, or gain, three-and-a-half hours with a few footsteps when crossing the border between China and Afghanistan, for example.

Crossing continents

The reluctance of some countries to slot within the 24 neat meridian segmentations of GMT may seem arbitrary and insignificant but, says David Rooney of the Royal Observatory in London, time and politics are intertwined.

It's just one more example of when Chavez gets an idea into his head and gets to put it into place
Shannon O'Neil
Council on Foreign Relations

"Politics is very important in the whole of this story," says Mr Rooney, a man with the enviable job title of curator of timekeeping.

"The time that appears on your nation's clocks is one of the means of saying where the power lies.

"For example you'll see that China has a huge landmass that straddles about four or five hours' worth of time zones and yet there is only one - Beijing time."

This means that the inhabitants of western China have dark mornings and light evenings if they follow the time on the clock.

A Latin America expert at the US-based Council on Foreign Relations, Shannon O'Neil, says Mr Chavez's decision to create a new time zone is typical of the way he exercises power.

"It's just one more example of when Chavez gets an idea into his head and gets to put it into place.

"There is an aspect of Venezuela striking out on its own, asserting that 'We don't need to follow international dictates'," she says.

High noon

It seems that having a time zone where the clock strikes noon as the sun hangs highest in the sky is a rare luxury, these days.

The new flag of Venezuela
Name: Became Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela
Flag: Added star and altered coat of arms
Time: Shifted clocks half an hour back
Currency: Bolivar fuerte or strong bolivar to be introduced

Time zones often follow geographical borders or other boundaries instead.

Like China, all of India's many and sprawling regions share a single time zone, perhaps a means of creating a unique and shared identity.

Many European states have compromised on their natural clock too, in the interest of integration and better trade.

"Countries might choose a different time zone to be with their trading partners or political allies," Mr Rooney said.

"If you look at the map you'll see that GMT+1 is in operation from Poland, in the east, all the way out to the west coast of Spain, even though that coast is further west than much of England.

"Only the UK, Ireland and Portugal are on GMT. The idea there was clearly political - it was about European unity and choosing to have one common time standard across Europe."

Train spotting

A single global, standardised time system is a relatively new invention. Before its introduction, each country, and even individual towns, calculated their midday according to the position of the sun.

Australia (Central/Western)
Canada (Newfoundland)
New Zealand (Chatham Islands/Pitt Islands)
Sri Lanka

The need to share a common means of calculating the clocks was prompted by the industrial revolution and the arrival of the railways in the 1830s and 1840s.

Countries gathered at an international conference held in Washington in 1884 and designated Greenwich as the prime meridian.

But adhering to a system based on GMT and the 24 meridians is entirely voluntary, so the struggle continues.

"Really up until today, the ideal of time zones, the ideal of that conference - 24 uniform time zones for 24 hours - has not come into being," Mr Rooney said.

Temporal beings

But has the utility of global standardised time been overtaken by our 24-hour culture and permanently interconnected, electrically illuminated society?

Communications tools like e-mail are challenging the need for standardised time, admits Mr Rooney.

"But there is a parallel mood in developed countries to reconnect with time according to the sun, with rhythms somewhat subdued by standardised time," he says.

Sunrise in Cheshire, UK
Humans are biologically influenced by light and dark

"We are temporal beings, we are physically affected by the seasons, light and dark and the changing lunar cycles and yet we are... more and more disconnected from those natural cycles."

It is this move that Mr Chavez insists is behind his decision to shift the clocks. Venezuela also had the same time zone between 1912 and 1964.

But analysts also point out that the time zone shift follows a series of new state symbols including a revised flag, changed official name and soon-to-arrive new currency.

"He also want to differentiate himself from previous governments, saying 'This is 21st Century socialism, a new Venezuela'," Ms O'Neil says.

Venezuela joins Iran, Afghanistan and Burma in choosing its own time zone - all countries with highly centralised power, Ms O'Neil points out.

Regardless of whether his motivation is whimsy, biology or ideology Mr Chavez's choice has shown that time remains fluid, Mr Rooney says.

"It is to do with people, politics and shifting alliances and relationships. It is by no means straightforward. You really have to do your homework to work out what the time is."

Do you live in a fractional time zone? Or do you cross a time zone on a regular basis? How does living in a unique time zone affect your daily life?

Here is a selection of your comments:

I fully agree with the comment about our being disconnected from the Earth's natural cycles and am convinced that we are doing ourselves immeasurable harm by prolonging the day through artificial light during a large part of the year. Perhaps many illnesses, including cancer, can be attributed in part to this wholly unnatural behaviour.
Richard, Geneva, Switzerland

Living in a country that is 30 minutes off from the rest of the world creates needless complexity when trying to calculate times for conference calls and flight schedules. This might make sense if only Afghanistan were doing this to place its time zone in logical accordance to the sun. However, the Afghan time zone is so distorted for Kabul, that in the summer daylight begins around 4am, but dark sets in by 7pm; not exactly the most efficient set-up for a place without regular electricity.

It seems like Afghanistan needs to shift its time by at least one hour and a half to be adjusted to the natural clock where the sun rises at 6-7am, and sets 6-9pm depending on the season. I have no idea why Afghanistan is off schedule this way, except that possibly it is in close proximity to Iran and India, so it's time is actually one hour different from these two. In any case, it is all much more confusing than if all countries stayed on the 24 hour time zone system.
Andre Mann, Kabul, Afghanistan

I live in my wife's time zone which is 10 mins later than everybody else's.
David Marshall, London, England

Saw a bumper sticker in Toronto once: "The world will end at 7:00PM tonight. 7:30PM Newfoundland".
Russ, Vancouver, Canada

Truthfully, I've always been proud that we've been in a unique time zone; Newfoundlanders have always tried to strike out on their own and show they're different from the rest of the country. I was, however, under the mistaken impression that we were the only ones in our own little :30 time zone (other than those opportunistic residents of Millennium Island).
Stephen Anstey, St. John's, NL, Canada

Time zones are confusing and we should all live by the same time. The states could adjust the opening hours of schools and public offices instead, thus making the society work approximately according to the sun.
Jon, Oslo

Mr Chavez, by creating a new time zone, has caused - or is about to cause - significant expenditure of time and effort for all computer operating system vendors. Not only will a new time zone code need to be created for Venezuela, but OS installers will need to be modified to recognise Venezuela as a unique time zone, and internal time translation services will need to be programmed to cover changes between standard and summer time in the new time zone. In fact, have details on daylight savings shifts in the new time zone even been published yet?
Dave Walker, Old Basing, Hampshire

When once you are in a particular time zone, it doesn't really matter whether it's fractional or not, and so being in a fractional zone has in itself no impact on daily life. The fact that the various states of Australia are on different time zones is a different question. Apart from the winter months when South Australia is on the same time as the Northern Territory, you have to adjust your watches whenever entering another state from the NT anyway so it doesn't matter if it's a 'whole' or a 'fractional' adjustment.
David Swift, Darwin, Northern Territory, Australia

Russia spans some 11 time zones. However, the railways all work to Moscow time regardless of where you are in the country. All timetables are in Moscow time and all clocks in railway stations are set to Moscow time. I first experienced this in Ekaterinberg, which is 2 hours ahead of Moscow, and it seemed very peculiar. However, it does make it a lot easier to calculate journey times. It makes a lot of sense, but you do have to remember to use the station clocks and not your own watch (unless you happen to be in the Moscow time zone).
Phil Rogers, Bournemouth, UK and Ekaterinburg, Russia

I travel to India every month...They are 5.5 hours ahead of GMT....this is a great advantage when I'm there (when I've set my watch to Indian time) if I want to know the time in the UK, I just turn my watch upside-down.
Michael Puckett, London UK

Perhaps it is hypothetically true that "travellers can lose, or gain, three-and-a-half hours with a few footsteps when crossing the border between China and Afghanistan." But there is no border crossing between China and Afghanistan, nor is there any road; the terrain is impassable to all but expert, well-equipped mountaineers.
Niall, Hangzhou, China

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