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Fighting the Privatization of Mexico's Oil AMLO, the Comeback Kid?

AMLO, the Comeback Kid?

by JOHN ROSS


As Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO), the leftist firebrand who millions of Mexicans consider their legitimate president, made his way to the podium in the packed Zocalo plaza here March 18th, the 70th anniversary of the expropriation and nationalization of an oil industry now threatened with re-privatization, hundreds of senior citizens, AMLO’s firmest followers, rose as one from their seats of honor at the side of the stage, raised their frail fists in salute, and chanted that, despite the cobwebs of old age, they do not forget. "Tenemos Memoria!" – "We Have Memory!"

What did they remember? Tiburcio Quintanilla, 83, remembers how when President Lazaro Cardenas called upon his countrymen and women to donate to a fund to pay indemnities to the gringo oil companies he went with his father to the Palace of Bellas Artes and stood on line for hours with their chickens, their contribution to taking back "our chapopote (petroleum)." I was born in the same week that Lazaro Cardenas nationalized Mexico’s oil, I tell Don Tiburcio. I’m only a kid.

Up on the same stage from which he directed the historic seven week siege of the capital after the Great Fraud of 2006 that awarded the presidency to his right-wing rival Felipe Calderon, AMLO looked more grizzled, weather-beaten, a little hoarse after two years on the road relentlessly roaming the Mexican outback bringing his message to "los de abajo" (those down below) and signing up nearly 2,000,000 new constituents for his National Democratic Convention (CND) which is increasingly embroiled in a bitter battle for control of the center-left Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD.)

Now Lopez Obrador has thrust himself into the leadership of the movement to defend the nation’s oil industry (PEMEX) from privatization in the guise of Calderon’s "energy reform" legislation, which could be introduced in the Mexican Congress as early as March 25th.

Calderon and his cohorts seek to persuade Mexicans that PEMEX is broken, the reserves running out, and the nation’s only hope is in deep water drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. Drilling for what the Calderonistas describe as "The Treasure of Mexico" in a widely distributed, lavishly produced infomercial, will require "association" with Big Oil. But as many experts such as Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, son of the president who expropriated the oil in the first place, point out, it is not at all certain that these purported deep sea reserves are actually in Mexican waters.

AMLO’s March 18th "informative assembly" of the National Democratic Convention was certainly the most emotional since he convoked the CND on Independence Day in September 2006 after the courts had designated Calderon as president. Poised under a monumental tri-color flag that furled and unfurled dramatically in the spring zephyrs, and addressing tens of thousands of loyalists in the heart of the Mexican body politic, Lopez Obrador told the story of Mexico’s Oil.

Oil is a patriotic lubricant here and AMLO is imbued in what historians once called "revolutionary nationalism", the apogee of which was Lazaro Cardenas’s March 18th 1938 order expropriating the holdings of 17 Anglo-American oil companies who were about to secede from the union and declare themselves "The Republic of the Gulf of Mexico." AMLO recalled how the companies had defied a Supreme Court order to pay $26 million USD to the nation’s oil workers leaving General Cardenas (he had been a revolutionary general) no option but to take back Mexico’s oil. How patriotic Mexicans like Don Tiburcio and his father lined up to pay off the debt with their chickens and family jewels. Cardenas’s subsequent creation of a national oil corporation, "Petrolios Mexicanos" or PEMEX was seen as the guarantee of a great future for Mexico. But things have worked out differently.

"Privatization is corruption!" AMLO harangues, "The oil is ours! La Patria No Se Vende!" "La Patria No Se Vende, La Patria Se Defiende!" the crowd roars back, "The country is not for sale, The country is to defend!" "Pais Petrolero, Pueblo Sin Dinero" – "Country With Oil, People Without Money!"

Lopez Obrador or "El Peje", as his followers affectionately nickname him, warms to the task, outlining plans for a new "civil insurrection" that will be led by "women commandos" who will encircle congress on the day "energy reform" legislation is introduced, shut down banks, the Stock Exchange, the airports, and block highways. If all that doesn’t work, AMLO calls for a national strike. All of this projected and highly illegal activism would unfold "peacefully, without violence" – El Peje is a disciple of Gandhi and often cites Dr. King in his calls to action.

Indeed, Lopez Obrador takes pains to warn the petroleum defenders about government provocateurs and those who would foment violence, perhaps a message to the Popular Revolutionary Army (EPR), which has thrice bombed PEMEX pipelines in the past year.

Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador is at his incendiary best as a leader of social upheaval. During the post-electoral struggle, he put 2,000,000 souls on the streets of Mexico City July 30th 2006, the largest political demonstration in the history of this contentious republic. Back in 1996, this reporter shadowed Lopez Obrador as he led Chontal Indian farmers in blocking 60 PEMEX oil platforms that had been contaminating their cornfields in his native Tabasco, a movement that catapulted AMLO into the presidency of the PRD, later to become the wildly popular mayor of Mexico City and the de facto winner of the 2006 presidential election.

Although Lopez Obrador once seemed assured of his party’s nomination in 2012, he is now challenged by his successor as the capital’s mayor, Marcelo Ebrard, who stood stolidly at his side during the March 18th convocation.

While Lopez Obrador held forth in the center of the republic, its titular president Felipe Calderon campaigned in El Peje’s home turf of Tabasco, the site of Mexico’s largest land-based deposits, touting the "association of capitals" as the key to the "Treasure of Mexico" and swearing up and down that he had no intention of privatizing PEMEX. The idea instead was to make the laws governing oil revenues more "flexible" ("flexabilizar") and build a "strategic alliance" with the global oil titans.

To mark the 70th anniversary of General Cardenas’s brave act of revolutionary nationalism, Calderon shared a stage with Carlos Romero Deschamps, the boss of the corruption-ridden oil workers union, and Francisco Labastida, the once-ruling PRI party’s losing 2000 presidential candidate and now chairman of the Senate Energy Commission where the "energy reform" legislation will most probably be introduced.

In 2000, PEMEX illegally funneled $110,000,000 USD through Romero’s union into Labastida’s campaign coffers, a scandal known here as PEMEXgate which has since been swept into the sea.

While Calderon embraced these scoundrels in the port of Paradise Tabasco, a thousand AMLO supporters were kept at bay a mile from the ceremony by a phalanx of federal police.

The most glaring absentee at the Tabasco séance was Calderon’s dashing young Secretary of the Interior Juan Camilo Mourino, his former chief of staff who the president appointed to the second most powerful position in Mexico’s political hierarchy this past January to oversee negotiations between the parties on "energy reform" legislation. But Mourino’s creds were seriously damaged this past February 24th when Lopez Obrador released documents revealing that the then-future Interior Secretary’s family business had been awarded four choice PEMEX transportation contracts while he presided over the Chamber of Deputies Energy Commission.

The GES Corporation also won four other PEMEX contracts when Mourino was Calderon’s right hand man during the much-questioned president’s stint as the nation’s energy secretary in the previous administration. AMLO accuses Mourino, who was born in Spain and may still be a Spanish citizen, of cutting a pre-privatization deal with the Spanish energy giant Repsol.

There were notable absences at AMLO’s big revival in the Zocalo too, among them Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, the scion of the General and founder of the PRD whose "moral authority" has been greatly eroded in recent years. Estranged from his protégé Lopez Obrador whose cause he did not leap to after the 2006 election was stolen, Cardenas chose to "defend the petrolio" in his home state of Michoacan to which he has semi-retired and where his son Lazaro, grandson of the "Tata", is the outgoing governor.

Although young Lazaro has endorsed "the association of private capital" in PEMEX, his father has hedged on Calderon’s privatization plans, reserving judgment until legislation is actually presented. Cuauhtemoc has, however, urged that Mexico and the U.S. first settle the ownership of deep-water tracts in the Gulf before any legislation is ratified.

Deep-water exploration requires an 11-year construction and drilling cycle before wells come on line. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, Mexico has only ten years of proven reserves left.

Calderon’s legislative package is liable to steer away from constitutional amendment required for privatization and focus on secondary laws, a legaloid move that could take the wind out of Lopez Obrador’s sails. Manlio Fabio Beltrones, the PRI senate leader whose support Calderon needs to pass "energy reform" (not all PRIistas are expected to back it) once warned that a strong measure would "hand the presidency" to AMLO.

The other prominent no-show in Lopez Obrador’s revival tent in the Zocalo was Jesus Ortega, the front-runner for the PRD presidency in March 16th party elections. Ortega heads up the rival New Left faction, a group that is prone to negotiate with Calderon’s representatives despite AMLO’s insistence that the PRD continue to refuse to recognize what he labels the "spurious" president. Lopez Obrador backed former Mexico City interim mayor, the roly-poly ex-commie Alejandro Encinas in the race for the party presidency.

Ortega, a PRD senator, refused to attend the Zocalo rally because he said he feared for his personal safety after other leaders of the New Left faction (AKA "Los Chuchos" because so many top New Leftites are named Jesus – "chucho" is also an endearing name for a dog) had been roughed up by Lopez Obrador supporters during an anti-privatization demonstration at the PEMEX office towers some weeks earlier.

The head to head between Ortega and Encinas turned toxic overnight with mutual accusations of vote stealing, vote stuffing, vote buying, vote burning, voters "razored" from the voting lists, fake ballots and phony counts flying as if the March 16th debacle was a funny mirror reflection of July 2nd 2006 when Lopez Obrador was stripped of the presidency by Calderon’s chicanery. The PRD implosion has stoked the party’s enemies like Televisa, the TV tyrant, which devotes half its primetime news hour to the shenanigans. The television giant blacked out all news of similar fraud in the 2006 presidential election.

It is long-standing tradition that PRD internal elections will inevitably turn into a "desmadre" (disgrace.) Similar desmadres occurred in 1996, 1999, and again in 2002, the year Ortega first tried to take control after Rosario Robles, Cardenas’s successor as Mexico City mayor, bought the party presidency – her campaign was bankrolled by a crooked construction contractor who filmed videos of her go-fors pocketing boodles of bills with which he later tried to blackmail the PRD in general and Lopez Obrador in particular. "The horror is interminable," laments Miguel Angel Velazquez who pens the "Lost City" column for the left daily La Jornada, a PRD paper.

The legitimacy of the March 16th results can be measured by the mechanism with which they will be determined. At the helm of the PRD’s internal electoral commission is one Arturo "The Penguin" Nunez, once the tainted president of the Federal Electoral Institute during his life as a PRIista, and the architect of countless PRI frauds, including one against Lopez Obrador in their native Tabasco.

In truth, Lopez Obrador has been running away from the "horror" of the PRD since the formation of the CND, a crusade to weld those who voted for AMLO in 2006 into a force for social and political change, and his base is now thought to be wider than that of the party. Should Encinas prevail in the brawl for the PRD presidency, Lopez Obrador’s hold on the party would still be tenuous – the Chuchos appear to have wrested many state elections – and he will look to the CND as he battles the privatizers. Indeed. The announced encirclement of congress by "woman commandos" will put pressure on the FAP – the Broad Political Front of left legislators led by the PRD – to pay attention and hold the line against privatization.

The Party of the Democratic Revolution was the Phoenix bird born in fire after the PRI stole the 1988 "presidenciales" from Cardenas. Its 16 original "currents" (now called "tribes") included ex-PRIistas like Cardenas and Lopez Obrador, ex-communists (like Encinas), urban activists, peasants’ organizations, social democrats, and other left opportunists (like Ortega.)

In its early years, the party sought to define what it would be: a confluence of grassroots movements that ran candidates for public office as one means of achieving social change? Or an exclusively electoral formation intent on obtaining its quotient of power in which the party became an end in itself? Although the PRD has devolved into the latter, Lopez Obrador’s 2006 campaign reinvigorated the activist side of the equation.

Now, leading the defense of Mexican oil against the privatizers, AMLO has leveraged himself back into the political spotlight, and once again, is leading a reinvigorated challenge to the faltering Calderon who desperately needs to make good on his pledge to his Washington masters to privatize PEMEX.

JOHN ROSS is back in Mexico City purportedly working on a book about Mexico City. Write him at johnross@igc.org if you have further information.