Sneak Privatization of Mexico’s Oil Halted

Mexico City.

“The Adelitas have arrived/To defend our oil/Whoever wants to give it to the foreigners/ Will get the shit kicked out of him!” yodeled the brigades of women pouring onto the esplanade of the Mexican senate to protest a petroleum privatization measure President Felipe Calderon insists is not a petroleum privatization measure and which he sent onto the Senate for fast-track ratification at the tag end of the winter-spring session this April.

Inside the small, ornate Senate, leftist legislators aligned in the Broad Progressive Front (FAP), some dressed in white oil workers’ overalls and hard hats, were camped out under pup tents arranged around the podium for the eighth straight night, paralyzing legislative activities and demanding an ample national debate on Calderon’s plans to open up the nationalized petroleum corporation PEMEX to transnational investment.

The hullabaloo, which has been brewing for months, exploded when rumors circulated that Calderon’s right-wing PAN party and allies in the once-ruling (71 years) PRI had cooked up a secret vote approving the privatization measure – such covert maneuvering is called an “albazo” or “madruguete” here, a pre-dawn ruse to approve legislation in the dark when there is significant opposition, often behind locked doors and military and police barricades.  Seizing the podiums in both houses of congress and the timely arrival of the Adelitas prevented a madruguete and derailed Calderon’s plans to fast-track the privatization of PEMEX.

Under the President’s “energy reform” package, building and operating refineries and pipelines will be opened up to the private sector – 37 out of PEMEX’s 41 divisions would be subject to partial privatization.  One example: a modified form of “risk” contract, which relegates a percentage of the petroleum brought in to the private driller, and which is outlawed under Article 27 of the Mexican Constitution, would become the law of the land.

In an analysis anti-privatizers label “catastrophic” which Calderon sent on to congress to back up his initiative, the President pinned salvation of PEMEX on deep water (“aguas profundas”) drilling in the Gulf of Mexico that would necessitate the “association” of private capital.

Mexico’s petroleum industry was expropriated from an array of oil companies known collectively as the “Seven Sisters” in March 1938 by then-President Lazaro Cardenas, an act that remains a paragon of revolutionary nationalism throughout Latin America.  But down the decades, PEMEX has subcontracted out important parts of its structure – the Exploration or PEP division in particular – to transnational drillers and service corporations like Halliburton, now its number one subcontractor, that suck billions of dollar in profits from Mexican oil each year.

The appearance of the Adelitas and their male counterparts (“Los Adelitos”) is the latest gamble by the left populist leader Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO) to monkey wrench the government’s plans to return PEMEX to the contemporary version of the Seven Sisters.  The PAN was indeed founded in 1939 to oppose Cardenas’s nationalization of the oil industry.

Organized by neighborhoods and by workplaces, the Adelita brigades are the lineal descendents of the groups of AMLO supporters who came together after the stolen 2006 election in a seven-week sit-in that shut down the capital’s main thoroughfares.  At last count (Friday April 14th), there were 41 registered brigades – 28 Adelitas and 13 Adelitos, about 50,000 citizens in all.  Operating in shifts, 13,000 “brigadistas” have been encamped off and on for a week in front of the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies.

The brigades are named after significant political events – “18th of March”, marking the day Cardenas expropriated the oil – or to honor social activists such as Jesus Piedra, the long-disappeared son of left senator Rosario Ibarra, and Arturo Gamiz, a 1960s guerrilla fighter.  Women warriors like Leona Vicaria and Benita Galeana are similarly remembered. One brigade of Adelitas tag themselves “Enaguas Profundas” or “Deep Petticoats” – Calderon wants to drill in deep water or “aguas profundas.”

The creation of so large a citizens’ army pledged to carry out civil disobedience to prevent the passage of legislation it thinks detrimental to the republic is unprecedented in Mexico’s political history.  As thousands sat down in the street to block the automobiles of PAN and PRI senators from entering the precinct last Thursday, AMLO, who often cites Dr. King and Gandhi as role models, urged non-violence: “not one window broken, not one stone thrown.”

“Tienen miedo porque no tenemos miedo!” the Adelitas sang back in a call and response that is always a feature of Lopez Obrador’s mobilizations, “They are frightened because we are not afraid.”

Similar brigades, led by women, have invaded local congresses outside of Mexico City and one band of activists closed Acapulco’s busy airport last week.  Shutting down Mexico City’s Benito Juarez International Airport is the Adelitas’ ultimate threat.

The Adelitas, like most of the weapons in AMLO’s arsenal, are drawn from Mexico’s revolutionary history.  Las Adelitas were “soldaderas” or women soldiers who fought shoulder to shoulder with the men in Pancho Villa’s “Division del Norte” (Northern Division) during the 1910-1919 revolution.  With their long skirts, broad sombreros, bandoleers strung across their chests, and toting .22 carbines, the Adelitas were emblematic of the many courageous women who participated in that epic struggle.  The first Adelita is thought to have been Adelita Velarde, a nurse from Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua.

Like “La Cucaracha”, another popular anthem of Pancho Villa’s irregulars, “La Adelita” is now a mainstay of Mexican folk music.  The song tells of “Adelita” who fell in love with the “Sargente” (Sergeant) and went to fight with him on the frontlines against the “Federales” (government troops.)  In the final verse, the Sargente swears that if Adelita should leave him, he will come for her in a “war ship” or “military train” – which may be prophetic of the Adelitas’ pursuit of Calderon and his oil privatization scheme.

AMLO’s crusade has not been confined to one house of congress.  On April 8 when the President sprung his initiative on the legislature, FAP members stormed the tribune in the Chamber of Deputies (Mexico’s version of the U.S. House of Representatives) while lawmakers were preparing to grant Calderon permission to travel to New Orleans for the April 21-22 summit of the ASPAN (The North American Security and Prosperity Agreement) – Mexican presidents must solicit congress for permission to travel.

ASPAN is a corollary of NAFTA that projects North American security and energy integration and Calderon was eager to attend the summit with the re-privatization of Mexican oil in hand.

Suddenly, the FAPOs unfurled a 60-foot banner that announced Congress had been closed (“Clausurado”) and cast it over the entire presidium, trapping president Ruth Zavaleta, who occupies Nancy Pelosi’s position in the Mexican house, in its folds.  Struggling to free herself of the fabric, Zavaleta reappeared with her gavel in hand but the ensuing chaos prevented her from calling for a vote on the President’s travel arrangements.

Eight days later, the tribune was still draped in the banner and FAP deputies had chained shut the doors of the chamber and moved the desks of the PAN legislators to the podium to barricade themselves from attempts to take it back.  Zavaleta, a member of AMLO’s Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) but not friendly to Lopez Obrador, has called for the use of “public force” (police, military) to remove the rebel lawmakers.

Thrust back into the national spotlight by the battle to head off privatization, Lopez Obrador is the target of extravagant vitriol delivered by the nation’s electronic and print media reminiscent of the public lynching he was subjected to during the tumultuous 2006 presidential campaign.  TV tyrant Televisa’s coverage of the takeover of congress (a “kidnapping”) was so venomous that thousands of Adelitas, wearing bandaleros and wielding facsimile .22s, descended on the conglomerate’s Mexico City headquarters, provoking one prominent PAN politico to label them “paramilitaries.”

In violation of constitutional amendments banning “black” political hit pieces, a PAN front group “Better Society, Better Government”, is running primetime Televisa spots comparing Lopez Obrador to Hitler, Mussolini, and Pinochet.  PAN party president German Martinez accuses Lopez Obrador of “hiding under the skirts of women” and the Empresorial
Coordinating Council, the nation’s elite business federation, takes out full-page ads blasting the AMLOs for staging a coup d’etat (“golpe de estado.”)

Despite the anti-AMLO media blitz – or perhaps because of it – Lopez Obrador remains the only figure on the Mexican political stage who is able to convoke tens of thousands of supporters, often with virtually no notice.  Three times since March 18 when he kicked off this crusade, AMLO has filled the great Zocalo plaza, the heart of Mexico’s body politic.  What makes the turnouts even more impressive is the fact that Lopez Obrador has built this massive movement while his Party of the Democratic Revolution has been reducing itself to rubble.

In-fighting since a corrupted March 16 party presidential election has divided the PRD down the middle – the party is roughly split between an activist wing headed by Lopez Obrador and his candidate Alejandro Encinas, and party bureaucrats who see the PRD as an instrument for political and personal advancement and seek to demobilize the Adelitas.

The “Chuchus” or “New Left” eschew AMLO’s rallies and sit-ins and instead conduct their own private hunger strikes to protest privatization.  The Chuchus (many of their leaders are named Jesus) portray themselves as the “reasonable” left and are only too willing to “dialogue” with Calderon, a president Lopez Obrador resolutely refuses to recognize.

Whoever wins, the tussle over the bones of the PRD may be a moot one – after two years of campaigning down at the grassroots, Lopez Obrador’s base has grown wider than that of the party.

Although Calderon’s scam to fast track privatization through congress was blunted by the Adelitas and the FAPs, the PAN and the PRI – the latter a repository of seven decades of dirty tricks – still have plenty of room in which to connive.  Now the PRI, seconded by Calderon’s right-wing minions, proposes an uninterrupted 50 day “national” debate to be restricted to the two houses of congress with a congressional vote by mid-summer.  Calderon’s initiative can only pass if at least half of the PRI’s 120-vote delegation goes along with the game.

Even if the privatization measure eventually passes, the legislation is bound to wind up in the Mexican Supreme Court the moment it clears congress.  Ironically, the Supreme Court was the instrument by which Cardenas nationalized the oil industry in the first place.

Meanwhile, Lopez Obrador’s people are clamoring for a very different kind of debate, one that would unfold over the next four months – 120 days – and be conducted inside and outside congress in every state and municipality in the country with the prospect of a national referendum in the fall to decide the issue – one poll has 62 per cent of those questioned opposed to the privatization of Mexico’s oil.  Such grassroots decision-making would be a revolutionary strophe here in the land of the “albazo” and the “madruguete.”

Out on the esplanade of the Senate, the Adelitas were shaking their boodies to “La Cumbia del Petrolio.”  There were enough pink “gorras” (baseball caps), pink hankies, and pink parasols that read “Defend Our Oil” to make Code Pink blush.  Brigadista Berta Robledo, a nurse about to retire from the National Pediatric Hospital, hugged a blade of shade under the punishing mid-day sun.

“Are you tired, companeras?” the companera with the bullhorn asked and Berta came to her feet with a loud “No!”  “Sure the sun is hot but so what?” she responded to a gringo reporter’s stupid question, “the sun can’t stop us, the rain can’t stop us, the cold can’t stop us and you know why? Because we are right!  We are fighting for our oil and for our country.  This is the resistance.  We don’t get tired.”

JOHN ROSS is at home in the belly of the Monstruo writing a book about the belly of the Monstruo.  If you have further information write






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