Crunchtime for Mexico’s Oil

The countdown to the denouement of the great debate over privatization of Mexico’s oil industry looms just weeks away and both sides in this bellwether battle against neo-liberalism are sharpening up their knives.  With formal debate in the Senate set to end July 22nd, President Felipe Calderon’s privatization imitative is on the legislative fast track for a quick vote – Energy Secretary Georgina Kessel urges legislators from Calderon’s rightist PAN party, which holds a slim majority in both houses, to call a special session the moment debate ends to vote up the proposed “energy reform” package over the objections of the opposition.

Last April, during a similar putsch by the PANistas and their allies in the once-ruling PRI to fast track privatization, leftist senators and deputies seized the podiums of their respective houses and paralyzed the legislative process for 13 days to force a national debate on the issue.  Thousands of women formed brigades – “Las Adelitas”, inspired by women soldiers during Mexico’s revolution – donned long skirts, big sombreros, bandaleros, hoisted toy carbines, and surrounded the Senate building in support of the striking legislators of the Broad Progressive Front or FAP. The PAN accused the Adelitas of waging a guerrilla war against the legislative process and threatened to call the military.

Led by Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO), from whom the rightists swiped the 2006 presidential election exactly two years ago this July 2nd, the PRD has called for a “national consultation” July 27th to test national opinion on Calderon’s privatization package.  Although the Mexican constitution has no provisions for referendum (the PAN and the PRI have perpetually rejected amending the nation’s magna carta to allow for such consultations), popular “consultas” have been a strong suit for AMLO in the past – he once turned out millions to reject a government scheme to load up Mexican taxpayers with billions of dollars in private bank debt (the measure passed anyway).  The rebel Zapatista Army of National Liberation has also conducted two multitudinous “consultas populares.”

Claiming that it is not constitutionally mandated to carry out such a consultation, the highly discredited Federal Electoral Institute, which orchestrated the stealing of the 2006 election from AMLO, has refused to organize the vote.  But in Mexico City, where a fifth of the nation’s voters reside and which has been controlled by Lopez Obrador’s Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) for a decade, the local electoral institute has volunteered its services.  In addition to the capital, the July 27th Consulta will take place in PRD-controlled states and municipalities in central Mexico – subsequent consultas will be held in August in southern and northern states and cities.

The prospect of a peoples’ vote on his pet privatization project horrifies Calderon and he puts in a lot of primetime railing against the consultation.  As usual, Televisa and its junior partner TV Azteca, which control the nation’s screens, are in lockstep attack mode and criminalize the Consulta nightly.  Jesus Reyes Heroles, Calderon’s director of PEMEX, the still-nationalized petroleum monopoly, declares that the issue is much too complex to let the people vote it up or down. Backers of the Consulta counter that PEMEX accounts for 40% of the government budget and 100% of the social budget and the fate of the oil company is too crucial to allow the politicians to decide.

Although the Calderonistas will refuse to recognize the results of the balloting, an expected heavy no vote could pressure the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) into splitting its 120 votes the PAN needs to win passage.  For weeks, the political columns have been abuzz with rumors of $20,000 USD “canonazos” that Calderon’s people are dangling before the always greedy eyes of the PRI – indeed, during its seven decades in power, the PRIistas pioneered the tendering of such “canonazos” to buy off the opposition.

With Mexican light crude hovering above $120 a barrel on world markets when it was budgeted at $49, PEMEX has accumulated about $20,000,000,000 in “exedentes” that Calderon could use to buy off the PRIs.

The PRI had long dipped into PEMEX largesse.  Mexico’s “revolutionary” oil workers union was a building block of its 71-year hold on power.  PEMEX buys labor peace with multi-million dollar “canonazos” – union chieftain Carlos Romero Deschamps is said to spend more time at Las Vegas blackjack tables than he does tending to the union’s business.  Back in 2000, PEMEX funneled $110,000,000 USD through the oil workers’ pipeline and into the coffers of PRI presidential candidate Francisco Labastida, the so-named “PEMEXGATE” scandal. PEMEX director Rogelio Montemayor subsequently fled the country and Romero escaped prosecution only because as a PRI senator he enjoyed immunity.  Labastida, who lost the election, is himself now a PRI senator, the chairman of the Senate Energy Commission where Calderon’s legislation is being shaped, in fact.

The PRD, which is badly split over control of its party’s presidency, and the FAP of which it is a key member, are not immune from the PAN’s “canonazos” – many of their leaders are ex-PRIistas.

Despite the oil workers’ deep investment in continuing nationalization of the industry, Romero Deschamps has been reluctant to testify at any of the 23 debates on the Senate floor – unlike the Mexican Electricity Workers Union (SME), which strongly opposes the sell-off and the privatization of electricity generation that is also part of the Calderon’s package.

Over the course of 13 lively debates held every Tuesday and Thursday through the end of June, the Calderon proposal has been repeatedly bashed on economic, technological, historical, and constitutional grounds.  Those who oppose privatization insist the measure is unconstitutional because it provides for “risk” contracts that give away Mexican oil or its equivalent in dollars to transnational drillers, a practice specifically outlawed by Article 27 of the Constitution.  Calderon’s initiative opens up exploration, refining, pipelines, and transportation to private investors.

The president and his associates protest that they are not privatizing PEMEX – they use euphemisms like the “association of private capital” to describe their machinations.  One Thursday in late May, a former PEMEX engineer took the Senate stand and read a passage from Hannah Arndt in which the Jewish philosopher observed that the Nazis never called it fascism either.

The Great Debate has tilted to the Left – which in fact forced it by taking the tribune in congress – from the first session.  Most of the initiative’s defenders have visceral ties to Big Oil.  According to a Proceso magazine investigation, 36 of the 45 speakers in favor of privatization now work or have once worked for Shell, Halliburton, Repsol, Schlumberger, or McKinney Associates, a leading petroleum consultant.

The Great Debate has hardly been confined to the hallowed halls of the Senate.  Every week, hundreds gather beneath a sagging tent in the great Zocalo plaza to interact with the hearings on the big screen.  “Coruptos!” (corrupted ones), “Vendepatrias!” (those who would sell the country) they yell at those who support the bill.  Sometimes they stand and sing the national anthem.

As is his peculiar talent, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador once again filled the Zocalo with tens of thousands of worshipful supporters June 29th to strategize on the coming Consulta.  Two years after the presidency was kidnapped by the Calderonistas, no other politico in the land can fill plazas like AMLO does.

Since his last massive love fest in Mexico City in April, Lopez Obrador has been on the road, holding rallies in all 31 state capitals and 93 outlaying municipalities, building a national movement to defend the “petrolio.”  According to his count, the “brigadistas” who numbered 30,000 “Adelitas” and “Adelitos” two months ago now top 200,000 citizens prepared to engage in non-violent civil disobedience when and if privatization is rolled out on the floor of congress.

AMLO also claims to have signed up over 2,000,000 members for his National Democratic Convention, which is expected to soon split from the PRD and emerge as his own political party.  But for now, Lopez Obrador seems to be trying hard to ignore party turbulence.  He has backed off from challenging the “Chucho” faction that claims to have won tainted PRD elections in March and has embraced Marcelo Ebrard, his successor as Mexico City mayor and probable rival for the Left presidential candidacy in 2012.

Although AMLO urgently needs Marcelo’s support to carry off the Consulta in the capital, Ebrard failed to show up at Lopez Obrador’s pro-Consulta rally June 29th – the Mexico City police’s deadly mishandling of a raid on an after school discothèque in a working class neighborhood that took 12 young lives (including three police officers) has not made Marcelo the most beloved left-wing mayor in the city’s history.  In a not-very veiled critique of Ebrard’s performance, the Zocalo meeting began with a minute of silence for the slain youths.

The date of the rally was pertinent, three days shy of the second anniversary of the infamous 2006 fraud, and AMLO sounded almost wistful about those heady days when millions marched (police estimates) and tens of thousands encamped on the city’s key thoroughfares.  For most of the time since the election was handed to Calderon, Lopez Obrador has been barnstorming Mexico, bringing his crusade to the distant corners of the country, and what he has seen out there puts hurt on his heart.

People are more desperate and much less secure and the rulers have to lock themselves up in protected rooms and bulletproof limousines to live their lives – “if you can call that a life” he mused to the huge turnout.  “Felipe Calderon has no moral authority and does not legitimately hold power,” he told his people – Calderon’s pollsters give him 60% approval, second only to Alvaro Uribe’s in Latin America (Uribe and Calderon have the same pollster.)

Two years of Calderon’s leadership has the country hungry – Lopez Obrador recited a litany of price hikes of basic goods.  He spoke of solidarity with the Zapatistas in Chiapas and the bruised popular movement in Oaxaca and he fulminated at the destruction of a sacred mountain in San Luis Potosi by a transnational mining corporation and the installation of a transnational toxic waste dump on indigenous land in Hidalgo.

The privatization of PEMEX will only compound social unrest, AMLO warned, counseling peaceful resistance.  With 200,000 brigadistas eager to go into the streets, Lopez Obrador commands the most significant grassroots movement in the country today.

The jubilant mob never tired of chanting that AMLO was their “presidente!” – recently, the IFE fined the FAP for running TV spots that labeled Lopez Obrador “the legitimate president of Mexico” and the Institute’s misstep has become a national joke.  On stage at the Zocalo rally, the always-animated master of ceremonies Jesusa Rodriguez wore an outsized tee shirt that shouted “LEGITIMO!” as the crowd roared out AMLO’s legitimacy.  Indeed, the title “legitimate president of Mexico” seems a part of Lopez Obrador’s name now.

Brigadismo has given the movement to defend the petrolio a feel of camaraderie.  The brigades are organized around neighborhoods and workplaces and most brigadistas are veterans of AMLO’s 2006 struggle for the presidency.  In the past two months, tens of thousands of brigadistas have gone house to house and Colonia to Colonia, passing out 18,000,000 (AMLO’s count) comic books urging the Mexican people to defend their “petrolio.”

The graphics of the movement are sharper too.  The oil well logo is ubiquitous – supporters wear oil well hats on their head and oil well pins and belt buckles and tee shirts.  The movement is also producing alternative products – “Mi General” wholegrain bread to compete against “Bimbo” white bread baked by a major Calderon supporter, and cleaning products “for a real house cleansing.”

When Lopez Obrador called his first meeting to defend the petrolio last March 18th, the 70th anniversary of the expropriation and nationalization of the nation’s oil, the audience was dominated by old people.  100 days later, the young are in the forefront.  Now with its expansion into 31 states, the movement to defend the petrolio is driving social change in Mexico.

One reason, of course, is that the movement is not really just about oil.  What is at stake here is direct democracy – how are these issues going to be decided and who will decide them?  Reyes Heroles’ argument that the privatization is too complicated a subject for the common people to understand is put to the lie every Tuesday and Thursday under the big tent in the Zocalo when hundreds of Mexicans, mostly people the color of the earth, gather to take part in the debate.

The movement is also about sovereignty. Adolfo Gilly, the renowned left writer, mused during a recent National Autonomous University forum on privatization that the U.S. had to murder a million Iraqis in order to give Iraqi oil back to the same companies from which Saddam Hussein once expropriated them.  In Mexico, Felipe Calderon wants to obtain the same outcome without firing a shot. That is not going to happen, Gilly advises Calderon.  “Oil is not just a mineral – for us it is patria.”

At a crucial moment early in the new millennium when the globalizers are feverishly fighting to keep the world in their thrall, the outcome of the struggle to halt the privatization of Mexican petroleum is the bellwether battle against neo-liberalism in the Americas today.

JOHN ROSS’s “El Monstruo – Tales of Dread and Redemption from the Most Monstrous Megalopolis on Planet Earth” (working title) will be published by Nation Books in 2009.  Blindman’s Buff will appear at ten day intervals while he is in the heat of its writing.  If you have further information, write             








JOHN ROSS’s El Monstruo – Dread & Redemption in Mexico City is now available at your local independent bookseller. Ross is plotting a monster book tour in 2010 – readers should direct possible venues to