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Drilling vs. Direct Democracy in Mexico

Berta Robledo, a nurse at the National Pediatric Hospital here, was hunched over the counter at La Blanca, a popular old quarter restaurant, a magnifying glass in one hand, a dictionary in the other, and a print copy of a petroleum “reform” law pending in the Mexican Congress spread before her on the Formica.

The subtext of the measure sent to the congress last March by President Felipe Calderon was the privatization of the national petroleum consortium PEMEX, expropriated from Anglo-American owners in 1938 by Lazaro Cardenas – although Calderon and his associates deny that this is the intent of the legislation. The legal language was convoluted, the fine print was really small, and the words long and devious. “I know they are trying to pull a fast one on us,” Berta fussed.

By “they”, Robledo signified Calderon’s ruling PAN party, the once-ruling (71 years) PRI, and that part of the left opposition PRD that has split with the party’s former presidential candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO), now the leader of the National Movement to Defend Mexico’s Oil. AMLO is convinced that the bill was drawn up to permit backdoor privatization of PEMEX. Berta Robledo is inclined to agree with him.

When, last March 18th, the 70th anniversary of the nationalization of Mexican oil by the beloved president Lazaro Cardenas, and soon after Calderon had forwarded his “reform” proposal to congress, Lopez Obrador asked a huge throng gathered in the central Zocalo plaza, the heart of the Mexican body politic, if they would join with him in building a movement to defend the nation’s oil, Berta Robledo voiced an enthusiastic “Siiiiiiiiiiii!”

Her commitment was tested a month later in April when the PAN and the PRI factions in the Mexican Senate tried to ram through the legislation on fast track with no debate.

To prevent a “madruguete” (literally, an early morning vote behind closed doors from which the opposition is excluded) senators affiliated with the pro-Lopez Obrador Broad Progressive Front or FAP occupied the podium of the upper house for 13 days, preventing a vote and shutting down the legislative process.

Along with 11,000 defenders of Mexican oil, Berta surrounded the senate chambers to bar legislators from entering the building. Like many of the women defenders, Berta took on the persona of an “Adelita”, a woman soldier during Mexico’s 1910-1919 revolution, and dressed up in a long skirt, a floppy sombrero, with “bandaleros” of fake bullets crisscrossed upon her chest. The Adelitas soon formed brigades to better coordinate their actions – Berta’s was #8 captained by the actress Jesusa Rodriguez. Brigade #8 took on the name “Enaguas Profundas” (“Deep Petticoats”), a play on words – Calderon wants to drill in deep Gulf of Mexico waters or “aguas profundas.”

Finally after a 13-day standoff, the exasperated PAN and PRI senators along with a group of PRD senators who consider Lopez Obrador to be the leader of the “irresponsible” (sic) left, agreed to debate Calderon’s “reform” measure. 21 debates were held from May through August in the senate chambers featuring panels of experts, academics, engineers, technicians, ideologues, one Nobel Laureate (Mario Molino, chemistry) and proxies of Big Oil. The debates were shown on a giant screen set up under a big tent in the Zocalo every Tuesday and Thursday.

When her work schedule permitted, Berta Robledo, decked out in her Adelita finery, followed the proceedings from gavel to gavel, furiously scribbling down notes and booing and cheering on the participants as they expressed their opinions pro and con on privatizing Mexico’s oil.

Each Thursday night, Berta would meet with her brigade to review the week’s developments, and on Fridays, Berta attended a study circle at the Journalists’ Club in the old quarter to gather more information as to just what constituted “privatization.” “I still don’t understand it exactly but I’m getting the idea,” she told this reporter one night last summer, pausing to sip on her café con leche (without café – it keeps her from sleeping) at the La Blanca counter.

While Berta and her sister Adelitas were educating themselves about the arcane intricacies of the Mexican legislative process, Lopez Obrador was barnstorming the rest of Mexico, visiting 1800 out of the nation’s 2400 municipalities or counties to build up the Movement to Defend Mexico’s Oil, signing up more than 2,000,000 new members – 200,000 joined brigades prepared to commit non-violent civil disobedience should the PRI and the PAN and their allies in the PRD try to force the bill through the Senate again.

On the weekends, Lopez Obrador often returned to the capital for rousing “informative assemblies” attended by tens of thousands of supporters. When the debates ended in August, it was evident that AMLO, who two years ago, after Calderon stole the 2006 presidential elections from him, drew two million marchers to the Zocalo, had reanimated the largest and most resilient social movement in Mexico.

“We stand with Andres Manuel because we know that he will never sell us out,” is how Robledo explains her commitment.

Most observers of the debates concurred that those opposed to Calderon’s crypto- privatization proposal had carried the day and the measure would be significantly modified when the Senate Energy Commission drew up a final draft of the legislation.

In September, the PAN, PRI, and PRD senators disappeared behind closed doors to forge a revised measure. Indeed, the legislation which emerged from the closed-door sessions appeared to eliminate many of the features originally submitted by Calderon. Clauses green-lighting the “association of private capital” (read Exxon, Shell, Halliburton et al) in PEMEX exploration, refineries, pipelines, and transportation had been removed, as had been the signing of “risk” contracts with drillers that would have guaranteed them a percentage of the petroleum they bring in – an arrangement explicitly outlawed by the Mexican constitution.

The revised law, which was now characterized as a PEMEX “rescue plan” rather than a pretext for privatization, was exalted by the three parties that had reached consensus on legislative language. The anti-AMLO PRDistas patted themselves on the back with particular exuberance. “We have prevailed in this fight!” PRD Senator Carlos Navarete crowed. Lopez Obrador was not so sure. Berta Robledo had serious doubts.

One by one, the politicos took to television to criticize AMLO for “not knowing how to win.” Navarete and his cohorts labeled Lopez Obrador “a loser.”

Under the agreement, Mexico’s offshore deposits would be mapped and divided into 115 distinct blocs, some in deep water. One clause that piqued AMLO’s suspicions would allow Big Oil to contract for entire tracts, some the size of entire Mexican states – Lopez Obrador feared that this would effectively grant transnationals control over the future of PEMEX production. To remedy this possibility, the leftist, meeting with a committee of experts assembled to counsel the movement on the legislation, recommended a 17-word addition (five of the 17 words were prepositions) that would have explicitly prohibited entire tracts from being contracted to just one driller.

On the eve of the Senate vote on the legislation, Lopez Obrador summoned thousands of Adelitas and “Adelitos” to vote on whether or not to support the PEMEX “rescue” bill. In a street-side demonstration of the movement’s resourcefulness, participants cast paper ballots in a hundred homemade ballot boxes lined up along Juarez Avenue – 11,000 voted to reject the Senate language unless the 17 magic words were added and vowed to begin civil disobedience the next morning. 6000 others endorsed the bill as it now stood.

The Adelitos were assembled outside the Senate chambers by 8 AM on October 23rd to voice their opposition. Berta sat down on the sidewalk and sang the words to the old labor anthem “We Shall Not Be Moved” in Spanish. Then word spread that the senators had elected to convene in a legislative office building a few blocks away and AMLO’s militants marched out to confront them. 1400 “robocops” from the militarized Federal Preventative Police (PFP) blocked the demonstrators’ access to the office building. Senators who opposed the “rescue” such as 81-year old Rosario Ibarra, an AMLO ally, were excluded from the session. Calderon’s Secretary of Public Security Genaro Garcia Luna stood at the door of the meeting room and controlled who was to be let in. Ibarra was kept out until the measure was passed – without Lopez Obrador’s 17-word addition that would have blocked the deeding of entire offshore tracts to one transnational driller.

The following Tuesday (October 28th) with the lower house or Chamber of Deputies poised to ratify the “rescue” bill, Berta Robledo dressed up in her Adelita togs for the final battle and accompanied Lopez Obrador to the doors of the Legislative Palace – along with 15,000 fellow defenders of Mexico’s “petroleo.” Shaken by this massive display of opposition, the three parties that supported the measure allowed AMLO an opportunity to address the Chamber and once again he insisted upon the 17-word addition (deputies from the FAP unfurled a huge banner with the words inscribed upon it) and called upon the solons to reject the law without their inclusion. “”If you do not add this provision, you will be accomplices to the privatization of PEMEX,” he challenged.

The atmosphere suddenly grew charged when it was discovered that the PAN and the PRI had actually altered the language sent over from the Senate to include the unconstitutional “risk” contracts that had been removed from the first draft of the law. Lopez Obrador’s supporters in the Chamber seized the podium, blowing whistles and plastic horns and sirens to disrupt the session. Fistfights and shoving matches erupted and the turmoil only subsided when the PAN and the PRI and the anti-AMLO PRD agreed to eliminate the changes. The “rescue” bill was finally ratified – without Lopez Obrador’s additions.

For seven hours while the politicos squabbled, Berta Robledo had waited outside the legislative palace in the frigid autumn wind with her companeras. Her long Adelita skirt had been stitched up for warm weather wear and her floppy straw hat kept blowing off in the stiff breeze. Later, we went out to La Blanca for café (without café.) “Its not over! We are not giving up!” Berta pounded her little fist against the Formica counter.

In the nine months since Felipe Calderon first introduced his scheme to privatize PEMEX, Berta Robledo has become a lay expert on how the Mexican legislative process screws the people. She was certainly not alone – tens of thousands of common citizens had worked together to demystify this mumbo jumbo and put their bodies on the line in an exemplary exercise in direct democracy.

Never before in Mexican legislative history had nurses and waitresses, teachers, actresses, street sweepers, union members, pensioners, housewives, intellectuals, students, street venders, farmers, and government workers gathered their energies to challenge the political class on its own terms. “We used to think that we couldn’t understand these laws they pass to trick us,” Berta beamed, waving her magnifying glass around. “Now we have learned that we have this power. They can’t pull a fast one on us anymore.”

JOHN ROSS can be reached at: or visit






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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

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