Tomas Bravo/ReutersA protester held a sign that read “Defend Pemex, it is not for sale,” during a demonstration against the sale of the oil monopoly in Mexico City.
MEXICO CITY — Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the two-time left-wing presidential candidate, is angry — very angry. “The proposal from PAN’s elites to privatize our oil reaffirms their role as lackeys. Posers. Followers of EPN,” he wrote in a tweet, referring, first, to a rival political party, and, second, to President Enrique Peña Nieto. “Traitors to Mexico.”
The fuss started when Peña Nieto, while in Europe last month, informed several news outlets of his plan to send to Congress a bill that would allow private investment in Mexico’s government-run energy sector
. He gave no specifics, but the simple mention of “private investment” was enough to cause a stir and prompt parties on the left to say that they would end all ongoing negotiations to reform the electoral code, tax laws and the education system.
López Obrador, who took second place behind Peña Nieto in last year’s presidential election, has vowed to take to the streets of Mexico City
if the government and its allies in Congress approve any changes to Article 27 of the Constitution, which grants the government, among other things, all rights to explore, produce, process and distribute oil.
Lorenzo Meyer, a leading historian and political commentator, speaking on television recently, tried to lend some historical depth to López Obrador’s position with this flourish: “We cannot forget that oil was what coagulated our nationalism.”
It is true that oil talk has been the mother of political debates in Mexico ever since 1938, when President Lázaro Cárdenas expropriated all oil and gas companies and nationalized them to form Pemex — today a 150,000-employee monster that has an absolute monopoly on every aspect of oil exploration, processing and distribution in Mexico and generates 34 percent of the government’s revenues. Official textbooks used in primary schools today paint that move as a sacred moment — a formative episode when a Mexican leader expelled all foreigners seeking to take advantage of our natural resources. Many Mexicans see Pemex itself as a national good and a bulwark against shady outsiders.
But all this nationalism is obscuring the real problem, which is that the United States, the biggest consumer of Mexican oil, is buying less and less from us at a time when Pemex has no money to explore Mexico’s soil where, according to a recent report by the Mexican Institute of Competitiveness, lie enormous untapped reserves.
In recent decades, countries with similar restrictions on foreign investment, like Brazil, have eased those laws to allow private capital into state companies that explore and process energy resources. But not Mexico — at least not yet. The current government is convinced that partial privatization is the way to jumpstart a stagnating economy and address deepening social problems:the number of poor people in Mexico increased from 49 million in 2008 to 53 million in 2012
And so Manlio Fabio Beltrones, the leader of Peña’s party in Congress, dismissed the naysayers last week: “They talk about Article 27 as if it were the Virgin of Guadalupe
— never to be touched.” If Lopez Obrador has his way, and manages to organize the massive protest he has called for on Sept. 9 in the Zócalo, the capital’s main square, the debate could, indeed, take on Biblical proportions.
Carlos Puig is a columnist for the Mexican newspaper Milenio and the anchor of the television show En 15.
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