The Rich Get Their Oily Way again in Mexico

MEXICO CITY — Are we living in a time when ordinary people have forgotten their history, when all those who fail to remember the past will be condemned to relive its harsh reality?

I thought of this as two Canadian tourists marched with thousands along the Paseo de la Reforma last week to demonstrate opposition to the energy “reform” bill being debated by Mexican legislators. The new law would allow foreign oil giants into the country for the first time in 75 years.

Certainly the people who had come from every corner of the country to form a human chain around the Mexican Senate and Chamber of Deputies were well aware of history and cited it on their signs, in their chants, speeches and songs that began in the early morning and continued until late at night. (The noise, traffic jams and thousands of riot police were scaring off tourists and locals alike.) For the students and others banging on the metal barricades surrounding government buildings changing the constitution to allow foreign multinational companies to exploit the country’s oil and natural gas resources is a return to the bad old pre-1930s era when Mexico’s government exercised less real power than the foreign corporations that controlled its vital energy sector. Posters taped to the barricades harkened to history. One read: “The Spanish came to steal the yellow gold for trinkets. The gringos are coming for the black gold … Are you going to stay silent?”

In fact, the 1938 expropriation of the world’s second largest oil industry, which was the first nationalization by a capitalist country, and the creation of government-owned Pemex are celebrated throughout Mexico and their significance in transforming the country is taught in schools. Kids learn how oil profits that once went to foreign investors remained in the country to build schools, roads and provide social services. The moderately leftish president, Lázaro Cárdenas, who confronted and defeated the British and American oil giants of the day, is honoured with streets, parks, schools and other buildings named after him and is generally considered one of the founders of modern Mexico.

Ironically it is the party that Cardenas was instrumental in creating, the ruling PRI, together with the more overtly right-wing PAN, that over rode the constitution with a two-thirds vote in both the Senate (95-28 on Tuesday) and lower house (353-134 on Thursday). All that is left for the bill to become law is approval by 17 of the 31 state legislatures, most of which are controlled by the PRI and PAN.

Given the statues and school curriculum, it is difficult to argue that ordinary Mexicans are unaware of the history of their country’s oil industry and the excellent reasons to retain “the peoples” ownership of this vital resource. Indeed, a survey published in June, before the legislation was introduced, showed 65 percent of Mexicans opposed foreign investment in the oil industry. Most clearly believe that the oil belongs to the people and profits should be invested in the country’s future rather than fatten the bottom line of ExxonMobil, Shell, BP or Chevron.

In reality the problem confronting Mexico is not the lack of historical memory. It is the lack of real democracy. It is the power of the ruling class, both international and Mexican, to get their way. The people who will benefit from an influx of foreign capital and a reintroduction of “free enterprise” into the oil industry know full well that this legislation will ultimately be bad for most Mexicans, but they don’t care. Their primary concern is how to enrich themselves.

The cheerleaders for capitalism proclaim loudly for all to hear “greed is good” and yet we act surprised when capitalists act in their own self-interest, ignoring the common good.

Mexican capitalists will destroy government-owned Pemex (as they have been trying to do for decades) because for them any economic activity that does not produce private profits is useless — worse than useless, because it may offer an example of an alternative economic system.

What is happening to the Mexican oil industry is another in a long line of international rollbacks of anything that limits the power of the 0.1% richest people around the world, who take the vast bulk of profits from the capitalist system.

Until we, the 90% who work for a living and have the power to take over, rise up and challenge this minority rule of the 0.1%, things will continue to get worse. More social programs will be chopped, more nationalized industries will be sold off to private interests and our so-called capitalist democracy will continue to prove itself no more than a system of one dollar, one vote.

The sellout of the Mexican oil industry is just the latest example of where capitalism is taking us.

Gary Engler is an elected union officer and co-author of the just released New Commune-ist Manifesto — Workers of the World It Really is Time to Unite, an updating of the original designed to provoke discussion about the future of unions and the Left. Read other articles by Gary.