Tag: ownership

Mr. Peña Nieto’s Wonderous Energy Reform

Alfonso Cuarón, director and co-producer of “Gravity,” a space disaster film I haven’t seen, won Best Director at the 86th Academy Awards. He was also chosen as “Most Creative” on Forbes’s Mexico List in 2013. With these credentials that separate him from being a ninguneo, a nobody, the good citizen asked a Mexican president traditionally endowed with near imperial powers—in this case Mr. Peña Nieto—to answer ten questions on the Mexican energy reform that has probably been decided upon already, with Cheney-like disinterest in the opinion of citizens—which is to say, of those who are not in the Club or the upper 1%. One could also mention that Mr. Nieto is a member of the PRI, the political party that ruled Mexico for seventy-one years with near dictatorial powers.

Here are Cuarón’s ten questions—with my subtexts.

One: When will the price of natural gas, gasoline, diesel and electricity begin to fall? What other benefits can we expect from the reform? When can we expect them to occur? Subtext in my words, not Cuarón’s. The prices of things generally climb when they are privatized.

Two: What will the effects be for the environment in the face of massive oil extraction? What measures will be put in place to protect the environment and who will take responsibility in case of spill and other disaster? Subtext: No measures will be put into place. It is part of the local culture that no one takes responsibility for disasters.

Three: Hydrocarbons are non-renewable resources. Their impact on the environment, meaning on the whole globe, is massive. What plans are there for alternate energy? Subtext: There are no plans.

Four: Huge amounts of profits will be generated by this reform—in the billions. In a country where the rule of law is so weak, who will regulate these funds and protect them from corruption? Subtext: No one will regulate these funds. They will not be protected from corruption. Additionally, there will be none of the transparency that is necessary for any kind of accountability.

Five: Transnational companies in the world often wield as much power as many governments. What measures will be taken to protect our democracy from financial pressures by powerful international interests? Subtext: There will be some protections—just enough to protect the interests of those in the Club.

Six: What regulatory measures does the government have at its disposal to protect the country from the predatory pressures that private companies can exert on the energy sector? Subtext: The Club has a maze of maneuvers that it can employ to protect its own financial interests.

Seven: How can you assure that Pemex will show an increase in production if the government does not confront corruption in that is within Pemex and its union? Subtext: There will be no assurances. The union corruption will continue. The higher-level corruption—the taking more of the people’s profits—will flourish.

Eight: If Pemex, in the last seventy years, contributed to more than half of the country’s federal budget, including education and free health care, and if now the earnings of Pemex no longer flow directly to the country’s coffers, what will replace that half of the federal budget? Subtext: Any diminution would probably be called in IMF-ese a “structural adjustment,” whereby the people will have less and the Club more.

Nine: How will you assure us that the profits from the reform will not be channeled into bureaucratic expansion rather than to the original owners of the resources: the people of Mexico? Subtext: There will be plenty of assurances, but they will be mostly smoke. Bureaucratic expansion is a euphemism for the Club. Profits from the reform will be channeled to the Club.

A friend of mine wrote the following in reaction to what I am writing here. Since I don’t have his permission, I will not mention his name. But it gives another point of view: “Incidentally, foreign investment and foreign management rules saved the mining industry here making work safe for the miners (before that life expectancy was about 10 years or less in the mines!), improved efficiency (the 80% silver going to the “people” today is much more than the 100% before; and 100% gold still going to the Mexican Treasury), and rooted out the most egregious excesses of corruption (of course, it is still Mexico, in a way). No, I would LOVE to see a shake-up in PEMEX and the whole rotten oil structure. I SUPPORT REFORM, because it is needed and it is helpful to Mexico and its people!

Ten: Two disastrous experiences remain in the minds of Mexicans. 1) The crash of 1982 that followed the waste, ineptitude, corruption that characterized the management of oil in the Seventies; and 2) the arbitrary, opaque and privatizing reforms under President Salinas de Gortari, that were good for the private hands but of dubious value for consumers. What guarantees are there that the social misery created then will not be repeated now? You and your party  carry the responsibility for these reforms. Do you really believe that Mexico can carry out these reforms efficiently, for the social good and with transparency? Subtext: There will be guarantees of benefits, but they will mean nothing. None of the parties will assume responsibility for what turns out to not be good for the country. The last question is aimed right at the heart of the matter. Mr. Peña Nieto and others in the Club say things they do not believe, or worse, that they do believe (see below); any efficiency will appear mainly in the acquisition of private profit; acting for the social good will remain a distant possibility, given the Club’s lack of a sense of social responsibility; there is little transparency at any level of Mexican government—thus, offering little possibility of citizen accountability. Without a free press there would be no hope at all.

Los Pinos, the Mexican White House, has responded with some vague reassurances that there will be commissions to study this and that. It is probably a good thing that the government has bothered to respond. But words are not actions.

Other voices have asked how an “upstart” like Cuarón would have the gall to presume to talk directly to the President of Mexico, Mr. Nieto.

Jesús Silva-Herzog Márquez, writing for Reforma, quotes journalist and political analyst Ricardo Raphael as saying that the elite are the central problem in Mexico. Silva-Herzog writes, “(that) one of the problems of our democracy is precisely the depth of the authoritarian convictions of those small and satisfied circles that thumb their nose at the country while happily looking at themselves in magazines. Convinced they are more knowledgeable than others, they think they are the only ones that can argue and, especially, decide. The autocratic persuasion of the elite shows in this notion that public discussion belongs exclusively to experts. Only we have the elements to discuss the energy reform, they tell us. Others have to shut up and vote when the day comes; and that that, and that alone, is democracy. We will give you clear options so you are capable of making a sensible decision (they say).

Therein lies the immense service provided by Alfonso Cuarón’s questions. To show that the technician’s arrogance cannot suppress the people.”

Bright Land, Dark Land

The Mexico I write about focuses “…on a Mexico where cataclysmic events erupt, where war, mob hysteria, sudden dark preoccupations, collapsing structures, and anarchy lie just below generosity, intelligence, humor, and stubborn patience” (from “About My Stories,” http://www.sterlingbennett.com).

Leaving town or city and walking through Mexico’s countryside leads you quickly into what Bonfil Batalla calls México profundo, Deep Mexico. It is like stepping back into the early nineteen hundreds, perhaps further back. The paths are narrow–the width of a horse or cow’s tread. You pass a man on foot, carrying a machete, the symbol of campesino work and manhood—also of poverty. You can tell the timetable of the traveler in front or in back of you by the freshness of the burro droppings. Sometimes a man on horseback overtakes you. There are no fences—at least not until you approach the banks of a stream, where the land is flat and the top soil deeper. Even these fences are mainly to keep livestock out of the milpas—the small-farmer corn plantings. Once in a while, on the hillsides around you, you hear a dog bark or a goat bleat. Then you look for the goatherd, who is there somewhere in shade and has probably spotted you long since and is watching you pass through his life and time.

There is one such a path, and I will not name it exactly. It leads from a mountain village to a busy road perhaps four miles away, dropping down, then flattening out beside the creek. The path is wild, and the dimensions you enter are very old and different from the world of cell phones and communication chatter. No roads cross your path. There are no telephone poles. No national park path signs telling where you’re going, how far it is, the name of your destination. You are on Deep Mexican time, and you are walking in Deep Mexican space. You are safe from muggers, garbage, narcos, and the pressures of high-density living. Your urban soul breathes a sigh of relief. The land is luminescent and ancient. Still, you remain alert. You know you are also passing through a world of matter-of-fact cruelty toward animals and intolerance of women’s independence—and something behind all the luminescence that is dark and that you don’t understand.

There is a village at the lower end of the trail and, just before this village, a hollow surrounded by pirules – pepper trees – and old stone foundations from an earlier time. This is the area where several members of the local symphony orchestra bought land, with the intention of building modest houses some time in the future.

My friend built a shelter right away, an essentially one-room house made of hewn stone and heavy mesquite beams. The purchase occurred according to real-estate law and was entered into the escrituras–the public record. But as he built, on a shoe string, men would appear—up to thirty of them at a time—and sit on the old walls and stare at him.

I am not sure how many times this happened. They were from the village at the other end of the four-mile trail. They were ejidatarios—communal owners of a section of land – ejido – given to landless farmer by the Lázaro Cárdenes government in 1934—in this case the piece of magical land that extended from the village four miles away, at the upper end of the trail, right up to my friend’s modest dwelling. The staring men came in their pickup trucks and cars over modern roads. In their minds, the ejido extended up to and over my friend’s small lot as well.

My friend continued to build—stone by stone. The musicians went to court, with a lawyer, to clear up once and for all the question of who owned what. The judge—even the governor of the state—agreed that the ejido did not include their property, and there were old maps to prove it.

There had been other developments to reassure my friend and the rest of the musicians. In 1991, President Carlos Salinas de Gortari managed to have his minions rewrite Article 27 of the Mexican Constitution, breaking the ejidatarios’ communal hold on their lands. NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement—which the U.S. Congress passed largely without reading it), the World Bank and the U.S. Government required assurances that Mexican ejidatarios would not be able to invoke old claims and pull the rug out from under corporate privatizing. With this stroke of the pen, the ideals of the Mexican Revolution of 1910 and peasant and indigenous land rights took a step backward, and ejidatarios became vulnerable to internal and external manipulation.

Time passed, and my friend began to sleep in his dwelling. He kept his musical instruments, books, and bicycles there. We gave him a bed so he could sleep up off the floor. He had metal doors he could lock. He lived at the edge of a modest settlement between him and the highway. His neighbors kept their eyes out for him and looked after his stone cabin.

Another man owned a large section of land close by; at least, he said he owned it, but may not have. He sold off many small parcels; the new lot owners put up shacks—maybe twenty of them—to stake their claim upon the land. The ejidatarios in the distant village did not like the new shacks. One Thursday, they came in their cars and trucks again. Five police trucks arrived with them, plus a large backhoe. The ejidatarios had documents; they showed them to the police. The police stood by while the backhoe smashed the shacks on the nearby parcel of land. The ejidatarios’ families were also present. They cooked food and ate and drank. They were camped near my friend’s modest dwelling. When the police left, the picnickers broke open the metal doors and, exchanging blows, fought over my friend’s possession—three trumpets, bikes, clothes, his serving camp stove, dishes, everything. Including the small metal bed we had given him, including the piece of 3/8 plywood I had shaped for the top of the little bed.

The big backhoe—I am quite sure I saw it working alongside the busy highway the next day—backed into position between the old foundation walls and pepper trees—pirules. It was a magnificent machine with a hydraulic front end loader and a hydraulic backhoe behind. Mexican workers on an adobe project next door—men who most likely do not read—entered my friend’s house and saved his books and music, but then felt threatened and left. Then the backhoe operator reached out with the backhoe arm and pulled my friend’s house apart—leaving a rubble of loose stone, two twisted metal doors and two mesquite beams too heavy for the looters to carry away.

A little later, my friend received a call on his cell phone. He was on his way home. One of the other musicians warned him not to go out to his house, they had bulldozed it, his life might be in danger. In Mexico, you listen to warnings like that. My friend drove out anyway, parked some distance away, put on a black shirt and crept through the dark, close enough in the darkness to see that his home and everything he owned had been destroyed.