Oil Bill Protest Shuts Mexican Congress

April 22nd, 2008 - by admin

James C. McKinley Jr. / New York Times – 2008-04-22 21:47:03

MEXICO CITY (April 19, 2008) — The scene inside the lower house of Congress here on Friday morning resembled a college political rally more than a legislative chamber. A giant tarp dragged over the dais was painted with the word “CLOSED.”

Chairs blockaded entrances to the stage. Signs draped over the desks of congressional leaders called for a “national debate” on overhauling the state’s ailing oil monopoly, Petróleos Mexicanos, or Pemex for short. A group of left-leaning lawmakers in hard hats waved Mexican flags while the chairman of the energy committee, Alejandro Sánchez Comacho, chanted into a bullhorn.

“You don’t sell Pemex,” he shouted. “You defend Pemex.”

For eight days, leftist lawmakers have paralyzed both houses of Congress with a sit-in to stop a proposal by President Felipe Calderón that would revamp the oil monopoly and allow it greater freedom to hire private companies to build and operate refineries, find undersea oil fields and transport oil.

The protests have been orchestrated by Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the populist leader who narrowly lost to Mr. Calderón in 2006.

He and his followers argue that Mr. Calderón’s bill is a thinly disguised attempt to circumvent the Constitution and let foreign companies profit from Mexican oil. They have accused the government of trying to ram the bill through Congress and have demanded four months to explore the issue and, perhaps, hold a national referendum.

Shutting down Congress through civil disobedience, they maintain, is a desperate measure to stop the bill, though they acknowledge they are paying a heavy political price because it is an illegal act.

“We prefer to do this and see ourselves in this situation, in order to prevent what we consider to be a robbery,” said Javier González Garza, the legislative leader in the House of Deputies for the center-left Party of the Democratic Revolution.

Mr. Calderón argues that Pemex lacks the money and technology to reverse its dropping production and must hire outside companies to become profitable.

“Only someone who is afraid of ideas can oppose dialogue and the institutions that make possible dialogue and parley,” he said Friday in Villahermosa.

Still, Mr. López Obrador’s ability to bring business in Congress to a halt has rattled the nation. “Andrés Manuel López Obrador succeeded once again in putting the powers of the union and the political system on the defensive,” began the editorial of the newspaper El Universal on Thursday. “Everyone appears to be at his mercy.”

Intellectuals have lined up on both sides of the debate, with some denouncing the sit-ins as “kidnapping institutions” and others lauding the leftists as doing whatever it takes to prevent the foreign plunder of the nation’s oil.

Pemex and the government have run advertisements defending the measure, while brigades of white-clad women who support Mr. López Obrador have staged demonstrations in front of the Senate.

The question of what to do about Pemex elicits strong emotions. Oil has been a symbol of national pride and sovereignty here since 1938, when President Lázaro Cárdenas nationalized the oil industry and kicked out foreign companies.

Since the 1980s, the government has taken most of Pemex’s revenues and spent them on operating expenses. Four-tenths of the federal budget comes from oil. That practice, along with a corrupt union, has put the company in the red, despite having $100 billion in revenues last year.

Leftists say the government has purposely starved Pemex to lay the groundwork for insisting that it needs help from private companies. They say the contracts proposed under the bill violate the Constitution, which bans oil contracts with foreign companies.

Conservatives retort that Pemex has been so badly mismanaged that the only way to save it is to hire outside, for-profit companies.

But the merits of the overhaul have yet to be debated in Congress, since left-leaning lawmakers have seized the chambers. They say the president and his center-right National Action Party struck a deal with the center-left Institutional Revolutionary Party to push the bill through in three weeks, not enough time to examine it carefully.

Leaders of those two parties do not deny they had a deal, but they say shutting down the chambers allows no debate at all and seems to be an attempt to cripple Mr. Calderón’s administration. A lengthy debate would only give Mr. López Obrador more time to stir up popular resentment against the bill, they say.

“It seems that they want to go from holding the Senate chamber hostage to holding the president and the government hostage,” Manlio Fabio Beltrones, the Institutional Revolutionary Party’s Senate leader, said Thursday. “And you know what? That’s not healthy for anyone.”

The foreign minister, Patricia Espinosa, complained that the protests had embarrassed the government; congressional leaders had to cancel an invitation to India’s president to address Congress this week. “Without a doubt it looks bad for the country,” she said.

The left-wing coalition says it intends to keep up the blockade of the chambers until the legislative session ends this month or until it gets a vow of a lengthy debate and public hearings.

In the meantime, the scene in the chambers looks like a slumber party. Protesting senators and deputies play cards and chess, tell yarns and sing songs until all hours of the night, before retiring in sleeping bags on the chamber floor.

They take turns keeping vigil, sometimes leaving a single lawmaker to guard the fort. In the House of Deputies, as rumors circulated this week of an attempt to force them to leave, the leftists went so far as to chain the doors shut with padlocks.

Some worry about a political backlash, but the oil is more important, they say. They cast their fight as one between average Mexicans and powerful business interests.

“A fight between two great forces is taking place,” said Ricardo Cantú García, a Workers’ Party deputy from Nuevo León, who was guarding the dais on Friday. “We are not taking the chamber over because we like it, but because it was necessary.”

Antonio Betancourt contributed reporting.

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