The Privatization of Mexico's Oil Is a Scheme to Enrich the 1%

Changes to Mexican energy policy will accelerate inequality and environmental devastation.

Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto at World Economic Forum on Latin America 2010.
Photo Credit: World Economic Forum/Flickr

This article originally appeared on Creative Time Reports.

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Oil in Mexico is much more than a symbol of national pride. For the past 75 years it has been an enormous source of income for developing Mexico’s infrastructure and improving social welfare. When, on this day in 1938, President Lázaro Cárdenas expropriated U.S.- and U.K.-owned oil companies, he allowed Mexico to achieve relative independence and modest prosperity. The nationalization of oil saved Mexico from becoming a paralyzed, essentially colonized country like Guatemala, which has a major mining industry that is almost entirely foreign-owned.

Petróleos Mexicanos (PEMEX), the state-owned company with exclusive access to Mexico’s oil, is one of the most lucrative companies in the world. In 2012 it declared profits of over 900 billion pesos (or $70 billion), earnings comparable to those of American oil and gas giants like ExxonMobil and Chevron. More importantly, PEMEX has historically distributed its profits among the Mexican population more equitably than any other industry in the country. Sixty percent of Mexico’s spending on social welfare comes from oil income. Among the things this income currently pays for are education, health care and programs to fight extreme poverty. Every Mexican citizen owns PEMEX, and the profits the company generates have made palpable differences in all of our lives.

Lucrative as it is, PEMEX could make and distribute much greater revenues if it were not so corrupt, inefficient and archaic. We have long known of grave problems with the oil industry and union, such as losses in refining and production. (Output has fallen 25 percent since 2004.) If PEMEX isn’t brought up to date in the next few years, there is a serious danger that the company will collapse. But instead of reforming the institution, the current government has exploited PEMEX’s deficiencies under the guise of reform to fiercely promote a very different agenda: the privatization of oil in Mexico.

Far from modernizing PEMEX, eliminating corruption or directing more income to Mexico’s citizens, the so-called energy reform passed by Congress and signed into law by President Enrique Peña Nieto in December will radically shift the distribution of oil profits from the public to a few private investors. The billmodified Mexico’s constitution to allow private oil companies to compete with PEMEX in every aspect of oil production. Underground oil reserves will still belong to Mexico, but since all profits derived from production will go to corporations, these reforms effectively constitute a privatization. Yet the president never admitted to this underlying agenda in the lead-up to the bill’s passage; his administration has altogether avoided using the word “privatization,” in favor of vague references to “modernization” and “the need for private investment.” This lack of honesty has generated tremendous confusion among the Mexican population, greatly debilitating potential opposition to the bill.

As Peña Nieto and his Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) prepare a new set of bills that will implement the changes to oil laws, a multimillion-dollar publicity campaign of disinformation initiated last year by his administration still saturates the mass media, diverting the debate on “energy reform” by reducing it to obvious questions: Is reform necessary? Is PEMEX efficient? Do we need progress and modernization? As a result, we have skipped over the most pressing and fundamental questions: What should the nature of this reform be? How will profits be distributed? What measures are in place to fight the corruption that causes us to lose so much of our oil income? In order to modernize, do we have to abandon the idea that Mexican oil belongs to the people of Mexico?

The recent history of PEMEX is a story of deliberate sabotage. PEMEX managers have enabled politicians to keep a portion of the company’s profits for decades, laying the groundwork for privatization by making corruption seem like the natural result of a nationalized industry. But the underlying problem has always been and still is political corruption, not a lack of private investment. Consider Romero Deschamps, the leader of PEMEX’s union since 1989, who is accused of stealing an estimated 3 billion pesos’ worth of the union’s assets and of having illegally created secret “private” companies that undertake contract work for PEMEX. In spite of the abundant proof of his guilt, Deschamps is currently a senator for the ruling PRI. Peña Nieto claims that stamping out such criminality is one of the primary objectives of the current “reform,” but his policy for overhauling the industry doesn’t contain a single strategy aimed at fighting corruption.

The majority of the proposed structural changes to PEMEX aren’t even necessary for the task of modernizing Mexico’s oil industry. PEMEX already has access to cutting-edge technologies since private oil companies can operate in Mexico and have been doing so (for example, PEMEX is currently contracting the services of Halliburton and OHL). Whether or not PEMEX should contract private companies is irrelevant; what matters are the terms on which it partners with the private sector. The fact that the Peña Nieto administration is permitting profit-sharing contracts—which have historically been imposed on poor countries, with disastrous results—rather than limiting partnerships to licensing permits that would pave the way for increased efficiency without signing away the democratic ownership of resources, is another clear indicator of the underlying agendas behind the “energy reform.” As former PEMEX director general Adrián Lajous has argued, profit-sharing contracts render private companies unaccountable, leaving the state, its resources and its people vulnerable.

Peña Nieto presents his “reform” as the magic solution to PEMEX’s problems, as if the neoliberal dream of privatization without regulation were synonymous with social justice, economic well-being and democracy. But the facts paint a very different picture. Since neoliberal policies surged in the 1980s and former president Carlos Salinas de Gortari signed NAFTA into law in 1994, a weakened state, incapable of protecting the environment and the rights of its poorest people, has created the perfect conditions for political and corporate corruption. We live every day with the consequences of Carlos Slim’s acquisition of Telmex, the telecommunications company that Salinas privatized in 1990. Because there is little regulation, prices are high and service is poor, and Slim is now one of the richest men in the world. Another dark legacy of Salinas is his privatization of the banking sector and creation of Fobaproa, an agency intended to prevent banks from going bankrupt. After Mexico’s 1994 economic crisis, the institution of Fobaproa meant that the public paid off banks’ massive debts. High-ranking politicians and businessmen have pocketed extraordinary profits, while everyday people have bore greater economic burdens, with each move to privatize. The result is a spectacular growth in inequality.More than 53 million people in Mexico today—nearly half the country—live in poverty, and 11.5 million Mexicans live in extreme poverty. Meanwhile, the eleven richest men in the country have accumulatedroughly 11 percent of the GDP.

We cannot undertake true energy reform in Mexico without first undertaking political reforms that would decisively and effectively tackle corruption. Sadly, because it does nothing to change political structures and curb corruption, the current legislative process is taking us further away from democratic values and constitutes a huge step in the wrong direction. Approved by politicians who never consulted voters, the bill passed in December opens the field for companies that are known the world over for their abusive practices and for co-opting politicians (ExxonMobil, Shell, BP, OHL) to operate in Mexico without regulation or restriction. In the words of the historian Lorenzo Meyer Cossío, we are opening the door to “mercenaries.” The Mexican government expects its citizens to place ownership of our hydrocarbons in private hands, without our agreement and in exchange for minimal revenue. But modernization does not require that we give up our resources. Improvement shouldn’t entail changing the basic principle that natural resources belong to us all.

The “energy reform” currently under way is a huge step toward greater inequality, environmental devastation and the loss of economic and political independence for Mexico. It is one example of the neoliberal fantasy of unregulated capitalism that has landed us in our present situation, in which the 85 richest people in the world hold the same amount of wealth as the 3.5 billion poorest. We are living through the greatest inequality in the history of humanity and unprecedented ecological destruction. To combat this urgent situation, we need to strengthen fragile regulatory structures by creating independent, democratically owned institutions. By instead dismantling the few supportive social structures left, Peña Nieto’s government is pushing Mexico to a dangerous place. Against a backdrop of extreme poverty and social injustice, the PRI’s “reforms” will, sooner or later, lead to revolt.

Translated by Georgia Phillips-Amos.

This piece was made possible, in part, by the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts.

Yoshua Okón's work in video and installation blends staged situations, documentation and improvisation to question habitual perceptions of reality and truth, selfhood and morality. He has had numerous solo shows around the world in cities including Milan, Paris, London, Mexico City and Los Angeles.