Fueling outrage

Comparing the political opposition to Hitler is rarely a good idea. Not only does it trivialize the Nazi leader’s evildoing, but it provokes such outrage that whatever controversy was flaring before Hitler was mentioned gets lost in the new furor. That’s why it was so disheartening to see the accusation arise in the debate over energy policy that has gripped Mexico. Reforming the state-owned oil company is one of the most important initiatives of President Felipe Calderon’s administration, and it’s too important to fall victim to stunts from the left and retaliation from the right.

Which is exactly what happened.

It’s no surprise that Calderon’s business-friendly reforms are opposed by leftist leaders skeptical of what they see as a step toward the privatization of Pemex. Calderon has repeatedly said his intention is only to attract foreign investment in the ailing oil company, but they dismiss his assurances. And rather than engage in a debate that could have led to swift approval of reform proposals, they elected to shut down Congress. They padlocked the doors and camped out in the Chamber of Deputies. Not to be outdone, a conservative businessman retaliated with an ad campaign comparing Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, the Democratic Revolution Party leader and Calderon’s former rival for office, to Hitler, Mussolini and Pinochet. The television spot -- finally ordered off the air by the Federal Electoral Institute -- warned voters that only tyrants shut down Congress.

Behind the gamesmanship and hyperbole is this sobering truth: Pemex is set to run out of reserves in less than a decade. Production is declining, and the company does not have the technology to reach the oil deep in the Gulf of Mexico. Without investment, it will continue its downward spiral, and Mexico cannot afford for that to happen; Pemex revenues account for 35% of the federal budget. That’s perilous for Mexico and ominous for the U.S., as that country is one of this country’s top oil suppliers.


But Mexicans remember how foreign oil companies exploited them when private investment was permitted decades ago. U.S. companies paid workers a pittance while making huge profits. Then, in 1938, President Lazaro Cardenas ejected U.S. and European oil companies from the country -- a move that is still a source of national pride. To help fund Mexico’s new oil company, the country pulled together -- women sold their jewelry, men their livestock. So when Mexicans say the oil belongs to them, they mean it. With Calderon’s reforms, some fear a return to the bad old days when their natural wealth enriched Yankees but impoverished Mexicans.

So it is a relief that the stunts have ended: Centrists and conservatives have agreed to hold a broad debate in the next congressional session in May, and left-wing protesters have packed up their sleeping bags. Now we look forward to progress. Anxiety over the future of a national treasure is natural. But the treasure is dwindling, and reform is essential.