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updated: 8/16/2013 5:25 PM

Fight over ex-president marks Mexico's oil debate

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  • A mural of Mexico's former President Lazaro Cardenas covers a wall Friday as part of political propaganda from the PRD party in Mexico City.

      A mural of Mexico's former President Lazaro Cardenas covers a wall Friday as part of political propaganda from the PRD party in Mexico City.
    Associated Press

 
Associated Press

MEXICO CITY -- The son of Mexico's most revered modern president, known for nationalizing Mexico's oil industry, says his dad is rolling in his grave.

In fact, both sides in the heated debate over proposals to open Mexico's oil industry to private companies are using the image of former president Lazaro Cardenas, roughly Mexico's equivalent of Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Current President Enrique Pena Nieto has launched a blitz of TV ads that prominently feature photos of Cardenas, who expropriated foreign oil companies and nationalized the industry when he was president from 1934 to 1940.

Like FDR, who was known for helping pull America out of the depression with his `new deal' public works programs, Cardenas is remembered for handing out land to poor farmers and standing up to the foreign oil companies that once took the lion's share of profits from Mexican oil.

Cardenas' son and other leftists say the government is trying to re-privatize the state-owned oil company, Pemex. Pena Nieto denies that, noting that under the proposed reform, private companies will be allowed only profit-sharing contracts, not ownership, of the country's oil.

But Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, Lazaro's son and the founder of the main leftist party, said Friday that the government was insulting his father's memory.

""It is both false and offensive for the government to use the image of Lazaro Cardenas to promote an unpatriotic and traitorous proposal for energy reform among the Mexican people," Cardenas wrote in a front-page editorial in the newspaper La Jornada on Friday.

Cuauhtemoc Cardenas acknowledges Pemex has problems, but said that privatization isn't the answer. Pena Nieto's administration said it had no comment on the dispute.

Lazaro Cardenas' oil expropriation was the single most popular decision by a Mexican president in the 20th century, and the nationalization remains immensely popular. A 2012 poll of 2,400 Mexicans by the Center for Economic Research and Teaching said 65 percent opposed any foreign investment in the oil industry. The poll by the Mexico City-based think tank had a margin of error of 2 percentage points.

So Pena Nieto has literally recruited Lazaro Cardenas in the uphill battle to change such attitudes. In one TV ad, a narrator touts the virtues of the reform -- stemming Mexico's production decline and exploring deep-water reserves Pemex can't -- with stock footage of Lazaro Cardenas from the 1930s playing in the background.

Lazaro Cardenas is not exactly a photogenic icon. Like FDR, who used a wheelchair, Cardenas had a physical defect: an almost complete lack of a chin. Yet his profile his prominently featured on both government ads and those from the left, opposing the reforms.

Pena Nieto touts his reform by appealing to historical accuracy: Cardenas did allow private companies to work under contract in the oil industry even after he nationalized it. And the government has stressed that it only wants to strip out a total ban on private drilling and refining that was inserted in the constitution in the early 1960s.

That hasn't calmed the objections. Elena Poniatowska, arguably Mexico's best-known living writer, told local media "I don't think he (Pena Nieto) has any reason to invoke Cardenas. It's valid to support one's arguments, but not to use him to try legitimize the proposal."

As often happens, reality appears to have taken a back seat to perception and spin.

"I think it is a very skillful political operation by Pena Nieto's government, to take over the myth of Cardenas, a myth that supposedly belonged only to the left," said political analyst Roger Bartra.

"We are talking about a myth, and all this discussion about modernizing Pemex runs head on into this myth that oil is part of the essence of what it means to be Mexican," Bartra said.

But the cracks in that myth have become evident: oil production has declined by 25 percent in the last decade, Mexico imports much of the gasoline and natural gas it uses, and the country may become a net energy importer in coming years if nothing is done.

"If the left insists on keeping the debate in the field of mythology," Bartra said, "I think it's going to lose."

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