Mexico has been in the news a lot recently – and not in a good way. While the shootings in Cancun are shocking and an undeniably horrible loss, I’ve also been struck by the level of frustration and anger due to rise of the price of gas.
Essentially, the Mexican government used to own the monopoly on gas production and they would set a price. Effective the 1st January 2017, the government privatised the state-owned gas company PEMEX and opened up the gas market to competition. Greater choice of brands sounds like it could be a good thing in theory; but in actuality it instigated the “gasolinazo” crisis, as the government announced that the new prices would be 20% higher than they were before. That’s to say, in the space of one day, the price of gas rose to higher than it had been in the past 20 years.
At first, I honestly didn’t really understand how far-reaching the implications were. I was out of the country when it happened, and the coverage in the UK was rather more limited than here in Mexico. However, after speaking to people I realised that it is something that affects almost everyone here, and will specifically hurt those on the lowest incomes the most. Firstly, and most obviously, Mexico is very dependent on road travel – there isn’t a train infrastructure here, planes are used but driving, buses and coaches are the more common way to move around. Importantly, the distances between places are huge, and the use of alternative fuels or “green” energy aren’t widespread at all. Even if you don’t have a car, I presume that the price of coach travel, for example, will have to increase in line with the dramatic increase in gas price. Goods are moved around via trucks, and many companies will have to rethink pricing strategies if their profit margins start to thin.
Not only that, a friend told me that most Mexican people use gas to heat their water and their ovens and it’s even used to fuel the machines that make tortillas – THE staple food item. It’s here that we get to the real root of the problem. Even for those who don’t have a car and don’t plan to travel (in essence: the least mobile and the most economically vulnerable) are likely to be hugely affected by this crisis. The average wage is so low (in fact: the lowest of any developed nation) I can’t possibly imagine how a family who was already struggling to earn enough for three meals a day, could possibly afford an increase in price on the most basic goods.
The president, Enrique Peña Nieto, already has the lowest ratings of any president ever, so when the “saqueos” (looting) of shops began, supposedly to protest this crisis, some people began to ask whether Mexico was on the verge of a revolution. If you’ve not read about this, the supermarket giants Wal-Mart (including the Wal-Mart owned Bodega Aurrera) and Chedraui were those affected with reported lootings of 250 stores across 12 different states.
What is hugely interesting for me, is that there is a large swathe of the population (including my British family friend who’s lived there for 10 years) who believe these lootings were orchestrated by the government. This, from what I’ve seen, isn’t a theory that is being mentioned within the English-speaking papers, but it’s brought up here in El País:
“Múltiples teorías conspirativas se han emitido en estos días, desde quienes atribuyen al propio gobierno y al PRI la iniciativa para generar miedo y caos e impedir las protestas autónomas de la ciudadanía…”
“Many conspiracy theories have been broadcast in the past few days, from those who attribute the initiative to the government and to the PRI, in order to generate fear and chaos and impede the independent protests of citizens”
I met someone from Veracruz who, with the help of his cousins, took advantage of the chaos to rob beers for a friend’s party. When asked why he participated in this, he spoke of the people’s frustration at the government: “they make us pay for everything, there’s even a tax on pets”. Clearly, this is not someone involved in some kind of government plot. Nonetheless, though people recognise it wasn’t all as a result of Peña Nieto, the general view is that the government paid people to start and incite the violence, on specific shops in specifics areas, as a way to regain control, distract the population and delegitimise protests in general.
Why rob privately-owned giant chain stores to get back at the government? It does bring to mind the London riots of 2012, and it certainly could be pure opportunism. Still, many people believe this may demonstrate the government’s involvement. Interestingly, in Puebla at least, a supermarket chain (Comercial Mexicana) that has previously come out in support of President Peña Nieto, remained unaffected.
I recognise this is all hugely contentious and, especially to someone British or European, it feels like a crazed conspiracy theory. The fact of the matter is though, many people view this as a definitive, no-doubt-about-it truth. While I couldn’t personally say whether the government was involved, at the very least it’s a depressing state of affairs if the general population have so little faith it’s even seen as a possibility, let alone a fact.
But who can blame them? In the past couple of days, it has been alleged that children with cancer in Veracruz were given fake drugs instead of real treatment. This would’ve been under the authority of the previous Governor, Duarte, who it is well-known stole millions when he was in power. In 2014 in Iguala, Guerrero, 43 students protesting the government went missing and to this day, have never been seen again. A vocal opponent of the government and arguably the most well-respected journalist in Mexico, Carmen Aristegui, was both fired from her position and condemned by the Mexican courts for exposing Peña Nieto’s corruption. These are a mere few high-profile reported examples from the past 2 years. This list goes on and on…and on. Who would have any faith in a government like that?
Sadly, the real issue isn’t just Peña Nieto’s government; evidently there are systemic and deeply entrenched problems with the Mexican political system. It seems like politicians don’t work for the betterment of the people and their communities at large, they work specifically for themselves, their friends and their families. I’m sure their are exceptions, but the fact of the matter is, this level of such despicable corruption should never be permitted.
My Spanish teacher, who is also a trained lawyer, told me that many of her friends decide work for the government purely because the pay is good. While in the UK there are many “professional politicians”, who are perhaps doing it for the wrong reasons, it’s by no means the most luxurious or best-paid job out there. The fact that Peña Nieto earns nearly 150 times the country’s minimum wage is, quite frankly, deplorable. How can he stand in front of the general population and claim to lead them, knowing that fact?
I’m by no means an expert on Mexican politics, but I wonder if a reduction in salaries would encourage a less corrupt and self-motivated political class. Even if this isn’t the best way to tackle the problem, it’s blindingly obvious that something needs to change. The country is desperately crying out for people who serve them rather than themselves, and if any future government is going to win the respect and support of the Mexican people, there needs to be a dramatic upheaval of the political system. While there might not be an outright rebellion in Mexico any time soon, I can say with no shadow of a doubt: the political system must be revolutionised.