This was supposed to be a banner year for Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto. In the last quarter of 2013, his party was able to push through what were then called historical structural reforms to modernize the Mexican education system and boost the national economy and energy sector. If 2013 was the year for lawmaking, 2014 was supposed to be the year for implementing reforms and beginning to reap their benefits.
However, instead of the anticipated stability, the end of 2014 has proven to be one of most politically turbulent times in Mexico’s recent history. There are no stories of a buoyant economy or a modernized education system to speak of. On the contrary, a flurry of disturbing stories have dominated the Mexican news cycle: the state-sponsored mass murder in Guerrero; strikes at the Instituto Politécnico Nacional (National Polytechnic Institute—IPN); protests and police violence at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (National Autonomous University of Mexico—UNAM); a railway contract scandal implicating Peña Nieto; and waves of viral videos showing police repression, abuse and violence throughout the country.
Against this clamorous background, the $4.7 trillion peso federal budget approved last week by Mexico’s Lower House of Congress allocates 188 billion pesos to police and security projects—a 3.3 percent larger investment than the government made in 2014. Congressman Pedro Pablo Treviño Villarreal, who presided over the budget committee, specified that a portion of these additional funds would help harmonize the police and security forces among the different states and municipalities of Mexico.
Thousands took to the streets across Mexico on Wednesday over a group of 43 students that have been missing since September 26, when student protestors clashed with police in the town of Iguala in the state of Guerrero. The incident left six dead—including three students and three locals—and 56 students reported missing. As a result, the Peña Nieto administration has faced increasing criticism domestically and internationally.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) criticized the government in an 11-page letter to Miguel Ángel Osorio Chong, Mexico’s Interior Minister, saying that despite attempts by the president to find missing persons and aid their families, success has been marginal, not only in the case of Iguala but in recent years with increased numbers of disappearances and an inadequate system for dealing with and preventing such cases. “Mexico is facing a national human rights and security crisis that demands a far more serious response from the federal government,” said José Miguel Vivanco, director of HRW’s Americas division. The Organization of American States and the United States government have also put pressure on Mexican authorities to locate the missing students.
Although 13 students have since returned home, the whereabouts of 43 are still unknown and some claim to have last seen those missing being driven away in police vehicles following the September clash. On Saturday 28 bodies were found in shallow, mass graves outside of Iguala, but were burned too badly to be identified, although many believe they are the remains of some of the missing students.
Earlier this week, President Enrique Peña Nieto deployed federal troops to Iguala and 30 people have been detained in relation to the incident. “Like all the Mexican society, I am shocked by this situation and I can assure you that there will be no impunity,” said president Peña Nieto on Twitter.
In his first address to the UN General Assembly, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto announced yesterday that Mexico is prepared to participate in UN Peacekeeping Missions. He noted that Mexico’s collaboration would be limited to “humanitarian work,” nevertheless qualifying the announcement as “a historic step in [Mexico’s] commitment to the UN.” According to the Mexican news site Animal Político, such collaborations could involve deploying military or civilian personnel. In a separate announcement, the Mexican Secretaría de Relaciones Exteriores (Ministry of Foreign Affairs—SRE) said the country will step into this new role “gradually.”
The announcement marks the clearest reversal so far of Mexico’s decades old policy of non-intervention in foreign matters. The last time the country participated in a UN Peacekeeping mission was in Kashmir in 1949. Since then, Mexican forces have been deployed abroad to aid in humanitarian crises, such as after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 or the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. However, until now, the idea of Mexicans donning the UN’s blue helmets has been practically taboo.
In an editorial in El Universal that coincided with Peña Nieto’s announcement, the former Mexican ambassador to the U.S., Arturo Sarukhan called explicitly for Mexico's participation in UN peacekeeping missions. Framing the issue in terms of Mexico’s role as an emerging world leader, he wrote, “we cannot chart the future of our foreign policy out of a foreign policy from the past.” Meanwhile, the president of the Comisión de Derechos Humanos del Senado (Senate Human Rights Commission), Senator Angélica de la Peña, warned that, “a decision such as this cannot be taken unilaterally, and should obligate us to promote a public discussion about its ramifications vis-à-vis our pacifist tradition and vocation.” The senator also noted that any future participation in a UN Peacekeeping mission would require the Senate’s approval.
Mexico’s Coordinadora Nacional de Trabajadores de la Educación (National Coordinator of Education Workers–CNTE), the powerful teacher’s union, took to the streets of Mexico City yesterday to protest President Enrique Peña Nieto’s educational reform, including a 3.5 percent increase in teachers’ wages. The leaders of the union sent a message to the president calling the increase “a joke.”
The education reform seeks to professionalize Mexico’s teachers, some of who have been accused of being "maestros aviadores" (aviator teachers) because they regularly fail to attend class. The protests in the capital come a month after local governments in Oaxaca, Chiapas, Michoacán, Sonora, Zacatecas and Baja California were taken to court by the Peña Nieto’s administration for not adhering to the rules of the reforms, and the laws of the “Servicio Profesional Docente” (Professional Teaching Service).
The educational reform project began with an agreement among Mexico’s three main political parties, known as the Pacto por México (Pact for Mexico). The reforms have faced stiff opposition, especially in southern Mexico where protests in Guerrero have turned violent and over a million students in Oaxaca missed nearly two months of class in September and October of last year. After taking to the streets on May 15, teachers threatened to call for more powerful protests and mobilizations against the Peña Nieto government.
Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto proposed new rules yesterday aimed at increasing oil production and boosting the economy.
The proposed legislation includes the creation of eight new laws and the modification of 13 existing laws. Mexican Secretary of Tax, Luis Videgaray, and Secretary of Energy, Pedro Joaquín Coldwell, have said that, with the exception of public gasoline sale, the new rules would open the sale of energy resources to foreign and private firms while keeping them under state control. Videgaray maintained that the laws will reduce Mexico’s high fiscal dependence on oil revenues.
If the rules are approved by Congress, it would end a 75-year monopoly by the state-run oil company Pemex, which was created by the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (Institutional Revolutionary Party—PRI) under President Lázaro Cárdenas in 1938. While giving new businesses the opportunity to invest in Mexican oil, the laws would also lower taxes on Pemex from 79 percent to less than 65 percent. Pemex would also be guaranteed at least a 20 percent stake of business in oil deposits in defined territories.
Political opposition parties, the Partido Acción Nacional (National Action Party—PAN) and the Partido de la Revolución Democrática (Party of the Democratic Revolution—PDR) have both pushed back against the reform. The PAN has made its support of the new rules conditional on the passage of electoral reform that would weaken the PRI’s influence. The PRD is hoping to overturn the proposed reform altogether.
On March 24, Enrique Peña Nieto presented the Mexican Senate with a bill for a new telecommunications law that complements the constitutional reforms he approved in 2013. The legislation proposes, among other things, to promote competition in the sector, improve telecom services, and regulate the radioelectric spectrum through the new telecommunications regulator, the Instituto Federal de Telecomunicaciones (Federal Telecommunications Institute—IFETEL). The bill is now being revised, and is expected to be approved in the coming days.
However, the proposal is already raising eyebrows and creating waves in the digital sphere, where it’s being labeled as a form of government censorship.
According to Article 2 of the bill, the legislation is intended to “protect the nation’s security and sovereignty,” and the most controversial articles in the initiative are preceded by mentions of criminal prosecution and promoting the public interest. There is room for discussion on the potential effectiveness of this objective, but much like the current debate in the U.S. over the NSA’s capabilities vs. individual freedoms and privacy, citizens in Mexico are worried about ceding too much power to the federal government. The far-reaching legislation has created a number of trending topics on Twitter, under hashtags like #EPNvsInternet #ContraElSilencioMx and #NoMasPoderAlPoder (roughly translated to #PeñaNietoV.Internet, #AgainstSilenceMx and #NoMorePowerToTheOnesInPower).
One of the most popular bloggers in Mexico, “Sopitas,” criticized Peña Nieto’s proposal by stating that social media has been the only widespread communication channel where the public can express its dissent with the current government. On April 21, #EPNvsInternet became a worldwide trending topic on Twitter and, as these words are being written, “netizens” in Mexico City are organizing a massive demonstration at the Ángel de la Independencia monument in downtown Mexico City, which also hosted many of #YoSoy132’s protests against Peña Nieto’s alleged alliance with Televisa in the 2012 presidential elections. When the neutrality of the largest news media conglomerate in the country is in question, citizen journalism becomes crucial.
Attempts to control speech on the Internet are not new. One need only consult Global Voices’ Advocacy project to see that, when given the power to do so, governments unequivocally use Internet restriction as a means to block and control dissent.
But how would the president’s telecom law proposal trample on free speech? What are netizens protesting against? Here are some highlights:
Supporters of the proposed telecom law might argue that these new attributions would allow government to better combat organized crime, but the other side of the story shows that if the legislation is approved as-is, any government would be legally awarded the power to read emails exchanged between its detractors, know their location and cut off their communications.
Would the government consider a mass protest on Avenida Reforma to be an event against public security, and thus block cell phone communications in the area? Those opposing the new law seem to think this is a possibility.
This developing story has caused outrage on Twitter, Facebook and other social networks. Will this outrage help write a different conclusion—one in which the proposed telecom bill is overturned? Or will Mexico join the ranks of censorship-friendly countries such as Cambodia, Turkey and Venezuela?
The Mexican Senate voted 95 to 28 to pass President Enrique Peña Nieto’s signature energy reform bill Wednesday morning, just one week after the body approved the electoral reform bill that the conservative Partido Acción Nacional (National Action Party—PAN) set as a precondition to bringing the controversial measure to the Senate floor. If passed by the Chamber of Deputies, the bill would loosen the state’s control over the oil industry.
President Peña Nieto has advocated for various reforms since he took office in 2012, including telecommunications and education laws, but the energy reform bill has been seen as the centerpiece of his efforts to boost the Mexican economy. If passed, the bill would allow for private investment, exploration and profit sharing with the state-owned Pemex. Those actions were banned 75 years ago when President Lazaro Cardenas nationalized the oil industry.
While the alliance between the PAN and the ruling Partido Revolucionario Institucional (Institutional Revolutionary Party—PRI) has majorities in both chambers, there has been vocal opposition to the passage of the bill. Legislators from the leftist Partido de la Revolución Democrática (Democratic Revolution Party—PRD) interrupted debate on the measure on Tuesday in an effort to keep it from passing before the end of the year. The PRI and PAN have been accused of “treason” by PRD members for championing the bill that would inject private capital into the industry that seen a downward trend in recent years.
Despite the opposition, the Chamber of Deputies is expected to pass the energy reform bill before the winter recess on December 15. It would then need to be approved by more than half of Mexico’s 31 states and the federal district.
Likely top stories this week: Xiomara Castro leads her supporters in protest against last Sunday’s election results; Juan Manuel Santos visits the United States; petroleum exploitation moves ahead in Ecuador; Mexicans protest as President Peña Nieto completes his first year in office; a fire engulfs the Latin America Memorial in São Paulo.
Honduran Election Result Sparks Demonstrations: Thousands of Hondurans marched in Tegucigalpa on Sunday after the country’s electoral authority declared Juan Orlando Hernández the winner of last Sunday's presidential elections. Challenger Xiomara Castro de Zelaya, who is demanding a vote-by-vote recount at all Honduran polling places and an investigation of the elections by the attorney general, called on her supporters to march peacefully to protest the results. Salvador Nasralla, another candidate, is also challenging the results. On Sunday evening, Honduras’ election tribunal said it would be willing to let LIBRE (Liberty and Refoundation party—Liberdad y Refundación) review the electoral record but declined to say whether it would consider a full recount.
Santos Visits the United States: Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos arrived in the United States on Sunday for a three-day visit that will include a meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama. Santos will also make an appearance at the University of Miami on Monday before traveling to Washington D.C. for visits with Nancy Pelosi, John Boehner, and a meeting at the OAS, among other activities. The purpose of Santos' trip is to encourage additional U.S. investment in Colombia and to discuss Colombia's peace negotiations with the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia—FARC).
Correa Announces Petroleum Exploitation in Ecuadorian Amazon: Despite major protests by Indigenous and environmental groups, Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa announced Saturday that Ecuador would permit the exploitation of 13 petroleum blocks in the Ecuadorian Amazon near the border with Peru and on the edge of Yasuni National Park. Correa said that Chilean Ambassador Juan Carlos Lira and a businessman were injured in the protests last Tuesday. Ecuadorian Minister for Non-Renewable Natural Resources Pedro Merizalde said that the first three blocks up for action could hold as much as 1.5 billion barrels. So far, Spain's Repsol YPF, Chile's ENAP, Belarus’ Belorusneft, and China's Andes Petroleum have presented offers for four of the petroleum blocks.
Protests as Peña Nieto Completes First Year of Presidency: Thousands of Mexicans protested in the streets of Mexico City on Sunday as Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto celebrated the completion of his first year as president. Protesting teachers, union workers, and self-declared anarchists marched in opposition to Peña Nieto's recent education, tax and energy reforms. According to a poll released Sunday by Reforma newspaper, 48 percent of respondents disapproved of the president's job performance—up from 30 percent in April.
Fire Latest Accident to Hit São Paulo: Less than a week after a construction crane collapsed at São Paulo's Itaquerão stadium and killed two workers, the city's iconic Latin America Memorial—a landmark building which hosts an art gallery, an auditorium and other facilities— was engulfed by a fire on Saturday. The memorial and cultural center was built in 1989 by legendary Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer, who died last year at age 104. It is still unclear how the fire started, but it appears no members of the public have been injured in the blaze. Meanwhile, construction workers returned to Itaquerão stadium on Monday to address the damages caused by last week’s accident.
An overhaul of Mexico’s private-sector lending system was approved by four key Senate committees on Wednesday, moving President Enrique Peña Nieto’s financial reform one step closer to passage. The housing, public credit, justice, and legislative studies committees all voted to pass the bill, following its passage in the Chamber of Deputies. The full Senate will discuss the 70 provisions of the bill today, with an expected vote on Tuesday. If any major changes are introduced, the bill would go back to a lower chamber for approval. Otherwise, it will go to President Peña Nieto to sign into law.
The bill, part of the Pacto por México (Pact for Mexico) reforms agreed upon by President Pena Nieto's Partido Institucional Revolucionaria (Institutional Revolutionary Party—PRI) and the country's main opposition parties, would increase lending among Mexico’s banks, lower interest rates on loans and make credit more accessible to small and medium enterprises. The governor of Mexico’s Central Bank, Augustín Carstens, said in May that the proposed reform could help grow the economy by 0.5 percent over the next two to three years.
President Peña Nieto, who will reach his one year anniversary in office next month, has staked significant political capital in the Pacto por México reforms, ranging from education and energy to security and telecommunications. The most controversial reform thus far has been the proposed privatization of Petróleos Mexicanos (Pemex), the state-owned petroleum company to help attract investment and technology to Mexico’s ailing energy sector.
September has been a difficult month for U.S. policy toward Latin America. Between the crisis in Syria and the NSA surveillance disclosures, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry cancelled an address to the annual CAF conference, Vice President Joe Biden cancelled a trip to Panama, and Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff cancelled a state visit to Washington DC.
The sole exception to the raft of cancellations was the launch of the U.S.-Mexico High Level Economic Dialogue (HLED), which still took place on September 20 in Mexico City, in the presence of Biden and several U.S. cabinet officials.
That the Mexico trip was planned at all testifies to the importance of the economic relationship with our third-largest trading partner. That it happened according to schedule says a great deal about Biden’s emerging role as an envoy to the Americas, and about the Mexican administration’s pragmatism and diplomatic maturity.
Biden first outlined the Obama administration’s commitment to deepening engagement with the Western Hemisphere at the Council of the Americas’ 43rd Washington Conference on the Americas in May. Soon after, he traveled to Brazil, Colombia, and Trinidad and Tobago. He also hired Juan S. González, a well-respected Latin Americanist as his Special Advisor on the Western Hemisphere (a first for his small foreign policy team). This week, he is scheduled to meet with Uruguayan President José Mujica as well as with members of U.S. Congress for a wide-ranging conversation on the region. Previous presidents have appointed special envoys for the Americas, but in Obama’s second term, the vice president himself has emerged as the de facto—and much more powerful—emissary for U.S. interests to Latin America’s rising economic and diplomatic powers.
Of those powers, Mexico is the clear priority. “The Western Hemisphere has always mattered to the United States, but I think it matters more today because it has more potential than any time in American history,” Biden pronounced at the conference in May. Last week in Mexico, he was explicit about the primacy of economic interests with our NAFTA partner: “There is no relationship that we value more, there is no economic relationship that we think holds the most promise and there is no part of the world that has the opportunity to do as much to generate economic growth over the next 20 or 30 years in the hemisphere.”
June 1: This AQ-Efecto Naím segment looks at sustainable cities in the hemisphere.