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In Mexico, tens of thousands protest oil reform

MEXICO CITY - Tens of thousands of Mexicans jammed the center of their capital city Sunday to protest President Enrique Pena Nieto’s plan to allow foreign firms to invest in and collaborate with the state-run oil company, whose independence from outside influence has been a source of national pride for decades.

The city government estimated that 44,000 people crowded downtown’s Avenida Juarez to hear the anti-reform arguments of Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, the two-time presidential candidate and de facto leader of the Mexican left.

Although reform supporters appear to have enough votes in Congress and state legislatures to approve the proposal, which requires a constitutional change, Lopez Obrador insisted Sunday that a popular uprising, if large enough, could stop it.

“I am sure we are going to stop these anti-patriotic reforms,” he said.

Pena Nieto took office in December, and the overhaul of the Mexican oil industry is arguably the most important part of his ambitious reform agenda. It was also bound to be the most controversial. President Lazaro Cardenas kicked foreign oil companies out of the country in 1938 after years of what many here believed to be exploitative behavior. The Mexican Constitution now declares that all oil and gas is the property of the Mexican people, and the 1938 expropriation is celebrated yearly with a national holiday.

Today, however, even many nationalists and leftists concede that Petroleos Mexicanos, or Pemex, the state oil company, is a corrupt and inefficient behemoth. Those in favor of the proposed reform believe that foreign companies could help Pemex reverse declining production by applying their capital and expertise to deep-water and shale oil ventures.

Lopez Obrador argued Sunday, as he has previously, that Pemex needs to be cleansed of corruption, not opened to outside investment. He portrayed the reform as part of a 30-year wave of privatization that has enriched a privileged few while doing little to help everyday Mexicans.

Pena Nieto’s team has launched an aggressive advertising campaign that says the reform would not amount to “privatization” of Pemex. On Sunday, the protesters - a spirited but peaceful bunch that included students, retirees and all ages in between - were having none of it.

“A government or individual who sells natural resources to foreign countries betrays the country,” one sign read. “The people are not stupid,” said another.

After his second-place finish in last year’s elections, the silver-haired Lopez Obrador quit the leftist Party of the Democratic Revolution, or PRD, and formed his own group, the National Regeneration Movement, or Morena. Lopez Obrador said he will call his supporters back into the streets Sept. 22.

The capital has been overrun with demonstrators for weeks, thanks in large part to a teachers union whose members have camped out in the Zocalo, the city’s central square, to protest Pena Nieto’s education reform proposals.

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