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Mexican President Is Adding Fuel to the Fire

President Pena Nieto asks: What would you have done? as unrest spreads over gas hikes.

Civil unrest exploded when the Mexican government increased consumer gasoline prices a whopping 20% on New Year’s Day, January 1, 2017. While President Enrique Peña Nieto claims the hike was inevitable in order to avoid cuts to public services, Mexicans are today paying twice as much at the pumps than in the US, Russia, Brazil, China, and the European Union, with prices today 95% higher than in New York City.

Taking into account the Mexican peso’s precipitous fall in response to the US election from 13 MXN/USD last year to 22 MXN to one dollar today, in real terms the impact on people in Mexico is even greater. At pre-Trump exchange rates, what Mexicans are paying for gas almost tripled overnight.

As all kinds of consumer prices jumped, the people’s response to the “gasolinazo” (or “gasopolypse” in English) was swift, with convenience and department stores being looted across the country.

But mostly, dissent has been peaceful, if not pointed. Widespread protests are filling public squares around the country ever since the price increase went into effect.

Blithely adding fuel to the fire, President Peña Nieto appeared on national television five days into the New Year to explain the hike. Stating that international petroleum prices have increased “almost 60%” last year, the president declared that “trying to maintain artificial gas prices would have forced us to cut social programs, increase taxes or the national debt, and put the entire economy at risk,” costing the nation $200 billion MXN. Claiming the alternative would have been four months of closed hospitals and daycares or three years of suspended medical insurance for 50 million families, the artfully-lit president, green-screened before a background of Mexican flags, demanded in dramatic close-up, ¿Qué hubieran hecho ustedes? “What would you have done?”

Radically different alternative cuts were being published all over the internet the following morning. In response to Peña Nieto’s question, #Quéhubieranhechoustedes listed a multitude of answers.

Sell the White House: $54,000,000
Sell the presidential airplane: $733,000,000
Lower congressional salaries: $1,947,000 ($971,455,500 for 500 congressmen)
Recover (Veracruz governor Javier) Duarte’s debt: $50,000,000,000
Get rid of corrupt politicians and fight corruption, Corruption costs Mexico $341,000,000,000
Stop paying the pensions of former presidents: $40,000,000
All of this would bring in more than your gasolinazo and create a $100,000,000 surplus for social assistance.

Ricardo Padua (@rikrdopadua) posted a composite of the suggested cuts, adding one more: “Stop Stealing.”

Social anthropologist Nadia Vera and photojournalist Rubén Espinosa were critical of Veracruz governor Duarte up until their violent deaths on July 31, 2015, together with three other women, in the borrowed Mexico City apartment to which they had fled in the face of threats to their lives. The five were tortured and beaten before being shot, and the women showed signs of sexual violence. Nine months earlier, Vera had spoken on camera in a documentary entitled “Veracruz: The Forgotten Mass Grave” and said she feared for her life, with Duarte and his government to blame. “We hold state governor Javier Duarte Ocha and his cabinet totally responsible for anything that happens to us.”

On Thursday 12 January, 90% of bus drivers were in a second day of a strike in Tuxtla Gutiérrez, capital of Chiapas, in response to mandatory ticket price increases and lack of worker protections. Thousands of people from all walks of life are filling Mexico City’s famous Zócalo in daily protests against the gas price hike. Mayor Gustavo Sánchez of Mexicali, capital of Baja California, ordered lights out in the main square last night to deter protests, but residents returned this month. More than 10,000 have come out today, as service stations run out of product due to gas runs.

Also this month, it was reported that congressional leaders have awarded themselves bonuses in order to deal with higher fuel prices. According to El Universal, as many as 12 regional governments have decided to provide gasoline subsidies of up to $20,000 MXN a month to their officials. In Quintana Roo State, where tourist region Cancún is located, “Eduardo Martínez, PAN party and majority leader, admitted that increasing the amount to $40,000 MXN was studied, but when faced with criticism from their respective districts, the proposal was scuttled.”

With so much uncertainty about the immediate future of Mexico, and having to face the threats from the northern border, Peña Nieto should have thought twice.

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