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Country of the Year? Try Mexico.

Last week's approval of reforms for the pivotal oil company Pemex caps a year of major reforms that could transform Mexico – and perhaps change the immigration debate in the US.

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    Oil workers set the drill on a deep-water platform off the coast of Veracruz, Mexico. The administration of President Enrique Pena Nieto pushed for energy reform that will increase private investment in the state-owned oil company Pemex.
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If an award could be given in 2013 for Country of the Year, Mexico might deserve it. No other country has done more this past year to put reforms in place to transform a nation – and with startling democratic consensus.

The latest reform, approved Thursday by elected lawmakers, will allow foreign and private investment in the oil sector for the first time in more than 70 years. The move upends a notion of Mexican patriotism that stated the national identity rests on government monopoly of the petroleum industry.

In adding this historic reform to earlier ones – in banking, taxation, education, telecommunications – Mexico is well on its way to implement an agreement among three political parties reached last December after the election of President Enrique Peña Nieto.

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The successes of the so-called Pact of Mexico only adds to the nation’s achievements in becoming fully democratic in 2000 and in joining NAFTA in 1995. The new reforms also create optimism in the United States that the poorest among Mexico’s 112 million population might someday stop crossing the border for jobs.

The US debate over “immigration reform is going to be very passé,” said Gov. Rick Perry (R) of Texas last week, predicting that Mexico’s advances will create more domestic jobs for Mexicans. “The idea about border security may shift from the United States and Mexico border, down to the Guatemalan-Mexican border,”he added.

Mexico still has plenty of challenges in dealing with high levels of corruption, poverty, and drug-related violence. And implementing the reform laws will require political courage to make sure they are done with the least graft and widest benefit.

But a reformist attitude has been implanted in Mexico, driven by a desire to ensure that Latin America’s second-largest economy remains globally competitive.

As the fifth-largest producer of crude oil, Mexico badly needs reform of its national oil company, Pemex. The company provides about a third of the federal budget and is the nation’s single largest employer. Yet oil production has been in decline even with big investments. Despite its vast natural gas reserves, Mexico still imports gas from the US. Pemex needs foreign technology and advice, especially in tapping deep-water oil deposits and shale gas.

Reform of the oil industry would spill over into many parts of the economy. Being able to turn gas into fertilizer, for example, would help boost production on the 60 percent of Mexican farmland  not currently fertilized.

While the two main parties, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) and the conservative National Action Party, have led the reform effort, it is Mexicans themselves who are slowly finding a new view of themselves. That is represented in a rising middle class and greater expectations of clean and effective politics.

The Pemex reforms, notes Mexican historian Enrique Krauze, reflect a desire to look more to the future than the past. That’s certainly deserving of some award.

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