MEXICO CITY -- As Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO), the leftist firebrand whom millions of Mexicans consider their legitimate president, made his way to the podium in the packed Zocalo plaza here March 18th, the 70th anniversary of the expropriation and nationalization of an oil industry now threatened with re-privatization, hundreds of senior citizens, AMLO's firmest followers, rose as one from their seats of honor at the side of the stage, raised their frail fists in salute, and chanted that, despite the cobwebs of old age, they do not forget. "Tenemos Memoria!" We Have Memory!
What did they remember? Tiburcio Quintanilla, 83, remembers how when President Lazaro Cardenas called upon his countrymen and women to donate to a fund to pay indemnities to the gringo oil companies, he went with his father to the Palace of Bellas Artes and stood on line for hours with their chickens, their contribution to taking back "our chapopote (petroleum)." I was born in the same week that Lazaro Cardenas nationalized Mexico's oil, I tell Don Tiburcio. I'm only a kid.
Up on the same stage from which he directed the historic seven-week siege of the capital after the Great Fraud of 2006 that awarded the presidency to his right-wing rival Felipe Calderon, AMLO looked more grizzled, weather-beaten, a little hoarse after two years on the road relentlessly roaming the Mexican outback bringing his message to "los de abajo" (those down below) and signing up nearly 2,000,000 new constituents for his National Democratic Convention (CND), which is increasingly embroiled in a bitter battle for control of the center-left Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD.)
Now Lopez Obrador has thrust himself into the leadership of the movement to defend the nation's oil industry (PEMEX) from privatization in the guise of Calderon's energy-reform legislation.
Calderon and his cohorts seek to persuade Mexicans that PEMEX is broken, the reserves running out, and the nation's only hope lies in deep-water drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. Drilling for what the Calderonistas describe as "The Treasure of Mexico" in a widely distributed, lavishly produced infomercial, will require an "association" with Big Oil. But as many experts, such as Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, son of the president who expropriated the oil in the first place, point out, it is not at all certain that these purported deep sea reserves are actually in Mexican waters.
AMLO's March 18th "informative assembly" of the National Democratic Convention was certainly the most emotional since he convoked the CND on Independence Day in September 2006, after the courts had designated Calderon as president. Poised under a monumental tri-color flag that furled and unfurled dramatically in the spring zephyrs, and addressing tens of thousands of loyalists in the heart of the Mexican body politic, Lopez Obrador told the story of Mexico's oil.
Oil is a patriotic lubricant here, and AMLO is imbued in what historians once called revolutionary nationalism, the apogee of which was Lazaro Cardenas's March 18th 1938 order expropriating the holdings of 17 Anglo-American oil companies who were about to secede from the union and declare themselves "The Republic of the Gulf of Mexico." AMLO recalled how the companies had defied a Supreme Court order to pay $26 million USD to the nation's oil workers leaving General Cardenas (he had been a revolutionary general) no option but to take back Mexico's oil. How patriotic Mexicans like Don Tiburcio and his father lined up to pay off the debt with their chickens and family jewels. Cardenas's subsequent creation of a national oil corporation, "Petrolios Mexicanos" or PEMEX, was seen as the guarantee of a great future for Mexico.
But things have worked out differently.
"Privatization is corruption!" AMLO harangues, "The oil is ours!