Even as Mexico has reasons to be concerned about the upcoming presidential inauguration of Donald Trump, who has vowed to make life, and especially trade relations, for Mexicans far more “complicated” under his administration, the population of Mexico has far more pressing problems at this moment, because just days after the finance ministry announced on December 27 that it would raise the price of gasoline by as much as 20.1% to 88 cents per liter while hiking diesel prices by 16.5% to 83 cents, the hikes went into effect on January 1, welcoming in the new year with a surge in the price of one of Mexico’s most important staples and leading to widespread anger, protests and in some cases violence.
As Telesur reports, the people of Mexico “are entering the New Year in a state of rage and anxiety” with protests planned for Sunday to strongly denounce the government’s huge hike in gasoline prices. The sharp rise in gasoline prices has been called the “gasolinazo” in Spanish, which roughly translates to “gasoline-punch.”
— Gustavo Vela (@GustavoVela71) December 30, 2016
The price increase comes as part of a planned liberalization of Mexico’s energy market, which involves the move from subsidies that kept gas prices low to a market-based pricing scheme that will adjust prices at the pump based on supply and demand. And while Mexico’s unpopular president Enrique Pena Nieto had promised that fuel prices will fall thanks to his 2014 energy reforms, which dismantled the seven-decade-old national ownership of petroleum resources by state-owned firm Pemex, the initial move in prices has been higher, and decidedly so, by roughly 20% for gasoline and slightly less for diesel.
The price ceiling will then be adjusted daily starting Feb. 18, before letting supply and demand determine them in March, although it is the immediate shock that is of concern to the peace and stability in Mexico.
Case in point, around 100 protestors blocked a service station in Acapulco on Friday, while on Saturday an assembly of popular organizations in Chihuahua state’s capital pledged to block all commercial transportation from entering or exiting the city as a means toward paralyzing the economy and pressuring the federal government to reverse the hikes. The assembly of people’s organizations also announced their intention to block major highways and railways in response to what they see as a neoliberal looting of Mexico and handover of its resources to private capital, according to a statement.
On Sunday, the day the price hikes went into effect, Excelsior reported that angry citizens protested in several spots of the capital, Mexico City, blocking roads, demanding a return to lower gas prices.
But before readers blow this off as just another protest by an angry population which fails to grasp the “global deflationary collapse” while focusing on “fringe, outlier events” – at least in the words of central bankers – things suddenly got serious when none other than the country’s powerful Jalisco New Generation cartel has entered the fray, threatening to burn gas stations in response to the price hikes, according to Jalisco authorities cited by TeleSur.
“They are speculating in order to obtain million dollar profits from the majority of the people who don’t make even a minimum wage, we have already realized that the (shortage) of fuel is because dealers don’t want to sell fuel unless they can do so at a profit, all of our people are now ready to start the mission,” the Mexican drug cartel stated in a WhatsApp message circulating in Jalisco.
“The CJNG, in support of the working class, commits itself to making burn all the gasoline stations that to December 30 of the current year, at 10:00 p.m.” — before the price increases go into effect — “have not normalized the sale of fuel at the fair price,” the message said, according to the Mexican news outlet Aristegui Noticias.
Making matters worse is that Mexico was already facing fuel shortages prior to the price hike, angering Mexicans in several states. Ahead of the price hike many people have said they’d hoard gasoline, buying it from stations that in many states are already dealing with supply shortages. Illegal gas sales have popped up, and protests have already taken place in some parts of the country, with more planned in the days of the new year.
“The fuel price increase causes outrage. People are right: it’s not fair. I support each family, I share their outrage and anger,” Aristoteles Sandoval, the governor of western Jalisco state, wrote on Twitter. Sandoval’s criticism drew particular attention because he is a member of Pena Nieto’s ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party or PRI. Furious opposition governors plan to meet with federal government officials next week to discuss the price hike.
Meanwhile, the unpopular price hike is also becoming a key political talking point: “We just had a security meeting (between governors and Pena Nieto) days ago and there was not one comment about this situation,” said Mexico City’s Mayor Miguel Angel Mancera, a member of the opposition Party of the Democratic Revolution or PRD.
The protests are the latest expression of widespread antipathy toward Pena Nieto, whose popularity according to Telesur has plummeted below 25% this year due to his government’s widespread perception of collusion with cartels and failure to address drug-related violence, disappointing economic growth, violent repression of social movements and his unpopular decision to host Donald Trump before the anti-immigrant Republican won the U.S. presidential election.
Not helping matters, Finance Minister Jose Antonio Meade defended the fuel price increase, saying it would not trigger more inflation and that eventually the “final price for consumers will be among the most competitive in the world.” For now, however, the response has been a negative one, with social media criticism leveled at Meade, who has been portrated as “chupasangre”, or “bloodsucker.”
José Antonio Meade un chupasangre que quiere ser presidente. Él autorizó el gasolinazo. Monero Rocha pic.twitter.com/goJnHPp056
— Gustavo Vela (@GustavoVela71) December 29, 2016
In Mexico City, service station worker Maria de la Luz Lopez, quoted by Telesure, was worried that the price increases could hurt her. “I’m afraid that to compensate for the increase, (customers) will no longer give us tips,” said Lopez who, like many in her field, does not earn a wage and depends on the generosity of drivers.
But ultimately, the price shock will hit those who are hurting the most. The increases would mean Mexicans, of whom 52% live in poverty, would spend more of their annual income on fuel than the residents of 59 other countries, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.
“We see the gasolinazo as an attack against the population, as a robbery, taking into account the levels of income of the population,” Jose Narro, director of the workers’ group Coordinadora Nacional Plan de Ayala, told Reforma.
Making matters worse, and refuting the promises of the finance minister, the Mexican central bank has warned that gas price increases would boost inflation at a time when the peso has already plunged against the US dollar due to the Trump victory.
With or without the involvement of the cartels, Mexico’s economy is likely to undergo a turbulent period of decline, which will be music in the ears for Mexico’s opposition politicians, such as leftist opposition leader Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador who is likely to benefit from Pena Nieto’s error, and who has put blame for the gasolinazo on the shoulders of Pena Nieto’s center-right Institutional Revolutionary Party and the conservative National Action Party, calling the former “corrupt and cynical” and the latter hypocrites.
The policy and its rollout have further diminished the perception of the Mexican president and his party, which has been a trend for some time.
“Mexicans were promised lower electricity prices, they got higher electricity prices. Mexicans were told austerity was needed, they got a congress that showers itself with bonuses,” Dutch journalist Jan-Albert Hootsen, wrote on Facebook. “Mexicans were promised more security and a fairer justice state, they got homicide rates back at the level of 2012, the Ayotzinapa massacre and its botched investigation, etc.”
“If you say one thing and are then time and time again perceived to do the exact opposite, what starts off as irritation among the public at some point will simply boil over,” Hootsen concluded.
For those on the lookout for new gray, or even black swans, in the new year, keep an eye on the public mood in Mexico as a result of the now effected surge in gas prices.
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