MARCH 31, 1998.



Mexican oil policy in recent years has been based on producing ever-greater amounts of oil for export to the United States (78% of production in 1997) in order to pay the interest on an inherently un-payable foreign debt.

Meanwhile the government has been doing somersaults in order to continue deceiving the Mexican people about the level of proven oil reserves. Through Petroleos Mexicanos (Pemex) reports suggest there is plenty of oil and that reserves are much the same, in the small print of the reports proven reserves have been revised downwards by about 35% in Mexico’s two major oil provinces, offshore Campeche and onshore Tabasco-Chiapas. More downward revisions will be needed before the Mexican people know the truth.

Oil production is concentrated increasingly in one super giant offshore oil field, known as Cantarell. This field suffers from sever pressure problems due to over exploitation, yet Pemex proposes to get even more oil out of the field, even at the risk of aggravating the pressure problems to the point of collapse.

The desperation to get more and more oil out of Cantarell has led the government to promote a multi-million dollar nitrogen-injection project, which is a high-risk, billion-dollar experiment to keep the pressure in the field from falling further. Pemex has refused to release the details of the contract signed with the private consortium that will carry out the project, presumably in order to prevent calculations of the real cost of the project from being known to the general public. It has also been unwilling to provide answers to the questions about the project, such as what the consequences will be if (as is likely) the nitrogen dilutes the natural gas and thus contaminating the pipeline system.

Mexico’s environmental protection agency, Profepa, gave approval to the nitrogen project, but made 43 proposals to Pemex about protecting the environment in the nature reserve on Atasta peninsular where the nitrogen plant is to be built. However, the reserve seems likely to be devastated both by the plant and acid rain from burning of gas by Pemex.

Profepa also suggests that since Pemex will be building a giant power and a water treatment plant on the peninsular, that these should benefit local people. However, local communities, which live without light and water, have had no such promise from Pemex or the consortium.

Throughout the Southeast of Mexico, farmers and fishermen have seen their livelihoods devastated by pollution caused by the oil industry over the last two decades. Despite Pemex’s efforts to become a cleaner industry, sever problems continue and communities have received almost no help from federal or local authorities to remedy or alleviate the problem.

Even Pemex acknowledges that much more exploration is needed, in order to discover and develop more oil reserves and not to depend so acutely on Cantarell for production. However, almost all the companies drilling equipment has been sold to private firms as part of a “rationalization of assets.”

However, the real problem is that there is still a very limited budget for exploration, which is also effected by the current round of budget cuts. The government prefers to devote Pemex’s spending to production, which brings in money now, rather than to exploration, which does not bring in money, but which will be absolutely vital in order to continue oil production in the future. Regarding processing of oil Pemex has done nothing at all to refine more of its crude oil domestically. Efforts go towards improving product quality, but not to ensuring any kind of self-sufficiency in gasoline or other products. As a result, Mexico imports 30 percent or more of its gasoline, which is sold to the Mexican consumer at higher prices than in the United States

Meanwhile, although petrochemicals are a key source of income for multinationals such as Exxon and Shell, only minimal investments have been made in Pemex’s petrochemical division. Attempts have been made at privatizing the division, but have failed totally because of legal obstacles and public opposition to the idea of privatizing oil-related industries.

Since 1995, when the Zedillo government mortgaged future oil income to the United States in exchange for a 20-billion-dollar loan guarantee, oil policy has been a low-key, uncomfortable subject for the government. In line with this, it will make no big issue of the 60th anniversary of the nationalization of Mexico’s oil industry on March 18. The official commemoration of the event will take place at a gas processing, plant at Nuevo Pemex, Tabasco.

A much more relevant commemoration is likely to take place in Mexico City, where top opposition politicians, major organizations of oil workers and engineers, plus environmentalists and social groups from the oil-producing states of Mexico will hold a national debate on oil policy on March 16 and 17 in the Casa de la Cultura of the Venustiano Carranza precinct.

The event, which will be attended by Mexico City Mayor Cuauhtemoc Cardenas - the son of Lazaro Cardenas, who nationalized the industry 60 years ago - will be a key first step towards defining an alternative oil policy for Mexico’s future. The policy that emerges will almost certainly be put into practice, if an opposition government takes over in Mexico in the year 2000.” (David Shields, The News, March 08).

Hacienda representative Marco Provencia. “The fall in international (oil: M$15.50 at time budget was set to under M$10.00 now) prices does not cause significant damage to the economy . . . We do not underestimate the effect on government income, but neither do we overestimate it, this is not a crisis for Mexico, it will merely cause a slight reduction in economic activity.” (The News, March 15). Then, “Historic oil cuts made to fight crisis.” (The News, March 23). But, hey, there is no crisis!

President Ernesto Zedillo “ . . . constitutional reforms . . . were aimed at improving social, economic, cultural and political rights of Mexico’s nine million indigenous people.” (The News, March 15). This is a unilateral move, regarding the Chiapas issue, responded to by Javier Elorriaga of the EZLN with the comment, “the peace of tombs, supporting groups who murder children like in Acteal.” (The News, March 15). “The conflict will not be resolved,” said Tatiana Coll of the FZLN, the political wing of the Zapatista army. “This law . . . will prolong, deepen the conflict.” (The News, March 17).

Recently Mexico expelled 200 foreigners because they interfered in internal politics: i.e. Chiapas. The Rev. Michel Henri Jean Chanteau being the most prominent. Yet el presidente thinks nothing of allowing multinationals to interfere, when it suits him. He is presently chucking M$100,000,000 at Chiapas to build infrastructure (remember north-east coal) to facilitate the Belgium chocolate manufacturers Callebaut Hermoso’s (with a retail out-let at 11th and Granville) proposed plant. Is this another example of a “highly-competitive-independent-free-enterprise” multinational whining (isn’t that interfering?) for government handouts? And are they, too, lobbying behind the scenes to get rid of government?

In liberal consumer democracies votes are irrelevant. Other than to themselves, politicians are irrelevant. Economic determinism makes the decisions. “Business confidence,” that shop-worn phrase, makes liars out of us all!


Cholula, Puebla - The state should strongly regulate the market economy in Latin America to redistribute wealth, combat poverty and minimize foreign intervention, former President Miguel de la Madrid Hurtado said during an academic conference here Friday.

In these changing times, Latin American countries must avoid neo-liberalism and concentrate on developing an adequate equilibrium between the state and the market, De La Madrid said.

De la Madrid president from 1988 to 1994 gave the keynote lecture of the III Congress of the Americas at the University of the Americas. The theme of the conference, which has attracted dozens of scholars from US and Canadian institutions, is “North America heading into the 21st century.”

“Neo-liberalism is completely insufficient to handle the problems of societies such as ours,” De La Madrid said in an interview following his discourse. “In Latin America we need an adequate equilibrium between the state and market. I don’t believe the solution is to decrease (the role of) the state.”

The former president said the state should play a strong role in the establishment of the rule of law, guarantee public safety and development of education and health services.

James Fletcher, president of the University of Georgia chapter of Phi Beta Delta and associate vice-president for academic affairs, said he was surprised De La Madrid emphasized the role of the state to such a great degree. He said the US point of view is quite different.

“We think government - where education is concerned - being people we know,” Fletcher said. “Today we had a speaker who talked about getting rid of the Board of Education in her city. She got together with mothers and simply threw the bums out.”

De la Madrid also criticized international treaties such as the one being negotiated between Mexico and the European Union.

“It is not desirable in any way that through international accords . . . foreign intervention (be) increased in internal political processes,” De La Madrid said. Fletcher insinuated that any country’s attempt to keep out international economic intervention was far-fetched. “The main thing about economics is that it happens anyway,” he said. “One can seek to limit the official economic traffic but it is a force to be reckoned with.”

In an interview with reporters, De la Madrid (of the Institutional Revolutionary Party) said the conflict in Chiapas is a serious case of “un-governability that has significantly affected Mexicans.”

The presidential initiative is a step in the right direction towards solving the conflict.

“I think it is a good (start) for the congress to begin discussion and through consensus formulate a new judicial framework for indigenous peoples,” De La Madrid said. “I have confidence in the maturity of congress.”

The former president, who spoke at great length on the need for institutionalizing democratic processes in Latin America, said increasing the influence of the media is not the answer. “The media is not reflecting the interest of the community but rather their own bosses,” De La Madrid said.

Ecuadorian Fausto Sarmiento, director of the Latin American and Caribbean Studies department of the University of Georgia, said he agreed with De La Madrid’s characterization of the media in this region of the world, saying the media barely speaks with real people.

“In democracy we have executive power, legislative power but then you have the press and the military. They are the powers and they are managing and controlling the information that reaches the public,” Sarmiento said.

“They actually mask democratic participation in the way they present the information.” Janelle Alicia Weber (The News, March 21).

Is the prefix ‘neo’ supposed to suggest something new? There is nothing new about the liberalism in neo-liberalism. It was invented in the UK in the 18th century and, rightfully, discarded after much suffering: two world wars: the great depression and after the abortive porfiriato and subsequent revolution here.

Professor Fletcher’s comment, “The main thing about economics is that it happens anyway.” leaves me reeling. Does it? Then why does Mexico have to lay itself bare, socially, and insensibly, in order to attract investment?

Kultur isn’t immune either! This great era of ‘globalization, ‘homogenization,’ call it what you like culture, art, whatever, seems to be defined by the Californian definition. If you ain’t blond and blue eyed, take a powder. I am speaking metaphorically, of course, Naomi Campbell being the exception, but you get the drift. Why mexicanos; women, men: morenes, gorgeous, black eyed, black hair; would want to adopt that look is beyond me. But, superficially, they do. Unless of course their minds and media is taken over totally by Madison Avenue.

Essentially free trade interprets into the world fawning to get into the huge, profligate North American consumer market: all roads lead to Peoria, Illinois. Ergo, homogenize or else. This isn’t globalization! This isn’t market driven trade! This is American consumerism: the dumbing-down of the world!

So for the time being, that’s what kulture is here: a sort of cross-border dumbing-down! Current art is essentially defined in Diane Farris’s terms as BTS, or good for Behind The Sofa! Art has become the domain, essentially, of the ‘grant groveller.’ Know your market. Reject the time honoured tradition of art reflecting society. Indulge your customer! Don’t create something that may upset the boys in the boardroom. They wont buy it. If they don’t buy it who will?

The younger generation has even given up on BTS . . . and . . . well . . . gone really desperate! This is worldwide. I am not singling out mexicanos but by mindlessly adopting the ‘global market’ without thinking through its implications they must accept responsibility for the inevitable.

Thanq God, at last, some one, ex-presidente Miguel De La Madrid at least, is waking up. First, get rid of speculators. Then, perhaps, Michael Walker will stop wearing his Adam Smith tie.

The other day a young fella, I have purposely forgotten his name, was interviewed in ‘The News.’ He was a visiting ‘artist’ from London. London is the ‘art’ centre of the world for the time being: Stepney being the artists’ stomping ground. Stepney is full of young people, according to this London interviewee, competing to become famous. That they have nothing to say is immaterial, fame has become and end in itself. From what he said and what I know they all seem to be desperately looking for shock-effect to get their names in the media, albeit briefly. In Vancouver we’ve been treated to ‘dead rats,’ ‘used sanitary napkins’ and ‘crucifixes immersed in urine’ to this effect. Currently the fad is ‘installation.’

When I visited the Stepney crowd’s favourite hangout, the White Chapel Art Gallery, the ‘installation’ was a cotton tent with thousands of bees buzzing inside: the coffee in the gallery cafe was expensive and awful too. Surely, this is ‘art’ as a symptom of society’s ills not society’s reflection.

Anyway this month Mexican culture is being celebrated in several centres throughout Centro: Festival Centro Historico Ciudad Mexico. There is so much going on I cannot take it all in: ballet, music, fashion, art shows, lectures. I attended a few festival events (no ‘dead rats’ yet). Also I have visited some architectural treasures and national shrines during March. Here’s a run-down: -

Festival events: -
CD - ROM de Mathias Goeritz inauguration at Antiquo Collegio San Ildefonso. Profesor Gustavo Casillas L, coordinator del Centro de Computo “Augusto H. Alvares,” has documented the life of this artist. Goeritz, although an ex-patriot German worked in Mexico before and after World War II in many media. This CD demonstrates the best use of computer technology as well as recording for posterity, in a very creative and technologically astute manner, a comprehensive account of Goeritz and his work.

Marie-Elena Lavin Espinosa, at Teatro ISSSTE. This was a modest exhibition of very powerful works. Staged in the lobby it consisted of about fifty framed mixed media: watercolour, conte and graphite. The subject matter was essentially floral but the abstract vision was strong and personal.

Rem Koolhaas, Palacio de Bellas Artes. Attending this event reminded me of the Alcan (now Mc-Blo) lectures. Koolhaas is a world famous Dutch architect (due mostly to his book ‘Delirious New York’) but in reality he is a self-promoter much like many of the other vacuous architectural ‘celebrities’ festooning the glossy coloured covers of current building trade magazines.

The discomfort I feel with these itinerants is that they present hypothetical projects in seductive coloured renderings and models and, while not out-right prevaricating, give the impression that they are built. In this case he tried that with his Tolbiac, Paris, Library competition entry.

Like the Alcan lectures the local glitterati-professional-escapists were out in force. How many took him seriously is debatable. My fourteen graduate students at UNAM took him in their strides. I know Jim Hamerlainen Reynoso, my architect friend from Vancouver, studying at UNAM, is not an admirer.

Cristobal de Villapando. Iturbide Palace (Museo Banamex). Villapando was the best-known and most prolific painter of colonial baroque (17th century) New Spain. He was a Franciscan brother communicating a religious message to illiterate parishioners. His work is very baroque, very intense!

Jorge Aguilar, Gloria Fuentes, Juan Enriquez Gonzales, Monika Garcia Kuehn and Salvador Luna are showing at Centro Libre de Arte, Colonia Roma. These five young painters, unknown to me, you too, and probably most of Ciudad Mexico represent up-coming painting, I assume. Their work is in a traditional medium: oil on canvas within a frame and stand-alone sculptures. But there the convention ends: very much in contrast to Marie-Elena’s work.

Each painter, of course, has his vision. Still, the current theme is pain: contorted human bodies, bloodied, wracked with agony. Colours are muted: mostly black and white modulated by gore! If bodies are not depicted in physical pain there is, then, a sort of remote loneliness: a dream-like fear of community.

Now we are all familiar with pain. It is not the exclusive domain of youngsters. But theirs is the future and accordingly I ask why aren’t they questioning where the pain is coming from and what can be done to alleviate it. But on such contentious issues they are mute, preferring to indulge their self-pity!

On the way home from Centro Libre de Arte, Colonia Roma, I inadvertently walked across Plaza Rio de Janeiro were a massive reproduction of Michelangelo’s David predominates. Needless to say it is not of our era! Still, this is the great pleasure of this unfairly maligned city. Live in a big city and this is what you get, and more!

Architectural treasures: -
Arq. Luis Barragan. Casa Barragan. Now preserved as a museum in Tacubaya. Walking along its very narrow street, the facade is so unassuming, it is easy to over-look. But once inside, Casa Barragan opens out into a delightful play of light, colours and shapes. The architect spent most of his life, he died in 1989, living and re-forming this intricate play of space. You cannot talk ‘mexicano arquitectura’ without talking Luis Barragan.

Arq. Teodoro Gonzales de Leon. Casa Amsterdam, Colonia Hipodromo Condesa. I haven’t been inside (yet) so I can only comment on Gonzales’s way of fitting into the urban context. Nestled between two and three story apartment buildings, it both stands out and fits in: go figure?

Hipodromo is a work of art in itself. As art deco, started in the 1920’s, its streets follow the layout of the racetrack that it once was. Buildings range, incrementally, from art deco to today. Casa Amsterdam, Avenida Amsterdam 96, melds noticeably because it is starkly Corbusian-modern.

La Palacio de la Bellas Artes.
Porfirio's dream before the revolution: Exterior,Beaux-Arte.
Completed in the early '30's: Interior, Art Deco.

National shrines: -
Palacio de Bellas Artes. Exhibition of French paintings. The show was large, mostly of artists of whom I am unfamiliar, except for a few works by Cezanne, Renoir, Picasso, Suerat, Dufy.

Diego Rivera’s and Frida Kahlo’s studio. This is where Frida and Diego lived and worked, not together, but in two separate studios, fenced in by cactus, on a small urban lot on Altavista, San Angel. Built in 1931 by Arq. Juan O’Gorman who was very much under the influence, at that time, of the stark constructivist architecture of Le Corbusier. Wow, did O’Gorman ever change, though, when he built his own Gaudi-esque home (since demolished) in the Pedregal in 1949.

Alfaro David Siquieros’s studio. A close neighbour to the Canadian embassy in Polanco this is where the artist conceived and produced many of Mexico’s great murals. In my opinion Siquieros is the most powerful of the three, with Rivera and Orozco, great mexicano muralists.

Antiquo Collegio de San Ildefonso. Just one block north and to the east of the Catedral Metropolitan on Doncales behind another unassuming facade is one of the most beautiful interior spaces I have been in. The collegio is the oldest university in the Latin Americas but its building dates from the last century. My first visit was in the evening when the extraordinary murals of Jose Clemente Orozco are dramatically illuminated.

Mathias Goeritz is showing there, during the festival, in a comprehensive retrospective: sculptures, paintings, graphics, writings. The artist was ubiquitous.

Museo Rufino Tamayo. The German painter Georg Baselitz is presently showing. His work is aesthetically powerful: texture and colour. I can’t figure out his pre-occupation with up side down figures but for sheer visual impact I enjoy his work.

Rufino Tamayo has an on-going show in his own museo. His delicate colour-scapes can’t compete, though, with the Baselitz bulldozer.

I have done the rounds of the commercial galleries from Polanco to the Pink zone. BTS is the order of the day: at prices ranging up from M$44,000 (C$ 7,500 +/-). Now I am not totally against BTS. It has an intrinsic value as decorator’s choice, but not as art. And at those prices . . . well!

And if what I see of the international circuit is an indication we are truly in an age of ignorance. Everywhere I look I see technique, methodic perfection but all has been over-done. Which begs the question: does ‘art’ have anything to say of our age? Does Baselitz confirm my reluctant doubt that acceptance of art, in this decade, is no more than gallery promotion?

Remember, although the above events celebrate a culture, for the most part it is culture of the past. Mind you, a modern dance group was performing at Antiquo Collegio de San Ildefonso on my last visit, using a Goeritz sculpture to emphasize, spatially, its movements. So I don’t want to give the impression all festival events are feeding off the past, even though that is its under-pinning direction and lasting impression.

Mexico has lost the creative impetus shown in these erstwhile endeavours. It’s architects and painters have not the power that is so stimulating at UNAM and certainly none of the energy of the three greats, Siquieros, Rivera, Orozco!

Festival Centro Historico Ciudad Mexico and the many other events not withstanding, current culture (I prefer, ‘consumer indulgence’), symbolism, artifacts, purchased and absorbed by the ‘ordinary Joe’ lies elsewhere: in Fords, Chevvies, Revlon, Tommy Hilfiger, McDonald’s, Whitney Houston, and Pizza Hut.

‘Asi es la vida! No es Mexico unico. Es el mundo todo. Lastima!’

Roger Kemble
Hotel Isabel
Centro Historico
La Ciudad de Mexico DF.