Marching with a boisterous but peaceful crowd through central Mexico City, Héctor Pérez, a sales manager with an insurance company, rattled off a list of grievances to explain a wave of furious protests which erupted after a rise in the country’s government-set petrol price.
“It’s not because we all have cars. When gasoline prices go up, everything else goes up: tortillas, public transportation, everything,” said Pérez.
Pressed a little harder, he voiced another set of reasons for his discontent: President Enrique Peña Nieto and his Institutional Revolutionary party (PRI) justified an agenda of structural reforms with the promise of growth for all – but have instead presided over a stagnating economy.
Meanwhile, a string of high-profile corruption scandals has heightened the perception that the while ordinary Mexicans have seen a gradual decline in spending power, the country’s politicians have grown rich.
“PRI governors in the states have robbed a lot of money and the president is not able to stop them,” said Pérez, referring to cases such as that of the former governor of Veracruz state Javier Duarte, who is currently on the run after being accused of pilfering the public purse.
Angry protests over the 20% hike in gasoline prices – known as the gasolinazo – have plunged parts of Mexico into chaos as citizens protest in the streets and block highways, petrol stations and installations of the state-run oil giant Pemex. More than 250 stores have been looted, amid allegations that paid agitators infiltrated the protests.
The gasolinazo provided the spark for the protests, but analysts say social unrest has been quietly building for months. The Mexican peso has been steadily dropping in value while threats from the US president-elect, Donald Trump, have sowed disarray in the country’s economy.
Mexico’s minimum wage is just $4 a day and people are so sensitive to price increases that hikes in the cost of public transportation are one of the principal reasons high school students abandon school, according to the public education secretariat. On Monday, the state statistics institute announced that inflation had hit a two-year high of 3.36% – a figure economists expect to climb even higher in 2017.
Even after a decade-long drug war in which an estimated 200,000 have died and a string of horrific human rights abuses such as the kidnapping and presumed murder of 43 teacher trainees in 2014, the gasolinazo appears too much for Mexicans to accept.
“This is an affront to people,” said Ilán Semo, historian at the Iberoamerican University. “There are policy errors [and] corruption. But normally it’s not something that hits people’s pocketbooks.”
The government’s sense of timing did not help: the announcement of the gasolinazo coincided with the Mexican media’s traditional end-of-year stories on politicians’ scandalous Christmas bonuses: roughly $11,000 for each senator.
It was later reported that lawmakers and judges also claim gasoline vouchers as part of their benefits packages.
The link between public officials’ generosity to themselves and the increasing prices for government-provided products such as gasoline and electricity is an easy one for everyday Mexicans to make, said Semo.
“To Mexicans, politics represents the best business of your life. They see public positions as a system of accumulating private riches,” he said.
Even before the increase in petrol prices was announced, long lines had formed at fuel pumps around the country, due to shortages attributed to theft from pipelines, poor distribution and alleged hoarding by petrol stations.
There are also the perpetual problems in the state-run Pemex Refining, which has lost “12m pesos per hour” over the entirety of the last decade, Juan Pardinas, director of the Mexican Institute for Competitiveness, wrote in the newspaper Reforma.
“At the same time it’s increasing petrol prices, the government has not given any public explanation of the measure it will take to stop this monumental waste of public resources.”
Addressing the nation last week, Peña Nieto pleaded for understanding. The president argued that subsidies only benefited the rich and reduced available funds for social programs for the poorest Mexicans.
“What would you have done?” he asked, setting off a social media firestorm in which Mexicans used the hashtag #QuéHubieranHechosUstedes to suggest alternative course of action, such as cutting subsidies for political parties – or simply resigning.
9 January 2017