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“El Petróleo Mexicano” (1967), by David Alfaro Siqueiros (Image courtesy of www.revistamilmesetas.com)

On March 18th 1938, Mexican president Lazaro Cardenas began the process of nationalizing all oil reserves, resources and facilities. Although this historic event is now perceived as an indispensable starting point for the modernization of post-revolutionary Mexico, it was at the time a culmination of over ten years of strikes and labor disputes between unyielding foreign oil companies and their beleaguered workforces, whose demands seem minimal compared to modern standards.

Despite being perceived as a radical act that led to international boycotts, it was arguably a very successful form of compromise; for a nation that was in the middle of a long history of tragic and violent military interventions in social conflicts (a history that looms large over Mexican society and political life to this day), the Mexican oil expropriation was a remarkably peaceful development. It was also the catalyst for both positive (the formation of PEMEX and the development of an internationally competitive oil and gas industry) and negative (political corruption, the selling of crude to fascist countries before World War 2) outcomes that would come to shape the future of Mexico in ways both big and small. It is not gratuitously that the date became a national holiday; it’s hard to think of a more influential event in Mexico’s post-revolutionary history.

Now that the Energy Reform has changed the paradigm surrounding PEMEX’s control over the country’s oil and gas resources, there will be inevitably some who will be quick to paint a bleak picture of the new significance that this national holiday is supposed to hold. Whether or not the Energy Reform represents a “reversal” (or, for the sake of soapy drama in a country that refined the concept, “betrayal”) of Lazaro Cardenas’ efforts is, of course, immaterial to the fact that political points will always stand to be gained from stating such a comparison as fact. Without commenting on this particular impulse, it should be noted that it seems rather exaggerated to claim that, in the 76 years of Mexican history that have passed since the oil expropriation, this has been the first major betrayal of Lazaro Cardenas’ ideals, values or efforts.

Both the oil expropriation and the passing of the Energy Reform are steps and segments of larger historical processes; they do not contradict but complement each other as sequential parts of the same timeline and of the same learning curve. To say that the Energy Reform “cancels out” or “betrays” the expropriation is about as simplistic as saying that the Energy Reform “corrects” the structural problems created by Lazaro Cardenas’ bold, rightfully celebrated stroke of public policy brilliance. However, this is not to say that this anniversary should be celebrated like any other; even current PEMEX CEO Emilio Lozoya Austin acknowledged as such last week in his speech commemorating the expropriation. As such, it should be celebrated as the righteous beginning of the transformation that the industry is about to undergo, rather than a relic or a distant and antiquated memory of a path now supposedly deserted; to consider it in this limited way is to ignore the complexity of the causes and effects that truly compose the history of nations.

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