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Oil Isn't Just a Commodity to Mexico; It's History's Blood

December 02, 1990|ADRIAN LAJOUS | Adrian Lajous was for many years a public servant in Mexico and in multilateral organizations, including two years as a director of the World Bank.

MEXICO CITY — The world has changed since oil-seekers charged into Mexico early in this century and ran roughshod over small landowners sitting on suspected oil reserves. The day is long gone when oil companies financed troops to maintain the oil-field region in a permanent state of rebellion and thus tax-free. Today, no foreign investor would dream of defying an order of the Mexican Supreme Court, as the oil companies conspired to do in 1938.

In spite of the time elapsed, we Mexicans have not managed to purge ourselves of the memory of historic misbehavior. The lessons have been drilled into us since childhood: Petroleum is an invaluable raw material for chemical products, and it is a shame to burn it. Until we find a substitute source of energy, we should exploit only enough for our own needs. Oil in the ground will not disappear; money in the hand seems to blow away easily, leaving nothing behind. It would be a sin to sell our children's patrimony just so a profligate First World can burn it.

But a country does not always practice what it preaches. In the late 1970s and early '80s, we had a president who violated his trust, and his successors have had to continue exporting oil in order to pay the foreign debts acquired before their time.

No, we cannot sell our birthright for a mess of pottage. What we can and should do is break up into its parts the all-encompassing term oil. Exploration, refining, distribution and retailing could be opened up to the private sector. The state must, however, retain the exclusive right to decide when and how much to extract and to whom it will be sold.

But it will take some time to reach that stage. The extent to which present oil policy reaches may be unreasonable. However, in the context of trade negotiation, it would be politically impossible to make wrenching changes that could be perceived as the result of gringo pressure. President Salinas explained to President Bush last week that he would not seek changes in the constitution, which protects Mexico's oil reserves from foreign ownership. It was he who brought the matter up, to preclude misunderstandings.

At this moment, Americans are understandably interested in a closer and more certain source of energy. But please, don't push us. The oil isn't going away. We will continue to need foreign currency, and all logic points next door. Be patient, friends, but take note: We cannot, will not, turn our oil reserves over to your oil companies.

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