Stops on this tour include the “Plaza of Wailing,” where workers gather to complain about low wages and corrupt bosses; the Last Resort restaurant, where they can eat a meal on credit when they aren’t paid on time; and Bocho, one of the $5-a-night bunk-bed hotels where they sleep before shipping out to the oil platforms that drill in Mexico’s biggest oil fields.
While government officials promise that new jobs and other opportunities will arise from opening up Pemex to foreign investors, workers here said they are already experiencing a kind of privatization that the state-run oil monopoly has been engaged in for decades — awarding contracts to companies that hire workers as cheaply as possible to service the platforms spread across the massive oil fields off this gulf-coast island city.
“It’s all to the benefit of the big businessmen,” said Carlos, a welder from nearby Veracruz state who gave only his first name, fearing he would be fired for speaking frankly about the contracting practices he believes will only continue with Peña Nieto’s proposals. “The rich will get richer, and the poor will be poorer.”
This reading — repeated in less delicate terms by dozens of workers interviewed here — speaks to the considerable political obstacles Peña Nieto’s young government faces as it attempts to sell his ideas to a deeply cynical Mexican public, which sees Pemex as awash in corruption destined to undermine even the most well-intentioned reforms.
The workers’ views also speak to the complicated feelings many Mexicans have as their government embarks on one of the most potentially significant changes to the energy sector in recent history. Mexicans have felt deeply nationalistic about oil since 1938, when President Lázaro Cárdenas kicked out foreign oil companies. But about 80 percent of Mexicans now associate Pemex with corruption, according to a recent poll, and do not believe that Peña Nieto’s plans will do much beyond creating more rich elites.
“They sold our electricity, our gold, and now they want to sell our oil,” said Luis Raul Parada Alejandre, 72, whose grandparents gave their cows, lambs and horses in 1938 to help pay off the debt to foreign oil companies and who planned to attend a rally against the proposed measures. “It’s going to impoverish us even further — it’s just logic.”
For decades, Pemex has exploited relatively easy-to-drill, shallow water fields such as Cantarell off the coast of this city, and oil revenue constitutes 30 percent of the federal budget. Pemex union bosses have gotten rich presiding over a system of “paying jobs” — which workers pay to get.