Autonomous University of Social Movements (AUSM)
JANUARY 1-15, 2017

1 – Gasolinazo leaves Mexico on verge of general uprising
2 – “Wet foot/dry foot” ends, Trump left in bind

1 – Gasolinazo leaves Mexico on verge of general uprising
President Enrique Pena Nieto shocked Mexicans on New Year’s Day with a 20% rise in gas prices. Tens of thousands of Mexicans nationwide quickly responded to the gasolinazo with highway blockades, gas station occupations, and massive demonstrations. There were at least six deaths, mostly at the hands of police, and more than 1,500 arrests. Pena Nieto was conveniently occupied with a New Year golfing trip and unavailable for comment until January 4. Already Mexico’s most unpopular president since the advent of polling, the gasolinazo could prove to be Pena Nieto’s undoing. Infamous for his inability to connect with the common citizen (during his presidential campaign, he didn’t know the minimum wage nor the price of tortillas, Mexico’s staple food), Pena Nieto tried to explain his actions in a nationally televised speech: “I know that allowing gasoline to rise to its international price is a difficult change, but as president, my job is to precisely make difficult decisions now, in order to avoid worse consequences in the future. Keeping gas prices artificially low would mean taking money away from the poorest Mexicans, and giving it to those who have the most.” Perhaps he failed math (remember, this is the same president who plagiarized his university thesis). In any case, he was unable to explain to taxi drivers, truckers, consumers (commodity prices are expected to rise in lockstep with energy prices), or just about anyone else in Mexico how they would be better off with higher gas prices. Later in the speech, he pleaded, “What would you have done?” The phrase quickly became a trending topic on Twitter. Suggestions included: combat corruption and impunity, eliminate gasoline vouchers for elected officials, collect more taxes from multinational corporations, cut the salaries and benefits of high-level government officials, sell the presidential plane, reduce the first lady’s wardrobe spending, and resign.

Mexicans are clearly not buying the President’s arguments. With a gallon of gas priced nearly on par with the daily minimum wage, tens of thousands took to the streets in every corner of the country in a rapidly growing uprising that appears unlikely to subside any time soon. Spontaneous marches tied up Mexico City streets, angry citizens smashed their way into the Monterrey government palace, thousands marched in Guadalajara, and demonstrators blocked major highways and at least ten petroleum distribution facilities. Hundreds of stores were ransacked, mainly on January 4 and 5, with the heaviest looting in the states of Veracruz and Mexico.

Adding insult to injury, Pena Nieto recalled his former Finance Minister, Luis Videgaray, to assume the post of Foreign Minister. Videgaray negotiated the infamous August campaign stop at Los Pinos featuring a foreign-policy-burnishing handshake between Donald Trump and Pena Nieto, a move so unpopular in Mexico that Videgaray was fired. Yet he remained close to Pena Nieto (according to the Wall Street Journal, Videgaray is the brains behind Pena Nieto – either a dubious compliment or a harsh putdown), and will now be in charge of renegotiating NAFTA with the Trump administration. Trump likes Videgaray – “with Luis, Mexico and the United States would have made wonderful deals together,” he tweeted at the time – and will likely consider the MIT-trained economist a kind of extension of his newly forming cabinet.

NAFTA is not the only thing in play. Pena Nieto’s recently approved package of energy reforms (the gasolinazo is one of the initial volleys) will open Mexico’s energy sector to foreign investment and allow gasoline prices to float. Already nearly 1,000 of the nation’s 11,400 gas stations are in corporate hands. Privatization of Pemex, Mexico’s national petroleum monopoly since 1938, has been the holy grail of the political class for decades. Privatization will lead to undreamed of opportunities for corruption as international corporations position themselves to profit from one of the world’s largest petroleum producers. Videgaray is well placed as the gatekeeper for the inevitable fire sale, which explains Pena Nieto’s orders to his new assistant: “The instruction to Mr. Videgaray is to accelerate dialogue and contacts so that from the first day of the new [U.S.] administration, the groundwork can be set for a constructive working relationship.” A member of the DC neoliberal chattering class described Videgaray as “the right man at the right time. He’s very well respected in the U.S., not just by Trump and his team but by the investment community. He’s better prepared than anybody else for the task of negotiating and dealing with the incoming administration.” Too bad he doesn’t share the same popularity in his own country. Under cover of rescuing NAFTA for Mexico (an oxymoron if there ever was one), expect Videgaray to be fully occupied during the final two years of Pena Nieto’s administration auctioning Mexico’s petroleum reserves, while enriching himself and his PRI allies.

Last year, Pena Nieto appointed Jose Antonio Gonzalez, brother-in-law of ex-President Carlos Salinas de Gotari, to be director of Pemex. In a political class full of criminals, Salinas de Gotari is the capo who controls the PRI from behind the scenes. Look for “the brains behind Pena Nieto” and the brother-in-law of Mexico’s most hated and feared politician to team up in 2017.

2 – “Wet foot/dry foot” ends, Trump left in bind
In an unexpected 11th hour move, President Obama ended the “wet foot/dry foot” immigration policy that provided special treatment for Cubans who reached US territory. Unlike immigrants from other countries, for the past five decades Cubans enjoyed a path to citizenship, access to welfare payments, and a work permit upon arrival on US soil. The Cuban government objected to the policy on humanitarian grounds, arguing the open door invitation encouraged dangerous efforts to raft across the Florida Straits. It is estimated that 25 to 50 percent of rafters perished during the journey. Since 1980, about half a million Cubans migrated to the US, representing about 4% of the total Cuban population. This compares to 10% of Mexicans, 6% of Haitians, and 9% of Dominicans, and many arrived undocumented without the benefits automatically accorded Cubans. If “wet foot/dry foot” was designed for propaganda purposes, to encourage the view of a mass Cuban exodus due to political repression, the facts demonstrate exactly the opposite – a country that most Cubans are not anxious to leave.

Obama also ended a little publicized policy designed to undermine the Cuban economy through a sort of brain drain. The Cuban Medical Professional Parole Program, created in 2006 under the Bush administration, tried to lure Cuban doctors and nurses providing medical aid in third world countries around the world. The program offered a free plane flight to the US and a path to citizenship for Cuban medical professionals.

The new immigration policy was announced on January 12 and is effective immediately.

Incoming racist-in-chief Donald Trump, who won the recent presidential election partly on an anti-immigrant platform, may find himself in a political bind. Does he re-instate “wet foot/dry foot” when he assumes office, extending an open invitation to perhaps 20,000 new Cuban immigrants a year? Does he overturn Obama’s recently established diplomatic relations with Cuba as part of a new cold war? Or does he open negotiations to build a golf course/hotel complex on the island? One never knows with the first post-political president. His policies are apparently driven by personal ego and business calculations rather than an ideological or ethical compass. Internal consistency or commitments to previous promises seldom prevent an ego-driven response.

The incoming Trump administration includes pro-embargo and anti-communist apparatchiks in virtually every key position. Retired general Michael Flynn, the choice for national security adviser, will likely serve as Trump’s compass on foreign affairs. Known for his conspiracy theories and extreme right wing positions, Flynn recently warned of “a global war, facing an enemy alliance that runs from Pyongyang, North Korea, to Havana, Cuba, and Caracas, Venezuela.” Trump’s transition team includes Mauricio Claver-Carone, executive director of a pro-embargo nonprofit in Washington, D.C., and Yleen Poblete, former chief of staff for U.S. Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.

The odd man out may be Jason Greenblatt, an executive in the Trump organization and one of the president-elect’s “closest and most trusted advisors.” Greenblatt, who will serve as special representative for international negotiations, spent the past 20 years negotiating real estate deals for Trump. He has never held a government post and his positions on Cuba are unknown (as are his political positions on just about everything else). He traveled to Cuba in 2013 on Trump’s behalf to investigate a golf course investment. An Orthdox Jew, Greenblatt is expected to concentrate most of his attention on Israel, but will likely have a strong hand in US-Cuba relations.