Tuesday, August 21, 2018

going mobil

For a moment, I thought I was in Duluth or Des Moines.

It was not the man who wears the star. But right there in the middle of San Miguel de Allende was a Mobil gas station. Sans Pegasus. But it was still a Mobil station, prepared to join the state-owned PEMEX in competition -- and, in the process, to possibly reform one of Mexico's most corrupt institutions.

I knew that NAFTA had opened the possibility of American and Canadian gas stations flogging fuel to Mexican motorists. And I had heard rumors for the past four years the Americans were on their way.

Those rumors flared when PEMEX started building new gas stations throughout the country. Some on facing street corners. Just like Starbucks.

Completely unreliable sources told me PEMEX was buying up land and building stations on what it thought would be property bought by the American competition. And it turns out those unreliable sources were more reliable than I thought.

The competition doors finally opened with President Peña Nieto's PEMEX reforms. What NAFTA had promised was one step closer to reality.

And then, what was only virtual became reality. Late last year, Mobil opened a handful of stations in Mexico's highlands. (As part of that deal, PEMEX also opened gas stations in Texas.) The Mobil station I walk past in San Miguel de Allende is part of that vanguard.

Mexican government's hope is that a bit of competition will help turn an ossified PEMEX into a modern, efficient business.

I have no idea if it will work. To placate Mexican nationalist instincts, the reform law was larded down with "special protections" (such as limits on cutting gasoline prices) that almost guarantee competition will not exist.

President-elect Lopez Obrador (AMLO) has big plans for Mexico. He believes he can pay for all his poverty programs without raising taxes; enough money is lost through corruption that his programs can be financed with those anti-corruption savings.

He is probably correct. I have seen estimates that from 20% to 40% of Mexican funds are lost to the system's endemic corruption. The trick is finding the appropriate targets for that Augean cleansing.

Two institutions immediately come to mind. And both are political sacred cows. PEMEX and public education. I wish him the best of luck if he tackles either.

And what was it like to buy gasoline at the Mobil station? I don't know. I am always on foot when I pass it.

But, in just over a week, I am heading home. I just may give PEMEX a competitive shove.

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