MEXICO CITY — Mexican Catholic officials called for calm as angry protests over hikes in the government-set gasoline price consume the country.
Senior clergy also called for federal officials to show sensitivity toward the plight of millions of poor and middle-class Mexicans, struggling to make ends meet, as the country’s sinking currency erodes their purchasing power and higher prices for gasoline could increase costs for basics such as food and transportation.
“We urge (citizens) to channel their discontent, understandable as it is, through peaceful, respectful and creative expressions,” the Mexican bishops’ conference said in a Jan. 7 statement. “We urge the civil authorities to seriously reconsider — given the national context and international variables — this measure, which affects everyone in our country, especially the poor.”
Outrage erupted almost immediately after the government announced increases of more than 20 percent, implemented Jan. 1 due to deregulation of the gasoline distribution and retailing market. The protests included peaceful marches throughout the country for more than a week, although media reported the looting of at least 250 stores.
Mexicans say they cannot absorb the increased cost of gasoline, even those not owning a car.
“They say they’re going to raise the price of gasoline and electricity … and I only make 100 pesos ($5) per day,” said Alejandro Montes de Oca, a protesting janitor, who pays 40 percent of his wage on public transportation each day.
The gasoline price had stayed somewhat stable for nearly 25 years, increasing gradually to control inflation, though heavily subsidized at times.
The federal government approved an energy reform in 2013 to attract foreign investment, increase oil and gas output and allow Pemex — the state oil monopoly — the ability to partner with other petroleum companies to explore and drill in the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico.
President Enrique Pena Nieto told the country in a Jan. 5 message that gasoline subsidies — as high as $20 billion in 2008 — only benefited the rich, while the revenue from raising prices at the pump funded social programs. Mexico also imports half its gasoline, paying in dollars at a time the peso has plunged — partly due to President-elect Donald Trump’s threats at slapping tariffs on Mexican-made imports into the United States.
Observers attribute the outrage to a confluence of factors, including a belief among the public that higher gasoline prices cause the cost of other necessities to rise, along with perceptions of corruption in government and politicians living lavishly on public money.
“We are all called to act responsibly … particularly the upper bureaucracy and political class of immorally high salaries and inconceivable benefits in a weak country of 2 percent annual economic growth and half the population living in poverty,” read an editorial published Jan. 8 in the Archdiocese of Mexico City publication Desde la Fe.
“People are tired of this. That’s why there is such indignation and fury.”