MEXICO CITY — Mexico's congress started debate Tuesday on the rules of a historic opening of the state-owned oil industry amid doubts about whether the discussion should be held during the World Cup soccer tournament.
The World Cup opens Thursday and is expected to keep Mexicans glued to their television sets, just as the Senate holds debates from June 10-23 on how to open the oil, gas and electricity industries to private and foreign investors.
Oil is a sensitive subject in Mexico; the 1938 expropriation of the industry still marks a point of national pride, but the country's oil production has been fallen steadily.
The constitutional reforms, passed in December, allow private companies to drill for oil and hold concessions for the first time since 1938. But the rules governing what those contracts and concessions would look like, and who would oversee the process, are what is now being debated.
Some on the left say the timing of the debate is meant to keep Mexicans' attention off what they claim is a give-away of the industry to multinational firms.
"This is without doubt a strategy to distract attention from the country's most important reform," said Sen. Rabindranath Salazar, of the leftist Democratic Revolution Party. "Obviously, people are going to want to watch a sporting event a thousand times more" than follow the debate over the energy reform.
The ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party denies it is trying to push anything through congress behind the public's back. With vast deep-sea and shale gas reserves currently untapped, the PRI, as President Enrique Pena Nieto's party is known, says the country simply can't wait weeks to resolve such an important issue.
"The life of the nation cannot be put on hold for a soccer tournament," said PRI Sen. David Penchyna. "This has nothing to do with distracting attention. We trust the maturity and responsibility of Mexico's citizens."
Given that the debate is full of highly technical terms and little-known distinctions, many think that — even without soccer — few Mexicans would actually pay much attention to the debates.
"People don't follow congressional debates," said Jose Antonio Crespo, a political analyst at Mexico's Center for Economic Research and Instruction. "Even if there wasn't soccer, I don't think people would pay attention to the debate."
Mexico does have a history of carrying out controversial measures under the cover of key soccer matches.
In a late-night raid in October 2009, then-President Felipe Calderon dissolved a state-owned electricity company, firing most of its workers and essentially breaking the power of a hostile union. That move occurred at the same time as Mexicans were celebrating their team's victory over El Salvador in a qualifying match for the 2010 World Cup.
"This is not new," said historian Lorenzo Meyer. "This is a tactic that other administrations have used to hide some big, important decision that may be unpopular."
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