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Under Amlo, Mexico nationalises lithium 

The success of the new Mining Law will give the Mexican state unique powers to extract and develop this critical resource for technology – and more moves away from neoliberalism towards deeper sovereignty are afoot, reports DAVID RABY

ON April 19-20 both houses of the Mexican Congress passed a reform of the Mining Law to nationalise lithium, a strategic mineral of which the country has large deposits.

The reform, proposed by President Amlo, is quite categorical: “Lithium is declared to be of public utility, so there will be no concessions, licences, permits or authorisations on the subject.

“Those zones where there are lithium deposits will be considered mining reserves. It is recognised that lithium is the patrimony of the nation and its exploration, exploitation, processing and use is reserved for the Mexican people.”

Within 90 days the government must create a public body for lithium prospecting, mining and processing.

This specific and detailed terminology was necessary because although in principle the Mexican constitution has since 1917 established that subsoil rights are the property of the nation, this clear general declaration allowed in practice for the granting of concessions to private interests and was used — especially by neoliberal governments from the 1980s to 2018 — to give away 60 per cent of the national territory in private mining concessions.

Amlo first mentioned the idea of lithium nationalisation in a constitutional reform package on electric power on September 30, 2021.

Most of the reform proposal was concerned with reasserting national control of electricity generation and distribution, not full nationalisation, but reserving more than half the sector (54 per cent) for the Federal Electricity Commission (CFE), reinforcing its power and imposing strict rules on private operators in the remaining 46 per cent, including price controls.

Readers who have followed Mexican affairs might well be confused, because the Electricity Law was first launched in February 2021 and passed by the Morena Party and its parliamentary allies.  

But hostile private interests — from Spain, the US and domestically — mounted unceasing legal challenges so that the law’s intentions were stymied.

This is why in September 2021 Amlo brought forward a new Electric Reform, this time as a constitutional amendment and not just normal legislation.

If the reform were entrenched in the constitution it would be much more difficult to challenge in the courts.

But constitutional reforms require a two-thirds majority in Congress and while the government commands a clear majority it does not have two thirds.

During the past six months Amlo and Morena have been systematically campaigning on the issue, holding public forums and debates throughout the country. Support for the electric campaign was expressed through mass mobilisation, with growing public rallies and activities on social media.

Amlo repeatedly appealed to the nationalist and anti-imperialist traditions of the Mexican revolution and tried to shame the formerly dominant PRI party (now allied in opposition with the conservative PAN party) by pointing to the oil nationalisation of 1938 under President Lazaro Cardenas and the original electricity nationalisation of 1960 under President Adolfo Lopez Mateos, both of the formerly dominant party.

Would the PRI MPs defend the popular patriotic tradition of their party, or submit to the corrupt neoliberal sellout policies of more recent times?

Would they side with the people or the conservative PAN? Would they defend the nation or foreign speculators?

Such rhetoric certainly mobilised mass popular support and strengthened the commitment of Morena politicians and their allies, but failed to win over the PRI (the “Institutional Revolutionary Party”) which confirmed that today it is thoroughly institutional and not in the least revolutionary.

Over the past three months Amlo repeatedly stressed the constitutional reform package as a litmus test of patriotism, quoting Cardenas and Lopez Mateos who both condemned those who opposed nationalisation and defended foreign interests as “traitors to the nation.”

The package was debated and voted on April 17-18; it won a simple majority but not two-thirds. The opposition trumpeted this as a victory, but it was a pyrrhic victory since the reform is still the law of the land and their MPs are now seen by much of the population as “traitors.”

Moreover, although the constitutional amendment did not pass, Amlo won another important victory a few days earlier when the Mexican Supreme Court rejected  an opposition attempt to have the law declared unconstitutional.

In other words, the law is not given constitutional force, but is accepted as compatible with the existing constitution.

Furthermore, as promised, the very next day Amlo introduced a separate Bill to nationalise lithium: the Mining Law reform presented at the beginning of this article.

This swiftly passed both houses of Congress and was celebrated throughout the country, except by the unpatriotic opposition minority.

Amlo almost certainly knew that the constitutional reform package would fail: he made a political judgement that the time had come to take a firm anti-imperialist stand, asserting Mexico’s energy sovereignty and also control of lithium.

Signs are that political dividends will come soon for Amlo and his movement: in June there are elections for governors in six states and polls suggest Morena may win all six.

Polls also indicate that in future elections the PRI vote may well collapse, as people turn against them as “traitors to the nation.”

National control of lithium and electricity (and gas and petroleum, which Amlo already reclaimed) is immensely popular. Mexico is joining Bolivia, Venezuela and other Latin American nations in claiming control of key resource industries.

The battle for control of lithium, in particular, is becoming a continent-wide issue, notably in the “lithium triangle” of Bolivia, northern Chile and north west Argentina and now in Mexico: Amlo reported on April 27 that these countries are going to meet to discuss co-operation on the subject.

David Raby is a retired academic and independent researcher on Latin America — Twitter @DLRaby.

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