Mexico Lawmakers Vow to Keep Up Protest


MEXICO CITY (AP) -- Leftist lawmakers who seized both chambers of Mexico's Congress said Friday they will not move until a national debate is held on an oil reform bill backed by President Felipe Calderon.

Legislators from the Democratic Revolution Party and two minor parties stormed the podiums of both the Senate and the lower house of Congress on Thursday to protest the bill, which they say would open the door to selling off parts of the state-run industry.

A small group of lawmakers spent the night there in blankets and sleeping bags and took turns guarding the podiums, which were covered in signs accusing Calderon of trying to privatize the industry. Mexico's oil reserves were nationalized in 1938.

"We're going to stay here as long as we need to," Democratic Revolution congressman Alejandro Sanchez said in a telephone interview Friday. He added that party members were bringing sandwiches and drinks to prepare for what could be a long encampment.

Sanchez said his party wants the public to debate the issue before Congress takes it up. It was unclear whether that would mean a referendum, a national survey or something else. Calderon's National Action Party is pushing for Congress to vote on the bill within two weeks.

The president is stressing that state oil company Petroleos Mexicanos, or Pemex, would remain in Mexican hands while relaxing some restrictions to seek outside help to boost sagging oil production.

The measure would let Pemex offer companies bonuses for oil finds and good performance. It would also let the company - which now depends on U.S. refineries to convert much of its crude into gasoline - hire outsiders to build and operate new refineries for Mexico.

Deputy Treasury Secretary Alejandro Werner said the government would send a second bill to lawmakers in the coming days that would offset climbing production costs by lowering taxes on oil extracted from new fields where drilling and development are more difficult.

Opponents say the reform would leave Pemex - a source of national pride and much of the national budget - in the hands of private and even foreign investors.

"They've sharpened their teeth and are ready to rob a natural resource and make a big business out of it," Sanchez said. "We're not going to let them."

Washington-based analyst Enrique Bravo of Eurasia Group said the protest would likely backfire and disgust other lawmakers.

"However, there is a low but negligible risk that the protests could turn violent and provoke the police to retaliate, which would strengthen the campaign against energy reform," Bravo said in a report.

While many lawmakers disapproved of the takeover, congressional leaders rejected the idea of using force to remove the protesters and said they might look for a new place to conduct legislative business.

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