TIME Mexico

How Gravity Director Alfonso Cuarón Stirred up Mexico’s Oil Politics

Alfonso Cuaron Attends to Possibility Sessions
Mexican filmmaker Alfonso Cuaron attends a press conference to talk with university students on April 30, 2014. Adan Gutierrez—STR/LatinContent/Getty Images

Alfonso Cuarón's call for a crackdown on corruption, environmental reforms and more transparency has shaken up Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto's plans to give private companies a share of its oil wealth

Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto appeared to have outmaneuvered all opposition for his reforms to give private foreign companies a share of the nation’s oil wealth. Street protests in defense of oil nationalism attracted thousands instead of millions. Calls for an immediate referendum on energy laws were dismissed as unconstitutional. Key opponent Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, a former presidential candidate, even suffered a (non-fatal) heart attack.

But he didn’t count on the power of Hollywood. At the eleventh hour, as lawmakers looked set to approve the new rules, the Oscar-winning Mexican director of Gravity stormed onto the scene, to call for a deeper debate on what will be the biggest change to Mexico’s energy politics since it nationalized the black gold in 1939.

In a newspaper ad on April 28, Alfonso Cuarón asked tough questions about uncomfortable issues such as taking on the oil-workers’ labor union (a traditional supporter of Peña Nieto’s party), stopping corruption in new energy contracts, and protecting the environment. Finally, on Monday, he published a new ad calling for three primetime TV debates on the energy laws.

“We should hold a plural and open debate about the reforms, a debate that the citizens deserve,” wrote Cuarón in the ad, also placed on the internet. “The quality of a democracy goes beyond the electoral process. And it goes beyond the discussions and votes of Congress. The quality of a democracy depends on a large part on its public debates.”

It is yet to be seen how much impact the first Mexican to win the Academy Award for best director will have on the final laws. But his words shook up the discussion of the energy reform in Mexico’s Congress and media. Senators for the former ruling National Action Party on Tuesday rallied in support of Cuarón’s proposal for TV debates. “It is a good idea to keep giving coverage of the issue of oil reform, because it is better if citizens know all the details,” Sen. Salvador Vega, head of the energy commission, told reporters. The leftist Democratic Revolution Party went even further, calling for Cuarón to personally come into the Senate to speak about the subject.

The momentum of Cuarón’s call could make it difficult for Peña Nieto to refuse the demand. When Cuarón won his Oscar in March, Peña Nieto tweeted on how the success was good for Mexico. When Cuarón released his first ad, Peña Nieto tweeted again, thanking him “for enriching the debate,” before his administration released a 13-page PDF document defending the reforms. However, prime time TV debates could add strain on Peña Nieto in rallying lawmakers to support the new oil laws, which they are expected to vote on in the following weeks. Constitutional changes to Mexico’s oil laws that would allow a greater role of foreign companies were already approved in December. But the new rules to be voted on will spell out the vital details of the historic energy reform.

The government document that responded to Cuarón reiterated many of the points that Peña Nieto has raised since he took office in 2012. It said that allowing more involvement of foreign companies could increase Mexico’s oil production, creating wealth that will boost the economy. It said the government will also support alternative green energy. And it said that new contracts and the union are open to public scrutiny.

The movie director’s stance has won both support and criticism in mainstream and social media in Mexico. Leftist newspaper La Jornada, long an opponent of oil reform, applauded Cuarón. However, Ana Paula Ordorica wrote in Excelsior newspaper that Cuarón was abusing his fame. “Cuaron should talk, ask and be active in everything to do with cinema and leave energy politics in the hands of those that know the issue and are available to discuss and debate it,” Ordorica wrote. The tag #Alfonsocuaron also went wild on Twitter. “I think the profession of good citizen has fallen on Alfonso Cuaron,” tweeted Christian Gutma. “He shows us that we have the right to demand, confront.”

Whatever happens to the oil reform itself, Cuarón’s position could set a new precedent in Mexican politics. Mexican actors and directors, many who won fame in the nation’s steamy telenovela soap operas, long stayed largely clear of government debate. Cuarón, who directed Children of Men and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban before shooting into Hollywood’s A-list with Gravity, has pushed into new frontiers. But while finding his fame abroad, Cuarón says he has deep roots and loyalty to his homeland. “I am living outside [of Mexico] for circumstances of life, but I have my cultural roots in Mexico,” Cuarón told a news conference in Mexico City, following the first ad. “I think like a Mexican.”

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