Mexican president proposes sweeping social changes

Enrique Pena Nieto's proposals went much further than what was originally billed as a tax system overhaul

Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto
Alexey Filippov/Host Photo Agency via Getty Images

Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto proposed sweeping changes to the country's social programs Sunday, laying out a plan for Mexico's first nationwide pensions, unemployment insurance and capital-gains taxes.

Some Mexican local governments, and particularly Mexico City, have experimented with small supplementary payments to the unemployed and people older than 70, but the country as a whole has not had unemployment insurance and only has a patchwork of pension plans.

A privately managed individual retirement system instituted in the 1990s includes only a minority of workers, most of whom have built up miniscule balances in their accounts.

The changes are part of a series of ambitious reforms that Pena Nieto hopes to push through in his first year in office. Some, like educational reforms that introduce teacher evaluations, have sailed through congress, but others face an uphill fight.

RELATED: Clashes break out during teachers protests in Mexico City

Pena Nieto's proposal would cut most of the industry-specific tax loopholes written into Mexico's tax codes over decades. He proposed the country's first carbon tax on fossil fuels used by industry, a levy often touted as a way to combat climate change. He also called for a tax on soft drinks, which he said is needed to combat Mexico's high rate of obesity.

"The tax reform is a social policy reform," Pena Nieto said in a speech at the presidential residence announcing the plan.

He said he would allow slight deficit spending in 2014 in an effort to spur the flagging economy, institute rules to lure the 60 percent of Mexicans who work in the "informal" sector into tax compliance, and create a stabilization fund to save excess tax revenues from boom years for use during lean times.

Pena Nieto did not provide specifics of the social program plans or tax changes, but said that "those who have more income will pay more."

He did pledge to abolish the unpopular alternative minimum corporate tax as well as a tax on cash deposits at banks.

The proposals must be approved by both houses of congress and a majority of state legislatures because they involve constitutional changes.

Few had expected the president, whose centrist Institutional Revolutionary Party is known for its close ties to business, to go so far.

Indeed, some had expected him to push the widely unpopular idea of extending the sales tax to food and medicines. Such a tax would have likely further angered protesters who have recently demonstrated, in a country where 45 percent of the population of 112 million lives in poverty.

Pena Nieto said he didn't adopt that approach because it would hurt the poorest Mexicans, but said he would follow through with periodic increases in gasoline prices, which is aimed at phasing out fuel subsidies in Mexico.

MORE: Thousands protest in Mexico against president's proposed reforms

Oil plan protest

Earlier in the day, thousands of people rallied in Mexico City to oppose Pena Nieto's plan to open the state-owned oil sector to profit-sharing contracts with private firms.

Leftist leader Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador told the rally that the proposal constitutes "treason" and "a filthy, shameless robbery." He vowed to block attempts for greater private sector involvement with "peaceful civic mobilization" and called for more protests later this month.

"This is an act of treason equal to or greater than that of Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna," he said, referring to the 19th century Mexican president blamed for losing half the nation's territory to the United States by the end of the 1846-48 Mexican-American War.

Pena Nieto proposed the energy overhaul in August, saying state-owned oil monopoly Pemex has to offset falling production by exploiting shale gas and deep-water reserves and it needs foreign know-how and investment to do that.

Mexico expropriated foreign companies and nationalized its oil industry in 1938, and that move has been a popular symbol of national sovereignty ever since. Polls say a solid majority of Mexicans still oppose private or foreign investment in the industry even though oil production is down and easy-to-reach, shallow-water reserves are declining.

"They want to take away our natural resources, which is all that we have left," Maria Elena Chavez, a 58-year-old protester, said as she handed out copies of Mexico's constitution while wearing a white Pemex hard hat painted with the slogan "Pemex isn't for sale."

Like the tax changes, the oil reform requires changing the constitution.

Pena Nieto's Institutional Revolutionary Party and the conservative National Action Party have enough votes combined to secure the two-thirds majority needed in the Senate to pass the plan. They could do the same with the support of a small, allied party in the Chamber of Deputies. The plan would then have to be approved by at least 17 of the country's 32 state legislatures. 

Wire services 

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