TBT - "The Trouble With Salina Cruz"

The first time I went to the Isthmus of Tehuantepec in Mexico was in 1965, on the way to the Guatemalan border. The wind blowing across this 130 mile isthmus was fierce and constantly rocking my travel van. At present, the Mexican government is finally taking advantage of this phenomena with big wind farms. There is enough wind in this natural wind tunnel to produce electrical energy for the whole country!

Being the narrowest stretch of the North American continent between the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific Ocean, the isthmus has a long and colorful history of failed ventures for making a transcontinental canal or substantial railroad connecting the two oceans. On the Pacific side the rail terminal and seaport that has always served for this area is Salina Cruz, a small city with only one important feature - it has one of the country's six major oil refineries for the government owned oil company, Pemex.

In the late '70s I returned to Salina Cruz as a consultant for a Mexican seafood company. I stayed in an old hotel in the center of town, generally patronized by Mexicans, so it was a surprise that one morning I ran into another gringo in the hotel. He told me about his adventures flying solo in his yellow biplane going south down the Gulf side of Mexico, and now he is heading home, going north up the Pacific side of the country. But he had a problem - his plane was low on fuel.

He had planed out his fuel stops - and knew that the Salina Cruz refinery produced aviation fuel. But the day before when he took a cab and his fuel cans from the small local airfield out to the refinery at the port they refused to sell to him! I told him I was working with an important Mexican attorney who lives in Mexico City and that the attorney would be coming into Salina Cruz to confer with me soon - he could straighten out a simple thing like this.

The very next day the attorney shows up and we tell him the story. "No problemo" - he would go see the refinery manager. Experience has taught me to lower my expectations when a lawyer says: "No problem". At the port the attorney leaves us in the cab and goes inside to see the manager of the refinery - he comes back out about 30 minutes later.

He says to us: "Sorry - no deal". He said that the refinery manager had a convoluted explanation as to why he could not sell aviation fuel to the American pilot. It seems that according to government regulations, this particular refinery in Salina Cruz can not export any of their production - and since the American's plane is going to leave the country with this fuel in its tanks . . . . that would have to be considered an export of his product!

So I asked the attorney if the manager is just looking for a bribe and he said: "No, the manager, like many people in positions of power and responsibility, has been appointed because of his political connections and not his intelligence, ability or qualifications. The guy is just another stupid appointed bureaucrat!" Reminds me of when George W. went on TV during the Katrina disaster and said: " Brownie, you are doing a heckuva job!".

At the local gas station we tried cleaning some automotive fuel through a couple of sweat socks for the plane, enough to get to Acapulco. Then I anxiously watched the biplane circle overhead to an elevation high enough to clear the mountains of Oaxaca, waiting to hear a sputter from lack of octane - or because there was water in the gas. All went well for plane and pilot. Unfortunately we are all still dealing with politicians, bureaucrats, and managers that are totally unqualified for the jobs and positions given to them by government and industry.

Evidently this problem is historical, universal and pervasive.