April 28, 1992

Scapegoats are important. You cannot have a disaster without one. Sometimes that helps, and sometimes hinders, the search for the root causes, the effort to prevent recurrence.

Chicago's Mayor Richard M. Daley fired three officials for the April 13 pouring of the Chicago River through a 50-mile tunnel system into downtown basements, knocking Chicago for a loop. He has had the heads of the acting transportation chief, the chief bridge engineer and a project engineer and is seeking removal of two others. No news about whether more qualified people will succeed to those positions. Chicagoans are not angry at Mayor Daley. They think he responded quickly.

After a gas leak at a chemical plant in Bhopal, India, killed 3,800 people in 1984, Union Carbide, whose subsidiary was involved, agreed to pay $470 million compensation. India's Supreme Court upheld that settlement but ordered criminal charges reopened against the parent company. Last month, a court asked the Indian government to seek extradition of the firm's former chairman. The disaster reaffirmed a mentality in India to blame multinational capitalism for all misdeeds -- despite allegations of employee sabotage -- and made more difficult the drive in India's government to sell state assets and encourage free enterprise.

Which leads to the disaster in Guadalajara, Mexico, last week, in which gas in a sewer exploded, killing at least 190 persons. The national attorney general is placing criminal charges against the mayor of the city, the state urban secretary, three officials of the sewer system, four local representatives of the national oil monopoly and two private citizens. Seven are arrested.

More interesting is the quick assumption in Mexico that Petroleos Mexicanos (Pemex), the national oil company, is to blame. Even before inquiries pinpoint what blew up. All Mexicans learned in school the expropriation of foreign oil companies before World War II, creating Pemex, restored national patrimony to its people. That is part of the ideology of the Mexican Revolution. But all Mexicans believe Pemex is bloated, corrupt, inefficient and a cause of the country's underdevelopment. The Guadalajara disaster is doing for state socialism in Mexico what the Bhopal disaster did for international capitalism in India, discrediting it.

Assuming this sticks, it should help the Mexican government to overcome its heritage and invite private investment in Mexico's oil industry. That would help achieve the North American free trade agreement with the U.S. and Canada, requiring freedom of investment, that it seeks.

Blame is very important. But it always leaves unanswered whether the steps to prevent more disasters are being taken. In Bhopal, Chicago and Guadalajara.

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