Mexican Civil Society’s Movement for the Promotion of Culture

Submitted by Sasha Costanza-Chock on December 3, 2005.English | Noncommercial Media

Rafael Segovia

Special Report by Rafael Segovia, Member of the INCD’s Steering Committee

The recent months have seen Mexico’s political temperature rising at exponential rate. The 2006 federal elections are the main focus, since the traditional stakes are raised by the appearance on the political scene of Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the leftist (PRD ) mayor of Mexico City whose strong media presence has gained him support from many of the key sectors of social, political and economical power. If he were to win the 2006 elections, it would probably bring a radical shift in Mexican politics, an end many of the traditional prerogatives of the long-ruling PRI and the right-wing, catholic PAN (its “second voice” for many years, presently holding the presidential office).

But above these changes in the political balance, Mexican civil society is extremely dissatisfied with the political system and is calling for an end to corruption, violence and crime, and of economic and political dependence on the US, which have been a characteristic of the 70-year long rule of the PRI and the chaotic five years of the PAN government.

In the midst of this unrest, the cultural sector has seen its own interests more and more affected by activities of transnational corporations, erosion of public policies and the growing inefficiency of public cultural agencies. While the ministries of Revenue and Economic Affairs have been inflicting budget cuts, increasing tax burdens and promoting privatization in the cultural sector, the National Council for the Arts (CONACULTA) has proved many times ready to foreclose entire sectors of the State’s cultural network, and to open areas of highly symbolic value (like archaeological sites) to private investment. As one example, in 2003, Conaculta engaged in a process to close down its cinema school (out of the two that exist in the country), the State-owned Churubusco cinema studios, the National Fund for the Promotions of Crafts (FONART) and the Mexican Institute of Cinema (IMCINE).

In response, the community demonstrated in the streets and in the media, and managed to stop the agency’s plans. But others were to come, leading to the resignation of half a dozen key cultural officials, including the director of the National Institute of Fine Arts (INBA), Ignacio Toscano; the director of the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH), Sergio Raúl Arroyo; the director of Legal Affairs, Francisco Dorantes and; the director of the National Center of the Arts (CENART), Lucina Jiménez. A few more have privately announced their intention to leave. This “official criticism” has meant moral support for civil society opponents of the Federal Government’s cultural policy.

In the meantime, a financial “scandal”, whose origin is to be found in the opposition between the Congress and the Government, has affected the cultural sector. In December 2004, the Deputies modified the 2005 Federal Budget presented to them by the President’s economic team, and among other measures raised the cultural sector’s budget in a significant proportion, turning it into the highest budget ever granted to the cultural sector. This modification included monies that would alleviate a long-lasting conflict between the cultural workers’ unions from the INBA and the INAH and their employers. The new budget was vetoed by President Fox and what could have been a soothing measure turned into a bitter dispute, now directly aimed at the Conaculta and the Federal Government.

It is worth mentioning here that another sort of conflict had been prevailing for years between Conaculta and both the INBA and the INAH. These Institutes were, prior to the creation of Conaculta (1988), the main and only cultural agencies of the Federal Government, and were founded by a full legal constitution. Conaculta was created by a simple presidential decree, and acts as a decentralized agency, which means its legal status is inferior to that of the INAH and INBA. Even so, Conaculta has tried to take the main functions of the Institutes and it duplicates some of their departments and, with discretionary powers and financial prerogatives, there have been many controversial cases of corruption and embezzlement.

In this highly flammable context, various key civil society movements are in the process of converging, and building a shared vision of a new institutional order for culture.

The first one I will mention is probably the most dynamic and organized civil society group, the [Group for] “Media Democracy.” The participants come from a range of media and communication milieus, such as community radio broadcasters, independent video and/or cinema producers, internet developers, journalists, etc.

This group has been struggling to open a space for dialogue with the governmental agencies in charge of communication issues: the Ministries of Communications and Transport (SCT), of the Interior (SEGOB), of Foreign Affairs (SRE) and the Congress. Their negotiations have been primarily about the new Federal Law of Radio and TV, which has been obstructed for almost three years – after being approved by the Senate – under pressure from lobbies of the commercial media sector, which is highly concentrated.

Among the issues this law should have settled is the legal framework needed by community radio to operate on a stable basis, under certain legal and technical guarantees. Instead, the AMARC Mexican chapter has been forced to fight a trench-by-trench battle merely to obtain a renewal of the old permits, cancelled as a result of the lobbyists’ pressures.

The group is now struggling to get a voice in the WSIS process, as a formal member of the Mexican delegation in Tunis. Despite many meetings, information sessions and negotiation rounds, there is not as yet a clear commitment from the officials. However, the members of international organizations, such as AMARC or APC, will be attending WSIS through their organizations and they will be able to confront the Mexican delegation, if by then they have not been admitted to be a part of it.

The second group, which much larger and varied, was born when a key political group named the National Association for the Reformation of the State decided to engage into a broad civil society consultation leading to a nationwide lobby to change the structural conditions which bring corruption and violations of human rights.

At a certain point during this Civil Society Agenda for the State Reformation (CSASR) process, I was invited to join the organizing committee as a representative of a number of cultural groups, including INCD. The Committee has now been convinced of the importance of culture in creating the backbone of a new constitutional order and has created a task group on “Human Heritage and Development”, a multi-field permanent forum for the discussion of Culture, Education, Scientific Research, Cultural Heritage, Indigenous and Traditional Cultures, and the Media.

The First National Meting of the CSASR took place in Pátzcuaro, a beautiful colonial town in the Central-Western State of Michoacán. The conclusions of the cultural working group (composed of 38 persons from a diversity of fields and States) were rich and creative and included proposals for a constitutional reform (in particular, the recognition of individual cultural rights and liberties), a legislative reform and an institutional reform, all three based on a new vision of culture and cultural diversity as tools for development, and as the very ground on which the foundations of a healthy, democratic State can be built.

Following this first national meeting, there will be a series of regional meetings leading to a more profound diagnosis of the problems affecting the various cultural sectors throughout the country. The final conclusions of the fora will be brought to the candidates in the 2006 elections and pushed forward by a full spectrum of the civil society organizations of the country. The process is being supported by the UNDP as well as the Rockefeller Foundation and the Mexican Institute for Social Development (INDESOL), and the initiative comes from the Association for the Reformation of the State, which includes some of the most brilliant politicians, intellectuals and scholars as its members.

On another rather different scene, the Congress made a public call for civil society’s participation in the “Culture Parliament”, an initiative aiming at building support for legislative projects that are part of Conaculta’s governance project. Conaculta is trying to gain legal status by promoting a new Law which would provide it with a legal status either through the Culture Ministry or as a “decentralized agency.” Conaculta is also promoting constitutional amendments: one, inspired by UNESCO’s recommendations, being the inclusion of cultural rights separate from the right to education; the other being to strengthen individual and corporate property rights, as a response to the pressures of the US on the issue of piracy. In this project, there is a proposal to state the importance of cultural industries as a key sector for industrial and economic development. The third project in the Congress’s agenda is a “General Law of Culture”, which has not yet been discussed and has little chance of being approved before the end of the term of this Congress. The draft general law proposed by the PRD is nevertheless an interesting project, providing for key issues, such as the right of citizen’s to enjoy, practice, preserve and promote culture in all its forms, or some obligations of the State to ensure cultural liberties and to provide the necessary funding for cultural development.

Whatever the agenda of the Parliament of Culture may have been, some sectors in the civil society opposed the meetings arguing that it was an irregular process: the call for presentations and delegates was made with only two weeks time before the preliminary regional meetings, which were set in only six cities – five in the end, since the Acapulco forum was cancelled – and were far away from the majority’s reach. Some in the cultural community believe this was intended to keep them away from the consultation process and to include a majority of cultural officers and government employees.

INCD’s member, the Mexican Network for Cultural Diversity, was trying to organize a forum of artists and cultural actors to follow up on the issues of the Patzcuaro meeting, and was therefore interacting with some of the protesting groups, who proposed to focus the forum we were organizing on the issues raised by the convocation. Nevertheless, we were soon outnumbered by another group, scholars and technicians (restorers, archaeologists, arts teachers, historians and the like) from the INBA and the INAH, who were organizing another similar forum. We eventually decided to join their call to host an “Alternative Parliament of Culture”, which was to take place in the dates between the regional fora and the conclusions session (held in Mexico City) of the “official” Parliament.

The presentations during this “alternative” Parliament consisted a highly accurate diagnosis of many of the most urgent problems in the various cultural fields. And the final conclusions were concise and radical:
• The Alternative Parliament was unable to reach consensus on any of the contents proposed in the “official” agenda, because the participants found it inappropriate, if not impossible, to design and approve any legislation in such a rushed procedure, without going through an in-depth diagnosis of the cultural issues in present-day Mexico. Accordingly, they demanded an extension to the Parliament’s process.
• Another resolution proposed the continuation of the Alternative Parliament’s discussion in regional fora and meetings which will take place during the next months. Since there is a similar project of hosting regional meetings through the Civil Society Agenda for the State Reformation, there is a possibility that the programs will merge and the CSASR will benefit from the valuable support and participation of the regional chapters of the INAH and INBA unions throughout the country.

The large cultural movement generated by these initiatives will surely bring a serious discussion between the civil society sectors and the governmental ones, especially the Congress, and it could be the impetus for substantial changes in cultural policies. Better, as one of the speakers put it, to create the real cultural policy Mexico is still waiting to have. This would mean a real “state policy”, meaning transversal coordination within the governmental agencies, a revision of previous wrongly designed measures, like the non-inclusion of a “Cultural Exception” clause in the trade agreements, or like the lack – and recent dismantling – of any real tax incentive policies.

In the end, the idea behind most of the civil society’s proposals is to reach consensus for a complete new foundation of the state through a new constitutional design. And this is precisely what our objective will be during the next few months and before the federal elections of 2006:
1) to undertake an in-depth diagnosis of the whole cultural sector, including among others education, scientific research, the media, the status of the artist and indigenous cultures and languages, etc. ;
2) to develop a draft new Constitution (this will be a general task carried on by the CSASR, but the cultural sectors of the civil society will do their part by designing the necessary Articles or paragraphs to be included in this draft); and
3) to develop a draft for a new legislation, including most of the most relevant federal laws enabling the changes we want to bring about.

This agenda will be presented to all the presidential candidates and candidates to the Congress, for the 2006 elections, and will be pushed forward through strong and well-coordinated lobbies.

It has become clear for a large part of Mexico’s population that the real change everybody is hoping for will never come unless there is a radical reconstruction of the governance structures of the country. For the NGOs and others this means a concrete political action focused on the reformation of the State.

Coincidentally, the Zapatista rebels recently made a call to rally what they call “the other campaign”, which has had powerful echoes and has disqualified the “leftist” Democratic Revolution Party (PRD) as the real representative of the people’s aspirations. This “other campaign” has many things in common with the project of a State reformation and with the strife for a civil society-led reconfiguration of the governance structures. The cultural sector is part of this movement and could be the creator of its main tools and project designs: an equitable and democratic society is one based on cultural liberties and on the respect of cultural diversity.