Cultural policy in a free-trade environment: Mexican television in transition.

Author:Wilkinson, Kenton T.
 
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Questions concerning what constitutes Mexican national culture, how it should be manifest, and the state's role in its protection and promotion changed considerably from the conclusion of the Mexican Revolution in 1920 through the 7-decade rule of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI by its Spanish acronym) to opposition candidate Vicente Fox's astounding election to the presidency in 2000.

This study focuses on a confluence of late-20th-century developments that are likely to influence Mexico's cultural politics and social change well into the new century. Certain developments, such as accelerated technological change and neoliberal economic reform, follow general global trends; others, like participation in the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), are unique. Given Mexico's historic emphasis on national culture and long-standing concern about cultural encroachment by the United States, one would have expected ardent public discussion of free trade's potential impact on Mexico's culture and cultural industries. None developed, however. Rather, government representatives avoided or dismissed the issue, whereas academic researchers and public intellectuals--joined under the term cultural intelligentsia focused on outcomes for Mexican culture and identity. This disconnect represented a lost opportunity for cultural policy in Mexico. Contemporary political, economic, and technological forces are challenging established communication policy and practices in Mexico, as an overview of broadcast television in the 1990s reveals. Mexico's cultural policy must become more dynamic and inclusive to meet new demands and opportunities.

The Evolution of Cultural Policy

During the 20th century, cultural policy played a key role in articulating and implementing the state's will in the areas of public education, support for public art, and the protection of cultural sovereignty. In the period immediately following the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920), cultural policy pursued objectives outlined in the Constitution of 1917: to develop an enlightened, nationalist middle class able to withstand the negative influences of caudillos and oligarchs while ameliorating traditional social antagonisms (Tovar y de Teresa, 1994). The state supported numerous public art projects, but also recognized the mass media's potential to guide cultural processes unleashed by the Revolution toward the social-integration and institution-building goals of modernization. Radio and film received particular attention from the state, which backed film production at the Churubusco studios built in 1944, and expanded radio into rural areas. The 1930s and 1940s also saw the development of government institutions to protect and promote Mexico's cultural heritage. These included the National Institute of Fine Arts, the National Institute of Anthropology and History, and the Cultural Economics Fund, which supported intellectual pursuits such as scholarship, publishing, and exhibits.

Following World War II and continuing through the 1960s, Mexican cultural policy shifted toward social justice as the United Nations passed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 and the nonaligned nations sought a third path toward development during the Cold War. Increased attention was paid to promoting the cultural production of indigenous communities through low-cost, low-technology media such as radio and artisanship.

As concerns broadcasting, the 1960 Federal Radio and Television Law was not promulgated until 1973, nearly a quarter-century after Mexico's first television broadcast. It implemented the so-called 12.5% rule, granting the federal government greater access to public airwaves that were under commercial control. The broadcast policy was intended to dovetail with others in education, telecommunications, and health, but seldom achieved its aims and was lightly enforced (Diaz de Cossio, 1988). President Jose Lopez Portillo (1976-1982) sought to limit private influence over mass media while expanding individual rights to information, yet one analyst characterized his administration's efforts as a "resounding failure" (Caletti Kaplan, 1988, p. 67). In this period, the government also acquired its own television network, Imevision, which struggled to compete, but has become an important private player in a new era of Mexican broadcasting.

The 1980s through 2000s saw transformations challenging cultural and media policymakers across the globe. The accelerated development of new technologies coincided with significant realignment of existing communication industries even as new industry sectors emerged. At the same time, neoliberal economic reforms reduced governments' regulatory influence over media-related industries and encouraged greater private-sector participation in the creation and dissemination of cultural products (Lewis & Miller, 2003).

The impact of these changes has been particularly strong in Mexico, where implementation of NAFTA has combined with political opening to challenge the status quo on numerous fronts. Notions of what constitutes culture, national cultural heritage, the state, the public, and identity have come into question. Notable shifts include efforts to understand and destigmatize popular culture, recognize the many ways that cultural production contributes to Mexican heritage, and disentangle the complexity of discourses and identity options available to contemporary audiences (Gonzalez, 2001; Joseph, Rubenstein, & Zolov, 2001). The daunting challenge to formulate and implement appropriate cultural policy for ever-expanding media sources reaching an increasingly heterogeneous and fractured society has been compounded by the pro-business orientation of public policymaking in Mexico since 1982. Private entities such as the Televisa media conglomerate have assumed a more active role in promoting Mexico's cultural heritage, even as the state has given priority to cultural practices that appear to be losing influence. Thus, it should come as little surprise that a significant gulf separated the country's policymakers from the cultural intelligentsia, those scholars and cultural critics who sought to elucidate the cultural consequences of Mexico's joining NAFTA.

Each group addressed the cultural implications differently. Government representatives were responsible for conceiving and implementing policy for an agreement dominated by trade and economic issues. Due to the accelerated pace they kept and the political minefield they were traversing, officials largely avoided the volatile issue of culture, making little effort to address concerns expressed by the intelligentsia or the public. For its part, the intelligentsia raised significant issues regarding the agreement's impact on culture and identity, but mostly overlooked key economic considerations such as shifting structural conditions of domestic cultural industries or Mexico's competitiveness in international cultural markets. Against the backdrop of disconnect between these groups, this study examines developments in Mexico's domestic television industry from the mid-1990s to the early 2000s to assess how neoliberal economic reform has affected an industry Monsivais (1996) considered "the main translator of the Mexican experience in Mexico" (p. 138).

The Official View

Mexico's Secretary of Industry and Commerce, Jaime Serra Puche, was the member of President Carlos Salinas de Gortari's government (1988-1994) most directly responsible for selling Mexico's participation in NAFTA to the Mexican people. Serra Puche emphasized the need for public discussion of free trade during appearances at "Information, Opinion and Dialog" forums hosted by Mexico's Senate in March and June 1991. In the first forum he cited the need to "open communication channels between the government and society to allow a greater number of representative opinions from diverse regions and movements to be heard" (Serra Puche, 1991, p. 656). Only 3 months later, he returned to the Senate to declare:

In this dialogue, the contribution of the communication media has been decisive; they have opened spaces for the inclusion of opinions, commentary, and criticism from all political persuasions and social groups. The number of articles, reports, interviews, editorials, and roundtables regarding topics related to the treaty is impressive. It represents solid proof of the dedicated participation of society, as well as the seriousness of your spokespersons and representatives. (p. 657, author's translation) The cultural intelligentsia held a contrary view of the Mexican government's public information and discussion efforts. According to the anthropologist Guillermo Bonfil Batalla (1992), the general public was ill-informed about the signatory countries' positions on key issues, and, ultimately, only the opinions of industrialists were taken into account by negotiators. Monsivais (1992) characterized the government's attitude toward the public as "depreciative and paternalistic" (p. 206). Political economist Gustavo del Castillo Vera (1995) noted:

In Mexico, the consultative process on this theme has been characterized by the lack of openness and centralization of decisions within a small bureaucracy, even when public hearings are held where representatives of industrial and other distinct interest groups and experts participate. (p. 351) Castillo Vera concluded his analysis by questioning Mexico's future "within a half-closed negotiation characterized by obscurity and centralized decision-making" (p. 352).

Critics maintained that when government officials referred to cultural issues, they often did so dismissively. The standard response to questions regarding NAFTA's impact on culture was that it was not on the negotiating table (Maria y Campos, 1992). In what became a commonly cited exchange, here is how Secretary Serra Puche responded when asked whether including cultural industries in the...

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