MEXICO CITY — As the US economy has picked up steam in the last few years, falling oil prices and a stronger dollar have left the peso floundering. Last month, the Mexican currency hit its lowest value since 1993, even lower than when it crashed in March 2009, during the global recession. You know things are bad when street taco prices start to go up. The tumble has the federal government here drawing blood from public funds, especially the arts and culture sector.
At a recent press conference for Mexico City’s Centro Historico Festival, organizers said that more than 5 million pesos ($337,000) in public support had been slashed from this year’s budget, almost overnight. The withdrawal was abrupt enough that a slew of concerts and presentations had to be dropped from the program.
This is only one example of how the arts, along with Mexican society as a whole, are being affected by sweeping budget cuts. For some context, consider that the peso lost more than 15% of its value in only six months, causing the government to shave 124 billion pesos off the budget so far this year and schedule another 135 billion peso cut in 2016.
Mexico, a country which has historically offered generous support for artists and extensive public arts programming, has now turned to the arts as a martyr for wasteful government spending, subjecting public culture institutions to audits and harsh cuts. Of course, arts funding is always the first to go when crises set in. Conservative Mexicans argue that the government shouldn’t be paying for art in the first place, as millions remain in crippling poverty, but creatives argue that Mexico’s culture is its largest export and asset.
This month, the Federal Auditing Agency (ASF) called for the complete elimination of the National Fund for Culture and the Arts (Fonca). The scathing recommendation puts the crisis into perspective; it also creates confusion and uncertainty. The ASF report came only two days after Fonca announced new scholarship programs for foreign studies and other expansions. Follow-up material has been sparse.
National Arts and Culture Council (Conaculta) Artistic and Cultural Secretary Saúl Juárez was defiant, saying that the ASF must clarify its position and that the arts fund isn’t threatened. Conaculta, as the country’s largest public art institution, is charged with the control and distribution of Fonca funds.
“I have no doubt that when the auditor revises this, Fonca will continue to be one of the most important mechanisms of national culture in recent years,” he said in an interview with a Mexican newspaper.
Word on the street is that public funds always get cut during elections, and citizens are suspicious that the money is skimmed off the top to fund campaigns (this comes only from word of mouth). Midterms just kicked off, and the election will take place in June.
Not only does the ASF prognosis sound bleak, but the government is currently debating 50–60% budget cuts to Conaculta dependencies — including the National Center for the Arts (Cenart) Film School — and many artists haven’t been payed for months, according to a report by Luz Emilia Aguilar in Excelsior newspaper, one of the country’s oldest and most respected publications. Her article, “Power and its Lies,” critiques the ruling PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party) government, arguing that the financial woes are caused by rampant corruption and impunity, at the cost of culture, public services, and quality of life.
“If our country has artistic life, it’s primarily because artists — with the help of service minded officials — have conquered institutions, budgets and are producing quality work … and being payed regularly,” Aguilar wrote.
Specifics about the cuts are hard to dig up, while representatives within the culture institutions remain mum (possibly for fear of retribution). Meanwhile, the Public Education Secretariat (SEP), from which Conaculta receives funds, already lost almost 8 billion pesos from this year’s budget.
One of the saddest consequences of the situation is the suspension of social and cultural programs for underprivileged Mexicans. Despite its history as a socialist republic striving for democracy, Mexican society is undeniably classist, marked by huge divides between the rich and poor. The deepening financial woes threaten to stratify citizens even more.
For example, a program of arts workshops for children in the Tepito neighborhood of Mexico City was “suspended” in February, after almost 40% of the funds for the José María Velasco gallery, which managed and funded the program, were cut at the beginning of the year. Tepito is one of the most impoverished, overpopulated, and dangerous neighborhoods in Mexico City.
“My daughter started to cry,” Judith Muñoz told a Mexican news agency. “She wouldn’t talk to anybody. This is a catastrophe for these kids.”
After students protested and parents raised money to fund the workshops on their own, the National Institute of Fine Art (INBA) announced this month that the programs in Tepito will be at least partially reinitiated, despite the lack of new government funds.
“These spaces make no sense without the participation of the people,” José María Velasco Gallery Director Alfredo Matus said at the press conference. “If people don’t show up, it is a dead space.”
But the parents can’t be expected to sustain the program, or else their children wouldn’t be enrolled in the first place. With no remedy in sight, the likelihood is that artistic programming will continue to be sacrificed in order to keep Mexico’s economy afloat.