In April 2014 the director, Alfonso Cuaron, took advantage of his Oscar winning profile by intervening in domestic politics on an unprecedented level in Mexico, calling for clarification of the government’s recent moves to denationalise the country’s oil and gas industry. Taking out full-page advertising space in on April 28th in a number of national newspapers, Cuaron posed ten questions to the Mexican president, Enrique Peña Nieto, challenging him to account for the consequences of recent moves to enable foreign investment in the publicly owned energy industry.[i]
Nationalised in 1938, the energy industry has since been the font of public revenue in a country where only 5% of GDP goes to the payment of taxes. Cuaron’s concerns are poignant. Despite laying claim to the world’s second richest man, Carlos Slim, and being tipped to become the world’s 8th biggest economy by 2050, Mexico suffers from dire public investment, particularly in schools and public infrastructure. Cuaron’s main interest was in addressing how the Mexican people, and not a handful of domestic and foreign oligarchs, will benefit from energy reforms.
While promoting Gravity in Mexico in February, Cuaron first expressed concerns over the proposed energy reforms, implying that the government was selling off the country without due caution, and warning “the future of the country is at stake”.[ii] However, when questioned about the director’s concerns in a TV interview in late February, the Mexican president dismissed Cuaron’s views on energy reform as uninformed, claiming: “In Mexico there has been no lack of groups opposed to this reform who have generated misinformation and, as a result, some have bought into [these arguments] or, without sufficient information, they simply do not understand the extent and significance of these reforms.”[iii]
Cuaron’s next move was smart and direct, stating that the reasons for his lack of information was not due to devious opposition groups but, rather, to the absence of in depth discussion and the fact that “the measures were announced in the context of a propaganda campaign that evaded public debate”.[iv] He asked in plain-speak for the president to assure the people that, in a country afflicted with institutional corruption (and notoriously so within the energy industry) denationalization would be financially transparent, environmentally effective, and would lower fuel costs for Mexicans. Crucially, Cuaron asked, how could the president guarantee the subsidising of previously public revenue that has accounted for over half the federal budget for the last 70 years? Cuaron’s questions were diffused in a gesture of contempt characteristic of today’s disingenuously democratic politicians: with a tweet thanking the director for helping to “enrich the debate”, while adding that the questions would receive a response after the reforms had gone through a crucial second stage.[v]
Not many Mexicans would have the clout to take things a step further, but Cuaron kept the debate in the public eye, in print and online, forcing the government to publish a windy 13 page PDF document online defending the reforms.[vi] Few will read this document, as Cuaron well knows, which is why on May 5th he followed up his ‘Ten Questions’ with a call for a series of televised debates: “Three debates, readily understandable for the general citizen, that will provide the opportunity to contrast diverse points of view about a Reform so transcendently important for the nation”.[vii]
Peña Nieto has a chequered history with TV. His party was strongly suspected of bribing media bias before its 2012 victory in the national elections convincing many of its control over the most influential media format in Mexico.[viii] However, such a debate would undoubtedly awaken a public that the president would rather remain docile. Despite being hailed on the cover of Time magazine earlier this year as ‘Saving Mexico’ (to the disgust of millions) and being married to a former Telenovela superstar, Peña Nieto’s TV history is replete with live gaffes – covered fastidiously on the website ‘Days Without EPN Idiocies’ – that have been lapped up by the tweeting community, which he will be wary of adding to.[ix]
As well as exposing the dire state of public and media debate in Mexico, Cuaron’s questions have drawn further attention to the stratospheric levels of corruption that form part of the country’s political culture. For Europeans, the hand-in-glove arrangement of the traditional ruling party and the biggest, richest and most corrupt union in the country might seem unfathomable, and yet this is a major historical issue that Cuaron’s concerns raise. It was largely due to the union vote that Peña Nieto’s paradoxically named Institutional Revolutionary Party was voted back into power after a two-term break in its historical hegemony over Mexican politics.
Equally unfathomable is the transparent corruption and public unnacountability that characterizes the unions in Mexico which enabled the head of Pemex (the national oil and gas company) to amass a fortune during his reign despite his claim to only draw a union salary of less than $2000 a month. In 2013, the multi-propertied, jet-setting Carlos Romero Deschamps topped the Forbes list of ‘10 Most Corrupt Mexicans’. Such are the self-serving union rules in Mexico that numerous members of his family enjoy a Pemex salary (guaranteed in the family until 2999) despite never lifting a finger. Romero Deschamps was voted in for the sixth time last year as head of Pemex, despite re-election being officially prohibited, and no doubt helped along by intimidation tactics enabled by the lack of a secret ballot. Although implicated at the centre of the embezzlement scandal of 2001 known as Pemexgate – in which numerous politicians and union members were accused of skimming huge amounts of public money – Romero Deschamps avoided investigation because of his political status: conveniently, as a Mexican Senator, he is immune to prosecution.
Cuaron’s questioning of the procedures and decision-making of the Mexican government and its dodgy union hench-men has caused a real stir in national politics, potentially taking current media formats and celebrity influence to a level of rare credibility in a country where the media can claim extremely limited critical force. He is not alone, though, in using new media currency for the ends of socio-political vigilance in Mexico. Youtube, Facebook and Twitter have become a scathing forum for normal Mexicans to expose the gross behaviour of the country’s political elite undeserved super rich. A host of scandalous displays of arrogance and racism towards working-class Mexicans have been uploaded on Youtube by onlookers eager to capture the stunning conceit of Mexico’s wealthy barbarians and to share in a growing public consciousness of class and wealth division. The President’s daughter became a reviled figure after she defended one of her father’s live gaffes in 2011 (after revealing an inability to name three books that changed his life), with the tweet attacking the “bunch of idiots who form part of the proletariat and only criticise those they envy.”[x]
Such online exposés reflect plain old voyeurism, of course, but they nonetheless have prompted a wave of criticism in Mexico that is forcing at least a form of public restraint on the vulgar rich and political class. Romero Deschamps’ daughter, Paulina, was recently outed for her vile displays of expenditure while jaunting around Europe in luxurious fashion along with her three English bulldogs. The brattish daughter of another political official was exposed to the caustic black humour of the country’s online vigilantes after trying to have a hip restaurant closed down after she was refused her desired table.
It is rare for a celebrity to have a direct and genuinely effective influence on political debate, perhaps rarer still to see a concerted will to mobilize new media into a force for social critique rather than twatty self-promotion. However, Cuaron and millions of Mexicans are engaging in a media battle with the over-privileged elite that, if they don’t exactly bring them down to earth, might at least put their plastic noses out of joint.
(This is a longer version of an article published in Voima in May 2014 http://fifi.voima.fi/voima-artikkeli/2014/numero-5/goebbelsin-marka-uni)
[i] Cuaron set up the following website with translations of the questions http://diezpreguntas.com/ten-questions/
[iii] Interview with Léon Krauze, Univision, 26/02/14: http://noticias.univision.com/article/1935011/2014-04-28/mexico/noticias/el-cineasta-mexicano-alfonso-cuaron-confronta-al-presidente-pena-con-10-preguntas
[viii] These suspicions prompted a student led protest against the impoverishment of democracy in the media, and were covered extensively by The Guardian newspaper that year http://www.theguardian.com/media/televisa