Mexico’s Government Is Meddling in Media Again, Critics of Salinas Charge : Press: The allegations are damaging to the president, who prides himself on reforming politics to allow for pluralism.
A menacing pamphlet containing photographs of armed peasants that has been mailed anonymously to newspapers, embassies and the foreign press portrays Mexico’s leftist Democratic Revolutionary Party as a band of violent, out-of-control anarchists.
A pro-government columnist for the newspaper El Universal accused leaders of the right-wing National Action Party of accepting illegal funds from the U.S. Republican Party and other foreign sources.
The columnist also delivered a tirade against three of the government’s leading critics--intellectuals who are frequently published in the U.S. press. They are “clerks,” the columnist charged, ghostwriters for leftist leader Cuauhtemoc Cardenas. One of them is close to Cuban agents, he said, and another is fond of “the American way of life.”
“They never attack our ideas--they attack us ,” historian Lorenzo Meyer, the target denounced as pro-American, said in an interview. “They have no capacity to say this is false and to show why, so they say I went shopping, that I like U.S. life and, therefore, that I am a traitor and not to be believed.”
The controversies highlight the complex relationship between the Mexican government and the press, as well as the important role intellectuals play in this country’s political life. Newspapers in Mexico serve largely as a means for small but powerful political elites to communicate with each other, rather than with the masses. Intellectuals such as Meyer write political columns in the newspapers.
The opposition contends that the unsigned pamphlet and the mudslinging columns are part of a government effort to discredit and even silence its critics. Government officials deny any involvement in the negative campaigns, but opposition members on both sides of the political spectrum blame President Carlos Salinas de Gortari.
“It is a totalitarian attitude,” said Luis H. Alvarez, president of PAN, the National Action Party. “Not a leaf moves on a tree here without authorization from the supreme power.”
Under previous administrations, smear campaigns and media manipulation might have been dismissed as business as usual.
Anonymous pamphlets appeared against leftist leaders and critics in the 1960s and 1970s. Mexican presidents have long attempted to control the national press and, with a few notable exceptions, they have succeeded by means ranging from political pressure to direct payoffs.
Salinas, however, prides himself on running a “modern” government and reforming the political system to allow for pluralism. The propaganda war is damaging to him precisely because it appears that his administration is up to old, unmodern tricks.
Apparently, the administration relies on a mix of old and new. Although indications are that either the government or the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) produced the slick pamphlet, the president’s office reportedly has stopped the traditional practice of paying journalists who cover the government.
Privately, government officials say the opposition is naive and overreacting to criticism. Negative campaigning is modern, they say, and common in the United States and Europe.
“In a war, you can’t expect to be hit with a pillow,” one official said.
The principal object of the government’s attacks is Cardenas. Once a member of Mexico’s power elite, Cardenas split with the official party to run for president against Salinas in 1988 in what became a watershed election.
The opposition denied the ruling party its traditional two-thirds majority in the lower house of Congress, and Cardenas supporters won the first opposition seats in the Senate.
Local elections in Cardenas’ home state of Michoacan and in Guerrero turned violent after the government claimed widespread victories for the ruling party. Cardenas backers occupied city halls, shut down highways and in several cases armed themselves.
The anonymous orange pamphlet that was circulated in recent weeks is called “Let the Photos Speak: The PRD in Michoacan and Guerrero.” It contains 63 pages of photographs of armed peasants.
Cardenas backers say the pamphlet presents a distorted view of the numbers of armed people, levels of violence and Cardenas’ position opposing the use of violence. They note that more than 25 people have died in electoral violence in Michoacan and Guerrero, the vast majority of them Cardenas supporters.
A government official said the booklet was produced by an “organization of professionals” from Guerrero allied with the PRI.
Although politics used to be a strictly internal affair, both Salinas and Cardenas have aggressively courted international public opinion, particularly in the United States. As a result, the propaganda war has crossed the border.
The three intellectuals attacked by El Universal columnist Juan Bustillos write analysis pieces in U.S. newspapers and speak at political and academic forums in the United States. They are among Salinas’ harshest critics. Two of them, Jorge G. Castaneda and Adolfo Aguilar Zinser, are former PRI supporters now closely identified with Cardenas.
Last month, Wayne Cornelius, director of the Center for U.S.-Mexico Studies at UC San Diego, wrote a letter to Thomas Plate, editorial page editor of The Times, suggesting that the newspaper identify Castaneda as a spokesman for Cardenas when running his articles. Cornelius is considered an ally of Salinas. (The Times reserves the right to label intellectuals if editors feel that the content of the article makes it necessary.)
A copy of the letter, which Cornelius said was private, soon appeared in the Mexican government newspaper El Nacional. In a telephone interview from San Diego, an angry Cornelius charged that “propagandists” in the government and opposition had overtaken those who would prefer a substantive political debate.
Through Cornelius and Bustillos, the government has managed to put its critics on the defensive.
“It is exhausting that we have to explain our relationship to Cardenas to everyone,” said Aguilar Zinser.