Politics and Peer Review in AMLO’s Mexico

Editor’s note: This is a guest post by Alissandra Stoyan and Carla Martinez Machain. They are, respectively, an assistant and an associate professor in the Department of Political Science at Kansas State University.

El Fondo’s new Director, Paco Ignacio Taibo, with now Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador at the XVII International Book Fair at the Zócalo in 2017.
Image source: Secretaría de Cultura Ciudad de México photostream

On February 21st, Mexico’s Fondo de Cultura Económica (a not-for-profit publisher partially funded by the Mexican Government that is often referred to as “El Fondo”) disbanded the editorial team of the Economics peer-reviewed journal El Trimestre Económico.  The journal’s editorial team had been composed of researchers representing Mexico’s top research universities, including CIDE, ITAM, UNAM, and the Universidad Iberoamericana. As of writing, the journal’s editorial team page on its website is blank and the status of the broader international editorial board is unclear. In a televised announcement, El Fondo’s Director announced that the journal would now be under direction of a five-person committee, referred to as a “dirección colectiva.”

While academic journals regularly change their editorial teams, a previously unannounced firing like this is a rarity. It tends to happen only in cases of misconduct by the editors, which was not the case in this instance. Rather, this change was motivated by an aim of the publisher’s newly-appointed administration to purge certain ideologies from the journal.  

Before the firing of the editorial team, on February 20th, El Fondo’s Twitter account announced an intention to turn the journal “180 degrees” to “dismantle neoliberal thought.” El Fondo’s new director, the writer and essayist Paco I. Taibo, was appointed by Mexico’s newly elected government in November 2018.[1]  He came into the position promising to revolutionize El Fondo and criticizing previous administrators for what he saw as wasteful and self-promoting spending.

At a time when Mexican civil society is increasingly threatened from different angles (see here and here for two recent examples), a quieter action such as disbanding an academic journal’s editorial team can be easily overlooked.  It should not be.  Such an action is indicative of democratic backsliding that is reminiscent of similar actions in the region.  It is also a threat to academic freedom of expression, and a potential harbinger of future government intrusion into academia.

The History of El Trimestre and El Fondo

El Trimestre was founded in 1934 as an outlet for Spanish-language Economics research. It is the oldest and seventh-ranked peer-reviewed Economics journal in Latin America.  El Trimestre was founded alongside El Fondo and is one of three journals published by it.  

El Fondo itself, the world’s largest publicly-funded Spanish-language publisher, has a long history of making both literature and academic writing available to the Mexican population. It publishes low-cost editions of literary works, as well as Spanish translations of high-impact academic research (33% of its publications are translations). El Fondo also has branches in 10 different countries with a high volume of Spanish speakers (including Ecuador, Colombia, Spain, and the United States).  It is thus highly influential not only in Mexico, but also in the broader Spanish-speaking world. 

El Fondo is associated with three cabinet-level Secretariats – Public Education, Governance, and Civil Service. While partially funded by the government, it has traditionally remained focused on academic and literary domains. The decision to place such a strong ideological bent on the journal seems to contradict elements of the publisher’s mission and vision, especially the discussion of values and ideas in diverse fields of knowledge.

Further, the new “dirección colectiva” is composed of five economists with a homogenous orientation: Rosa Albina Garavito, Julio Boltvinik, Orlando Delgado, Saúl Escobar, and José Valenzuela Feijoó. Most have held elected or appointed public office from left-leaning parties. At least one of them is described as a scholar of Marxism; another writes a column for the left-leaning newspaper, La Jornada. While their authority is unclear, the group is “taking control of” El Trimestre.

This group claimed that El Trimestre had acted as the “bearer of the neoliberal project” and lost its critical nature during the 1980s and 1990s. It described neoliberalism as “a corpse” that must be divested “as quickly as possible for the damage it has done to Mexico.” Yet, this claim runs counter to the fundamental goals of both peer review and social science, under which manuscripts are considered and evaluated based on scientific and theoretical rigor, not ideology.

Mexico within the Latin American Context

The dramatic change in El Trimestre also reflects broader regional trends. The Latin American left has long maintained that neoliberalism is a domineering and entrenched economic ideology, even an imposition of U.S. economic imperialism. One explicit goal of left governments has been to move toward a “post-neoliberal” economic model, though this has taken different forms in different countries.

Over the last twenty years, Mexico diverged from the rest of the region in several ways, but especially because it was not part of the early-2000s “turn to the left.” Then, precisely as the majority of Latin American countries were transitioning back to right-leaning governments, Mexico elected Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) to the presidency in 2018.

Like the editorial board of El Trimestre, AMLO has declared neoliberalism dead.[2] At his inauguration, he vowed to implement swift and dramatic change. He campaigned on fighting corruption, but also linked this promise to neoliberalism, pointing out the link between privatization and corruption in Mexico.

For the revolutionary Latin American left, the consolidation of power and limiting of civil liberties may be justified by efforts to break with a corrupt past, entrenched elites, and the economic model that supported them.[3] Yet, alternative policy proposals should confront neoliberalism on their merits, rather than limiting debate. Moreover, the limits on power associated with liberal democracy should not be sacrificed in pursuit of a new policy agenda. They may equally protect left-leaning dissent should the right eventually return to power, as it now has in much of the rest of the region.

Implications for Human Rights and Liberal Democracy

Academic thought is a form of freedom of opinion and expression. It includes, according to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the “freedom to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas of all kinds […] in writing or in print.” It protects “a free, uncensored, and unhindered press or other media,” which “constitutes one of the cornerstones of a democratic society.” While Mexican academics such as the ones purged from El Trimestre can certainly continue to publish academic research in other outlets, this type of government interference based on the ideas expressed in the journal is one clear limit on freedom of expression.  It adds an additional roadblock to expressing ideas that the government disagrees with.

Notably, the 2018 Human Rights Measurement Initiative rates Mexico 4.6 out of 10 in its measure of freedom of opinion and expression (as a point of comparison, Brazil rates 5.3 in the same measure).  This stands in stark contrast to the somewhat high ratings (all above 80%) in Mexico’s economic and social rights, demonstrating how governments that provide social welfare to their populations can still hinder democracy by undermining civil and political liberties. HRMI also lists academics, along with human rights advocates and journalists, as being one of Mexico’s most at risk groups when it comes to the violation of freedom of expression rights.

The protection of civil liberties and minority rights is central to the concept of liberal democracy (see pg. 253). Thus, limiting the expression of divergent or minority ideas – in academia, in the press, or more generally – is problematic for the proper functioning of liberal democracy. Additionally, democracy’s goal is not to eliminate ideological conflict (see pg. 87). Rather, ideally, democracy facilitates debates over policy through institutionalized channels.

In Defense of Academic Freedom

Criticism of neoliberalism, based on the Latin American experience where reforms were implemented without enough attention to the broader social and political context, may well be warranted. In addition, some of El Fondo’s new initiatives, such as publishing $1 literary works and translating university press books by young academic authors, are laudable. Yet, the exceptional removal of the editorial team and the creation of a “dirección colectiva” more amenable to the government’s ideology portends badly for human rights, civil liberties, and the future of liberal democracy.

For the new journal leadership to claim explicitly that El Trimestre will no longer publish articles viewed as neoliberal is damaging in multiple ways. It undermines the essential role that academic journals play in the development of theoretical debates and the accumulation of empirical knowledge. More broadly, it diminishes freedom of academic thought and civil liberties, which must be protected within a liberal democratic context.

[1] Taibo is no stranger to controversy.  His appointment required the passing of legislation (by both houses of Congress, which are controlled by the President’s party) to allow the Spanish-born author to take on a post formerly not open to naturalized citizens. Taibo was also accused of using a misogynistic and homophobic expression when describing his appointment (he went on to publicly apologize for his choice of language).

[2] We might do better never to declare ideas dead. If recent events demonstrate anything, it is that we should not expect “the end of history” and of great ideological debates. For better or worse, Neoliberalism appears to be alive and well in much of Latin America today.

[3] See, for example, the mess surrounding President Evo Morales’ effort to seek a fourth term of office in Bolivia, even after losing a 2016 referendum on the topic.

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