Mexico’s scientists, activists and artists oppose president’s funding overhaul

Scientists, human rights defenders and artists in Mexico have warned that a plan to overhaul government funding structures threatens the future of activities as diverse as medical research, disaster response, film production and journalist protections in the country.

Mexico’s lower house of congress is expected to vote on Tuesday on a proposal to abolish 109 public trusts, diverting approximately $3bn to other priorities such as the Covid-19 pandemic response.

“The most important thing at this moment is Mexicans’ health,” tweeted Mario Delgado, a lawmaker with the ruling Morena party, who said that abolishing the trusts would enable “administrative reorganisation in which every peso is reviewed”.

Opponents of the move warn that it will undermine funding for disaster relief (in a country frequently hit by earthquakes and hurricanes) and protection mechanisms for journalists (of whom 16 have been assassinated since the start of 2019). Public trusts to fund climate change projects are also on the chopping block.

President Andrés Manuel López Obrador and his supporters argue that the move will improve transparency and root out corruption, while allowing government ministries to administer future funding.

But the president has offered no evidence of corruption in the trust funds, and impacted communities worry that the move will leave their projects vulnerable to the whims of the government of the day.

“The government effectively wants to have control of everything in public administration,” said Alberto Xicoténcatl, president of the consulting council for the Protection Mechanism for Journalists and Human Rights Defenders. 

The move comes amid a deepening coronavirus crisis, which has claimed nearly 80,000 lives in Mexico and devastated the economy.

The president, commonly called Amlo, has rejected suggestions of further borrowing or taxation, preferring instead to boost public finances with swinging austerity measures.

The plan to eliminate the public trusts has prompted some analysts to wonder aloud if the president is simply raiding the funds to cover short-term budget issues.

“This does enormous damage for such a paltry sum of money,” said Alma Maldonado, of the public research centre CINVESTAV. “It’s really not that much money … but it’s important for us to have these funds.”

Amlo has claimed that corruption was “out of control” at the trust funds, but has not offered any evidence or proposed investigations.

A study from Fundar, a thinktank, found that the management of many public trusts was opaque. But in a series of tweets, Fundar expressed opposition to their abolition, saying: “There is no clarity in the process of eliminating [the trusts] – nor in where the money from their liquidation will be sent.”

Fundar warned the move would put vulnerable groups at risk, including victims of human rights violations and people affected by natural disasters.

“It opens the funds to political horse-trading,” said Jan-Albert Hootsen, Mexico representative for The Committee to Protect Journalists. “The fact that the money is [currently] held in trust means that it cannot be taken away on the whim of some politicians or someone in charge of a federal agency.”

Beneficiaries of the public trusts say that the funding structure allows them to avoid budget shocks, allowing them to tackle long-term projects.

“These funds are already earmarked and can’t be spent on anything else … which helps with transparency.” said Lorena Ruano, international relations professor at the Center for Research and Teaching in Economics.

“This is a way of stripping autonomy from us,” she added. “It has a feeling of clientelism to it.”

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