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Writing off the writers?

Mexico's law ending tax exemptions for writers and publishers has sparked debate about egalitarianism, the future of intellectuals and the rising cost of books.

November 18, 2002|Sergio Munoz | Times Staff Writer

Should writers be placed on the level of the archangels or the humble bricklayer? It sounds like a Byzantine question, but in Mexico, it's at the center of a bread and butter issue, a dispute for beans and tortillas.

Until recently, writers have occupied an exalted -- and tax-free -- plane in the culture, which has traditionally treated its intellectuals with the utmost respect. They are, Octavio Paz has written of his fellows, "the critical conscience of the people."

Some, like Carlos Fuentes and Elena Poniatowska, continue to enjoy high status in some sectors of society, but their tax-free ride ended this year. A new law imposed a series of taxes on the literary community and set off a debate in the media, on the floor of the Mexican Congress and in the offices of the Treasury that threatens to go on indefinitely.

Along with eliminating the writers' long-standing tax exemption, President Vicente Fox's administration also reversed a policy that reimbursed publishers for the taxes they pay on paper, ink and other materials needed for manufacturing books, thus prompting an increase in the price of books, which were already more expensive in Mexico than in the U.S.

Was this an attack on the country's intellectual life and ideals? Or was it an egalitarian reform aimed at benefiting the average Mexican by erasing an entitlement for an increasingly irrelevant elite? Both arguments, as they play out in the political arena and in discussion in the online version of one of Mexico City's highbrow intellectual magazines, have vocal backers. And in those arguments is an unfolding description of how Mexico sees the future of its intellectual and artistic class.

Favoring tradition

Lining up in favor of tradition and against the new law is a coalition of left-wing politicians and old-time intellectuals. From the comfort of his house in Mexico City's posh Lomas de Chapultepec district, Homero Aridjis, current president of PEN International, decried the change in writers' tax status. "They treat us as if we were bricklayers," he said, with a bluntness that pushed him into the headlines.

Never mind the gaffe, it's likely that Aridjis, a poet and novelist who has written about archangels, was trying to speak for the vast majority of Mexican writers, who find it hard to make a decent living practicing their craft. In his "bricklayer" interview with cultural reporters from the newspaper Reforma, Aridjis also mentioned that most writers in Mexico have no medical insurance, no retirement fund and no access to the social benefits to which other workers are entitled.

A few privileged Mexican intellectuals can live a very good life teaching full time at an academic institution, their earnings supplemented by a weekly column in the local press, a monthly magazine piece or commentary on radio or TV. But they're the rare exception. The rest will feel the impact of the income tax, which is being imposed on those who make more than $3,000 a year.

It's their cause that the leftist Party of the Democratic Revolution, or PRD, and the left wing of the Party of the Institutionalized Revolution, or PRI, will make when they push to rescind the new taxes in the Mexican Congress.

But the "don't tax us, we're writers" argument doesn't fly with some of the country's younger intellectuals. In a column in a local newspaper, Jesus Silva-Herzog Marquez, one of the top guns in the more youthful group, took Aridjis to task. Affirming that no group should be granted a tax privilege, Silva-Herzog, a newspaper and television columnist, professor and third-generation member of an illustrious family of economists, poked fun at Aridjis, suggesting that he had pictured himself as one of the archangels he has written about.

U.S. intellectuals

In the United States, the idea of granting a tax privilege to intellectuals may sound ludicrous. Intellectuals do not enjoy the same prestige in the U.S. that they do in other parts of the world. (In Ireland, for example, the government has exempted writers and artists from paying income tax since 1969, in hopes of creating "a sympathetic environment here in which the arts can flourish by encouraging artists and writers to live and work in this country," wrote then-Minister for Finance Charles J. Haughey. The Irish law shelters not only those who write books and plays but also those who compose music, paint and sculpt, as long as their work has "cultural or artistic merit.")

The current discussion on tax versus culture in Mexico is part of a larger battle between modernity and tradition.

"In modern Mexico there should be no room for exemptions, as these foster disputes for privileges," says Hector Aguilar Camin, a novelist, essayist and television anchor for an influential and popular weekly talk show.

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