Saturday, December 12, 2020

Vanessa Freije's "Citizens of Scandal"

Vanessa Freije is Assistant Professor in the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Citizens of Scandal: Journalism, Secrecy, and the Politics of Reckoning in Mexico, and reported the following:
From page 99:
The day after Díaz Serrano’s press conference, mainstream reporters and opinion writers impugned the levity with which he spoke of the spill’s environmental and economic impact. The combative tone marked a shifting journalistic culture that demanded greater responsiveness from public officials. Reporters contrasted the government’s rhetoric of transparency against the reality of “the systematic misinformation and the minimization of problems.” An El Día headline announced, “They Are Hiding Information about the Spill’s Damage in Campeche.” Meanwhile, an opinion writer for El Universal noted that “after so much talk about the right to know, will we return to the old practice of leaving things without clarification, hoping [the people] will just forget with time?” The PCM pointed to the spill as evidence that the Mexican people deserved a greater say in the making of oil policy. After affirming its commitment to implementing the right-to-know law, the government was forced to account for why information was not forthcoming regarding the oil spill.

The spill had grave effects on the local economy of Campeche, where 80 percent of families lived off fishing… In the following issue of Proceso, Enrique Maza reported that in other oil-rich regions, like the state of Tabasco, Pemex had similarly colonized land and destroyed the lifeways of subsistence farmers. According to Maza, environmental destruction was not limited to occasional oil spills; Pemex flooded dams with chemical waste, contaminated and salinated potable water, destroyed agricultural fields, and burned contaminants that polluted the air.

The Ixtoc 1 spill also provided an opportunity for latent political grievances to be aired in the press. As criticism mounted regarding environmental destruction and Díaz Serrano’s conflicts of interest, disaffected cabinet members leaked documents that implicated Pemex in mismanagement or corruption.
Opening to page 99 of my book, readers are dropped into a political scandal that followed the 1979 oil spill in Mexico’s Bay of Campeche. The spill was an undeniable environmental disaster, but one that would not have necessarily gained political significance were it not preceded by two years of muckraking news coverage. This reportage, the subject of chapter 3, took aim at the state-owned and operated petroleum company (Petróleos Mexicanos, or Pemex) and its director, Jorge Díaz Serrano, during Mexico’s late-1970s oil boom.

Page 99 effectively introduces readers to many of my book’s key concerns. Through the exploration of political scandal, Citizens of Scandal examines the contested knowledge production around corruption, truth, and democracy in late-20th century Mexico. In so doing, the book reveals the contradictory and uneven process of democratization from the 1960s through the 1980s. Like many other cases in the book, the oil spill provided the opportunity to focus public attention around longstanding accusations of official corruption.

Muckraking coverage, with the aid of elite allies, eventually led to the Pemex director’s indictment and imprisonment. But the scandal also showed that many issues remained unresolved. While Díaz Serrano emerged as the primary scapegoat for oil corruption, a mysterious fire in the company’s archives cast a shadow over the unprecedented imprisonment of such a high-ranking official. Amid scandal, much more remained concealed than exposed. However, as my book shows, the collective reckoning with wrongdoing had arguably more enduring effects on political culture and citizen engagement than the performances of justice.
Learn more about Citizens of Scandal at the Duke University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue