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Chile: Citizen Campaign Seeks to Eliminate Tax on Books

‘Libros Sin IVA’ [es] is a citizen campaign which seeks to eliminate the 19% value added tax (VAT, “IVA” for its initials in Spanish) on books in Chile. The first of nine points in their manifesto [es] explains that Chile has one of the highest consumption taxes on books: “almost one fifth of the price of a book in Chile is taxes.”

The manifesto also argues that countries that have a special taxing treatment for books understand that books, whether print or digital, “are still one of the main vehicles of knowledge, entertainment, and construction of a reflective and inclusive citizenry.” It also points out that 4 out of 5 Chileans think that books are expensive, and 54% would buy more books if they were cheaper.

In the following video, celebrities, writers and other supporters of this campaign outline their main arguments:

But just how expensive are books in Chile? Blogger Nathan Lustig summed it up last year:

Books are incredibly expensive in Chile. I’m talking $50-$80 for a new hardcover and $30-60 for a new softcover. Even used books can be $5-15. […]

Every Chilean I’ve talked to about book prices says “oh man, don’t get me started, it’s ridiculous.”  It’s a big problem.

Citizens who want to support the ‘Libros Sin IVA’ campaign are invited to add their signature [es] on the official website. The campaign gathered more than 27,000 signatures in less than ten days, as highlighted [es] by The Clinic. At the time of writing this post, the ‘Libros Sin IVA’ website recorded 31,829 signatures.

The debate

The campaign has sparked a debate on reading and the access to books in Chile.

Enzo Abbagliati, who has blogged extensively about public libraries and the access to books, was one of the first to react to the campaign. In a post [es] in his blog Cadaunadas, Abbagliati explains that he does not adhere to the campaign because even if it achieves its goal, he doesn't think it will have a significant impact in making Chile a country that reads more.

Abbagliati cites the same studies used by the campaign to argue that the price of books is not among the main reasons Chileans use to justify why they don't read. Among other things, Abbagliati says that due to other factors, like where books are sold, only those who already buy books would benefit from the measure.

On a similar note, Abbagliati points out that Chileans who earn a minimum wage or less –and can barely make ends meet– will not really benefit from this change in the taxation of books. He concludes his post presenting a solution:

 Si de fomentar un acceso equitativo a la lectura se trata, hay un Plan B. Sí, con B de Biblioteca.

If this is about promoting equal access to reading, there is a Plan B. Yes, B of Biblioteca [“Library” in Spanish]

The blog Lucha Libro [es] asked its readers to comment on the campaign. User Ange replies [es] in the post's comments section saying that Chile needs to encourage its citizens to read:

[…] El IVA es algo estúpido en los libros, claro que sí, pero quitarlo no es la solución. La gente gasta plata en poner una tele en cada pieza de sus casas, incluso la gente “pobre”. No me vengan con excusas por el IVA. El que quiere leer, lo hace porque le gusta, porque lo animaron de chico a leer, y va a leer revistas, diarios, libros, internet, recetas de cocina, etc. El IVA no es una limitante.

[…] The Value-Added Tax on books is stupid, sure it is, but getting rid of it is not the solution. People spend money installing a television in every room in their house, even “poor” people. Don't use the “IVA” as an excuse. People who want to read do it because they like it, because they were encouraged to read as children, and they will read magazines, newspapers, books, [content on the] Internet, recipes, etc. The VAT is not a limiting factor.

Other netizens have been discussing the initiative on Twitter using the hashtag #LibrosSinIVA [es], like Victor Hermosilla (@vjhermosilla) [es]:

@vjhermosilla Si bien adhiero a ‪#LibrosSinIVA‬ estoy de acuerdo que esa medida no cambiará hábitos de lectura en chilenos, sobre todo de estratos sc bajos

@vjhermosilla While I adhere to ‪#LibrosSinIVA‬, I agree that this measure will not change reading habits in Chileans, specially in those from lower social strata

Editor Marco Antonio Coloma (@mcoloma) [es] responds to some of the criticism:

@mcoloma Hay gente que tiene la fórmula para hacer de Chile «una sociedad lectora». Nosotros no. Sólo creemos que hay algo básico: libros sin IVA.

@mcoloma Some people have the formula to make Chile “a reading society.” We don't. We just believe that there is something basic: books without VAT.

Marco Antonio Coloma also wrote a post [es] in his blog in response to Abbagliati's arguments. Coloma clarifies that the campaign is not proposing a global solution, but it only suggests a starting point:

La eliminación del IVA al libro debiera ser la primera pieza de un plan más ambicioso, integral y definitivo de promoción del libro y la lectura. ¿Por qué? Porque, siguiendo el ejemplo de una abrumadora cantidad de países, debiera existir coherencia entre la importancia que le asignamos como sociedad al libro y el tratamiento que tiene éste en nuestro sistema tributario; porque Chile era un país sin IVA al libro hasta 1976 y hay, por tanto, un imperativo ético de saldar una deuda histórica con los valores democráticos; y porque, además, es una medida efectiva para mejorar el acceso al libro y la lectura.

Getting rid of the value added tax on books should be the first piece of a more ambitious, comprehensive and definitive plan on promoting books and reading. Why? Because, following the example of an overwhelming number of countries, there should be consistency between the importance we attach to books as a society and the treatment books receive in our tax system; because Chile was a country without a tax on books until 1976 [during Augusto Pinochet's dictatorship] and, therefore, there is an ethical imperative to settle a historical debt to democratic values; and also because it is an effective measure to improve access to books and reading.

Coloma also reacts to Abbagliati's “Plan B” (libraries), saying that strengthening public libraries should be an important part of any program which seeks to promote books and reading. Nevertheless, Coloma cites a study on reading behavior in Chile which points out that only 15% of the population has visited a library in the last year:

Ese mismo estudio señala que el 35% de las personas compra los libros que lee, 29% los pide prestado a amigos y familiares y sólo el 11% accede a ellos a través de una biblioteca. Esto demuestra no sólo que en el ámbito de las bibliotecas públicas hay mucho por hacer, sino que el principal medio de acceso a los libros es el mercado. ¿Por qué no implementar una medida probada, que convoca amplios consensos, y que justamente favorece el acceso a los libros a través del mercado?

That same study found that 35% of people buy the books they read, 29% borrow them from friends and family, and only 11% access them through a library. This shows not only that a lot needs to be done in the field of public libraries, but that the primary means of access to books is the market. Why not implement a proven measure, which calls for broad consensus, and that justly favors the access to books through the market?

He concludes his post saying that this campaign is about democratizing a more fulfilling reading experience, where citizens can be “curators” of their own library, “pass it on to their children, grab a book whenever [they] want, write on it, highlight it, lend it to someone, give it as a gift or even abandon it.” He asserts that eliminating the consumption tax on books is a starting point.

Libros Sin IVA aims [es] to start a public discussion, but their work doesn't end there: they want to present specific proposals to Congress and eventually to President Sebastián Piñera's administration. You can follow the discussion on the campaign's official Facebook [es] and Twitter [es] accounts.

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