Academic journal article Human Organization

Reconfiguring the Countryside: Power, Control, and the (Re)organization of Farmers in West Mexico

Academic journal article Human Organization

Reconfiguring the Countryside: Power, Control, and the (Re)organization of Farmers in West Mexico

Article excerpt

This article examines the effects of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) on Mexico's agricultural economy, with particular emphasis on the role of the government in economic restructuring aimed at privatization and global competitiveness. Government policy and practice have sought to revitalize select agricultural sectors that have faltered with the opening of the Mexican economy. This process will be explored through the analysis of the shifting relationship between the state and local elites in the northwest highlands of Michoacan, an area dominated by small-scale dairy farming. Much of rural Mexico has a long history of powerful caciques (local political strongmen) and their patronage networks, that have arisen in the service of state interests only to be replaced when political-economic conditions change. In this instance, neoliberal reforms have resulted in the reconfiguration of power and authority, and the emergence of new-style techno-caciques-well-educated political and economic entrepreneurs with nonlocal connections and aspirations. The case underscores the contradictions and problems with neoliberal development operationalized through what are effectively old institutional forms.

Key words: globalization, agricultural development, elites, politics, power, Mexico

This article examines the (re)organization1 of small-scale farmers in rural Mexico, a process stimulated by shifts in government agricultural policy in the late 1990s. These shifts were a response by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) to the virtual collapse of much of the country's agricultural economy in the wake of the 1994 enactment of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). With the 2000 presidential election on the horizon, the PRI engaged in a number of development initiatives to resuscitate the rural agricultural economy. This political-economic change led to a reconfiguration of power and authority in parts of rural Mexico.

Analysis will focus on the dairy sector in the northwestern highlands of the state of Michoacan, a former PRI stronghold with a long history of conservative patronage politics. Since the late 1980s, the PRI's grip on Michoacan has been increasingly challenged by the center-left Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) and to a lesser extent by the rightwing National Action Party (PAN). With its power eroding, the PRI-dominated state government encouraged the formation of new cacicazgos (patronage networks dominated by caciques, or local power brokers, who mediate governmental needs with those of their constituency) that embrace the goal of modernizing agriculture through farmer (re)organization. Stanford (1999), for example, has documented how Michoacan's development resources were being channeled to large avocado producers and regional strongmen with the goal of creating competitive producer organizations. In public discourse, these (re)organizational initiatives were being carried out in the name of competitiveness, productivity, efficiency, and quality. But they were also intended to help the PRI reestablish its rural political clout and, at least in Stanford's case, to capture a portion of rural profits for government coffers. (Dresser [1991] and others [see Correa 1999] have argued that the PRI has used its rural social programs to spread its influence and essentially buy votes.)

Gledhill (1991, 1998), Knight (1998), and Lomnitz-Adler (1992) have argued that rural Mexico has a long history of cacicazgos that arise in the service of government interests only to be replaced when they no longer fit the agenda of a new regime. I will argue that we have reached another such historical moment-characterized by rapid, radical change-- supporting the formation of new regional elites. First, this case is useful because it challenges dominant notions concerning rural caciquismo (as parochial, antidemocratic, often violent) by arguing that this new elite might best be thought of as "techno-caciques"-well-educated political and economic entrepreneurs with regional or national connections and aspirations. …

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