Coloniality of Power and the Developmentalist State in Mexico

Rosalba Icaza

Is Mexico a developmental state? This question is a reasonable point of departure in certain approaches to political science concerned with the classifications and typologies of acts of governing. For example, in the context of Latin America, according to Schneider, el estado desarrollista – the developmental state – of the 1960-1970s in Mexico and Brazil was a nationalist project led by interventionist policies focused on  industrialization which were characteristically non-democratic.

The decades of 1930-1950s were known as the Mexican miracle due to fast state-led industrialization and sustained high levels of economic growth that financed the creation of the national social welfare institutions of the country. The beneficiaries of this project of nation and state building were far from being the originary owners of the lands called Mexico. Indeed, indigenous peoples were targeted by the state politica indigenista, as a set of narratives celebrating the indigenous past (deemed to be long-gone) and assimilationist policies enacted via the social welfare institutions of the country.

The 1910 Mexican Revolution’s goals of “Tierra y Libertad” – land redistribution and the overthrowing of Dictator President Porfirio Diaz – paved the way for the establishment of a constitutional republic. In this new regime’s constitution (1917) the Mexican nation’s right to rule and transform land property, including water and oil, for the fair and equitable distribution of public wealth was enshrined in Article 27 (Kourí 2017). Later, this article was reformed to establish legal protections to communally owned lands and the institutionalization of “Ejidos” – communal forms of decision making on land tenure and production – followed by massive land redistribution under the socialist presidency of Lazaro Cardenas (1934-1940).

As a developmentalist Mexican state was consolidated, so too was a corporativist centralist authoritarian regime.

As a developmentalist Mexican state was consolidated, so too was a corporativist centralist authoritarian regime. Indeed, since the consolidation of the revolutionary regime in Mexico, the prominent role of the state and its mechanisms of control, legitimisation, and political mediation (PRI and Presidency), extensively – although not entirely –shaped many aspects of social life in the country. Corporate and authoritarian practices of the PRI/Presidency/state complex in Mexico were legitimate as far as these were efficient (read wide-ranging) in the allocation of material and political resources among the different sectors of society (see: Icaza 2004). 

In the early 90s, the essay “Liberalismo Social, nuestro camino” – Liberal Socialism, our path – posited a new doctrine for the PRI. President Carlos Salinas de Gortari (1988-1994), a Harvard graduate in public administration and economics, justified state reform in Mexico away from developmentalism. In particular, he introduced guidelines for a re-interpretation of the Mexican Revolution’s social-welfare institutions and proposed their adaptation via a set of (neo)liberal reforms (see Aguilar 1996).

The new role of the Mexican state as a mediator of agreements between mostly transnational private actors in economic areas such as telecommunications, highways, ports, and so on was central in this adaptation. This was extended via a discursive shift from the duty of the Mexican state in providing access to land, education, health, housing, and so on towards their efficient and competitive delivery as ‘services’ (see: Icaza 2004).   

As a result, new corporate formulas coherent with the neoliberal economic reforms were implemented as official responses to re-establish political control and legitimacy. Some of these promoted the individual’s self-sufficiency to overcome socio-economic marginalisation, underscoring the central role of private actors in Mexico’s development, such as in the anti-poverty programmes: Solidaridad, PROGRESA and Oportunidades. These internationally praised initiatives, privileged a philanthropic approach to social rights while promoting the involvement of private intermediary organisations such as NGOs and private foundations to the detriment of class related or broad popular organisations (see: Icaza 2004). 

As the re-distributive social commitment of the developmentalist (revolutionary) state in Mexico shifted, so too did its traditional sources of legitimacy and power. Alongside this, laws also changed with important effects in society. Perhaps one of the most striking examples of the shifting mode of governance was the 1992 reform of Article 27. In that year, the agrarian reform officially ended, and the Mexican state was discharged from its duty of re-distributing land to landless peasant communities. Ejido, as a form of collective patrimony institutionalized after the Revolution, lost its legal backing at the same time (see: Torres-Mazuera 2013).The interest in the political economy of a shifting developmental state like Mexico is representative of a particular scholarship

The interest in the political economy of a shifting developmental state like Mexico is representative of a particular scholarship committed to a critical historical, sociological, political, and cultural revision of mid-twentieth-century state models of governance under neoliberalism. This scholarship has been particularly relevant for understanding the complex and wide effects of neoliberalism for Mexican society. For example, the state’s shift since the mid 1980s from being a provider of public goods to an actor safeguarding the free market and market mechanisms was marked by both, democratization, and authoritarian trends within the sphere of civil society (see: Olvera 2002, Icaza 2004).

… the scholarship critical of a neoliberal turn in Mexico’s political economy worked with a particularly uncontested idea: that Mexico was/is a nation

This same scholarship has also pointed at the convergence between corporatist authoritarian governing elites and liberal impulses from outside these same elites about the benefits of a less interventionist state for the efficient management of the national economy. Interestingly, the scholarship critical of a neoliberal turn in Mexico’s political economy worked with a particularly uncontested idea: that Mexico was/is a nation.

Mexico: A State, not a nation

In her pathbreaking essay Un Mexico sin Nosotros – Mexico without us – Ayuuk linguist Yasnaya Elena Aguilar Gil understands Mexico “as State, not a nation.” She further adds that “Mexico is a State that has encapsulated and denied the existence of many nations”. From this point of departure, Mexico as a developmentalist state reveals its violence also as a project of ethnocide. The denial of this sort of violence that pre-assumes Mexico as one nation was, and still is, characteristic of center-left progressive governments, including the current one led by President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO) and his Cuarta Transformacion (4T) – Fourth Transformation.

For President AMLO, the government is on the fourth major transformation in the country, that includes the Mexican independence of 1810, the country’s secular reform of 1857, and the Revolution in 1910. The 4T government has also been named as “the only peaceful social movement in Mexico and all its dissenters are deemed ‘conservatives” including right wing political parties, neoliberal technocrats, middle classes, but also environmentalists and radical feminists (See: Hernandez Navarro in Aguilar 2020).

The megaproject Tren Maya – Maya Railroad, one of the flagship programs of the 4T government is a good example of a current developmentalist state-led project aimed at ‘modernizing’ indigenous communities in the south of Mexico. The International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA) reported that Tren Maya’s patronizing undertones and openly non-democratic imposition has been rejected by numerous indigenous communities.

Tren Maya articulates how a progressive leftist government conceives a developmentalist state as the only possible horizon of political life after neoliberalism

Tren Maya articulates well how a progressive leftist government conceives a developmentalist state as the only possible horizon of political life after neoliberalism in Mexico. Interestingly, this horizon of possibility has been the predominant perspective among progressive leftist academia too who were primarily concerned with the social justice costs of the ascendance and consolidation of neoliberal state policies in Mexico since the early 1980s.

Mexico: an imagined mestizo nation then and now

On the 31st of December 1993, el Mexico imaginario, the imaginary Mexico, the Mexico of the 1%, went to bed dreaming about their country’s entrance to the exclusive club of developed nations. In the morning, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) signed between Canada, Mexico, and the US would be officially inaugurated. This imaginary Mexico had embarked in a transformation of its political economic governance and of its own self-image: from a nationalist state to a nation open for business.

Nonetheless, the end of the dream for the imaginary Mexico started in the early hours of January 1st, 1994 when the Mexico profundo, the deep Mexico rose once more. The Ejercito Zapatista de Liberacion Nacional (EZLN) an army of mostly indigenous peasants of Maya descent took several cities in the southern state of Chiapas declaring war on the Mexican government.

The EZLN’s key demands included work, land, housing, food, health, education, independence, liberty, democracy, justice, and peace. The EZLN also demanded a country in which indigenous people, the original owners of the land called Mexico, wouldn’t ever be excluded from it again: “Nunca mas un Mexico sin nosotros”.

In the monocultural eyes of the neoliberal technocrats in power, a state like Mexico, the product of a social revolution that had constitutionally enshrined all of the Zapatistas’ demands as rights, their subsequent uprising seemed like an anachronism. In the monocultural eyes of a progressive left in power today, the Zapatistas’ rejection of Tren Maya and the 4T government are signs of its inability to understand that a developmental state has returned to power.

For mestizas like me, educated to accept the myth of Mexico as a nation, the Zapatistas’ uprising and its rejection of the 4T and Tren Maya, shattered the myth of one nation. It also revealed that the developmental state that has educated us and provided us with a sense of belonging exists thanks to its coloniality. Coloniality is a term coined by sociologist Anibal Quijano to delve into the nature of the nation-state and the role that race as a social classification plays in the establishment of modern institutions, including nations and states (see Gandarilla Salgado, Garcia Bravo and Benzi 2021) .

The EZLN uprising and rejection of state-led developmentalism are presented here as one of the many instances when Mexico profundo articulates the on-going violence of coloniality of the Mexican post-revolutionary corporatist and developmentalist state.

… the Mexican post-revolutionary project of nation and state emerged after 400 years of colonization by the Spaniards

To be more precise, the Mexican post-revolutionary project of nation and state emerged after 400 years of colonization by the Spaniards. This was followed by 100 years of civil war between liberal and conservative factions fighting for a model of governance like the United States federal republic or for a constitutional monarchy respectively. That post-colonial and post-revolutionary project of nation and state was mobilized by a small elite of highly educated and/or prosperous and powerful criollos (Spanish origin born in Mexico) and mestizos (mix of Spanish or criollos and local indigenous population).

In this process, a notion of an indivisible Mexican ‘nation’ was cemented as emerging from an exoticized but already disappeared pre-Hispanic past. Mestizaje was then a project of state led assimilation and ethnocide (see: Yasnaya Elena Aguilar Gil) that worked via developmentalist institutions that took mestizos’ lifeworld and aspirations as the norm. In this imagined mestizo nation, whiteness became an aspiration and a sign of betterment of the race (see: Monica Moreno Figeroa).

It is well documented how the publicly funded education system and the teaching of Spanish as the official language of the country worked to des-indianizar indigenous communities (undo their indigeneity) (Castellanos Guerrero 2000, Stavenhagen 2011). In this way, one of the pre-conditions for accessing the benefits of the Mexican state institutions was, as is today, the erasure of non-mestizo life worlds and politics. And under neoliberal restructuring, multicultural neoliberalism (see Hale 2008) policies and state institutions worked to include ‘minoritized’ people in Mexico but for Yasnaya Elena Aguilar Gil only as individual cultural representatives and not collective political actors.

Mexican developmental state: a monocultural project of destitution and erasure

Despite the land reform and redistribution of the 1930-1940s, land grabbing of the best indigenous owned lands remained endemic. Furthermore, the process of import substitution as a cornerstone of the 1950-1970s developmentalist strategy mainly served urban-centered modernization and growth. This strategy was in part subsidized by price controls of food products coming from the countryside and enforced by the state. Industrialization meant misery and poverty in the countryside and particularly among indigenous communities who as landless peasants ended up working for big plantations or never left the plantations and haciendas even after 1930s land reforms.

Meanwhile, the project of a unified mestizo nation enacted through state institutions and policies that reproduced infantilized representations of indigenous peoples as always underage persons in need of tutorship also worked to erase Afro-descendant populations. This is why mestizaje is also an anti-blackness project of the colonial and post-independence nation as argued by Monica Moreno Figueroa.

It is from the erasure of coloniality (of power, gender, knowledge) that the developmental state reveals its violence towards the non-normative other, named and represented as backward, underdeveloped, always lacking, racialized gendered “Other”. It is from coloniality that our willingness and desire to access, to be named, recognized, included, educated, healed, housed by the institutions of the state reveals how deeply implicated our lives are in the reproduction of coloniality as citizens of states that call themselves a nation.

Undoing erasures, undoing coloniality

As a child in the 1980s, history classes fascinated me. I particularly enjoyed the way I was told the story of the foundation of Mexico as a nation that was created by the fusion of two great civilizations: the Spanish and the Aztec civilization. As products of that fusion, we were mestizos who spoke Spanish but preserved Aztec names in our own cities, food, and even in our Catholic religious rituals characterizable as syncretic. We were told so many times this story until it became an unquestioned truth.

This contribution doesn’t tell a new story about the building of Mexico as a nation but tells it from a different angle: from what that unquestionable story erased

This contribution doesn’t tell a new story about the building of Mexico as a nation but tells it from a different angle: from what that unquestionable story erased. For some, this erasure is conceptualized as coloniality of power. More recent iterations of the notion of coloniality of power (gender, knowledge, being) not only point at what this term helps us to name – what modernity erases – but also that it emerges from within the margins of the epistemic territory of modernity (see Vazquez 2019) contributing to the undoing, unlearning and de-silencing of those erasures.

Perhaps telling the story from angles produced as non-existent, might help us to undo part of the damage done by their erasure. Perhaps.

Rosalba Icaza is a decolonial feminist activist-scholar of Mexican origin and Associate Professor in Global Politics, Gender and Diversity at the Institute of Social Studies, Erasmus University of Rotterdam. She is member of the Red Transnational Otros Saberes (RETOS), and co-editor in chief of the autonomous publishing house Editorial Retos. Rosalba collaborates with Suumil Mookt’an Tejiendo Saberes para la Vida Comunitaria, Sinanche, Yucatan, Mexico. Rosalba co-edited with Xochitl Leyva En tiempos de Muerte. Cuerpos Rebeldias Resistencias; a collection of essays in Spanish by women and non-binary people of color-academic-activists from across Abya Yala, Europe, the Caribbean and Australia. Her latest article ‘Decolonial feminism and global politics: Border thinking and vulnerability as a knowing otherwise’ has been re-printed in 2021 in a collection by Oxford University Press.

Header Image Credit: Author supplied image


Icaza, Rosalba 2021. ‘Coloniality of Power and the Developmentalist State in Mexico’ Discover Society: New Series 1 (4):