Mexico: Migrants Getting Political but Not Driving Reform

By Michael S. Danielson*

A large group of people gathers in an airport.

Returning Mexican migrants are greeted upon their arrival in Mexico by Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto. / Presidencia de la República Mexicana / Flickr / Creative Commons

Mexican migrants who currently live in the United States or have returned home after spending many years abroad have become an important social and political constituency in the Mexican polity, but they do not uniformly enhance local democracy.  A growing body of research indicates that migrants affect the politics of their home towns and home countries through both direct and indirect channels.  Their departure releases pressure on prevailing authorities to reform, and the prospect of future migration causes citizens to disengage from the political process.  Friendships, alliances, and other contacts allow migrants to become intimately involved in their home communities from abroad as they communicate their attitudes and ideologies among themselves and friends and relatives back home.  Returning home with accumulated social, political, and economic capital also enables them to become influential leaders there.

  • Analysis of the municipalities to which U.S.-based migrants provide financial support, for example, shows that migrants are more likely to contribute where migrant civil society has become more deeply institutionalized at the state level and in municipalities and states with longer histories of migration.
  • A survey of more than 400 mayors in Oaxaca shows that migrants returning to their home communities who become mayors are more likely to be members of the popular classes than their non-migrant counterparts, suggesting that migration might be a pathway to power for non-elite individuals. But the same data also show that migrant mayors are just as likely to align with dominant political groups as with opponents of the status quo, suggesting the limits of their transformative and democratizing potential.

Field research shows different outcomes in different states.  In Oaxaca – where the exclusion of migrants from influence has alienated them from the governing party (an attitude further fueled by their experiences of exploitation and resistance as migrants in Mexico and California) – returnees tend to enter the political fray in opposition to dominant powers.  In contrast, the returning migrants who have been most influential in the states of Guanajuato and Zacatecas have tended to be mobilized by and act in support of the dominant parties in their states.  The institutionalization of the state-migrant relationship in these states facilitates migrant social and political engagement with governing parties.

  • Ethnographic data in 12 high-migration municipalities in Oaxaca, Guanajuato, and Zacatecas indicate, moreover, that the political engagement of returning migrants resulted in increased political competition that, in all but one case, caused factionalism and a divided opposition at best and deep, violent social conflict at worst. In the remaining six municipalities, dominant political actors either incorporated migrants into the prevailing system by establishing neocorporatist equilibria or successfully blocked the influence of migrant actors all together, despite high levels of migration.

Returning migrants’ political influence will only increase.  The historic flow – some 16 million Mexicans entered the United States in the 50 years since 1965 – has been reversed, as more migrants are returning to Mexico than entering the United States.  The economic, social, cultural, and political ties forged between communities on both sides of the border are growing, and the futures of the two countries are more intertwined than ever.  The economic and social importance of migration in some municipalities helps migrant political actors gain influence back home, and it can open up a pathway to local power for historically excluded social groups, even if – as in the cases that I have examinedthis influence has only rarely translated into fundamental changes in the way that politics are done.  The engagement of millions of Mexican migrants in their home towns has not resulted in thousands of political earthquakes, but rather the Mexican political system is incorporating these new actors without instituting fundamental changes to the way that politics are done.

 January 4, 2018

*Michael S. Danielson is CLALS Research Fellow and Visiting Professor at the University of California Washington DC Program.  His new book, Emigrants Get Political: Mexican Migrants Engage Their Home Towns, was published by Oxford University Press.  He has also participated in CLALS’ North America Research Initiative as a Pastor Scholar.

Mexico’s Teachers Between a Rock and a Hard Place

By Christian Bracho*

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Members of Mexico’s Coordinadora Nacional de Trabajadores de Educación (CNTE) at a mass mobilization in 2013. / Eneas De Troya / Flickr / Creative Commons

Teachers in Oaxaca and other Mexican states are increasingly fearful and resentful of both their union and the ruling Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI).  Since the 1970s, Mexico’s Coordinadora Nacional de Trabajadores de Educación (CNTE) has operated as a formalized dissident caucus within the Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores de Educación (SNTE), the national union that has been an essential part of state machinery since the 1940s and strongly aligned with the PRI.  CNTE rallied for many causes, such as union democratization, regional autonomy, and economic justice, and enjoyed the most popular support in the 1980s.  As they accumulated power in the 1990s in states like Oaxaca, CNTE leaders turned to neo-corporatist strategies to incentivize teachers’ participation in union mobilizations.  An extensive point system, for example, rewarded teachers for going to marches, camping out during strike periods, and attending rallies in Mexico City; teachers who failed to participate in a minimum amount of activities lost union privileges and benefits.  By 2005, Oaxaca’s union had split over its focus on politics rather than pedagogy.  Over the last ten years, dissident teachers have increasingly faced government pressure and violence.

  • In 2006, military police broke up a rebellion led by striking teachers in Oaxaca state, in which dozens of activists were killed. In 2013, the massive teacher strike against President Peña Nieto’s constitutional reforms – which would require states to implement national education policies – ended with the violent eviction of teachers from Mexico City’s zócalo.  In 2014, 43 student teachers in Guerrero state were massacred, and last year over a dozen protesters were killed in Nochixtlán, outside of Oaxaca’s capital city.

Although these incidents provide teachers’ unions considerable cause for continued mobilization, my research indicates that teachers in states like Oaxaca are less convinced that their ongoing struggles represent authentic political resistance.  Many say they are fulfilling syndical obligations – less a reflection of personal convictions – because attendance is recorded and assures payment.  Teachers tell me that they trust neither the government nor the union; they see government as an entrenched century-old political machine that has resurged with more impunity than ever, and the union – both nationally and regionally –as driven by special interests and cronyism.  Maestros feel they have little recourse but to fend for themselves and families.  They fear the violence that the government may visit upon them, but they also fear the public shaming they face if they criticize the union’s political tactics or support government reforms.

Education reform in Mexico is vital to improve the overall quality of teaching and learning – and to address the social and economic inequalities across the country.  Government action is essential to such efforts, but endemic corruption has stained the public’s image of national and state leaders, cultivating distrust of top-down policies.  The union is also essential to protecting teachers’ interests and challenging the hegemony of the national government, but its neo-corporatist strategies such as the point system delegitimize the activist banner waved by leaders in states like Oaxaca.  Especially with increasing symbolic and physical violence, teachers are in an impossible position, stuck between two forces they don’t trust and facing dire consequences if they challenge the authority of either the government or union.  Though dissident teachers are important to putting a check on government impunity and corruption, the union’s sustained mobilizations have negatively impacted their profession and student achievement.  While “the teacher fighting is also teaching” – a common refrain in Mexico – teachers must also be free to step away from the march and into the classroom.

March 16, 2017

* Christian Bracho teaches in the International Training and Education Program at American University’s School of Education.

Mexico’s Situation after Peña Nieto’s First Year at the Helm

By Manuel Suárez-Mier

President Enrique Peña Nieto / Photo credit: World Economic Forum / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

President Enrique Peña Nieto / Photo credit: World Economic Forum / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

After Enrique Peña Nieto’s first full year in office, the situation and prospects for his country are mixed. On the positive side, his structural reforms encompassing labor, education, taxation, finance, telecommunications, anti-monopoly and energy – the crown jewel – are unexpected and sweeping successes. Three previous administrations had failed to get such reforms through Congress in the preceding 18 years. The reforms, the success of which will depend on the implementing legislation, have attracted worldwide attention, generating a “Mexican moment,” and increasing substantially the flows of foreign direct investment.

On the dark side, however, Peña Nieto’s performance has been less than stellar regarding the pacification of the country from the violent onslaught over the last decade at the hands of bands of narcotraffickers. He changed the emphasis of the war on drugs from the stubborn fixation that it had in the Calderón administration (2006-2012), and he altered the terms of cooperation with the United States on this issue.  But he has been unable to stem the violence, which in some cases has worsened.  In the southwestern state of Michoacán, a new actor has emerged besides the narco and government forces: self-appointed groups of armed citizens that are battling the criminals while denouncing the government’s ineffectiveness.  Simply declaring victory in the war on drugs and moving on to other issues has not stemmed the violence.  Many observers believe that Peña Nieto’s security team is not up to par and that tolerating, and more recently collaborating, with the paramilitary groups is not the solution to the problem – and indeed will only worsen it down the road.  Also the terms of cooperation with the United States on the war on drug trafficking organizations are not clear yet.

It is too soon, of course, to declare victory on the reform front since the way these changes are implemented will determine their success or failure. We have had “Mexican moments” in the past, especially after NAFTA was approved in 1994, just to see them wiped out by government mismanagement and crises. But it is also too early to declare the final failure of the campaign to pacify the country since there have been some bright spots – notably in Ciudad Juárez. Coordination among security agencies has improved and the gendarmerie, a special rural federal police force that would replace the army in restoring the peace where violence rages, is being trained and will begin operations with 5,000 men in July.  But the appearance of paramilitary “self-defense” groups and the apparent alliance that they are forging with the federal government are deeply troubling considering what we have seen in other latitudes – especially Colombia – when such groups thrived. These contradictory trends explain why many people are enthusiastic about Mexico’s economic future while Peña Nieto’s approval ratings remain soft after a year of slow growth, tax increases, and unabated violence.

*  Manuel Suárez-Mier is Economist-in-Residence and Director of the Center for North American Studies in American University’s School of International Service.

What does the New Year hold for Latin America?

We’ve invited AULABLOG’s contributors to share with us a prediction or two for the new year in their areas of expertise.  Here are their predictions.

Photo credit: titoalfredo / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

Photo credit: titoalfredo / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

U.S.-Latin America relations will deteriorate further as there will be little movement in Washington on immigration reform, the pace of deportations, narcotics policy, weapons flows, or relations with Cuba.  Steady progress toward consolidating the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), however, will catalyze a shared economic agenda with market-oriented governments in Chile, Mexico, Peru and possibly Colombia, depending on how election-year politics affects that country’s trade stance.

– Eric Hershberg

The energy sector will be at the core of the economic and political crises many countries in the Americas will confront in 2014.  Argentina kicked off the New Year with massive blackouts and riots.  Bolivia, the PetroCaribe nations, and potentially even poster child Chile are next.

– Thomas Andrew O’Keefe

Unprecedented success of Mexico’s Peña Nieto passing structural reforms requiring constitutional amendments that eluded three previous administrations spanning 18 years, are encouraging for the country’s prospects of faster growth.  Key for 2014: quality and expediency of secondary implementing legislation and effectiveness in execution of the reforms.

– Manuel Suarez-Mier

Mexico may be leading the way, at least in the short term, with exciting energy sector reforms, which if fully executed, could help bring Mexico’s oil industry into the 21st Century, even if this means discarding, at least partly, some of the rhetorical nationalism which made Mexico’s inefficient and romanticized parastatal oil company – Petróleos Mexicanos (PEMEX) – a symbol of Mexican national pride.  Let’s see if some of the proceeds from the reforms and resulting production boosts can fortify ideals of the Mexican Revolution by generating more social programs to diminish inequality, and getting rid of the bloat and corruption at PEMEX.

– Todd Eisenstadt

Brazil is without a doubt “the country of soccer,” as Brazilians like to say.  If Brazil wins the world cup in June, Dilma will also have an easy win in the presidential elections.  But if it loses, Dilma will have to deal with new protests and accusations of big spending to build soccer fields rather than improving education and health.

– Luciano Melo

Brazilian foreign policy is unlikely to undergo deep changes, although emphasis could shift in some areas.  Brazil will insist on multilateral solutions – accepting, for example, the invitation to participate at a “five-plus-one” meeting on Syria.  The WTO Doha Round will remain a priority.  Foreign policy does not appear likely to be a core issue in the October general elections.  If economic difficulties do not grow, Brazil will continue to upgrade its international role.

– Tullo Vigevani

In U.S.-Cuba relations, expect agreements on Coast Guard search and rescue, direct postal service, oil spill prevention, and – maybe – counternarcotics.  Warming relations could set the stage for releasing Alan Gross (and others?) in exchange for the remaining Cuban Five (soon to be three).  But normalizing relations is not in the cards until Washington exchanges its regime change policy for one of real coexistence.  A handshake does not make for a détente.

– William M. LeoGrande

A decline in the flow of Venezuelan resources to Cuba will impact the island’s economy, but the blow will be cushioned by continued expansion of Brazilian investment and trade and deepened economic ties with countries outside the Americas.

– Eric Hershberg

In a non-election year in Venezuela, President Maduro will begin to incrementally increase the cost of gasoline at the pump, currently the world’s lowest, and devalue the currency – but neither will solve deep economic troubles.  Dialogue with the opposition, a new trend, will endure but experience fits and starts.  The country will not experience a social explosion, and new faces will join Capriles to round out a more diverse opposition leadership.  Barring a crisis requiring cooperation, tensions with the United States will remain high but commerce will be unaffected.

– Michael McCarthy

Colombia’s negotiations with the FARC won’t be resolved by the May 2014 elections, which President Santos will win easily – most likely in the first round.  There will be more interesting things going on in the legislative races.  Former President Uribe will win a seat in the Senate.  Other candidates in his party will win as well – probably not as many as he would like but enough for him to continue being a big headache for the Santos administration.  Colombia’s economy will continue to improve, and the national football team will put up a good fight in the World Cup.

– Elyssa Pachico

Awareness of violence against women will keep increasing.  Unfortunately, the criminalization of abortion or, in other words, forcing pregnancy on women, will still be treated by many policy makers and judges as an issue unrelated to gender violence.

– Macarena Saez

In the North American partnership, NAFTA’s anniversary offers a chance to reflect on the trilateral relationship – leaving behind the campaign rhetoric and looking forward. The leaders will hold a long-delayed summit and offer some small, but positive, measures on education and infrastructure. North America will be at the center of global trade negotiations.

– Tom Long

The debate over immigration reform in Washington will take on the component parts of the Senate’s comprehensive bill. Both parties could pat themselves on the back heading into the mid-term elections by working out a deal, most likely trading enhanced security measures for a more reasonable but still-imposing pathway to citizenship.

– Aaron Bell

The new government in Honduras will try to deepen neoliberal policies, but new political parties, such as LIBRE and PAC, will make the new Congress more deliberative. Low economic growth and deterioration in social conditions will present challenges to governability.

– Hugo Noé Pino

In the northern tier of Central America, despite new incoming presidents in El Salvador and Honduras, impunity and corruption will remain unaddressed.  Guatemala’s timid reform will be the tiny window of hope in the region.  The United States will still appear clueless about the region’s growing governance crisis.

– Héctor Silva

Increased tension will continue in the Dominican Republic in the aftermath of the Constitutional Tribunal’s decision to retroactively strip Dominicans of Haitian descent of citizenship.  The implementation of the ruling in 2014 through repatriation will be met with international pressure for the Dominican government to reverse the ruling.

— Maribel Vásquez

In counternarcotics policy, eyes will turn to Uruguay to see how the experiment with marijuana plays out. Unfortunately, it is too small an experiment to tell us anything. Instead, the focus will become the growing problem of drug consumption in the region.

– Steven Dudley

Eyeing a late-year general election and possible third term, Bolivian President Evo Morales will be in campaign mode throughout 2014.  With no real challengers, Morales will win, but not in a landslide, as he fights with dissenting indigenous groups and trade unionists, a more divisive congress, the U.S., and Brazil.

– Robert Albro

In Ecuador, with stable economic numbers throughout 2014, President Rafael Correa will be on the offensive with his “citizen revolution,” looking to solidify his political movement in local elections, continuing his war on the press, while promoting big new investments in hydroelectric power.

– Robert Albro

Determined to expand Peru’s investment in extractive industries and maintain strong economic growth, President Ollanta Humalla will apply new pressure on opponents of proposed concessions, leading to fits and starts of violent conflict throughout 2014, with the president mostly getting his way.

– Robert Albro