The Unsettled Sector
NGOs and the Cultivation of Democratic Citizenship in Rural Mexico
Analiese Richard



Valentina Herrera was the first female president of the governing board of Hidalgo Development (HD) and my first guide to the political and social changes that nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) like HD have helped to cultivate in rural Mexico.1 Her life story parallels the rise and fall of Mexico’s post-Revolutionary social order. Doña Valentina was the youngest of 17 children, a member of the new generation of campesinos born after the Revolution ended. A native of the tiny village I call El Ocote in the state of Hidalgo, she was born at a time when the Tulancingo River still flowed high along its banks, feeding the haciendas that provided the capital of Mexico City with livestock, textiles, and pulque,2 the cactus beer that served as the elixir of the working classes. In the 1930s and 1940s, her parents and other relatives helped to found the ejidos of El Ocote, San Vicente, and San Isidro, fighting a long battle to wrest small, arid plots of land from wealthy landowners. They struggled together to build new agricultural communities and to forge the social networks that tied them to the outside world through the Catholic Church, schools, and the official state party, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (Partido Revolucionario Institucional, or PRI). They were desperately poor, Doña Valentina said, but in those days one could get ahead by working hard and counting on the labor of a large family. Her parents and siblings worked the communally held plot assigned to them by the ejidal council for subsistence and earned cash income by sharecropping on private lands in the nearby town of Alcholoya.

In the days before television’s glow illuminated campesino homes, rural families spent their evenings engaged in storytelling. Doña Valentina remembered many of the tales her parents and grandparents told about the horrors of life on the haciendas—the backbreaking labor and piercing hunger, the treacherous credit arrangements at the company store, and the indifference of the priests who occasionally visited to conduct baptisms and burials. Recalling stories about one overseer who forced men to beat their wives in public for his amusement, she once confessed to me that had she been present, she might not have been able to restrain herself (aguantarse) as her forebears had. When I asked her how people endured such abuse, she answered quietly, “If they protested and were killed, who would look after their children?” Her parents were “hard people,” she said, because they lived hard lives and sought to instill in their children the discipline and endurance (aguante) they would need to survive. As a girl, Doña Valentina’s grandmother had spent her days on her knees, scrubbing the stone floors of the hacienda and grinding the maize for the hacendado’s household by hand. But with the founding of the ejido, the campesinos’ labor became their own. Because of her parents’ sacrifice and hard work, Doña Valentina said, her own generation could take advantage of new opportunities.

In the late 1940s, the PRI launched a series of efforts to modernize agriculture and organize the campesinos politically. Many elderly ejiditarios associated the PRI with the memory of President Lázaro Cárdenas, who championed the agrarian reforms of the 1930s. However, for many members of Doña Valentina’s generation, the gratitude they felt toward the PRI was mixed with resentment. In Hidalgo, as in other regions of the country, the dawn of nationalist development meant a shift in cultures of politics but not a major change in the composition of the political class. The party helped to create the ejidos but also used campesinos as political pawns. Although large landowners (for the most part) no longer exercised direct control over rural residents, the same ruling families now enjoyed prominent positions in the PRI hierarchy as well as in the state and municipal governments. In Hidalgo, a small number of powerful families have managed to maintain political control for extended periods through a combination of clientelism and violence. Indeed, Hidalgo has long been used as a training ground to prepare PRI functionaries for national posts or leadership positions within the party structure. Two important figures in current President Enrique Pena Nieto’s administration, Interior Minister Miguel Angel Osorio Chong and former Attorney General Jesus Murillo Karam, are both former PRI governors of Hidalgo. Thus the party’s incorporation of campesinos as citizens of the modernized nation through education and development programs seemed, to Doña Valentina, more like paternalism than an invitation to equal participation in public life.

El Ocote, whose tiny parcels of three hectares each had been wrested from large landowners in two disjointed tracts, suffered more than most from lack of access to water. As a child, Doña Valentina and her neighbors had to travel long distances to the Tulancingo River to wash clothes, water their animals, and fetch water for cooking and drinking. By the time she married at age 17, the ejido’s population had grown and land was already becoming scarce. The residents of El Ocote were not well connected to PRI brokers (caciques) in the state government, and so little of the new government aid for agricultural development reached them outside of election years. The government schoolteacher assigned to the village rarely appeared. By the 1970s, some of the younger men from El Ocote began to migrate temporarily to Puebla to work in construction and industry. Hard work and aguante were no longer sufficient to make a living and raise one’s family, and little relief was forthcoming from government agencies or the church. Rather, a new institutional form—the nongovernmental organization—began to insert itself into the life of rural Hidalgans.

Hidalgo Development was the first to arrive in the late 1970s. HD undertook an intensive program of infrastructure and cooperative development projects that helped to transform the Tulancingo Valley into a small-scale dairy-producing region. It was HD that coordinated the project to perforate El Ocote’s first irrigation well in 1986, enabling residents to access regular water supplies for the first time. A series of productive and educational projects followed, and Doña Valentina began to participate in HD’s retreats, or encuentros. Doña Valentina’s husband, Don Emiliano, recalled that as a young bride she had been shy and quiet. Now he complained that she was never at home because she was always out “getting involved in other peoples’ affairs.” Although she described herself as a housewife, through her participation in HD’s various projects over the years she also became a catechist, a rural health worker, the organizer of a revolving microcredit cooperative, and eventually the leader of HD’s governing board. For Doña Valentina, the arrival of Hidalgo Development marked a turning point both in the life of El Ocote and in her vision of herself as a citizen. Through her participation in HD projects, she told me, she came to relate her experiences and those of her relatives and neighbors to the struggles of rural people in other regions, and eventually even other countries. As she began to understand her life in a broader social, political, and economic context, her sense of herself as a social actor also shifted. Involvement in “other people’s affairs” became something akin to civic duty.

I first met Doña Valentina in 1996, two years after the start of the Zapatista rebellion. On January 1, 1994, the day the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) took effect, indigenous rebels calling themselves the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional, EZLN) occupied several towns in the impoverished southern Mexican state of Chiapas. Denouncing the Mexican government’s neoliberal policies, they demanded respect for indigenous rights, land reform, and democracy. Chiapas became the site of a low-intensity war in which the Mexican government attempted to wear down rebel support bases, invading civilian areas and unleashing a humanitarian crisis. As participants in a trina-tional NGO-based human rights observation mission to the conflict zones of Chiapas, Doña Valentina and I were assigned to the same delegation. Together we visited three Mayan towns, where we collected testimonies from residents and documented evidence of military incursions and human rights abuses. I admired her from the start—the way she took charge of a room, the way she dispensed advice in the form of proverbs, the powerful effect of her words. She only really got going after the official testimonies had been taken down, when she sat down in a circle with the women of the villages we visited to compare experiences and organizing strategies. The seasoned NGO leader I came to know through those visits bore little resemblance to the shy young bride Don Emiliano remembered. She felt a deep responsibility to listen to the concerns of her fellow citizens, to help ensure that their voices were heard, and to hold the government accountable both for the physical violence it perpetrated and for the years of systematic marginalization and neglect that had led to the rebellion.

In 2002, when I returned to the Tulancingo Valley to undertake this ethnographic study, I looked forward to visiting Doña Valentina first. Two years earlier, in 2000, a broad-based coalition of NGOs and social movements had helped to bring about the historic opposition victory of President Vicente Fox. By the time I returned to El Ocote, however, a mood of disenchantment had begun to set in. Many of the transformative possibilities promised by Mexico’s internationally celebrated “democratic transition” had already been foreclosed or rerouted. The community was disappearing as the markets for maize and milk crumbled, forcing young people to move north in search of work. It appeared that campesinos were once more being pushed toward the sidelines of Mexican modernity, perhaps for the final time. In Doña Valentina’s kitchen, we took stock of the changes together.

“Ya no se de que esta hecha esta gente [I just don’t know what these people are made of anymore],” she sighed, gazing out of her kitchen window at the dried-up fields, the soil too hard to plow because the rains were so long overdue. She and I stood before the stove, making tortillas and reminiscing about our time together in Chiapas. A framed picture I took of her with children from one of the villages we visited hung over the table, next to the grade-school diploma she had earned at age 55. “It’s hard to believe that was almost six years ago,” I said. “So much has changed since then.” “So much and so little,” Doña Valentina replied. “Sometimes I wonder what it would take for revolution to come again. ¿Hasta donde aguanta la gente? [How much of this can the people take?],” she sighed. “But now that the PRI is no longer in power, no one is sure who or what to rebel against.” As the heat from the comal, a flat, smooth metal griddle, overtook the warmth of the sun beaming through the kitchen window, Doña Valentina undertook a characteristically concise explanation of the problem. “It’s like this, mija,” she said, wiping her hands on her apron and sitting in a chair. “Antes a los campesinos el gobierno nos daba atole con un dedo. Ahora ni te dan ni te dejan. Ahí esta el problema [Before, the government spoon-fed the campesinos. Now they neither give us anything nor allow us to do things for ourselves].” The double meaning of her words became apparent over the course of my fieldwork in Hidalgo. Government divestment from the countryside and the neoliberal trade policies that accompanied it constituted a withdrawal of resources from rural communities while also limiting their ability to succeed at creating development alternatives by working with NGOs. At the same time, while the government engaged in less ideological “spoon-feeding” of campesinos, rural issues could no longer gain political traction according to the established rules of the game. Campesinos had gone from being treated as unruly children to being mostly ignored or regarded as folkloric relics by the political class. Nonetheless, it was clear that the work of NGOs from the late 1970s on had helped to cultivate changes in both ideas and practices of citizenship in rural Hidalgo.

What role have NGOs played in cultivating democratic citizenship? Since the end of World War II, our world has been shaped by struggles over the meanings and uses of democracy. With the fall of the Berlin Wall, democracy’s triumph was proclaimed, but its problems and possibilities remained an open question. An ensuing third wave of democratic transitions in Latin America, Eastern Europe, and the Pacific failed to obey normative models, proving to be more complicated and ambiguous than anticipated, and ultimately prompting social scientists to hyphenate the concept itself.3 At the same time the vitality of civic life in established democracies steeply diminished as a result of the growing influence of big business and increasing citizen apathy toward participation in traditional institutions and political processes (Gagnon and Chou 2014, 4). At the close of the twentieth century, NGOs announced themselves as new kinds of actors with the potential to transform the relationship between states and civil society on a global scale by strengthening civic engagement and supplementing traditional institutions. In the intervening decades, they have grown in number and reach to become normalized as global actors. NGOs have alternately been lauded as tools for empowering the poor and disenfranchised and critiqued as accomplices in the creation of nonelected forms of neoliberal governance. However, the NGO as an institutional form remains poorly understood. Although NGOs are often distinguished from state and market institutions, this study reveals the continuity in practice between public and private fields of power. Indeed, NGOs become instruments for producing such continuities through the work they perform on and through notions of public morality and active citizenship.

This book analyzes the often contradictory modes of civic and social engagement facilitated by NGOs during Mexico’s democratic transition. The changes cultivated by these organizations cannot be properly understood without considering the relationship of NGOs to earlier historical forms of communitarian relations. Although NGOs may constitute a novel form of organization, the modes of engagement they foster are ultimately related to much older philanthropic, religious, and civic traditions rooted in the historical and cultural terrains of specific regions. This study analyzes the growth of the NGO community of Tulancingo, Hidalgo, from the 1970s on, examining the evolution of relationships to target communities, donors, international partners, state agencies, and political actors, and focusing on how the people behind them seek to make sense of and manage those connections. Uniform in appearance yet malleable in practice, NGOs bridge formal politics and public morality, citizenship and domestic life. Studying how they accomplish this yields fresh insight into the processes of democratic change.

Neoliberal Democracy

Latin America has been characterized as a global laboratory for neoliberalism, a testing ground for the utopian designs of neoliberal ideologues whose ability to carry out radical experiments in economic, political, and social restructuring was predicated on the region’s indebtedness and backed by hemispheric US military hegemony (Goodale and Postero 2013; Grandin 2006). Not surprisingly, the region has also incubated some of the most formidable challenges to neoliberal orthodoxy, including the neo-Zapatista rebellion, the rise of Hugo Chávez’s Bolivarian revolution, and the rewriting of the Bolivian constitution under President Evo Morales (Goodale and Postero 2013). Far from encountering a blank slate, the utopian plans of the Chicago Boys and the orthodoxy of the Washington Consensus were transformed by their encounters with complex, historically situated social and political terrains of specific regions.4 While its South American neighbors struggle to articulate a postneoliberal regional project, Mexico has instead undergone a period of retrenchment, producing profound economic and social contradictions that threaten its very social fabric. Over the last two decades Mexican political figures from the right and the center have increasingly adopted the language of democratic citizenship as a political tool, but the earlier identification of democratic principles with social equality seems to have been left aside.

Whereas classic Western liberalism dictated the separate delineation and governance of social and economic spheres by a central state, neoliberal philosophy introduces the predominance of the economic over the social and the dispersal of governmental power through a variety of sites and establishments (Foucault 2000; Fraser 2003). The logic of the market comes to stand in as the organizing principle in the relationship between state and society. Although neoliberal reforms have often been presented as a natural result of the evolution of the global economy, “a bundle of economic policies with inadvertent political and social consequences,” Brown insists on the importance of viewing neoliberalism as a “political rationality that both organizes these policies and reaches beyond the market” to reorganize society and culture (2003, 2, emphasis in original; see also Harvey 2005). However, neoliberalism does not just arrive in specific sites as a fully formed system and unfold according to its own inner logic. Instead, relations of rule must be worked out in a space of “cultural intimacy” (Herzfeld 1997) where neoliberal rationalities and techniques are combined with a sort of political and cultural savvy about how things get done and an intimate knowledge of the limits of state power. This is certainly the way the term is used in Mexican activist circles, where neoliberalismo refers to an economic model imposed by Mexican elites and technocrats with support and pressure from abroad, despite the widespread political opposition it has provoked and the deep social suffering it has caused.

In Latin America, neoliberal reforms have generally moved society in the direction of “market democracy” (Peck and Tickell 2002), in which the role of the state is confined to technocratic regulatory and security functions. Responsibility for social welfare and local governance is often decentralized and devolved onto private actors such as NGOs. This does not, however, lead to a withering away of the state. Throughout the period of neoliberal reforms, from the 1980s into the present, the state has retained its centrality as the primary reference point for citizen mobilization around political, economic, and social issues (Goodale and Postero 2013, 18–19). Indeed, as we shall see in Chapters 1 and 3, state agencies have become even more deeply imbricated in the lives of rural Mexicans, while forms of governance and of civic action have been diversified and decentralized.

The growth of the third sector in the neoliberal era has been accompanied by a displacement of narratives of national progress in favor of metaphors of social repair (Bornstein 2012, 16). Even in the homeland of Margaret Thatcher, who famously declared three decades ago that society as such no longer existed, increasing social marginalization (often associated with violence) and ecological destruction have given rise to the realization that mechanisms of social integration are not only valuable but also completely necessary. Hence the emergence of a new model of active citizenship in which individuals participate through volunteerism and philanthropic acts. In this paradigm, “citizenship is detached from its modern roots in institutional reform, in the welfare state and community struggles, and rearticulated with the more Victorian concepts of charity, philanthropy and self-help” (Hall and Held 1989, 16). NGOs have played important roles in this process by reworking existing practices of citizenship and communitarian relations. Because NGOs organize social action at multiple scales and across multiple contexts simultaneously, many times as intermediaries, the study of the NGO form aids in understanding the intersections of political, economic, and cultural transformation as well as the emergence of new forms of citizenship.

NGOs and Neoliberal Democracy

International organizations have existed in various forms since the nineteenth century; however, modern NGOs are a product of the post–World War II development era. The term “nongovernmental organization” was coined in 1945 during the constitution of the United Nations. Provisions were made in the intergovernmental organization’s charter for entities that were not states, political parties, or for-profit businesses to observe and comment on the proceedings. However, it was not until much later that the term came into common usage. Brian Smith (1990) explicitly linked the appearance of NGOs (especially those organized as nonprofit corporations) to moments of crisis in capitalist expansion. In Western Europe and North America, NGOs became more numerous beginning in the 1970s with the reorganization of the welfare state. Their rapid expansion into the global south accompanied the neoliberal reforms brought about by the Washington Consensus; in fact, in Mexico and many countries, the promotion of NGOs was an explicit goal of the World Bank and USAID, which viewed them as supplementing the downsized social role of the state as well as catalysts for democratic civic engagement, a stabilizing force for societies in crisis. At the same time, global communications technology made it easier for NGOs in different parts of the world to work together on large-scale problems that transcend national boundaries. The 1990s marked the rise of transnational issues networks, organizing NGOs and social movements around the world to advocate for human rights (including women’s rights and indigenous rights) and environmental issues (Keck and Sikkink 1998). They made their presence felt at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and organized the World Social Forum as a counter to the World Economic Forum held annually in Davos, Switzerland.

Global efforts by the World Bank, USAID, and private foundations such as George Soros’s Open Society Institute to encourage democratization and rule of law during the 1990s and early 2000s all promoted the growth of NGOs,5 based on the notion that a robust “civil society” could serve as a counter to the destabilizing effects of global economic restructuring. For states and corporations, the disembedding of social relations posed problems of governability and labor discipline. To communitarian activists, the problem was one of social anomie. For both these seemingly disparate camps, however, civil society marked the space of the changing social collective (Yar 2004). Global NGO networks were commonly theorized as representatives of an imagined global civil society, an autonomous space of creativity and resistance to the powers of both states and capital (Appadurai 1996, 2000; Comaroff and Comaroff 2000; Escobar 1995). For example, Appadurai argued that they

emerged to contest, interrogate, and reverse these developments and to create forms of knowledge transfer and social mobilization that proceed independently of the actions of corporate capital and the nation-state system (and its international affiliates and guarantors). These social forms rely on strategies, visions, and horizons for globalization on behalf of the poor that can be characterised as “grassroots globalization” or, put in a slightly different way, as “globalization from below.” (2002, 3)

However, this insistence on the emancipatory potential of NGO networks as communities of choice, both local and global, raises some important questions about power relations. It is difficult to argue that NGOs operate autonomously with respect to the states that regulate their existence and may provide them with funding, or with respect to corporate capital, which flows through both direct sponsorship and grant-making foundations. NGOs have become the preferred conduits for foreign development and humanitarian aid because they allow international agencies to bypass regimes they view as corrupt or inefficient and fit their proprietary aid models into local settings in a more direct way (Carroll 1992; Fischer 1997). Moreover, NGOs are simultaneously local and transnational, and their forms of intervention into the lives of local populations allow other transnational actors to circumvent states to enact their own programs of change. To challenge state strategies of rule, NGOs themselves may appeal to transnational ideals and networks (Fischer 1997). NGOs formulate agendas and organize social action in dynamic tension with both governments and corporations, remaking notions of citizenship and forms of civic action along the way.

Early attempts to theorize the proliferation of NGOs within a normative paradigm resulted in the elaboration of complex taxonomies and specialized terminology. Organizations were classified according to size and scale of operations (for example, local, regional, national, or global), as well as according to the kind of institutional relationships they participated in with governments and international organizations such as the United Nations and the World Bank. The fruit of these labors was an alphabet soup of acronyms (BONGOS, INGOS, GONGOS, and so on) that did little to clarify the practices and forms of thought that NGOs serve to facilitate in different contexts. While classical liberal state theory tends to imagine a clear divide between public and private fields of power, and hence between NGOs and the state, theories of governmentality have instead emphasized the continuities between state and civil society in terms of power relations. More recent studies tend to focus on the everyday practices of NGOs and what these reveal about the production of subjects and modes of expertise. Unlike classical liberal theory, these have also highlighted the unintended consequences of NGO projects and practices (Bernal and Grewal 2014, 4–5). I argue that despite the ways in which they are commonly distinguished from both state and market institutions within the normative liberal paradigm, NGOs work to supplement both states and corporate capital (Richard 2009).

To illuminate this aspect, I propose to analyze the NGO form as a quasi-object. The concept was originally elaborated by Michel Serres ([1980] 2007) and Bruno Latour ([1991] 1993) as a means of theorizing how objects constructed by human actors in turn come to act upon those subjects themselves. On the one hand, the quasi-object is a thing—a tool or form produced and deployed by human actors in order to accomplish a concrete objective. However, a quasi-object is not inert; nor is the human actor’s influence over it unidirectional. Once deployed in a specific context, the quasi-object acquires a kind of indirect agency in the sense that its use influences the behavior and worldview of the actors who use it, thus helping to reshape social relations. I propose to apply this concept to NGOs in two ways: to examine how the NGO form comes to be standardized in response to pressure from states and funders to render operations legible at a distance, and how NGOs in turn come to participate in the rationalization of social and political change. My aim is to ascertain the forms of thought and action, of sociability and of politics, enabled by the deployment of the NGO form in this specific historical and cultural context.

In Mexico, as elsewhere, NGOs have functioned as intermediaries in the reconfiguration of citizenship. In fact, Mexico’s NGO boom took place precisely at the intersection of a nationwide movement for democracy and civil rights, and a top-down program of neoliberal reforms that would dramatically alter Mexico’s economy. During the 1980s and 1990s, a group of activists in the Tulancingo Valley founded NGOs dedicated to promoting rural development, human rights, and environmental conservation because the existing institutions (governmental and religious) appeared to lack the capacity or will to address the region’s most urgent social problems: poverty, ignorance, disease, and environmental degradation. Through this work, they also sought to cultivate a new, more egalitarian vision of Mexican democracy. NGOs seemed to offer an institutional form distinct from but recognizable by the state, which they could use as a means of pressuring the state to fulfill the economic and political rights of marginalized citizens. Far from merely representing the preformed interests of a specific class or groups, however, these new Tulancingo NGOs became sites of cultural production—of practices, identities, and networks, and of the symbols and relationships that tie them to one another. Neoliberal democracy was brought into being through practice, involving the continual articulation of meaning and means.

Neoliberal Democracy and Mexico’s NGO Boom

Although few scholars agree on the precise moment at which Mexico’s transition to democracy began, most acknowledge the influence of the 1968 Tlatelolco massacre on the development of the NGOs, which would eventually lead the democratization movement of the late 1990s. Independent unions and student movements had been active for some time before this event, but the 1968 massacre marked a public loss of legitimacy on the part of the Mexican state. This was soon followed by a series of external blows to the PRI’s monopoly on power, including the 1980s’ debt crisis, which reduced the capacity of the corporatist apparatus to contain discontent through patronage, population growth leading to land invasions throughout the countryside, and a growing liberation theology movement that encouraged Catholics to question authoritarian hierarchies.

Mexico’s experiments with neoliberal restructuring began as a project of elite technocrats and politicians within the ruling party. In the wake of the lost decade of the 1980s, groups within the economics ministry, many of them trained in US universities, sought to “modernize” Mexico’s political economy by reducing state ownership and regulation while promoting trade and foreign investment. They sought primarily to leverage Mexico’s connections to the United States and during the last twenty years have increasingly emphasized this relationship over their ties with the rest of Latin America (Rus and Tinker Salas 2006, 7). President Carlos Salinas (1988–1994) promoted NAFTA as the key to Mexico’s entry into the first world, and even after the opposition victory of 2000, many of the tenets of his approach have been recycled by successive National Action Party (Partido de Acción Nacional, PAN) and PRI administrations. Political reforms were part of that package as a response to pressure from movements for human and indigenous rights and protest movements that resisted earlier rounds of structural adjustment, and as a response to the need to assure investors of the rule of law and political stability. However, Mexico’s one-party state was able to push through painful economic reforms as a result of a near monopoly on political power. The institutional reforms advocated by even the most progressive branches of the PRI were limited to what Centeno (1994) has called “democracy within reason”—cleaner elections accompanied by the cordoning off of economic policy from political contestation. However, the relative autonomy of those elites in instituting their reform program was attenuated after 1994. The eruption of the Zapatista rebellion and the popularity it enjoyed both at home and abroad made it impossible for the government to ignore resistance to neoliberalism or to contain it via the conventional combination of repression and patronage. In addition, the devaluation of the peso and the concomitant US bailout meant that much of Mexico’s economic policy would continue to be determined from without, according to Washington Consensus orthodoxy. Structural adjustment trimmed the legal responsibilities of the state for social services, and political reforms opened up new arenas for citizen participation in government.

The period of the 1990s was marked by an NGO boom in Mexico as organized groups sought to take advantage of these domestic openings and enhanced international funding opportunities. Various NGOs played a vital role in producing the democratic transition, but their modes of engagement with the state and international and domestic funders during this period and in the years directly following the 2000 elections would profoundly shape the future course of Mexican democracy.

Mexico is considered part of a larger third wave of democratic transitions that began in the late twentieth century. The transition paradigm launched during the Reagan administration aspired to provide a universal academic model for understanding political upheaval and change in authoritarian regimes. Democratization was portrayed as an orderly progression of key stages: opening (a period of political liberalization and struggle resulting in the weakening of the regime), breakthrough (the fall of the regime and the rise of a new system, marked by free elections), and finally consolidation (a slow process of institutional reforms and the strengthening of civil society and democratic culture) (Carothers 2002). Although this model was largely ahistorical, it was congruent with neoliberal orthodoxy, which proclaimed the primacy of economic freedom and implied that political freedom and stability would naturally follow. The transition model deeply influenced the agendas of major international foundations and funding agencies working in Mexico in the 1990s and early 2000s, especially with regard to projects aimed at supporting the consolidation stage. However, philosophical traditions dating back to the early days of the republic warned that entrenched relationships of social dependency posed a serious obstacle to the free participation of the marginalized classes in the public sphere, giving rise to a class of entrepreneurial political intermediaries (Hale 1989). Mexican intellectuals and international observers promoted the growth of a third sector composed of NGOs as an antidote to this problem of representation, a laboratory for producing active democratic citizens (Deakin 2001; Putnam 2000). Philanthropic and governmental efforts to foment civic engagement focused on developing an independent civil society as a step toward democratic consolidation (Carothers 2002). These efforts were often coterminous with economic development projects that encouraged various forms of participation by target populations as a means of organizing consent around and making recipients more responsible for project outcomes (Cooke and Kothari 2001). In this context, the proliferation of NGOs was regarded as an indication of the strength of civil society in overcoming corporatism and forging new forms of civic engagement (Olvera Rivera 1999a, 1999b; Verduzco, List, and Salamon 2002).

In practice, however, the political, economic, and social changes mediated by NGOs were much more complex and contradictory. Contrary to the assumptions of many transition theorists, civic associations have a long history in Mexico, predating both populism and revolutionary nationalism (Forment 2003). Carlos Forment argues that third wave transition models tend to overemphasize electoral politics and institutional change, obscuring some interesting continuities and long-term trends. Among them is the interaction between daily practices and institutional structures in the creation of a unique democratic tradition rooted in the idiom of civic Catholicism, which Forment describes as an ethic of reasoned self-rule enacted via a rich associational life, derived from the Jesuit doctrine of probabilism. He argues that civic democracy “understood in Toquevillian terms as a daily practice and form of life rooted in social equality, mutual recognition, and political liberty” (2003, xi) was already in existence in Mexico by the mid-nineteenth century, although it has sometimes coexisted and sometimes conflicted with authoritarianism. According to Forment, these civic democratic practices have at times enabled people to live “with their backs to the state” (xi). Although Forment’s central purpose is to argue for a new historical understanding of democratization in Latin America, his insights can be applied to interrogate the relationship between modern NGOs and earlier associational forms. In twentieth-century Mexican history, as we shall see later, NGOs emerged precisely as a means for people to “live with their backs to the state” and later became a means of organizing to hold the state accountable to citizens. However, the articulation between NGOs and antipolitics also aided their incorporation as partners in projects of neoliberal rule in ways that ultimately limit their social and political autonomy. In fact, strong tensions have emerged between some social assistance NGOs and others with more radical political positions during a period of retrenchment in which class divisions have deepened sharply (Shefner 2007, 184). Entrenched inequality remains as great a problem in the posttransition era as it was for neo-Tocquevillian analyses of transition that emphasized the impact of traditions of dependency and deference on the development of a democratic public sphere. A more nuanced account of how neoliberal democracy has been cultivated and contested in rural Mexico is made possible by attending to specific regional histories of capitalist development in connection with multiple translocal trajectories of political, economic, and cultural change. Viewed from an out of the way place like the Tulancingo River Valley, continuities over time in forms of rule and modes of civic action become more visible.


1. Names of individuals and places, along with identifying details, have been changed to protect the privacy of informants. The names of some active NGOs have also been changed because the purpose of this study is to reveal the possibilities and limits of the NGO form in transforming cultures of citizenship rather than to critique the practices of individual organizations.

2. Pulque is a mildly alcoholic beverage fermented from the juice of the maguey cactus. Traditionally it has been widely consumed by peasants in semiarid regions (such as the plains outside Tulancingo), where fresh water is not easily available. The maguey cactus has been cultivated since the second century CE in the Tulancingo area. In addition to its sap, used for making pulque, the plant provides fiber for rope and papermaking and has many culinary uses. During pre-Columbian times, pulque was a sacred drink, reserved for special occasions and restricted to certain social classes. After the Spanish conquest, its use became secularized and popularized; portions of pulque were included in the daily rations of miners and agricultural workers. During the colonial period, maguey began to be grown on a large scale in haciendas in order to supply the mining industry and the working classes of the capital. In the mid-nineteenth century, the opening of the railway between Veracruz and Mexico City enabled a pulque boom in Hidalgo by enabling cheap transportation to markets in the capital. Pulquerías became popular hangouts in working-class neighborhoods of the city. However, the Revolution destroyed much of the infrastructure that made this trade popular, and pulque’s association with rural people and the lower classes led to declining popularity during the heyday of Mexico’s modernization “miracle.” Today maguey plants are cultivated as boundary markers at the edges of agricultural plots, and most pulque production is carried out as a cottage industry or for household consumption.

3. For third wave democratization theory, see Huntington (1991). For examples of studies of hyphenated democracy, see Paley (2001).

4. The Chicago Boys were a cohort of technocrats who designed and carried out radical economic reforms in Chile under the Pinochet dictatorship (1973–1990). Many of them trained at the University of Chicago Department of Economics under Milton Friedman in the 1950s and 1960s and were strongly influenced by the anti-Keynesian current. The military dictatorship enabled Friedman and the Chicago Boys, with help from the United States, to forcibly institute radical economic reforms that would become the basis for neoliberal policies promulgated elsewhere in the 1980s and 1990s. See Valdes (1989), Silva (1991), and O’Brien and Roddick (1983). The term “Washington Consensus” was coined in 1989 by economist John Williamson to describe a package of market-based policy recommendations for confronting the economic crises experienced by Latin American countries in the 1980s. These recommendations represented a consensus among neoliberal think tanks and major Washington-based institutions, including the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, and the US government.

5. I have purposely not included the litany of NGO classifications now extant in the literature in this discussion (e.g., GONGO, INGO, BONGO). Most of these are formulated with respect to said organizations’ utility to international agencies as mediators for transition processes. Although policy makers find these endless recategorizations useful, I am engaged in a broader theoretical project for which these distinctions have little analytical usefulness. The Tulancingo Valley NGOs discussed in this book are for the most part organizations involved in some way in rural development efforts and are officially classified by the Mexican government as asociaciones civiles (civic associations).