Association for Political and Legal Anthropology
Oral Presentation Session
In February 2019, Mexican media were saturated with images of indigenous people in the state of Morelos burning ballot boxes while chanting “our rights are not up for vote”. They attacked polling stations for a general referendum over a proposed thermoelectric project, on the grounds that the project posed elevated environmental and health risks for the communities in whose territories it was being built, and that the referendum itself violated their constitutional and human rights. This was the latest of several referenda mounted by new populist president Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) to build support for infrastructural mega-projects he deems essential to the nation’s economic future. These referenda have been criticized across the political spectrum as extralegal and improvisational, a “democratic simulation” taking place amid increasing state and social violence. In this paper, I ask what new visions of democratic participation emerge from the debates surrounding these popular protests, where divisions and distinctions are produced among marginalized groups (indigenous communities versus poor residents promised cheap electricity) rather than between urban liberal elites and subalterns. In AMLO’s Mexico, how do debates about the meaning of democracy come to be enacted via struggles to define the proper processes of participation? What happens to the rights discourses that grounded the earlier struggles of marginalized groups under neoliberalism? The ethnography of popular protests helps to illuminate the stakes of current conflicts in Mexico and elsewhere over who participates in decision-making, on what grounds, and by what means.