Joseph U. Lenti
For seventy-five years the Mexican government allocated private and public land to people who needed it—and lots of it. An average of 1.3 million hectares were redistributed annually from 1917 to 1992, for a total of nearly 1 million square kilometers, or, almost exactly half of the nation’s arable area. On the other hand, serious flaws in government policy, coupled with macroeconomic, demographic, and environmental phenomena, undermined the program and turned its signature component, the ejido, into a synonym for rural backwardness and poverty. Thus, in spite of the astonishing volume of redistributed land, many assert that revolutionary land reform in Mexico failed: that it did not permanently improve the lives of rural land recipients as much as convert them into clients of the government.
Throughout the 20th century, the Mexican government used road building to incorporate the country’s disparate regions within the national economy and to enhance the visibility of remote populations. Since Independence, one of Mexico’s most economically and politically marginal states has been Chiapas. Yet, road building and state building efforts here have been inconsistent and contested since the 1920s. As seen in the case of Chiapas, the Mexican government made efforts to use road building as a state building tool and the limits to such work. Road-building efforts in the periods of 1924–1940 and 1990–2015 embodied the specific political, economic, and social elements of the time, and shedding light on the uneven nature of state building during each period. Roads—one promise of the 1910 Revolution—were slow to arrive in Chiapas in the 1920s and 1930s as fighting waned, due to government neglect and to the influence of local elites who were skeptical of integration with the country. It was not until the presidency of Lázaro Cárdenas (1934–1940) that the Federal Government began to invest in road building in the state. Yet, such efforts were limited, and Chiapas remained economically and politically marginalized until the 1990s. Following the 1994 Zapatista uprising, the Federal Government began to invest in infrastructure development so as to facilitate economic expansion and ensure national security. Government officials felt that, by expanding the state’s agricultural export and tourism industries, they would be able to co-opt Zapatista sympathizers to work in support of the state’s vision for the country. In 2009 and again in 2014, the government began construction on the San Cristobal-Palenque Highway project, which was designed to achieve these goals. Nevertheless, both times the project faced strong opposition leading to its cancellation and demonstrating, again, the limits of state building efforts in Chiapas.