(Header: The Center for Social Development in Dzilám González, a municipality in northern Yucatán, which houses the local chapter of DIF (National System for Integral Family Development). Citizens often show up at these centers to request medical or financial assistance. Many DIF directors, as members of local government, were surveyed for this research. Photo credit: Siena Harlin.)

“I’m going to tell you a hypothetical story,” a student researcher reads off a tablet to the local official across the desk.

“Mariel is an active member of a political party, but is not member of government. She has contacts in government that inform her of governmental goods that arrive to her locality. When the goods arrive Mariel distributes them to whomever she wants. Mariel is active all year round, but especially during political campaigns” (Rizzo, 2017).

In the sparsely furnished office at a municipal government headquarters in Yucatán, Mexico, the official throws up a hand to halt the survey. “What is the real purpose of this survey?” she asks incensed, “Who do you really work for?”

The student researcher stares back, bewildered. The survey had been running smoothly for the first half hour. After speed-dialing the municipal president in the office next door and being reassured by him about the purpose of the survey, the official sits down, and resumes the survey, as though nothing had happened.

Unknown to the researcher, “Mariel” was in fact the name of a local, politically-motivated broker with whom the bureaucrat had regular contact. When the research briefly mirrored reality, it revealed how sensitive the research topic truly is in real life politics.

Why does “Mariel” matter?

Here’s how the survey is supposed to go. The local official (or bureaucrat) is presented with a hypothetical broker named Mariel, who uses their privileged knowledge and contacts in the government to reward party loyalty and set up quid pro quo exchanges. The official is then asked to rate specific actions by Mariel on a scale of “very good” to “very bad.” These include acts such as distributing food or doing favors in exchange for a vote for her party or rewarding party loyalists, although some morally ambiguous actions (like obtaining a scholarship for a friend) were included as well. The broker essentially serves as an ambassador for her political party, mobilizing citizens in election season and becoming the familiar face of the party within her locality.

Siena Harlin outside an ayuntamiento, equipped with ID badge, survey tablet, and a bag full of survey materials. Photo credit: Tesalia Rizzo.

The impact of clientelistic relationships between partisan brokers like Mariel, citizens and bureaucrats are the main interest of the GOV/LAB research team (led by PhD candidate Tesalia Rizzo), that I joined over the summer. Specifically, the research focuses on the way in which these relationships shape government performance and accountability to citizens. In most of poor or rural Mexico, citizens must often go to an informal, partisan broker if they wish to access government services and social programs, such as conditional cash transfers for low income families or government-provided roofs, firm floors, and stoves.

Through the distribution of these goods, brokers (or middlemen) cultivate political support and ensure the electoral success of the political party they support. Brokers are uniquely positioned to reward those who vote for their party and punish those who do not by giving or withholding their services. As community members, they personally know people and are better equipped to monitor and target specific clients than the more distant government.

This summer, GOV/LAB and a team of seventeen local research assistants surveyed over five hundred local municipal presidents and bureaucrats. The survey primarily aims to measure congruence between the needs of citizens and the political agendas of their elected and appointed officials. The data collected over the summer will be examined alongside citizen data gathered from a field experiment in fall 2016 and will help shed light on how informed local governments are of their constituents’ needs.

A pattern of patronage

A broker, simply put, is a middleman or intermediary who stands to gain something through the act of mediating (Lindquist, 2015). They are most commonly known today in the commercial context, in which they arrange transactions (such as purchasing or selling real estate) between buyers and sellers and generally take a commission of the sale. Brokers exist in many aspects of society and history, and have played a significant role in shaping colonial and post-colonial Mexico.

Born out of inequality in knowledge, resources, and social status, brokerage became a necessary step in the integration of smaller groups into a larger colonial society. Hailed by leading anthropologists Eric Wolf and Clifford Geertz in the 1950s and ‘60s as an “agent of social change”, the cultural or political broker is a complicated figure capable of assisting vulnerable clients to make claims while simultaneously disempowering them through cultivated dependence.

To better understand brokerage within Yucatecan municipalities, it must first be examined as a social phenomenon that has shaped Mexican society since la conquista. In the sixteenth and seventeenth century conquest and colonization of Mexico by the Spanish, cultural and political brokers were essential to controlling local populations and fitting them into a new social structure. Indigenous peoples were originally organized by encomiendas: labor groups of individuals “granted” to a family in good social standing, a system similar to slavery. The encomendado (the encomienda-holder) became the gatekeeper between the natives and the larger national system run by the Spanish Crown.

Despite Mexico’s successful bid for independence in the early nineteenth century, the institution of hacienda kept a large part of the colonial power structure firmly in place. Haciendas were large estates with permanent, resident (and mostly indigenous) workforces bound in place by debt and governed by overseers and the hacendado (estate owner). The alternative slavery of haciendas accounted for the majority of Mexico’s agricultural and mineral production up until the twentieth century. As under encomienda, the peasant community remained dependent on a single person or family for any entitlement under national law. The patrons, whether encomendados or hacendados, maintained a group of clients entirely dependent on the patron for entitlements (Wolf, 1956).

Campaign signs like this one adorn walls in every town in Yucatán. Political parties leave ads up year-round, election season or not, in a constant campaign for public opinion. PRI has been the dominant political party in Mexico for the last century, and hold the governorship of Yucatán today. Photo credit: Siena Harlin.

In the twentieth century, Mexico underwent drastic change, beginning with the Revolution of 1910 and the abolishment of the hacienda. The elimination of this obstructive intermediary reopened channels between the community and the nation. Through the revival of representative, elected government after the Revolution, government at every level became, at least in theory, more accessible by nature of its obligation to its constituents. But in practice, the most marginalized populations remain outside of the loop. The reopened lines of communication were quickly taken over by the hegemonic one-party system (the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI), which wasted no time in rebuilding strong networks of brokerage sustained through a strictly pyramidal party structure.

Brokers today

In today’s Yucatán, individuals, particularly in the poorest and most rural communities, commonly lack access to the benefits they qualify for and to their elected officials. This happens for a variety reasons, but most of all from a lack of awareness of resources and the know-how for accessing them (Rizzo 2017). Local brokers take advantage of this gap between need and provision by offering assistance in exchange for a vote for the broker’s political party.

Information inequality serves brokers. A society of perfect information and equal access to government would have no need for middlemen; however, like perfection, this world remains theoretical. By selectively distributing assistance and maintaining a smokescreen of discretion and inconsistency in the process, brokers in the municipalities of Yucatán force their clients into dependency and use it as leverage for political gain. This self-reinforcing cycle distances the government from its constituency and contributes to the disenfranchisement of the rural poor.

The accidental calling-out of the broker Mariel revealed that while bureaucrats generally tend to rate clientelism poorly on the survey, they are conscious of the actions of brokers and in many cases are complicit. In Mexico’s crowded eight-party political system, such methods might be considered an unfortunate political imperative. When ideology alone is not enough to inspire allegiance to a party, the promise of privileged access to government services and programs through a partisan broker might be.

Siena Harlin is majoring in Anthropology and minoring in Economics at Wellesley College (’18). Over the last two summers, Siena interned at the Field Museum of Natural History and worked as a research assistant in health economics and public policy at MIT. Upon graduation, she hopes to pursue her interests in development and aid organizations. Contact Siena at sharlin[at]wellesley.edu.

Works cited

Tesalia Rizzo, one of the lead researchers, with three Yucatecan student researchers, left to right:
Alexander Gutierrez, Tesalia Rizzo, Joice Zepeda, Rubén Dario Lezama. Photo credit: Ritz Evia.

Lindquist, J. (2015). “Anthropology of Brokers and Brokerage,” International Encyclopedia of Social and Behavioral Science, (2nd ed.). Amsterdam: Elsevier.

Rizzo, T. (2017). “How Experiencing Programmatic Claim-Making Discourages Clientelism” (Manuscript).

Wolf, Eric R. “Aspects of Group Relations in a Complex Society: Mexico,” American Anthropologist, New Series, Vol. 58, No. 6 (Dec., 1956)