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Tamara Wattnem


Tamara Wattnem is a PhD candidate in sociology at the University of Wisconsin Madison. She holds a Master’s degree in agroecology from the same institution. Broadly, her research interests include agrarian political economy, political sociology, environmental sociology, theories of development and economic change, (neo)extractivism, and Latin American history. She is especially interested in seed politics, the role of quality standards in agriculture and their implications for small-scale farmers, and more recently, the role of the state in shaping and regulating extractivism and land use priorities. Tamara was born and raised in Mexico City, Mexico.


Neoliberal Nationalism: The Scramble for Mexico’s Hydrocarbons

Pemex, the Mexican state oil company, was fiercely defended against privatization proposals throughout most of Mexico’s neoliberal period. This article tells the story of how and why Pemex survived in the context of the systematic privatization processes that began in the 1980s. It asks: How can we explain defiance to neoliberal principles in the energy sector from political actors that enthusiastically enacted numerous neoliberal policies? Relatedly, how and why was nationalism mobilized in relation to hydrocarbons throughout Mexico’s neoliberal period and with what consequences? Why was a far-reaching energy reform ultimately passed in 2013? I argue that oil was not opened up to private actors between the 1980s and 2012 for two major reasons, one political-economic and the other ideological. In political-economic terms, Pemex played a vital role in repaying the foreign debt after the 1980s debt crisis and served as collateral during Mexico’s 1994 financial crisis, and hence much of the petroleum rent flowed to private banks and International Financial Institutions anyways. Additionally, the Mexican state increasingly came to depend on oil income to guarantee its financial needs, which allowed it to bracket the implementation of a profound tax reform, to the benefit of economic elites. In ideological terms, the meaning of oil in the Mexican collective imagination also partially shielded the energy sector from privatization attempts. In the aftermath of the Mexican Revolution and the 1938 oil expropriation, state sponsored versions of nationalism linked Mexican identity and sovereignty to “the Nation’s” control over subsoil resources – especially oil. Respecting the notion that oil belongs to all Mexicans became central to electoral calculations in the context of emerging electoral competition. The ties between oil and nationalism weren’t just affective or cultural; they were also built into the ways elites profited from the bureaucratic arrangements of the PRI and PAN administrations. Together, these simultaneous processes were a partial barrier to oil privatization in Mexico.

Affiliation: University of Wisconsin Madison