The literature on firm productivity recognizes the important role played by firm innovation activities on firm productivity in developed countries. However, the literature for developing and emerging economies is scarce and far from conclusive. The aim of this paper is to study the innovation–productivity link (distinguishing between process and product innovations) for manufacturing at the firm level for four Latin American countries (two classified as upper‐middle income countries by the World Bank—Argentina and Mexico—and two as lower‐middle income—Colombia and Peru). We aim testing whether the level of development is a mediating factor in the innovation–productivity link. The data used have been drawn from the World Bank panel enterprise surveys, for 2006 and 2010. First, we estimate total factor productivity (TFP) and, second, we use the estimated TFP as a regressor or as dependent variable, in two models for testing self‐selection of the most productive firms into innovation or the existence of returns to innovation in terms of productivity. Our results confirm the mediating role of the level of development in the innovation–productivity link: both the self‐selection and the returns‐to‐innovation hypotheses work only for the upper‐middle income countries.