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  Number 362 | Septiembre 2011
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Latin America

From Latin America to Abya Yala: The new awakening of indigenousness

Mestizo America reigned supreme until the 1960s. Since that time, thanks to an array of factors, indigenous peoples have been shucking off that mask. Via many routes, zigzagging between successes and setbacks, they and their proposals have found their place on the continent’s agenda and in its public policy. One can no longer talk about Latin America without also speaking of Abya Yala: ripe or fertile land.

Xabier Albó, sj.

The homogenizing and “civilizing” policies fostered above all by the First Inter-American Indigenist Congress, held in Pátzcuaro, Mexico, in 1949, together with its later assimilationist indigenist institutes, seemed to be completely successful almost everywhere in the continent, at least among the most numerous peoples, which had experienced four centuries of contact with European colonialism and later with the Latin American States. These policies reduced indigenous peoples to the generic economic category of peasants, in line with the new modernizing world currents of both Left and Right regimes.

It seemed the final blow had already been dealt to inter not only their own identity but also the continent’s rich ethnic and cultural diversity. Mestizo America reigned supreme. But since the 1960s, the ethnic component of old and new movements began to shuck that mask, sooner in some countries than in others.

Why the awakening?

Various important factors triggered the change. In the first place, discontent with the model’s failures and weaknesses led indigenous peoples who had accepted being dealt with as peasants to revive their history, recover their long memory. That happened in Bolivia, Ecuador and later in Mexico (Chiapas). Other attempts in Guatemala and Peru were sharply cut off, while in Nicaragua it ultimately had a historic outcome.

In the second place, indigenous peoples who were previously peripheral and hence less eroded emerged onto the public stage when they began to feel threatened by the penetration of businesses, huge projects and new settlements. Their insistent struggles have in turn helped refresh the ethnic and territorial dimension of indigenous peoples who have had longer contact with the state powers. One example of this has been the influence of their Amazonian neighbors on “peasantized” Andean sectors.

Later on, these internal factors were forcefully added to a new international current starting with the crumbling of what was called historic socialism in Eastern Europe, symbolized by the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. The speed and even virulence with which ethnic conflicts became front page news overnight precisely in old countries that had previously proclaimed the nearly absolute primacy of class struggle caught everyone off guard. Other international currents were equally favorable to the indigenous awakening, among them the growing emphasis on the right to be “different,” initiated with the world’s feminist movement and underscored by other cultural minorities, ethnic or otherwise. This opened up a new facet of human rights, until then conceived in a more individual and uniform manner. The green or ecological movement in turn helped reveal that many indigenous peoples were precisely the ones who for centuries had known how to coexist much more harmoniously with nature, even in particularly difficult and vulnerable areas.

Due to this whole convergence of factors, first more internal and soon more external, the indigenous problematic has moved to the front burner all over Latin America. We can consider 1992 the emblematic date of this change of paradigm. Governments attempted to celebrate the commemoration as a fundamental milestone of civilization and evangelization, or in the best of cases “the meeting of two worlds,” to quote former Mexican President López Portillo. But rather unexpectedly, it was the most indigenous countries of the continent that accumulated the most symbolic capital on that occasion. In 1991, following continental meetings in Guatemala and Ecuador, they reached a suggestive alternative proposal: to celebrate their “500 years of resistance” throughout the continent. A multitude of indigenous marches also converged on Brazil’s Porto Seguro in 2000, in remembrance of the perhaps accidental landing five hundred years earlier of Pedro Álvarez Cabral on the shores of that vast territory, claiming it for the Portuguese Crown.

The five countries with the
largest indigenous population

Let’s look at impressionistic sketches of how these periods evolved in diverse countries, beginning with the five that are home to perhaps 90% of the continent’s indigenous population. For each country I include a rough approximation of the population (designated by an m for millions), the number of ethnic or linguistic groups (designated by a g) and the percentage of the country’s total population that is indigenous.

Mexico’s two extremes:
Oaxaca and Chiapas

In Mexico (10m, 62g, 10%), the move to the assimilationist scheme began with the 1917 revolution and was institutionalized in the thirties by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which held power for over 70 years.

Along the way, those who initially self-identified as indigenous transformed into peasants, save that 10% of the national total. By defining people as indigenous only by their language and almost only in rural areas, the censuses have facilitated what Bonfil Batalla called “statistical ethnocide.” The State even today prefers to keep them under the paternal and assimilationist tutelage of the Indigenist Institute and its successors.

The adjacent states of Oaxaca and Chiapas, both of which have a high indigenous density, demonstrate perhaps the two extremes this model of relations could reach. In Oaxaca, more marked by the Mexican revolution and by local governments relatively open to the indigenous issue, has gone so far as to recognize indigenous municipalities governed according to their own uses and customs in areas that range from small communities of barely a few hundred people to significant medium-sized cities. In contrast, not even the agrarian reform got to Chiapas, one of the states with the greatest wealth of natural resources. An ongoing tension exists there between the indigenous peoples and the power groups, including major landowners associated with the PRI, that involves periodic repressive massacres.

Surprisingly, the uprising in Chiapas of the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN), with the support of the indigenous majority and other allies, on January 1, 1994, the day the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) with Mexico was inaugurated, showed that the new paradigm had even reached Mexico, the model mestizo country, with a notable impact on the rest of the Mexican indigenous population and the world as a whole.

Guatemala and its “true Mayans”

Guatemala (3.5-6m, 23g, 43-49%). This country is significantly indigenous, similar to Mexico’s state of Chiapas. An attempt was made to pass from the colonialist period to the assimilationist one with an important quota of social sensitivity during the reformist governments of Juan José Arévalo and then Jacobo Arbenz (1944-1954). They followed the military dictatorship of General Jorge Ubico, who had compared the “civilizing” of the indigenous population to “domesticating donkeys.” A military coup orchestrated by the CIA overthrew Arbenz and brought to power Colonel Castillo Armas, who immediately restored the preceding scheme and set off a long and acutely exclusionary armed repression. In the following 36 years an estimated total of up to 200,000 people, most of them indigenous, came to a violent end. They were years in which Mayans were destroyed to be able to better define what “the true Mayan” should be.

The reemergence was initiated by indigenous people associated with the Committee of Peasant Unity (CUC), among them Rigoberta Menchú, and by those involved in the Guerrilla Army of the Poor (EGP), who began to perceive that they already had their own brand of community-based socialism. The transition was consolidated in recent years with the return to democracy and the December 1996 peace accords, particularly those dedicated to “indigenous peoples’ rights and identity” and with the emergence of organizations such as Majawil Q’ij and the National Indigenous and Peasant Coordinating Body (CONIC). Nonetheless, losing a 1999 referendum to approve constitutional amendments arduously written up along those lines was a hard blow. Only 18% of registered voters—even fewer in indigenous areas—turned out in what amounted to a major reversal, at least in the short and medium run; its consequences are still being felt today, as reflected in the recent electoral processes.

Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia:
Aymaras, Shuars and Quechuas

It’s useful to compare what’s happening in these three countries simultaneously, as their Andean and Coastal areas were historically part of the Inca or Tawantinsuyu Empire, and for a large part of the colonial period were part of the Lima viceroyalty. Until the early 20th century, the initiative behind what happened in these three countries was taken above all in Peru, with the indigenist style proposed by José Carlos Mariátegui, among others. Rebellions against hacienda owners occurred in all three countries; while those rebellions were in the old anti-colonialist style, they were now fed by the new socialist ideologies.

One of the most notable exponents of that phase was the Ecuadorian Quechua leader Dolores Cacuango, associated with the communist Ecuadorian Federation of Indians (FEI). But the decisive step to the assimilationist scheme was taken particularly by Bolivia (5m, 33g, 62%), with its 1952 national revolution which ensured massive and militant support from Quechuas and Aymara peasants with the agrarian reform the following year, peasant unionizing, the universal vote, rural schools that taught Spanish and mestizo ways and other measures. This had a significant echo in Peru (4-9m, 49-52g, 35-40%) between 1968 and 1974, with the agrarian reform and other measures implemented by the “military socialist” government of Juan Velasco Alvarado, and a bit earlier also in Ecuador (1-4m, 10g, 7-35%), with its agrarian reforms of 1964 and 1973, which also liquidated the old regime’s systems of servitude, although more mildly than in Peru.

Meantime, the new indigenous paradigm began to emerge on two fronts starting in the late sixties: one with the Aymara Katarista movement (Katarismo is a political tendency named after the 18th-century Bolivian indigenous leader Túpaj Katarion) in the areas surrounding La Paz, Bolivia’s capital, and the other in the Ecuadorian Amazon jungle, initiated by the Shuar people, which evolved into a confederation of all Amazonian peoples. Somewhat later, a comparable Quechua movement arose, called Ecuarunari (a syllabic acronym that means “the awakening of the indigenous of Ecuador”).

These movements have gradually been taking shape in both countries, giving rise to new organizations and even more complex political parties once democracy was consolidated. In Bolivia they led to the presidency of Evo Morales, the first militantly indigenous President in the entire continent, and one whose electoral support is still growing. In Ecuador they also led to a brief flirtation with the option of being in government.

What happened in Peru?

Why did Peru, situated between Bolivia and Ecuador and a pioneer in the rediscovery of indigenous identity in the 20th century, remain so caught in the old assimilationist model, at least in its Andean area? A particularly structural explanation is the massive emigration from the mountains to Lima and the coast relatively early in the 20th century. To this was added the problem of Sendero Luminoso during the eighties and part of the nineties, a situation that prevented many from looking beyond mere survival. This period decimated much of the social fabric of different groups, accelerated migrations even more and, according to the final 2003 report by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission titled “Nunca más!” (Never again), left 70,000 dead, almost 75% of them Quechuas, although others including Aymaras, Ashaninkas and Machiguengas also died.

After this stage, neither Fujimori’s authoritarianism nor the initial rhetoric of President Toledo and his Belgian wife—an anthropologist specializing in the Quechua culture—could modify the panorama. The total elimination of the indigenous issue in the 2005 census demonstrated how little real interest there was in including it.

In recent years, the issue has resurged among the indigenous peoples, above all in reaction to the threat to their territories represented by the penetration of major transnational corporations, both in oil in the Amazon and in mining in the mountains and even the coast. The emergence of former army officer turned politician Ollanta Humala, who lost in the second round against Alan García in 2006 but won the presidency this year, represents yet another milestone in this history, which will surely have consequences. He has already signed into law a measure requiring the consultation of indigenous people before any mining, lumber or oil projects are begun on their traditional lands.

Central America’s indigenous peoples

There are relatively active indigenous minorities in all Central American countries. Save in El Salvador, where the 30,000 who still referred to themselves as indigenous were massacred in 1930, the peasantizing or ladinoizing process has been less intense, perhaps because their demands are no longer perceived as a real threat by the nation-State given their small numbers in all countries except Guatemala. However, tourist, mining, oil, forestry and livestock businesses are constantly encroaching everywhere, motivating demands and marches.

The most notable case of resistance and development is probably that of the Kuna people in Panama (0.2m, 7g, 8%), who by 1938 had already won significant margins of autonomy and consolidated their beautiful territory or districts on the eastern side of the country, including the San Blas islands, all of which they call Kuna Yala. Since then they have succeeded in repeatedly halting attempted incursions by the international hotel industry and later by mining companies. In the western part of the country, the Ngobe people have also successfully fought off a major mining company for years.

In Nicaragua (0.4m 10-14g, 10%), the best known peoples are those of the Caribbean Coast, which the Reagan government tried to co-opt during the counterrevolutionary war of the eighties. That led the Sandinista government of the time to hone its ethnic sensitivity and eventually approve a regional autonomy regime for the coast, which was a continental first. There have been various tensions in its development over the years, between indigenous visions, political alliances and regional interests, depending on the political moment.

The largest concentration of the Garífuna people is on the Caribbean coast of Honduras (0.5m, 7g, 7%), although smaller groups are also found in Nicaragua, Belize and Guatemala. They are the only group of combined Caribbean indigenous and African ancestry, and they still retain their native language, at least in the larger population concentrations. They also have the particularity of participating actively in both indigenous and Afro-American movements.

Colombia: A fifth of the country

A good part of the indigenous population in Colombia (0.5m, 81g, 2%) lost its identity with the colonization and the first Republic, although between 1910 and 1956 Nasa indigenous leader Quintín Lamé led a resistance struggle to recover the indigenous reservations in the Cauca. After the watered-down agrarian reform of the sixties, the National Association of Peasant Users (ANUC) was created in 1970, with its bifurcated branching: one more pro-government and the other more autonomous. As early as the following year the Nasa people split from ANUC because they felt their ethnic specificity was poorly represented; they created the Regional Indigenous Council of the Cauca (CRIC), which encouraged other peoples to follow suit, until the National Indigenous Organization (ONIC) was created in 1982.

Representing barely 2% of Colombia’s total population, indigenous peoples participated strongly in the 1988 constituent assembly. Since then they’ve managed to legalize a good part of their territories (reservations) covering approximately 20% of the country. But the real occupation of the reservations, as well as the life of their organizations, is still strongly conditioned by the general violence and the powerful outside interests and inflows that weigh on this country.

Venezuela (0.5m, 28g, 6%). Although present, the indigenous problematic has never gotten very far on this country’s national agenda, so marked by petroleum, save in the Wayú area shared with Colombia. The new Bolivarian Constitution (1999) promoted by Hugo Chávez has sparked a very participatory process and one of the continent’s most advanced sets of indigenous regulations. Whether it is being complied with or not is another issue entirely, as was dramatized in 2010 by the hunger strike of Jesuit José M. Korta and several indigenous people among whom he’d lived for so long.

Chile: The Mapuche force

Chile (1m, 3-6g, 5-10%). Throughout the colonial period and the first Republic, the Mapuches were one of the peoples that most strongly resisted being conquered and was most able to interact with the “Winkas,” as they called Chileans, on an equal footing. But the Chilean State’s expansive military conquest, first toward the Bolivian and Peruvian north (1879) and thereafter toward the south until they achieved what they paradoxically called the “pacification” of the Araucanía region in 1881, produced an early and rapid assimilation of the Aymara, Mapuche and other less numerous peoples.

One of the key factors was the destructuring of their territories. Years later, Pinochet went so far as to state that there were no longer any indigenous peoples in Chile, “only Chileans.” While the 1992 census showed a surprising 10%, mainly Mapuches, identifying as indigenous, a reformulation of the census question a decade later halved the number of Mapuches and doubled the number of Aymaras.

These figures demonstrate the strong reemergence of ethnic consciousness, even among the Mapuches who now live in cities and represent almost half of the total. The Mapuches are currently mobilizing, mainly around recognition and recovery of part of their ancestral territories, rejecting the unconsulted penetration of major lumber, electricity and other companies. These business interests are the reason the Chilean State was very reluctant to ratify the International Labor Organization’s Convention No. 169, and when it finally did so in 2008, it tried to include a restrictive clause to article 35, which the ILO refused to accept. That article states that the application of the Convention’s provisions shall not adversely affect rights and benefits of the peoples concerned pursuant to other Conventions and Recommendations, international instruments, treaties, or national laws, awards, custom or agreements. Despite demands even from the United Nations, the Chilean government also continued applying the anti-terrorist law in response to certain land takeovers and forest fires set as part of the Mapuche mobilization.

Argentina: Influence on its borders

Argentina (1m, 18g, 2.6%). In the past, the Argentine State made major efforts to wipe out its aborigines, with the Desert Campaign in the south most prominent among them, almost contemporaneous with the pacification period. Somewhat later it waged a similar campaign in the Chaco. That was accompanied by the zeal to “Argentinize” the survivors, without recognizing their roots.

In recent decades a more formal and legal recognition of aboriginal specificity has been attained through the struggle of the peoples themselves and due to the new international winds. This was first written into various provincial Constitutions and more recently in some federal regulations. There is a significant influence from indigenous movements on the other side of the border—the Collas and Guaranies in the north, near the Bolivian border, and the Mapuches in the south, along the Chilean border.

Brazil: No essential changes

Brazil (0.7m, 235g, 0.7%). In official rhetoric the three components of national Brazilian identity are indigenous, blacks—much more numerous than the former—and Europeans. The exterminating or at least assimilating style—from Indians to caboclos (the Brazilian word for mestizos or ladinos) and simply Brazilians—was dominant in the new federal State from the early days of independence. It continued to be so as its agro-capitalist model began expanding into areas where not even the “discovery” had penetrated. This agro-capitalist scheme has not essentially changed with Presidents Lula and now Dilma Rousseff, except for greater attention to the poor in general, while conflicts persist over the massive deforestation and mega-dam projects.

The model has had its counterpoint in a protective approach ever since the early 20th century, when Marshall Cândido Mariano da Silva Rondon, a lifelong supporter of indigenous peoples born of a Portuguese father and indigenous mother, became the first director of Brazil’s Indian Protection Bureau. The contemporary echo of that institution is the now very ambiguous National Foundation of the Indian (FUNAI). The Xingú National Park, an indigenous reservation along the river of the same name, is a major expression of Rondon’s efforts, as is the fact that he was the first Westerner to emerge alive from contact with the Nambikwara tribe on one of his many explorations. The Indigenist Missionary Council (CIMI), a Catholic Church organization, has been one of the mobilized indigenous peoples’ main allies. The indigenous presence throughout the three-year constituent assembly process that culminated in a new Constitution in 1988 was a landmark, as they achieved significant recognition in it. The demarcation—just as concessions, not ownership—and consolidation of indigenous territories have allowed much more rapid indigenous demographic growth than in other population sectors. But it’s a long struggle: it took the Makuxis or Roraima 30 years to gain recognition of their ancestral territory in Raposa da Serra do Sol in 2005.

Paraguay: In the Guaraní language

Paraguay (0.1m, 16g, 2%) has the paradox of being the Latin American country with the largest percentage of people speaking a single Indo-American language (in 2002, 87% spoke Guaraní compared to 70% who knew Spanish). Despite their linguistic identity, however, only 1.8% identifies as indigenous.

The dramatic demographic drop Paraguay suffered in the six-year War of the Triple Alliance (against Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay, which had killed most of its male population by the war’s end in 1870), led to the loss of even the Guaraní indigenous of the department of Misiones. The ensuing governments, including the lengthy Stroessner dictatorship (1954 to 1989), followed an assimilationist policy similar to that of Paraguay’s neighbors, Brazil and Argentina. Only in very recent times can we see movements of these indigenous minorities struggling to recover their identity and a certain State concern for the indigenous sector.

The struggle to be equal but diverse

We can distinguish two major currents of indigenous demands, whose particular dynamics are only explained by being combined. On the one side is the demand to be equal to the rest of the citizenry, in reaction to their secular marginalization and discrimination. On the other is the demand also to have their specificity as indigenous peoples recognized. These two great demands are expressed both in ILO Convention No. 169, which puts more emphasis on the first current, and in the 2007 United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which puts an innovative accent on the second.

The demand to be treated equitably responds to the common complaint of feeling like “second-class citizens,” discriminated against and prevented from fully enjoying rights common to all citizens. Like other vulnerable groups, such as women or children, indigenous peoples are occasionally placed in differentiated categories, both statistically and in development plans and targets, including the United Nations Millennium Goals.

This first demand alone, while perfectly valid, doesn’t explain the indigenous mobilizations. The second current of demands thus comes into play, which can be expressed in the frequent addendum: “We want all that, but according to our own way of being, our culture and our identity.” Indigenous peoples’ right to their own forms of government, including their own authorities and methods of choosing them, their laws and their way of exercising justice, occupies a central place in the UN Declaration. To achieve it, they need a sufficient degree of autonomy in their own territory where they can live, express themselves and develop according to their way of being, including their language and public arenas in which to use it, their educational styles, their health practices and their religiosity.

It remains to be seen how to apply these and other rights among the increasing number of indigenous people who now live mainly in cities, intermingled with other human groups. It will involve subsequent adaptations and changes, although not the automatic loss of their ethnic condition or the rights it implies. How do we build intercultural cities that don’t at the same time kill languages, cultures and identities?

The changes from above

In the past and in many present-day experiences, indigenous people only made local demands. But the demands of an increasing number of indigenous organizations with greater demographic and political strength are no longer restricted to better relations with the State in their respective regions. They are also leading to a reassessment of how the whole of society and the State must be and act. A dual flow needs to be distinguished in all of this, one from above and another from below. With or without pressure from the indigenous movement, and with or without an alliance with them, a certain opening can be noted in the State. Various comparative studies show that there have been constitutional changes providing greater recognition to indigenous peoples in almost all Latin American countries in recent decades.

Why did the constitutional changes of the nineties in virtually all countries of Latin America, regardless of whether they had progressive or conservative regimes, acknowledge their multiethnic and multicultural nature? Some changes from above might be bolder in countries where the indigenous populations are a clear minority, because these concessions don’t affect the State’s fundamental structures. Colombia and even more so Venezuela, for example, have made much more expansive constitutional and territorial concessions to their indigenous minorities than other countries with a denser ethnic composition, such as Peru or Guatemala. But such openings are neither automatic nor a universal rule. Thus the dialectic between extermination, assimilation and recognition persists in Brazil and Paraguay.

Some of the changes from above may also represent the interests of the globalizing neoliberal focus. From this perspective certain movements and concessions to indigenous peoples could possibly be perceived as functional to the system, while others, perceived as dysfunctional, will be resisted more strongly. For example, allowing a certain degree of mobilization and ethnic differentiation could help keep the States weaker vis-à-vis globalizing mercantilist penetration from above, at the same time distracting the grass roots from their consciousness and organization as an exploited class.

Some indigenous land titling may even be a new, more antiseptic and civilized name for what were previously considered “empty lands.” But if natural resources with a strong market appeal are found in those lands, the system’s powerful interests will take control of them in a flash. At a minimum, such suspicions merit consideration.

Changes from below:
The Chiapas case

The other move toward changes in the State emerges more from below. Let’s review the three most notable cases: Chiapas, Ecuador y Bolivia.

In Chiapas there was a notable symbiosis among some sectors of the classic urban Left, headed up by Subcomandante Marcos and local groups of a clear indigenous extraction, with a mutual conversion in both directions. Although they initially engaged in military actions, the most notable aspect of this movement has been its motivating influence—not lacking in humor and a poetic style with an indigenous flavor—on local, national and international public opinion, through events with strong symbolic power, the systematic use of Internet to attract efficient international solidarity and consciousness-raising visits by young people from all over the world to recognize “the face of the faceless” behind their indigenous hosts’ balaclavas.

Anthropologist June Nash has characterized this movement as “the first postmodern revolution.” In its early years the Zapatista movement seemed not to want to take power, just to have an impact on national and international public opinion from Mexico’s own back yard, insisting on the need to create more democratic and participatory institutions. And it achieved something. By imbedding the Zapatista stone in the state boot, it may well have facilitated the rupture of the PRI’s seven-decade single-party monopoly, described by Peruvian writer Vargas Llosa as the “perfect dictatorship” thanks to its democratic mask. Nonetheless, there was another shift after Mexico’s Congress gutted a bill the Zapatistas had lobbied for in a historic congressional session in March 2001 as the postscript to a long march through various Mexican states. The Zapatistas, seeking justice for all of Mexico’s sizable indigenous population, wanted the Constitution amended to allow local indigenous self-rule in accord with traditional customs, regional indigenous autonomy on native languages and other issues, and community control of the land and natural resources in indigenous territories.

The Indigenous Law that was finally approved respected neither the San Andrés Accords of 1996, which had laid the groundwork for these constitutional changes, nor the ILO’s Convention No. 169, which Mexico was one of the earliest countries to sign. With that the Zapatistas began to establish de facto local governments, which they called Juntas of Good Government, which still persist. Much less has been heard from the Zapatista movement since the famed Subcomandante Marcos began distancing himself from the indigenous commanders and their Juntas starting with the new electoral campaign of 2005, seeking new, more urban tasks in other places, but it isn’t clear whether that’s strategic or evidence of a decline.

Ecuador since the “ethnic tremor”

The indigenous strength in Ecuador has been in the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE) and its political wing, Pachakutik. Notwithstanding the questionable official statistic of barely 6.7% indigenous in the population, this country has been experiencing a notable indigenous emergence, above all since the “ethnic tremor” of 1990, a first national blockade of roads and bridges that in turn catalyzed the discontent of many other rural and urban social groups. As mentioned above, the indigenous representatives played a fundamental role in the 1998 Constituent Assembly. Very specific proposals previously hammered out among them by consensus were taken into account in that new Constitution, which was one of the most advanced on the continent at the time with respect to its inclusion of indigenous peoples in the country’s structures and the emphasis it put on their collective rights.

But a good Constitution doesn’t necessarily imply good government, and in the convulsion of the following years, the indigenous organizations and parties had to continue struggling and participating very actively with their own demands, negotiations, new blockades and other actions. They played a leading role in the fall of President Jamil Mahuad in 2000 and soon after formed a government with Lucio Gutiérrez (2002-2005), elected with the halo of a former military officer determined to transform the country. In those years the indigenous and their allies occupied such important ministries as foreign relations, agriculture and education. But the almost invariably slippery and complicated issue of political alliances had its effect. The government’s prompt neoliberal and populist shift led them to leave, burdened with one more frustration and a weakened organization and party, including internal splits from which they have yet to fully recover.

The arrival of the leftist government of Rafael Correa in 2006 and the approval of yet another new Constitution in 2008 brought more advances, above all the first package of indigenous rights, common to all citizens. With respect to their specific collective rights as peoples, the most symbolically notable advance, given that it was a demand long dreamed of by the indigenous movement, was the recognition of Ecuador as a “unitary, intercultural and plurinational” State (article 1), including and recognizing “indigenous nationalities” within the country. Contradictorily, Correa has always distrusted ethnic organizations, whose relationship with the government continues to be marked by tensions, above all with respect to oil exploitation in the Amazonian indigenous territories.

The most spectacular case is Bolivia

Bolivia has seen the most spectacular rise. It began symbolically with the arrival of Víctor Hugo Cárdenas, a Katarista Aymara, to the vice presidency of a paradoxically neoliberal government (1993-1997), in which such important laws as the grassroots participation law were passed, facilitating indigenous access to municipal government. New agrarian regulations were also legislated, both facilitating the land market and—as a counterpoint—recognizing “original community lands” (indigenous territories), although all of it was still framed in the neoliberal illusion the country was experiencing.

Starting in 2000 that dream evaporated, largely thanks to poor handling of the privatization of natural resources. A series of social protests ensued, in which peasant indigenous organizations played a key and growing role, combining the electoral route with social convulsion. A notable leap occurred in the 2002 elections, when Evo Morales—an Aymara who had moved to the tropical coca leaf producing area—came in second, only 2% from the winner, earning his Movement to Socialism (MAS) almost a quarter of the senators and a third of the representatives, all of them with indigenous roots. This was an unprecedented level of political success in a Latin American country at that point, although it did them little good in the face of the “parliamentary steamroller.” In response, the indigenous movement again combined politics in Congress with marches, demonstrations and the blocking of streets and roads until the whole push forward blew up in October 2003 with the deaths caused by armed repression of these protests.

The neighborhood juntas of the city of El Alto, a poor satellite of La Paz, 74% of whose population was Aymara, played an important leadership role in these advances. President Sánchez de Losada was forced to resign, and after two interim successors, Evo Morales was victorious in the first and only round of the 2005 elections with 54%, something that hadn’t happened since the return to democracy in 1978.

Evo’s government and a bold Constitution

Summarizing the now almost six years of a government headed by the first indigenous President, clearly allied to Latin America’s other leftist governments—within a broad gamut of modalities—would require a specific work that goes beyond the indigenous issue. Instead, I’ll limit myself to noting two clearly distinguishable moments in this new regime.

In the first (2006 to 2009), a fight with the opposition for a new hegemony prevailed. While that opposition is an electoral minority, it controls what is called the Half Moon, in the country’s lowlands, which has a larger non-indigenous population and greater economic wealth, above all around Santa Cruz and Tarija. This has forced the indigenous majority to remain more compacted with its allies.

The government won this fight, which was full of vicissitudes, through the referendum and promulgation of a new Constitution, albeit not without eleventh-hour political negotiations after a failed coup attempt, which was deactivated with Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) and UN mediation. Despite the final changes and resulting varicolored style, that Constitution is the continent’s most audacious thus far from the perspective of the egalitarian inclusion of indigenous peoples.

Bolivia entered the second moment of this new experience starting with the general elections of December 2009, when Evo and his Vice President Álvaro García Linera were ratified, this time by an overwhelming 62%, and the governing alliance of MAS and the MAM (Fearless Movement) won a clean two-thirds majority in both houses of the new Plurinational Legislative Assembly (previously known as “Parliament”).

The scenario seemed optimal to complement and implement what had been foreseen by the new Constitution, in terms of both adjusting the laws to the new text and supporting the daily government. But as of mid-2011, this has only been partially true. As usually happens when a very hegemonic party faces a weak party opposition, dissidences and even splits in the tendencies within the MAS have begun to emerge, just as happened with the MNR in the fifties and sixties.

Natural resources and “el buen vivir

The most significant divisions with respect to the indigenous issue are those that have taken place within the grassroots and indigenous movements themselves, at times due to opposing interests among diverse local factions regarding very local issues, and at others to discrepancies between them and the executive or legislative branches regarding certain decisions handed down from above.

In this stage, decisions about strategic natural resource management and exploitation in indigenous lands, particularly the lowlands, are taking a front seat even in internal Cabinet discussions in Bolivia, as they are in all other Latin America countries. An integral part of that debate is the dual logic between “el buen vivir” or wellbeing of all, an ideal mainly inspired in indigenous cosmovisions and proclaimed in Bolivia’s new Constitution, versus allowing the most ambitious to launch more lucrative projects that also differentiate and depredate so some can live better than everyone else.

Abya Yala: imbued with creative meaning

By these routes, full of zigzags, successes and setbacks, indigenous peoples and their proposals have now made it onto the continent’s public and political agenda. One can no longer talk about Latin America without also speaking of Abya Yala (the Virgin now mature to be fecund), a name already generalized among all the continent’s original peoples, based on two words of Kuna origin. It is a concept much more imbued with utopian and creative meaning than other names from across the sea, such as Latin America or even Amerindia, which are burdened with misunderstandings.

Xabier Albó, sj, is the adviser to the Jesuit General on Inter-religious Dialogue and Indigenous Religions of America. He works at Bolivia’s Center for Research and Promotion of the Peasantry.

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