On Friday, Donna Lee Van Cott gave the opening talk for Grand Valley State University’s (GVSU) Latin American Studies Symposium, “Persistent Divides: Marginalization and Exclusion in Latin America and the Caribbean“. She began by saying that the recent mobilization and ascendancy of indigenous peoples is pretty amazing considering that even as recent as the 1980s these movements didn’t really exist. This is manifested in part by indigenous people being elected to local office, and in the case of Bolivia, to the presidency.
About 11% of Latin Americans are indigenous, with Bolivia and Guatemala having 71% and 66% of their populations of indigenous origin. The general stereotype of indigenous people, Dr. Van Cott said, is that they are subsistence farmers, but the reality is that many must migrate for work both within their own country and at times outside of their homeland, particularly to urban areas.
Historically, there were 50-100 million indigenous people prior to the European invasion. The colonial rulers did provide some protection for native people, but with greater independence from Europe the new Liberal governments began to encroach upon native lands. There was also a push to forcibly assimilate indigenous people as well. Beginning in the 1960-70s indigenous people became the target of numerous brutal military regimes throughout Latin America. Even in countries that had formal elections, there remained roadblocks for indigenous people who were often disenfranchised by the political structure.
Early on in the electoral era for indigenous people, they would often vote for candidates who made promises for services to the community. Indigenous people also used to join leftists parties, but often were excluded from any decision-making and were only used by the parties to achieve party goals. Because of this exclusion indigenous groups formed in the 1970-80s that were specifically indigenous focused. Their demands not only included land rights, but cultural rights and even sovereignty rights. In the 1980s, many of these groups broke off from the traditional groups that were organized through the entities like the unions or the church.
During the 1980s, indigenous movements did make significant changes. Some groups got bi-lingual education passed in their countries and in some cases ran those programs. However, it wasn’t until the 1990s that indigenous people began to see some improvements on living conditions. Part of this was due to greater NGO (non-governmental organization) interest and international lending institutions. Transnational links began to be formed, which helped in sharing information about indigenous groups.
One of the biggest changes in the 1990s, according to Dr. Van Cott, was the constitutional reforms that favored indigenous rights. Colombia and Bolivia in particular were implementing these changes. To some degree elites in countries were beginning to pay attention to indigenous rights, with the hope of modernizing the constitution. “If the most excluded are not included, then it demonstrates the benefits of the rule of law,” said the speaker in reference to how elites saw the indigenous question at the time. In Colombia, indigenous groups began to be more a part of the electoral process, giving speeches and traveling abroad and this model influenced other countries in the region such as Bolivia and Venezuela. These success were not realized everywhere. For instance, in Guatemala, the government did not ratify the indigenous rights accords after the 1996 cease-fire. Even in Mexico, with the EZLN, the government stalled and then only adopted a watered down version of what indigenous people put forth.
What was significant for indigenous people in some of these constitutional changes were that indigenous people were now formally recognized. Secondly, they were granted the right to resolve internal problems their own way. They also gained more land rights and more cultural rights in the 1990s. She cites Colombia, Ecuador, Panama and Venezuela as the countries that made more changes in favor of indigenous groups. Other countries such as Bolivia and Brazil have made only moderate changes. The speaker did mention recent constitutional reforms in Bolivia, but they still haven’t been fully realized despite having an indigenous president.
One outcome during this push for constitutional reform was the creation of indigenous political parties. She gave examples of indigenous groups or movements that eventually formed political parties. The average length of time was 14 years from organization development to forming political parties. Dr. Van Cott gave examples from Colombia, where numerous local electoral races were won and several Congressional seats were also gained by indigenous political parties. In Ecuador, the indigenous groups won 10 seats in congress in their first participation in electoral politics. In Bolivia, the indigenous groups in coca-growing regions got involved in electoral politics and won several seats. In 2002 their party came in second in the election and then in 2006 Evo Morales was elected President.
The rise of these indigenous movements in certain countries was really tied to the growing influence of the Left in those countries. This new Left was providing a better critique of neo-liberalism and had been forming better alliances. As indigenous movements have moved from social movements to political parties, to actually being decision makers with governments, it has created new tensions and in some cases divisions. People who were traditionally movement organizers are leaving to be political candidates, which means movements have suffered by having their best spokespersons leave.
Dr. Van Cott concluded by looking at some challenges that indigenous movements face, particularly now that they are more involved in electoral politics. She said that they have to minimize the divisiveness, not dilute resources and must not allow hierarchies from forming in these parties. At the same time, these indigenous parties do promote social justice more than traditional parties, they stand up to international entities and they promote equality.
An interview with Van Scott was also published by Mediamouse.org