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Date: Sat, 27 Apr 1996 07:32:46 GMT
Sender: Activists Mailing List <ACTIV-L@MIZZOU1.MISSOURI.EDU>
Subject: NACLA: Report on Indigenous Movements: Introduction

/** nacla.report: 246.0 **/
** Topic: Report on Indigenous Movements: Introduction **
** Written 12:50 PM Apr 18, 1996 by nacla in cdp:nacla.report **

Gaining Ground: The Indigenous Movement in Latin America

From NACLA Report on the Americas,
March/April 1996

Year's Day, 1994, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation--a predominantly Maya guerrilla force--stormed onto the Mexican political stage, raising issues of democracy and justice that the national government had hoped could be forgotten. This February, the government and the Zapatistas signed an indigenous-rights accord which recognizes the autonomy of Mexico's ten million indigenous citizens, and their rights to multilingual education and adequate political representation. The agreement breaks much less new ground on economic issues such as control of natural resources and land redistribution. Since local and national Congresses will have to carry out the changes, it remains to be seen how meaningful the accord will be in practice.

Before 1980, indigenous organizing was largely confined to local communities. Organizations which united different indigenous groups were not common. Indigenous people who became involved in politics usually did so under the banner of the traditional left, which considered the indigenous struggle to be subordinate--or even inimical--to the larger class struggle. While the Zapatistas have captured the lion's share of public attention in the United States, indigenous movements throughout the hemisphere have been asserting their presence in national politics in unprecedented fashion in the 1990s. As this NACLA report details, indigenous peoples are forging strong national movements that are bringing together local organizations and regional federations. They have mustered more support by building alliances with other progressive sectors both at home and internationally. Even as they become active at the national level, the movements generally continue to practice a grassroots model of consensus-building and decision-making.

The current era, marked by the twin phenomena of democratization and neoliberalism, offers new opportunites but imposes new constraints. While democratization has opened up new spaces for civil organizing, the near-universal embrace of neoliberalism poses lethal dangers to rural indigenous economies. With the traditional left in decline, indigenous groups have stepped into the breach in many countries, becoming protagonists in the struggle against the neoliberal onslaught. A nationwide indigenous mobilization in Ecuador in 1994 foiled the government's attempt to ram through a neoliberal agrarian reform without any public discussion. The government was forced to sit down with indigenous leaders at the negotiating table and revise the law to incorporate their concerns. In Chile, Mapuches have been in the forefront of opposition to Chile's inclusion in NAFTA.

Constitutional rights have become another focal point of indigenous organizing. Thanks to indigenous activism, the new constitutions in Colombia and Brazil enshrine a number of indigenous rights. A principal demand of indigenous organizations in both Guatemala and Ecuador is the revision of the constitution to recognize those countries as plurinational states. Constitutional rights, however, translate unevenly into on-the-ground protections. In the current battle over indigenous land rights in Brazil, private landed interests have proven adept at steering the judicial and political system to their advantage, chipping away at established constitutional protections in the process.

Indigenous organizations have also begun to try their hand at electoral politics. Given the historically high voter abstention rates in indigenous communities--fueled by deep distrust of traditional politics as well as needlessly cumbersome registration and voting processes--this is a tough row to hoe. In elections last year in Bolivia and Guatemala, indigenous activists took office in a number of municipalities. Colombia's 1991 Constitution sets aside two seats in the national Senate for indigenous representatives. Indigenous people's inexperience at manuevering in the traditional game of party politics has hindered their ability to effect change. Many find themselves relegated to the margins, while others fall victim to state co-optation. The movement is not immune to the vices of politics as usual either. Political in-fighting and caudillismo continue to rear their heads.

For the region's indigenous movements, economic issues--in particular, indigenous land rights--are inextricably linked to their cultural survival. Many have abandoned the sterile debate over whether ethnic identity or class is more important. Today, the emphasis is on the natural linkages between the two. As one observer in Ecuador comments, there are many reasons to believe that at the heart of the present crisis of civilization, the hour of the indigenous people has arrived.