Indigenous Movements: Between Neoliberalism and Leftist Governments

After scoring resounding victories, the indigenous movements of South America are encountering new challenges, both on an institutional and state level, that they have not been able to answer. Expanding on the wide range of experiences and deepening the exchange between organizations appear to be some of the possible routes that lie ahead.

"Three times we have won and all three times we lost," explains Pablo Dávalos, Ecuadorian economist and treasurer of the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE, for its Spanish initials). It is not a play on words, but rather the bitter conclusion that the continent’s most powerful indigenous movement has arrived at after a decade marked by major victories. It is the lesson learned from the three triumphs scored over the last decade: in 1998, when the indigenous uprising toppled the Abdalá Bucaram government; in 2000, when a vast popular indigenous insurrection forced President Jamil Mahuad to step down; and in 2002, when the CONAIE played a decisive role in the election victory of Lucio Gutiérrez.

Some of these debates came up in the Second Andean-Mesoamerican Conference, "The Indigenous Movement, Resistance, and the Alternative Project," held from March 22-25 in the Bolivian cities of La Paz and El Alto. Academics and indigenous leaders from Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Guatemala, Ecuador, Mexico, and Peru attended the conference and discussed the many problems facing movements in the new political context of the region. In spite of the heterogeneous nature of the situations, a few common themes prevailed over the course of the conference, in particular, the relationship between social movements and the State as a consequence of the recent emergence of progressive and leftist governments. At the heart of these debates lies the proposal of the Santa Fe Documents, drawn up by U.S. conservative strategists. The latest considers the indigenous a threat to be fought and neutralized, much as the earlier version warned of the dangers of liberation theology. The empire considers indigenous peoples one of the major problems affecting governance in the region. As subscribers to this assessment, the World Bank and other international organizations have begun financing projects to prevent the formation of collective indigenous actors.

The Peruvian Exception

The case in Peru is among the least known, yet it exemplifies the difficulties movements in adverse situations must face. Peru has a long tradition of resistance and revolt ; it was the epicenter of the struggle of native communities against the Conquest that climaxed in the late 18 th -century with the Túpac Amaru rebellion. But the contemporary indigenous movement there has had great difficulty establishing itself. Speaking at the conference, anthropologist Rodrigo Montoya laid out nine main reasons to explain what he calls "The Peruvian Exception."

He pointed out that in Peru there are two organizations that group together 42 ethnicities of the Amazon, but with deep division between the two. Promoted by the World Bank and the Peruvian government, the two organizations both claim to represent the indigenous while actually "blocking the indigenous movement." The movement has a core of participants "grouped together to negotiate with the United Nations, but they do not fight for self-affirmation." According to Montoya, the World Bank’s objective is "to prevent culture and power from joining together." In other words, "It’s okay to showcase folkloric culture at expositions and the Lafayette Gallery in Paris, but when culture is working to empower the indigenous, it’s considered terrorism." Nevertheless, there does exist an important campesino-indigenous organization, the National Coordination of Peruvian Communities Affected by Mining (CONACAMI), which can be considered an indigenous organization.

Among the reasons for the absence of an indigenous movement in Peru, Montoya points to the "absence of indigenous intellectuals." Túpac Amaru was, in his opinion, "the first and greatest indigenous intellectual, who mastered Spanish, Latin, and Quechua, developed a political project (to rebuild the Inca empire with its capital in Cusco), and for ten years organized the insurrection that followed. But with the repression that ensued, the indigenous intellectuals were all annihilated.

Secondly, there are major contradictions that affect the Peruvian Indian landscape–a large geographical area and the enormously complex universe that is Quechua, a language with 18 different dialects, making it difficult for these mountain-dwellers to understand each other. Montoya concluded: "There is no one Quechuan community, but rather several with historical and social contradictions." This fact complicates both mutual understanding between communities as well as attempts to form an organization to unify them.

Nor has a powerful indigenous bourgeoisie emerged, or at least, one that identifies as such from a cultural perspective, as happened in Ecuador and Bolivia. The nature of the Peruvian government, which is particularly exclusive and racist, probably played a decisive role. A fourth reason is that a powerful, Western-influenced left wing existed in the country that never understood—in spite of the prophetic work of José Carlos Mariátegui in the 1930s—that the campesino is, in reality, an indigenous person fighting not just for land but, above all, for territory.

Fifth, the military government of General Juan Velasco Alvarado (1968-75) carried out major agrarian reforms that were the most important in all of Latin America aside from Cuba. However, he considered the Indian as jut another small farmer and appropriated the main Quechuan symbols by giving them government endorsements. For example, on Peruvian money, Túpac Amaru appeared where the traditional national creole "heroes" had before.

In the sixth place is the anomaly of the Shining Path movement. In Peru, there was a double genocide against indigenous peoples: that of the armed forces, like in other parts of the continent, and that of the Shining Path, participants in a "dirty war" that cost 70,000 people their lives. Montoya concluded, "While in Ecuador they were creating the CONAIE and organizing the indigenous world from the bottom up, in Peru there was a situation where if the Shining Path beheaded 10 people, the army would behead 20." Three quarters of the 70,000 killed in the war were indigenous. Everything that had been gained in the years prior was lost in the 20 years of violence between 1980 and 2000.

Under Alejandro Toledo’s government (who assumed indigenous identity), the government began a broad campaign to prevent the emergence of indigenous movements. Toledo’s wife, Belgian anthropologist Eliane Karp, created the National Coordination of Andean, Amazon, and Afro-Peruvian Communities (CONAPA), with a $5.5 million budget. The organization was created in a way without precedents on the continent–not only from the top down, but Karp replaced all the principal leaders and raised herself to the position of president of the institution, which she ran in an authoritarian fashion, manipulating native communities.

Finally, Montoya listed two additional elements: "the absence of liberation theology in the world of the downtrodden," unlike the case with Ecuador and Chiapas where there existed a concrete commitment to the poor that facilitated the rise of indigenous actors, and the "absence of committed intellectuals." As an example, he pointed out that of the 600 existing anthropologists in Peru, only eight sympathize with the struggles of the communities. "There is an apolitical anthropological tradition here that proclaims the Indian as marvelous, but believes anthropology is a science, and should not get involved in politics."

In this frankly depressing scene, CONACAMI’s presence is noteworthy, since it is the only indigenous, autonomous, and independent organization. Of the 5,600 recognized municipalities in Peru, 3,200 have presented legal complaints against transnational mining corporations, 1,100 are being explored for mining purposes, and some 250 more are actively being mined. From 1992 to the present, the number of square miles under the control of mining corporations has increased from just over 15,000 to almost 100,000. The power of the CONACAMI is situated primarily in those thousand or so communities fighting to maintain their land and prevent their rivers and soil from being contaminated. Mining has become the top export sector in Peru, but as the CONACAMI points out, "It does not contribute to the country’s development or to development in its areas of influence." Worse yet, in 2004, six hundred communal landholders were persecuted and tried, and two leaders were assassinated, in a process that criminalized protesting and labeled the smallholders who oppose the mines as terrorists.

Ecuador: The Electoral Dilemma

The last indigenous uprising in Ecuador (launched in March of 2006 and with no end in sight still today) against the aspirations of Alfredo Palacio’s provisional government to sign a free trade agreement with the United States, is the first large indigenous mobilization after a long and arduous period of crisis. The organization of this movement was time-consuming and faced several internal difficulties, since the CONAIE had been weakened by its participation in the Lucio Gutierrez government (January-July of 2003), and above all, as a consequence of the double offensive launched against the continent’s main indigenous organization.

Since the early 1990s, following the CONAIE’s first large uprising it became clear that the indigenous movement had become the key to Ecuador’s governance. Several projects were launched to annihilate the organization, a process that reached its peak under Gutierrez’s government. The most important and extensive was cooperation for development as expressed in the Project of the Development of the Indigenous and Black Communities of Ecuador (PRODEPINE). During the Second Andean-Mesoamerican Conference, economist Pablo Dávalos, adviser to the CONAIE, analyzed the destructive role these initiatives played: "When the Indians emerged in the ’90s, the development projects also began. The development NGOs are terrified at heart of the movement in the province of Chimborazo, where Leonida Proaño had worked–the Ecuadorian force behind liberation theology. Ten years later, that province has been politically destroyed. Chimborazo was a nucleus of indigenous resistance during the ’90s and became the object of a political intervention of cooperation projects that transformed the indigenous people into the economically poor. Cooperation for development projects break up solidarity and breed rivalry between communities by creating second-degree organizations that fight over available resources."

Dávalos stated that among specialists, and a good portion of the indigenous leadership, the cooperative work has sparked "the emergence of a technobureaucry of human rights and ethnodevelopment, coopted by the World Bank, which created the PRODEPINE in 1997-98 and budgeted it with $50 million, with the support of anthropologists and sociologists." He adds that Bolivia served as the laboratory for the cooperative experiment, "and from there, they exported it to Ecuador, and Mexico with PRONASOL." Even when well-intentioned individuals work in the cooperation projects, "the idea is to create an elite to serve as an interlocutor for the World Bank and its projects. After a while, you have the community leaders thinking about marketing and how to make more and more money." The main projects consist of education and leadership formation, productive community initiatives, and microfinancing. Just a few years after the creation of the PRODEPINE, the majority of the indigenous movement had been taken over by the NGOs and public officials, to the point where when the CONAIE sponsored mobilizations, "the people at the PRODEPINE would tell community members not to participate because they would lose their credit eligibility," explains Dávalos. After the fall of Gutierrez (2004), the movement pressured for the PRODEPINE not to be renewed and the project is currently paralyzed.

This large-scale offensive against the indigenous movements was crowned by Lucio Gutierrez’s administration. Paradoxically, it is worth mentioning that the ex-colonel was elected at the end of 2002 thanks to the help of the CONAIE and large part of the indigenous movement. However, it was under his command that the most devastating events took place: part of the indigenous leadership, above all that of the Amazon, was co-opted by the government, and Gutierrez made it his objective to completely destroy the CONAIE, and in this political context an assassination attempt was made on the president of the organization, which resulted in grave injuries to his son.

During the December 2004 Congress of the CONAIE, where the veteran leader and ex-president Luis Macas was once again elected, Macas began a reconstruction process both on an organizational level and by formulating a project geared toward the long term. He stressed the need to evaluate the work already done and, in particular, the movement’s participation in government and state-run institutions that had been a part of the project of forming the Pachakutik Movement in the 90’s. According to Dávalos, the indigenous project of creating a plurinational state met with resistance from institutions that date back to colonization and carry on the colonial exclusion of indigenous peoples. "How do we put the political system into a plurinational context?" the economist asks himself. "The political system is articulated in representation and universality, in which the whole world is a citizen. But this is not so for the Indians. In the indigenous world, the liberal discourse homogenizes, while in practice and thought, the indigenous are focused on differences."

This realization gives rise to several questions and uncertainties: "We can show up at the elections, and it’s likely that Luis Macas will win the presidency. If that occurs, the same will happen here that happened in Bolivia: the organizational frameworks become frameworks of the State, and then they start to legitimize the State rather than the organization—a liberal State—and then they begin to speak on behalf of the State, and there you have other dynamics and behaviors. So, what do we do?"

For the Ecuadorian indigenous movement, there is no easy solution. Social mobilizations achieved three victories that turned into defeats. In each case, national economic forces, combined with international financial organizations, frustrated the hopes of changing the country by way of a Constituent Assembly (1998), imposing dollarization (2000), and forcing the continuation of neoliberalism by "winning" over the President-elect (2003).

The current debate at the CONAIE is centered on the possibility of creating "another policy." Inspired by the Zapatista’s "Other Campaign" in Mexico, the indigenous movement is set to debate the attitude it will adopt toward the elections in October. The objective appears to be to politicize the electoral campaign, which tends to be a media circus, to place on the agenda some of the primary issues affecting the communities: the free trade agreement, the future of water and agriculture, and natural resource issues, among them hydrocarbons, of which Ecuador is a major exporter.

The Bolivian Crossroads

After sponsoring a cycle of protests initiated with the "Water Wars," in Cochabamba in the year 2000, and continuing with the "Natural Gas Wars" of 2003 and 2005 throughout the country, Bolivian social movements have managed to put the first indigenous man in the Presidential office: Evo Morales. There are two issues at the top of the movement’s priorities: nationalization of resources, particularly natural gas, and the convocation of a Constituent Assembly to decolonize the State.

Bolivia still has a colonial government: while 70% of the population is Quechua, Aymara, or Guarani (the most numerous ethnic groups), the government is controlled by a small white and mestizo majority. In the last few years, a small indigenous bloc took root in Congress (they are now the majority), but the most important positions in the Department of Justice and the State apparatus have continued to be held by white politicians, and public officials have continued to be exclusively white and mestizo. As such, the immense majority perceives the State as something foreign and hostile. A Constituent Assembly would be an opportunity to democratize the colonial institutions of Bolivia in such a way that all ethnicities, languages, and customs have equal standing.

However, barely two months into the new term, the people’s two biggest hopes appear to be en route to frustration. Felipe Quispe, leader of the campesino center CSUTCB, said during the Second Conference, "Today I cannot be content or happy about the fact that we have an Indian leader in the Presidential Palace because what we are concerned about is changing the system." He is certain the Morales administration will not accomplish the three most important demands: "He is not going to nationalize natural gas and petroleum, rescind the neoliberal policies that gave rise to privatization and educational reform, or give us our land back."

Quispe is a radical leader who ran for president on the Indigenous Pachakutik Movement (MIP) ticket, garnering only 2% of the vote. But he is not the only skeptic. Perhaps the most controversial move of the new government was the way it convoked the Constituent Assembly. The law to call for the Assembly was negotiated with rightwing parties, and the result has drawn much criticism and opposition from the National Advisory of Ayllus and Markas of the Qullasuyu and the Bolivian Workers’ Center. In his January 22 nd inaugural address, Evo Morales declared, "We want a Constituent Assembly that is refoundational, not just constitutional reform." According to many analysts, under the convocation only 20% of the current Constitution can be changed, and that would occur only in the best of cases.

The rules of the game for electing the Assembly to be instituted on August 6 th call for the election of three representatives for each of the country’s 70 districts: two for the majority and one for the minority, even if the minority manages to get, for example, only 10% of the votes. Moreover, each of the nine provinces will elect five representatives: two for the majority, and up to three from minority parties, so long as they obtain at least 5% of the vote. Under this system, even in the impossible event that the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS)—Morales’s party—manages to win every district, it will never garner the two-thirds majority necessary for modifying the current Constitution. Thus, the MAS will have to strike an agreement with the opposition even if it has an absolute majority of votes. An article in the newspaper El Juguete Rabioso maintains that the government "has put chains on making change" and that the most likely outcome is that "the Constituent Assembly will be at the service of the powerful with the campesinos as adornment." An equally important fact is that the time periods stipulated in the convocation are such that the movements cannot present themselves as such, but must register their candidates in the party lists.

Even from sectors closely tied to the government, the criticism has been harsh. Raul Prada, Department of Foreign Relations adviser, assures, "The Assembly that has been convoked is not constituent because it will not change the state." He adds that the structure of the convocation "has limited its tasks to editing and reforming," thereby leaving behind the true objective of a Constituent Assembly: "to found a new state" and "alter the institutional map, which is to say, change the powers that be." Directly polemicizing with Vice-President Alvaro Garcia Linera, Prada criticizes what he considers "an extreme tepidness on the part of the government, tied down by its own indecision, lost in its own labyrinth, in a post-electoral landscape where the prior economic forces are poised to recuperate their lost ground at the cost of participative democracy and the hope of a people who took a chance by betting on change."

We can return to the beginning and ask ourselves, along with Dávalos, "How is it that the powerful are able to convert defeat into triumph?" It makes little sense to lay blame on them, whether they are the powerful of a particular country, or the ones who run the world. At the end of the day, they are there to protect their interests. Perhaps, as the adviser of the CONAIE points out, the social forces believed that change consisted of winning at the polls; they did not give sufficient weight to the necessity of "decolonizing democracy," which has been kidnapped in most parts of South American by "the market." Gaining ground in its place is the necessity to work in another manner: from below, weaving solid bonds that do not dissolve under political and electoral marketing.

Translated for the IRC Americas Program by Nick Henry, IRC.

Raúl Zibechi is a member of the Editorial Board of the weekly Brecha in Montevideo, professor and researcher on social movements at the Multiversidad Franciscana de América Latina, and advisor to several social groups. He is a monthly contributor to the IRC Americas Program (, where this article was first published.


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