Rebellion in Indian Latin America
by Pablo Rodriguez
Pagina 12 (centerleft), Buenos Aires, Argentina,
March 25, 2001
World Press Review June 2001
They make up more than half the population of Guatemala, Ecuador,
and Peru; in Bolivia they are 45 percent; in Mexico, 30 percent.
These numbers coincide with the location of the greatest pre-Columbian
civilizations: in Mexico and Guatemala, the Mayas and Aztecs;
in Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia, the Incas and Quechua. After having
been forgotten for five centuries, the indigenous peoples of Latin
America have suddenly again become visible in their uprising against
"Indigenous movements are forcing a reconsideration and
reshaping of the political arena. They were already here, and
this land belonged to them-not the Europeans. [Latin America]
from the Rio Grande to Patagonia will now have to live with the
indigenous peoples' occupation of their own home," said Nobel
Laureate Jose Saramago as the Zapatista march arrived for the
first time in the Mexican capital.
The problem is not Mexican, but Latin American: Uprisings
in Ecuador, the Mapuches in Chile, social conflicts in Bolivia,
and even demonstrations in Brazil seem to mark a new era in the
long history of indigenous rebellions dating to the beginning
of Spanish and Portuguese colonization. There are many more marches
like the Zapatistas'.
The most noteworthy cases of indigenous uprisings, at least
in terms of public opinion, are without a doubt those in Ecuador
and Mexico. In Mexico, it was the eruption in the state of Chiapas
on Jan. 1,1994, of an indigenous guerrilla movement called the
Zapatistas, with a leader known as Subcomandante Marcos, whose
speech-making was florid enough to attract progressive-minded
Europeans and North Americans.
From the breaking off of peace talks between the government
and the Zapatistas in 1996 until today, Chiapas has been a militarized
state in which "elected" authorities (often elected
by fraudulent means) coexist with autonomous Zapatista authorities
fighting to govern their own localities.
In Ecuador, on Jan. 21 of last year, indigenous groups allied
with some mid-level army officers toppled then-President Jamil
Mahuad after expressing opposition to his austerity programs and
the imminent dollarization of the economy. Indigenous groups took
over Congress in Quito and proclaimed a "Junta for National
Salvation," composed of nationalist Colonel Lucio Gutierrez,
indigenous leader Antonio Vargas, and Carlos Solorzano, the former
president of the Supreme Court.
It lasted barely six hours: Gutierrez was replaced by General
Carlos Mendoza, former commander of the armed forces, who derailed
the entire process and ushered in the return of the former government.
In place of Mahuad, he installed then-Vice President Gustavo Noboa.
The dollarization process and austerity programs are underway,
but the position of Noboa in the face of frequent indigenous uprisings
continues to be as weak as Mahuad's had been.
It is evident that the indigenous communities of Latin America
are usually in rural areas and that the local media are only going
to pay attention to "the indigenous question" once it
arrives in the cities. The Zapatistas managed to shoot their way
into the media spotlight, but in order to pass the Indigenous
Law, they had to march to the capital. The Confederation of Indigenous
Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE) also grew powerful by invading
Quito. However, the visibility of indigenous movements does not
necessarily depend on either the occupation of cities or their
percentage of the population.
In Chile, for example, the Mapuches and Pehuenches constitute
8 percent of the population, but an important 8 percent. At least
five incidents per month are recorded in which the Mapuches occupy
farms, protest against clearcutting and the construction of hydroelectric
dams, take over municipalities in the southern part of the country,
block highways, or clash with the police. The Mapuches claim Araucania,
in southern Chile near Concepcion, as their own territory that
should be returned by the government. And they even dream of an
In Bolivia, uprisings against the government of President
Hugo Banzer have taken place for a number of reasons, such as
the privatization of the local water supply in central Bolivia
or the policy of coca eradication in the Chapare region. But these
rebellions became more significant when indigenous organizations
mobilized and presented an all-encompassing Quechua vision shared
by a great portion of the Bolivian population.
In Peru, during the electoral campaign that matched former
President Alberto Fujimori against his rival Alejandro Toledo,
the latter-of Incan descent- proposed himself as the representative
of the cholos (Indians), and the first act of his campaign was
called "the march of the four suyos"; the suyos were
the regions that once divided the Inca Empire.
In Paraguay, although official data indicate little indigenous
presence, mestizos are 90 percent of the population and Guaram
is just as widely spoken as Spanish. In Venezuela, pressure by
indigenous groups has led to President Hugo Chavez's new constitution,
which recognizes in its preamble the Bolivarian republic as "multiethnic
and multicultural. "
What are the indigenous demands? The principal goal is respect
for indigenous culture. Today, indigenous peoples demand that
their national governments guarantee the development of their
languages, education, territorial autonomy, and even the forms
of political and economic organization particular to each group.
These rights figure into the Venezuelan and Ecuadoran constitutions,
and the Zapatistas are now fighting for a similar autonomy.
"It's obvious that the force of these words depends on
the movement that produced them-it's not a matter of some decree
dedicated to indigenous rights, but rather a victory over the
society itself, since that will be the only way [these rights]
can be defended when they aren't upheld," says Ana Esther
Cecena, researcher at the National Autonomous University of Mexico
and director of the magazine Chiapas.
But what may give the most force to some indigenous movements
in Latin America is their gradual conversion into national political
organizations. Having noted the enormous mobilization that the
Zapatista march generated, many Mexican analysts suspect that
the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) is taking up
the left-wing banner that the Party of the Democratic Revolution
of Cuauhtemoc Cardenas can no longer raise.
The process of transformation of the Ecuadoran indigenous
movement is a good example. According to Pablo Davalos of the
Scientific Institute of Indigenous Cultures in Ecuador, indigenous
people have been trying to reclaim their lands since the 1980s,
but in the 1990s their movement turned to recognition of the entire
indigenous culture. The 1990 uprising made CONAIE a national political
actor, and in 1996 the political movement Pachacutic was founded,
which managed to gain representation in parliament. During the
1999 uprising, indigenous people succeeded in establishing "round-table
dialogues" with the government to discuss the country's economic
During the coup in January 2000, the demand was the dissolution
of the powers of the state and the political reorganization of
the country, beginning with e establishment of institutions such
as e Peoples' Parliaments already in existence in some places
in the country. he process was quite rushed and tainted y megalomania,
and for the moment as yielded few results.
But that the government was toppled y demands on behalf of
all of Ecuador, and not just for indigenous Ecuadorans, an indication
of the broadening of the political space by CONAIE, something
that could spread to other Latin American countries like Mexico.