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 injustice.

"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 independent state.

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 crisis.

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.

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