The Challenge of the “Indigenous Movement” in Latin America
There has been no shortage of writing produced within and beyond Latin America on the so-called “indigenous movement,” particularly after the January 1994 insurgency in Chiapas and, especially, after the more recent events in Bolivia and Ecuador. This probably reflects, above all, an anxious recognition of the immediate political impact of the “indigenous” people’s actions and of the conflicts which such actions unleash—and threaten to unleash—in the rest of the population, putting at risk the stability of purportedly democratic regimes and the “governability” of an increasingly discontented population which is starting to organize itself in new ways and to present demands which its oppressors clearly do not expect. However, most of this literature focuses on the theme of identity, albeit primarily as a demonstration of the vastness of the discourse on culture, the multicultural, cultural hybridity, etc.—in short, all the terminology in which the question of identity is shrouded in order to keep it far away from the question of power. By contrast, little attention is paid to the more complex and long-term implications of the actions of “indigenous” people, especially insofar as these might point toward new structures of collective authority and other forms of social existence.
My main purpose here is to address two issues which have not yet been sufficiently discussed but which may be decisive in the immediate future of Latin America, namely, how the “indigenous movement” relates to the nation-state and to democracy, within the current system of power.
Note on “The Indigenous” and on the Coloniality of Power
In order to do this, it is essential to revisit the issue of what is “indigenous” in Latin America. Here I will limit myself to setting out the most significant propositions.
First, it is necessary to recognize that both those who identify themselves as “indigenous” instead of “Indians,” and those others who now accept being identified as “indigenous” “native” “aboriginals” and “originarios,” are exactly the same—that is, if we are dealing with the place of birth and also, for the very great majority, if we are dealing with the history (i.e. the “aboriginal origins,” partial or total) of the family line. Seen this way, everyone who fits into any of these categories falls under exactly the same umbrella. On the other hand, they are in no way the same in terms of their relationships with “whites” and “Europeans.”
And this is, precisely, the question: any one of these “categories,” in America and especially in Latin America, only has meaning with reference to the system of power which originates in the colonial experience and which since then has grown and developed continuously, maintaining its basic original principles and colonial character. In other words, this is about a system of power which will not, and cannot, shed its colonial imprint.
The Coloniality of the Current Model of Power In relation to our present concerns, the main products of the colonial experience are:
1) The “racialization” of relations between colonizers and colonized. From then onwards, “race”—a modern mental construct bearing no relation to previous reality, generated in order to normalize the social relations of domination created by the conquest—becomes the foundation stone of the new system of domination, as previous forms of domination (e.g. between the sexes and between age groups) are redefined around the hegemony of “race.” The original antagonistic poles in this new system of domination are, on the one hand, the “Indians”—a colonial term embodying the numerous historical identities which inhabited this continent before the Spanish conquest—and, on the other, the colonizers, who, since the 18th century, identified themselves, in relation to the “Indians” “negros” and “mestizos,” as “whites” and “Europeans.”
2) The formation of a new system of exploitation which connects in a single combined structure all the historical forms of control of work or exploitation (slavery, servitude, simple commodity production, reciprocity, capital) to produce merchandise for the capitalist world market.
3) Eurocentrism as the new mode of production and the new framework of subjectivity—imagination, memory, and (above all) consciousness. It expresses the new social interests and the new social needs which are generated and develop within the experience of the coloniality of power: in particular, the relations between the new system of social domination built around the idea of “race” and the new system of capitalist exploitation. It cushions the novelty of radical sociohistorical changes, of new relationships with time and space, the jettisoning of the past in favor of a new golden age in which the yearnings of the species would be fulfilled—in short, the novelty of modernity. The Europe-centered control of the new system of power meant that the framework for the production and control of knowledge would be developed precisely in Western Europe, which itself was being formed as part of the same historical process. And the worldwide expansion of European colonialism leads also to the worldwide hegemony of Eurocentrism.
4) Finally, the establishment of a new system of control of collective authority centered on the hegemony of the State—after the 18th century, the Nation-State and system of States—with the populations classified in “racial” terms as “inferior” being excluded from the formation and control of the system. This exclusion gave collective authority a private character.
This system of power, which began to form five centuries ago, has been globally hegemonic since the 18th century. Although anticolonial struggles have managed to decentralize power to come extent¾snatching local control of collective authority away from the colonizers¾and although in a large part of the world this has been publicly formalized, allowing pro-forma participation of members of “inferior races,” worldwide control has not ceased to be Eurocentered. Moreover, a process of renewed concentration of worldwide or global control is under way, to the benefit of the Europeans. And in a good part of the present day ex-colonial world, mainly America and Oceania, “whites” and the “European” have managed to maintain local control of power in each of its basic dimensions. For this reason, in America, the issue of the “indigenous” cannot be looked into or debated except in relation to the coloniality of the system of power, because outside that framework such a categorization of people would not even exist.
As a consequence, it is not hard to understand that in all those contexts where the immediate control of local power is not in the hands of “whites” or “Europeans,” the term “indigenous” does not have the same meaning or the same implications. Thus, in Southeast Asia, and in India, Indonesia and the Philippines, the “indigenous” groups or peoples are those that inhabit the more isolated and poorer zones, generally in the jungle or the tundra, and whose main (and in some cases only) sources of livelihood are the woods, the earth, the rivers, and the animals or vegetables they find there. These people are oppressed, discriminated against, and stripped of their resources, especially now in these times of “globalization,” by other groups that are neither “white” nor “European” but who today have immediate control of power in these countries, although no doubt associated with the “global” bourgeoisie whose hegemony is “European” and “white.” In countries like India, the classification of the population in terms of castes worsens the situation for the “adivasi” (“indigenous”), linking them to the “dalit” (“untouchables”) and imposing on them an institutionalized system of discrimination and oppression. Under the renewed domination of the Brahmins and their “communalist” fundamentalism, this situation is even worse and more violent today.
The demands of the “indigenous” of Southeast Asia are, then, fundamentally different from those of their Latin American counterparts. Their resistance movements are increasingly broader and more organized, and the regional conflicts that they are producing will head in the same direction. The current virulence of fundamentalist “communalism” is a clear indication of this.
The Coloniality of Power and the National Question in America
With the fall of first British and then Iberian colonialism, a specific historical paradox arises in America: independent states linked to colonial societies.
Certainly in the case of the United States the nationality of the new state corresponded to that of the majority of the population of the new country, which, despite its “European” and “white” origins and affiliations, conferred on itself, with its anti-colonial victory, a new nationality. The “black” population, initially the only one subjected to the coloniality of the new power within the British-American colonial societies, and prevented from taking any part in the formation and control of the new state, was in the minority, despite its economic importance. The same would soon apply to the “Indian” population, which survived near extinction, the conquest of its lands, and subsequent colonizing after the formation of the new country, the new nation, and its new state.
In the case of the countries which separated from Iberian colonialism (whether the Spanish area or later the Portuguese), the process was radically different. Those who managed finally to assume control of the state process formed, on the one hand, a reduced minority of “European” or “white” origin, in the face of the overwhelming majority of “Indians” “negros” and their corresponding “mestizos.” On the other hand, the majority of the “Indians” were servants, and the “negros”—except in Haiti as a result of the first great social and national American revolution in the modern period—were slaves. That is, these populations were blocked from participation in the state process not only legally and socially (because of their status as servants and slaves), but also because of their condition as colonized populations (“Indians,” “negros,” “mestizos”). Society continued to be organized for a long time according to the system of power created during colonialism. It was and continued to be a colonial society even as it became independent and formed a new state. This new State thus remained a microcosm of the coloniality of power in society.
What “nation” did the new states belong to? Did they belong to the “Europeans” or the “whites” who now called themselves “Mexicans” “Peruvians” or “Brazilians,” thereby conferring on themselves a new national identity? These groups were a small minority in all areas, although less so in Chile, where the majority of the “Indian” population had not been colonized and occupied the whole territory south of the Bío-Bío and resisted for yet another century before being almost exterminated and colonized, just as had happened earlier in Argentina and Uruguay, under other conditions and with other results. On the contrary, the nationality of these states bore no relation to the colonized populations of “Indians,” “negros” and “mestizos,” even though these were the overwhelming majority within their borders. These subject populations were in fact excluded from the nationality of the new states.
In both fundamental dimensions the new independent state in this (Latin) America did not emerge as a modern nation-state: it was not “national” with regard to the immense majority of the population and it was not democratic—it was not founded on, nor did it represent, any kind of real majority of the citizens. It epitomized the coloniality of power.
The Question of Democracy and the “Indigenous Problem”
This peculiar situation of the new ex-colonial society did not remain hidden for some of those newly in power. Immediately after the consolidation of the anti-colonial victory, around the second decade of the 19th century, the question of the character of the State and problems of citizenship were already being debated in the Hispanic area. For the liberals in particular, the gap between the political models coming especially from the liberal revolutionary discourse of Western Europe, and the actual conditions of its implantation in this new America, were all too evident. Moreover, the "Indian" population would soon be perceived as a problem for the implantation of the modern nation-state and for the modernization of society and of culture. Thus, what for almost two centuries would be referred to as the “indigenous problem” took hold from the very beginning of Latin American independence.
Why were the "Indians" a problem in the debate over the implantation of the modern nation-state in these new republics? Outside the framework of the coloniality of power, such a problem would not make sense. On the other hand, within this framework, the “Indians” were not only servants, as the “blacks” had been slaves; they were first and foremost “inferior races.” And the idea of “race” had been imposed not only as an aspect of social relations—as in the case of slavery or servitude (in which case it could be changed)—but rather as an aspect of the people themselves, as was precisely the case with “Indians” “negros” and “whites.” At that level, therefore, there was no possibility of change. This, then, was the essence of the “indigenous problem”: freeing the “Indians” from the weight of serfdom did not by itself give them the kind of social equality that had been possible in Europe as a result of the liberal revolutions. Nor did it remove the marks of traditional colonialism such as the “tributo indígena,” as had happened when previous colonialisms had been defeated or broken up. In fact, the hegemonic sectors opposed the elimination of the tribute—and especially the elimination of servitude—with all their might. Whom would that leave to work for the powerholders? The “racial” argument, whether explicit or implicit, was the touchstone for the defense of their social interests.
The “indigenous problem” thus became an authentic political and theoretical irritant in Latin America. In order to resolve it, simultaneous changes would be required in three interdependent dimensions: 1) the decolonizing of political relations within the State; 2) the radical undermining of conditions of exploitation and the end of servitude; and 3), as precondition and point of departure, the decolonization of relations of social domination, i.e., the purging of “race” as the universal and basic category of social classification.
In other words, the effective solution of the “indigenous problem” necessarily involved the subversion and disintegration of the entire system of power. And given the relations of social and political forces at the time, a real and definitive solution was not feasible, not even partially. For this reason, the "indigenous problem" became the knot, not yet untied, that has bound and restrained the historical development of Latin America: the non-convergence of nation, identity, and democracy.
Political independence from Spain and Portugal, under the leadership of “whites” or “Europeans,” did not mean the independence of these societies from the hegemony of Eurocentrism. In many ways, on the contrary, it led to the deepening of that hegemony, precisely because the Eurocenteredness of the system of power meant that while in Western Europe modernity permeated not only thought but also social practice, in [Latin] America modernity (especially the notion of "progress") was confined to the ideological sphere, essentially among small groups within the dominant sectors and among the limited early groups of middle-class intellectuals.
Democracy and Modernity without Revolution?
This is the context which allows us to explain and give meaning to a political phenomenon, peculiar perhaps to Latin America: the idea that it is possible to reach or establish modernity and democracy in these countries without having to go through any kind of political revolution. Modernity and democracy here are treated as imaginary reflections (espejismo politico) of what they are elsewhere; they allow the liberal eye to copy its ideological images onto a Latin American blank slate. This process continues to fascinate a leading sector of the Latin American political world, including those who imagine the Latin American revolution as a reproduction of the Eurocentric experience. Eurocentrism thus extends into every sphere.
In Latin American political discourse since the defeat of Spanish colonialism, this ideology has meant the adoption of the liberal-democratic paradigm of the State and of the relations between State and Society. This paradigm of liberal democracy is not only separate from but actually opposed to the paradigm of bourgeois society. In bourgeois society (which produced liberal democracy), power relations in society have been built up not only as an expression of capital and of the centrality of Europe, but also—and, for liberal-democratic purposes, above all—as the expression of a relatively broad, if not exactly democratic, distribution of economic and social goods. In the “central” countries governed by liberal democracy, this is the result of a century of liberal-bourgeois revolutions, or equivalent processes. But such processes did not and could not take place in Latin America. This is above all because liberal citizenship was, and has remained, an impossible aspiration for the immense majority of the population, made up as it is of “inferior races.”
In this sense, liberalism in Latin American has always put forward the image of a “rule of law” based on institutions designed with exquisite devotion to liberal aspirations, but sustained almost exclusively by constitutionalist discourse, which, not by chance, has remained entirely divorced from changes in social power relations. In practice, this has almost always meant “rule of law [derecho]” linked to a "society of the Right [derecha]." For this reason when it works it cannot last, and has never been able to last; or it simply has not worked.
Regarding the place of the “Indian” population in a possible democratic future, the only important change which could be accepted, already late, in the 19th century, and which with some difficulty has been put into practice in the 20th century, is the “Europeanization” of the subjectivity of the "Indians," as a means of “modernizing” them. The so-called "indigenista" movement, with ramifications in the visual arts and in literature, was doubtless the most complete embodiment of this project. The coloniality of such an idea is, however, quite clear, for it is based on the impossibility of admitting, or even imagining, a decolonizing of relations between the “Indian” and the “European,” since by very definition the “Indian” is not only inferior but also “primitive” (or “archaic”), that is, doubly inferior because “anterior” to the “European” in a supposed line of historical evolution of the species. Since it was not possible to “whiten” them all in “racial” terms, despite the intensive practice of “mestizaje” which pervades the history of Latin America, it was decided that it made sense at least to “Europeanize” them subjectively or culturally.
There is no point in dwelling on what is well known. The dominant groups had mainly two policies to deal with this problem, although there were many variants from country to country and over time. On the one hand we had the virtual extermination of the “Indians” and the conquest of their lands in all those countries in which the dominant forces, whether liberal or conservative, quickly concluded that no “de-Indianization” was viable. This is what happened in the United States, Argentina, Uruguay and Chile. On the other hand, we have the process of cultural and political assimilation in Mexico/Central America and in the Andes.
Why this difference? Mainly, no doubt, because in the latter countries the “Indian” population not only was (and is) in the majority, but above all was already socially disciplined within a system of domination and exploitation. These countries, like Mexico and Peru, were precisely the centers of the Spanish colonial empire, whereas Argentina, Chile and Uruguay were marginal before the mid-18th century. Given these conditions, the policy of the “whites” with regard to the “Indians” prolonged, with certain changes and adaptations, the colonial policy of simultaneous discrimination and cultural assimilation. With the formation of the republic, “assimilationism” became—especially from the end of the 19th century and throughout the 20th century—the preferred approach.
Cultural assimilationism is the policy which the State has sought to promote through the system of public education. The strategy consists of an “assimilation” of the “Indians” into the culture of the dominant group—which tends to be referred to as “national culture”—above all through the schools, but also through the work of religious and military institutions. For this reason, in all these countries, the educational system came to play a central role in the relations between the “Indian” and the non-“Indian”—a role described in mythical proportions to both constituencies. There is no doubt that in countries such as Mexico and Peru (especially in Mexico after the 1910 "revolution") the schools produced a significant measure of subjective or cultural “de-Indianization.” An important element of this strategy has also been the appropriation of the cultural heritage of the societies that were defeated, destroyed, and had their populations colonized: it is transmitted as pride in the “Inca,” the “Aztec,” “Mayan,” etc: in a word, the “Indian” before colonization.
However, this strategy has never ceased to alternate and combine with a policy of discrimination toward and alienation of the “Indian.” For this reason, “de-Indianization” was not able to encompass the majority of the “Indian” population, which therefore could not fit or be incorporated—except partially, hesitantly and in a purely formal sense—into the process of nationalization of society, of culture and of the state. The coloniality of power continues to imply that the “non-white” populations cannot be consolidated into the citizenry (even in part) without giving rise to profound and serious social conflicts. In certain countries such as Brazil, Ecuador or Guatemala, or in certain zones of Bolivia, Mexico or Peru, this lies at the heart of what the dominant culture is just starting to see as a new “indigenous problem,” but which in truth has opened a new historical period, above all for the system of power that created that "problem" in the first place.
Trajectory of the Current “Indigenous Movement”
From the outset it is pertinent to note that the current “indigenous movement” is the clearest sign that the coloniality of power is in the most serious of its crises since its establishment 500 years ago.
Of course the populations which survived the destruction of previous societies and historical identities did not initially accept the appellation “Indians.” Some of them (e.g., some of the Incas of Cuzco) refused to accept that defeat for a full half-century. Today, many groups demand back the names of their ancient historical identities (now condescendingly accepted as “ethnicities”). And it is probable that various other names will be restored to these populations, and even, given the widespread appeal of such rediscoveries [tentación identitaria], that certain identities will be reinvented to go with them.
However, the consolidation, development and worldwide expansion of the coloniality of power proved to be processes of exceptional historical vitality. Although some of the names and fragments of their historical memory were preserved, all those societies and identities or peoplehoods were ultimately dispersed, and the surviving populations and descendants ended up accepting defeat and, with it, the new common colonial identity, which obviously did not involve any peoplehood. Three hundred years after the Conquest, at the beginning of the republican period, they were all “Indians.” During the centuries to follow, that colonial identity was maintained. It might be said, without risking much, that for a greater part of these populations, that identity had ended up being accepted as “natural.” Why then have the rejection of the designation "Indian" and the affirmation of the name “indigenous” spread among these populations in virtually all of Latin America, within the relatively short space of two to three decades? And furthermore, why have the non-Indians—“mestizos” mainly, but also “whites” and “Europeans”—ended up acknowledging that claim?
Between Two Crises
I suggest in the first place that the current “indigenous movement” had been germinating in the course of what Latin American social research has called the “crisis of the oligarchic state,” and that it shaped itself and emerged within the very process of neoliberalization-globalization of Latin American society.
One should bear in mind, in this respect, that under the oligarchic state the overwhelming majority of the population called “Indian” was rural, although in the city as in the countryside the regime of domination of which they were victims was seigneurial. That is, the social condition of the majority of the “Indians” was servitude: domestic in the cities and agro-domestic in the countryside.
The near-universal servitude of the “Indians” was a consequence of continued dispossession of their lands in favor of the non-Indians from the very beginning of the republican era. During the Colonial period, together with the formal elimination of the encomienda system, and as a means of control of the “Indian” populations, the Crown decreed that they would be given lands to sow and to live on, as zones of exclusive “Indian” property and residence. The extent of these lands varied according to the zones, but it was no small amount in any case. In Peru the lands were very extensive and in Bolivia even more. After the defeat of the Spanish, Bolívar decreed that for all of the ex- Viceroyalty of Peru, the lands of the indigenous communities would be privatized and put on the market. However, for most of the 19th century, the indigenous communities of the Andean republics maintained control of most of the lands that had been adjudicated to them during the Viceroyalty. The dispossession began again at the end of that century as one of the consequences of the appropriation of the mines, plantations and estates by North American capital. This was accentuated and expanded in the first three decades of the 20th century, as the repression and bloody defeat of the indigenous peasant resistance forced most of the “Indian” populations to submit to servitude. What has been called the Oligarchic State based on relations of domination inherent to the coloniality of power grew stronger during these processes. In Mexico, resistance by the indigenous peasantry converged with the dispute for power within the bourgeoisie itself and the middle classes, giving rise to the so-called “Mexican revolution.”
In this context, we can understand why the crisis and decline the Oligarchic State in the countries with an “Indian” majority had decisive implications for the social and political situation of those peoples, and was a key factor in the crisis and change of their identity.
In effect, the crisis of the Oligarchic State ended together with the end of the predominance of servile and semi-servile relations and the disintegration of the structures of local and state authority linked to the power of the seigneurial bourgeoisie and the seigneurial landowners. This occurred in a variety of ways: (a) through social revolutions such as those of Mexico (1910-1917) and Bolivia (1952), in which the organized participation of the mainly "Indian" peasantry was decisive; (b) through a process such as that of Peru (1957-69), where massive pressure exerted by the "Indian" peasants led to agrarian reform; or (c) because the seigneurial landowners themselves were forced, as in Ecuador (1969-70), to change the regime of servile labor to one of wage-labor. The result everywhere was the expansion of wage-labor and of commercial activities.
Such processes were associated, as is known, with the abrupt urbanization of Latin American society as a whole, the relative expansion of industrial production and of the internal market, and the change of structure of urban society with the formation of new groups of the industrial-urban bourgeoisie, new professional and intellectual middle classes, and a new wage-earning population. And of course part of these changes was the massive migration from the countryside to the city.
All this was soon reflected in the relative modernization of the State, which saw its social bases not only expanded but above all profoundly changed with the partial and precarious incorporation of new contingents of peasant and ¨Indian¨ origin into citizenship—although still entangled in the mesh of cronyism and forms of political mediation, rather than direct representation.
These processes were broader and more global in some countries than in others. For those with majority indigenous population, these differences have proved to be decisive. It was in Peru that the process was earliest, fastest, and most thorough. It involved the de-Indianization of the identity (and self-identification) of a great part of the “Indian” population and their shift to the cities, to salaried and market-related activities. Even those who remained in the countryside were affected. This specific process of de-Indianization was termed “cholificación” [becoming “cholos”].
The new “cholo” population was, without doubt, the main protagonist and agent of change in Peru after World War II. It was they, in the first place, who formed what was, until the end of the 1960s, the most broadly based and powerful peasant movement in Latin America. It was they who brought about the disintegration of seigneurial power in the countryside, culminating in the agrarian reform of the military dictatorship of Velasco Alvarado in 1969—carried out strictly speaking to block the development of the "cholos'" peasant movement, with all the negative consequences for rural society and for agricultural production which this entailed. It was the cholos who formed the new contingent of urban wage-workers, created a new trade union movement (whose role in national political life was very important up to the crisis of the mid 1970s), and won legislative decisions which allowed them certain advantages in wage negotiations. It was they who filled the state education apparatus at all levels, obliging the State to expand it rapidly. They filled the state universities, forming a new and broader movement of university students with profound consequences for the country, beginning with the abrupt broadening of the new middle classes, recruited precisely from that population. They more than anyone filled the Peruvian ¨barriadas¨ which ended up housing more than 70% of the urban population and embodying Peru's central social, cultural and symbolic experience of the second half of the 20th century.
The militarization of the State after the guerrilla experience of 1965-67 and its clash with the younger generation of this new “cholo” population, especially in the universities and among young intellectuals, blocked and distorted the social, cultural and political development of these sectors, especially in the “Second Phase” of the 1968-1980 Military Dictatorship. It also exacerbated the grave distortions which the Stalinist and Maoist versions of an already Eurocentrified “historical materialism” introduced into the universities and among the young “cholo” intelligentsia, in the debate about the interpretation of Peruvian history (according to them Peru was a feudal or semi-feudal society like China at the beginning of the 1930s, hence revolutionary war would proceed from the countryside to the city, etc. etc). An unfortunate result was the turbulent and bloody terrorist exchange between the State and the Maoist group Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) between 1980 and 2000, whose main victims were the very “indigenous” peasant populations (60,000 according to the official report)—and not at all the urbanized "cholos."
For a half-century, the population which de-Indianized itself—and which adopted and made positive the derogatory self-identification as “cholo” and/or “mestizo”—has grown proportionally and in terms of presence and influence in all areas of Peruvian society, including certainly the rural world in which a minority of them still live, identified as “Indians” (although it is not certain that they accept that identification). It is unlikely that the “cholo” population would go back to being identified as “Indian.”
This is certainly the response to the question that now weighs heavily in the debate in Peru and Latin America over the current “indigenous movement”: Why is it that in Peru, where the “Indian” population was greater than in the other Andean countries, there is now no “indigenous movement” of importance, while there is one—and a manifest and influential one at that—in Ecuador, most especially and in Bolivia?
Neoliberalization-Globalization and Its Implications in the “Indigenous Movement”
For convenience but not arbitrarily, I link “neoliberalization” and “globalization” to refer to the process undergone by Latin America, as by the rest of the world, between the crisis of the mid-1970s and now. There is relative consensus in the current debate, notwithstanding a sea of literature on the subject, as to the weakening and denationalization of the State, as to growing social polarization, and as to the de-democratization of society. There is no need to belabor these points. However, what such processes mean or have meant for the question of the “indigenous movement” has barely started to enter the Latin American debate. It is therefore quite pertinent to raise the most significant issues.
I suggest in the first place that the rapid, rather brusque disintegration of the structure of production which was occurring in those countries, produced not only unemployment, increase in under-employment, and rapid social polarization, but also a process which might be recognized as one of social reclassification affecting all social sectors, and, obviously, especially the workers. This process is associated with a crisis of social identity in all sectors, but above all in those whose identity was still (or already) ambiguous and vacillating, pushing them to an urgent search for new and different identities. This explains, in my opinion, why for example the social identities expressed in terms of “social classes” have given way, in all these countries, to identities classified as “ethnic,” regional, or residential, or by terms such as “informal” and “poor.”
This crisis and change in identities took place explicitly among “Indian” rural workers of the less urbanized Andean and Mezoamerican countries, who had been given (and had accepted) being identified by class as “peasants” and who now have ended up re-identifying themselves as “indigenous.” In Peru, on the other hand, this change is not at issue, or is occurring indecisively and slowly. Even today, the most important communal organization confronting the mining companies is called Coordinadora Nacional de Comunidades Afectadas por la Minería (CONACAMI), and makes no appeal to the idea of “indigenous community” in its very place of origin.
Secondly, together with these problems, so-called globalization has also brought a new network of communication, with a growing spectrum of technological resources, from the classic transistor radio (which was the first element to break the isolation of “peasants” and “Indians”) to e-mail and the cell-phone, which have reached into the least expected locations. In this sense, the rural or rural/urban populations undergoing a crisis of social identity and ethnic re-identification have found in the Internet a means of learning about and identifying themselves with all those who share a common "racial" identity, just as in the immediately preceding period it was pertinent to identify themselves with all those affected by the same structure of exploitation, that of capital.
However, the idea of seeing the virtual realities produced by these new communication networks as “deterritorialization” or “delocalization” must in the specific case of the “indigenous” be treated with great caution, because geography—the local and the communal, the neighborhood, the home—clearly have an importance that they would not have for the dispersed, sometimes itinerant or migrating urban populations of industrial societies.
Thirdly, the weakening of the State, its visible denationalization and even its reprivatization in many countries, has left broad sectors of the exploited classes without recourse for their needs and demands (e.g., in matters of health, education, urban services, and workers' rights), which are now more extensive than ever. Beyond this, especially in the 1990s, the State in several countries began acting against the majority of the population, much in the way that it did immediately after the fall of the Iberian colonial empires. After more than three decades of these processes, growing sectors of the popular classes of Latin America, including the “Indians,” have learned or are quickly learning that they have to find ways not only to not live from the State but to live without or against the State.
It is in this sphere that we probably find the basis for the current process of re-identification: from “campesinos” and “Indians” to “indigenous.” I refer above all to the ways in which issues of public authority have been approached, since the beginning of the 1980s, by the "Indian" populations which have organized and mobilized in the Andean/Amazon region, and which have gained worldwide recognition since Chiapas.
The formation in 1984 of the Federation of Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon Basin (Coordinadora de Organizaciones Indígenas de la Cuenca Amazónica, COICA, representing populations of Peru, Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador, Colombia and Venezuela), and, shortly afterwards, the organization the Unión Nacional de Comunidades Aymaras (UNCA) in Puno (in the Peruvian altiplano bordering on Lake Titicaca), signified major steps in the reorganization and revitalization of the community as the specific structure of collective and public authority of these populations. In the founding congresses of COICA and UNCA, the problem of the absence and hostility of the State was explicitly debated, prompting recognition of the urgent need for a communal authority. The question of territorial and political autonomy, which had been the empty slogan of followers of the Stalinist International in the late 1920s and early ‘30s, reappeared now, autonomously placed on the agenda of the “indigenous communities.”
There then began the period of tension and pressures between these populations and the State, which has only broadened and intensified up to today. This is probably also the moment when the shift of identity from “Indian” to “indigenous” took place. It is doubtful that any collective and systematic debate took place among the “Indians” as to the coloniality of the terms “Indian,” “negro,” “white,” “mestizo” (although some social scientists in Mexico and Peru were already discussing these questions ). What is most likely is that the shift occurred in connection with decisions to reorganize and revitalize the “indigenous community” in opposition to the State.
The “indigenous community” was a creation of the colonial authorities in the 16th century. During the colonial period it was the center and refuge of the “Indian” populations which had not been immediately placed in servitude. For this reason, when the “Indians” were despoiled of their land and subjected to servitude in the republican period, the “indigenous community” was reclaimed and proclaimed as the emblematic institution in the fight against servitude and abuse by the estates, the mines and the State. Moreover, for many years, for the “Indian” peasant population, it became the virtually exclusive center of political democracy under the Oligarchic State, because all the adult members of an “indigenous community,” men and women, from the age of 14, had the right to participate in collective debates and decisions that affected its members. For this reason, despite its colonial origins the “indigenous community” now provides the “Indian” populations—peasants, unemployed, and informales, and later also professionals and intellectuals—with anti-colonial ideological flags vis-à-vis both the national problem and democracy.
There is now a visible, recongized and active stratum of “indigenous” intellectuals in Ecuador, Bolivia, Mexico, and Guatemala; also in Peru, but those that identify with them are above all the Aymaras and the people of the Andean-Amazonian basin. In the recent debate on all these questions, they certainly played an active and decisive role. The creation of the Universidad Indígena Intercultural and the Instituto de Investigaciones Indígenas in Quito, under the leadership of Luís Macas—one of the founders of CONAIE (Confederación de Nacionalidades Indígenas del Ecuador) and recently Minister of Indigenous Affairs in the government of Lucio Gutiérrez, from whom he finally split—is one of the clearest expressions of this phenomenon.
The current “indigenous movement” developed initially among the main groups of the Amazonian basin, whose most important manifestation before the COICA was ECUARUNARI (Pueblos del Ecuador) in 1972. Although in Ecuador there were active organizations of ¨Indians¨ which, with the influence and support of the Ecuadoran Communist Party, sought political autonomy from the State of Ecuador, it is not likely that these antecedents had any role in the formation of the current indigenous movement in that country. On the other hand, some religious orders—Silesian and Jesuit—appear to have had an important influence. In 1980 CONFENAIE (Confederación de Nacionalidades Indias Ecuatorianas) was formed and finally CONAIE (Confederación Nacional de Indígenas Ecuatorianos) in 1989, as formations central to all the organized groups of Ecuadoran indigenous peoples. Their political legitimacy was won with the famous March on Quito in 1992. They gained international stature with their participation in the fall of the Abdala Bucaram government (1997) and their leadership in the fall of the government of Miguel Mahuad (January 2000), on which occasion the main leader of CONAIE, Antonio Vargas, briefly occupied the presidential seat, with the support of then-Colonel Lucio Gutiérrez (later elected President of Ecuador), thanks mainly to the support of the indigenous movement.
The case of Bolivia is much more complex. The Bolivian peasants organized themselves along trade union lines from the 1940s, side by side with the miners’ movement. Together they participated in the Bolivian revolution of April 1952 and while the miners took over and expropriated the mines, the peasants took the lands and expelled the big landowners. Together they formed the famous worker-peasant militias which consolidated the revolution and, allied with the Confederación Obrera Boliviana (COB), forced the government of Paz Estenssoro to legalize the redistribution of lands and to extend it. The peasants were involved in all the ups and downs of Bolivian politics from that time onwards, although not always following the same line. They were even used by General Barrientos, who with the Military Coup of 1964 blocked the revolutionary process and carried out the ferocious massacre of mineworkers in June of that same year.
When tin mining collapsed and the state mines were closed down, many of the mineworkers, including some of their most respected leaders, decided to go and work with the coca producers in Chapare. But they also helped them to organize themselves on the model of the miners’ unions. This saved those “Indian” peasants from becoming either victims or instruments of the mafioso networks of coca and cocaine trafficking. It also allowed them to resist the Bolivian state and the United States, who were engaged in simply eradicating coca cultivation without offering useful alternatives for the peasants. In this struggle they became stronger as a movement of workers and peasants, gained the support of other social forces whose struggles they supported, and emerged as a political movement with a socialist affiliation, the Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS), producing political leaders of such national stature as Evo Morales, who, to the surprise of the urban press, received the second-highest vote total in the presidential elections.
On the other hand, without losing continuity with the experience of the katarista movement (named in honor of Tupac Katari, Aymara caudillo in the revolution of Tupac Amaru in l780), active in the peasant and guerrilla struggles in the 1970s, other movements have arisen and developed among the Aymara who populate the altiplano surrounding Lake Titicaca. The most important currently is the Confederación Sindical Unica de Trabajadores Campesinos de Bolivia (CSUTCB), whose leader is Felipe Quispe, called El Mallku, who has gained notable authority over the peasantry and a notable national presence.
The MAS and the CSUTCB have participated not only in the elections, but above all in broad social and political movements in defense of national control of the country’s resources, as in the March for Land and Dignity (Marcha por el Territorio y la Dignidad) of 1991, and recently in the well-known events which led to the resignation of Gonzalo Sánchez de Losada from the presidency of Bolivia, after bloody conflicts with the people’s movement.
The Bolivian case, then, is not one of strictly “indigenous movements” of the kind that have arisen in Ecuador, in the Amazonian COICA, or in Chiapas, Guatemala, and, more recently, among the “mapuches” of Chile and other smaller groups in Argentina. In contrast to its coverage of Bolivian movements, the international press has conferred worldwide renown on the movement of the “indigenous” people in Chiapas and their spokesperson Subcomandante Marcos. The same happened in Guatamala, as a result of the prolonged and bloody civil war and the presence of Nobel Prize winner Rigoberta Menchú.
Direction and Prospects of the Current “Indigenous Movement”
In reality an “indigenous movement” does not exist except in a nominal, abstract sense. It would be misleading to think that the term “indigenous” refers to something homogenous, continuous and consistent. Just as the word “Indian” served in the Colonial period as a common identifier of many diverse and heterogenous historical identities (in order to impose the idea of “race” and as a mechanism of control and domination which would facilitate the division of exploitative work), so the word “indigenous,” although it embodies the rejection of colonial categories and a reassertion of autonomous identity, not only is not a liberation from coloniality, but does not even indicate any kind of process of homogenization, despite the undoubted fact that with the dissolution of the old identities, homogeneity is greater than before. There is no doubt that the term covers a heterogenous and diverse reality, nor should it be doubted that various specific identities will reappear—and are already reappearing—besides the fact that several never did disappear, as in the case of the Aymaras and among the Amazonians, or among various groups in Chiapas or the Guatemalan Altiplano. Consequently there is no assurance that all the current groups of “indigenous” people, or those that emerge later, will have the same perspectives or the same goals.
Nonetheless, the current presence of the “indigenous” in Latin America has certain common implications. First of all, there is admittedly a common claim to identity, but above all as a response to the discrimination which prevents full assimilation into the national identity or dominant culture. But this is an almost traditional demand, in which the “Indios” and indigenistas have been joined by the anthropologists, who would like what they call “cultures” to be preserved in a kind of museum, regardless of whether the people like it or whether it would benefit them.
The most organized, however, first in Ecuador and then in Chiapas, have progressed to the point of presenting the need for a pluri-national State. And this is not just a question of accepting the ritual phrases that are already common in constitutional texts, such as pluri-ethnicity, pluri-culturality, pluri-etc., etc. It is a question of changing the state institutional structure at its base, so that it can effectively represent more than one nation. That is to say, it is about multiple citizenship, in contrast to the present form which does not (and cannot) give the “indigenous” full status. To be sure, this is not yet contemplated by most of the populations that re-identify themselves as “indigenous.” However, it implies the end of political and cultural asimilationism in America, since, after all, it never was fully and consistently practiced by the dominant non-Indians or “whites.” And if this really does manage to clear the way—if it is not simply repressed and defeated—it means also the end of the Eurocentric model of a Nation-State where some nationalities have always dominated and colonized others who, moreover, constitute the majority.
A variant of this demand is the demand for territorial and political autonomy. In some cases (e.g., Venezuela and Canada), the dominant groups have preferred not to risk their Nation-States and to cede relatively extensive politically autonomous territories to particular indigenous groups. But in those countries—as in Argentina, Chile and Uruguay, or in Brasil—the “indigenous” populations are in the minority and might well at some point acquire such spaces. Quite different is the case of countries with large “indigenous” populations: Mexico, Guatemala, Ecuador, Bolivia, and even Peru if its identity politics were to move in other directions. The Aymaras have already explicitly imagined the possibility of autonomous territory. However, they live in five countries and their situation could well become like that of the Kurds in the Middle East. In these countries the conflict between Nation-State and Pluri-national State is a serious prospect.
However, in this era of globalization, with its processes of weakening and denationalization of States, the demand for pluri-national States and citizenship appears much more confused and complicated. For this presents a serious problem of democratic control of collective or public authority, particularly for those populations subject to States created within the coloniality of power, but also for other populations, including those that identify with their own Nation-State. Here again the stronger and more organized Latin American indigenous movements have already raised the demand for communal authoritiy, or better, for a community structure suited to radical deomocratic control, in the face of foreign states or, worse, a global authority that is distant, imperial, repressive, bureaucratic, corporate and vertical, as seems to be emerging with the Global Imperial Bloc, under the hegemony of the United States.
At this level, the Unión Nacional de Comunidades Aymaras (UNCA), on the Peruvian side, initiated a significant project. The communities of each local district joined together to form a “Multicomunal Distrital,” several of which would combine to form a “Multicomunal Provincial,” several of which in turn constitute the UNCA. Each director at whatever level is elected by the base community and can be recalled to it. The design is very similar to the well-known idea of the State which is no longer a State because its bases are different, and its origins and control-structure even more so. It is a form of direct self-government of people associated in a network of communities, but with the force and authority of a whole State.
These latest demands and actions did not emerge from thin air, nor are they up in the air. They are the result of the development and redefinition of an age-old experience of local democracy of the indigenous communities. If the majority indigenous populations in certain countries decide to implement these forms of political authority, they could join together with more recent and also more incipient tendencies in other social sectors, such as those that emerged in the recent social outbreak in Argentina. In a certain sense, all these movements share a common vision of social and political change: the democratic production of a democratic society.
In any case, the redefinition of the national question and of political democracy are the deepest and most explosive issues, with the greatest potential for conflict in this part of Latin America. In this sense, we are dealing with the most important challenge that has arisen to the system of power defined by the attribute of coloniality. This originated here in America, and here too it is entering its most dangerous crisis.