The Paradoxes of Indigenous Politics

Has the increased political involvement of Indigenous peoples improved their situation?

Indigenous peoples in the Americas, long on the sidelines of government and policymaking, continue to achieve significant political clout and representation. Their growing political presence and the policy changes that have resulted constitute a profound and rapid transformation. But questions remain as to what these changes mean for the lives of Indigenous peoples.

As late as 1979, literacy requirements blocked Indigenous peoples from full access to voting in Ecuador and Peru. But by the 1990s, Indigenous peoples emerged as powerful political actors. Through social movements and political organizing, they challenged political exclusion and the homogenizing ideologies of mestizaje—the inclusive yet deceptive idea that recognition of mixed racial origins would lead to just racial orders.

However, despite the emergence of strong leaders and movements, Indigenous peoples are among the most disadvantaged in the region. They endure racism and high poverty rates that keep them at the margins of society. Indigenous political gains also are still fragile—this despite a regional consensus to constitutionally recognize their rights and guarantee their political representation.

Examples from Mexico and the Andes—areas where Indigenous populations are largest and where Indigenous movements and parties have made the greatest gains—raise concerns about the effects of government policies of Indigenous inclusion. At the same time, political gains risk being frustrated or undone by internal tensions and political conflict.

But the picture is not completely bleak. Generations of struggle and negotiation have transformed the political environment for Indigenous peoples. Their political participation does not only—or even mainly—take place in national congresses or municipal governments. Inroads are being made through grassroots movements and community actions that attempt to remake the state “from below.”

Though there is a lack of reliable region-wide data on the precise number of Indigenous peoples that have entered public office, since 1990 the electoral viability of Indigenous parties has improved dramatically.  But Indigenous parties do not only run Indigenous candidates. Instead, such parties have a membership and leadership mostly of Indigenous peoples and place Indigenous issues and interests at the center of their electoral platforms. Today, Indigenous parties can be found in countries with significant (Bolivia and Ecuador) and small (Colombia and Venezuela) Indigenous populations.

Indigenous Rights: Global and Local

The most dramatic transformation is in Bolivia. Before the late 1990s, Indigenous parties never took more than 2 percent of the vote, but by the early 2000s, a mix of decentralization laws, political crisis and the meltdown of several traditional parties created room for Indigenous parties to make impressive local, regional and national inroads. This culminated in the 2005 landslide victory (54 percent) for Evo Morales and the continuing electoral dominance of his Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS) Party in the 2009 elections.

Bolivia’s increased political representation resulted from pressures from social movements and national political reforms. By 2000, constitutions throughout the region recognized Indigenous collective rights, languages and territories. Several countries—including Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Panama, Nicaragua, and, to a lesser extent, Brazil and Venezuela—granted Indigenous territorial autonomy for particular regions. Countries like Colombia and Venezuela reserve seats in elected office for Indigenous representatives.

But the paths to these institutionalized, multicultural regimes were complex and varied. Yet, all these cases were shaped by the interaction of similar factors: the calculation of political elites; the strength and capacity of Indigenous movements; alliances with the Left; and transnational networks that link local communities with resources from nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and international organizations. This confluence of social movements, shifts in (and even the collapse of) party systems and a growing recognition of the international community has reshaped Indigenous politics and policies.

The role of the international community has been critical. It supported Indigenous rights by providing legitimacy and material resources to Indigenous and pro-Indigenous NGOs.Adopted by the International Labor Organization (ILO) in 1989, Convention 169 on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples—with its strong defense of collective Indigenous rights—gave Indigenous peoples a boost in global support. Most Latin American states ratified it during the 1990s. In 2007, after decades of debate, the United Nations approved a Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which now has the support of every country in the region. Beyond prohibiting discrimination and recognizing the “right to remain distinct,” the Declaration builds on ILO 169 and enshrines the rights of Indigenous peoples “to maintain and strengthen their own institutions, cultures and traditions, and to pursue their development in keeping with their own needs and aspirations.”

National multicultural legal regimes are shaped by these international and domestic factors. Surprisingly, stronger and weaker forms of state recognition have not been determined by the size of the Indigenous populations. Countries like Colombia and Venezuela with small Indigenous populations—and with presidents from contrasting ideologies—have inaugurated unusually strong forms of Indigenous political recognition. The Colombian case owes much to the skill of Indigenous leaders during the Constituent Assembly in the early 1990s. In Venezuela, recognition comes more from the alliance between the movement and President Hugo Chávez.

In countries with larger Indigenous populations, like Bolivia and Mexico, strong Indigenous movements were certainly part of the community-based pressure (“from below”) to increase recognition. Yet in both cases, ruling party elites recognized that local opportunities for electoral competition could serve to legitimize their governments and advance their own electoral interests. Bolivian decentralization and participation policies under neoliberal President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada (1993–1997, 2002–2003) of the Movimiento Nacionalista Revolucionario (MNR) party, for example, simultaneously provided Indigenous peoples with new local opportunities for participation and, in turn, new competition for regional opposition parties. These actions also had the unintended consequence of creating the political space for Evo Morales to consolidate his MAS party and drive the MNR out of power. In Mexico, the decline of the ruling Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI) was accompanied by the rising influence of the conservative Partido Acción Nacional (PAN) and the increasing silence of the once-ubiquitous Zapatistas.

Experiments (and Conflicts): Bolivia, Ecuador and Mexico

The constitutional recognition of Indigenous spaces of self-government is a historic development. But what happens in those spaces?

Consider Bolivia, perhaps the best-known case of Indigenous political power. The 2005 election of Morales, the first self-identified Indigenous person elected president of this majority-Indigenous country, was historic and part of a great change in Bolivian politics. In addition to the renegotiation of oil and gas contracts and a renewed commitment to agrarian reform, perhaps the most significant and controversial project of the Morales administration has been the process of drafting a new constitution, promulgated in February 2009.

Building on the UN Declaration, the new Bolivian Constitution is the region’s strongest expression of Indigenous autonomy. It affirms the rights of Indigenous peoples to craft their own institutions of autonomous self-governance and justice in accordance with their own “norms, institutions, authorities and procedures.”

The work of the Constituent Assembly, though, was not without serious criticism. Non-Indigenous elites and opposition movements, especially in the eastern lowland regions of the country, originally pursued a strategy of rejection before appropriating the principle of autonomy for their interests.

But what is more surprising is the relationship between the governing MAS party and local projects of Indigenous autonomy. The MAS party organized opposition to various local referenda campaigns for Indigenous autonomy in December 2009 based on the fear that Indigenous autonomy would permanently exclude it from local politics. In the April 2010 local elections, rather than defer to the candidates that had been preselected by communal assemblies in accordance with local customs, the MAS recruited its own candidates. In traditional Guaraní areas, this resulted in a splintering of the Indigenous vote, enabling the victory of a right-wing candidate.

Such tensions are not a complete surprise. The MAS acts like a political party, not an Indigenous communal assembly. Even before the Constituent Assembly was selected, Morales reversed an earlier promise to convoke elections according to local customs and instead required membership in political parties. While such calculations may reflect a strategic sense of the need for party discipline in the face of an angry and vocal opposition, they also suggest that the election of an Indigenous president does not guarantee the success of Indigenous self-determination. Though the most vocal opposition has come from non-Indigenous elites in places like Santa Cruz, Morales also has consistently faced criticism from Indigenous leaders who see him governing more like a leftist union leader than an Andean mallku—a traditional communal leader who governs through consensus.

If such complexities plague a strong case of Indigenous political strength like Bolivia, what do they mean for other places?

In neighboring Ecuador, the Indigenous movement has been weakened by political miscalculations, internal divisions and conflicts with President Rafael Correa. An early attempt at collaboration between Correa and influential Indigenous leaders quickly turned acrimonious once an electoral alliance was rejected and Correa discovered that he could govern effectively without the political support of the main Indigenous organizations. Though the new constitution offers provisions for Indigenous self-governance and antidiscrimination, Correa has asserted greater control over Indigenous development and bilingual education agencies—ministries where Indigenous organizations previously had significant control.

Ironically, the fortunes of Indigenous movements in Ecuador may have been better when conservative or neoliberal presidents were in power. In those times, Indigenous movements were the main expression of frustration with neoliberalism. Now, when Correa expresses his anti-Washington Consensus views, the Indigenous movement finds that the president has stolen its thunder.

Additionally, the turn to the Left has not reduced conflicts between the Ecuadorian state and Indigenous organizations, especially over mining activities and natural resource policies. The result is that the country is at a contradictory moment: the constitution embraces antidiscrimination, Indigenous self-governance and affirmative action, but the tense political climate is dampening prospects for Indigenous rights.

In Mexico, Indigenous groups are not faring much better. The dramatic uprising of the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (EZLN) in 1994 captured the world’s attention and imagination, but since then Indigenous movements have lost strength. Although the EZLN pressured the Mexican state to approve legislation in 2001 that would institutionalize Indigenous autonomy, the law approved by a congress controlled by the PAN and the PRI diluted autonomy provisions and was rejected by the EZLN.

On the state level, the situation is complex. In Oaxaca, a 1998 law recognized the rights of Indigenous people to conduct elections and govern themselves according to local traditions (“usos y costumbres”). Yet, a strong suspicion exists that former Governor Ulises Ruiz Ortiz (2004–2010) of the PRI favored this legislation as it offered a way to co-opt local communities and avoid the direct confrontation experienced in neighboring Chiapas.

Here again, the promise of multiculturalism can often be frustrated by the volatility of politics.

Is the Answer “from Below?”

Indigenous community political organization and policymaking at the local level (“from below”) is also changing representation in politics—but with uncertain consequences both for women and at the national level. Here, local institutions fill the void faced by Indigenous territories and communities long ignored by the state and act as the authorities of first and last resort. But the viability of these local political gains to trickle and affect greater change at a national level has yet to be proven.

The Mexican state of Guerrero offers one example of how security and rights can converge with Indigenous self-governance, and how, beyond national legislatures and capital cities, policymaking can take place through informal institutions. Since the late 1990s, Mixtec and Tlapeneco communities have organized and sustained a volunteer community police force, known as the Comunitaria, that has reduced crime and insecurity and also shown the promise of Indigenous forms of justice. The state sees the body as illegal while giving it a certain level of de facto recognition. Still, the Comunitaria is supported in over 100 communities with results including a 90 percent reduction in crime.

While the Guerrero Indigenous police force may seem unique, it shares similarities with initiatives in Indigenous communities across the Americas. These include: the self-defense rondas campesinas that emerged in response to the violence of the Shining Path in Peru; the Juntas de Buen Gobierno (Good Government Councils) in Chiapas; and the Andean communal labor institution of the minga—a practice dating back to the Incas in which people work together to accomplish community-wide tasks.

But Is This Progress?

These are paradoxical times for Indigenous rights. Constitutional multiculturalism seems strong but Indigenous movements themselves appear to have lost steam. Anxiety abounds about the viability of local experiments in autonomy and governance. New pressures from extractive industries and presidents (from the Left and Right) have criminalized Indigenous protest. In a stunning convergence, Correa and his Peruvian counterpart, Alan García, expressed similar sentiment against Amazonian protests. In Correa’s words: “Whoever opposes the development of the country is a terrorist.” Much has been accomplished—but looming setbacks threaten to derail the gains.

Yet there is reason to be optimistic. For centuries, Indigenous peoples have used a mix of resistance and accommodation in encounters with colonialism, extractive industry and state violence. Indigenous peoples have a long tradition of exercising their own forms of politics and governance with or without the permission of national governments. The question will be how and if newfound accomplishments can translate into long-term social policies that recognize their unique rights. Between presidential palaces and community assemblies, there is ample room for hopes and disappointments.

But for now, whether for reasons of local opportunity, constitutional incentives or international recognition—many have taken the first political steps of institutionalizing their demands and newfound political power.

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