By Mireya Pinell-Cruz
Contributing Writer

In some countries of Latin America, such as Bolivia and Peru, indigenous people hold positions in government allowing them to represent themselves and their peoples. Their representation comes from a legacy of struggle for equality during the late 20th century. This popular struggle is commonly known as the ‘indianista/autonomista movement’ (25, Wessendorf). An important point to consider is that only a handful of indigenous movements were successful in achieving the representation and recognition from their respective governments. A number of factors contributed to the varied outcomes of these social and political movements.

During the 1970s, 80s, and 90s Latin America experienced a period of growing indigenous empowerment. This was also a time where political parties in the area grew weaker, partly as a result of indigenous mobilization and economic debilitation. One could assume that the deliberate weakening of the government, through protests and general strikes, would create a window of opportunity for the indigenous populations of Latin America to gain political representation. However, in reality, the weakening governments of Latin America did not always allow for increased indigenous representation.

The deliberate weakening of the government by the people of Nicaragua in 1978, in response to long-term autocratic rule, allowed for the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) to come into power. In 1961, the FSLN relied on a military strategy “independent of the civilian population,” which was known as foquismo (Nolan). It focused its attention on guerrilla movements in the rural areas of Nicaragua in order to take over the government, claiming to be operating on the demands of the people. It was not until after the assassination of Pedro Joaquin Chamorro in 1978, the only prominent newspaper editor critical of the Somoza dictatorship, that grassroots organizations, specifically in indigenous areas of Masaya and the business community, protested and declared a nation-wide strike that paralyzed the country for a month (Walker). The Terceristas, a faction of the FSLN, used this mobilization as an opportunity to seize power.

In 1979, the FSLN expanded its ranks by recruiting men and women from already established grassroots organizations, many of whom were from indigenous areas of the country. With their increased numbers, the Terceristas focused on organizing protests and strikes in the urban centers of Nicaragua, which not only debilitated the economy, but were able to keep the National Guard out of the cities (Nolan). The National Guard soon surrendered and the FSLN took an oath of office in Managua. The FSLN took advantage of the already established movements within urban areas and was able to assume positions in government and achieve many of its goals, one of which was to improve education and the literacy rate.

Although the work force and the indigenous people of Nicaragua aided the FSLN rise to power in 1979, there is little evidence showing that their participation in this movement led to positions in government. It seems as though the FSLN used the labor force to help propel itself into office, but after it came into power, the FSLN no longer defended the work force and indigenous people as much as it once had. Almost as if repeating history, the FSLN organized labor in 1990 and nearly ousted the newly elected president Violeta Chamorro, who had implemented neoliberal policies that crippled labor organizations. The strong labor and indigenous support could no longer aid the FSLN, impelling it to accept a pact with Chamorro that supported her economic program (Sinclair). Thus, the FSLN did not stay true to its original ideals and did not implement indigenous representation into its revolutionary plan.

Throughout this time of revolution, many political parties of Latin America made it a goal to include indigenous people in national government while respecting cultural differences. However, in practice, these goals were often left unrealized. In times of intense mobilization, the governments of the Americas were pressured to meet the demands of the people. But, once the initial frenzy had died down, in many countries the governments made little effort to tend to needs of the indigenous peoples. As Wessendorf (2001) states, “the results of the activism are rarely satisfactory to the requirements of the indigenous struggles,” because what they received in exchange for their bloodshed was not what they initially demanded, like the indigenous laborers of Nicaragua. Governments would not cater to their needs, which left them with few options but to seek radical measures if they wanted their voices to be heard.

As a result of this lack of recognition, one trend througout the indigenous movements of Latin America is radicalization. Since governments refuse to tend to the indigenous peoples, these groups, historically of marginalized political voices, are given few choices to further their respective causes. They realize that the government will not react to passive and docile forms of resistance; thus, they choose to radicalize so that their voices will be heard.

Take, for example, the Zapatistas, or EZLN, of Mexico. The Mexican political establishment would not meet its demands for one third of all land stolen from the peasants in the Mexican states of Chiapas and Morelos during the Porfirio Diaz regime be returned. During the Diaz regime these states were exploited for their natural resources and, like many other agriculturally rich areas, the indigenous people were not allotted any of the benefits (mexconnect). In response to governmental neglect, the Zapatistas chose to abstain from the scene entirely and distance themselves from any political party. Instead, Emiliano Zapata created El Plan de Ayala in 1911, the official document that formally stated the demands of the Zapatistas. But, even after Zapata drafted this radical plan the government would not consider his pleas for land reform. His mistrust for the government impeded his participation in politics, and to this day the Zapatistas are considered outlaws barred from political participation.

Another trend is the restricted representation of indigenous peoples. Their roles in government are limited; they may have local positions with advisors who advance their own agendas, or a position in government, both with little power. Governments might create a quota to guarantee a predetermined number of indigenous participants in certain areas of politics. Some countries like Panama and Colombia legally guarantee a number of seats in Congress and other governing bodies to indigenous people. An added feature to some of these laws is that they are not required to be affiliated with a political party which takes away the stress of running campaigns and competing against prominent organizations. It seems as though these quotas would have minimal effect if the indigenous are allotted only two positions out of 100 or so in congress (56, Wessendorf). Notwithstanding, it is an improvement from non-existent representation.

A Miskito leader from the indigenous people of the eastern coast of Nicaragua said that it is easier to strengthen a few individuals than to strengthen an entire council that could have a larger impact (46, Wessendorf). This is one of the reasons that the governments have maintained a limited representation of indigenous peoples: so that they have less influence and can be easily controlled. Some of the reasons why governments may want to control indigenous populations are to exploit natural resources, as in Mexico, or to gain support and power, as in Nicaragua. Indigenous people are often granted only local positions which may give them greater autonomy within that region but limits their influence in national level politics. The local positions they are given hold little power.

The Asháninka people of Peru, for example, began their struggle for representation in 1995 by registering their own political party, the Indigenous Movement of the Peruvian Amazon (MIAP). In the 1995 municipal elections they won seats despite racist and discriminatory opposition. Their leaders gained representation but were fiercely inexperienced, which led to inefficient governance. The reason they were inexperienced was, most likely, due to their lack of education; and their lack of education was due to their marginalization. Those who live in poverty receive the least education and are sometimes outcast from society. According to the 1993 census of Peru, only 2.5% of the indigenous population above age 15 had access to tertiary education. Of this already small number, 67.5% did not complete their education (Salazar). They had no formal education or experience in government and for this reason the Asháninka could not govern effectively when given the opportunity. It was unequal for the Asháninka, who had no prior training or gubernatorial skills, to have to compete with already established political parties. Although this structural inequality may not be intentional, it is the legacy of centuries of governmental oppression. As a result of this educational disparity, MIAP leaders were forced to rely on non-indigenous advisors with more experience. Those advisors, in turn, often took advantage of the fact that the indigenous leaders were inexperienced and advanced their own agendas.

There are many factors that deter the participation of indigenous peoples of Latin America in government, including an already dominant political system in which they are not fully represented and a long history of colonization that has had a lasting effect. Take, for example, Rigoberta Menchú of Guatemala. She is known for her many campaigns against the maltreatment of the Mayan population in Guatemala and the institutions she has created to aid them. In 2007 and 2011 she ran for presidency in Guatemala but lost in the first round both times. In Guatemala there are 20 different Mayan groups that Menchú could have gained support from in order to win the presidency, a rather difficult task when there are histories of conflicts and rivalries within the groups. Indigenous people make up the majority of the population in Guatemala and if they had been united under one cause, they would have had the ability to elect Menchú as president. She was unable to do so partly because of the structural inequality and poverty that she faced. Because of her lack of funds, Menchú could not advertise her campaign as much as other, larger political parties. Perhaps as a result, she was better known internationally and not in Guatemala. These factors contributed to Menchú’s loss, which might also have negative effects on the participation of indigenous people in all of Latin America.

Although there are many indigenous people in Guatemala, they do not make up a majority and Rigoberta Menchú was unable to unify them. Evo Morales, of Bolivia, however, was able to unify the indigenous people under one cause, and the number of people did make a majority. Most of Morales’ following is comprised of indigenous people because he, himself, is an indigenous Aymara, and because he is the leader of the cocaleros, the farmers that grow coca, an important plant to the indigenous. Hence, he identified with key issues and experiences of Bolivia’s indigenous people.

In 2004, the United States and the Bolivian government wanted to implement a coca eradication program to eliminate coca growing to deter the creation of cocaine. Morales understood this as an attack on the indigenous tradition of chewing coca leaves (nylatinojournal). On a personal level, Morales has been accused of being tied to drug trafficking because of the coca cultivation his people practice. Despite hostile reactions, Morales and his supporters advocated that the coca leaf is part of the indigenous Andean culture and they do not use it to make cocaine through massive protests. Carlos Mesa, the president of Bolivia at the time, eventually gave in and allowed families to grow coca leaves, but limited it to only 0.4 acres (nylatinojournal). During this time, the government could not control the indigenous population and placated their demands so that they would not wreak more havoc. Although the indigenous people were not banned completely from growing coca, they were limited in their capacity to do so and were left dissatisfied.

Throughout this struggle, Morales united many different indigenous groups under one cause which may have been the main contributor to his presidential election in 2005. His ability to bring together the indigenous population of Bolivia is also one of the main reasons he was reelected in 2009 with 64% of the vote (BBC). As he ran for his presidency in 2005, he promised to govern in favor of the indigenous majority who have faced years of marginalization and discrimination (BBC). Throughout his presidency he has maintained his promise. He created constitutional reforms that explicitly stated the rights of the indigenous. These reforms granted them regional and local autonomy. After reelection he extended state pensions to millions of poor Bolivians (BBC). To this day, Morales has a strong following from the coca growers of the Andes Mountains as he continues to defend them.

In conclusion, there are many factors that influence indigenous representation in the government. The most important factors are governmental, cultural and sociological structures, and structural inequalities. If an indigenous movement can weaken the government it creates an opportunity to seize power. Also, indigenous communities can gain representation if the government allots them a certain number of positions. Culturally, though, if an indigenous constituency within a country is divided it will have difficulty rallying behind a single representative. Such is the case in Guatemala with Rigoberta Menchú. Structurally, colonization has left a legacy of poverty among indigenous populations. Thus, they are often neglected in the educational system, in which case, if they gain political positions, they may be inexperienced and the government may interfere. Each of these factors contributes to the current state of indigenous representation in government throughout Latin America, which has been the result of political movements in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s.

The degree of success achieved by these movements has varied among countries. However, the most apparent outcome has been the continued marginalization of indigenous peoples. Even when success is achieved, there are conditions to this success. When the government does not meet their demands, they may turn to extreme measures, like the Zapatistas of Mexico. When they gain a political position, their inexperience presents challenges to effective governance. Even in a country like Bolivia with an indigenous president, the indigenous population is still the target of discrimination. Generally, there are tremendous hurdles that indigenous populations must overcome to gain even a small amount of representation in government throughout Latin America.

Works Cited

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Tuck, Jim. “Mexico’s Zapatista Movement – Then and Now.” : Mexico History. MexConnect & Respective Authors, 1 Jan. 2001. Web. 06 June 2012. .

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Wessendorf, Kathrin, ed. Challenging Politics: Indigenous People’s Experiences with Political Parties and Elections. Copenhagen, Denmark: International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs, 2001. Print.

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