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Indians Shake Up the Political Scene

By Diego Cevallos*

Despite their exclusion from society, indigenous communities in Latin America are gaining ground in the political arena. They have brought down two governments and wield increasing influence at the local and parliamentary levels.

MEXICO CITY - In less than a decade, Latin America's indigenous movements have toppled two presidents, carved out new pathways in political processes and left their mark on parliaments, ministries, municipal governments and even a vice-presidency.

Through protests, electoral participation and ever-stronger organization, in the past decade the region's Indians have put more than one political and economic system up against the wall.

"In building democracy it is no longer possible to ignore the Indians, that is what the mobilizations tell us," Víctor Hugo Cárdenas, an Aymara Indian who served as Bolivia's vice-president from 1993 to 1997, said in a Tierramérica interview.

There are nearly 50 million indigenous people in a Latin American population of 400 million. Eighty percent live in poverty, but are slowly rising out of misery to vindicate their culture, their rights and their own political space.

In Bolivia, an uprising of Indians, led by Aymara leader Evo Morales and others, prompted the resignation of president Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada on Oct. 17.

Morales, a legislative deputy of the Movement Towards Socialism (MAS), in June 2002 came in second place in the presidential elections, within just 1.5 percentage points of Sánchez de Lozada.

In Ecuador, massive indigenous protests led to the demise of the Jamil Mahuad government in 2000.

Those two countries, alongside Guatemala, Peru and Mexico, have the largest indigenous presence in the region, and together are home to more than 30 million Indians.

"We have learned from our breakout into politics that with unity we can advance in our objectives and proposals. It is a unity based on individual and collective self-esteem of the excluded original peoples," Nina Pacari, Ecuador's foreign minister during the first seven months of this year, told Tierramérica.

"Our enormous challenge now is to contribute towards building new democracies," said the indigenous woman.

Thanks to support from the country's indigenous movement, with which he had signed an electoral agreement, former military officer Lucio Gutiérrez won the Ecuadorian presidency in 2002. Today, four of the 100 deputies in office are Indians, and dozens more hold local government posts.

Pacari and several of her native colleagues held ministerial posts in the first seven months of the Gutiérrez government, but later broke away from the coalition, saying that the president had not kept his electoral promises.

"We went from nothing to having ministers, deputies, mayors, prefects... and that is tending to grow. Now not only do the different political sectors take us into account, but so do the communications media," Ecuadorian deputy Ricardo Ulcuango, who heads the Indigenous Parliament of the Americas, told Tierramérica.

In Mexico, with 10 million Indians, the insurgent Zapatista National Liberation Army, made up mostly of indigenous people in the southern state of Chiapas, took up arms in 1994 to demand democracy and justice.

As a result of their presence and of other factors that shook up the political system dominated since 1929 by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), in 2000 Mexico for the first time swore in a non-PRI government and consolidated a more transparent electoral system.

In Guatemala and Peru, Indians have not achieved the power their counterparts in Bolivia and Ecuador have, but they are headed in that direction, say experts.

"The indigenous peoples have organized politically, and that is a new phenomenon in Latin America to be reckoned with," Rodolfo Stavenhagen, United Nations special rapporteur on indigenous rights, said in a Tierramérica interview.

He said that political institutions have not taken cultural plurality into account, but it can no longer be ignored under the "fiction that we are all equals," which was never true in practice, he said.

In Guatemala, where in the 1970s and 1980s Indians bore the brunt of political repression during a bloody civil war that cost hundreds of thousands of lives, 17 of the 113 legislative deputies in office today are Indians, an indigenous woman serves as minister of state, and five are deputy ministers.

Furthermore, 106 of the 331 Guatemalan municipalities are headed by Indians, which would have been unthinkable just a decade ago in this Central American nation.

According to Pablo Ceto, legislative deputy of the formerly insurgent Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (URNG), indigenous organizations in his country still need to mature, but a process is building "which in two or three years will produce a qualitative leap."

Ceto, vice-presidential candidate in the Nov. 9 elections, told Tierramérica, "In Guatemala, due to the repression of the 1970s and 1980s, when fighting for indigenous rights was seen as subversion, the organizational process did not recover, so today there are not enough leaders."

But that will change, he predicts.

In Peru, the political exclusion of the country's 12 million Indians -- the largest indigenous population in the region -- is increasingly brought to light.

Of the 120 members of Congress, deputy Paulina Arpasi, an Aymara, is the only Indian and says she represents her culture.

Some 20 Peruvian lawmakers speak indigenous languages, though they do not identify themselves as Indians, but rather as mestizos (mixed race).

"The Peruvian indigenous organizations lack clarity and unity. But the experiences of our brothers in Ecuador and Bolivia give us a chance to approach a new political space," Miguel Palacín, president of the Permanent Association of Indigenous Peoples of Peru, told Tierramérica.

According to Roger Rumrrill, who heads the Center for Indigenous Cultures of Peru, the fact that Indians lag behind politically is due to the political and military efforts of the Maoist group Shining Path in native communities in the 1980s.

Shining Path, which is blamed for the deaths of 4,000 Indians and the enslavement of 15,000 more, tried to destroy the communal structures of indigenous authority "because they were considered counterrevolutionary, primitive and pre-ideological," Rumrrill explains.

Bolivia's Cárdenas, the only Indian to reach the vice-presidency in Latin America, maintains that indigenous leadership in the region "has to be fully democratic, leaving behind certain authoritarian temptations, and rise to the historic challenge."

But he also warned that "the political elite must comprehend once and for all, before worse cases of clashes and bloodshed erupt than those seen recently in Bolivia, that democracy cannot continue to exclude indigenous peoples."

* Diego Cevallos is an IPS correspondent. Kintto Lucas (Ecuador), Jorge A. Grochembake (Guatemala) and Abraham Lama (Peru) contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2007 Tierramérica. Todos los Derechos Reservados

A Bolivian indigenous woman participates in the uprising that led to president Sánchez de Lozada's resignation on Oct. 17./ Photo credit: Agencia Jatha.
A Bolivian indigenous woman participates in the uprising that led to president Sánchez de Lozada's resignation on Oct. 17./ Photo credit: Agencia Jatha.