Indigenous Political Organizations and the Nation-State: Bolivia, Ecuador, Mexico

By Chong, Natividad Gutierrez | Alternatives: Global, Local, Political, July-September 2010 | Go to article overview
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Indigenous Political Organizations and the Nation-State: Bolivia, Ecuador, Mexico


Chong, Natividad Gutierrez, Alternatives: Global, Local, Political


  The growing visibility of indigenous political organizations and
  activism in Latin America has a variety of claims and methods to
  interrelate with the state and organized civil society. These claims
  are framed within the logic of development and state construction;
  thus, these political projects fueled by ethnic actors do not have a
  secessionist outlook. This article addresses the different types of
  ethnic conflict current in Latin America. It also discusses the
  practical experience of implementing rights of autonomy. By
  highlighting the frequent types of ethnic conflict and their
  prevalence, the author looks forward to proposing a comparative model
  to explain the different routes taken by the construction of an
  inclusive, plurinational state led by ethnic actors. The article
  derives its analysis from the data bank of indigenous organizations,
  ORGINDAL. Keywords: ethnicity, political activism, indigenous
  peoples, nation-state

The collapse of the Soviet Union and the reemergence of ethnic conflict in Eastern Europe charged nationalism with renewed interest. In the academic field, the concept and meaning of nationalism became the center of wide attention as the implications of the breakup of a once-powerful and culturally diverse nation-state could not be ignored. Nationalism's reemergence as the result of the disintegration of that unified nation-state posed, on the one hand, new problems of definition; on the other hand, it prompted new research. Nationalism, in general, became a prime focus of redefinition and rethinking. (1)

The repositioning of nationalism was associated with unpredictable expressions of ethnic conflict and revival that seemed to have been merged during the process of nation building and now were again flourishing. The revival of ethnicity was questioning the centrality of the nation-state. As the wave of nationalism touched every corner of the globe, scholars working on Latin America (2) found methodological avenues to connect their cases to the main approaches of nationalism addressed by leading scholars (the framework is somehow inevitably Eurocentric). What place was Latin America taking in the new current of thought? Why was it considered a different phenomenon, not matching the overall concern of ethnonationalist resurgence?

The production of studies on Latin America is vast and diverse. One case in point is the scholarly research on colonialism in the New World; another, the pioneer ideologies of national liberation, which have resulted in a splendid historiography that paved the way for further studies on the new territorial nations. (3) But it was difficult to connect the anticolonial struggles against European metropolises and empires--the struggles that led to nation formation in Latin America in the early eighteenth century--with the late-twentieth-century revival of ethnicity taking place in the independent and plurinational state. To put it in other words, the nations of Latin America were too old to match the new thinking. Another vital factor was that ethnic conflict, despite its historical prevalence in all regions of Latin America, has not itself been manifested as a continuing threat to the existing nation-state. Ethnic conflict has so far not being a secessionist phenomenon in Latin America. (4)

Yet another aspect that may help to explain the marginal place of Latin America in contemporary nationalist thinking is the debate between modernists and historical-culturalists (ethnosymbolists) concerning the relevance of ethnic roots in the making of the modern nation. (5) The tension between the pre-Columbian past and the indigenous peoples as emblematic carriers of ethnicity is a central theme of cultural history, but it is not sufficiently framed in the dynamics of the debate of modern nationalism. (6)

The focus of nationalism in Latin America has been mainly associated with political and economic features derived from the prevailing underdevelopment of the region.

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