The experiences of Bolivia and Ecuador over the past few years highlight the strength of indigenous movements in Latin America today and the momentum such movements have gained since their rebirth in the 1980s. Long relegated either to the peasant class or to the amorphous conglomeration of human beings Latin Americans refer to as the "marginal," indigenous populations remain among the least integrated, most exploited groups in the region. However, social movements sparked by this community are beginning to hold their own ground. The recent upheaval that toppled Bolivian President Gonzalo de Lozada and placed Carlos Mesa in power, for example, was mostly the product of indigenous mobilization.
To many, this recent surge in the strength of the indigenous population in Latin America represents the beginning of a process of incorporation similar to that of the Latin American labor movements of the 1950s. According to this analogy, indigenous movements will eventually be fully socialized and incorporated into the political process. Proponents of this idea, including scholars Donna Lee Van Cott of Tulane University and Deborah Yashar of Princeton University, point to the already strong political arms of previously civil indigenous movements, like Ecuador's Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of the Amazon. Supporters of the indigenous movements insist that this incorporation, like that of the labor movements of old, can only lead to the strengthening of democratic institutions in the region. The fact that there has been significant resistance from elites throughout the region, particularly in Bolivia and Ecuador, should not be alarming--it is all part of a necessary process, they assure.
However, the parallel between the labor movements of the 1950s and the indigenous movements of today is deceivingly reassuring. At first glance, it seems as though the two movements are just two sides of the same coin: they represent the incorporation of previously marginalized groups. Their members are militant and nationalistic, but will eventually be co-opted and socialized as their demands are met and compromises are reached between the elite and the new players through the auspices of the state. Upon closer inspection, the demands of these two movements and their worldviews are very different, so different, that they may very well lead the indigenous movement to a very different outcome.
The demands of the labor movements of the 1950s were quite clear. They might have been displeasing to the elite, but they were concrete economic and social demands. Moreover, they never excluded the elite. In fact, the demands of the labor movements required, in a way, that the elite survive and even thrive. …