The Paradoxes of Indigenous Politics

By Lucero, José Antonio | Americas Quarterly, Spring 2011 | Go to article overview

The Paradoxes of Indigenous Politics


Lucero, José Antonio, Americas Quarterly


Advances in Indigenous participation and representation have been uneven-and their long-term impact uncertain.

Indigenous peoples in the Americas, long on the sidelines of government and policymaking, continue to achieve signifi - cant 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 chal- lenged 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 confl ict.

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 offi ce, 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 signifi cant (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 offi ce 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. …

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