Indigenous Political Representation in Latin America
This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics. Please check back later for the full article.
Indigenous peoples have become important social and political actors in contemporary Latin America. The politicization of ethnic identities in the region has divided analysts into those who view it as a threat to democratic stability versus those who welcome it as an opportunity to improve the quality of democracy. Throughout much of Latin America’s history, the demands of indigenous peoples have been oppressed, ignored, and silenced. Latin American states did not just exclude indigenous peoples’ interests; they were built in opposition to or even against them. The shift to democracy in the 1980s presented indigenous groups with a dilemma: to participate in elections and submit themselves to the rules of a largely alien political system that had long served as an instrument of their domination, or to seek a measure of representation through social movements while putting pressure on the political system from the outside. In a handful of countries, most notably Bolivia and Ecuador, indigenous movements have successfully overcome this tension by forming their own political parties and contesting elections on their own terms. The emergence of indigenous peoples’ parties has opened up new spaces for collective action and has transformed the relationship between indigenous peoples and the state.
Indigenous movements have reinvigorated Latin America’s democracies. The political exclusion of indigenous peoples, especially in countries with substantial indigenous populations, has undoubtedly contributed to the weakness of party systems and the lack of accountability, representation, and responsiveness of democracies in the region. In Bolivia, the election of the country’s first indigenous president, Evo Morales (2006–present) of the Movement toward Socialism (MAS) party, has resulted in new forms of political participation that are, at least in part, inspired by indigenous traditions. A principal consequence of the broadening of the democratic process is that indigenous activists are no longer forced to choose between party politics and social movements. Instead, participatory mechanisms allow civil society actors and their organizations to increasingly become a part of the state. New forms of civil society participation, such as indigenous self-rule, broaden and deepen democracy by making it more inclusive and government more responsive and representative. Indigenous political representation is democratizing democracy in the region by pushing the limits of representative democracy in some of the most challenging socio-economic and institutional environments.