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date: 21 November 2018

Indigenous Political Representation in Latin America

Summary and Keywords

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, Indigenous peoples’ demands 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 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’ movements and parties has opened up new spaces for collective action and 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.

Keywords: Indigenous movements, Latin America, ethnic parties, representation, participation, Bolivia

The New Indigenous Activism

Implicitly or explicitly, much of the literature on Indigenous political representation in Latin America is concerned with the framing and resolution of the Indigenous Question. Postero and Zamosc (2004, p. 5) define the Indigenous Question as “the crucial issue of what kinds of rights indigenous people should be granted as citizens of democratic nation-states.” Indigenous-state relations have undergone an impressive shift in the 21st century. Latin American states initially promoted assimilation into the dominant mestizo (“mixed race”) culture by reconstituting Indigenous peoples as national peasants as part of the corporatist project of the mid-20th century. State corporatism served as an important means for the state to structure group representation and regulate official channels for demand making (Collier, 1995). It was through agrarian reform that the rural masses in Latin America were first incorporated into the polity. Land reforms were billed as progressive measures to emancipate Indigenous communities from repressive and exploitative forms of labor control in the countryside. Throughout much of Latin American history, the Indigenous peasantry was largely under the social control of the rural elite and remained beyond the reach of urban politics. However, by the 1960s and 1970s, as a result of dramatic social mobilizations and the proliferation of leftist alternatives in the region, the peasantry had begun to emerge as a powerful new political force and one that had few ties to the state or political parties. In return for access to land, credit, and services from the state, Indigenous peoples were obliged to organize and define themselves as peasants. While Indigenous peoples assumed a peasant status before the state, they continued to express their Indigenous identity within their communities (Yashar, 2005).

One of the immediate consequences of the region’s adoption of the neoliberal economic model in the 1980s has been the weakening of state corporatist institutions (Oxhorn, 1998). Neoliberal discourse advocates the shift from corporatist, class-based integration to more atomized or individuated state-society relations. As the corporate organizations of the peasantry lost their social and political standing, the primary mode of interest intermediation between the state and Indigenous communities was severed. In response to this changing economic and political context, Indigenous groups in Latin America increasingly mobilized on the basis of their ethnic identities. A pressing concern for governing elites during this crisis of state-society relations has been how to deal with popular sector actors that were never fully incorporated into the system (Drake & Hershberg, 2006). Neoliberal multiculturalism became the preferred policy option to address Indigenous demands throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Neoliberal multiculturalism refers to state-sponsored policies and programs to address ethnic differences and the free-market philosophies that underpin them (Postero, 2007; Van Cott, 2000). Much like state corporatism of the previous era, however, neoliberal multiculturalism did not contain Indigenous movements. In some cases, Indigenous groups were able to take advantage of these institutional openings to deepen reforms.

This dynamic has opened up an important debate in the literature over the theory and practice of multiculturalism. A central point of contention concerns whether or not multiculturalism privileges policies of recognition over those of redistribution. For instance, Hale (2002) and Patzi (1999) have argued that policies of neoliberal multiculturalism have purposively promoted a limited set of cultural and political rights for Indigenous peoples as a means of defusing more radical demands for economic redistribution. Recent scholarship has also criticized multicultural policies that recognize collective rights to autonomy as having the potential to violate community members’ individual rights, especially women’s rights (Eisenstadt, Danielson, Bailón Corres, & Sorroza Polo, 2013). Lucero (2013), however, provides an effective counterpoint to the notion that multiculturalism is “bad for women” (p. 33). In contrast, Banting, Johnston, Kymlicka, and Soroka (2006) found no empirical support for the argument that a country’s commitment to multicultural policies undermines its ability to sustain a welfare state. Similarly, Van Cott’s (2006) and Assies’ (2006) studies in that same volume concluded that in Latin America the goals of redistribution and recognition have generally gone hand in hand.

Indigenous Social Movements

Latin America’s 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—one that had long served as an instrument of their domination—or seek a measure of representation through social movements while putting pressure on the political system from the outside. An institutional strategy is conventionally assumed to risk the loss of legitimacy and the power to mobilize the masses. In contrast to political parties, social movements are supposed to break the rules of the game, not abide by them. 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 (Madrid, 2012; Van Cott, 2005). The emergence of Indigenous peoples’ movements and parties has opened up new spaces for collective action and transformed the relationship between Indigenous peoples and the state. In so doing, Indigenous movements have reinvigorated Latin America’s democracies.

The literature on Indigenous movements and democracy in Latin America is focused primarily on explaining the sudden and unexpected emergence of Indigenous peoples as critical new social actors in Latin America’s most recent round of democratization. The classic work Yashar (2005) suggested that the combination of changing citizenship regimes, transcommunity networks, and political associational space triggered the politicization of Indigenous identity in the region. In Yashar’s view, the shift from corporatist to neoliberal citizenship regimes politicized ethnic identities by threatening Indigenous peoples’ cultural, political, and economic interests, while preexisting community ties provided the organizational linkages to forge movements and political liberalization the space for Indigenous peoples to organize and mobilize. Van Cott (2005) also emphasized domestic political institutions as central explanatory variables. According to her analysis, the permissiveness of the institutional environment enables Indigenous political movements to emerge. In contrast, Brysk (2000) argued that international factors are paramount in explaining Indigenous movement dynamics. She suggested that the process of globalization fostered the rise of Indigenous movements in Latin America by allowing Indigenous peoples to appeal to international norms, laws, and organizations to advance their cause. Albó (2002) and Bengoa (2000) proposed that both domestic and external factors produced the politicization of ethnic identities. Such factors include a positive international human rights framework and harmful policies of neoliberal economic adjustment. Clearly, no single causal factor can explain the rise of Indigenous movements in Latin America. Most likely, the answer lies in a combination of all of these factors.

Early-21st-century work on Indigenous mobilization in Latin America has pushed the literature in new directions. For instance, Rice (2012) offered a historical institutionalist explanation as to why Indigenous movements have emerged in some countries but not in others. She suggests that the character of domestic political institutions in conjunction with historic patterns of popular political incorporation condition the emergence of Indigenous movements. Specifically, strong and cohesive Indigenous movements are more likely to emerge in countries with weak party systems that do not effectively represent popular sector interests and in which social actors are able to articulate new collective identities that resonate beyond traditional affiliations based on class, union membership, or partisanship. Meanwhile, Glidden (2011) provided an agency-oriented account in her argument that Indigenous groups choose to mobilize along ethnic lines based on rational, strategic calculations. Glidden’s analysis centered on the capacity of identity brokers to convince potential movement members of the utility of promoting Indigenous identity as their public identity. To do so, brokers play on meaningful symbols and engage in consciousness-raising activities among potential members. They also frame issues as threats to group well-being, such as cultural loss and material poverty; seek validation or endorsement of Indigenous identity by an outside, authoritative source; and link previously unconnected sites, such as communities to one another or Indigenous groups to the political system. As such, this growing body of work helps to explain variation in the emergence and consolidation of Indigenous movements in the region.

The theoretical assumption of much of the scholarship on Indigenous movements in Latin America is that they are a type of new social movement (NSM). New social movements refer to new actors, values, and forms of collective action resulting from structural changes in society (Foweraker, 1995). In other words, NSMs are new responses to new grievances. Older or traditional social movements are generally perceived to be those based on class locations, such as peasants and organized workers, and to be oriented toward satisfying material demands, including higher wages or access to land. By contrast, NSMs are distinguished by their emphasis on identity or cultural issues, such as gender, ethnicity, the environment, or peace, as well as their horizontal structure and opposition to traditional partisan politics (Alvarez, Dagnino, & Escobar, 1998; Hellman, 1997). NSM scholars argue that the lure of electoral politics weakens protest movements. Interactions with state officials and reformist policies are thought to undermine and demobilize social struggles, whose real strength lies in the capacity to disrupt rather than elect officials (Pallares, 2002). Consequently, the decision by Indigenous movements in countries such as Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, and Nicaragua to form their own partisan vehicles and enter into electoral politics serves as a puzzle for new social movement theorists. In response, scholars have typically either ignored the subject of electoral competition altogether or chastised the decision by Indigenous groups to enter into formal politics as being detrimental to movement integrity and unity (e.g., Beck & Mijeski, 2001; Brysk, 2000; Yashar, 2005). This divide has produced a rift in the literature between the study of Indigenous movements and that of Indigenous-based parties.

Indigenous Political Parties

Goldstone (2003) problematized the rigid boundary that has been established in the social movement literature between institutionalized and non-institutionalized politics. Institutional participation implies that autonomy is no longer a fundamental principle (Massal & Bonilla, 2000). Autonomy and institutional participation, however, do not have to be mutually exclusive. Instead of conceptualizing Indigenous movement strategies as shifting from protesting to proposal making, it may be more appropriate to view their collective action repertoires as expanding to include both. By following a strategy of autonomy in participation through the formation of their own electoral vehicles, Indigenous movements in a number of countries have successfully combined disruptive tactics with efforts to elect candidates. Furthermore, in moving outside of the formal political arena and relying on social mobilization campaigns to push through desired legislation or block unpopular policies, the actions of Indigenous movements in Latin America suggest that the divide between protest and electoral politics is fluid rather than fixed (Amirizade, 1995).

The decision on the part of Indigenous movements to enter into electoral politics reflects a complex interaction between cultural, political, institutional, and historical factors. Indigenous peoples have turned their backs on electoral politics as a means of advancing the Indigenous agenda most notably in Mexico and Guatemala. In Mexico, the Indigenous-based Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) distanced itself from the state and political parties when talks broke down between the two parties in the mid-1990s over issues of autonomy and self-government within Indigenous communities. The Zapatistas have since turned inward in an attempt to build de facto self-governing communities (Gómez Tagle, 2005; Nash, 2001). In Guatemala, Indigenous communities voted down the proposed amendment to the constitution in the 1999 referendum that included the recognition of Indigenous rights (Warren, 2002). Although there was considerable variation among rural and urban populations, Warren has suggested that the “no” vote on the part of Maya communities reflected their skepticism toward the electoral process as an effective means of bringing about positive change. Instead, Mayas are working to find alternative forms of representation by building a grassroots movement based on cultural revitalization.

In Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay, Indigenous groups have attempted to articulate their claims through existing party channels. Indigenous peoples in these countries are geographically dispersed and have little national presence. In Argentina, Indigenous organizations have formed their own sections within the major political parties, particularly the Peronist Party (PJ), and have gained a measure of political representation by competing on their party lists (Van Cott, 2005). In Brazil, the Workers’ Party (PT) has attracted support from the country’s Indigenous peoples due to the party’s favorable stance on Indigenous rights. The PT’s 2002 presidential victory raised expectations on the part of Indigenous groups for positive change. However, the PT’s support for the Indigenous cause has so far been more rhetorical than real (Warren, 2004). After an unsuccessful attempt at launching its own electoral vehicle, Paraguay’s Indigenous movement has also opted to align itself with leftist political parties. In 2000, the Indigenous Movement of April 19 (M-19A) decided to form a political party and enter into the electoral arena (Gutiérrez, 2000). Difficulties in formally registering the party, however, forced party members to form alliances with established parties—in this case the socialist Party for a Free Native Land (PPL)—in order to compete in the elections.

In Nicaragua, Indigenous groups have successfully contested regional elections by way of their own electoral vehicles since 1990. The Indigenous-based political organization Yabti Tasba Masraka Nanih Asia Takanka (YATAMA)—the Organization of Peoples of Mother Earth—has enabled the Miskito people to gain representation within the regional autonomous governments of the Caribbean coast (Brysk, 2000). The Atlantic region of Nicaragua was divided into two multi-ethnic autonomous zones in 1987 under the Sandinista government—the Autonomous Region of the South Atlantic and the Autonomous Region of the North Atlantic (Dunbar Ortiz, 1987). In the 1990s Indigenous representatives from the YATAMA party were widely elected to regional and municipal councils in the Miskito-dominated northern region. However, YATAMA does not participate in national-level elections.

In Colombia and Venezuela, several national Indigenous-based parties have emerged. The National Indigenous Organization of Colombia (ONIC) and the Indigenous Authorities of Colombia (AICO) first entered into electoral politics in 1990 by way of the national constituent assembly to redraft the constitution. The new constitution secured two reserved seats in the senate for Indigenous representatives (Van Cott, 2003). In 1991 both organizations successfully competed in congressional elections along with a newly formed Indigenous-based party—the Indigenous Social Alliance (ASI). Since the 1990s Indigenous peoples’ parties in Colombia have managed to win a number of seats and posts beyond those constitutionally mandated. Similarly, in Venezuela, Indigenous groups first participated in national politics by way of the constituent assembly of 1999, which resulted in the reservation of three seats in the national legislature for Indigenous representatives (Van Cott, 2005). The Indigenous political organizations United Multiethnic People of Amazonas (PUAMA) and the National Indian Council of Venezuela (CONIVE) have since expanded their representation beyond that of the established minimum.

Bolivia and Ecuador are home to Latin America’s most successful Indigenous-based parties to date. In addition to their larger Indigenous populations, the success of the countries’ Indigenous movements is the result of a two-pronged strategy based on opposition in the streets and in parliament as well as their capacity to combine competing class and ethnic-based demands (Rice, 2012). The Indigenous movements in Ecuador and Bolivia stand out for their mobilizational and organizational capacity in uniting diverse sectors of civil society in the struggle against neoliberalism and for launching their own highly successful national political parties. In Ecuador, the Movement for Plurinational Unity Pachakutik-New Country (MUPP-NP) party was a major organizational force behind the winning electoral coalition in the presidential race of 2002 (Becker, 2011; Lucas, 2000). However, tensions within the governing coalition over the allocation of key ministerial posts and policy directions resulted in the withdrawal of the MUPP-NP from the government after only 204 days in power (El Comercio, 2003). Populist President Rafael Correa (2007–2017) has since taken up most of the political space formerly occupied by the Pachakutik Party. In Bolivia, the Indigenous and worker-based Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) party, led by Evo Morales, managed to obtain a majority vote in the presidential election of December 2005, a feat that had not been achieved by any party since the transition to democracy in the early 1980s (Madrid, 2012). President Morales has been reelected by even wider margins in the 2009 and 2014 presidential elections.

In the context of a hostile political environment, Indigenous peoples have entered formal politics not through assimilation but by politicizing ethnic identities. Ethnic parties are widely regarded as having a profoundly negative impact on democracy through the way in which they pit ethnic groups against each other in an attempt to solidify support among co-ethnics (Horowitz, 1985; Rabushka & Shepsle, 1972). This type of party behavior is expected to worsen ethnic polarization and to increase the likelihood of ethnic violence in a country. Referring to the case of Bolivia, Mayorga (2006) has suggested that the political incorporation of Indigenous peoples has undermined representative democracy, governmental capacity, and state unity. Andersen (2010) has cautioned that the rise of Indigenous nationalist leaders in Latin America could potentially lead to civil war as they contest artificially imposed nation-states. Many scholars, however, have found Indigenous peoples’ parties to have an important stabilizing effect on Latin American party systems by including marginalized ethnic groups in formal politics (Birnir, 2007; Madrid, 2005; Van Cott, 2000b). According to Madrid (2012), the policies and appeals of Indigenous peoples’ parties in Latin America tend to be inclusionary rather than exclusionary in nature. All told, Indigenous peoples’ parties have improved political participation and support for democracy among Indigenous peoples, increased Indigenous political influence and representation within the political system, and offered a healthy model of party-society linkage. The rise of Indigenous movements and parties has prompted society to rethink the very meaning of democracy and how best to design political representation and participation in pluralist polities.

Indigenous Governance Innovation

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 political systems 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 partly inspired by Indigenous traditions (Exeni Rodríguez, 2012; Rice, 2015). 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. 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 socioeconomic and institutional environments.

The new constitutions in Ecuador (2008) and Bolivia (2009) advance Indigenous agendas significantly by recognizing the plurinational basis of their respective states, thereby formally acknowledging distinct legal and political orders within the state (Schilling-Vacaflor & Kuppe, 2012). The demand for plurinationality that is spreading in Latin America may be a means to transform Indigenous-state relations. In contrast to state corporatism and neoliberalism multiculturalism, which targeted Indigenous peoples as the problem in need of change, plurinational constitutionalism focuses on transforming the state to better serve and reflect the interests of Indigenous peoples. Without question, this historic accomplishment has been the result of the independent organizing and mobilizing efforts of Indigenous movements in the two countries and their capacity to bridge protest and electoral coalitions. Plurinational constitutionalism challenges previous governmental attempts to divide Indigenous peoples, to categorize them in ways that obscure their ethnicity, to discount them from national policy debates, and to denigrate them as obstacles to development. It entails doing government differently. A plurinational state recognizes the plurality of cultural, legal, and political systems that exist within a territory and places them on an equal footing (Becker, 2011; Walsh, 2009). It ends the unidirectional system of domination and replaces it with relations of mutual respect and consideration. In short, plurinational constitutionalism is the first step in the long process of the political empowerment of Latin America’s Indigenous populations.

Bolivia became a global Indigenous rights leader when it incorporated the 2007 United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) into domestic law and later its constitution (Albó, 2010; Schilling-Vacaflor & Kuppe, 2012). President Morales has made Indigenous rights the cornerstone of his administration. In one of his first official acts, Morales disbanded the Ministry of Indigenous and First Peoples Affairs (MAIPO) under the logic that Indigenous peoples’ demands are to be incorporated into all facets of government, rather than addressed separately. Democracy in Bolivia is being re-imagined on the basis of Indigenous citizenship (Canessa, 2012). Innovative features of Morales’s administration include the introduction of elements of direct, participatory, and communitarian democracy, policies to promote the decolonization and depatriarchalization of the state, and constitutional reforms to advance plurinationality and Indigenous autonomy in the country. Some of the new mechanisms for direct citizen participation include recall referendums, town councils, citizen-led legislative initiatives and the legal-political recognition of citizen’s associations and Indigenous groups to contest elections (Exeni Rodríguez, 2012). The new spaces of citizen engagement are not construed as an alternative to democracy but are part of an effort to overcome the basic problems associated with representative democracy (Peruzzotti & Selee, 2009; Wampler, 2012). The government also makes an explicit commitment to the Andean Indigenous principle of buen vivir or “living well” as an alternative model of development, one that is enshrined in the new constitution. The living well principle is based on the values of harmony, consensus, and respect; the redistribution of wealth; and the elimination of discrimination within a framework that values diversity, community, and the environment (Fischer & Fasol, 2013).

The incorporation of civil society actors into the structures of the state has produced a deeper, more meaningful form of democracy in Bolivia. Nonetheless, the Morales government’s commitment to Indigenous autonomy is at odds with its resource-dependent, state-led model of development. The constitutional provision that all non-renewable resources remain under state control places firm limits on the right to self-government and self-determination (Tockman & Cameron, 2014). Bolivia’s constitution (Article 30.15) establishes the right of Indigenous peoples to free, prior, and informed consultation, not consent, concerning planned measures affecting them such as mining and oil or gas exploration. The constitution does stipulate that the prior consultation process by the state must be conducted in good faith and in a concerted fashion and that it should respect local Indigenous norms and procedures. Indigenous groups, however, cannot veto state-sponsored development and resource extraction projects in their territories (Schilling-Vacaflor & Kuppe, 2012; Wolff, 2012). This dynamic has opened up a new discussion in the literature on the relationship between Indigenous movements and Latin America’s “left turn” governments (Cameron & Hershberg, 2010; Cameron, Hershberg, & Sharpe, 2012; Levitsky & Roberts, 2011). The broad wave of leftist governments that swept the region at the end of the 1990s and early 2000s promised to address socioeconomic inequalities and promote democratic participation and inclusion. While there are significant differences between Latin America’s left-turn governments, most rely heavily on the extractive sector to fund new social programs. The exploitation of non-renewable resources in Indigenous territories has translated into escalating conflicts between Indigenous groups and the state and led to renewed calls for activism.

New Avenues of Research

Future research should examine the long-term impacts of Indigenous peoples’ movements and parties on their respective party systems. Electoral contests in un-institutionalized party systems are critical in determining which social cleavages will become a permanent axis of political competition. If party systems in Latin America consolidate before ethnic-based concerns become entrenched, Indigenous demands will continue to be excluded from the political agenda. There is a strong body of research on the emergence and performance of Indigenous-based parties in the region (Becker, 2011; Collins, 2004; Rice & Van Cott, 2006) and some work on party consolidation (Rice, 2011), but we know less about the democratic contribution of Indigenous peoples’ parties to the region’s political systems. More research is needed on Indigenous governance innovation in Latin America, particularly as it relates to Indigenous women, and the tensions between collective and individual rights to autonomy (Rousseau & Morales Hudon, 2017).

The strong overlap between mineral deposit locations and Indigenous communities in the region ensures that Indigenous rights and extractive industry will be a critical research avenue in the years to come (Arce, 2014). More research attention is needed on the convergence of Indigenous and environmental activism in Latin America in response to extractive sector activities. The transnational dimension of social movement struggles is also a neglected area of research (Silva, 2013), as are the political consequences of social protest (Bosi, Giugni, & Uba, 2016). A new research agenda that addresses whether or not Indigenous peoples’ protests against mining companies produce more sustainable mining outcomes, for instance, would do much to advance the literature on Indigenous politics in Latin America. More focus is needed on the ways in which Indigenous communities in Latin America are working to transform a historic relationship with the state that has been characterized by domination and marginalization into one based on mutual respect and understanding and in which both parties are able to pursue their economic, social, and political interests. The results of this new research agenda would have relevance to ongoing scholarly debates as well as practical implications for policymaking.

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