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Indigenous Peoples and the Left in Latin America

Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz is a longtime activist, university professor, and writer. In addition to numerous scholarly books and articles, she has written three historical memoirs, Red Dirt: Growing Up Okie (Verso, 1997), Outlaw Woman: Memoir of the War Years, 1960–1975 (City Lights, 2002), and Blood on the Border: A Memoir of the Contra War (South End Press, 2005) about the 1980s contra war against the Sandinistas.

What has been left out of reports and analysis in both the mainstream press and among anti-imperialists and leftists about the triumph of Evo Morales’s election as president of Bolivia is the role played by the over three-decade-long international indigenous movement that preceded it. Few are even aware of that powerful and remarkable historic movement, which springs from generations of grassroots organizing.

If the left, particularly the Latin American left, misses this point, it’s a shame, as the mistrust of indigenous peoples, and their absence, has weakened previous revolutionary movements in Latin America. Indeed, some indigenous activists and organizations in the Andean region are wary of Evo Morales because of his left politics and alliances, because Latin American left movements have often either ignored indigenous issues and aspirations, or recruited indigenous individuals or communities without incorporating or even prioritizing their aspirations in regards to land and self-determination. The responsibility belongs to social justice movements to catch up with what has been going on with the indigenous movement. If there is ever to be socialism and just societies in the Americas, the leadership and form of it must rely heavily on the experiences and knowledge of the indigenous peoples. Peruvian communist pioneer, José Carlos Mariátegui recognized this reality, and it’s time to take another look at past and future strategies and not just pay guilty lip service to the “plight” of the Indians.

The question of self-determination of peoples is a recent historical phenomenon integral both to the formation of modern nation-states that served and were created by capitalism, and to the gradual formation of a world system, which culminated in imperialism. The dominant manifestation of capitalist-based national integration and state formation occurred in Western Europe parallel with those states establishing colonies and colonial regimes in Africa, Asia, the Pacific, the Americas, and the Caribbean. This accounts for their access to vast resources and labor that allowed their development of industrial capitalism and wealth, efficient bureaucratic structures, and political liberalism. It is at the end of that process in the twentieth century that self-determination became a major global issue, eventually organizing every human being and community into citizens of nation-states. The creation of nation-states inevitably raised the question of national and ethnic communities who were included, without their consent or participation, within newly drawn boundaries.

The western hemisphere is the region least explored in discussions of colonization—the aspirations of indigenous communities, and what Marxists call the national question. The revolution for independent state formation in the Americas in the early nineteenth century should be seen as being in the mode of European nation-state formation for the purpose of capitalist development, dominated by Euroamerican (racial and/or cultural) elites. Although those independence movements were against the “mother country,” they were not, with the possible exception of Haiti, anti-colonial (just as the formation of Rhodesia and the Union of South Africa as states were not anti-colonial events), despite rhetoric and declarations that were clearly the precursors and perhaps even the seed of later anti-colonial movements throughout the world. This conclusion is obvious only if the focus is on the indigenous nations of the Americas, free of chauvinism.

The annexationist posture of the newly independent United States of America immediately at its founding (indeed arguably its very reason for establishing independence) introduced U.S. imperialism to Latin America and the Caribbean a full century earlier than its effective intervention in Africa and Asia. Consolidating the thirteen British colonies along the North Atlantic, and armed with a pre-imperialist political thrust (the Monroe Doctrine and the popular ideology of “manifest destiny”), the entrepreneurs controlling the new state machinery dispatched their military forces—citizen soldiers/settlers—rapidly across North America. The United States colonized indigenous communities that had not previously been subjected to European colonization, although most already had trade relations with one of the European colonial powers—and by 1848 had annexed half of Mexico where most of the indigenous peoples had been colonized by the Spanish. During the second half of the nineteenth century, the United States freed land and labor from the limitations of the closed system of plantation agriculture based on slave labor. At the same time, the United States replaced the remnants of Spanish colonialism and the British trade hegemony in most of the Caribbean and Central and South America; the mode of penetration and relationships were finally transformed into classic imperialism in the late nineteenth century. The United States emerged as the leading imperialist power when imperialist competition erupted into full-scale warfare in Western Europe. The U.S. ascension was not completed until the end of the Second World War with the defeat of its chief competitors, Germany and Japan.

In some countries of the Americas, the dependent mode of capitalist formation took place. However, direct military and political-economic intervention often prevented even the formation of dependent capitalism, but rather created the colony of Puerto Rico, and neocolonies in the Caribbean and Central America. There is no doubt that U.S. imperialism made necessary national liberation movements for the realization of the integrity of nation-states in the rest of the Americas. Beginning with the Mexican revolution, revolutionary nationalist movements spread all over Latin America, led by anti-imperialist coalitions committed to social development.

Regarding the question of indigenous self-determination in Latin America, it could be said that it has been dealt with by its suppression in nationalist and left discourse, thus creating a theoretical vacuum in place of analysis. The vacuum has been filled by the ideology of indigenismo, a variety of paternalism, which is then used to attack the moral legitimacy of the left, in other words, “guilt-tripping.” Some leftists have fallen for indigenismo and spliced it into their various manifestos and lists of demands.

To develop an approach to the national question in the Americas, obviously it is necessary to deal with each situation separately and concretely. The case of American Indians within the United States is certainly not analogous to the situations in Bolivia or Guatemala, where the indigenous constitute the majority of the population. Furthermore, the Guatemalan and Bolivian situations are quite different from that of Mexico, which in turn is distinct from the dependent capitalist countries of South America where the indigenous are numerically in the minority.  A different set of circumstances are likely to arise in Venezuela, Ecuador, and Bolivia, as they did in Nicaragua in the 1980s. There a progressive state was targeted by the United States, which manipulated ethnic differences and conflicts to discredit the government in U.S. and European public opinion and provide cover for U.S. intervention. One only has to look at sub-Saharan Africa today to see the effects of neocolonialist uses of ethnic conflict to disrupt the emergence of authentic self-determination.

However important it is to distinguish among the varied realities in Latin American countries, it is also important to consider the importance of the pan-Indian, even pan-indigenous, movement that has emerged during the past thirty-five years. No longer simply a utopian ideology, the movement forcefully acted to enact new international law for the rights of indigenous peoples through work at the United Nations and other international fora. Activists in that movement have not been hesitant in proposing their goal of self-determination with land/territory as its basis.

The predominant theme that has more or less gained consensus among Indians of the Americas is that prior to the European invasions, the Western Hemisphere was the home of Indian civilization. For some, there is a concept of a stateless, borderless hemisphere, within which autonomous, self-reliant ethnic entities, manifesting many cultures, speaking many languages, lived peaceably side by side. They call for a reconstruction of this old Indian civilization. Not all subscribe to this pastoral view of pre-Columbian history. Others espouse Indian nationalism, calling for self-determination for native communities and nations as colonized nations, separately and/or in federation.

In his 1981 compilation of documents from the emerging pan-Indian movement, Utopía y Revolución, Mexican anthropologist Guillermo Bonfil Batalla summarized the movement’s theory and aspirations. He wrote:

It is postulated that in America there exists only one unitary Indian civilization. All the Indian peoples participate in this civilization. The diversity of cultures and languages is not an obstacle to affirmation of unity of civilization. (It is a fact that all civilizations, including Western civilization, have these sorts of internal differences. But the level of unity—the civilization—is more profound than the level of specificity—the cultures, the languages, the communities; the civilizing dimension transcends the concrete diversity)….The differences between the diverse peoples (or ethnic groups) have been accentuated by the colonizers as part of the strategy of domination….the past is unifying. The achievements of the classic Mayas, for instance, can be reclaimed as part of the Quechua foundation. (In passing: much the same as the French may affirm their Greek past)….And even beyond the remote past which is shared, and beyond the colonial experience that makes all Indians similar, Indian peoples also have a common historic project for the future. The legitimacy of that project rests precisely in the existence of an Indian civilization, within which framework it could be realized, once the “chapter of colonialism ends.” One’s own civilization signifies the right and the possibility to create one’s own future, a different future, not Western. (37–38)

Bonfil described the pan-Indian movement as equating colonialism and imperialism with the West, and that in opposing the West, Indians view themselves as anti-imperialist.

One of the most interesting themes identified by Bonfil is the goal of recuperation of the mestizo. One effect of colonial domination has been to de-Indianize a large portion of the indigenous population by means of various mechanisms of ethnocide, such as loss of land, forced removals, forced emigration, integration policies, foreign education, racism, and ideological penetration. When the Indians lose their identity, they lose the protection of the Indian community and are even more vulnerable to exploitation. Their new identity is mestizo, which, the pan-Indianists maintain, is no identity at all. No one becomes a mestizo by choice; it is always forced on Indians. The definition of mestizo, then, is an Indian that has been de-Indianized, but the Indian in the mestizo is recoverable. Further, even Euroamerican individuals can become Indian in the process of Indianization. Bonfil comments that this view is one of identity and consciousness, and, as such, it is as justified as the Marxist concept of the development of class consciousness. With liberation, and the expulsion of Western civilization and its agents, the restoration of pre-colonial society would be possible. Pan-Indianists also identify an Indian socialism that already exists in Indian communities and can be nurtured to replace capitalism. However, they eschew involvement with non-Indian mass organization, because those organizations, they say, are unable to accept the Indian as protagonist, and only want to use him/her as cannon fodder. Pan-Indianists prefer alliances.

Bonfil identifies several concrete and immediate demands in the pan-Indian movement’s literature, and these parallel the demands that are found in the United Nations’ documentation of the past thirty years of indigenous activity there. First there is land. There are demands for occupied ancestral territories which were guaranteed in the colony and taken away under the republics; demands for the control of the use of the land and the subsoil; and struggles against the invasion by cattle dealers and other commercial interests. Defense of land held and recuperation of land lost are central demands. They also demand recognition of the ethnic and cultural specificity of the Indian. All the Indian organizations reaffirm the right to be distinct in culture, language, and institutions, and to increase the value of their own technological, social, and ideological practices. At the same time, they demand equal rights in relation to the state with the right to have their own administration with officials from their own communities. They call for the end of repression and violence, particularly that against the leaders, activists, and followers of the Indians’ political organizations. Tourism and folklore are rejected. The commercialization of Indian music, dance, and rituals are often mentioned in the documents, and there is a particular dislike of the exploitation of those that have a sacred content and purpose for the Indians. An end to exploitation of Indian cultures in general is a primary demand.

Up to recently, the growth of ethnic consciousness and the consequent mobilization of Indian communities in the Western hemisphere since the 1970s have been welcomed neither by governments in power nor opposition political parties and revolutionary movements. Indian issues discussed in the framework of the national question have been almost a forbidden subject of debate throughout the political spectrum, although all progressives roundly denounce racism, discrimination, and exploitation. In contrast, we have seen a number of intellectuals and sectors of the UN system grappling with the indigenous question, and a growing indigenous intelligentsia spelling out visions and demands of their various communities and nations.

Many questions are posed regarding the political sense, and even the theoretical correctness, of social mobilization of oppressed groups for self-determination. Yet, there are fewer questions about the elements that produce ethnic unrest. One area that requires examination is the role of the modern state in general, and even more significantly, the particular historical development and role of states in the Americas. Linked with such a question is the apparent existence of dominant ethnic groups and their role in determining the necessity for oppressed groups to mobilize, if not for self-determination, then at least in self-defense. Finally, it must be asked, whose interests are served by the suppression of the self-determination of oppressed national groups?

The state is not necessarily an enduring entity as we know, nor is it an objective judge of the status of oppressed groups. The state is itself often the key factor in setting off nationalist movements. It is not surprising that Indian communities have sought some form of international protection, given the lack of choices available. The historical role of states in the Americas has not been such that Indian peoples could expect vindication from that source. The American states have claimed the roots of their nationalist projects in European developments, particularly the founding of the United States and the French Revolution, which promulgated individual rights, not national self-determination. Nationalism, in such a context, becomes a communal expression of individual wills with the state as a framework.

States in the Americas have institutionalized and legitimized public ideologies that sanction individual rights, while discrediting the possibility of collective rights. The promotion of individualism has undermined Indian communities and made such social relations appear backward or not modern. Attempts at group mobilization in the Americas are often transformed into efforts by members of the group to acquire individual benefits as caciques.

In reality, the states of the Americas, including and particularly the United States, have developed as artificial states with little of the horizontal dynamic or integration that creates nations or nation-states. From their inception, they have been highly centralized and based on military power. Not only were Indian communities the first to feel the effects of powerful state development via the military sector, but they also served as cannon fodder in the ranks of those armies.

Questions are raised as to the legitimacy of the Indian nationalism or identity known as pan-Indianism. Given that the social and cultural identity of the many peoples of the Americas derives from specific languages, cultures, and territories, is the term “Indian” viable? The American states, like their colonial mother countries, have always insisted on dealing with an ethnic entity called Indian. This, I think, was not only a function of colonization, but also recognition of pre-colonial Indian civilization. In the contemporary Indian movements, there can be no doubt that the Indian national identity is a reality that won’t go away.

The Indian reality today is not the precolonial reality. Imperialism, but even more particularly colonialism and local ruling classes have suffocated the development of indigenous communities. They have thereby converted these peoples into national minorities even where they constitute the majority of the population. The exploitation of Indian labor in Latin America acquired the character of national oppression in which Indians were organized according to an ethnic division of labor. This introduced discrimination between them and the dominant population of mestizos or whites who were favored for higher wages. The division of labor by race followed the need to exploit and take over land and resources as well as the geopolitics, which historically defined legal racial status. Such a division of labor made the unification of workers difficult.

As I mentioned in the beginning of this paper, José Carlos Mariátegui, one of the leading Latin American socialists in the 1920s, saw the indigenous question as fundamental. Pressure to deal with the national question in the Americas came from the Communist International in the late 1920s. The world meetings of the International in 1928 and 1930 recognized the existence of the Black Nation in the southern United States. Similarly, at the first Latin American Communist Conference, held in 1929 in Buenos Aires, the Peruvian delegation presented a paper on “The Racial Problem in Latin America,” the work of Mariátegui. The Communist International representative criticized the presentation precisely on the issues of the national question:

It seems to me that the working papers confuse the racial question with the national question….The Peruvian comrades have correctly reacted against the idealist and petty-bourgeois conception…but it seems to me that they have fallen into the opposite error; that of negating the national character of indigenous struggles…Lenin said that “‘every national question is ninety percent an agrarian question,” but an equally serious error is to reduce the national question to a class question—the agrarian question.

The prevailing line that emerged from the conference was that the existing boundaries between states in the Americas should no longer be regarded as absolute, and that Indians had the right to self-determination, with the immediate possibility of establishing Quechua and Aymara republics in the Andes. It has not turned out that way—not yet—but the aspiration did not begin with the pan-Indian movement of the 1970s. And for the Indians, the aspiration for self-determination undoubtedly is as old as colonialism itself.

How Mariátegui would have further developed the indigenous national question will remain a mystery, because he died less than a year after the meeting, aged thirty-five. But, his thinking on the subject remains important to build upon and may be found in his Siete Ensayos de Interpretación de la Realidad Peruana, which was first published in Peru in 1928 and republished in 1967. The book was published in English translation in 1971 as Seven Interpretative Essays on Peruvian Reality.

Mariátegui’s approach to the Indian question is prefaced with the warning that: “As long as the vindication of the Indian is kept on a philosophical and cultural plane, it lacks a concrete historical base. To acquire such a base—that is, to acquire physical reality—it must be converted into an economic and political vindication” (29, page numbers refer to the English version).

His historical materialist analysis of precolonial Inca society, the European invasion, Peruvian political independence, and its economic dependence, demonstrates the effectiveness of this method. Mariátegui offered a merciless critique of Peruvian historical development, particularly on the pretensions of the ruling class. He also dismissed the nearly sacred view of the Latin American “liberators”: He wrote,

The directors, caudillos, and ideologists of this revolution did not precede or transcend the economic premises and causes of this event….From the standpoint of world history, South America’s independence was determined by the needs of the development of Western or, more precisely, capitalist civilization. The rise of capitalism had a much more decisive and profound, if less apparent and recognizable, influence on the evolution of independence than the philosophy and literature of the Encyclopedists. (6–7)

In assessing Mariátegui’s programmatic approach to the Indian question, it can fairly safely be assumed that he had freed himself from the dominant chauvinism that appears when the question of Indian self-determination is raised. However, he did not propose separate nation status. He maintained that he supported the unity of the Peruvian state, but that the development of a unified nation-state was impossible without building into it self-determination for the Indian peoples, apparently up to but not including separate nation status.

Mariátegui’s analysis, then, takes the form of a critique of regionalism and centralism in Peru, which reveals much, not only about the artificiality of the Peruvian political model, but nearly every other state of the Americas. Disputes between federalists and centralists in Peru are characterized as mechanical because they do not consider the economic structure of the country. Mariátegui argues that neither position has ever been a popular cause. Rather, federalism has been used to justify the position of large landowners and their clientele, while centralism has been supported by regional bossism. He identified centralism as a serious problem of the Peruvian state, but denied that federalism was the solution, if by federalism is meant administrative units without any basis in the traditions and history of the residents. He wrote: “The proletariat lacked any program or ideology of its own. Liberals and Conservatives looked down on the Indian as an inferior, different class.  They either tried to ignore the problem of the Indian or they did their best to reduce it to a philanthropical and humanitarian problem” (157).

He viewed the “problem of the Indian” and the “agrarian question” as the two most important issues in administrative reform; these should take priority over any problem relating to the mechanism of the regime, if not the very structure of the state. He identified three distinct regions in Peru—the coast, the sierra, and the rain forest.

The Indian race and language, displaced from the coast by the Spaniard and his language, have fearfully taken refuge in the sierra. Therefore, in the sierra are combined all the elements of a region, if not of a nationality. Peru of the coast, heir of Spain and the conquest, controls the Peru of the sierra from Lima; but it is not demographically and spiritually strong enough to absorb it. Peruvian unity is still to be accomplished. It is not a question of the communication and cooperation of former small states or free cities within the boundaries of a single nation. In Peru, the problem of unity goes much deeper. Instead of a pluralism of local or regional traditions, what has to be solved is a dualism of race, language, and sentiment, born of the invasion and conquest of indigenous Peru by a foreign race that has not managed to merge with the Indian race, or eliminate it, or absorb it. (163–64)

Mariátegui maintained that the purpose of decentralization is to encourage union, not secession; not to separate and divide regions but to assure their unity within a functional rather than a forced association.

No authentic regionalist program has ever been attempted in Latin America. Decentralization, whatever form it has taken, has always been centralist in concept and design. Administrative decentralization should be discussed in the context of radical reform with the indigenous peoples at the center of such reform.