Indigenous Movements: Between Neoliberalism and Leftist Governments

After scoring resounding victories, the indigenous movements of South America are encountering new challenges, both on an institutional and state level, that they have not been able to answer. Expanding on the wide range of experiences and deepening the exchange between organizations appear to be some of the possible routes that lie ahead.

“Three times we have won and all three times we lost,” explains Pablo Davalos, Ecuadorian economist and treasurer of the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE, for its Spanish initials). It is not a play on words, but rather the bitter conclusion that the continent’s most powerful indigenous movement has arrived at after a decade marked by major victories. It is the lesson learned from the three triumphs scored over the last decade: in 1998, when the indigenous uprising toppled the AbdalÓ Bucaram government; in 2000, when a vast popular indigenous insurrection forced President Jamil Mahuad to step down; and in 2002, when the CONAIE played a decisive role in the election victory of Lucio Gutiurrez.

Some of these debates came up in the Second Andean-Mesoamerican Conference, “The Indigenous Movement, Resistance, and the Alternative Project,” held from March 22-25 in the Bolivian cities of La Paz and El Alto. Academics and indigenous leaders from Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Guatemala, Ecuador, Mexico, and Peru attended the conference and discussed the many problems facing movements in the new political context of the region. In spite of the heterogeneous nature of the situations, a few common themes prevailed over the course of the conference, in particular, the relationship between social movements and the State as a consequence of the recent emergence of progressive and leftist governments. At the heart of these debates lies the proposal of the Santa Fe Documents, drawn up by U.S. conservative strategists. The latest considers the indigenous a threat to be fought and neutralized, much as the earlier version warned of the dangers of liberation theology. The empire considers indigenous peoples one of the major problems affecting governance in the region. As subscribers to this assessment, the World Bank and other international organizations have begun financing projects to prevent the formation of collective indigenous actors.

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