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The Latin American Left and Indigenous Peoples


Nyki Salinas-Duda has an interesting though flawed article about the increasingly tense relationship between the left-leaning Latin American governments elected in recent years and indigenous peoples who helped elect them. Essentially, indigenous peoples have supported politicians like Evo Morales because they provided an alternative to the openly racist governments that have oppressed indigenous people for centuries. Yet these governments, desperate for money and seeing the need to develop, have pushed projects that would strip indigenous peoples of land.

The general principle of the article is good. But there are a couple of shortcomings that need to be pointed out. First, there’s a long history between the Latin American left and indigenous people that’s ignored here. Most famously, the Sandinistas in Nicaragua had a terrible relationship with indigenous groups on the Caribbean side. Turns out the Miskito Indians didn’t want to be part of the Sandinista national project. The Sandinistas had no understanding of these people and Marxist theory didn’t provide much guidance. For the Sandinistas, modernism needed to sweep out these backwards people and bring them into the present. Not surprisingly, this attitude didn’t exactly sit well with the Miskitos, many of whom rebelled and allied themselves with the Contras. I think we have to understand this history in order to have much to say about current problems.

Second, the article could use some understanding about the relationship between the left and national development, The 20th century left was as smitten with high modernism as the right. Capitalism and communism were two sides of the same developmentalist coin. Urban renewal, icky concrete housing blocks, giant dams, monoculture agriculture, superhighways–these were hallmarks of the 20th century. And while these sorts of things might be out of fashion with the modern US and European left (except perhaps monocultures but that’s changing I think), they still appeal to developing nations. This is often for good reason–these nations really do need the economic boom that can come from big central projects. It’s often for bad reasons too–the Three Gorges Dam was more about China’s desire to control nature and show off state power to the rest of the world than any real need for a dam that large. But it’s complicated, a phrase we all need to use more often.

Finally, the article plays a bit fast and loose with the idea of the left in Latin America. What is the left in Latin America today? There’s a world of difference between Hugo Chavez and Michelle Bachelet. While Bachelet may have been tortured by Pinochet, her policies as Chilean president weren’t exactly some reconstitution of Salvador Allende. Second, Evo Morales actually is indigenous. Yes, the Bolivian indigenous movements are highly irritated with him. But this is a different beast than the other nations and needs further exploration. I understand the need to generalize about a number of nations in a short article. But the Bolivian situation is so different than the others, precisely because of who Morales is.

Having spent a lot of time in Bolivia, I have some sense of what Morales is facing here. Bolivia is massively underdeveloped, far more than any other nation I’ve been too–and that includes Indonesia and Honduras. Paved roads almost don’t exist. Many people can’t access clean water or indoor plumbing. I’m not excusing Morales for pushing projects that would build roads through indigenous lands. What I am saying is that he faces an enormous task to build his nation’s economy. Landlocked, lacking infrastructure, with a huge divide between the white (and openly racist) eastern lowlands and the indigenous Altiplano, and with no obvious economic resources except for raw materials, Morales desperately needs money to improve the education, sanitation, and health of the Bolivian people. What is he supposed to do? There’s no easy answers to that question.

Despite these problems, indigenous people, especially in Bolivia, are engaged in the political process like never before. In electing Morales, they rejected centuries of racist government. They are empowered and willing to stand up to Morales himself when they are unhappy with him. That in itself is a pretty remarkable feat.

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  • Jameson Quinn

    Also, zero mention of explicitly indigenous and leftist movements. Such as the Zapatistas. Fail.

    • Jameson Quinn

      Basically, if you haven’t realized that the movement left has natural points of conflict with the political/partisan left, and would still have them even if both groups were doing their job correctly, then bringing an ethnic dimension in is just a distraction.

    • Yes, although I would only say that Mexican indigenous peoples don’t have the same kind of nominally left-leaning governments as the South American nations.

      But yes.

      • Anonymous

        Mexico is not part of the pink tide!

        • Anonymous

          (meant to add that I agree!)

    • DocAmazing

      Some problems with the Zapatistas: they were notably not keen to educate or increase literacy among non-Spanish-speaking folks. They’ve gotten better about it, but it’s worth remembering that they have their indigenous component and their Commandante Zero/academic left/celebrity component.

      • Jameson Quinn

        Not keen on education? Wow. I spent 2001 working in a Zapatista middle school, one which had been around since 1997 or 1998 (that is, before there had been a government middle school anywhere nearby). This was in the Tzotzil (/Tsotsil – spelling has gone back and forth and I have a hard time keeping it straight which groups favor which spelling) area, and all of the students were bilingual and getting a good education. So, no, on that count.

        I was not precisely hobnobbing with commandantes, but I met my share. And while of course it’s true that the indigenous and leftist roots of the movement come from different places and haven’t entirely merged, it’s also a gross oversimplification to treat them as entirely separate. For instance, I met more than one fully indigenous Zapatista spouting old-guard communist rhetoric, who’d obviously gotten it well before the first Marcos communique. (And that’s just one small example; I don’t mean to say in the least that the Zapatistas are old-guard communists).

      • Zig Zag

        I visited a Zapatista community in Chiapas in 2007 during the 13th anniversary of the uprising. The Zapatistas placed a lot of emphasis on education and had established their own schools along with health clinics, radio stations etc. To say that they did not attempt to educate non-Spanish speakers is very misleading. In fact they were the only ones seriously trying to educate the communities out of which they arose, in contrast to the government which did virtually nothing.

  • Okay I think the term “Left” needs to be used more carefully here. In terms of development it is usually associated with the Soviet model in places like China, North Korea, and the USSR itself. In Latin America there is the example of Cuba following the Soviet economic model. But, that is obviously not what is happening in Latin America today.

    The use of the state to develop infrastructure and even industry without collectivizing agriculture or introducing comprehensive central planning and state ownership is a different thing entirely. Lots of states have used various forms of partial central planning, state investment in infrastructure and industry, and expansion of services to promote development. In this sense it seems the “Left” in Latin America outside of Cuba seems to more closely resemble the various non-aligned states in Africa and Asia during the 1950s and 60s. There is a huge difference in policies between somebody like Nkrumah in Ghana or Nasser in Egypt and somebody like Ho Chi Minh in North Vietnam or Castro in Cuba.

    • Jameson Quinn

      Not to mention, Mexico for most of the 20th century.

    • Manta

      How would you call social democracy, then?

      • I would classify actually existing social democracy in places like Sweden as centrist. But, the use of the term “Left” here is not problematic because it is inaccurate. Rather because it is too encompassing. What Loomis is talking about has a lot more in common with “third way” strategies of development pursued by non-aligned countries than it does with the socialist countries of the USSR, Eastern Europe, China, etc. For one thing nobody is advocating the collectivization of agriculture and the formation of kolkhozes today in Latin America as far as I can see. Using the term “left” to encompass any and all state involvement in the economy does not discriminate between some very large differences in development strategies.

  • One of the Blue

    Worth noting. I recall talking to a strongly progressive Canadian colleague just before Morales got elected. He was predicting imminent civil war in Bolivia.

    Either that guy was all wet, or it’s a strong tribute to Morales’ political skill (and majority support led by indigenous voters) that civil war did not occur, despite at least one and possibly two efforts to bring it about.

    • Oh yeah, well there was a time a couple of years ago when it did look like civil war might result from the rich planter elites of the lowlands just leaving the nation. One of the most striking things to me of my time in Bolivia was the open racism against Morales. The first day I was there, I was eating in the market in Cochabamba. Some white dude came up to me in broken English and started ranting about “that fucking Indian.” I guess he thought I naturally agreed since I’m a non-hippie looking white American.

    • wengler

      There probably wasn’t a civil war because the landlords had been so heavily divided and discredited beforehand. Their last President won with 20 percent of the vote. He lives in the US now.

      Morales has a tough task, but the barons are going to be gone for awhile.

      • shah8

        /me blinks…

        No, there is no civil war because there are minerals to be got out Bolivia, and there is no port that could be made an international zone. You can’t play a blood minerals game without heavy cooperation from one of the neighbors, all of whom are not penny-ante lightweights and who would demand things that international elites would prefer not to give. Argentina, specifically will not want a civil war on its borders with its own simmering pots. So the distinct preference is simply to work with Morales when they have to, and manipulate international institutions where they can for advantage. Also, to be noted, serious mining has to have some kind of settled political reality. Too easy to interrupt. Stuff like gold, you have to have a situation like Greece, where international actors can demand that gold field be open, and a “friendly” government in Athens who can move the locals around to make that work. You *have* to have functional domestic actors with lithium and other mining products–unlike, oil or diamonds, because the physical plant of such mines requires workers and capital over a period of time.

        It has to be said, it’s often just not worth it to read English language analysis of what’s going on in Latin America. This area is just so full of bad faith analysts spouting bull that plays on racist sentiment at some level. Only worse place is MidEast, but there is a developed framework to provide slightly more truthful new and analysis. Just hasn’t happened for S. America.

        • shah8

          Ah, I see Colin Snyder touches on how much racist appeals are used to grease self-serving policy initiatives.

        • Pestilence

          I’m not sure Africa in its entirety isn’t as badly off this way as S. America

        • You say it like the lack of a civil war is a bad thing…

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  • It’s very nice to read a Loomis review of something where the review isn’t just “does this person fully agree with my position on the topic?”

    More of this, please!

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