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The Latin American Left and Indigenous Peoples

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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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