Both Ecuador and Bolivia have gained a reputation for powerful social movements that have repeatedly challenged entrenched political and economic interests that have controlled the countries since their independence from Spain almost two hundred years ago. A wealthy and powerful minority of European descendant landowners ruled the countries to the exclusion of the majority population of impoverished Indigenous farm workers. Repeated well-organized challenges to exclusionary rule in the late 20th century shifted policies and opened political spaces for previously marginalized people. Social movement organizations also altered their language to meet new realities, including incorporating identities as ethnic groups and Indigenous nationalities to advance their agenda. Their efforts contributed to a significant leftward shift in political discourse that led to the election of presidents Evo Morales and Rafael Correa.
The arrival of Christopher Columbus in the northern Caribbean with three Spanish ships in October 1492 marked the beginning of continuing European contact with the Americas. With his second voyage of 1493 permanent European occupation of the Caribbean began, with enormous consequences for the peoples and ecology of the region. Failing to encounter the wealthy trading societies that Columbus had hoped to find by reaching Asia, Europeans in the Caribbean soon realized that they would have to involve themselves directly in organizing profitable enterprises. Gold mining in the northern islands and pearl fishing in the islands off the coast of Tierra Firme (present-day Venezuela) for some years proved enormously profitable but depended on Spaniards’ ability to exploit indigenous labor on a large scale. The imposition of the Spanish encomienda system, which required indigenous communities to provide labor for mining and commercial agriculture, and the large-scale capture and transportation of Native Americans from one locale to another wrought havoc among the indigenous peoples of the Caribbean and circum-Caribbean, resulting in high mortality and flight. Spaniards in the islands soon sought to supplement indigenous labor by importing African slaves who, in the early 16th century, became a significant if not always easily controlled presence in the region.
From the earliest years the Spanish Caribbean was a complex, dynamic, and volatile region characterized by extensive interaction and conflict among diverse groups of people and by rapid economic and institutional development. Although the islands became the launching grounds for subsequent Spanish moves to the nearby mainland, throughout the 16th century and beyond they played a crucial role in sustaining Spain’s overseas empire and integrating it into the larger Atlantic system.
The native populations of Portuguese America were essential for the implementation of the Portuguese colonial project. Their labor was indispensable in constructing the colony, and political alliances with native peoples ensured the success of the conquest at several crucial moments, and only with the aid of native knowledge it was possible to occupy the land and advance the conquest of the immense territory that became known as Brazil. In this sense, peace was a necessity.
Yet, in highlighting the centrality of Indians in the settlement of the Portuguese colony in the Americas, it must also be recognized that the relations established there between Portuguese conquerors and native populations were also historically marked by tension and violence. A war of extermination, often masquerading as a “just war,” and slavery became inseparable parts of colonial strategy. Moreover, access to land and the use of indigenous labor could both constitute secure indicators of success in the conquest of Portuguese America. In the process of colonization the Portuguese Crown was confronted by various forms of native resistance and by the differing interests of diverse colonial agents. During the 17th and 18th centuries the Crown faced tensions, disputes, and contradictions in relation to the slavery and freedom of Indians and the way it solved these conflicts revealed the configuration of its indigenist policy.