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Indigenous peoples have become important social and political actors in contemporary Latin America. The politicization of ethnic identities in the region has divided analysts into those who view it as a threat to democratic stability versus those who welcome it as an opportunity to improve the quality of democracy. Throughout much of Latin America’s history, Indigenous peoples’ demands have been oppressed, ignored, and silenced. Latin American states did not just exclude Indigenous peoples’ interests; they were built in opposition to or even against them. The shift to democracy in the 1980s presented Indigenous groups with a dilemma: to participate in elections and submit themselves to the rules of a largely alien political system that had long served as an instrument of their domination or seek a measure of representation through social movements while putting pressure on the political system from the outside. In a handful of countries, most notably Bolivia and Ecuador, Indigenous movements have successfully overcome this tension by forming their own political parties and contesting elections on their own terms. The emergence of Indigenous peoples’ movements and parties has opened up new spaces for collective action and transformed the relationship between Indigenous peoples and the state. Indigenous movements have reinvigorated Latin America’s democracies. The political exclusion of Indigenous peoples, especially in countries with substantial Indigenous populations, has undoubtedly contributed to the weakness of party systems and the lack of accountability, representation, and responsiveness of democracies in the region. In Bolivia, the election of the country’s first Indigenous president, Evo Morales (2006–present) of the Movement toward Socialism (MAS) party, has resulted in new forms of political participation that are, at least in part, inspired by Indigenous traditions. A principal consequence of the broadening of the democratic process is that Indigenous activists are no longer forced to choose between party politics and social movements. Instead, participatory mechanisms allow civil society actors and their organizations to increasingly become a part of the state. New forms of civil society participation such as Indigenous self-rule broaden and deepen democracy by making it more inclusive and government more responsive and representative. Indigenous political representation is democratizing democracy in the region by pushing the limits of representative democracy in some of the most challenging socio-economic and institutional environments.

Article

Bolivia is in the process of consolidating 36 years of democracy amid important reforms and challenges. Despite a history of colonialism, racist oppression of the indigenous majority, and a national revolution and military reaction, the democratic transition to civilian rule and “pacted” electoral democracy among traditional political parties was established in 1982. The governments of pacted democracy failed to fully incorporate all of Bolivia’s citizens into the political process and imposed a severe neoliberal economic model that disproportionately disadvantaged the poor and indigenous. The constitutional popular participation reforms of 1994–1995 altered the party-dominated pacted democracy and opened up the political system to the unmediated and direct participation of indigenous organizations and popular social movements in local and national elections. Grassroots political mobilization and participation by previously marginalized and excluded indigenous groups and social movements, and the election of their candidates into office increased significantly. Indigenous and social movement protests erupted in the Cochabamba Water War in 2000 against the multinational Bechtel Corporation, and in the Gas War in 2003 against the export and exploitation of Bolivia’s natural gas. These mass demonstrations resulted in the turnover of five presidents in five years. The social and political agitation culminated in the game-changing, democratic election in December 2005 of Juan Evo Morales Ayma, as Bolivia’s first indigenous-heritage president. In office for 14 years, longer than all previous presidents, Morales and the Movement Toward Socialism party launched the “Refounding Revolution,” and passed the new Constitución Política del Estado (CPE), the progressive reform constitution that established a multicultural model of plurinational democracy. The Morales-MAS administration provided unprecedented continuity of governance and relative stability. However, amid charges of interference, relations deteriorated with the United States. And disputes erupted over regional and indigenous autonomy, and extractive economic development in the protected lands of native peoples, especially over the proposed road through the Isiboro Sécure National Park and Indigenous Territory (Territorio Indígena Parque Nacional Isiboro Sécure, TIPNIS). These conflicts pitted highlanders against lowlanders, and divided indigenous organizations and social movements, and the government’s coalition of supporters. Contested term limits for the presidency created another acute and ongoing challenge. President Morales’s determination to run for re-election in 2019, despite constitutional restrictions, further tested the process of change and the resilience of Bolivia’s indigenous and social movement-based democracy.

Article

In the 200 years since Ecuador gained independence from Spain in 1822, it has experienced many of the social problems that have plagued other Latin American countries. Ecuador experienced a high degree of political instability during the 19th century, and a series of extra-constitutional and military governments marked much of the 20th century. At the dawn of the 21st century, Ecuador followed the rest of Latin America’s “pink tide,” which introduced progressive governments that sought to address long-standing problems of poverty and inequality. The country has endured numerous coups, caudillo and populist leaders, and forms of government ranging through conservative, liberal, populist, military, and civilian “democracy.” The diversity in political institutions led the political scientist John Martz to observe that Ecuador, although little studied among scholars of Latin American issues, “serves as a microcosm for a wide variety of problems, questions, and issues relevant to various of the other Latin American countries.” Despite a high degree of political instability, the country is also home to very strong popular movements that opened up space for the election of the left-wing government of Rafael Correa in 2006. His administration resulted in a remarkable shift from a period of extreme instability to political stability, with notable gains in economic growth and corresponding drops in poverty and inequality. Scholarly research on Ecuador has often reflected the country’s current political environment. In the 1950s, in the midst of the emergence of populist politics, researchers defined the country’s landscape in terms of its personalist leadership, particularly as represented by the perennial leader José María Velasco Ibarra. In 1972, General Guillermo Rodríguez Lara led a military coup that removed Velasco Ibarra from office. In the midst of a petroleum boom, he established a nationalist regime similar to that of Juan Velasco Alvarado in neighboring Peru. A massive Indigenous uprising two decades later introduced a generation of studies that examined ethnonationalist-based social movements. Those movements led to Correa’s election in the midst of a broader turn to the left in Latin America, which once again influenced the direction of investigations.

Article

Indigenous social movements have become influential political actors in Latin America over the past three decades. Indigenous peoples continue to experience higher than average political, social and economic marginalization throughout the region. The powerful organizations created by Indigenous groups and the positive outcomes they have achieved despite these barriers have produced a body of research that examines how these social movements emerged, why some have succeeded in influencing policy, the construction of collective identity, and the strategies and tactics used. Indigenous movements have made claims based on their status as pre-colonial peoples; their demands include land rights, control over natural resources, cultural recognition, and political autonomy. Indigenous movements in countries such as Bolivia, Ecuador, and Mexico have used disruptive tactics such as marches and roadblocks to demand the attention of governments, the public and media. They have also strategically participated in building alliances across borders, supporting political parties, and undertaking legal action against powerful actors including the state and extractive industries. The high-profile Indigenous protest cycle that marked the 1990s and early 2000s across Latin America began to wind down during the first decade of the 21st century, but Indigenous movements continue to engage in both politics and protest. In the digital age, they have adapted their tactics to include social media and other technologies.

Article

Historically, the Catholic Church in Latin America has supported conservative interests. It legitimized Spanish colonial rule and sided with traditionalist elites following Latin American independence. However, beginning in the mid-20th century, some within the Church engaged with social causes, and a new progressive theology inspired many priests and bishops to advocate politically on behalf of the poor. The resultant movement helped topple dictatorships, facilitated transitions to democracy, and developed as a result of three factors. First, liberation theology emboldened clergy to support the political causes of the poor and created an ideological frame encouraging Catholic laity to organize for social change. Furthermore, competition from new Protestant religions provided Catholic leadership with an incentive to support secular political movements and created an opportunity for political engagement through the Catholic Church. Finally, decentralization within the Church encouraged Catholic adherents to engage and develop organizational capacities at the grass-roots. Taken together, scholarly explanations emphasizing framing, opportunity, and resource mobilization create a compelling account of the development of progressive Catholic activism. Less sustained theoretical attention has been given to assessing the dynamics of conservative Latin American Catholic advocacy. The Church consistently opposes abortion, divorce, the use of contraceptives, and gay marriage. Moreover, although the Catholic Church has enabled many women’s political movements, it suppresses efforts at liberalizing reproductive rights. Future research on Catholic advocacy in Latin America should identify additional pathways through which framing, opportunity, and resource mobilization influence conservative Catholic advocacy in the region. Additionally, the Church’s relationship with environmental issues is understudied. Finally, Latin America offers untapped potential to examine the complicated relationship between ethnicity, religion, and collective action.