National Sections of the L5I:

Indigenism in Latin America

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Five hundred years age two continents collided. Europe and Latin America clashed in an unequal contest. Subjugation and exploitation followed, its chief victim the indigenous people. Diego Mocar surveys the resurgence of indigenous movements as they mark five centuries of resistance.

A general strike is planned for 12 October this year aimed at drawing into action many thousands of indigenous people throughout 24 countries of Latin America. This protest, intended to intervene in celebrations marking Columbus’ “discovery” of their continent 500 years ago, will represent the culmination of much work over recent years by a coalition of indigenous groups across the region struggling for elementary human rights still denied them.

Most indigenous peoples of America, having being “discovered” 500 years ago were then “disappeared” in the following fifty.

Put to the sword, robbed of their land and its riches, set to forced labour in the mines and on the plantations of their conquerors, dying of imported diseases and starvation, the indigenous peoples were subjected to nothing short of genocide. The Arawaks who first greeted Columbus numbered 600,000 had been completely eliminated half a century later. The victims of this holocaust some historians estimate to total more than twenty million of the fifty million inhabitants estimated to have lived in Latin America prior to the invasion.

It is little wonder that their descendants have no wish to celebrate this catastrophe. Today the majority of Latin Americans live in poverty. A large part of them are descendants of the Aztecs, Mayas, Incas and many other peoples conquered and brutally subjugated by the Europeans. For 500 years colonial and native ruling classes have used racist ideologies to justify their merciless exploitation of the peasantry and the proletariat by, and set about destroying Indian cultures and languages.

In Guatemala the Indians have been hunted down, driven from their land and even forbidden to speak their own language, wear their traditional clothes or to practice their customs. In the 1980s a counter-insurgency campaign in the Indian highlands left 40,000 dead and 400 villages burned to the ground. And where the army fails to extirpate Indian languages and culture North American protestant fundamentalists have descended like a swarm of locusts to try other more insidious means.

Many semi-serious bourgeois journals have turned their attention to the history of the destruction by early evangelists and conquistadors of the Indian population five centuries ago. They belatedly regret the brutality, sympathise with its victims, bewail its damage to the eco-system, and thus try to strike a pose lying somewhere between celebration and commemoration.

But what they will not admit to is any essential continuity between colonial plunder and present day imperialist domination and super-exploitation. But the present plight of the indigenous communities does not simply result from the crimes of the sixteenth century. Despite the changing forms of state domination – from Spanish feudal/colonial through to independent creole or ladino bourgeois – the condition of the Indians today is due to their oppression and exploitation at the hands of native capitalism and its imperialist masters.

Indigenous people in Latin America increasingly refer to themselves as “nations”. Amazonian groups in Peru insist on this word and in Brazil the main indigenous organisation is called the “Union of Indigenous Nations”. The word “nation” is sometimes interchangeable with the more usual “people”. A common definition of the term is “a large number of people of mainly common descent, language, history, usually inhabiting a territory bounded by defined limits and forming a society under one government”.

Modern nationalisms, when they assert their identity as a nation, normally make the claim for separate statehood. However, most Indian movements today do not seek this. This reflects the fact that despite several centuries’ experience of the bourgeois epoch, a stable bourgeoisie has not developed amongst these peoples, one that is driven to take up a nationalist ideology in order to carve out a territory for its own development as a ruling and exploiting class.

Even the two million strong Aymara Indians in Bolivia did not consider themselves a “people” until the end of the eighteenth century. Before the Spanish Conquest the Andean region was a mosaic of diverse ethnicities, languages and societies in which Aymara was only the common language among a enormous number of groups across a huge territory. As one writer put it, in these circumstances:

“To be an Indian meant fundamentally to belong to a residential indigenous community located in a marginal rural zone, to be preferably monolingual in a native language, to have strong communal and ceremonial understanding of life, to show some rejection of the logic of the market economy, to be satisfied with the repetitive and ‘traditional’ use of antiquated technology.” 1

From the sixteenth century onwards the Spanish feudalists, and later the creole bourgeoisie, subjected these communities to savage attack, dispossessing them of land, forcing the Indians into their armies where tens of thousands died fighting their petty wars. The indigenous elites which survived were co-opted into the developing merchant classes. Most would renounce their past and indigenous identity. However, a minority formed the leadership of the great eighteenth and nineteenth century indigenous revolts.

But without a meaningful indigenous bourgeois class uprisings, such as the famous rising of Tupac Amaru in Peru in 1781, were unable to achieve a solid foundation upon which to build a nation state. By and large the indigenous peoples remained increasingly marginalised peasant communities.

Nevertheless, developments over the past decade or so appear to have created a material basis for nationalist sentiments. This was not always the case. In fact, for most of this century, as capitalism increased class differentiation, the Indian communities nearly always struggled for their rights as peasants and proletarians alongside other ethnic groups.

But the 1980s, the “lost decade” of Latin American economic development, has seen a vast influx of impoverished peasants into the shanty towns of the major cities, the growth of a vast class of small merchants and street traders and even elements of a small bourgeoisie developing. The “informal sector” has grown by leaps and bounds as both traditional agriculture and the state owned or promoted industrial sector has collapsed.

Of course, this has led to a deterioration of social conditions for the vast majority of indigenous people. But as the Indian masses crowded into the cities a stratum of intellectuals developed which has taken up the ideas of indigenism. This coincided with the left’s manifest failure to stem the tide of the imperialist and national bourgeois economic offensive. The Stalinist and centrist left let slip or betrayed countless struggles, thus contributing to the fragmentation and retreat of the mass movements. Consequently a strong tendency to look for separatist, national solutions has developed amongst the indigenous peoples.

The experience in Bolivia is instructive here. The Katarista movement in Bolivia, based amongst the Aymara peasants took a leading role in the Peasants Trade Union Confederation (CSUTCB) after 1975. With the defeat of the workers after 1985 the CSUTCB has broken up in recrimination. The indigenist movements have been bitterly critical of the non-Indian left. Indigenism has been rising steadily ever since.

Marxists, for whom the struggle for the self-emancipation of the modern proletariat is at one and the same time the struggle against all forms of human oppression and exploitation, cannot ignore the plight of the original peoples of the continent. We must recognise what is specific in the oppression of the Indian peoples of Latin America.

Rebuilding working class and poor peasant organisations, forging unity with the popular organs of struggle in the shanty-towns and the countryside, creating a revolutionary vanguard party; all require taking up the struggle for the rights of the indigenous peoples. This must include support for their right to self-determination. Marxists do not advocate forming separate states for every cultural and linguistic group. Such a project is often utopian, as in the case of territorially fragmented or tiny nationalities. It can even prove reactionary where it leads to oppression or persecution of other peoples or minorities within these new nation states.

However, we must support this right unconditionally when it is raised by oppressed peoples themselves. Here all the problems and difficulties of separation are a lesser evil than the continuation of national oppression, which clouds class consciousness and obstructs class unity between the proletariat of the oppressed and the oppressor people. First, we must help the oppressed to separate – if they wish it – and thereby we shall forge bonds of class unity despite the borders or frontiers.

The Latin American proletariat should look to unify, on a socialist basis, peoples and nations, through voluntary union or federation. But we aim to convince the Indian populations of this today by means of our unconditional support for their right to determine their own future even if this means dividing one of today’s bourgeois states. We are patriots for no bourgeois fatherland! All Indian peoples which want to have self-government in regions where they form a majority should have that right. If they choose to take that road then they should struggle for workers’ and peasants’ council republics and for them to be linked in a socialist federation of Latin America.

However, separation and a striving for statehood is by no means the most central issue to day. Rather, indigenous groups are seeking some form of autonomy as a protection against the invasion and settlement of what remains of their territory, and some sort of control over local economic resources. Many groups have – perhaps understandably, given the colonisation and plunder organised by the semi-colonial regimes – unwisely turned to the “protective umbrella” of international agencies such as the IMF and the World Bank.

This attitude goes alongside a pronounced tendency to reject class struggle and integration into class organisations in favour of cultural revival. It involves a romantic – i.e. an ahistoric – celebration of the pre-Hispanic forms of society and production, believing that rediscovering these forms is the road to emancipation.

The Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE) expresses this clearly in its programme when it calls for a “political alternative for the transformation of all Ecuadorean society”. This it describes as:

“. . . a national economy determined by uniquely indigenous forms of economic development, and a politics of territorial autonomy and self-determination which contemplates neither separation nor the seizure of state power. As such it stands apart from the traditional posture of both Marxists and revolutionary nationalists.” 2

Such ideologies inevitably clash with a proletarian world-view and tactics in the struggle for self-emancipation. While we support the struggles of the indigenous people for self-determination, we must also combat utopian attempts to restore a “golden age” of communal non-antagonistic social relations which are intended, via autonomy, to co-exist peacefully with capitalist society.

The various indigenous organisations operate amongst some 22 million indigenous peoples (5% of the total population of Latin America). These communities are in turn comprised of over 400 ethno-linguistic groups. In Guatemala and Bolivia Indians form an absolute majority of the population, in Peru and Ecuador they form nearly half. They are rightly determined to make their voice heard.

Last year on 7-12 October the Second Continental meeting of the “500 years of resistance campaign” took place in the city of Xelaju, Guatemala. It made plans for the general strike this October. Moreover, there was an extensive discussion on the effects of colonialism and imperialism that exposed the many layers of exploitation suffered by Indian and black people.

Yet the delegates rejected any outright condemnation of the capitalist system or support for anti-capitalist struggles. Typical are the declaration from the Committee for Campesino Unity of Guatemala (11 October 1990) and the Political Thesis of the Second Congress of the National Confederation of Bolivian Peasants (June 1983). These tend to contrast a glorious past of the indigenous peoples with their present misery

“We strive for the blossoming of Mayan culture and the affirmation of our true indigenous identity . . . All Mayan people and poor ladinos must learn that we are able to overcome these difficulties and bring about the rebirth and flourishing of our culture and civilisation so that, once again, the heart of the heaven, the heart of the earth can be seen, with renewed clarity and vitality, in the full light of the day.” 3

The Bolivian Peasant Confederation claims even more for these ancient cultures:

“Before the arrival of the Spaniards, we were a communitarian society. In our land we did not know about hunger, robbery, lies. In the Andean region our ayllus, markas and suyus,4 were the basis of our subsistence and a great civilization, in which the autonomy and diversification of jobs and organisations were respected. In the oriental plains, various independent peoples occupied large territories living in freedom, developing skills and silverwork, music, hunting, gathering and fishing in harmony with nature.” 5

Eduardo Galeano, a writer whose work is well known world-wide, has spread these ideas:

“Those cultures, scorned and denied, treat the earth as their mother and not as a raw material and source of income. Against the capitalist law of profit, they propose the life of sharing, reciprocity, mutual aid, that earlier inspired Thomas Moore’s Utopia and today helps us discover the American face of socialism, whose deepest roots lie in the tradition of community.” 6

There is a clear tendency in the Latin American indigenous movement to mythologise these ancient cultures. But not all popular political activists are quite so uncritical. Domitila Chungara’s experience in the Bolivian tin miners’ struggles against pit closures and government repression leads her to say the following about the societies idealised by the indigenists:

“If we study our own history, though it’s often said that it hasn’t been written by ourselves, we can see that peoples’ longing for their ancient culture and their customs is not a bad thing. But one would also need to look much more at the history of these types of government, at how things really were in those days. No doubt these governments were the most advanced and best organised in their day, but time hasn’t gone in vain. We need to keep in mind that the past can’t return as the present, that we need to live in the real world . . .” 7

Marxists have always insisted that the interests of the oppressed and exploited are only served by a realistic and a historic appraisal of past societies. We leave myth-making to the apologists of exploitation and the purveyors of religious consolation. Marx himself attacked the illusions that some held in his day in these ancient pre-feudal communities:

“I share not the opinion of those who believe in a golden age of Hindustan . . . Now, sickening as it must be to human feeling to witness those myriad of industrious patriarchal and inoffensive social organisations disorganised and dissolved into their units, thrown into a sea of woes, and their individual members losing at the same time their ancient form of civilisation and their hereditary means of subsistence, we must not forget that these idyllic village communities, inoffensive though they may appear, had always been the solid foundation of oriental despotism, and they restrained the human mind within the smallest possible compass, making it the unresisting tool of superstitions, enslaving it beneath traditional rules depriving it of all grandeur and historical energies.

“England, it is true, in causing a social revolution in Hindustan, was activated only by the vilest interests, and was stupid in her manner of enforcing them. But that is not the question. The question is, can mankind fulfil its destiny without a fundamental revolution in the social state of Asia? If not, whatever may have been the crimes of England, she was the unconscious tool of history in bringing about that revolution.” 8

Exactly this can be said of the fate of Inca and Aztec societies, together with the myriad of other pre-Hispanic civilisations that did not fall within their domination.

Marx did hypothesise that if the socialist revolution triumphed in certain advanced capitalist states whilst in others such primitive communes still survived, these societies need not have to pass through the “vale of tears” of their dissolution by private property and class exploitation. But this has not happened.

Some indigenist currents have referred to the example of Japan’s self-isolation from the sixteenth century to the mid-nineteenth century and its current prosperity. They argue that without the Spanish Conquest then within a century or two Central and South America might have been well placed in the nineteenth century to “take off” as a world economic superpower.

Alas this too is daydreaming! Japan was a vastly more economically advanced society in the sixteenth century than was the Inca Empire. That was precisely why it was militarily capable of excluding the Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch and English. Its nineteenth century capabilities for development did not arise from Japan’s two hundred year isolation as such but from its internal social evolution and its relationship to world economic developments both before and immediately after its period of isolation.

It is quite useless to wish that the Spanish conquest had not happened or to daydream of a golden age that might have been. The conquest of the Americas occurred in exactly the bloody and brutal way that is inseparable from every major human advance under class society. The opening up of the continent contributed mightily to the development of capitalism as a world system. In this alone lay the historic progressiveness of the Conquest. Full of contradictions and painful as it was, capitalism was a relatively progressive system. It is quite useless to wish to undo its work. It was and is a system that can only be transcended not reversed.

Today we live in the imperialist epoch. Capitalism has become a completely reactionary system – a fetter on human development. The future for all those who suffer as a result of the process of capitalism is to integrate themselves into the working class struggle to help overthrow it.

We are not cultural imperialists. But indigenists often accuse Marxists of being no better than liberals in seeking to assimilate the Indian communities, merely pass off their culture as a refuge from oppression, rather than viewing it as a form of struggle for economic and political liberation.

Yet if culture can only be preserved by returning to pre-capitalist forms of agrarian production then we cannot have much hope for it. Cultures are ever changing and adaptive, they cannot hope to be preserved like pickles in a jar. Besides the culture of all but the most simple hunter-gatherer communities is riven by class contradictions; that is, it is not a harmonious whole, common to priests, rulers and peasants alike.

Of course, we must protest and fight against forcible assimilation, against all discrimination and privilege. But we cannot reject voluntary assimilation of cultures. Human progress is a history of such assimilation of smaller communities into larger ones just as the rise of the Inca empire proved. Even in bourgeois democratic society such development – as long as it remains voluntary – contributes to a common humanity that will only be fully realised in a classless communist future. National or ethnic culture is not a disembodied expression of some timeless essence but one moment of human development. Worship of the pachamama or of mountains and rivers cannot long survive in societies which do not depend upon the vagaries of the weather for crop success.

Romantic utopias may seem attractive to romantic populist authors like Galeano but for those who are expected to live in them the best they could be under capitalism would be a tourist curiosity in which their inhabitants would be patronised and exploited.

There may be isolated areas scarcely interacting with capitalism, such as that in which the Chipaya people live in western Oruro province in Bolivia. Here they survive at a low level of economic self-sufficiency which neither the capitalist state or the multinationals have seen fit to disturb. But this is not the future or the present for the mass of Indians; not for the Amazonian tribes or the Miskitu Indians in Nicaragua, who inhabit potentially lucrative rain forests. Reservations, even if they are described as classless ecological Gardens of Eden, are a petit bourgeois dead end. Engaging in the class struggle is the only road to freedom.

The chief form of class struggle for Indians over the last decades has been for land. Imperialism and the Latin American bourgeoisies have prevented agrarian reform by and large from benefiting the Indian communities.

For centuries most indigenous peoples were exploited under the latifundia system, inherited from the Spanish Conquest. Huge farms, originally employing indentured labour, produced goods for consumption of the landowner. Later commercial crops displaced this more and more. But the peasants’ lot changed little. They were forced to work hard for the owner and later cater for themselves on small plots.

The landlords rob the peasant and the workers of the countryside. They forbid resident workers to plant permanent crops or make “improvements” on the plots assigned to them to grow subsistence foods. They forbid workers to plant those permanent or annual crops which earn relatively good cash returns. They prevent resident workers, croppers, or tenants from harvesting their crops when this conflicts with the employer’s interests.

Moreover, they advance money at usurious rates of interest and sell goods at higher than market prices in landlord-owed stores. And on top of all this the workers have no job or land tenure security. They can be fired or expelled from their job or land for no apparent reason whatever.

All the Andean countries have experienced agrarian reform over the past thirty years. The Bolivian reform of 1952, for example, divided communal land into individual allotments which led to the destruction of thousands of communities. Chilé brought in a similar law in 1979 which reduced the number of Mapuche communities from 2,066 to 655. These so-called agrarian reforms do not take into consideration the real needs of the peasants and Indian communities, and they do not provide proper credits or infrastructures. Rural areas are being emptied of their inhabitants and subsistence farming quickly replaced by mechanised, export-oriented agriculture, with the support and encouragement of governments, banks and international institutions such as the IMF and the World Bank, without any provision for the landless peasants and Indian communities.

The most pressing problem for the indigenous peasant is land hunger and an absence of cheap credit and adequate technology to develop their agriculture. Only a revolutionary policy of giving land to those that work it and for the occupation of the haciendas leading to the democratic redistribution of the land can meet Indian needs. Socialists favour a collectivist policy in agriculture but for them to attract the peasant to this form and scale of agriculture requires persuasion not coercion and requires the existence of abundant and cheap credit for the purchase of the latest techniques to improve productivity. This in turn will run up against the need to nationalise the industries and banks that stand in the way of such a solution.

The much smaller number of lowland Indians (around one million) have to endure the most scandalous destruction of their environment at the hands of imperialism and the national bourgeoisie. The destruction of the Amazon rain forests threaten the very existence of certain indigenous peoples. The possibility of a rational exploitation of the natural environment by the Indians who live there requires that they exert control over the process and put an end to the dictatorship of the imperialist companies and the multilateral agencies.

In the highland areas imperialism intervenes with its own military “advisors” to lay waste the coca growing lands of the Indians in Peru and Bolivia. So long as capitalism exists and creates the narco-traffic industry it is essential that the peasants are allowed to continue with their production. Greater protection for them can only be afforded by expropriating the cocaine landlords that draw off the mass of profit from the peasant labours, by decriminalising the use of cocaine in the imperialist countries and by developing a national coca industry to produce medicinal and food products.

The organisers of last year’s conference in Guatemala aim to undertake a “process that can generate the widest pluralist, democratic and multi-ethnic movement”. The general objective is to:

“. . . consolidate the process of Indian and popular unity and all the other sectors involved in the campaign, on the basis of the recognition and respect of different opinions, as an indispensable element for contributing to the economic, social and political transformation of the society.” 9

One author recently summed up the reformulation of the indigenist strategy to achieve those goals:

“. . . rather than challenge the state itself, it is preferable to challenge particular arenas of state power in local communities and civil society – community politics, family relations, control of language, education and thought. Not only is the state less likely to exact brutal repression against those who resist in this way, but is more vulnerable to this form of opposition. Most importantly, fragmented, non-confrontational forms of resistance would not have to acquire the machinery of state domination, which inevitably comes to mirror that which was oppressive in the original state and society.” 10

If the state does not seek to repress then it is either because the movement has put them into retreat or state and ruling class are not faced with a significant threat to their interests. It is clear from the above that the indigenous movements do not seek to be confrontational. But for this reason it is likely that they will not pose a threat to the prevailing system of exploitation and oppression. By renouncing the struggle for the state – even by reformist methods – the movements are doomed to demoralising ineffectiveness.

What is possible is that new indigenous elites – drawn from the petit bourgeois layers of the movements, perhaps from the expanding informal economies in some countries, will seek to carve out some local influence for themselves with the central state. But the rewards they gain for themselves will not change the everyday lives of the masses. Indian parties pursuing such aims should be rejected by the indigenous population both because they will lead to a false unity between different social classes and because they bring one indigenous community into conflict with another. For example, in Bolivia the CSUTCB wants to ban the import of agrarian products from neighbouring countries. This is a blow to the common interests of Aymara peasants who find themselves divided between Peru and Bolivia.

The present neo-liberal policies developed by the majority of the Latin American ruling classes affect in particular the Indian people. The accelerated penetration of foreign capital with its territorial expansion is removing Indian communities from their traditional lands, without giving them any viable alternative. As recently as February this year Chamorro in Nicaragua went over the heads of the previously autonomous authorities of the Miskitu people in Nicaragua and signed a big concession with a Taiwanese firm to clear 375,000 hectares of rain forest for commercial exploitation.

The only solution for the small intact communal or semi-communal peoples is to seek to ally themselves to the class struggle of the rural and the urban proletariat. The solution for the great majority of Indian masses of the South American highlands and the Central American plateaus lies in revolutionary integration into the class struggle and its organisations. In neither case is it a question of forgetting or subordinating the struggle against their specific oppression, but rather making it effective by harnessing to it the strength of all the oppressed and exploited.

1 Stefano Varese, “Think locally, act globally” in Report on the Americas Vol 25 No 3, p16
2 Quoted in “Ecuador’s Pan-Indian uprising”, Report on the Americas V25 No3, p44
3 Quoted in H Koning, Columbus, His Enterprise (London 1991) p135
4 These are communal forms of land ownership and working of the land
5 H Koning, op cit
6 E Galeano, “The blue tiger and the promised land”, Report of the Americas V25 No5, p14
7 Interview with the Mexican journal America: La Patria Grande, in Hans Koning, Columbus – his enterprise (London 1991) pp126-27
8 “The British Rule in India”, Collected Works, V12, pp126-32
9 Quoted in Central America Report, Winter 1991, p5
10 Carol A Smith, “Maya nationalism”, Report on the Americas, op cit, p32