The rise of indigenous movements in Latin American in the latter third of the 20th century has marked a significantly striking historical phenomenon. While the indigenous people of Latin America have organized to redress grievances in the past, they have rarely done so as part of an expressly Indian or ethnic enterprise. Indeed, Latin America has largely been viewed as an anomaly in the cultural pluralist literature because of the relative paucity of ethnic-based mobilization. However, this former perspective is no longer tenable in light of the manifold indigenous movements – many of which have achieved important successes – that have been operating within Latin American politics. In Contesting Citizenship in Latin America, Deborah Yashar addresses indigenous mobilization and posits three key variables that explain why indigenous movements organized on ethnic-based lines, their capacity to do so, and what provided the political opportunity necessary for their mobilization. Yashar’s account of indigenous mobilization is couched within a larger framework of the “post-liberal challenge” indigenous movements have posed to neoliberal regimes in Latin American. While her analysis is confined to Latin America—specifically Ecuador, Bolivia, Peru, Guatemala, and Mexico—her larger theoretical framework can be extrapolated from to examine evolutions in the conception of citizenship, democracy, state-society relations, and individual rights.
For Yashar, institutions are often the historical referent for political identities. In this regard, institutions fashion the ways in which individuals and groups interact with the state and how the state engages in interest intermediation. Changes in institutions can have a profound impact on the ways in which individuals and groups view their own political identities, interact with one another, and overall state-society relations. Yashar argues that the institutional change from corporatist citizenship regimes to neoliberal regimes dramatically altered, and ultimately resulted in, the mobilization of indigenous movements in Latin America. Yashar avers, “Citizenship regimes fundamentally changed in the last third of the century, with a corresponding, albeit unintentional, consequence of politicizing ethnic cleavages.”
Traditionally, citizenship regimes in Latin America relied on corporatist forms of interest intermediation. Corporatist systems are one subset of a larger grouping of communitarian approaches to state-society relations. All communitarian approaches assume “a formal, political role for groups in defining some state-society relations.” Because identities, preferences, interests, and meanings are grounded in social constructs and rooted in the community, communitarians suggest that groups are an important political unit. As such, groups (ethnic, class, sectarian etc.) are typically the prevailing political unit in communitarian systems. This was the dominant citizenship regime type in corporatist Latin America. Conversely, liberal citizenship regimes have always promoted the individual as the primary political unit. For liberals, “The individual possesses certain rights and responsibilities and, in large part, acts to maximize personal autonomy, interests, and capacities,” notes Yashar. Over the course of the last three decades, and with particular alacrity during the 1980s and 1990s, Latin America regimes, as a response to a host of economic, fiscal, and political pressures, mutated from corporatist to neoliberal citizenship regimes.
During the epoch of corporatism in Latin America, indigenous communities carved out zones of spatial and political autonomy. The reach of the corporatist state was uneven throughout the five countries Yashar discusses. In the Andes and throughout Mesoamerica, labor laws, land reform, and peasant federations provided Indians with autonomous zones and institutionalized forms of interest intermediation with the state. Conversely, in the Amazon, indigenous communities were largely left untouched as the state’s capacity to reach these communities was severely limited. Beginning with Guatemala in 1954 and reaching its apex in the 1980s and 1990s, corporatist regimes began to erode as elites in these states were not willing to countenance the rising power of class federations and economic constraints brought questions of viability and sustainability to the host social programs provided by the state. In response to economic constraints, states began to respond to international pressure to open markets in return for loans from international financial institutions—the much vaunted “structural adjustment programs.” By opening up markets to multinational corporations, states were no longer respectful of the spatial autonomy carved out by indigenous communities. This change in citizenship regimes “politicized ethnic cleavages by challenging the two types of autonomy that had developed 1) among the peasantized and corporatized areas of the Andes and Mesoamerica and 2) within the Amazon.”
The change in citizenship regimes does not fully account for the mobilization of indigenous movements in Latin American. Indeed, the institutional change does not account for the opportunity or capacity to mobilize. For Yashar, two other independent variables, political associational space and trans-community social networks, have also been present in successful mobilization by indigenous movements. While often severely curtailing social and civil rights, neoliberal regimes provided the de facto existence of freedom of association and expression. Moreover, the trans-community networks that were constructed during the corporatist era provided the capacity for diverse and often spatially distant indigenous communities to scale up and confront the state. “In short,” Yashar writes, “while changing citizenship regimes speak to the temporal question of why indigenous movements have emerged now and not before, political associational space and societal networks speak to the spatial question of when and where they were able to do so.”
Yashar employs in-depth case studies of Ecuador, Bolivia, and Peru, each of which evidence different levels of indigenous movement success, to provide an empirical buttress to her argument. In Ecuador, the country with Latin America’s strongest indigenous movement, constitutional changes that advanced suffrage to indigenous people in 1979 opened up entire new avenues of political participation and activism. This political liberalization, along with a host of other policies and institutions, provided the political associational space, that is, the opportunity, for indigenous movements to organize to demand services, defend their autonomy, and redress grievances. However, the capacity to engage in such activity would have been lacking if not for the societal networks, such as rural unions, peasant federations, and the post-Vatican II Catholic church groups, organized in the corporatist era. In response to the erosion of autonomy produced by the incipient neoliberal regime, indigenous movements were able to rely on the vast trans-community societal networks to organize and utilized political liberalization as an opportunity to demand the state preserve its spatial autonomy and provide the indigenous with more social services. Formed in 1986, the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE) is perhaps Latin America’s most vibrant, dynamic, and efficacious indigenous movement and has achieved success on a national scale. CONAIE remains an important political player and body of activism today, as the recent march to Quito for “water, life, and dignity” demonstrates.
The Bolivian case demonstrates marked similarities with Ecuador, however indigenous success has tended to be more conspicuous at the regional level. This reflects Yashar’s emphasis on the importance of spatial autonomy and the reach of the state. “Variations in the degree of local autonomy from the state also had distinct geographic and temporal patterns”. This affected the way in which Bolivian indigenous movements were able to construct societal networks and their subsequent effectiveness at exploiting the opportunities provided by political liberalization. Indigenous movements in Bolivia have flourished and continue to play a salient role in Bolivian politics. The protests regarding water rights in Cochabamba and Evo Morales’ (who was compelled to run for president to protect the rights of indigenous to grow coca) presidential election demonstrate how indigenous movements in Bolivia have utilized the capacity and opportunity to mobilize. Alternatively, Peru stands as a stark contrast to Bolivia and Ecuador, as “Indigenous movements have not emerged on a national or even regional scale.” The violent civil war in the last third of the century in Peru “simultaneously foreclosed most political associational space and destroyed preexisting trans-community networks in the country.” Thus, while the implementation of neoliberalism in Peru resulted in grievances similar to those of indigenous movements in Bolivia and Ecuador, opportunity and capacity were largely absent due to the state’s efforts to decapitate social networks and the absence of associational space. With these case studies, Yashar provides pertinent and compelling evidence to advance her argument that the presence of associational space and societal networks were necessary elements in the success of indigenous efforts to mobilize in response to the erosion of autonomy and rights engendered by neoliberal regimes.
Indigenous movements have mobilized to redefine the very concept of citizenship. The challenge posed by indigenous movements questions the boundaries (who is a citizen), the terms (interest intermediation), and the content of citizenship (prescribed rights and practices). The indigenous’ confrontation with neoliberal citizenship regimes is a post-liberal challenge that “proposes a democratic citizenship that not only respects individual political rights but also grants collective rights to autonomy.” The boundaries, terms, and content of citizenship are central component of the rise of indigenous movements. Yet, traditional studies of democratization have assumed that citizenship is a fixed concept. Prominent works on the “third wave of democratization,” have largely utilized a Schumpeterian frame that focuses on the selection of leaders through competitive elections. Essentially, this reduces citizenship to suffrage and wholly ignores social, political, and civil rights. Elections do not a democracy make and voting rights alone should not be the sole or the primary component of citizenship. In his discussion of the problematic nature of democratic transitions, Carothers adduces several maladies, such as feckless pluralism and dominant-power politics, which sharply reduce the efficacy of voting, particularly in recently democratized states. In many democratizing countries, elections have not necessarily led to further democratic accountability or deepening political participation.
To paraphrase historian Tony Judt, what is citizenship in a country where voting is the only mechanism to express one’s political voice? Indeed, this question is at the core of the post-liberal challenge and addresses those, like Huntington, who place primacy on suffrage. Liberalism proffers that the individual is the primary unit of analysis, yet, as Schattsneider has aptly put it, “The flaw in the pluralist heaven is that the heavenly chorus sings with a strong upper class accent.” In other words, “liberalism assumes an equality that belies differential opportunities and experiences.” This assumed equality is wholly bereft of any consideration of structural factors that often serve as insuperable obstacles to full citizenship for indigenous people in Latin America or poor minorities in the United States. Echoing Judt, O’Donnell asks “how can the weaker and the poorer…be empowered in terms consistent with democratic legality and, thus, gain their full, democratic and liberal citizenship?” For the indigenous of the Latin America, this question is even more trenchant because of their efforts to promote spatial and political autonomy and to promote a pluri-national institutional structure. Nancy Postero has argued that in the case of Bolivia, that the Morales administration is not so much post-(neo)liberal, but rather working to “transform liberalism through interactions with indigenous cultures and demands, with a goal to deepen democracy.” The Morales administration’s employment of liberal political institutions such as elections and public referenda may speak to her point. Yet, the rhetoric of Morales and other Latin American leaders, particularly in the indigenous community, speaks otherwise as they militate, albeit often in dysfunctional ways, to incorporate groups (namely indigenous groups) into the political system in decidedly un-liberal ways.
It is difficult to argue against basic democratic and liberal fundaments, like voting rights and elections, and struggles to refashion state-society relations, as indigenous movements in Latin America have engaged in as a response to neoliberalism’s intrusion into their rights, will not discard such deservedly valorized institutions. Indigenous movements are calling for relations with the state that do not end on Election Day. “They are challenging the homogenizing assumptions that suggest that individuals unambiguously constitute the primary political unity and that administrative boundaries should be uniformly defined throughout a country.” They are calling for constitutional recognition of their historic spatial autonomy and for constitutional recognition of pluri-ethnic and multicultural character of their states. This is no easy task. Indeed, it seems ambiguous and inchoate in many ways. Yashar suggests that the challenge indigenous movements face is how to “harmonize these calls in a coherent, democratic, and sustainable way.” This speaks to one of the few criticisms I found with the book. What exactly does a revised, post-liberal citizenship look like? Does it mirror T.H. Marshall’s trilogy of social, civil, and political rights? How much of a role does economic and social justice play? These are important questions that are not quite given the full attention they are deserved. Nonetheless, the struggle of indigenous people in Latin America provides a panoply of questions regarding the very nature of citizenship. In the United States, the epicenter of liberalism, we would do well to consider these questions of citizenship, rights, and state-society relations.
Carothers, Thomas “The End of the Transition Paradigm” Journal of Democracy 13: 1 (2002): 175-205.
Huntington, Samuel P. The Third Wave: Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century Norman: University of Oklahoma, 1991.
Judt, Tony. Ill Fares the Land. New York: Penguin, 2011.
Koenig, Kevin. “Ecuador’s Indigenous Peoples Reach Quito After 600-km March for W Water, Life, and Dignity,” Eye on the Amazon, March 23, 2012.
O’Donnell, Guillermo. “On the State, Democratization, and Some Conceptual Problems: A Latin American View with Glances at Some Postcommunist Countries.” World Development 21 (1993): 1355–1369.
Postero, Nancy. “The Struggle to Create A Radical Democracy in Bolivia.” Latin American Research Review Special Issue (2010): 59-78.
Yashar, Deborah J. Contesting Citizenship in Latin America. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.