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Kearns: Indigenous Latin America: Progress in '06

For indigenous people in Latin America, 2006 amounted to three steps forward and two steps back.

Pro-indigenous candidates won presidential elections in Bolivia, Ecuador and Venezuela, while the winners of the races in Colombia and Mexico are considered to be antagonistic or at best indifferent to issues affecting Native peoples.

The biggest political success story involved the victory of Evo Morales in Bolivia. Morales is an Aymara politician who actually works with and represents Native people in his country. He was a leader of the MAS (Movement Towards Socialism) Party and of the coca-growers association, two organizations with a majority indigenous membership.

Morales assumed power with a socialist but distinctly indigenous agenda, the most notable of which was the constituent assembly - a gathering of leaders from across the country convened to rewrite the Bolivian Constitution so it would include provisions giving power to the indigenous majority of Bolivia. That fact, in and of itself, has inspired passionate support and violent opposition in this impoverished nation. Along with this radical initiative, he has also made efforts to nationalize some of the profits from oil and gas enterprises; redistribute unused land to poor farmers; and funnel millions into improved health care and education, along with renegotiating trade deals with all partners, especially the United States.

Morales has made some progress on these projects, and progressives around the globe are watching and hoping for success. But some very rich and powerful people stand to lose some money; and in the last few weeks the richer states of Santa Cruz, Beni and others have become more aggressive. While these richer states are pushing for autonomy - in effect, secession - Morales and his allies have been trying to change the requirements for passage of measures in the Constituent Assembly. These changes would block the richer states from passing any autonomy rules and they have responded with violent demonstrations and blockades, to which Evo supporters responded with violent demonstrations and blockades. For instance, two offices of indigenous organizations in Santa Cruz were firebombed in late December. Morales has arranged for peace talks between his allies and the rebellious rich, which are scheduled to take place in mid-January. His plans for Bolivia have been slowed down, but in late December he announced more land reform deals for impoverished farmers. This struggle is not over.

The winner of neighboring Ecuador's presidential contest was Rafael Correa, a leftist economist. Parts of Correa's platform are identical to the stated objectives of the influential indigenous Pachakutik Movement, which has sponsored several indigenous candidates who have won congressional seats. Correa has stated that he will seek to establish a constituent assembly, similar to the one in Bolivia; vote against the free-trade agreement with the United States; not renew the contract with the United States that allows for the military base in Manta; seek to continue the nationalization of oil profits; seek to strengthen the country's Social Security system; help develop a microcredit and microenterprise program; and not participate in the Plan Colombia measures adopted by his predecessor, Alfredo Palacio.

Even before officially reaching office, Correa is asserting his position in the new Latin American Left paradigm; he made a speech in late December in Venezuela in which he outlined plans to have Ecuador join Mercosur, the newly energized Latin American trading bloc, and said that if Venezuela would not rejoin the Community of Andean Nations bloc, then Ecuador would leave the organization as well. Correa also attended a recent Latin American summit in Bolivia, accompanied by ally Inacio Lula da Silva, the moderately left-wing president of Brazil, who is also a major trading partner of Ecuador.

An ally of both Morales and Correa is Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, who was victorious in his re-election bid. Chavez is seen by many Latin American indigenous leaders as being an important friend to Native people throughout the hemisphere. He helped draft changes to the Venezuelan Constitution that guarantee the rights of indigenous peoples to maintain their languages, customs and other cultural traditions, as well as their rights to occupy their traditional territories. In August 2005, for instance, he gave communal land titles to six communities of the Karina people, which amounted to 317,000 acres to 4,000 individuals. Along with indigenous Venezuelans who are getting more funding for health, education and infrastructure from oil profits, 200 North American tribes are set to receive discounted heating oil from CITGO, the government-owned oil

company. Chavez also renamed October 12 from the Day of Discovery (our Columbus Day) to the Day of Indigenous Resistance.

To the far right of Morales, Correa and Chavez is Colombia's Alvaro Uribe who won his re-election contest this year. Uribe won partially on his promises that he would deal harshly with rebel groups and paramilitaries. He did allow his vice president to develop an indigenous advocacy department as part of the government.

A human rights report issued this fall, however, painted a very dark picture of the Uribe administration's relationship to indigenous Colombia. The report asserted that many Colombian tribes were in imminent danger of extinction and that the main killers of Native people - including many children and elders - were government soldiers, with paramilitaries coming in at a close second. The report also showed that rebel groups were responsible for many deaths.

The vice president's famous commission refused to participate in or even respond to the findings of the internationally supported study. Another factor affecting Uribe's reputation is the known ties between paramilitaries and the president as well as to some in his administration. Uribe is also an enthusiastic supporter of the U.S.-designed free trade deal that has angered many indigenous people. If he significantly slows down the killing Uribe's ratings may climb again and help him with the other U.S. backed initiatives. If the bloodshed continues, the right wing in Colombia will be affected in the coming elections where even more indigenous people will participate.

Another controversial conservative, Felipe Calderon, won the hotly contested Mexican presidential race. Calderon, like Uribe, does have some indigenous support but the majority of Native Mexicans are very opposed to his pro-U.S. policies and his heavy-handed treatment of protesters in Oaxaca. Like Colombia, a team of international human rights observers has started to investigate the situation in Oaxaca. Just before Christmas, the team released revised figures of how many people have been arrested, disappeared and killed. The number of dead has increased from 10 to 17, according to the most recent tally, as the number of arrested jumped to more than 300 from 217.

It remains to be seen whether Calderon will follow the negative example of his ally, Uribe, or whether he will take the steps necessary to protect the indigenous citizens of Oaxaca. Calderon's next move could shift the momentum, towards or away from, the real empowerment of our southern cousins. Here's hoping that Calderon makes seeking real justice one of his New Years resolutions.

For indigenous people in Bolivia, Ecuador and Venezuela, the New Year could bring more positive changes; but for their counterparts in Colombia and Mexico, the future is very unclear and possibly deadly.

Rick Kearns is a freelance writer of Boricua heritage who focuses on indigenous issues in Latin America.