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The indigenous resurgence in Latin America

NEW YORK - The UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues holds its second session the week of May 12 in New York, a year after the body's first meeting. Establishment of the Permanent Forum comes at a time when indigenous movements are rapidly advancing throughout Latin America, demanding the right to local autonomy and self-government. Indigenous movements have also emerged at the forefront of the new resistance to ruling elites and their "free trade" economic prescriptions.

In Mexico, a 1994 Maya Indian uprising in the southern state of Chiapas was an important catalyst for democratic reforms and free elections, which finally ended 70 years of one-party rule in 2000. But demands for constitutionally-recognized autonomy for Indian peoples remain outstanding, and Chiapas remains violently divided even as indigenous uprisings have spread to neighboring states.

In Ecuador, pressure from a grassroots indigenous movement resulted in 1998 constitutional reforms officially recognizing the country as a "pluri-national state." In 2000, the movement, led by the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador, led a national uprising that brought down Ecuador's president over his plans to "dollarize" the economy. Last year, the movement's support was critical in the election of a populist military officer who had supported the 2000 uprising as Ecuador's new president.

In Guatemala, demands for constitutional recognition of Indian autonomy also remain stalled, as the nation continues to grapple with the genocide of the early 1980s. Despite nightmarish repression, indigenous voices were critical in the democratic transition which ended two generations of military dictatorship in 1986 - and remain critical in the search for truth and accountability over the violent past.

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In Colombia, violence is now escalating to the level seen in Guatemala a generation ago. Indigenous voices are at the forefront of demanding the right to neutrality in the conflict, and have declared their lands off-limits to leftist guerillas, rightist paramilitaries and government forces alike. Despite the conflict, Indian organizations insist the autonomy guarantees instated in the 1991 constitution be honored.

In each case, indigenous peoples have shaped national politics in ways which were unthinkable a generation earlier.

For more on indigenous Latin America see page C2.

Bill Weinberg is the author of Homage to Chiapas: The New Indigenous Struggles in Mexico (Verso 2000)