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On the 12 of November Evo Morales arrived in Mexico to an official state reception where he received political asylum, fleeing Bolivia where he claimed to be the victim of a racist rightwing coup d’état. Upon arrival Morales declared, “My only crime is being Indigenous”. The granting of asylum is in keeping with the pro-Indigenous rhetoric of the government of Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador, often referred to by the acronym AMLO. More than any professed leftist ideology, it is perhaps their shared rhetoric of Indigenous revindication that unites these two leaders.

Both Morales and López Obrador prominently featured Indigenous symbolism during their presidential inaugurations. In the presence of Indigenous representatives, native shaman blessed both leaders, who subsequently took hold of a baton symbolizing Indigenous authority to declare their revolutionary mandate. Beginning in 2006 Morales promised a “Process of Change” dictated by the Andean moral code “Ama Sua, Ama Llulla, Ama Quella”(Do not lie, do not steal, do not be lazy), while in late 2018 López Obrador promised a “Fourth Transformation” vowing “not to lie, not to rob and not to betray the Mexican people”.

However, the embrace of Bolivia’s Indigenous ex-president by López Obrador also highlights the image of Indigenous peoples with which Mexico’s new progressive government feels most comfortable: as victim and celebrity. Only one year ago, López Obrador promoted Mexico’s Indigenous identity by showing the film Roma at the presidential palace. The film stars the Oaxacan actress Yalitza Aparicio and portrays the story of an Indigenous domestic servant who finds safety and solace in the familiar arms of her white employers.

More disturbing and consequential than the paternalism and victimization of Indigenous identity is the way Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s rhetoric about Indigenous rights parallels the politics of Evo Morales during the past decade in Bolivia. In contrast to his international celebrity image as a defender of Mother Earth and Indigenous rights, Morales left a destructive and divisive legacy for Indigenous peoples in Bolivia. 

Evo Morales’ anti-Indigenous legacy

Evo Morales entered office in 2006 with the aspirational hopes of Bolivia’s Indigenous peoples. His government became the first in the world to fully ratify the Universal Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), followed by the passage of plurinational constitution, and a law granting rights to Mother Earth.

However, few international observers noted the fundamental contradiction in his political program, evident even in the title of the law, declaring the “Law of Mother Earth… and Integral Development”. Behind the lofty rhetoric, Morales promoted a two-faced Faustian bargain that sacrificed the rights of Indigenous peoples for economic development. As Indigenous people have long been aware, “integration” and “development” are usually code words for their erasure and elimination.

In Bolivia, the destructive side of Morales’ politics became clear in 2011 when he sent the police to brutally repress the pan-national march of Indigenous organizations demanding to halt the construction of an international highway through the Amazonian Indigenous Territory and National Park Isiboro Secure (TIPNIS). The highway benefits members of Morales’ coca-grower trade union seeking to colonize the Amazonian basis for expansion of cash-crop agriculture, while displacing local Indigenous communities that rely on traditional fishing and hunting.

Following the Amazonian Indigenous Territory and National Park Isiboro Secure march, Morales cracked down on Indigenous organizations and leaders across the country who sought to exercise their territorial rights in opposition state-led megaprojects. The case list of abuses is long and does not exclude any particular ethnic group in Bolivia. To name a few: Mallku Khota, Bala-Chapete, Takovo Mora, Tarquia, Qhara Qhara. While the list of benefactors includes the usual transnational corporations and extractive industries: natural gas, petroleum, hydroelectric, and mining.

In 2012 and 2013, the police intervened to help divide and seize control of the country’s two major Indigenous confederations. Leaders who did not swear loyalty to Morales’ political party faced constant political persecution, many forced into prison or silence. Between 2011 and 2016, I accompanied members of Amazonian Indigenous organizations as they faced repression. I witnessed how systematic persecution and cooptation forced activists into economic destitution, broke up families, and turned brother against brother. An activist late one night cried into my shoulder: “They took the shit out of us, this is the worst government in the history for Indigenous people. Even the neoliberals treated us with more respect.”

While Morales suppressed the Indigenous movement he closed ranks with the white elite agro-industrialists. He made expansion of the agricultural frontier in the Amazon official policy. Only this past year his government promised to expand transgenic soya cultivation over 600,000 acres. In a recent show of reciprocity, ranchers personally gifted Morales a stallion valued at $60k.

His recent presidential decree permitting the use of forest clearing fires for agricultural expansion directly contributed to massive fires in the Bolivian Amazon this past year. The fires devastated Indigenous territories in the Chiquitania region and burned an estimated 12 million acres.

The scale of destruction of the Chiquitania fires directly contributed to a loss of credibility prior to his reelection for an unconstitutional fourth term as president in October. The elections were immediately followed by accusations of fraud and massive protests across the country. His severe loss of credibility led to the perspective now held among many Indigenous people in Bolivia that Morales was not the victim of a racist coup, but an abusive imposter who ran out of luck. The seasoned Aymara activist Felipe Quispe declared that Morales “fell with his own weight”.

Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s anti-Indigenous transformation?

Since taking office Andrés Manuel López Obrador has renewed promises of reform for Mexico’s Indigenous peoples. He declared Indigenous peoples the “true owners of Mexico”, proposed a new constitution for their inclusion, and is touring the country in “dialogue” with native communities. However, only a year into office his pro-Indigenous rhetoric appears to be straining.

López Obrador’s most concrete pro-Indigenous policy so far has been the creation of a National Institute of Indigenous Peoples to promote Indigenous rights and development of Indigenous communities. In application, the policy has already come under criticism for a lack in funding while being used as a means to politically coopt Indigenous leaders. These accusations parallel the experience of the management of the Indigenous Fund under Morales in Bolivia that was used to finance the state cooptation of the Indigenous movement and had to be shut down due to scandals over massive corruption.

He has attempted to tackle organized drug trafficking and violence through the creation of a new National Guard to police Mexico’s rural communities. The National Guard has come under fire as an excuse to police and repress Zapatista autonomous communities. Former presidential candidate for the National Indigenous Congress, Marichuy recently denounced in an interview that repression of Indigenous peoples has actually increased since López Obrador came into power.

Renewed repression and cooptation towards Indigenous communities in Mexico is a means to clear the way for state planned megaprojects, such as the “Maya Train” infrastructure project in the Yucatan, that are expected to negatively impact local communities and protected nature reserves. Andrés Manuel López Obrador has promised that Indigenous communities will be given their UNDRIP guaranteed right to “prior consultation” concerning the Maya Train project.

However, in practice the right to “prior consultation” is no guarantee against abuses as the experience of Indigenous peoples in Bolivia has shown. I witnessed the corrupt use of Indigenous consultation in the Amazonian Indigenous Territory and National Park Isiboro Secure concerning the highway project as a means to offer development aid to communities in exchange for their compliance rather than the reaffirmation of Indigenous territorial rights. Even the official Bolivian state ombudsman denounced the Amazonian Indigenous Territory and National Park Isiboro Secure consultation as “authoritarian, colonialist, and unilateral”. The anthropologist Almut Schilling-Vacaflor characterized “prior consultation” in Bolivia as a tactic of “divide and rule”. 

The talisman of Indigenous rights  

A continual roadblock for Indigenous people in both North and South America desiring change from progressive governments is the unwillingness or inability of those same politicians to move away from destructive extractive industries. Whether it is Evo Morales in Bolivia, Andrés Manuel López Obrador in Mexico, or Justin Trudeau in Canada, all the guarantees and lofty promises of Indigenous rights are for not without fundamental economic reform. Indigenous rights remain a theatrical talisman, used only by politicians for virtue signaling.

Contemporary conflict between leftist politicians and Indigenous peoples demonstrates the continuing relevance of Lakota activist Russell Means famous 1980 essay, stating that “Marxism is as alien to my people as capitalism”. His argument was aimed against the narrow economic vision of humanity common to both socialism and capitalism. Forty years later we find that struggles for Indigenous self-determination are still repressed by competing visions of development and the good life, despite the adoption of professed anti-racism and pro-Indigenous rhetoric by political progressives across the Americas. 

Devin Beaulieu is an anthropologist living in Bolivia who has worked for years with Indigenous people in the Bolivian Amazon. His work focuses on enactment of the new constitution defining Bolivia as a plurinational state to the benefit of an Indigenous majority. He is interested in the questions of liberal governance, political economy, decolonization, and territorial rights. Devin is also a member of the Selva Rica film cooperative that works to promote Indigenous and environmental activism. He played a featured role in the award winning 2010 Peruvian film El Perro del Hortelano.