Indigenous Struggles: Excluded and Brutalised - But Not Silent

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The remarkable victory of Evo Morales in the Bolivian presidential election has focused attention on the question of indigenous people's rights in Latin America, and their role in social and political struggles in the region.

As the first indigenous person to hold the office, Morales is seen as a representative of the majority Aymara and Quechua people, who have so long been marginalised, exploited and discriminated against. At the same time he is a union leader and a representative of the working class. The relationship between indigenous identity and class is a complex and diverse picture.

Every country in the Americas has important indigenous ethnic groups. From the Arctic to Argentina they have been systematically brutalised and excluded. Every regime since colonial times has attacked and destroyed indigenous cultures. The British, French, Spanish, Dutch and Portuguese wiped out millions in the conquests and settlements of the continent - as did the post-independence regimes. In the modern era, indigenous people have seen their land and resources stolen, and their cultures denigrated and undermined. They have been brought into the workforce of the haciendas (large estates), the mines, the plantations and the factories as cheap labour, and ruthlessly exploited and swallowed up. The major cities of the Americas and now Europe see indigenous Americans in the hardest jobs, the worst conditions and the poorest housing. From the slums of Latin America's capitals through Los Angeles, Miami and the eastern cities of the US to Madrid, Milan and London, you find indigenous Americans at the bottom of the pile.

The history of indigenous resistance is extraordinary. For centuries they have defended their land and way of life, often with arms. Many major uprisings have taken place, each with heroes, temporary victories, liberated territories and often bloody repression. The names of the leaders in North, Central and South America are often unknown to us but still serve as inspiration to millions.

Now the tradition of these risings has a new lease of life. In the Andes in particular, indigenous people are centre-stage in political change. In Ecuador they have been instrumental in throwing out two presidents. In Bolivia they have formed a key battalion, some would say the most important, in toppling neo-liberal regimes and electing an anti-imperialist, leftist leader to the highest office. In Peru their votes were key in the election which brought former president Alejandro Toledo to power. In Mexico it was the Chiapas rising of the Zapatistas in 1994 which kicked off a new wave of popular struggles.

The movements and organisations of the indigenous people have one key thing in common - they are part of a continent-wide rejection of neo-liberal economic policies, and the political regimes and structures which have imposed them. In many areas they are the organisations of working people, and sometimes take the form of political parties like Pachacutik in Ecuador or Felipe Quispe's Indigenous Pachacuti Movement in Bolivia, which represent a genuine indigenous nationalism.

In other cases they are the backbone of class-based political parties such as Evo Morales's Movement Towards Socialism. While the Zapatistas and others in Central America are armed groups that concentrate primarily on indigenous issues, but are also forming shifting relationships with other political formations and having a major influence in national politics.

Many peasants' organisations are indigenous based but see themselves as class organisations first. Depending on their national context, these form part of a wider trade union and working class movement. There are tens of thousands of cultural, educational, neighbourhood or language organisations, fighting within the state and sometimes against it. There are major class differences within some of these organisations and a massive spectrum of political perspectives. Their relationship to the state, to NGOs, to non-indigenous political parties and to each other varies enormously.

The left has a chequered history when it comes to indigenous people and their struggles. At their best, socialist organisations have collaborated actively with indigenous groups and have often sought to build support among them - sometimes acknowledging their cultural and linguistic identity and sometimes not. At their worst, the left has seen the indigenous movement as backward looking or reactionary, and ignored their claims. Sometimes this has led to indigenous spokespeople, including the Zapatistas' Subcomandante Marcos, to be extremely critical of the 'vanguardism' of the left.

The picture is very complex, but the issues which matter to the indigenous people are centre-stage because to fight for them is to fight neo-liberalism.