Ethnic communities and ethno-political strategies: the struggle for ethnic rights : a comparison of Peru, Ecuador and Guatemala

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Steinert, Per Ole Christian

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One of the most intriguing social phenomena of the last 10-15 years in Latin America is the political emergence of marginalized and previously silenced Indian in a number of countries, notably, Ecuador, Bolivia and Mexico. These mobilizations have until recently received little attention by social analysts, and then mostly from anthropologists as manifestations of the so-called identity politics, referring to ethnic groups in search for a ‘voice’ in the society. In this study a distinction is made between, on the one hand, ethnic ‘voice’-seeking groups, and, on the other, ethnic mobilizations with the ambition to influence the political premises of their societies. The two categories overlap, but while both categories have to succeed on the ‘inner’ front, i.e., mobilizing their constituencies, the latter must, in addition, establish itself as a force on the ‘outer’ front, toward the society at large. My study is a comparison and evaluation of strategies and methods applied by what I call the ‘power’-seeking ethnic mobilizations in Peru, Ecuador and Guatemala - in the Highland as well as the Amazon Lowland. But there is more to it. To be an ethnic person is to belong to the physical, symbolic, and social construct of a community, meaning that when ethnic peoples pool their resources for ethno-political ends, I contend, something else than a conventional social movement results, because an ethno-ideological worldview guides the mobilization. To better understand the ethnic dynamics, how ethnicity is being constructed, and how this is being reflected in the political work, I lived 3 months with semi-isolated native communities of the Asháninka Indians in the Peruvian Amazon. That experience was followed by an extensive crisscrossing of the ethno-rural regions of the three target countries - observing that the ever-present appalling poverty and socio-economic conditions of this population was not less socially constructed than my earlier environment. In the wrestling between these two realities - on the one hand, a State-driven exploitation of land and people of ethnocidal proportions, and, on the other, a community-driven worldview - the ethnic populations of the different countries have found their individual form of organized protest. This study discloses a significant variation in the forms of ethnic mobilization. It concludes that the State has played, unintentionally, a major role in determining what kind of ethnic mobilization takes place in each country, and so does the present influences of historical State practices, as well as cleavages among the ethnic peoples themselves. At one end, one observes the absence of any kind of ethnic mass mobilization, as in Guatemala, and, at the other, a vibrant, powerful, and professional ethnic movement, as in Ecuador. In between, there exists a struggling activity ongoing in Peru, carried forward by the native Amazon population without the support from the far more numerous indigenous-rooted population in the Highland. The latter practices daily its ethnicity, but shows no awareness of it. It should not surprise that an ethno-rural environment like this - unfamiliar, difficult to access, and with lots of discomfort for the outsider - with the mestizo State ‘explaining’ the Latin American reality as it likes everyone to see it, and the social fabric of the locals being torn apart by externally imposed economic forces, that ‘urban myths’ get established with no or little evidence to their support. One is the often repeated claim that a viable indigenous movement exists in Guatemala, today part of the sociological lore; it doesn’t. The activity there, I contend, represents a very different typology of ethnic mobilization than those in Peru and Ecuador. Another assertion is the much touted ‘democratization’ of Latin America during the last couple of decades. From the viewpoint of the large ethno-rural populations, no signs of such a political ‘spring’ could be found in any of these countries. And a third is that a political awakening among the Indians of ‘historical dimensions’ is going on in Latin America. It is as exaggerated as Mark Twain’s first death. What takes place are mobilizations of highly variable outcome by some of the most marginalized population groups on the continent in political environments of abysmal economic oppression of the least resourceful.