Brazil's president Jair Bolsonaro is well known for insults against indigenous people. | Photo: Marcos Corrêa/PR | CC BY 2.0

Indigenous Peoples’ experiences: Some observations about the new political era in Latin America

In the last five years, Latin America has entered a new political era with indigenous peoples at the center of these changes. The new governments in the region are promoting revisionist policies regarding past state violence and implementing new policies of indigenous dispossession. However, the observable trend denying indigenous peoples their basic rights, and their participation on issues affecting them, is not only an issue of minority politics, it also draws broader fundamental civil rights and liberties into question.

On 3rd January 2019, on his first day as the Brazilian President, Jair Bolsonaro compared the indigenous peoples that live in protected lands with animals living in the zoo, and he added that it was “a shame that the ‘Brazilian chivalry’ hadn’t been as efficient as the North American ones that have effectively exterminated the ‘Indians’ [sic]”. For decades, indigenous peoples in Brazil have been mobilizing and struggling to get the Brazilian state to comply with its human rights obligations in their regard. Although the advances gained through this lengthy struggle were relatively minor and costly in terms of activists’ lives, Bolsonaro’s election presents a more grievous challenge for the country’s indigenous peoples. Their lands, territories and resources, along with their rights are under direct attack.

Immediately after his election, the new Brazilian President decided to transfer the responsibility for the certification of traditional land use from the Fundacion Nacional del Indio (FUNAI) – at the Minister for Justice – to the Minister for Agriculture that has a history of promoting the agricultural lobby’s interests industries. The Brazilian Justiciary blocked this presidential initiative at the end of July; nevertheless, just a month later, Bolsonaro chose a police officer linked to agribusiness to lead the FUNAI.

In Colombia, the situation of indigenous peoples is quite similar. In April 2019, the Minga Indígena del Cauca, an important indigenous organization from the South of the Country launched a national mobilization which included the blockage of the Pan-American Highway; that has gained a lot of public attention. On 7th April 2019, after current president Ivan Duque had announced his acceptance to meet the organization leaders, Alvaro Uribe, the ex-president and leader of the political party in power, tweeted: “The dilemma is not between massacre and signing [an agreement], the dilemma is one between an authority that is prudent, resolute, that sits down [to talk], with social judgement, and the continued generation of bad precedents that do not permit turning the page. If authority – calm, resolute and with social judgement – implicates a massacre it is because on the other side there is violence and terror rather than protest”.

This statement was given in a particular context: The Colombian Ombudsman stated in April that during the last three years, 479 social leaders have been killed, and that in the last year, 982 reported being under threat. These statistics are even more disturbing if one considers that the Peace Agreement with FARC signed in November 2016 included guarantees for social movements and social organizations regarding rights to mobilization, protest and citizen participation.

In Argentina, even if the situation appears less threatening for indigenous peoples, they have also been struggling for their rights for decades, with the additional challenge of pursuing their objectives in a country that shows several limitations to recognize them as citizens and members of the national community. In this difficult context, Mapuche indigenous peoples from the southern provinces of Rio Negro and Neuquén have extended their mobilization strategies to also include blocking highways and land occupations. Operations of police and security forces in 2017 resulted in the deaths of Santiago Maladonado and Rafael Nahuel. The killings were justified by government representatives who declared the indigenous peoples’ demands illegitimate, pointed to their status as “almost foreigners”, and classified one of their organizations – the Resistencia Ancestral Mapuche – an “ethno-nationalist violent movement” that promoted “an insurrectional struggle against the Argentinian State” (see this report, p.5).

Not just a matter of minorities!

These radicalized political grammars mark a turn regarding the way Latin American societies deal with the indigenous peoples’ histories and the violence inflicted upon them. The Brazilian Memory Commission has demonstrated that more than 8.350 indigenous persons were killed during the last dictatorship (1964-1985), a period that current president Bolsonaro lauds for its presumably positive legacy. He promotes a nostalgic revisionism and has even suggested recognizing the dictatorship’s “civilizing” role. Therefore, to understand the hitherto almost invisible genocide of indigenous people that was committed under the military junta’s rule is not only relevant to indigenous peoples’ past.

It is also important to controvert the current characterization of the former dictatorship as a civilizing force as Bolsonaro is proposing. Similar developments can be observed in Argentina, Colombia, Guatemala, and all over Latin America where acts of violence accompanied with policies of denial and of making past violence invisible have been a powerful means to systematically dispossess indigenous peoples of their lands and their rights. All this occurs in a particular context. Already in 2017, the Inter American Human Rights Commission highlighted that members of the judiciary and the security forces discriminate indigenous persons based on “ethnic and racial motivations”, that “high levels of violence against IP” were persistent and that in several countries it was possible to observe a “serious regression in the legal frameworks on the rights of indigenous peoples” (see pars. 17 and 74).

As the experiences of indigenous peoples in several Latin American countries show, current governments in these countries are limiting indigenous peoples’ possibilities of presenting themselves as legitimate citizens with legitimate demands. In fact, they are denying them even the status to claim such rights and question indigenous belonging to their nations. By way of impugning powerful narratives about the past and by qualifying indigenous activists as terrorists, they are opening up a new phase in the political economy of Latin America with undisguised extractivism and neoliberal economies to its forefront. One should realize that this exercise of a strategic re-interpretation of the past concerns not only indigenous peoples but aims at establishing narratives that more broadly, counter the validity of civil liberties and human rights.

This message was conveyed explicitly by Mauricio Macri, e.g. on 8th December 2014, before he was elected Argentinian president: “With me, the human rights memory business will be ended”. His revisionist ideas found fertile ground in some sectors of society. Three months later Macri was elected, and one of the most important newspapers of Argentina published an editorial that demanded the new president show progress on the issue. It qualified the previous governments’ human rights and memory policy as a “pseudo-progressive dialectic that has been fueling hatred, confrontations and the desire for revenge by binding us to the past instead of banking on pacification”.

In the same vein, in Colombia, in May 2017, almost a year before the 2018 presidential elections, Fernando Londoño, ex-minister and director of Centro Democrático, the right-wing party led by ex-president Alvaro Uribe, announced that “the first challenge of the Centro Democrático will be to shatter that damn document they call the final agreement with the FARC, which is a surrender and can’t survive”. In Guatemala, the government of Jimmy Morales has taken measures that endanger the existence of the Archivo de la Policia, a human rights organization fundamental to establishing the truth regarding the country’s civil war.

Bolsonaro in Brazil has been the most outspoken in his judgements of the recent (democratic) past when he declared: “I agree with torture. Through voting, you do not change the country at all. You have to kill 30 thousand [persons]”. And when voting for the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseuff as a deputy in 2018, he declared the vote to be “in the memory of Coronel Carlos Alberto Brilhante Ustra, the terror of Dilma Rousseff’s” –one of the best known military leaders from the time of the dictatorship in Brazil.

The link between public memory and the core of civil rights

Across Latin America, human rights organizations have sharply criticized the new governments for their revisionism in dealing with the violent legacies of the past. While the political leaders are, of course, responsible for designing their regressive memory policies, it is important to recognize that in each of the cases, the electorate voted for candidates like Macri in Argentina, Bolsonaro in Brazil or Duque in Colombia. Their positions on memory and human rights political trajectories were no secrets to voters; rather they were key parts of their political campaigns.

This is the most alarming news from Latin America: Current governments aim at a perpetuation and deepening of social cleavages, inequalities and stigmas; and they have found electoral majorities which support these agendas. It seems that past experiences with political violence have generated processes of social acceptance and familiarization – or – with forgetting or silencing violence in large parts of the affected societies. This points even more to the necessity of making the memories of violence of indigenous peoples along with other victims visible.

All this is not only a matter of words and messages addressed to minorities. In this new political age, Latin American national societies are showing worrying levels of violence against social leaders, women, landless peasants, or disadvantaged neighborhoods’ young activists. Looking at the big picture, the current political era in Latin America builds on the forgetting of the recent past’s violence to cover up present violence and the threatening of civil liberties and fundamental human civil rights. It is necessary to keep this kind of public memory alive and to insist on the links between historical injustices and the current human rights violations.

Carlos Salamanca

Carlos Salamanca

Carlos Salamanca is a Colombian-Argentinean architect and holds a PhD in Anthropology from the École des HautesEtudes en SciencesSociales (EHESS) in Paris. He is currently a Research Fellow at the Consejo Nacional de Investigaciones Científicas y Tecnicas (CONICET, Argentina). Since 2014 he has headed the Interdisciplinary Program "Espacios, Políticas, Sociedades im Centro de Estudios Interdisciplinarios" of the Universidad Nacional de Rosario (UNR). In June and July 2019, he was a guest researcher at PRIF.

Carlos Salamanca

Carlos Salamanca is a Colombian-Argentinean architect and holds a PhD in Anthropology from the École des HautesEtudes en SciencesSociales (EHESS) in Paris. He is currently a Research Fellow at the Consejo Nacional de Investigaciones Científicas y Tecnicas (CONICET, Argentina). Since 2014 he has headed the Interdisciplinary Program "Espacios, Políticas, Sociedades im Centro de Estudios Interdisciplinarios" of the Universidad Nacional de Rosario (UNR). In June and July 2019, he was a guest researcher at PRIF.

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