Héctor Díaz-Polanco

Indigenous peoples in Latin American



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From human rights to citizenship rights?: Recent trends in the study of Latin American social movements

Philip Oxhorn


Latin American Research Review, Austin: 2001. Tomo 36, Nº 3; pg. 163, 20 pags.


Oxhorn reviews various books, including "Indigenous Peoples in Latin America: The Quest for Self-Determination" by Hector Díaz-Polanco and "Taking on Goliath: The Emergence of a New Left Party and the Struggle for Democracy in Mexico" by Kathleen Bruhn.

In many ways, indigenous movements present the most fundamental challenges for understanding the quality of democratic regimes and for theories of social movements. Their distinctly non-Western experience, history of violent abuse, and understanding of rights in collective rather than liberal-individualist terms all seem to set them apart from other movements, and perhaps even from the context of "civil society" in which they are frequently placed. Yet the nature of their struggles is directly related to questions of democracy, difference, and political economy, as suggested by the two books under review looking at indigenous movements: Héctor Díaz-Polanco's Indigenous Peoples in Latin America: The Quest for Self-Determination and Kay Warren's Indigenous Movements and Their Critics: Pan-Mayan Activism in Guatemala. Theoretically, these struggles can be understood in terms much like those applied to other movements of disadvantaged groups. What is unique about indigenous movements serves to highlight the shared strengths of much recent research on social movements in Latin America.

The starting point for Díaz-Polanco is Latin America's colonial experience. Although he tends to understate the violence of hundreds of years of intra- and inter-state warfare that created this experience, Díaz-Polanco argues that Western European capitalist development did not have to confront the problem of social heterogeneity. Instead, "the bourgeoisie proposed a model of society based not on sociocultural or ethnic differences but on the unity established by 'equality' among citizens, free labor, the regulatory action of the market, and open competition" (p. 5). In Latin America, this example led the region's elites to view ethnic heterogeneity as a major obstacle to capitalist development that had to be overcome through assimilation if not physical elimination. Their task was only complicated by colonial rule. The feudal institutions that the Spanish Crown relied on to maximize resource extraction meant that "ethnic stratification was superimposed on the class structure, complicating and reinforcing it" (p. 8). The wars for independence were only the first step as modernizing elites attempted to create the kind of homogenous society they felt was necessary for development. According to Díaz-Polanco, "the criollos' emerging national consciousness [was] incapable of incorporating living Indians into a viable national project" (p. 14). Their communal organizations were viewed as "a cancer that had to be extirpated" (p. 16).

Díaz-Polanco tends to analyze the colonial experience in structural terms that lead him to overemphasize the material interests of the actors and to ignore the overtly racist discourses and ideologies that justified them. He nonetheless makes an important point in Indigenous Peoples in Latin America about the contingent nature of indigenous culture. The syncretic melding of Catholicism with preexisting indigenous religions, the ways in which colonialism selectively preserved and restructured indigenous institutions of self-government (often with the collusion of traditional indigenous elites), and the re-creation of indigenous communities around "Indian towns" built by the colonial authorities to fragment and disarticulate larger indigenous communities all underscore the artificial and contested nature of "indigenous cultures." As Díaz-Polanco concludes, "the colonial system created the Indian," and the continuing challenge since then has been to recover "a unity of purpose that transcends the communal and parochial world in which indigenous peoples were submerged by the colonial regime" (p. 58).

Only in the 1940s did a less violent alternative began to emerge, what Díaz-Polanco calls "integrationist indigenism." Although the stated goal of such policies was to integrate indigenous peoples into national societies while respecting their social and cultural uniqueness, these policies retained the same modern-tizationist assumptions that equated indigenous culture with backwardness. Assimilation was still the long-term goal, and these policies generally "left behind a tragic trail of cultural dissolution, destruction of identities, political repression, and ethnic-national conflict" (p. 68).

After reviewing centuries of failure, including what Díaz-Polanco considers an "inverted ethnocentrism" that essentializes indigenous culture by positing its inherent superiority to anything Western, he perceives an unprecedented opportunity in the emergence of a new kind of indigenous movement that seeks to articulate indigenous peoples' demands with national democratic projects. Such projects are based on the idea that "the firmest [national] unity is based upon respect for diversity" (p. 141). Reaching out to other actors as potential allies, indigenous movements throughout the region are basing their incorporation into national society on the premise of regional autonomy, but an autonomy that respects the territorial integrity of existing countries. Some of Díaz-Polanco's examples seem to undercut the persuasiveness of this alternative (such as the former Soviet Union and Spain's Second Republic of the early 1930s, and his brief references to the former Yugoslavia and Tibet in China). But the goal, as pressed by indigenous movements themselves, may be the ultimate example of how differences need to be mediated by alternate ideologies or discourses as well as novel institutional mechanisms.


Indians seeking autonomy cry, “Viva México!”

David Gaddis Smith

March 30, 2001



The idea of Indian autonomy did not begin with the Zapatista rebels in Chiapas state. But their 7-year uprising is bringing it closer to fruition.

Indeed, much of what the rebels said in their historic appearance pushing autonomy Wednesday before Mexico's Congress can be found in Héctor Díaz-Polanco's 1991 book, "Regional Autonomy."

The book, published in English in 1997 as "Indigenous Peoples in Latin America: The Quest for Self-Determination," explains why indigenous groups in Latin America have been seeking a form of political autonomy while also remaining part of the nations in which they reside.

Díaz-Polanco, a Dominican by birth, is a scholar at the Center for Research and Higher Education in Social Anthropology in Mexico City.

His book anticipated many of the questions and doubts about autonomy being expressed by members of Congress, who are being encouraged by President Vicente Fox to pass the autonomy bill.

Felipe Calderón, a leader of Fox's National Action Party in Congress, was quoted this week as saying he did not want to follow the example of "the United States, which banished the Indians to reservations far off in the mountains and the deserts, isolated and separated them."

Here is what Díaz-Polanco says should not happen under autonomy: "The danger is that the old 'Indian villages' of colonial times would come back, where what was sought was to separate the Indian from the rest of society and to bring about isolation and atomization."

Díaz-Polanco also anticipated the great skepticism the Zapatistas showed toward Fox until Wednesday. Subcommander Marcos, who did not appear before the Congress, has been calling Fox a liar.

The books says Indians, who have been continually discriminated against as governments have come and gone since Columbus' arrival in the Americas in 1492, have reason to be skeptical when new administrations such as Fox's promise to help end their historic marginalization.

But Wednesday, rebel Commander Esther acknowledged Fox had given "a signal of peace" by meeting rebel demands to close several army bases in Chiapas. It appears the rebels are resuming some form of dialogue with the government.

Gustavo Emmerich, a political scientist in Mexico City currently doing research at the Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies in San Diego, said yesterday that while peace may be "closer than eever," it may be difficult fo two-thirds of both houses of Congress to pass the autonomy bill. Rebels say approval of the bill is the key to peace.

Is autonomy -- and exactly what autonomy constitutes is still unclear – the solution for Mexico's Indians, most of whom are mired in poverty?

Díaz-Polanco says Mexican laws decreeing equal rights for individuals and anti-poverty programs have not reduced inequality. He says autonomy would give Indians a greater voice. He wrote: "This work does not consider autonomy to be a magic formula that will resolve innumerable problems. ...It is an instrument or medium to try to arrive at some solutions."

About 10 percent of Mexicans are Indian, and they speak some 56 languages.

Many Mexicans have been worried that autonomy would mean Indian groups would seek to secede from the country.

Díaz-Polanco, who has been advising the Zapatistas, says this is not the case: "Autonomy does not jeopardize the territorial integrity of a nation, but rather defines a new political reality... by means of a better coordination of its component parts.

Commander Esther forcefully drove home this point Wednesday when she concluded her speech by declaring:

"Up with the Indian peoples! ¡Viva México! ¡Viva México! ¡Viva México! Democracy! Liberty! Justice!"

David Gaddis Smith can be reached at (619) 293-2211 and at david.smith@uniontrib.com

Copyright 2001 Union-Tribune Publishing Co.