Populist politicians in Latin America have found a powerful weapon in anti-colonial sentiment, but it’s proving to be a double-edged sword.

If you go to virtually any country in South America, you will probably see a variety of anachronistic and incongruous sights: a cholita (traditionally dressed woman of Andean origin) chatting on a mobile phone, traces of charrúa (indigenous nomads of Rio de la Plata) features in the faces of about a third of Uruguayans, or a member of an Amazonian tribe using their electric torch to see at night. This hybrid of indigenous, European, and twenty-first century culture is one of South America’s most appealing aspects; tourists and natives alike can experience the unique indigenous culture while still enjoying twenty-first century luxuries.  Yet as with all social integration and cultural compromises, there remains the question of how far Latin America can maintain its indigenous roots while embracing the twentieth century, and with a significant anti-gringo sentiment across the continent, South America’s leaders are finding it hard to get the right balance.

Image courtesy of geezaweezer, © 2012, some rights reserved.

There is a strong indigenous culture in Latin America, especially in countries like Bolivia and Peru where about 90 per cent of the population have indigenous roots and where permanent reminders of the negative aspects of European influence still remain; the still operational silver mines at Potosí, Bolivia, and the Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesus in Cusco, Peru (purposely built over the foundations of the palace of Inca ruler Huayna Capac) serve as constant reminders of the wealth of resources and millions of lives which the conquistas took from the continent.

This feeling of injustice and inequality is not confined to the colonial past and many even argue that it has become more acute in recent years; the hundreds of thousands of copies of Eduardo Galeano’s ‘Open Veins of Latin America’ sold in the southern hemisphere suggest that many Latin Americans agree with Galeano’s argument that the Europeans are almost entirely culpable for the present-day social and economic ills of the continent. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that criollos (upper-class white South Americans) are generally better off than their mestizo or indigenous counterparts. The response to this has been a rejection of European culture in what Argentinian semiotician Walter D. Mignolo has dubbed the “giro descolonial” (anticolonialist reaction). Mignolo argues that this movement, which originated in the 1970s but has been consolidated in recent years by politicians like Hugo Chávez and Evo Morales, is neither capitalism, communism, nor postcolonial but a reaction to all of these things; the reactionary nature of this “giro descolonial” is illustrated by radical indigenous groups such as the Ejército Guerrillero Tupac Katari in Bolivia and the Zapatistas in Mexico, both of whom have a chosen a more violent approach to politics rather than entering the electoral system.

Left-wing politicians across South America have recognised the political usefulness of the “giro descolonial” and have embraced the movement, in many ways, to their advantage. Ecuador’s president, Rafael Correa took advantage of his knowledge of Quechua (an indigenous language spoken in the Andes) in his presidential campaign and Venezuela’s Chávez styled himself as the champion of the indigenous people.  Not only did Bolivia’s president Morales use his indigenous roots to obtain and secure the presidency for the last six years, but he has also used it to justify his actions while in office: for example, the Andean belief there is little difference between man and nature and, consequently, that the land and its resources are the property of those who inhabit it, fits conveniently with Morale’s nationalisation politics.

Yet the problem of using the “giro descolonial” to obtain and justify power is that the indigenous people also have traditional rights and demands that need to be respected. While the natural gas of eastern Bolivia has helped turn Santa Cruz into Bolivia’s most prosperous city, exploiting Bolivia’s natural resources is seen by many natives as harmful to Pachamama, the Andean goddess of the earth; while Pachamama makes the land fertile for harvesting, it is imperative to respect her and appease her with gifts and llama or human sacrifices. The political consequences of exploiting Bolivia’s land were made clear by the demonstrations against the construction of a road through the TIPNIS national park which has brought thousands of protestors to La Paz throughout the year; Morales, faced with the dilemma of losing a lot of indigenous support or not being able to construct the road, accused the protesters of attempting a coup d’état and has since shied away from confirming whether or not construction will go ahead.

The Ecuadorian government has also had a series of difficulties in maintaining their indigenous support. Over the last thirty years there have been numerous conflicts between oil companies and Amazonian tribes over permission to exploit the region’s natural resources. In 2003, oil company Compania General de Combustibles (CGC) Petroecuador began drilling without the permission they needed from the Sarayaku tribe, resulting in the Ecuadorian government having to pay for the damages. While in this instance the government respected the rights of the tribes, its plans for further oil exploitation in the Amazon later this year suggest that it was merely a temporary pacification rather than a commitment to end the conflict.

Disputes over mining have proven to be a major problem in neighbouring Peru as well. While current Peruvian president Ollanta Humala has promised to protect indigenous rights by passing a law requiring companies to consult indigenous populations before mining on their lands, he too has discovered that when faced with the prospect of losing a $4.8 billion gold and copper project in Cajamarca, north Peru, this is easier said than done. For now it looks like Humala is keeping his promise as all work has been delayed until possibly 2017, but this decision comes at a high price as he risks losing the most important asset of Peru’s economy of the last ten years. What is more, like the Ecuadorian government, Humala is simply postponing rather than addressing the problem, suggesting that he has more concern for his immediate popularity than for the well being of indigenous groups.

Have these incidents affected support of governments in Latin America? The notoriously unreliable political statistics of these countries make it difficult to be certain of how much electoral support governments face to lose by neglecting indigenous rights. However, widespread support for the groups affected can be seen to an extent by popular reactions to these events. The huge turnout in the TIPNIS protests, media support for the inhabitants of the park, and suspicions that the road may be used to smuggle drugs suggest that the majority of Bolivians support indigenous rights over the possible economic benefits of the road. A hostile response to the government was also provoked in Venezuela when a group of Brazilian miners, the garimpeiros, opened fire on the Yanomami Amazonian village last July; the incident led to accusations of the army’s (and therefore implicitly the government’s) collaboration with the garimpeiros in smuggling gold and petrol.

Yet as well as the potential political consequences of neglecting indigenous rights, it’s important that Latin American governments remember that these groups are not just an obstacle to modernisation, but an integral and precious part of Latin American culture. While the positive aspects of indigenous culture aren’t always apparent on paper and in polling statistics, they are invaluable to the creation of Latin American pride and unity. When I think of indigenous Latin America, I think of a cultural identity strong enough to bring thousands of people to welcome the sunrise at the Incan ruins of Tiwanaku, what seems like the entire population of Cusco dancing harvest dances in the streets, or Bolivian miners making offerings to their deity Tío to protect them in the suffocating forty-degree heat of the mines. While economic success is vital to improving living standards in Latin America, politicians should bear in mind the power of the indigenous identity and remember that just like the Pachamama, if you respect it, you will reap the benefits, but if you abuse it, be prepared to suffer the consequences.