Not unlike the incorporation of labor, which proved to be the crucial political juncture of the twentieth century, the mobilization of indigenous Latin Americans represents what could be for many countries the most pivotal political event of the current century[1]Eaton, Kent, ‘Backlash in Bolivia: ‘Regional Autonomy as a Reaction Against Indigenous Mobilization’, Politics and Society, Vol. 35, No. 1, (March, 2007), p71
Kent Eaton

The injustices in all countries [are] committed by their bad governments and their owners, who are called capitalists. They impose their own laws in favor of big business owners, forgetting about the people, the poverty, and the misery, and they take away our natural resources so that we can’t enjoy what is ours… [we must] look for ways to unite ourselves so that some day we will be free from this slavery that today the whole world suffers from. We are obligated to seek spaces and paths that allow our imprisoned compañeros and our children to have a dignified life. [2]Bellinghausen, H., ‘They Believe that the Capitalist System is the Origin of Injustice’, La Jornada, accessed:
Victoria, Zapatista Good Government Council, July 2009

This article is concerned with the thread between history and the present, the link between struggles in separate parts of the world, and the neoliberal world order in which we all live. In particular, it is an investigation into the response to the experience of living in a society structured around the needs of neoliberal capitalism by one of the most historically colonised and exploited peoples anywhere in the world: the roughly 40 million indigenous people of Latin America.

As indicated by the quotes above, the mobilisation of indigenous people in Latin America, and the demands they are pressing – which are quite contrary to the role set out for them by their ruling ‘elites’, or strategic planners in Washington – is constituting perhaps the most potent contemporary challenge to the neoliberal status-quo anywhere in the world. This is an admittedly one sided account, however we have all heard enough about the kinds of ‘progress’, ‘economic growth’ and ‘democracy’ currently on offer from neoliberalism. The indigenous movements studied in this article often see things a different way: World Bank structural adjustment programs and elite “democracy” as continuing historical oppression, exploitation and racism, while further stripping people of their ancestral land and natural resources.

As an initial caveat, it is clear that any exploration into such a topic can only give the briefest impression of the events occurring and issues at stake in Latin America. What I am attempting to do here is simply give an initial context, and to encourage the pursuit of further reading on the topic. Therefore, in the space allocated I will try and frame the global context of Latin America’s indigenous struggles. I will also draw a few comparisons between highland Scotland’s and Latin America’s experience of being brought into the modern world order, attempting to show how all peoples of the world are subject to similar historical forces to one degree or another. Thus, a sense of internationalism between ordinary people is necessary for any effort towards a more humane world. Finally, I will give selected examples of the struggles being waged by indigenous movements in Mexico, Guatemala, and Bolivia, and what lessons and inspirations we can take from them.

Neoliberal Order

So what are the basic principles of the neoliberal world order which both indigenous peoples in Latin America, and ourselves, are having our lives and societies shaped by? The guiding tenets of neoliberal capitalism are often called the “Washington Consensus”, described by Chomsky as “an array of market-orientated principles designed by the government of the United States and the international financial institutions that it largely dominates (the International Monetary Foundation (IMF), the World Bank etc.), and implemented by them in various ways – for the more vulnerable societies (e.g. in Latin America) often as stringent structural adjustment programs.”[3]Chomsky, Noam, ‘Profit over People: Neoliberalism and Global Order’, (London, 1999), p19 The basic rules are to remove the barriers to trade and finance (so long as this favours the wealthy countries of the world), end inflation, privatise as much of the economy as possible (thus reducing social spending), and politically, “the government should ‘get out of the way’ – hence the population too, insofar as the government is democratic.”[4]Ibid, p20 The result is a society with massive profits for the few, high inequality, increasing poverty, low wages and low levels of political participation for the rest, amounting to “improved weapons of class war” for “the major concentration of power in the world, arguably in world history: the governments of the rich and powerful states, the international financial institutions, and the concentrated financial and manufacturing sectors, including the corporate media.”[5]Ibid, p164

The reality of this structure of class forces is that in terms of the priorities of global power and the resulting neoliberal economic policies, programs for participatory democracy, human, social, economic and cultural rights, the redistribution of wealth, and the conservation of resources and the environment, are completely disregarded. Brief as this basic analysis is, it gives an idea of the structures of power facing both ourselves and indigenous and nonindigenous people in Latin America wishing to act together to improve their lives. In fact, to follow Chomsky’s line of analysis a little further, he suggests that for investigating the effects of neoliberal “democracy” and “free” markets we should look to Latin America as “the obvious testing ground”, as with almost no external competition, “the guiding principles of policy, and of today’s “Washington consensus” are revealed most clearly when we examine the state of the region.”[6]Ibid, p94

In fact, Latin America has the highest levels of inequality anywhere in the world. Yet to understand the roots of this inequality, and where Latin America’s indigenous social and political movements are coming from in their resistance, it is necessary to understand their historical past, and even to draw comparisons with our own.

History Revisited

Earlier this year I embarked upon several holiday trips around the highlands and islands of Scotland. Perhaps my most revealing journey was the return trip from the Isle of Harris in the Outer Hebrides, which took me to Skye by ferry, then by bus through the western highlands, including Glencoe, until I finally arrived in Glasgow. What had struck me on my trip, and on the journey home, was the emptiness of the landscape – not as an untouched ‘wilderness’, but rather by the story told by countless roofless stone dwellings and blackhouses, where the only residents are the sheep sheltering from the wind. A trip to the bookshelf of any tourist shop is enough to give answer to curiosity on why no people remain, and the Highland Clearances of the 18th and 19th centuries are still strong in folk memory. Despite attempts to erase memories of the past – when the west of Harris was cleared, the graveyard was also demolished “to erase any rights and history of the people”[7]The Highland Clearances, Post Clearances – Harris Cairns – both principled histories and folk song and story record what happened to turn the highlands and islands into one of the most sparsely populated regions in Europe. In the name of ‘improvement’, i.e. landlords looking to increase the productivity and profit of their estates, landlords ‘cleared’ (which often meant forceful and violent eviction) the people from their land to make way for large scale sheep farming or sporting estates, and as noted by Ken Andrew: “A harsh land, a harsh sea, and a harsh climate were hard enough burdens to be borne by the people, but harsh overlords backed by unfair laws, and servants of these laws, were the final tribulations, which brought a way of life to an end for many for the benefit of a privileged few.”[8]Edited from an article by Ken Andrew, courtesy of Chebecto Community Net, taken from ibid, Post Clearances – The Duke’s Statue

One of the historical legacies of the clearances for Scotland has been the effects on Gaelic language and culture. The 2003 census showed that the number of Gaelic speakers has dropped to 58,000 – meaning that the language is struggling to survive.

The incorporation of the highlands and islands region into the British state through cultural and economic imperialism has a historical and contemporary parallel with other peoples and groups all over the world. This is particularly true of indigenous movements in Latin America. However, even in comparison with other experiences, the effects of colonialism and imperialism on the indigenous peoples of the Americas are staggering.

In 1492, when Columbus ‘discovered’ the Americas, the continent contained around 100 million people, roughly one fifth of the human race. Ronald Wright explains that due to conquest, slavery, slaughter, and mainly Old World disease, by 1600 “after some twenty waves of pestilence had swept through the Americas, less than a tenth of the original population remained. Perhaps 90 million died…it was the greatest mortality in history.”[9]Wright, Ronald, ‘Stolen Continents: Conquest and Resistance in the Americas’, (London, 1992), p14 The civilisations, cities, writings and learning of the Maya, Aztecs, Inca, Cherokee and Iroquois (among many other indigenous peoples and groups) were destroyed, to be replaced by “imitation Europes”[10]Ibid, p13, with the indigenous nations “captive within white settler states built on their lands and on their backs.”[11]Ibid, p4 Pedro Alvarado, the man with a “psychotic mind”[12]Ibid, p56 who played a key role in defeating the Aztecs of Mexico, subjugated the Quiché and Cakchiquel Maya kingdoms in what is now modern day Guatemala. It took him the better part of the 1520s, along with a continued influx of Europeans, cavalry, steel, and most importantly disease, but eventually the Cakchiquels surrendered on 10 May 1530. He then subjected them to slavery, the paying of heavy tribute, and forced mining and washing for gold.[13]Ibid, p60-61

In 1532 the Castilian Francisco Pizarro and his men took advantage of the fatal error of being underestimated by the Inca Emperor, and slaughtered Inca Atawallpa along with between 5,000 – 10,000 of his followers,[14]Ibid, p80 thus paving the way for the conquest of an Empire 3,000 miles long and several hundred miles wide, including the Inca of Peru and the Aymara of Bolivia. Thus the Andean peoples of modern day Peru, Ecuador, Chile and Bolivia were subjugated under Spanish rule, with structures of power that have held intact into the period of the modern republics, under the shadow of U.S. dominance. As the statue of the Duke of Sutherland still looks over the lands in Scotland where his agents burned the original inhabitants from their homes, Pizarro Palace in Lima, Peru, is a reminder to the indigenous peoples of the Andes of their defeat and their place within the new European order.

The historical experience of continued exploitation, colonialism, and racism has marked the memory of all these peoples. However, Ronald Wright, whose book is rightly considered a classic, notes that with remarkable historical resistance, the culture, ideas and traditions of many of these peoples still exist today. In the Andes 12 million people still speak the language of the Inca, and there are still over 6 million speakers of Maya languages: if Guatemala were truly democratic, then it would be a Maya republic.[15]Ibid, p4 Rather than being seen as relics of a past age, “they are living cultures, defining and defending places in the contemporary world. Only the West assumes that modernity and Westernization must be synonymous.”[16]Ibid, p9

What are the traditions and values of these cultures? And what place for themselves are they trying to define and defend in modern societies? Importantly, what implications does this have for their relationship with the neoliberal order described above?

Resistance Awakening

As outlined above, the context for indigenous peoples in Latin America organising themselves and acting together to press their demands for autonomy, recognition, respect and collective territory is one of historical exploitation and suppression, as well as the contemporary structures of power that form the neoliberal order, as exemplified by Fiorentini’s description of the situation facing indigenous groups in rural areas:

“In the face of agribusinesses’ ever-concentrated land grab, extractive industries—state or international, and local and national government collusion, indigenous people all over Latin America are all living varied versions of the same ecological and social nightmare. Through environmental destruction like deforestation and pollution, direct violent eviction and territorial encroachment, or manipulative and coerced removal, indigenous communities are left without their traditional means of subsistence and thus are forced to join the overwhelmingly indigenous and mestizo urban poor or, well, die.”[17]Fiorentini, Francesca. ‘Movement Pachamama: Indigenous Movements in Latin America”, Left Turn, Issue 33, (June, 2009), accessed at: Living by the Clock of the World: Grace Lee Boggs’ Call for Visionary Organizing

Against this sobering backdrop, however, indigenous organisations are managing to win victories, as the examples below indicate. These movements act not just to defend existing culture, rights and territories, but to extend participation in the national politics of the states within which they reside, combining with other movements to advance radical notions of democracy and resource and land management in accordance with various Andean and Mesoamerican values, such as self government and small scale collective ownership.[18]Ibid


One of the areas where indigenous groups have achieved widespread attention for their resistance to both state power and neoliberal capitalism is Mexico, in particular the Zapatistas. To recap, on the day that the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) came into effect, on 1 January 1994, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) initiated an armed uprising in protest of the policies of the Mexican State and the effects that NAFTA would have on (Maya and non-Maya) peasants in Chiapas in southern Mexico. Since then, the movement has continued to exist and essentially form systems of autonomous government parallel to the state.[19]Washbrook, Sarah, ‘The Chiapas Uprising of 1994: Historical Antecedents and Political Consequences’, Journal of Peasant Studies, Vol. 32, No. 3, (June, 2005), p442 In the view of Neil Harvey, the Zapatistas were “a well organized indigenous army with a mass base of support”, that struggled for land reform, civil rights, democratisation of the political system, and the collective rights of women and indigenous peoples.”[20]Harvey, Neil, 1998, The Chiapas Rebellion and the Struggle for Land and Democracy, London and Durham, NC: Duke University Press, p3, 12 in ibid, p422-423 This program had a significant effect on Mexican national politics, and as Sarah Washbrook explains the Zapatistas were active in “criticizing the authoritarian regime and its neoliberal economic policies and contributing to anti-globalization campaigns and movements for greater democratization.”[21]Ibid, p418 However, it is worth noting within the Zapatistas there have also arisen contradictions and divisions in its aims, and the movement is not as nationally significant as during the 1990s.[22]Ibid, p444

That said, the Zapatistas are still in a standoff with the Mexican state to this day, and exert a great influence on the inspiration and imagination of popular struggle in Mexico and further afield. On 14 June 2006 a teacher’s union strike in Oaxaca city sparked into a popular uprising with a strong indigenous base, the significance of which is explained by Sedillo: “The success of the ensuing six-month-uprising was fuelled by strong ideas of traditional forms of land tenure and the subsequent strategies for self-governance that indigenous communal life entails.”[23]Sedillo, Simon, Threat of Genocide: US Military Mapping Against Mexico’s Indigenous, ‘Left Turn’ (June, 2009) The Oaxacan People’s Popular Assembly (APPO) occupied the state capitol for six months, including middle-aged women occupying TV and radio stations throughout the city. The assembly was based on indigenous consensus organising as used for thousands of years, and they demanded the removal of the governor Ulises Ruiz Ortiz. They were driven out by acts of state violence (murder, disappearance, rape, torture and police led drive-by shootings), however their struggle continues unabated.[24]Ibid

Needless to say, the Zapatistas’ and other group’s campaigns for meaningful democracy, land reform and rights while opposing neoliberal reforms and authoritarian power has met opposition from the Mexican and U.S. Governments. The Zapatistas have endured state repression, most notably the paramilitary massacre of 13 men and 32 women who were members of an indigenous human rights organisation, while they were praying in a chapel.[25]Ibid, p420

In fact, a wider backlash is being prepared by the U.S. and Mexican states to this unacceptable challenge from indigenous groups to their authority and interests. The U.S. government is supplying the Mexican government with a funding package in order to strengthen the Mexican security apparatus, known as the ‘Merida Initiative’, beginning with an initial$400 million. In the words of the U.S. State Department, this will help to “confront criminal organizations whose illicit actions (allegedly drug traffickers) undermine public safety, erode the rule of law, and threaten the national security of the United States.”[26]U.S. State Department, accessed: However, the U.S. military is simultaneously undertaking a detailed mapping of indigenous lands in Mexico, known as the ‘Bowman Expeditions.’ The researcher assigned to the project, Lt. Col. Geoffrey B. Demarest, has previously been the US Military Attaché to the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala 1988-91 during the U.S. backed repression and torture in that country, and has written on the relationship between land mapping data and successful counter insurgency campaigns. Tellingly, Demarest claims that “informally owned and unregulated (i.e. indigenous) land ownership favors illicit use and violence”, and also that “strategic power becomes the ability to keep and acquire ownership rights around the world.”

The aims of these actions are revealed by Mexican geographer and academic Oliver Froehling, who argues that the Merida Initiative and the mapping “subscribe to a military/political strategy” in which “the control and displacement of indigenous communities intends to remove potential political hot spots, contribute to military control of the region, and ultimately ‘liberate’ national resources for the benefit of the government and, in turn, its transnational allies.”[27]Sedillo, Threat of Genocide, 2009 Importantly, according to Sedillo, this indicates that to U.S. strategic planners “the greatest resistance to the neoliberal world order in Mexico comes from indigenous communities claiming autonomy and self determination in the form of communal territory.” They are also aware of the tie between indigenous groups, their culture, and the land they occupy – and thus the best way to remove their opposition to neoliberal order is to move them from their land and simultaneously rob them of their culture and means of subsistence, leaving the way open for the exploitation of valuable mineral and other resources.[28]Ibid Thus, currently the struggles of indigenous groups in Mexico hang in the balance between a high level of indigenous awareness and organisation, and the building backlash of the Mexican and U.S. ruling elites.


The other major Maya area is Guatemala, where Pedro Alvarado first removed autonomy and dignity from the indigenous population in the 1520s, leaving the Maya nations captive within the Ladino state “built on their lands and on their backs.” There are 11 million people in Guatemala, and roughly 60% are indigenous Maya, divided into 23 ethnic groups and around 16 Maya languages.[29]Arias, Arturo, ‘The Maya Movement, Postcolonialism and Cultural Agency’, p2, accessed: As indicated by the past career of Geoffrey B. Demarest, Guatemala has suffered a civil war, with left revolutionary organisations and Maya groups fighting the state (and by proxy the U.S.), which lasted through the 1980s and only ended in 1996 when peace accords were signed. The Maya were the war’s greatest victims, and of the quarter of a million left dead and hundreds of thousands of refugees, most were Maya. The army also admitted to destroying over 450 Maya villages.[30]Ibid, p4 Despite this loss, Arturo Arias argues that today “Mayas walk with a quiet confidence and self assurance they did not have 25 years ago.”[31]Ibid, p5 To understand why this is, and the advances that Guatemalan Maya have made since 1996 towards shedding the exploitation and racism that has bound them for almost 500 years, we need to look at what their demands are for the establishment of Maya rights. In 1990 Maya academic Demetrio Cojtí Cuxil published a set demands that would be required to safeguard the “Maya nation”, which included: “control and utilization of natural resources, political autonomy, Maya representation in congress, Maya participation in public planning…the pre-eminence of international law, the reorientation of the cultural policies of the Guatemalan state…and a reduction of the discrepancy in material development between the (Ladino and Maya) nations.”[32]Ibid, p9

These demands reflect the needs of indigenous people throughout the Americas, as articulated by Rigoberta Menchú, the Nobel-prize winning Guatemalan Maya: “What concerns us is the Indian today and of tomorrow. Why should we merely survive? We need to develop our ancient culture and offer it up as a contribution to the human race.” Her interview with Ronald Wright also includes some powerful insights into differing kinds of development and wealth distribution, differences between participatory and elite based democracy, and the relationship between indigenous peoples and the land, the abuse and unfair distribution of which “has generated the most conflict” between invader and invaded.[33]Wright, ‘Stolen Continents’, p273

In Guatemala today great steps forward have been taken, with a multitude of Maya organisations, Maya representation in Congress, and Maya language dictionaries, novels, literary criticism and political works being published, including bilingual editions. This means that Maya is being written down for the first time since the Spanish conquest.[34]Arias, ‘The Maya Movement’, p5-6 Arias concludes that the Maya have now moved into a “post-colonial” mode of living, having broken free from “internal colonialism”[35]Ibid, p12 However, in terms of the demands made by Cojtí Cuxil, struggles remain for the Guatemalan Maya. Crucially, the demands for gaining control over the country’s natural resources and political autonomy are described by Arias as “still in the gestation stage.”[36]Ibid, p10


Perhaps the country that has seen the most staggering advances by both indigenous movements and the population in general against historical oppression and the contemporary neoliberal order is Bolivia. Bolivia was following the standard model of a neoliberal U.S. client state during the 1990s, a “democracy” with most of the population excluded from any meaningful decision making and privatisation of much of the economy. Bolivia has the largest natural gas reserves in Latin America outside of Venezuela, and the state oil and gas company was significantly privatised (or ‘capitalised’ as it is referred to in Bolivia) in 1996.[37]Bolivia Information Forum, accessed at: However during the 1990s and early 2000s the population of Bolivia as a whole, with a special role played by Aymara indigenous-based organisations, has completely changed the direction of the Bolivian state. A series of mass actions has forced the ruling political class and their powerful multinational supporters to relinquish their monopoly on the levers of power. The Water War of 2000 forced the government to scrap a contract with a U.S. corporation to privatise the water of the city of Cochabamba. The Gas War of 2003, in which leaders of mass based social and political movements demanded the nationalisation of Bolivia’s natural gas, forced the president Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada to flee to the U.S. after his orders to quell the protests left 60 dead and hundreds injured. As he left, 500,000 protesters converged on the capital La Paz.[38]Albro, Robert, ‘The Culture of Democracy and Bolivia’s Indigenous Movements’, Critique of Anthropology, Vol. 26, No. 4, (2006), p388

Finally, in 2005 the social and political movements – trade unions, agrarian unions, and various social movements and community organisations – gained a staggering victory: they forced the president Carlos Mesa to resign. He had passed a law which did not grant national control over gas reserves, and in reponse:

approximately 15,000 people filled the Plaza Marillo in La Paz on 30 May. On 1 June mostly Aymara peasants blockaded access to La Paz. Meanwhile, in the city of Cochabamba, peasants and factory workers led a massive march through the city centre. By 4 June all of Bolivia’s major highways were blockaded at 55 points throughout the country, bringing it to an economic standstill and provoking an exasperated Mesa to stand down.[39]Ibid, p387

Following on from this, in 2005 Evo Morales became the first indigenous person to become a head of state in Latin America, when the former leader of the coca growers union was elected president with 53.7% of the vote, at the head of the Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) coalition, representing both trade unions, indigenous emancipation groups, and a raft of other social movements. It was the only time since Bolivia returned to democracy in 1980 that a candidate received over 50% of the vote, and it was the highest turnout in recent Bolivian electoral history. This has led some foreign observers (particularly in the U.S. establishment) to perceive of Bolivia’s democracy as heading in the “wrong direction.”[40]Ibid, p388 The election also swept the ‘traditional’ political parties from political significance. In analysing the results, the Bolivia Information Forum concluded: “[the vote] was not just a vote for Evo Morales…it was a vote against a system of political parties that no longer played a role in representing people’s interests. It was also a strong rejection of the liberalising economic policies pursued by successive governments in Bolivia since the mid-1980s.”[41] On his election Morales said:

What happened these past days in Bolivia was a great revolt by those who have been oppressed for more than 500 years… This uprising of the Bolivian people has been not only about gas and hydrocarbons, but an intersection of many issues: discrimination, marginalization, and most importantly, the failure of neoliberalism. We face the task of ending selfishness and individualism, and creating… other forms of living, based on solidarity and mutual aid. We must think about how to redistribute the wealth that is concentrated among few hands. This is the great task we Bolivian people face after this great uprising.[42]Cited from PubliusPundit, accessed:

Two of the major demands of popular movements in Bolivia had been to nationalise Bolivia’s natural gas and to hold a referendum on redrafting the constitution to better represent the country’s indigenous majority. In May 2006 Bolivia’s natural gas was re-nationalised.[43]Albro, ‘The Culture of Democracy’, p388 The new constitution was ratified on 24 January 2009 by 61% of the vote, after heated negotiations with a recalcitrant opposition. An additional clause limiting land ownership to 5,000 hectares (not to be applied to already existing land ownership, which was a concession to the opposition parties) was passed by 80.65% of the vote. Key aspects of the constitution gave recognition of indigenous nations within the state, and recognised their right to cultural development and self government. Also, the state is to be held responsible for the social welfare of the population. Natural resources (including gas) are the property of the Bolivian people, administered through the state, and in terms of controlling the state, democracy is conceived as an inclusive participatory experience rather than simply periodic elections.[44]

Importantly for this radically democratic process is the influence of Andean cultural practices and traditions. The idea of an indigenous cultural heritage of democracy (the practice of assembling together face to face) and communal ownership of natural resources (ownership of water and gas as a collective cultural right) has been a powerful force in drawing together various organisations into popular coalitions.[45]Albro, ‘The Culture of Democracy’, p393-394 Thus Aymara and wider Andean traditions and experiences influence the daily associational life as well as organisation and protest, including “principles of (rotating) leadership, accountability (extensive community consultation), community service, collective work [and] redistribution.”[46]Ibid, p396

Where the process in Bolivia will go is uncertain. One factor to consider is that the opposition from the Bolivian ruling class, who have lost political but not economic power, and their allies in the U.S. government and transnational corporations, is not going away anytime soon. The opposition subjected Morales to a recall referendum, which he won with 67.4% of the vote in August 2008. Opposition groups, particularly in the wealthy department of Santa Cruz, hoped to destabilise the development of a new constitution and pushed for greater regional autonomy from central government. The U.S. ambassador Philip Goldberg was ordered to leave the country after being accused of conspiring with the opposition to destabilise the country.[47] Eaton argues that the reason wealthy groups in Santa Cruz were pushing for regional autonomy was because with the general population becoming involved in the political life of the country, this “directly challenged the special access that economic elites previously enjoyed in national political institutions”[48]Eaton, ‘Backlash in Bolivia’, p92 (a special access that very much exists in Britain). Usually ruling classes would try to overthrow the popular democratic government with military force, the “authoritarian option”, however the situation in Bolivia and internationally doesn’t make this “feasible”. Or, they would try to force popular leaders to “moderate their anti market rhetoric”, which Morales has not done, or hope to bank roll another party into power: but the MAS is simply too popular.[49]Ibid, p93 It is a testimony to the changing times in Latin America and the strength of the mobilisation of the population in Bolivia that the only option left for the Bolivian ruling class is to attempt to exit from the national political scene and remove decision making on their affairs to a regional area where they would still be able to hold power. However despite some concessions in the new constitution, power clearly remains with the popularly controlled national executive, for now.


There are of course no certainties for the future of indigenous and non indigenous movements in Latin America. The neoliberal order which they challenge is powerful, and movements can be subject to ‘moderation’, corruption, division and steps backward. However, this article endorses the quote given in the introduction, that the effort of indigenous peoples in Latin America to organise themselves and gain control over their own lives “could be for many countries the most pivotal political event of the current century.” In doing so, they are confronting not only the neoliberal present, but the colonial past. We may remember that here in Scotland people still struggle to regain their lands, which are held by a tiny proportion of the population. In 1997 residents managed to raise $2.4 million to buy their Island of Eigg from their landlord. One of the recent landlords had called the islanders “drunken, ungrateful, dangerous and barmy chancers” and had threatened them with eviction. Also, Knoydart was ‘cleared’ in 1853, and in 1999 locals raised the money to buy it back and set up the Knoydart foundation for its care.[50]

What is clear from this analysis is that most of all the indigenous people of Latin America are looking to their future- how they wish it to look, not how their colonisers or strategic planners in Washington wish their lives to be structured. In fact, all over Latin America people are taking a stand against neoliberal doctrine and wider forms of oppression and exploitation and advancing principles conducive to a more socially just, materially equitable, and politically participatory way of living. How these conflicts with the ruling order are resolved will not just depend on individual national struggles, but on a spirit of internationalism and mutual solidarity between peoples in Latin America and the wider world. From this perspective, there is much to be optimistic about. In May 2009 the 4th summit of the Indigenous Peoples of the ‘Continent of Life’ gathered, bringing together regional indigenous groups from all over Latin America. They issued a fundamental demand: a “transformation of the singular nations toward plurinational nations, societies, cultures, and the overcoming of all forms of exploitation, oppression and exclusion.” May their vision, and ours, be realised.



1 Eaton, Kent, ‘Backlash in Bolivia: ‘Regional Autonomy as a Reaction Against Indigenous Mobilization’, Politics and Society, Vol. 35, No. 1, (March, 2007), p71
2 Bellinghausen, H., ‘They Believe that the Capitalist System is the Origin of Injustice’, La Jornada, accessed:
3 Chomsky, Noam, ‘Profit over People: Neoliberalism and Global Order’, (London, 1999), p19
4 Ibid, p20
5 Ibid, p164
6 Ibid, p94
7 The Highland Clearances, Post Clearances – Harris Cairns
8 Edited from an article by Ken Andrew, courtesy of Chebecto Community Net, taken from ibid, Post Clearances – The Duke’s Statue
9 Wright, Ronald, ‘Stolen Continents: Conquest and Resistance in the Americas’, (London, 1992), p14
10 Ibid, p13
11, 15, 30 Ibid, p4
12 Ibid, p56
13 Ibid, p60-61
14 Ibid, p80
16, 32 Ibid, p9
17 Fiorentini, Francesca. ‘Movement Pachamama: Indigenous Movements in Latin America”, Left Turn, Issue 33, (June, 2009), accessed at: Living by the Clock of the World: Grace Lee Boggs’ Call for Visionary Organizing
18, 24, 28 Ibid
19 Washbrook, Sarah, ‘The Chiapas Uprising of 1994: Historical Antecedents and Political Consequences’, Journal of Peasant Studies, Vol. 32, No. 3, (June, 2005), p442
20 Harvey, Neil, 1998, The Chiapas Rebellion and the Struggle for Land and Democracy, London and Durham, NC: Duke University Press, p3, 12 in ibid, p422-423
21 Ibid, p418
22 Ibid, p444
23 Sedillo, Simon, Threat of Genocide: US Military Mapping Against Mexico’s Indigenous, ‘Left Turn’ (June, 2009)
25 Ibid, p420
26 U.S. State Department, accessed:
27 Sedillo, Threat of Genocide, 2009
29 Arias, Arturo, ‘The Maya Movement, Postcolonialism and Cultural Agency’, p2, accessed:
31 Ibid, p5
33 Wright, ‘Stolen Continents’, p273
34 Arias, ‘The Maya Movement’, p5-6
35 Ibid, p12
36 Ibid, p10
37 Bolivia Information Forum, accessed at:
38 Albro, Robert, ‘The Culture of Democracy and Bolivia’s Indigenous Movements’, Critique of Anthropology, Vol. 26, No. 4, (2006), p388
39 Ibid, p387
40 Ibid, p388
42 Cited from PubliusPundit, accessed:
43 Albro, ‘The Culture of Democracy’, p388
45 Albro, ‘The Culture of Democracy’, p393-394
46 Ibid, p396
48 Eaton, ‘Backlash in Bolivia’, p92
49 Ibid, p93

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