On Sunday, July 4, 2021, in the midst of a pandemic ravaging the planet, Elisa Loncón, a Mapuche Indian woman PhD in linguistics, assumed the presidency of the Chilean Constituent Assembly. The commission is made up of 77 women and 78 men, and its duty is to write a new constitution. The new Constituent is the result of protests that have taken to the country’s streets in recent years against the strict laws established during the Pinochet dictatorship. The protesters were violently repressed, but after repeated attempts, Chilean President Sebastian Piñera was forced to give in and give reforms a chance in one of Latin America‘s most conservative countries.
528 years after what historians agree to call the “discovery of America,” when Columbus arrived with three Spanish caravels to a region we know today as the Bahamas, believing he was sighting Asia – which is why he called the locals “Indians” – Elisa Loncón has entered history as the first “Indian” woman president of a Constituent Assembly.
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On the one hand, this is a fact to be celebrated, as part of a historical movement of representation in the political regimes in force. On the other hand, it is noteworthy that half a millennium has passed before the indigenous people started to have a greater role in the decisions of the continent from which they originated.
Knocking Columbus down
In 2013, then Argentine President Cristina Kirchner removed a statue of the conquistador from the courtyard of her government’s headquarters, the Casa Rosada. In its place, she installed a statue of Bolivian indigenous leader Juana Azurday. At the time, the decision caused controversy in the country. Today, however, it is something seen in many places on the continent.
Like in Colombia, when last 28th demonstrators in Barranquilla shouted “Columbus killer!” as they tore down a statue of Columbus while raising a Wiphala flag, a symbol of the struggle of native peoples in many Latin American countries. In 2019, the same had already happened in Chile during the protests that culminated in the transformations the country is experiencing today.
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There are also other examples of “toppling” – not only statues of conquistadors but also of generals and slave traders in various countries in the region. The fall of this colonizing symbolism is a symptom of the ongoing political structural changes on the continent.
Speaking other languages
In his first speech, Loncón spoke not as a minority. Beginning her speech in Mapudungun, a Mapuche mother tongue, greeting all of Chile, the new president of the Chilean Constituent Assembly recalled the systematic massacre of indigenous children in Canada, a scandal that shocked the world, and made a nod to women and LGBTQA+ movements.
It is possible to argue that the entrance of minorities, especially indigenous ones, into the political systems in Latin America is not unprecedented, but direct participation, both in rising to elective office and as voters, has perhaps never been as expressive as it is now.
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Indigenous peoples can no longer be ignored as a political force by the establishment. Often counting on public sympathy and strong voices, they begin to rewrite the history of the region as their influence and power grow in local governments.
This is the case in Peru, for example. The vote that elected president Pedro Castillo, a teacher and trade unionist considered an “outsider” of the system, did not come from Lima, but mainly from the rural areas of the country, where the presence of native peoples is marked. After a close contest, Castillo defeated Keiko Fujimori, a member of the political dynasty that has marked Peru’s recent history.
But no advance “comes cheap” for minorities in Latin America. Keiko says she will not recognize Castillo’s election, and the fragmentation of the election poses a number of obstacles to the new professor’s tenure.
Beyond Peru, all countries in the region that are fighting for indigenous and minority representation, such as LGBTQA+, face struggles that sometimes descend into violence. If “outsiders” sometimes reach positions of power with the help of the establishment, at other times they are crushed by it.
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Negotiating with the Indians
In Ecuador, Guillermo Lasso, a neoliberal conservative, was elected president despite the numerous indigenous uprisings in recent years. But the catch is that Lasso’s party (Creo) has only 12 of the 137 seats in the Ecuadorian National Assembly. If he wants to govern, Lasso will have, for example, to negotiate with Pachakutik, an indigenous party with 27 seats in the Legislative House, the second largest in the Assembly, second only to the party of former President Rafael Correa (Lasso’s rival), with 49 representatives. In other words, the indigenous party will be essential for the new president.
When confronted with growing protests in Colombia, the country’s former president Alvaro Uribe called the movement a “dissipated molecular revolution.”
The backdrop to the popular uprisings seen in Latin America in recent years is the attempt to subvert political and social systems that have existed since the colonization of America. The region, although it has experienced independence processes in its colonies over the centuries, is marked by historical injustices that have not been corrected to this day.
Of course, not all of the transformations currently taking place in Latin America happen through the ascendancy of minorities to power. Although these insurgencies are driven by a growing organization of feminist movements on the continent and by the uninterrupted struggle against social inequality, targeting neoliberal systems that, in the view of these movements, increase the gap between rich and poor, Latin America‘s “molecular revolution” is nonetheless a decolonizing process in the sense of correcting historical injustices.
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In the specific case of Colombia, the indigenous movements are only one part of the social cog that drives the changes. The recent Colombian uprising was motivated by a tax reform imposed at a time when the pandemic is weighing on the country’s economy. In the end, the government had to back down, but not before truculent clashes in the streets.
“The images of struggles against the tax reform, which have at the front trans subjects in affirmation of their social dignity or unemployed people barricading themselves together with feminists, explain well what molecular revolution means in this context. It means that we are facing insurrections that are not centralized in a command line and that create situations that can reverberate, in a single movement, both the fight against naturalized disciplines in the colonization of bodies and in the definition of their supposed places, and against macro-structures of labor spoliation. They are uprisings that operate transversally, calling into question, in a non-hierarchical way, all levels of the structures of reproduction of social life,” wrote philosopher Vladimir Safatle in the newspaper El País.
The Colonizing Pride
Last month, Argentine President Alberto Fernández shot himself in the foot. Paraphrasing Mexican writer Octavio Paz incorrectly, he claimed that “the Mexicans came out of the Indians, the Brazilians came out of the jungle, and we Argentines arrived in boats.” Fernández was then with Spanish President Pedro Sanchéz and thought that the phrase would please the European, showing closeness between Argentines and Spaniards.
The reaction was immediate. Even because the progressive Fernández had never made such an assertion. The historical reductionism against the diversity of the three countries offended a good part of the continent. But Fernández’s biggest mistake went almost unnoticed: his lack of knowledge about a good part of his own country. The north of Argentina has a huge Mapuche population. Patagonia occupies a large part of the national territory as well. This kind of ignorance has made governments lose elections, and provoked insurrections in the streets and deep political transformations that can no longer be ignored.
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The Brazilian indigenous cause, for example, although it is not a new flag, directly influences the country’s relationship with the world. That is, the transformations with the inclusion of these peoples in the domestic sphere influence international relations. The world no longer ignores these people, and Latin American governments should not turn their backs on this movement.
It is natural to expect that such movements will encounter some resistance among those who are not in favor of change and who often profit from a history parked in the creases of social inequality in Latin America. When it comes to inserting indigenous people into the local imagination, they have much to contribute to the reconstruction of the continent’s identity, Latin American pride, and the deconstruction of mongrel myths.