Indigenous history across Latin America is an extended record of societal and institutional racism, with rights to land, identity, and self-determination being stripped away in favor of policies engineered to maintain the status quo or further elevate the elite. Since the Encounter and subsequent exploitation of Latin America and indigenous peoples, European and American-backed states have exerted a concerted effort to prohibit indigenous independence and the full realization of what is in fact an indigenous majority. As Les Field observed in 1990 specifically in relation to Ecuador’s burgeoning Pan-Indian movement, “the Spanish deliberately froze the trajectory of indigenous technological and economic development, even though sierra towns and cities depended on the produce that Indians bought to market” (Field 41). Structural racism spurred the creation of a system wherein indigenous peoples, though integral to the functioning of the national ecosystem, were awarded very little value and remained, in effect, second-class citizens.
Indians in Ecuador and other Latin American countries were faced with the lack of titles to their land or ability to control it; even after the 1992 march in Ecuador, the movement led by CONAIE was granted just over 50% of the requested land (Sawyer 72). Meanwhile, the government attempted to hide their levels of non-cooperation, and included clauses preserving their oil rights over indigenous land (Sawyer 72). This inability to control land occupied and owned is also a recurring issue in other Andean countries, notably Bolivia: Evo Morales first gained authority and a following as a representative of the coca growers’ union. Coca, as the base plant from which cocaine is derived, had been subject to eradication efforts by the Bolivian government (initiated and backed by the United States.) Despite the role of coca tea as culturally and religiously significant to the indigenous Bolivians, as well as the most profitable source of income for men and women simply trying to send their children to school or obtain better roofing, farmers were subject to persecution and even death as outside interference tried to destroy the coca plant. (Given the callous shootings displayed in Cocalero, it is little wonder that a chief call of Evo Morales’s supporters was “death to the Yankees.”)
As if to justify exploitation and subjugation of indigenous Latin Americans, ethnic slurs about “lazy Indians” are not uncommon, as witnessed both in the young man shouting at Evo Morales in the airport and conservative rhetoric against giving land rights to indigenous communities, on the grounds that development is the only real form of production that can occur (Sawyer 75). And along with this racist narrative is an underlying concern that any “indigenous national discourse” is challenging state identity: by embracing an ethnic and cultural heritage not shared by the more powerful minorities of Ecuador and Bolivia, by not giving into the inevitable march of progress, destruction of the rain forests, and blanqueamiento, indigenous communities are subverting their prescribed role in a society they have not had a voice in creating (Sawyer 73-74).
While Latin America has seen a wave of increasingly liberal, progressive politics over the past decade, with socialist leaders being elected in multiple countries, until Evo Morales, none of these leaders had been indigenous; CONAIE itself was formed with the recognition that existing groups like FEI had little comprehension of the twofold nature of class exploitation and ethnic discrimination. Rather, they lacked a basic comprehension of the indigenous experience and the intersectionality of oppression (Field 42).
Evo Morales sparked a revolution of sorts in Bolivia, with a thorough understanding of the plight facing indigenous peoples and a charismatic, instantly empathetic presence. His campaign was a symbol of the newer style of indigenous rights work: proactive building of a movement rather than prior reactive uprisings, characterized before Santo Domingo as being “local in character, isolated… in reaction to abuses, in defense of land” (Field 40). Evo spoke to and for a majority of Bolivians; as a result, in an election three years after the president had received less than a quarter of the votes cast, he assumed office with a larger margin than Barack Obama’s in 2008. Without the funding and strategy enjoyed by Goni in 2002, Evo was able to transform the face of the Bolivian presidency, into one that resembled the Bolivian people.