Indigenous Style Democracy

The Economist believes that Democracy is a function of the state, not of its people. They recently published a very good article about indigenous people in Latin America. They titled it, “A Political Awakening”. However, the way they deal with the issue of indigenous movements is exactly in that fashion; simply a movement that is either too militant or merely a call for collective rights. They go on to posit that collective rights pose a potential conflict to Democracy. They never seriously entertain the notion that these collective rights may indeed be Democracy in action.

Indigenous people in Bolivia constitute 71% of the total population. 66% of Guatemalans, 38% of Ecuadorians, and 47% of Peruvians are indigenous people. Yet The Economist, like most American foreign policy experts, believes that when these people stand for their rights, their actions should be classified as nationalist, separatist, or militant movements. They call this empowerment “dangerous” and “extremist”.

In their opinion, rights should be ceded to these groups by the state. In Latin America, this state is usually maintained and dominated by a small class of European-descended elites. From them flows this concept of Democracy. They don’t see their function as the administrators of the popular voice, but as the distributors of favoritism and purveyors of corruption. In a letter to Bishop Mandell Creighton in 1877, Lord Acton wrote, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.” Welcome to Latin American Democracy.

How does one define a movement in which the vast majority of people in a given state participate? Democracy? Sure, there is the problem of tyranny of the majority. However, that’s a problem that we, the harbingers and inventors of the modern-day-style Democracy, are still dealing with. Take for example Lani Guinier's articles in the Boston Review where she argued that "…in a racially [and I will add sexually] divided society, majority rule is not a reliable instrument of democracy” (Boston Review, 9-10/92). One need not be an American history scholar to see the affects of our policies. Need I mention antidemocratic outcomes such as Negro Slavery, Japanese Internment Camps, white-male dominated government, and Native American Reservations?

What does The Economist suggest? “A mix of decentralization plus pragmatic recognition of traditional customs and authorities can go a long way to satisfy Indian demands without undermining the authority of the state.” Once again, they fail to realize that the people constitute the state, and thereby regulate its direction. They seem to be saying that the problem of indigenous movements can be neutralized by concessions. But that idea is slowly drawing to a close. Indigenous people want their lands back, and they’ll throw their tea in the harbor to get it.