Teach-out on indigenous movements and revolutionary politics in Latin America

In the midst of the ongoing UK-wide strike action, the Centre organised a teach-out event on indigenous communities and left-wing politics in Guatemala and Mexico with Nat Morris (UCL) and Julie Gibbings (Edinburgh). Iker Itoiz Ciáurriz was there to send this report.

A map of the indigenous peoples of Latin America

Julie and Nat opened the teach-out by briefly introducing the three case studies of revolutionary moments and indigenous movements in Mexico, Guatemala and Nicaragua.

Nat spoke about the context of indigenous struggles in Mexico after the Mexican Revolution that started in 1910.  Between the accession of Álvaro Obregón to Mexico’s presidency in 1920, and the end of Lázaro Cárdenas’s presidency in 1940, the federal government sought to politically, culturally and economically “incorporate” the country’s Indian peoples into the nation-state, predominantly via the efforts of the maestros rurales (rural schoolteachers) of the Secretaría de Educación Pública (Secretariat of Public Education, SEP).

However, the process was complicated by the elites’ lack of knowledge of how to integrate them in terms of the social structure, history, language and the ways in which they understood the world, which clearly differed from the new state born in the revolution. Moreover, as was highlighted all through the teach-out, land reform that the revolutionaries promised earned lots of support from indigenous people but became a problem when the revolution stabilised.

Nat highlighted was how the concept of progress and modernity had little place for indigenous people. They realized that the revolution meant the onset of a project to “modernise” their own existence by making them into mestizos – a concept derived from the Spanish Empire for mixed races between indigenous and Spaniards.

The example of the Huichols, an indigenous group in Sierra Huichola, illustrated their resistance to  incorporation into the new nation-state. It also showed the problems within the federal education system itself, and more importantly, the behaviour of its local representatives that galvanised this opposition. Racism, paternalism, land reform, and violence made the incorporation of the Huichols impossible in post-revolutionary Mexico.

Emile introduces Julie (second on the right) and Nat (first on the right)

In her opening remarks, Julie compared the situation of Mexico with Guatemala, which has always been overshadowed by its larger and more powerful neighbour. There are fundamental historical differences between the two: while Mexico was key to the Spanish colonization, Guatemala was a colonial backwater.  After independence, indigenous people were the largest group in the country.

Economically speaking, Guatemala depended on the exportation of coffee that was harvested and transported through mandamiento (forced wage labour), which was applied mainly to indigenous people. There had been a long conflict in the nineteenth century over the question of mandamiento – for instance, over the racial differences used to defend forced labour in the indigenous community. This persisted into the twentieth-century.

Because of Guatemala’s proximity to Mexico, there was a lot of intellectual exchange, especially, during the Mexican Revolution. During the Guatemalan Revolution (1944-1954), president Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán introduced the decreto 900 land reform bill.  While the idea was to redistribute unsusedland to local peasants, compensating landowners with government bonds, and thereby modernising Guatemala’s economy from pseudo-feudalism into capitalism, it benefited mainly indigenous groups, deprived of land since the Spanish conquest. It also helped many indigenous people to feel that they had found dignity and autonomy after centuries of conquest and deprivation.

However, in the context of the Cold War and because the redistribution angered major landowners such as The United Fruit Company, as well as the United States, which construed Guatemala’s land reform as a communist threat. The US ultimately used this as a justification for the 1954 coup that deposed Árbenz and instigated decades of Civil War.

Finally, both Julie and Nat spoke about Nicaragua, which, like the other two also experienced a revolution, sometimes referred to as a Second Cuba in Latin America. The case of the Miskitu and the Mayangna populations after the 1979 Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua offered an intriguing opportunity to explore the dynamics of ethnic politics, as well as Latin American ethnic mobilizations, inter-Indian relations, and the failures of leftist revolutionary  movements to engage with indigenous bases of support.

As Nat explained, while the territories of the Miskitu and the Mayangna were never part of the Spanish Empire, and they were helped by the British pirates who gave them guns, they joined Nicaragua in 1860. When the revolution happened and the Civil War broke out, the Miskitu allied with the US and, in the historical narrative, it has always been said that they “tricked” the Mayangna, another indigenous groups whose relations with the Miskitu were never good, to fight against the Sandinistas.

Since the Sandinista government denied the importance of ethnic difference in Nicaragua, this allowed Miskitu nationalists, using the language of religion, to co-opt Mayangna leaders, while subsequent Sandinista violence turned Mayangna civilians against the revolution.

This discussion of the Nicaraguan case highlighted how indigenous peoples interacted with revolutionaries and their ideas of progress and modernity. As Nat explained, the legitimacy of Miskitu domination crumbled as violence on the coast escalated, but the return of the Mayangna to Nicaragua from Honduras, where they were exiled, only became possible after a genuine shift in the Sandinistas´ own nationalist ideology.

With an acknowledgement that real, important differences existed not only between mestizos and a unified “Indian” other, but also between distinct groups of Indians, the Sandinistas demonstrated their growing understanding of the history and culture of the coast. This enabled the Mayangna to rebuild their relationship with the revolution, as equal partners rather than voices lost in the crowd.

Nat and Julie’s presentations were followed by questions from the audience on contemporary indigenous politics. Amongst other things, members of the audience asked about gender, the neo-liberal model of multiculturalism, and the question of land and land reform. In their answers, Nat and Julie provided ample evidence of the importance of studying indigenous histories as part of a broader wave of radical political movements in Latin America.

Iker Itoiz Ciáurriz is a PhD student in History. His research interests lie broadly in the history of the European left, political theory, political violence and historical memory. His thesis focuses on the political commitment of Eric Hobsbawm and his passion for politics in a transformed world (since 1977). He is a CSMCH steering committee member.

[A write-up of this teach-out was also featured in the History, Classics and Archaeology student magazine, ‘Retrospect’. The link to the article is here.]