In recent decades, Latin American and Caribbean states have started a process of formal inclusion of marginalized groups, such as Indigenous and African-descent communities, women, campesinos and perhaps, to a lesser extent, the LGBTQ+ community. The recognition of these historically-neglected communities on a national level are in a large part due to decades of grassroots struggles. They are also a priority for leftist governments who see their inclusion as an important factor in their national projects for progress and socialism. Although leftist governments in the region have emerged since the turn of the century and have attempted to counter the neoliberal model, they still seem to operate within the same Eurocentric and liberal modernization logic.
In a paper titled “Latin America at a Crossroads,” Colombian-American academic Arturo Escobar suggests that despite advances in the inclusion of historically-marginalized social groups in certain Latin American countries, much of it continues to be symbolic rather than real. Even though Escobar’s paper correctly identifies many of the shortcomings of counter-hegemonic states when it comes to tangible policies of inclusion, he has left out important geopolitical factors that help to impede the expansion of democratic participation and the inclusion of marginalized social groups. For example, his analysis of Bolivia’s attempts at including historically marginalized Indigenous groups in the country’s economic and political life does not mention the important role played by external political interference, which antagonized relations between these groups and Evo Morales’ recently-ousted government.
Evo’s election as President of Bolivia in 2005 was seen as a fracture with neoliberal regimes that had governed since the mid-1980s. The victory of a Leftist party, Movimiento al Socialismo (Movement Toward Socialism, or MAS), was thanks to Indigenous grassroots movements that played a crucial role in opening up the political sphere through uprisings, protests, campaigns and the development of powerful concepts that challenge neoliberal logic. Despite the positive effects of the new government in terms of expansion of political participation and economic inclusion, Escobar argues that there continues to be a “third political space;” a decolonial one represented by Indigenous communities. In this context, MAS governed within a Eurocentric modernization framework while, at the same time, attempted to incorporate decolonial concepts, some of which are antagonistic to each other.
Escobar, however, fails to give proper consideration to geopolitical factors that have historically played a crucial role in shaping the relations between marginalized groups and progressive governments. Namely, there is no exploration of the hard and soft tactics used by the United States and the European Union to confine the demands of social movements to passive liberal-institutional frameworks, actively dissuading them from more radical demands that could see them build a more intimate relationship with progressive governments. In Bolivia, after Evo’s election, U.S. funding for the “promotion of democracy” that was going directly to the previous government was re-channelled to NGOs and the private sector. One of the tactics used against the newly-elected government was to channel large amounts of funding into Indigenous organizations. One of them was the Brecha Foundation, whose leaders came from the Confederation of Indigenous Peoples of Bolivia. Among the Brecha Foundation, they fostered an environment of political conflict with MAS, rather than one of partnership, discussion and dialogue.
The consequence of this interference, rooted in economic interests, was the closing up of opportunities of democratic participation that could have led to deeper, more genuine, forms of counter-hegemonic movement. Furthermore, Escobar lists proposals for communal systems that go beyond the models that were proposed by the MAS government. To take just one point, he states that there needs to be a “decentering of representative democracy and the setting into place of communal forms of democracy.” With the above context of external interference, one could see why this decentering of political power could, in fact, lend itself to further imperialist interference in the form of inorganic contestation of political power.
Furthermore, it is also worth mentioning that there have been important developments since Escobar’s paper was published. Since 2011, there have been ongoing conflicts between Indigenous communities and the state with regards to the development of projects such as a highway that could be built through the Indigenous Territory and Isiboro Sécure National Park (TIPNIS), seemingly substantiating Escobar’s arguments. However, it is important to highlight that not all the communities implicated in this case were against the project. Furthermore, those who were against it have been exposed for receiving financial support from external actors with political and economic interests. On the back of this interference, Evo’s administration announced the expulsion of USAID from the country, claiming that they had funneled money to NGOs that oppose government programs such as the TIPNIS highway.
Bolivia’s ousted vice president, Álvaro García Linera, has argued that Western “environmentalist leftists” fail to understand the local complexities regarding developmental projects. This failure, according to Linera, often leads them to overlook the “foreign presence of governments and companies in control of the Amazon.” Linera further argued that the real environmental and human threat was not the planned TIPNIS highway which, according to him, would have actually brought with it state presence to regulate environmental destruction. Rather, it was the already-existing control of the area by “industrialized capitalist countries” that need resources in the Amazon to offset “the destruction of the environment in the North.” The ousted Bolivian government of Evo, then, as Escobar stated, cautioned against “essentialist readings of Indigenous worlds” and pushes a hybridity narrative of combined “modern and non-modern practices.”
Escobar’s paper, “Latin America at a Crossroads,” suggests that despite the substantial reforms and transformations brought about by leftist governments in Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia since the turn of the century, they still operate under Eurocentric frameworks of modernity and development. According to him, because of this, Indigenous and Afro-descendent relational ontologies are included in these state projects more symbolically rather than tangibly. It must be argued, however, that while Escobar compellingly argues that there are incompatibilities between liberal modernity and the decolonial concepts of Indigenous communities, there is another factor that must be incorporated. Namely, that there are influential geopolitical interests in all of these countries that play a crucial role in determining the relations between marginalized groups and their respective governments.
Furthermore, it is important to expose that the U.S. government, through funding agencies like USAID and NGOs, have played a role in pitching certain sections of Indigenous communities against Evo and his ousted government. This external interference not only has helped to amplify political differences between the two factions. It has also played a role in influencing these progressive governments and their readiness to deepen their democratic practices, and the possibility for greater incorporation of decolonial concepts into its political and economic frameworks.