After more than a decade in power, Morales’s dramatic exit from office — he is now restless in exile in Mexico — was prompted by a nudge from Bolivia’s security forces, which said his departure was needed to quell days of mass protests against his rule. Áñez and the interim regime that replaced him have styled themselves as the restorers of a constitutional order that they claimed Morales manipulated to extend his reign. But their short time in power has been marked by a right-wing revenge mission, including grim scenes of indigenous protesters gunned down in the streets.
There is a lot that is inflaming politics in South America at the moment. The continent is in the grips of a kind of “Latin Spring,” a wave of popular uprisings that have filled city streets in Chile, Ecuador, Bolivia, and, most recently, Colombia. The upheaval has humbled governments and forced leaders to flee their capitals. Protesters across the region resent deepening economic inequities, the toll of austerity and the perceived corruption or highhandedness of the political elites presiding over their nations. Their collective anger has even prompted calls in some countries for political revolution and the wholesale remaking of the social contract.
But amid South America’s 21st century discontent, there is also an older antipathy. Indigenous populations constitute impoverished majorities in some South American countries and marginalized minorities in others. In Bolivia and Brazil, reactionary backlashes to years of leftist rule carry an unmistakable contempt for both nations’ indigenous communities and the perceived privileges they were afforded by socialist governments.
Meanwhile in countries such as Ecuador and Colombia, indigenous protesters have been on the front lines of demonstrations, chafing against systems erected on top of centuries of discrimination. Earlier this year, an indigenous-led uprising forced Ecuador’s president to flee Quito, the capital. The protesters relented only after the government agreed to restore fuel subsidies that many indigenous farmers needed to transport goods to market.
Indigenous concerns have animated the protests raging this week in Colombia. A one-day general strike called by leftist groups has morphed into a sustained insurrection that presents the biggest challenge yet to the rule of right-wing President Iván Duque.
“Duque, whose popularity has fallen to 30 percent in the latest Gallup poll, is accused of failing to fully implement the peace deal signed in 2016 by then-President Juan Manuel Santos and the FARC to end Colombia’s civil war after 50 years of strife,” noted my colleagues. “Dissident guerrillas and other armed groups continue to fight in the nation’s rural conflict zones. Five indigenous leaders were killed in the southern province of Cauca in October; more than 700 community organizers and indigenous leaders have been killed since 2016.”
“In my community, in my department of Cauca, they’re killing our social leaders in our indigenous lands … they’re killing us selectively,” said Almayari Barano Yanakuna, a 48-year-old indigenous woman, in an interview with Al Jazeera in Bogota.
That sense of victimization is all too apparent in Brazil as well. Since coming to power this year, President Jair Bolsonaro, a hard-right firebrand with a lengthy record of anti-indigenous comments, has systematically loosened environmental protections in stretches of the Amazonian forest that is home to indigenous communities. That, critics say, has contributed to a devastating spike in deforestation, largely by illegal loggers, miners and ranchers. Their predations have brought them into conflict with indigenous “guardians” of the forest, who have held the line against land grabbers but are now at greater risk under Bolsonaro’s negligent watch.
“Our lands are being invaded, our leaders murdered, attacked and criminalized, and the Brazilian state is abandoning indigenous peoples to their fate with the ongoing dismantling of environmental and indigenous policies,” the association of Brazilian indigenous peoples told my colleague Marina Lopes. “The Bolsonaro government has indigenous blood on their hands.”
Bolsonaro has waved away criticism. “Deforestation and fires will never end,” he told reporters in Brasilia this past week. “It’s cultural.” But his current nonchalance belies his past as a fringe politician grinding his ax against the special reservations afforded to indigenous and other historically marginalized communities.
On the campaign trail in 2017 and 2018, he vowed that he would not allow a “centimeter” of indigenous land to be demarcated for protection, saying that it was Brazil’s right to develop the economic potential of its territory. Two decades earlier, though, Bolsonaro was more blunt about his worldview: “It’s a shame,” he told the Correio Braziliense newspaper in 1998, “that the Brazilian cavalry hasn’t been as efficient as the Americans, who exterminated the Indians.”