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Injustice for indigenous

2019 has been a tumultuous year in Latin America. Former General Secretary of the Antilles Episcopal Conference, Guyana-born Rev Mike James writes on one aspect of the political upheaval.

In the history since 1810 of independent Latin America, all the hundreds of presidents of the republics have been either Spanish colonial descendants, mestizos (mixtures of mainly Spanish and indigenous) or in a very few cases mulattos (mixtures of Spanish and black descendants of African slaves).

There are only two exceptions where members of the indigenous (Amerindian) populations, the only people inhabiting the entire region at the time of Columbus and the Conquistadores, have had the unique achievement of becoming Presidents of a Latin American country.

The first was Benito Juarez, a Zapotecan Indian who rose to become President of Mexico in 1858, repelled French, Spanish and English invasions of Mexico, and introduced sweeping reforms in favour of poorer Mexicans. He is remembered around the world for his motto “Respect for the rights of others means Peace” (El respeto por el derecho ajeno es la Paz).

The only other indigenous leader of a Latin American country is Aymaran native leader Evo Morales, who stepped down as President of Bolivia in November and was granted political asylum in Mexico. Argentina granted him refugee status in mid-December.


Disputed presidential elections

Bolivia’s indigenous population is 71 per cent of the total (second highest Guatemala 66 per cent; Ecuador 36 per cent; Peru 32 per cent; Mexico 25 per cent; Belize 19 per cent). Guyana has the seventh highest proportion of indigenous people of the 18 continental countries of the Americas with eight per cent and rising.

Unsurprisingly, once Morales broke the ceiling of worldwide discrimination against indigenous leadership in 2006 and introduced major economic reforms that have slashed poverty levels in Bolivia from 70 per cent to 35 per cent, and raised the minimum wage from one of the lowest in Latin America to one of its highest, his largely indigenous-based Movement towards Socialism (MAS) has grown in numbers and parliamentary representation, with its current numbers in the Legislative Assembly at 88 of a total 130, and 25 of the 36 members of the Bolivian Senate.

Following disputed Presidential elections in October, in which the Electoral Commission adjudged Morales winning with 47 per cent of the vote followed by his right-wing opponent Carlos Mesa with 36 per cent, disrupting demonstrations were led by the losing candidate, and a strike by national police.

Morales’ home was looted by opponents and relatives of leading parliamentary supporters of Morales held hostage to force their resignations. The army high command in collective announcement ‘invited’ the President to resign, and reluctantly permitted a Mexico Air Force plane to take Morales to asylum.


‘Gospel of Wealth’

Historic injustices against the indigenous people of South America are being repeated with much of the world’s wealthy media indifferent, or worse, in collusion.

Lacking the required parliamentary majority to accept Morales’ forced resignation and make it ‘legal’ , an unelected second Vice President of the Bolivian Senate, Jeanine Añez, followed by a group of Morales opponents and holding aloft a huge Bible, entered the Legislative Assembly proclaiming: “God has allowed the Bible to return to the Palace. May He bless us!” and swore herself in as the new President of Bolivia.

Among her first acts was to decree huge financial allocations to the Bolivian military and to absolve them legally in advance of any violations they commit against the population in the wave of peaceful protests that followed the coup.

Explaining her entry to the Assembly bearing the Bible, Añez told the BBC it was “an act of faith” to return religion to Government. When the BBC reporter noted that the constitution establishes Bolivia as a non-denominational state, she responded that separation between Church and State “was an imposition of Evo Morales”. “They abused their time in office to impose that on Bolivians because they had the votes in Parliament,” she added.

The combination of unabashed support for the military, an unapologetic evangelical and individualistic interpretation of the Bible and the ‘Gospel of Wealth’, and indifference to democratic procedures and the rights of the poor and indigenous displayed by the de facto regime in Bolivia, parallels similar movements in Latin America like the one which has brought to power President Bolsonaro in Brazil with support of extremely conservative evangelical groups. Concern for the poor, justice and mercy are not Gospel values on which these militant Christians place high priority.

The Catholic Church in the continent, and others concerned for true justice and peace are being challenged, not to join the bandwagon of these militant Christians against the poor, nor simply to criticise them from afar, but rather by example and in dialogue give unmistakable witness to our conviction that  “whatever we do for the least of these our brothers and sisters, especially for and with the indigenous people of the region, we do for Him”.

It is high time, in deed not just in word, to end oppression and injustice against the region’s indigenous people. It began with Columbus, Cortes, Pizarro and genocide. Will we end it in Bolivia?