Yashar 1998

From Projecting Power

Contesting Citizenship: Indigenous Movements and Democracy in Latin America[edit]

Written by Deborah J. Yashar this reading discusses the intersection of indigenous movements and democratization in Latin America. It explores how the recent democratization wave in Latin America has coincided with increased political activism among indigenous communities. Movements ranging from grassroots organizations to political parties, advocate for indigenous rights, like territorial autonomy, cultural preservation, and political representation.


  • Challenging Historical Norms
    • Traditionally, indigenous communities were not associated with political organizing around their identity. Instead, peasant unions, political parties, and other entities mobilized rural populations along class or ideological lines.
  • Factors Driving Indigenous Movements
    • These movements have arisen to challenge the limitations of contemporary citizenship, particularly as democratization processes often fail to address the needs of marginalized groups. State reforms, have sometimes restricted political access and autonomy for indigenous communities, prompting mobilization around indigenous identity. Movements emerge to contest the boundaries and practices of citizenship in contexts where state reforms may be incomplete or contradictory.

The Cases (A Comparative Analysis)[edit]

Yashar compares the rural politics in Bolivia, Ecuador, Guatemala, Mexico, and Peru since 1945 to understand the varying degrees of indigenous mobilization. These indigenous communities have mobilized at regional and national levels to assert their rights/identities and advocate for territorial autonomy, cultural preservation, and political representation.

Ecuadorian Indigenous Movements

  • They’ve been instrumental in reshaping rural organizing and influencing state policies on issues such as bicultural education, agrarian reform, and territorial autonomy. The movement coalesced into two significant regional federations, ECUARUNARI in the Andes and CONFENAIE in the Amazon, which later formed the national confederation CONAIE in the 1980s. CONAIE has played a prominent role as the primary representative of Ecuador's indigenous peoples, organizing strikes and protests to contest government policies and propose alternatives. Additionally, indigenous organizations entered the electoral arena in 1996, successfully fielding legislative candidates.

Bolivian Indigenous Movements

  • Bolivia's contemporary indigenous movement traces its roots to the late 1960s and early 1970s, with the emergence of the Katarista movement. Initially part of the peasant movement, Kataristas sought to reclaim indigenous autonomy and voices within the national discourse. While the Katarista movement didn’t sustain its political momentum, it left a lasting impact on union and electoral politics. In the 1990s, indigenous organizing intensified in the Bolivian Amazon, led by the regional confederation CIDOB, which played a prominent role in national debates on territorial autonomy and land reform.

Guatemalan Indigenous Movements

  • This movement gained momentum with the organization of the Second Continental Meeting of Indigenous and Popular Resistance in 1991. Newly formed Mayan organizations challenged the predominantly class-based discourse of Guatemala's popular movements and advocated for organizations responsive to indigenous communities. These organizations participated in national peace negotiations, resulting in the Accord on Identity and Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 1995. Indigenous popular organizations also formed an electoral coalition, Nukuj Ajpop, which saw success in the 1995 elections.

Mexican Indigenous Movements

  • Mexico's indigenous movements garnered national and international attention with the Zapatista rebellion in Chiapas in 1994. While indigenous organizing predated the Zapatistas, their movement challenged the historically limited role of indigenous organizations in Mexico. The EZLN's agenda includes demands for indigenous autonomy and cultural respect, alongside democratization. Despite originating as a subnational movement, the EZLN had a significant national impact, sparking discussions between indigenous communities and negotiations with the Mexican state.

Prevailing Explanations of Indigenous Protest and Organizing[edit]


  • Primordialists argue that ethnic identities are deeply ingrained and shape individuals' primary loyalties and affinities. They view indigenous organizations and protests as natural expressions of these integral ethnic identities, particularly when communities perceive a disadvantage. However, primordial arguments often fail to explain why ethnic identities become central to political action in some cases but not in others. Moreover, they overlook the conditions under which ethnic loyalties translate into political organizing and action.


  • Instrumentalist or rational choice analyses assume that individuals act rationally to maximize their political and material preferences. They question why individuals choose to act collectively when they can still benefit individually. Instrumentalists focus on the costs, benefits, and incentives associated with collective action, suggesting that the politicization of ethnicity is often instrumental in achieving other goals. However, this approach often neglects the historical and contextual factors influencing the emergence of ethnic identity as a basis for political action.
  • Instrumentalism does not answer the question of why ethnic loyalties create political action during different periods of history but instead explain how organizations come about and are maintained.


  • Poststructuralism assumes that identities are not inherently given but instead are actually constructed and can change by the subject reconstructing their identity as a worker, Indigenous person, woman, etc, in different social settings.
  • Poststructuralism allows ethnic identity to be seen not as primordial but instead as purposive and allows us to think about the context in which people go about reconstructing their identities. This then tells us Indigenous identity is constituted by social conditions and renegotiated by individuals.
  • While the article draws on the idea that individuals have multiple socially constructed identities, poststructuralism cannot explain why ethnicity is an assumed salient political identity or describe the conditions that create ethnic organization.
  • Further, while all three approaches cannot individually explain political mobilization of indigenous identity, together they can help explain it.

The Argument

  • Argue for a comparative historical approach, that is sensitive to the politics of identity, organizational capacity, and comparative politics of opportunities. This approach will link the politicization of indigenous identity and movements to state formation.
  • Formal institutional political power created through defining citizenship, delimiting civil society, and delivering political resources by political elites allows other social actors to challenge these institutions through contesting the terms of citizenship.
  • Political liberalization of the 1980s provided macro political opportunity for Indigenous groups to organize, as incentives to organize were created through state reforms that politically marginalized, disempowered, and challenged the material autonomy of Indigenous peoples.

Changing Macropolitical Opportunities: Political Liberalization

  • Political liberalization enabled the development of civil society and politics of identity as there were increasingly few constraints on expressing opinions, distributing information, community organization, and holding public protests.
  • Indigenous movements followed this era of political liberalization but it in itself cannot fully explain why specific social movements organized and why indigenous identity was not politicized in some cases. To explain this, we must distinguish recent rounds of political liberalization from others and figure out what motivated and allowed Indigenous people to organize in certain contexts.

Incentives to Organize: State Reforms, National Access, and Local Autonomy

  • Current political liberalization has disadvantaged indigenous communities as state reforms have unincorporated rural areas and in turn challenged access to political institutions and local indigenous autonomy, leading to an increase in Indigenous mobilization.
  • State reforms in prior regimes created allegiance among rural communities that hoped to gain access to land and the state and encouraged indigenous peoples to define themselves as peasants to gain access to state resources
  • State reforms unintentionally created greater local political and economic autonomy - greater state penetration into rural areas meant more protection from local landlords
  • As a result of state reforms that nominally protected rural property rights, rural men and women assumed a peasant status in the eyes of the state and practiced an indigenous identity shaped by local practices
  • Recent dismantling of rural programs have elicited uncertainty about property rights and indigenous peoples’ access to the state, prompting rural organizing and protest to (re)gain access to the state and to secure local autonomy
  • Rural and demands are the symbolic glue that holds diverse indigenous communities together and neoliberal state reforms are their symbolic target

Capacity: Organizational Networks

  • Indigenous communities have formed trans-community networks facilitated by states, churches, unions, nongovernmental organizations
  • The state tried to garner support and suppress rebellion via land reforms, which led to rural organizing and cross community networks and centered the state as the target of organizing
  • Churches provided means of communication/interaction and literacy skills
  • Christian ideology encouraged activism and the emergence of lay leaders

Concluding with Democracy

  • Latin America’s indigenous movements have emerged in response to state reforms that dismantle class rights and community autonomy, as well as incomplete political liberalization which has neglected to support indigenous rights
  • Indigenous groups have mobilized around land rights to achieve survival and autonomy