The democratization of many Latin American countries in the 1980s led to the first wave of political scientists who combined intensive field research with a close reading of the secondary literature in other social sciences such as anthropology, history or geography. This development gave the study of indigenous politics a marked interdisciplinary character and indeed, much of the important work on the rise of indigenous movements was published in other disciplines (Van Cott, 2010). The literature on Indigenous movements and democracy in Latin America was focused primarily on explaining the sudden and unexpected emergence of indigenous peoples as critical new social actors in Latin America’s most recent round of democratization, coherent with our first research question. Most of the democratization literature therefore has focused on the initial emergence of democratic regimes or on the transformation from authoritarian states to democratic ones. To measure the progress of these transitions, political scientists turned in the 1990s to the study of democratic consolidation, the period following the transition from authoritarian rule during which newly adopted democratic rules and practices become institutionalized and democratic values become internalized (Van Cott, 2000).
Until the late 1990s however, only few political scientists perceived the importance of indigenous political mobilization in Latin America, the formation of indigenous social movements in the 1980s and their policy achievements in the early 1990s. This neglect was due to the widespread but erroneous assumptions that indigenous citizens were not politically active, that they did not organize autonomously from the left, or that they were politically indistinct from the peasantry and popular classes. Many Latin American intellectuals and government agencies promoted a vision of the nation that relegated indigenous identities to the past and encouraged indigenous citizens to adopt class identities as campesinos (peasants) or to assimilate into the dominant culture (Van Cott, 2000) of the ruling elite and political class.
The majority of the work in this field only used qualitative methods, owing to the poor quality and noncomparability of demographic data on the indigenous peoples, the strong influence of ethnographic and interpretive research methods, and the complexity and diversity of the contexts in which indigenous political activity unfolded. Indigenous parties’ electoral success, particularly after 2002, provides new sets of data for research while facilitating the application of time-series regression analysis and other quantitative techniques (Van Cott, 2010).
The most recent political science literature on Latin American indigenous movements however engages a wide range of themes. Three are particularly important: the changing nature of citizenship, indigenous political parties and electoral behavior, and reform of the state (Rice, 2013).
The literature herby has focused on three aspects, the political exclusion of indigenous peoples, the activation of social cleavages as well as institutional changes in politics and party systems which are going to be further examined in this literature review.
The historical development of Latin America as a region colonized for the extraction of natural resources and the enrichment of a tiny colonizing elite led to extreme inequality in the distribution of land, wealth, and income throughout the region. Structural inequality was perpetuated by government policies serving only the wealthy elite. Severe inequalities fostered and perpetuated political exclusion of indigenous peoples by increasing incentives for elites to maintain exclusionary politics. Historical inequality was exacerbated in the 1980s when international lenders required the Latin American governments to slash their social programs and public employment to avert fiscal catastrophe and debt default. As a result, income inequality worsened and the proportion of the population in poverty increased such that, at the beginning of the 1990s, 46% of the population lived in poverty (Villas 1997: 21).
The political exclusion of Indigenous peoples, especially in countries with substantial Indigenous populations, has undoubtedly contributed to the weakness of party systems and the lack of accountability, representation, and responsiveness of democracies in the region. New forms of civil society participation such as Indigenous self-rule broaden and deepen democracy by making it more inclusive and government more responsive and representative. Land reforms were billed as progressive measures to emancipate Indigenous communities from repressive and exploitative forms of labor control in the countryside. Neoliberal multiculturalism became the preferred policy option to address Indigenous demands throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Neoliberal multiculturalism refers to state-sponsored policies and programs to address ethnic differences and the free-market philosophies that underpin them Yashar (1998).
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