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Regional Outlook : A New Call for Indian Activists : 500 years after Columbus, Latin America's indigenous militants grabbed the world's attention with protests. But will concrete gains match the commotion?

February 09, 1993|William R. Long | This article was reported by Times staff writers Juanita Darling in Mexico, Tracy Wilkinson in Guatemala and William R. Long in Peru and by special correspondent Stan Yarbro in Colombia. It was written by Long

LIMA, Peru — Tupac Amaru, fed up with the oppressive treatment of Peruvian Indians in the 18th Century, headed a bloody native rebellion against the Spanish colonial Establishment until he was captured and brutally executed. The Spanish crushed the revolt but ended up granting a few of the reforms that Tupac Amaru had demanded.

The struggle for Indian rights in Latin America, it seems, has never been easy.

But the struggle goes on.

In 1992, 500 years after Latin America's great cultural conflict began, Indian militancy in the region reached a new and noisy peak. Perhaps never has so much publicity been given to so many meetings, manifestoes, protests and demands by native peoples in the former New World colonies of Spain and Portugal.

But now that the quincentenary year has passed and the stridence has subsided, it seems once again clear that concrete gains from the struggle are far less impressive than the commotion it caused.

"This occasion of the 500 years has made a lot of noise but it has yielded little," commented Roberto Espinoza, a Peruvian adviser to Amazon Indian organizations.

The noise is not unimportant in itself. Like almost everyone else, Indians are familiar with the Media Age equation: Noise plus publicity equals awareness. And one of the common goals of militant Indian movements around Latin America is to raise awareness in dominant national societies as well as among native peoples themselves.

Growing awareness, many native leaders hope, will fuel their movements in the long run as they continue the struggle for political and cultural recognition, education and economic development, human rights, land rights and environmental protection. Those goals are the common threads of Indian militancy today in Latin America.

At this point, however, it is even far from clear exactly who all the Indians of Latin America are. Imprecise statistics and conflicting definitions result in estimates ranging from about 20 million to 40 million native people.

At that, the 40 million figure amounts to less than one-tenth of all Latin Americans. And even in countries where Indians are a major segment of the population--Mexico, Guatemala, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia--they lack the clout that their numbers might be expected to produce.

Still, political developments and growing pressure, including international interest and urging, have brought some advances in recent years.

The wave of democracy that swept across Latin America in the 1980s has given native peoples better footing for organizing and for negotiating their demands with government authorities, who often are more sympathetic than were conservative military rulers of the past.

The stage was set, then, to make 1992 a banner year for the struggle--or at least for publicizing it. Commemoration of the 500th anniversary of Columbus' landing provided a sonorous fanfare for Indian movements.

On Oct. 12, Columbus Day, about 10,000 Indians marched in the Bolivian capital of La Paz, protesting against racism and imperialism. Like other Indian protests associated with the quincentenary, the Bolivian demonstration reflected a crescendo in militant action around the region.

And Latin American Indian leaders hope that the momentum generated during 1992 will continue in 1993, which has been declared by the United Nations as the Year of Indigenous Peoples. The United Nations plans various activities at the national and international level to strengthen global cooperation for solving the problems faced by the estimated 300 million indigenous people living in more than 70 countries.

Other events and developments in 1992 reinforce the impression of boom times for the Latin American movement:

* The Organization of American States started drafting a Declaration of Indigenous Rights.

* Among several major international meetings of native leaders in Latin America, the biggest was a gathering of 650 representatives of indigenous groups from around the world in Rio de Janeiro. The meeting was held in conjunction with the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio.

* At the Earth Summit, world leaders signed a Declaration on Environment and Development that called on countries to recognize and support the identity, culture and interests of indigenous peoples.

* Later, Latin presidents meeting at a Madrid summit signed a pact to create a Development Fund for Indigenous Peoples of Latin America and the Caribbean.

International declarations of support and aid for Latin American Indians, like laws to guarantee their rights, are not new and have rarely produced dramatic progress on a large scale. But over time, their cumulative force could help overcome obstacles to progress.

A major obstacle is a strong tendency for dominant societies and governments in Latin America to regard Indian demands for cultural or political autonomy as threats to the nation as a whole.

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