The bloody rebellion by Native Americans in Chiapas, coming at the end of the United Nations' "International Year of the World's Indigenous Peoples," underscores the urgent need to address the needs of Latin America's 35 million Indians, particularly their political rights and the protection of their lands and resources.
No one should have been surprised by the uprising in Chiapas, Mexico's poorest state and the site of long-running violations against the human rights of native peoples and a virtual assault by large landowners against the small agricultural holdings that are the lifeblood of the indigenous communities. Their plight, and the failure of their government to respond, is mirrored to some degree in every Latin country with a substantial indigenous population. The greatest tragedy of Chiapas may not be the awful death toll, now estimated at more than 100 people, but that the news from Mexico may provoke copycat rebellions of frustration.
While the United States itself has often pursued shortsighted policies that have been destructive of its own native peoples, we cannot sit on the sidelines in the hemispheric struggle for the empowerment of indigenous peoples. After all, a primary U.S. foreign-policy goal is the advancement of democracy. Bringing "marginalized" peoples (as the Mexican government refers to its Indian communities) into the democratic process is a key component for the consolidation of elected governments. This is especially true in countries where indigenous peoples are a numerical although dispossessed majority. Throughout Latin America, but most certainly in Guatemala, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia, democratic participation cannot be limited to urban areas of relative privilege if the long-term prospects for democracy are to be secure.
Until very recently, the largely rural indigenous communities of Latin America did exist at the margins. But with the rapid--and unstoppable--advance of the Information Age, they are becoming aware that they are not alone in their problems. In the past decade, they have made impressive, largely nonviolent efforts to organize themselves to fight for the recognition of Indian communities as distinct political entities, and to protect their collective rights. In 1989, the First Inter-American Indigenous Congress on Natural Resources and the Environment was organized by the Kuna Indians of Panama; 70 indigenous representatives from 17 countries participated. A year later, the Inter-American Indigenous Parliament was convened in Guatemala City to bring together elected officials from native communities to discuss their common problems and to prepare strategies for their empowerment in their own nations' democratic systems. In 1990, too, in Iquitos, Peru, an umbrella organization representing 1.2 million Indians belonging to 327 tribes in Peru, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador and Brazil reaffirmed that the indigenous people would be heard in the debate over the future of the Amazon.
In 1992, the quincentenary of Columbus' arrival in the Americas raised Indian ethnic consciousness to a continentwide crescendo. At the Earth Summit in Rio that year, the protection of indigenous populations was clearly defined and codified into international law.
Experts estimate that by the year 2050, there will be twice as many indigenous peoples in our hemisphere as there are today. Thus the challenge they pose can only become more acute. Policy-makers in Washington and in the capitals of Latin America can either be part of the solution or remain part of the problem.
The indigenous peoples' agenda includes many of the most intriguing and urgent issues that the world must address in the run-up to the 21st Century. Beyond the quest for broad and effective participation and rights in newly emerging democracies, indigenous people are seeking recognition within the international scientific community for the contribution of tribal knowledge, particularly plant resources, to the expansion of frontiers of science and technology. They also are concerned about the mass migration of peoples across national boundaries, demilitarization, environmental protection and a new framework for decentralization of decision-making within nations, allowing for more effective local self-governance.
In late 1992, Congress passed the so-called Cranston amendment, named after its sponsor, then-Sen. Alan Cranston of California. The legislation requires the State Department to give greatly improved coverage to indigenous peoples in its annual country reports on human-rights practices. Specifically, it requires a description of "the extent to which indigenous peoples are able to participate in decisions affecting their lands, cultures, traditions and the allocation of natural resources, and assess the extent of protection of their civil and political rights."