Re: Things that occur to us in Latin America, and other matters (reply to Néstor)

Richard Fidler rfidler at
Wed Nov 5 21:21:08 MST 2003

I seem to have touched a tender nerve!

If I can make any sense of Néstor's overwrought diatribe, he seems to be
arguing that an expression of support for the "sovereignty" of
aboriginal peoples necessarily amounts to advocating that everyone
else - all the other "immigrants" and their descendants, as someone else
put it - should be expelled from the Western Hemisphere, or at least
suborned to aboriginal governments. Fidler, he says, wants to reduce
"our struggle in Latin America" to "a struggle to have the aboriginal
peoples ruling over America ... again...."

That's certainly not my understanding of what "sovereignty" means in
this context. Nor is it the concept of "sovereignty" advanced by any of
the aboriginal peoples, to my knowledge. In Canada, for example, the
indigenous peoples are fighting for what they refer to as "aboriginal
self-government", although they are still working out what this concept
means in practice, given the many linguistic, cultural, territorial and
legal (colonizer imposed) distinctions and divisions among them. At the
very least, it means control by aboriginal peoples over matters
essential to their self-definition and development as peoples. It does
not mean the formation of distinct indigenous states. And although more
than half the native peoples in Canada now live in cities, land claims
are among the central unresolved issues.

Native self-government claims are just as important in Quebec, where the
French-speaking majority is pressing its own unsatisfied national
demands against the central government and a Constitution that
recognizes neither Francophone nor aboriginal nations. In Quebec, which
is not only a part of an imperialist country but also an oppressed
nation within that country, there are different struggles for
"sovereignty", aboriginal and Québécois, that are sometimes but not
always - and not necessarily, in any case - in conflict with each other.
In fact, some aboriginal and Québécois militants have begun to conceive
of their respective struggles as tending toward the development of
overlapping and mutually-respecting sovereignties, perhaps analogous
with the Afro-American militants' concept of Black control of the Black
communities within the United States.

Sovereignty, in this context, can mean anything from national
independence - the formation of a nation state - to self-government
within a larger state structure. For example, many Québécois
nationalists (including the Parti québécois, the majority political
force within the nationalist movement) have developed the concept of
"sovereignty" as something other than full national independence; they
usually couple it with the concept of a "partnership" with English
Canada, within an overarching political structure or treaty:
"sovereignty-association". In some respects, the concept is redolent of
Marx's speculation on Ireland: "after separation may come federation".
Likewise, many aboriginal nations (and there are a dozen of these
recognized as "nations" under Quebec legislation) have signed or are in
the process of signing treaties and similar arrangements with the Quebec
government that give the aboriginal nations predominant and even
exclusive control over land, hunting and fishing rights, etc. in their
ancestral territories where they form a large (not necessarily majority)
component of the population.

Néstor puts his own categorical interpretation on aboriginal sovereignty
and then proceeds to rebut it through a series of reductio ad absurdum
arguments. Let's ignore the preposterous scenarios based on my supposed
"logic" (which are designed simply to paint me as an imperialist
apologist) and confine the discussion to native peoples in the Western
Hemisphere, and more particularly in the non-imperialist sector, Latin

Aboriginal sovereignty, he says, means "separate Aymara, Guarani,
Quechua and Mestizo groups fighting _each other_ over the restoration of
land" that was taken from them by the colonizers. [Emphasis added]

Aboriginal sovereignty, he says, means that the native peoples would
"declare independence" of the existing national states in Latin America,
thus exposing those states to further imperialist penetration. (All
quotations are from Néstor's post.)

In other words, Néstor defines aboriginal sovereignty as politically
exclusive and necessarily and inherently opposed to collaboration with
other Latin Americans in a common anti-imperialist struggle. I don't
know whether the aboriginal peoples of Latin America even use the word
"sovereignty" (soberanía) in relation to their demands and concerns as
aboriginal peoples, but I have no doubt that those concerns do reflect
to some degree an unresolved indigenous question with national
characteristics in many if not all of the countries of Latin America. Is
this struggle opposed to the anti-imperialist struggle? I don't think
so. It is simply an expression of soberanía popular.

Néstor cites the recent inspiring upsurge in Bolivia. An outstanding
feature of that struggle, remarked by many observers, was the leading
role played by the various aboriginal peoples, fighting together
irrespective of their distinct cultures, languages and traditions. A
number of commentators linked this development with the emergence in
recent years of a new layer of aboriginal leaders and movements in such
countries as Ecuador, Peru, Venezuela, Guatemala and other Latin
American countries. Indigenous leaders of the Bolivian upsurge were
quoted as saying that, finally, they could envisage the prospect in the
near future of achieving a government that reflected the indigenous
majority composition of the country and that would support and advance
the struggles of the indigenous peoples. Is that not a concept of
sovereignty based on majority indigenous rule? And by what curious
reasoning can it be considered pro-imperialist?

Néstor argues: "... the 'aboriginal peoples' [note the quotation marks;
does he dispute their existence?] _as such, in complete isolation within
the limited bounds of their own ethnicities_ are no match to the Anglo
empire.... the whole 'aboriginal' [those quotation marks, again]
reinvindication [claim] as against the Hispanics boils down to a support
for Anglo imperialism!"

I'm not entirely sure what Néstor means to say here (although he seems
to be doubting both the existence of "aboriginal peoples" and the
legitimacy of their claims as aboriginals -- "the limited bounds of
their own ethnicities"), but I do think he should enlighten us as to how
he thinks their claims are "against the Hispanics" and why such claims
amount to support for "Anglo imperialism".

José Carlos Mariátegui, the great Peruvian Marxist (I say "Peruvian"
because that was the state within which he lived, but Mariátegui's
writings are relevant to virtually the whole of Latin America) had no
doubt that "the problem of the Indian" (as his English translators put
it - la cuestión indigéna) was fundamentally a problem of the land, of
the gamonales system, gamonalismo, and more particularly the ownership
and control of the land by the semifeudal hacienda owners, the
latifundistas - who tended to be white, Hispanic and European in origin,
culture and heritage. Although Mariátegui correctly did not see the
struggles of the "Indians" as primarily national in character, should we
be surprised if, in the struggle for control of the land, demands of a
nationalist coloration should emerge?

Instead of analyzing these cultural, linguistic, social and economic -
and even national - features of the revolutionary process in Latin
America, both in their unique characteristics and their
interrelationships, Néstor has his own ready-made schema for the
revolution, which he propounds as the answer to virtually every concrete
struggle that arises. He writes: "...the first mandate of a Latin
American revolutionary... is to struggle against the imperialist-imposed
artificial division and subdivision of what Bolivar liked to call a
'nation of homelands'."

Now, I would be the last to question the intrinsic value of conceiving
the struggle for socialism within a continent-wide perspective; there is
no doubt that all Latin American countries share many common problems
that, in the last analysis, can only be resolved through
anti-imperialist and anticapitalist revolutions and the creation of
common institutions, socialist planning and egalitarian trade and
development on a continental scale. A common government and state
structure may well emerge at some point in the process. But I question
whether Latin American unification - the elimination of existing state
boundaries - is the primary "mandate" or task of Latin American
revolutionaries today.

Is this how contemporary struggles are unfolding? Not at all. In
Venezuela, Bolivia, Argentina, you name it, the struggle for social
justice and against imperialist domination is very much focussed around
defence of national sovereignty over resources, land and industry, and
the right and duty to use the existing national state structures as a
weapon to advance the struggles of workers, peasants and indigenous
peoples in opposition to the bourgeois oligarchies, landlords and their
imperialist backers in the IMF and Washington. In Cuba, as well, the
struggle to defend the gains of the socialist revolution is framed in
large part as the defence of national sovereignty. It would be a
sectarian error to counterpose some abstract demand for Latin American
unification to these struggles.

Is the division of Latin America into distinct states wholly artificial?
Of course not. It reflects to a large degree the divisions of the
colonial past - but also the nature of the anticolonial struggle which
unfolded unevenly in both space and time. These divisions cannot be
dismissed as simply "imperialist-imposed". These are the states, the
governments, established through mass struggles in the previous epoch,
and that now constitute the basic political framework for the struggle
for popular power today. It is through the development of the mass
anti-imperialist and social struggles within the existing national state
structures that a meaningful internationalism, based on the underlying
class nature of those struggles, is being built.

Reductionist schemas, like all schemas, can blind us to the real
openings for struggle that arise in a vast continent like Latin America.
Some of us on this list were burned in the past by illusory
continent-wide projections of forms of struggle; the Fourth
International had a disastrous experience in the 1960s and 1970s with
the concept of a continental rural-based guerrilla struggle that
resulted in the death of some cadres and the needless isolation of many
others from powerful  upsurges that developed in urban areas, most
notably in Argentina.

There are huge differences in the social and ethnic composition of such
countries as Argentina and Bolivia. The dynamic of the struggle can vary
correspondingly. Our primary "mandate" in building a successful struggle
against imperialism and capitalism is to support and help build the
struggles of all the oppressed and exploited, irrespective of their form
and expression. And we need to pay close attention to the particular
concerns and demands that arise among indigenous peoples. The
Sandinistas in Nicaragua learned this to their peril in the early 1980s,
when their failure to address the needs of the indigenous population on
the Atlantic Coast gave the contras their initial foothold in that

Some of Néstor's formulations are reminiscent of the arrogant dismissals
of those concerns by Sandinista leaders, who of course were committed
revolutionary anti-imperialists and internationalists. (In fact, it was
his insensitive formulation about "American land that originally
belonged to Spain or to Mexico" that prompted the remark by me that
touched off this exchange.) Fortunately, the Sandinistas learned from
their mistakes and the resulting Atlantic autonomy project, based on
extensive local self-government, could be seen as an expression of
aboriginal sovereignty in the Nicaraguan context.

On Turtle Island. As I explained to a comrade who inquired off-list:

It's a common term for (North) America among a number of aboriginal
peoples. I have seen references to or discussions of it in a number of
sources, but one you could check is Ronald Wright, "Stolen Continents --
The New World Through Indian Eyes Since 1492" pp. 222 et seq.: "They
[the Iroquois] and many other peoples, called their continent Great
Island or Turtle Island. Before the invaders came, they had thought that
it was the only island in a vast primordial sea. After 1492, they
learned that there were others.... Native Americans saw (and still see)
their Great Island as a sacred gift. They loved it and had no desire to
leave it. They found it hard to understand why the intruders had not
felt the same...."

Other references and descriptions that come to mind may be found in
Georges E. Sioui, "For an Amerindian Autohistory" (p. 14), and David
Bedford and Danielle Irving, "The Tragedy of Progress: Marxism,
Modernity and the Aboriginal Question" (p. 13).

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