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Critical Debates

Explaining the Rise of Ethnic Politics

in Contemporary Latin America
Cristbal Rovira Kaltwasser

Jos Antonio Lucero, Struggles of Voice: The Politics of Indigenous Representation in

the Andes. Pittsburgh: Pittsburgh University Press, 2008. Notes, bibliography,
index, 236 pp.; hardcover $65, paperback $25.30.
Ral L. Madrid, The Rise of Ethnic Politics in Latin America. New York: Cambridge
University Press, 2012. Figures, tables, bibliography, index, 239 pp.; hardcover
$95, paperback $28.99.
Roberta Rice, The New Politics of Protest: Indigenous Mobilization in Latin Americas
Neoliberal Era. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2012. Notes, bibliogra-
phy, index, 160 pp.; hardcover $50.
Donna Lee Van Cott, From Movements to Parties in Latin America: The Evolution of
Ethnic Politics. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005. Bibliography,
index, 276 pp., hardcover $105, paperback $29.24.

L atin America does not make headlines in the international media very often.
And when it does, the news is normally about sad stories. Take, for instance,
the dreadful dictatorships of the 1960s and 1970s; the implementation of harsh
structural adjustment programs directed by the International Monetary Fund in the
1980s and 1990s; and more recently, the violence associated with drug trafficking
and organized crime in Mexico and several countries in Central America. An impor-
tant exception to this trend of bad news stands out: during the course of the last two
decades, a growing mobilization of indigenous peoples has taken place in Latin
America, paving the way for the formation of ethnic parties and movements that
have put the problem of racial discrimination and oppression at the top of the polit-
ical agenda across the region. While it is true that much needs to be done to improve
the life quality of indigenous peoples in Latin America, the four books under con-
sideration here clearly demonstrate that the rise of ethnic parties and movements is
helping to increase the political power of groups that have been systematically
excluded in the past.
The question at the heart of these books is why and how ethnic politics gained
momentum in Latin America since the beginning of the 1990s. This is not a trivial

Cristbal Rovira Kaltwasser is an associate professor in the Escuela de Ciencia Poltica, Uni-
versidad Diego Portales.

2014 University of Miami

DOI: 10.1111/j.1548-2456.2014.00226.x

question. After all, the indigenous problem is anything but new in the region. In
fact, the discrimination against and exclusion of indigenous peoples did not end
with the formation of independent states in the eighteenth century. Instead, it
adopted a new facet: the construction of national identities, which not only depicted
the natives as savages who needed to be civilized, but also fostered an assimilationist
approach by extoling mestizaje (ethnic mixing) and encouraging European immigra-
tion. Seen in this light, the question of why ethnic politics has become influential in
the last two decades and not before is particularly striking. As Deborah Yashar aptly
notes, while ethnic-based movements have a long history of organizing, protesting,
and mobilizing in Africa, Asia, and parts of Europe, there has been no comparable
pattern of ethnic-based organizing in contemporary Latin America, until recently
(2005, 3).
By answering the question of why and how ethnic politics has gained strength in
Latin America recently, the four books under consideration touch on a series of topics,
which are relevant not only for readers interested in indigenous politics but also for
those interested in political parties, social movements, and the challenges confronting
contemporary democracy in Latin America and elsewhere. In this review essay, I argue
that the books offer new insights to different groups of scholars. Accordingly, instead
of focusing on details that could be relevant for country experts or specialists on
indigenous peoples, this article seeks to show the relevance of these books to the broad
community of both political scientists and Latin American connoisseurs.

A central commonality of these four books is their comparative focus. Luceros
monograph considers only two countries (Bolivia and Peru), but it develops a broad
historical perspective that covers a time span from 1860 to 2005. The books of both
Madrid and Van Cott give special attention to Bolivia, Ecuador, and Peru, but each
also includes a chapter that deals with other countries (Colombia, Guatemala,
Nicaragua, and Venezuela for Madrid, and Argentina, Colombia, and Venezuela for
Van Cott). And Rices monograph includes one individual chapter each for Bolivia,
Chile, Ecuador, and Peru. As a consequence, these books are based on a wide variety
of cases, from countries with indigenous populations ranging from small to large. It
is curious that Mexico receives almost no attention in any of these books, although
this is the country with the highest percentage of Latin Americas total indigenous
population and where the indigenous struggle captured great media attention
during the 1990s due to the rise of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation.1
It is worth noting that the books of Madrid, Rice, and Van Cott intentionally
include an important amount of variation in the dependent variable: the formation
and performance of indigenous parties and movements. In other words, their line of
reasoning seeks to explain not only why ethnic politics has gained momentum but
also why this has not occurred all over Latin America. Peru is the country that all
three authors consider as a case in which no major indigenous party or movement
has emerged, although several of the key factors for the success of ethnic mobiliza-

tion are present. Some of the elements that these books identify as factors that have
limited the power of ethnic politics in Peru are the fragmentation of the indigenous
movement into numerous organizations, the capacity of the Peruvian state to assim-
ilate indigenous peoples into the dominant mestizo culture, and the devastating
effect of the Shining Path terrorist group in terms of eliminating indigenous leaders
and weakening ethnic organizations.
At the same time, each of the books takes into account additional negative
cases. For example, Van Cott deals with a very unlikely case because of the small size
of the indigenous population and the dominance of a strong party (Argentina).
Madrid reflects on a very likely case due to the number of indigenous people and
the high level of dissatisfaction with the political establishment (Guatemala), and
Rice analyzes Chile as a case where indigenous activism has not been capable of
becoming influential because of its geographical segmentation and the existence of
strong political institutions, which, at least until quite recently, have been able to
contain and control popular protests.
In terms of their empirical and methodological perspectives, the four books
draw on various sources and develop different approaches. Luceros study is based
on extensive field research in Bolivia and Ecuador, where he conducted interviews
with several actors, did volunteer work with various indigenous organizations, and
gathered data on a broad array of indigenous associations, state agencies, and
NGOs. Madrids book is a paradigmatic example of an extremely well balanced
combination of qualitative and quantitative methods: on the one hand, in extensive
field research in various Latin American countries, he conducted not only archival
research but also interviews with a myriad of actors; and on the other hand, by ana-
lyzing different datasets (e.g., the Latin American Public Opinion Project and the
merge of electoral and municipal-provincial census data from various countries), he
examined shifts in voting patterns across time and space.
Rices monograph relies on field research in four countries (Bolivia, Chile,
Ecuador, and Peru), where she conducted interviews, made participant observations
of a number of indigenous assemblies and conferences, and collected documents
from ethnic movements and parties. Moreover, she assembled an original event-
count dataset on social protest for 18 Latin American countries between 1978 and
2004. Van Cotts study is based on comprehensive field research in Bolivia, Colom-
bia, Ecuador, Peru, and Venezuela. This allowed her not only to conduct interviews
with members and leaders of ethnic parties and movements but also to examine doc-
uments produced by ethnic parties and movements, such as newsletters, press
releases, manifestos, and local media in each country.



How can we explain why ethnic politics has gathered momentum in Latin America
since the beginning of the 1990s? To a certain extent, the books under consideration
offer different answers to this question. However, these answers are complementary
rather than competitive. Not by coincidence, the four authors share the idea that
there is no one single factor driving the rise of ethnic politics in the region. Other-
wise stated, they underline that plausible explanations should reflect on how the
interaction of a set of factors has created a fertile soil for the emergence of ethnic
politics (i.e., the demand side) and by what means indigenous parties and move-
ments have been able to win support (i.e., the supply side). The differences between
these books can be found in the kind of arguments they emphasize.
Van Cotts study advances a threefold argument: Institutional changes, party
system changes, and social movement factors were important in encouraging or dis-
couraging the formation of ethnic parties, and in influencing their relative success
(48). Let us examine each of these elements in some detail. The first element that
Van Cott assesses is the permissiveness of the institutional environment for party
formation. In this regard, she argues that the most important institutional variables
affecting ethnic party formation are improved ballot access, decentralization, and
the reservations of seats for indigenous representatives (214). Therefore, as para-
doxical as it might appear, some of the reforms (e.g., decentralization) enacted by
incumbent parties and promoted by international financial institutions tended to
help the rise of ethnic politics in Latin America.
The second element Van Cott considers is the way party system changes have
favored the rise of ethnic politics in Latin America. According to her, while dealign-
ment and party system fragmentation are relevant, the most important party
system variable with respect to ethnic party formation is the political strength of the
left relative to indigenous movements (215). To understand this, it is important to
note that leftist parties in Latin America often had been able to win the support of
indigenous communities. However, as Yashar (2011) has pointed out, the Latin
American left has been historically and notably silent on questions of ethnicity. This
is related to the fact that before the Third Wave of democratization, the Latin Amer-
ican left was prone to advance a corporatist citizenship regime whereby the state and
political parties imposed a peasant identity on Indians as the ticket for political
incorporation and access to resources. Nevertheless, the neoliberal reforms of the
1980s and 1990s implied a drastic weakening of leftist forces in most countries of
the region and growing discontent within the indigenous communities. Thus, the
decline of the left opened space in the political system for indigenous movements
accustomed to participating in politics through leftist parties (Yashar 2011, 37).
The third and last element underlined in Van Cotts monograph is the inter-
play between social movements and political parties, or more specifically, whether
an established social movement organization was successful in creating a new, viable
ethnic party. Here the argument is that given that established social movement

organizations have had the time to attract domestic and international allies, to train
and professionalize permanent staff, and to articulate a coherent program (4345),
they have resources that are crucial for triumphing in the electoral arena and con-
structing a strong partisan organization. Nevertheless, Van Cott shows that the tran-
sition from a movement to a party is anything but simple, since it generates tensions
between two factions. While some activists and supporters hold the opinion that
entering into party politics endangers the autonomy of the indigenous movement,
others argue that only through the formation of a party organization will it be pos-
sible to improve the life quality of indigenous peoples. Beyond the struggles between
these two factions, Van Cott claims that individuals or small groups of elites who
formed parties without the backing of an established indigenous organization were
unlikely to win sufficient votes to maintain registration and win elections (218).
Rices study develops an argument similar to the one advanced by Van Cott, but
it employs the historical institutionalist framework to underline that historical lega-
cies matter when it comes to explaining the rise of ethnic politics in contemporary
Latin America. More specifically, she maintains that the upsurge of indigenous par-
ties and movements is conditioned by two basic factors: (1) the character of domes-
tic political institutions and (2) historic patterns of popular political incorporation
(4). By applying this twofold line of reasoning consistently in her book, Rice offers a
compelling answer to the question of why ethnic politics has gathered momentum in
some countries of the region. Put shortly, the nub of her argument is that successful
indigenous parties and movements are more likely to emerge in countries with
inchoate party systems that do not effectively represent the popular sectors and in
which social actors are able to articulate new collective identities that resonate beyond
traditional affiliations based on class, union membership, or partisanship (4).
An important difference between the analyses of Van Cott and Rice is that the
latter puts more emphasis on the role that a new master frame of protest plays in
terms of articulating and mobilizing different groups. In concordance with the his-
torical institutionalist approach, Rice wisely observes that the appeal of a new master
frame is directly related to how state-society relations have been articulated in the
past. More specifically, she underlines that it is important to bear in mind the extent
to which the state or political parties succeeded in imposing a peasant identity on
Indians. In particular, she argues

that indigenous collective action repertoires are heavily influenced by the way in which
the peasantry, and to a certain extent workers, were historically incorporated into the
political system. Strong and cohesive indigenous movements tend to emerge in coun-
tries where the peasantry has been politically incorporated by multiclass, populist par-
ties, as opposed to countries with a historic pattern of peasant mobilization by Marxist
parties (29).

Indeed, Rice argues that Bolivia and Ecuador are countries where the left was
not very successful in creating class-based bonds, and in consequence, not only tra-
ditional indigenous associational forms (e.g., ayllus and comunas) subsisted but also
ethnic identities coexisted with the peasant identity promoted by the left. By con-

trast, she maintains that in countries such as Chile and Peru, leftist forces were able
to foster a mode of popular political incorporation whereby class-based identities
and organizational forms ended up overshadowing ethnic identification.
Luceros book is, to a certain extent, the less conventional of the four studies in
the sense that the author adheres to a culturalist approach with the aim of showing that
previous explanations of the rise of ethnic politics in Latin America have not devoted
enough attention to how identities are created and transformed. In his opinion,

though scholars working in the structuralist and political process tradition agree that
identity is socially constructed, a structural view of movement emergence tends to
assume a rather static notion of indigenous identity and struggle, one that remained
hidden during corporatist times (disguised as peasant communities). Thus, real
ethnic identities seemed simply to be awaiting the right conditions in order to emerge,
almost geologically, through the cracks of shifting political formations. Lost in these
analyses is the important cultural work that creates identities and political subjects. (15)

Yet instead of taking a postmodern stance, Lucero develops a pragmatic con-

structivist approach to indigenous representation (2123), with the purpose of
showing that the rise of ethnic politics in Latin America cannot be properly under-
stood without considering the processes involved in the struggle of speaking about
and acting on behalf of excluded sectors.
While scholars focused on plotting causal relationship might have reservations
about Luceros concern with social construction, his perspective pays off because it
sheds light on aspects that many authors have considered only cursorily. For the sake
of simplicity, it is worth highlighting two aspects that are at the heart of Luceros
pragmatic constructivist approach to indigenous representation. The first one
refers to the impact that the process of state formation has had on shaping the envi-
ronment of indigenous activism in Bolivia and Ecuador. Luceros analysis of the his-
torical articulations between indigenous communities and the state reveals that the
weakness of the latter implied that the former had a certain degree of autonomy by
default, and that the work of administrating the indigenous population was passed
on to nonstate actors, such as the clergy and landlords (51). However,

the agrarian reforms of the mid-twentieth century provided the state with new mech-
anisms for the political incorporation of rural peoples, not as Indians but as campesinos.
During the 1960s, the models of rural unions and the language of rural development
set the stage for independent indigenous organizing. (77)

The second aspect to which Luceros monograph gives more attention in com-
parison to the other books reviewed is the role that international forces and institu-
tions have played in the rise of ethnic politics in contemporary Latin America. In
accordance with the work of Brysk (2000), as well as Keck and Sikkink (1998), on
the influence of transnational advocacy networks, Luceros study shows that the
existence of international treaties and conventions (especially those of the Interna-
tional Labor Organization and the United Nations) provides supranational

resources for building new strategies and political vocabularies for mobilizing ethnic
groups. In his words, All the national indigenous leaders I interviewed were famil-
iar with these international bodies and all had traveled internationally. And while
not all had been to the United States or Europe (most had), all did have contacts
with North Atlantic NGOs. (21). Therefore, his monograph points out that for-
eign ideas and resources have been crucial in shaping the identities, concepts, and
strategies that indigenous peoples have appropriated in their own recent struggles.
The last book reviewed here, that of Ral Madrid, takes a slightly different per-
spective. The novelty of his approach relies on his interest in explaining the electoral
performance rather than the emergence of ethnic parties. As he rightly states, it is the
success of some of these recently formed indigenous parties that is truly surprising.

In most Latin American countries, it is relatively easy to create a new party, but it is
quite difficult to build a successful one. Indeed, in the last couple of decades, numerous
indigenous groups have formed parties, but the vast majority of these parties have fared
poorly. (9)

From this perspective, the interesting question is whether there exists a win-
ning formula whereby ethnic parties in Latin America are able to attract voters and
increase their electoral performance. According to Madrid, the answer to this ques-
tion is a clear yes. In brief, the winning formula is characterized by two elements:
the development of an inclusionary, as opposed to an exclusionary, ethnic rhetoric;
and the employment of populist appeals.
There is no better way of illustrating Madrids winning formula than by com-
paring the performance of two ethnic parties in contemporary Bolivia that have used
populist appeals: Felipe Quispes Movimiento Indgena Pachakuti (MIP) and Evo
Moraless Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS). Given that the former constructed a
populist discourse that attacked the white culture and accentuated the moral purity
of one of the main indigenous communities living in Bolivia (the Aymara), it ended
up alienating not only whites and mestizos, but also voters from other indigenous
communities (e.g., the Quechua). By contrast, the latter advanced a populist rheto-
ric that was highly inclusionary, to the point that in the early 2000s, the MAS
started to recruit white and mestizo candidates (60). As one indigenous legislator
from the MAS interviewed by Madrid reveals,

in the end we came to understand that we didnt want to go from being excluded to
excluding others, that we had to include more people, business people, the middle
classes. Originally, there were three peasant organizations that founded the MAS.
Two years ago, the reformulation of the MAS began. The MAS ceased to be solely
indigenous and peasant. (59)

It is interesting that Madrid points out that this winning formula should be
seen as a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it helps to build a party platform
that appeals to different constituencies, and in consequence, it contributes to build-
ing multiclass and multiethnic alliances with the aim of fostering the political power

of groups that have been systematically excluded in the past. On the other hand, this
winning formula challenges democracy, because its populist nature can trigger
dangerous tendencies:

Excessively personalistic leadership may concentrate power and undermine institutions

and horizontal accountability. Aggressively antiestablishment rhetoric and policies may
lead to social and political polarization and even violate the rule of law. Mass mobiliza-
tions may enable populist leaders to intimidate or overwhelm the opposition or bring
about cycles of protests that destabilize the country. (178)


To conclude this review essay, I would like to suggest three avenues of research for
scholars interested in the rise of ethnic politics in Latin America. These are related
to the complex relationship between ethnic politics and democracyan aspect that
the books under consideration certainly take into account, but much more research
remains to be done.
First, a topic that these four books raise but do not study in detail is how ethnic
parties and movements are posing a challenge to the liberal democratic regime in
Latin America. I am thinking here of the argument advanced by Yashar (2005)
regarding the multicultural demands made by indigenous movements and parties in
contemporary Latin America. Because ethnic groups tend to defend the idea that
local communities should have special rights, they have a complex relationship with
the liberal idea that the individual is the primary unit or subject of political life.
Take, for instance, the struggle between different gender activists in relation to the
policies supported by the administration of Evo Morales in Bolivia. As Anders
Burman (2011) has analyzed in detail, whereas female indigenous activists favor the
recognition of the collective rights of indigenous peoples in order to foster an eman-
cipatory process, nonindigenous, middle-class promoters of gender equality are
against the recognition of collective rights that might end up reproducing habits and
customs whereby women are abandoned to their traditional silenced subordina-
tion within male-dominated structures.
The second aspect to which I think future studies of ethnic politics in Latin
America should devote more attention is how foreign ideas and institutions can
both assist and hinder the process of democratization. In their recent book on com-
petitive authoritarian regimes, Steven Levitsky and Lucan A. Way (2010) argue that
linkage (i.e., the density of ties and cross-border flows between particular countries
and the United States and the EU) and leverage (i.e., states vulnerability to Western
democratizing pressure) are two of the main factors when it comes to explaining
why the process of democratization succeeds in certain countries and fails in others.
To what extent have these two factors played a role in the rise of ethnic politics in
contemporary Latin America? The books under consideration suggest that there is
some truth in the argument advanced by Levitsky and Way. After all, these four
books give the impression that the formation of indigenous movements and parties
would have been much more difficult without the support of transnational advocacy

networks. If this is true, future studies could analyze in more detail not only which
agencies of democratic promotion have played a role in fostering the rise of ethnic
politics in Latin America, but also how different agencies of democratic promotion
currently are dealing with the rise of indigenous parties that do not necessarily share
the ideas and interests of donor countries (see, e.g., Wolff 2012).
One more commonality of these books is that theyintentionally or not
tend to restore the value of representation for democracy in contemporary Latin
America. These studies reveal that when excluded groups are able to organize and
exert influence, they can produce significant political changes, thereby demonstrat-
ing that representative democracy is not inevitably an elitist form of government
that fails to address the actual concerns of the people. However, much remains to
be done it terms of showing how the rise of ethnic politics is possibly fostering the
democratization of Latin American democracies. By taking into account a new body
of literature that denotes a representative turn in democratic theory (Nsstrm
2011), future studies could examine in greater depth the interaction between non-
electoral and electoral mechanisms of representation (e.g., the tension between
indigenous movements and parties) and the ways international institutions, NGOs,
political parties, and numerous actors are immersed in a battle of constituting con-
stituenciesthe constant struggle of defining who we, the people are.

1. According to the data presented by Yashar (2005, 2021), Mexicos indigenous popu-
lation is estimated at over ten million, constituting approximately 12 to 14 percent of Mexicos
total population and approximately 30 percent of Latin Americas total indigenous population.

Brysk, Alison. 2000. From Tribal Village to Global Village: Indian Rights and International
Relations in Latin America. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Burman, Anders. 2011. Chachawarmi: Silence and Rival Voices on Decolonisation and
Gender Politics in Andean Bolivia. Journal of Latin American Studies 43, 1: 6591.
Keck, Margaret E., and Kathryn Sikkink. 1998. Activists Beyond Borders: Advocacy Networks
in International Politics. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
Levitsky, Steven, and Lucan A. Way. 2010. Competitive Authoritarianism: Hybrid Regimes
After the Cold War. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Nsstrm, Sofia. 2011. Where is the Representative Turn Going? European Journal of Social
Theory 10, 4: 50110.
Wolff, Jonas. 2012. Democracy Promotion, Empowerment, and Self-Determination: Con-
flicting Objectives in U.S. and German Policies Towards Bolivia. Democratization 19,
3: 41537.
Yashar, Deborah. 2005. Contesting Citizenship in Latin America: The Rise of Indigenous Move-
ments and the Postliberal Challenge. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
. 2011. The Left and Citizenship Rights. In The Resurgence of the Latin American Left,
ed. Steven Levitsky and Kenneth Roberts. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.