Rethinking Indigenous Politics in the Era of the "Indio Permitido"

September 25, 2007

Ethnicity can be a powerful tool in the creation of human and social capital, but, if politicized, ethnicity can destroy capital. … Ethnic diversity is dysfunctional when it generates conflict. … .
-World Bank Web site on “Social Capital and Ethnicity” [1]

During the 1990s, Dr. Demetrio Cojtí Cuxil gained a well-earned reputation as “Dean” of Maya studies in Guatemala.[2] A prolific scholar and public intellectual, Cojtí deeply influenced the debate on Maya cultural and political rights. Many dominant culture ladinos associated him with the most assertive of Maya demands that directly challenge their long-standing racial privilege. To express their anxieties about these challenges, they often distinguished between principles they endorsed, like the idea of cultural equality, and “extreme” Maya demands that they associated with violence and conflict. When asked to elaborate, they would often turn personal: “Ah, Demetrio Cojtí, for example—he is 100% radical.”[3]

In 1998, I talked with Cojtí about the contradictory mix of opportunity and refusal in the policies of the Arzú administration (1996-2000) toward Maya, which he summarized succinctly: “Before, they just told us ‘no.’ Now, their response is ‘si, pero’ [‘yes, but’].” When Cojtí later accepted the post of Vice Minister of Education in the newly elected Portillo government, speculation reigned. Had he “sold out”? Was he out to test the limits of “si, pero”? Gaining experience for a time when Mayas would control the state? Three years into the Portillo administration (2000-2004), I lunched with some ladino schoolteachers—participants in the teachers’ strike of 2003 against neoliberal downsizing. They scoffed when I remarked that, a few years earlier, they had described Cojtí as a radical: “He’s part of the government now, even worse than the others.”

Like Guatemala, nearly every other country in Latin America has recently been transformed by the rise of collective indigenous voices in national politics and by shifts in state ideology toward “multiculturalism.”[4] The latter, combined with aggressive neoliberal policies, forms part of an emergent mode of governance in the region. Far from opening spaces for generalized empowerment of indigenous peoples, these reforms tend to empower some while marginalizing the majority. Far from eliminating racial inequity, as the rhetoric of multiculturalism seems to promise, these reforms reconstitute racial hierarchies in more entrenched forms. While indigenous movements have made great strides over the past two decades, it is now time to pause and take stock of the limits and the political menace inherent in these very achievements.

In its mid- to late-20th century heyday, the state ideology of mestizaje had the same dual quality of today’s multiculturalism: in some respects egalitarian and in others regressive. There were variations, but the overall pattern remains clear.[5] Latin American states developed a mode of governance based on a unitary package of citizenship rights and a tendentious premise that people could enjoy these rights only by conforming to a homogeneous mestizo cultural ideal. This ideal appropriated important aspects of Indian culture—and of black culture in Brazil and the Caribbean—to give it “authenticity” and roots, but European stock provided the guarantee that it would be modern and forward-looking. This ideology was “progressive” in that it contested the 19th century thesis of racial degeneration and extended the promise of equality to all; its progressive glimmer, in turn, gave the political project—to assimilate Indians and marginalize those who refused—its hegemonic appeal.

Although seeking assimilation, state ideologies of mestizaje also drew strength from the continued existence of the Indian Other. Sometimes temporal distance separated this Other from the ideal mestizo citizen, as with the celebrated Aztec past in Mexico.[6] Elsewhere, this distance was spatial, as with the people of the Amazonian jungle lowlands, portrayed as inhabiting a world apart. Most often, these two dimensions merged, creating a powerful composite image of the racialized Other against which the mestizo ideal was defined. This image deeply influenced mestizo political imaginaries. Darker-skinned mestizos were lower on the hierarchy, a disadvantage invariably attributed to proximity to “lo indio” (“Indianness”). The more “indio” you looked, the more this proximity explained your failings. Or, in colloquial terms: “te salió el indio” (you let the Indian in you come out).

While this mestizo project remains strong, its power as an ideology of governance is slipping. For good reason, it has been the first object of indigenous resistance across the region. Policies of assimilation threaten ethnocide. Unitary citizenship precludes culturally specific collective rights. And the racism embedded in mestizo societies delivers a double blow, denigrating the unassimilated while inciting the assimilated to wage an endless struggle against the “Indian within.”

Yet the decline of the mestizo ideology of governance results from other forces as well. Neoliberal democratization contradicts key precepts of the mestizo ideal. Downsizing the state devolves limited agency to civil society, the font of indigenous organization. The return to democracy—even the “guardian” or “low intensity” variants predominant in the region—provides these organizations space for maneuver. Even aggressive economic reforms, which favor the interests of capital and sanctify the market, are compatible with some facets of indigenous cultural rights. The core of neoliberalism’s cultural project is not radical individualism, but the creation of subjects who govern themselves in accordance with the logic of globalized capitalism.[7] The pluralism implicit in this principle—subjects can be individuals, communities or ethnic groups—cuts against the grain of mestizo nationalism, and defuses the once-powerful distinction between the forward-looking mestizo and the backward Indian. Governance now takes place instead through the distinction—to echo a World Bank dictum—between good ethnicity, which builds social capital, and “dysfunctional” ethnicity, which incites conflict.

Explanations for the shift toward a “multicultural” public sphere in Latin America take two principal tacks. The first highlights the creative and audacious political agency of indigenous peoples. The second, exemplified by the work of political scientist Deborah Yashar, emphasizes structural or institutional dimensions. She explains the upsurge of indigenous politics as an unintended consequence of two broader developments: the wave of democratization, which opened new spaces of participation, and neoliberal reform, which eliminated corporatist constraints on indigenous autonomy and accentuated economic woes.[8] Although both explanatory tacks are valid, they miss the way neoliberalism also entails a cultural project, which contributes both to the rising prominence of indigenous voices and to the frustrating limits on their transformative aspirations. The essence of this cultural project, the desired outcome of the government’s “si pero,” is captured in the figure of what Rosamel Millamán and I have called the “indio permitido” (“authorized Indian”).[9]

The phrase “indio permitido” names a sociopolitical category, not the characteristics of anyone in particular. We borrow the phrase from Bolivian sociologist Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui, who uttered it spontaneously, in exasperation, during a workshop on cultural rights and democratization in Latin America. We need a way, Rivera noted, to talk about how governments are using cultural rights to divide and domesticate indigenous movements. Our use of the word “indio” is meant to suggest that the aggregate effect of these measures—quite apart from the sensibilities of individual reformers—has been to perpetuate the subordination the term traditionally connotes. Multicultural reforms present novel spaces for conquering rights, and demand new skills that often give indigenous struggles a sophisticated allure. The menace resides in the accompanying, unspoken parameters: reforms have pre-determined limits; benefits to a few indigenous actors are predicated on the exclusion of the rest; certain rights are to be enjoyed on the implicit condition that others will not be raised. Actual indigenous activist-intellectuals who occupy the space of the indio permitido rarely submit fully to these constraints. Still, it would be a mistake to equate the increasing indigenous presence in the corridors of power with indigenous empowerment.

A reasonable starting point for exploring this new form of governance is the distinction between cultural rights and political-economic empowerment. Throughout Latin America, first round concessions of newly christened “multicultural” states cluster in the area of cultural rights, the further removed from the core concerns of neoliberal capitalism the better. In Guatemala, government endorsement of the Academy of Maya Languages signaled the beginning of the multicultural era. Soon thereafter, the Minister of Culture and Sports has become known as the “Indian” cabinet post, filled by a Maya in the last two administrations. The Ministry of Education also showcases the multicultural ethic with its programs in bilingual education and interculturalidad (intercultural dialogue). The preposterous idea that an Indian would become Minister of Finance is another matter altogether.

At times, the contrast between cultural and political-economic opportunity turns blatant and brutal. Newly inaugurated Guatemalan President Oscar Berger held a ceremony upon naming Rigoberta Menchú “Goodwill Ambassador,” and turning over the Casa Crema (a building formerly assigned to the Ministry of Defense) to the Academy of Maya Languages. He announced that the Casa Crema would also house a new television show, “… to carry programs on Maya culture, interculturalidad, and sprituality.” Simultaneously, Berger stood by as the Armed Forces began the violent eviction of landless indigenous campesinos that had occupied over 100 farms in the prior three years.[10]

It would be wrong, however, to let this stark dichotomy between “cultural” and “political-economic” rights stand. The crude Marxist distinction between superstructure and base does injustice to the holistic political visions of indigenous movements. Cultural resistance forges political unity and builds the trenches from which effective political challenge can later occur. Moreover, even if the dichotomy had residual validity on its own terms, it would not withstand close scrutiny. The most important current indigenous demand—rights to territory and resources—cannot be construed as a “cultural” right. Yet instead of the belligerent “no” that one might expect, neoliberal institutions have responded to the indigenous clamor for land with a resounding “si, pero.” Throughout Central America, for example, the World Bank is funding land demarcation projects, intended to assure black and indigenous communities rights to lands of traditional occupation.

Neoliberal multiculturalism is more inclined to draw conflicting parties into dialogue and negotiation than to preemptively slam the door. Civil society organizations have gained a seat at the table, and if well-connected and well-behaved, they are invited to an endless flow of workshops, spaces of political participation, and training sessions on conflict resolution. In Guatemala, the great wave of such government initiatives came just after the signing of the Peace Accords in December 1996. The country was soon awash in international aid, with Maya civil society as the privileged recipient. This example helps explain why the pattern is so widespread: indigenous rights are, in bureaucratic jargon, a “donor driven” priority. Web sites of the World Bank and Inter-American Development Bank are awash with glowing articles about indigenous and Afro-descendent empowerment. At issue, then, is not the struggle between individual and collective rights, nor the dichotomy between the cultural and the material, but rather the built-in limits to these spaces of indigenous empowerment.

Once the cultural project of neoliberalism is specified, these limits become more evident. As a first principle, indigenous rights cannot violate the integrity of the productive regime, especially those sectors most closely linked to the globalized economy. If an indigenous community gains land rights and pulls these lands out of production, this poses no such threat, especially given the likelihood of the community’s return to the fold through a newly negotiated relationship with the market. All the contrary if, for example, indigenous movements were to challenge the free trade zones that shelter maquila-type production, declare a moratorium on international tourism or create their own banks to serve as the “first stop” for remittances from indigenous peoples working abroad. These latter demands would be sure to evoke the wrath of the neoliberal state. More generally, this principle dictates a sharp distinction between policies focused on “poverty reduction,” which are ubiquitous and heavily supported, and those intended to reduce socioeconomic inequality, conspicuous for their absence. This first principle has an increasingly globalized character, driven less by the interests of national economic elites than by the constraints and opportunities of a global economic system.

A second principle, also limiting the scope for possible change, has to do with the accumulation of political power. Neoliberal multiculturalism permits indigenous organization, as long as it does not amass enough power to call basic state prerogatives into question. These prerogatives are not about the state as the primary locus of social and economic policies, which now generally derive from the global arena. Nor do they revolve around the state’s role as legitimate representative of the people, a dubious proposition for many. Rather, at issue is the inviolability of the state as the last stop guarantor of political order. The Central American countries offer an especially dramatic case in point. If the current massive flow of international aid, loans and development funding were cut off, these tiny dependent states would collapse. Without the state, however, neoliberal economic development would lack the coercive means and minimal legitimacy to proceed. Cultural rights, up to and including many forms of local autonomy, do not threaten to contravene this principle, especially as neoliberal elites gain the wisdom to respond to their indigenous critics not by suppressing dissent, but by offering them a job.

Although these two principles have a repressive side, it is striking how infrequently it appears. Land rights, again, are illustrative. Indigenous demands for territorial sovereignty could present a radical challenge to neoliberal regimes, if they were extensive enough to support an alternative system of productive relations or sufficiently potent politically to undermine state authority. Yet such a challenge blurs fairly easily into less expansive positions with which the state can readily negotiate. Crucially, this negotiation is no longer about the all-or-nothing ideal of mono-cultural citizenship, which any expression of collective rights would contradict. Instead, it is about the more reasonable proposition of nudging “radical” demands back inside the line dividing the authorized from the prohibited.

The critique that accompanies this account does not focus primarily on the limited character of the spaces opened by neoliberal multiculturalism, but rather on the prospect that these limits would define what is politically possible. As long as neoliberal principles are critically scrutinized as opportunities to be exploited, the spaces they open could be productively occupied, fighting the good fight to circumvent their pre-inscribed limits. I have engaged in precisely such an effort, with results that were mixed but positive enough to keep on trying.[11] Although sometimes viable and necessary, this strategy is risky, especially when the full ideological repercussions of neoliberal multiculturalism are taken into account.

With the indio permitido comes, inevitably, the construction of its undeserving, dysfunctional, Other—two very different ways to be Indian. The indio permitido has passed the test of modernity, substituted “protest” with “proposal,” and learned to be both authentic and fully conversant with the dominant milieu. Its Other is unruly, vindictive and conflict prone. These latter traits trouble elites who have pledged allegiance to cultural equality, seeding fears about what empowerment of these Other Indians would portend. Governance proactively creates and rewards the indio permitido, while condemning its Other to the racialized spaces of poverty and social exclusion. Those who occupy the category of the indio permitido must prove they have risen above the racialized traits of their brethren by endorsing and reinforcing the divide.

One potentially deceptive image that flows from this analysis depicts a small indigenous elite benefiting as representatives of a majority from whom they are structurally alienated. To portray the divide strictly in class terms misses the point, and could reinforce the assertion that “real” Indians are poor, rural and backward, while middle class Indians are “inauthentic.”[12] Rather, the dichotomy is cultural-political: moderate versus radical, proper versus unruly. Indians on the “radical” side of this divide are said to act in self-marginalizing ways; their resentment feeds “reverse racism”; and in the post-9/11 climate, criticism of these negative traits gives way to the ultimate term of opprobrium, the indigenous “terrorist.”[13] Even those who occupy the category of the indio permitido are contaminated by proximity to the radicals, and must constantly prove they belong in the sanctioned space.

The point is not to lionize radicals or to place them beyond critique, but to challenge the dichotomy altogether, and thereby redefine the terms of indigenous struggle. A crucial facet of resistance, then, is rearticulation, which creates bridges between authorized and condemned ways of being Indian. Political initiatives that link indigenous peoples who occupy varying spaces in relation to the centers of political-economic power are especially promising. The same goes for efforts to connect diverse experiences of neoliberal racial formation, especially among indigenous and Afro-descendant peoples. Blacks are more apt to be skeptical of the “good ethnics” trope, cutting through to its underlying racist premises. Indigenous people are better positioned to work the newly opened spaces of cultural rights, putting assumptions about Indians as inherently pre-modern to good use. By placing both experiences under the same analytic lens, we see more clearly how neoliberal multiculturalism constructs bounded, discontinuous cultural groups, each with distinct rights, that are discouraged from mutual interaction.[14]

As globalized economic change continues, strategies of rearticulation can only become more difficult to achieve. Growing numbers of indigenous peoples are leaving rural communities for urban areas, where education, jobs and some hope of upward mobility can be found. Many continue northward to the United States. With few exceptions, the locus of economic dynamism has shifted from agriculture to activities such as maquila production, remittance-driven financial services, tourism and commerce. Rural Indian households are most likely to remain stuck in a cycle of critical poverty. Despite these rapidly changing demographic and economic conditions, indigenous leaders—increasingly urban and urbane—still draw heavily on the utopian discourse of indigenous autonomy, exercised in quintessentially rural, culturally bounded spaces. This discourse can reinforce the ideology of the indio permitido, creating authorized spokespeople, increasingly out of touch with those whose interests they evoke. Rearticulation, in contrast, would build bridges among indigenous peoples in diverse structural locations: from rural dwellers, to workers in the new economies, to those who struggle from within the neoliberal establishment. To be effective, rearticulation will also need to draw on reconfigured political imaginaries, and on utopian discourses of a different hue.

Rearticulation may also require shifting strategy from a focus on keeping the state out, to exerting control over the terms under which the state, and the neoliberal establishment more generally, stay in. Indeed, this shift already has begun. The short and unfortunate experience of the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE) with “co-government” in Ecuador demonstrated how unprepared it was to take advantage of the fantastic success of ousting one government and being elected to help run its successor. The Bolivian indigenous uprising of October 2003 has given rise to a similar predicament. This dramatic political achievement revealed the profound vulnerability of the indio permitido and the explosive potential of rearticulation as resistance. Ahead lies the task of imagining the kind of reconstituted state and alternative productive regime that would stay true to that momentarily unified, but now highly fragmentary, indigenous majority.

The decade-old Zapatista uprising in Chiapas raises the same basic question, from the opposite point of departure. To survive a decade of state-orchestrated hostility while staying the course of defiant political innovation is an impressive feat. As the experiment enters its second decade, however, the prospects for rearticulation grow increasingly remote. Radical refusal of any engagement with the neoliberal state gains transformative traction to the extent that it simultaneously articulates, symbolically and in daily political practice, with those who struggle from other sociopolitical locations. As the potential for forging such articulation diminishes, this space of refusal starts to look like the indio permitido’s Other—unruly and conflict prone, but otherwise readily isolated and dismissed.

Perhaps, then, Dr. Cojtí’s strategy requires a second look and a more subtle reading. During the same visit to Guatemala in which I spoke with my teacher friends about their strike, I asked Cojtí about the inner workings of the Ministry of Education. He divided the overwhelmingly ladino bureaucracy into three groups: hard-core racists and race progressives, both minorities; and an ambivalent majority that implemented the new “multicultural” mandate without conviction, as the path of least resistance. With ironic humor and characteristic cogency, he offered his own explanation for having taken the job: to carry out a critical ethnography of the “ladino” state!

There is no point in trying to neatly classify this experience as either cooptation or everyday resistance; both are blunt conceptual tools, too focused on the practices themselves rather than on the consequences that follow. These consequences will remain unclear, in turn, until the process of Maya rearticulation begins. Given the genocidal brutality of Guatemala’s ruling elite, amply demonstrated in recent history, this process is sure to turn ugly. It would be fatalistic to abandon hopes for rearticulation in anticipation of this ugliness, but irresponsible to advocate Maya ascendancy without imagining some means to assuage the fears and lessen the polarization. To occupy the space of the indio permitido may well be the most reasonable means at hand. If so, it will be especially crucial to name that space, to highlight the menace it entails, and to subject its occupants to stringent demands for accountability to an indigenous constituency with an alternative political vision. Otherwise, it will be safe to assume that those who occupy this space have acquiesced, if only by default, to the regressive neoliberal project that the indio permitido is meant to serve.

Charles R. Hale is associate professor of anthropology at the University of Texas, Austin; author of Resistance and Contradiction: Miskitu Indians and the Nicaraguan State, 1894-1987 (1994), and Más que un indio: Racial Ambivalence and the Paradox of Neoliberal Multiculturalism in Guatemala (forthcoming).


1. The basic analysis put forth in this essay was developed collaboratively with my friend and colleague Rosamel Millamán. The epigraph text is from the World Bank website on “Social Capital and Ethnicity”:
2. A brief selection of Cojtí’s key publications include his “Problemas de la ‘Identidad Nacional’ Guatemalteca,” in Cultura Maya y Políticas de Desarrollo, COCADI, ed. pp. 139-162 (Chimaltenango: Ediciones COCADI, 1989); Políticas para la reinvindicacíon de los Mayas de Hoy (Guatemala: CHOLSAMAJ, 1994); Ri Maya’ Moloj pa Iximulew. El Movimiento Maya (Guatemala City: Editorial Cholsamaj, 1997); and “Heterofobia y Racismo Guatemalteco,” in ¿Racismo en Guatemala? Abriendo Debate sobre un Tema Tabú. C. Arenas, C. R. Hale, and G. Palma, eds. (Guatemala: Ediciones Don Quijote, 1999).
3. This assessment tended to be based less on a systematic content analysis of Cojtí’s position, than on the mere fact that a highly educated Maya dared to name the racial ills of Guatemalan society in a public, cogent and forthright manner. I address ladino responses to Maya ascendancy at length in my book, to be published with the School of American Research Press, titled: Más que un indio… Racial Ambivalence and the Paradox of Neoliberal Multiculturalism in Guatemala.
4. Ample documentation of this transformation can be found in Donna Lee Van Cott, The Friendly Liquidation of the Past: the Politics of Diversity in Latin America (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2000).
5. For example, the Guatemalan state, loath to give up the practice of separate and unequal, never fully embraced the mestizaje idea, except briefly during the 1944-54 period of social democratic reform. Peru and Paraguay constitute exceptions of a different sort, and each country had its particularities.
6. A good analysis of Mexico’s Museum of Anthropology in this vein can be found in Nestor Garcia Canclini, Culturas Híbridas: Estrategias para entrar y salir de la modernidad (Mexico: Grijalbo, 1989).
7. For an analysis of “neoliberal” or “late” liberalism, see: Nikolas Rose, Powers of Freedom. Reframing Political Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999); Jean Comaroff and John L. Comaroff, “Millennial Capitalism: First Thoughts on a Second Coming,” in Millennial Capitalism and the Culture of Neoliberalism, J. Comaroff and J. L. Comaroff, eds., pp. 1- 56 (Durham: Duke University Press, 2001); and Elizabeth A. Povinelli, The Cunning of Recognition: Indigenous Alterities and the Making of Australian Multiculturalism (Durham: Duke University Press, 2002). I develop a version of this argument more fully in my “Does Multiculturalism Menace? Governance, Cultural Rights and the Politics of Identity in Guatemala,” Journal of Latin American Studies 34: 485-524, 2002.
8. This summary is based on Yashar’s presentation at the University of Texas, in May 2004. Her book is still forthcoming. See also her “Contesting Citizenship: Indigenous Movements and Democracy in Latin America,” in Comparative Politics: 23-42, 1998; and “Democracy, Indigenous Movements, and the Post-Liberal Challenge in Latin America,” in World Politics 52 (October): 76-104,1999.
9. This is the central concept in an essay that Millamán and I co-authored, focusing comparatively on my analysis of Guatemala and his of Chile. See our forthcoming “Cultural agency and political struggle in the era of the ‘indio permitido’,” in Cultural Agency in the Americas, D. Sommer, ed. (Durham: Duke University Press).
10. See, for example, “Campesinos invaden 665 caballerías,” Siglo XXI, 7/24/02. This article reports that CNOC, a coordinator of agrarian organizations, had occupied a total of 53 fincas in nine departments. A top leader of CONIC, another indigenous agrarian organization, recently told me that the number of occupied fincas was much higher than 100. For an example of news reports on the violent expulsions, see “Plataforma Agraria: Exigen a Oscar Berger fin de desalojos,” Prensa Libre, 2/20/2004. It appears that Berger may have not have actively supported the expulsions, which have been carried forward by powerful business interests; rather, he lacked the political resources and will to stop them.
11. For a preliminary report and reflection on one such effort, see C.R. Hale, Galio C. Gurdian, and Edmund T. Gordon: “Rights, Resources and the Social Memory of Struggle: Reflections on a Study of Indigenous and Black Community Land Rights on Nicaragua’s Atlantic Coast,” Human Organization 62(4), 2003.
12. There is a direct analogy here, with a prominent line of critique of affirmative action in the Unted States. A good example is the recent article “Diversity’s False Solace” by Walter Benn Michaels in the New York Times Magazine, 4/11/04. In this setting, also, to reduce the matter to class divisions is a simplification that mischaracterizes the dichotomy.
13. CIA concerns about indigenous movements in Latin America as a future security threat are laid out in the CIA publication, found at this web address: An example of the warning, cited from this report, is as follows: “Indigenous protest movements. Such movements will increase, facilitated by transnational networks of indigenous rights activists and supported by well-funded international human rights and environmental groups. Tensions will intensify in the area from Mexico through the Amazon region…”
14. Sustained analysis in this dual analytical lens is exceedingly and surprisingly rare. One exception is Peter Wade, Race and Ethnicity in Latin America (London: Pluto, 1997).

Tags: race, indigenous politics, identity, indigenismo, multicultural, neoliberal

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