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Deborah Yashar (“Does Race Matter in Latin America?” March/April 2015) provides a sophisticated analysis of identity politics in Latin America, but she overestimates the gains that indigenous groups have made.
Yashar describes Rigoberta Menchú Tum’s 1992 Nobel Peace Prize as a watershed moment for indigenous groups across the region. Menchú’s award was indeed momentous, but it was not quite the sea change that Yashar implies it was. Indeed, Menchú herself lost in the first rounds of Guatemala’s 2007 and 2011 presidential elections, in part because she could not overcome the conventional old-boy network that privileges the country’s business and military elites. Despite its large indigenous population, Guatemala today has no coherent political party representing indigenous interests, and indigenous leaders are conspicuously absent from national politics writ large.
Yashar goes on to argue that Latin America’s neoliberal reforms have strengthened indigenous movements. But they have also prioritized industrial development over land rights and the ecological services that sustain indigenous villages. As a result, indigenous groups—especially in Guatemala—have continued to experience disproportionately low levels of development.
Indigenous peoples across Central and South America continue to struggle for land rights, political representation, and equality. Yashar is correct to note that indigenous groups have begun to mobilize, but whether this will lead to substantive improvements in their future well-being remains an open question.
MATTHEW KLICK Adjunct Lecturer, University of Denver