ArticlePDF Available
Charles R. Hale
University of Texas
Neoliberal Multiculturalism:
The Remaking of Cultural Rights and Racial Dominance in
Central America
This article analyzes the rising prominence of neoliberalism as a new strategy of
governance that reaches well beyond economic reforms. In particular, neoliberal
governance includes the limited recognition of cultural rights, the strengthening
of civil society, and endorsement of the principle of intercultural equality. When
combined with neoliberal economic policies, these progressive measures have
unexpected effects, including a deepened state capacity to shape and neutralize
political opposition, and a remaking of racial hierarchies across the region.
Drawing on ethnographic examples from three sites of political practice, the ar-
ticle documents these processes and their consequences, especially for black and
indigenous Central Americans.
Puerto Lempira is a small, predominantly Miskitu Indian town on the banks of a
salt water lagoon in northwest Honduras, the central place of the Honduran
Mosquitia and the homeland of the Miskitu people. I went there in May 2003 for
the final meeting of a participatory mapping research project, designed to sup-
port Miskitu and Garífuna people in their struggle for land. We invited 30 lead-
ers to a two-day workshop in order to discuss the findings and to plan follow-up
actions; we arrived to find 75 people packed into the Catholic church meeting
hall, already sweltering hot at ten o’clock in the morning. Our research had pro-
duced maps and supporting documents for 15 multicommunal claims called blo-
ques, a compromise between individual community claims, clearly favored by
the project donors and the Honduran state, and an expansive demand for the en-
tire Mosquitia, which many Miskitu fervently believed to be rightfully theirs. The
compromise emerged as a partly explicit, partly concealed strategy to achieve the
expansive territorial demand in a less confrontational and perhaps more effica-
cious way: piecing it together, one bloque at a time. We expected workshop par-
ticipants to endorse this plan and to devote remaining project resources to one
chosen bloque, which would achieve a collectively held land title, and conse-
quently open a path for others to follow.
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PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review, Vol. 28, No. 1, pp. 10–28, ISSN 1081-
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I then watched, with an odd combination of dismay and exhilaration, as our care-
fully conceived plan unraveled. In rhetoric emboldened by the study’s resound-
ing support for indigenous rights, by the collective energy of the packed meeting
hall, and by cumulative anger with historic government oppression, one speaker
after another opted for the radical alternative: “Demand the entire Mosquitia,
which has been our homeland for time immemorial.” Even some of the Miskitu
leaders who had been instrumental in formulating the bloque strategy ended up
endorsing the clamor for territory, whether out of pragmatic calculation or be-
cause they too were transformed by the meeting’s fervor. After much heated de-
bate, the plenary overwhelmingly endorsed a militant, vaguely millenarian
declaration of rights to territorial autonomy. The dismay that tempered my ex-
hilaration at this glimpse of an uprising in the making was because it seemed
likely that energy would dissipate in the face of powerful opposition and weak
internal organization. These mixed reactions inform the central analytical ques-
tion: Under what conditions can indigenous movements occupy the limited
spaces opened by neoliberal multiculturalism, redirecting them toward their own
radical, even utopian political alternatives?
September 11, 2003, marked thirty years since the overthrow of Chilean presi-
dent Salvador Allende, which has become the point of departure for tracing the
rise of neoliberal economic reform in Latin America. Pinochet and his Chicago
School advisors were precocious. Neoliberalism did not become a household
term in academic and policy circles until well into the 1980s, and later still did it
become a continentwide object of critical analysis and political repudiation. By
the beginning of the twenty-first century, however, it already had become
anachronistic to continue speaking of “neoliberal reforms” as opposed to simply
using the term “neoliberalism” to name the quasi-naturalized mode of political-
economic organization that now prevails. The harvest from these two decades of
neoliberal economic policy has been remarkably bitter. According to the most re-
cent report from the Economic Commission on Latin America (ECLA), 220 mil-
lion Latin Americans (or 43.4 percent) live in poverty; inequality in the
distribution of wealth and income has deepened; prospects for the near future ap-
pear bleak. Even in their own terms, neoliberal economics are not working all
that well.
Despite Pinochet’s distinction as a pioneer, it would be misleading to associate ne-
oliberal ascendancy with dictatorship. On the contrary, this shift has been con-
summated in tandem with a region-wide return to democracy, during the same
years that scholars have heralded as the era of new social movements (Escobar
1992; Dagnino. Alvarez, and Escobar 1998). Yet, however critical these new dem-
ocratic actors, the general pattern has been for stark opposition to fade into nego-
tiation and compromise. With the partial exception of Fidel Castro’s Cuba and the
embattled municipios autónomos of Chiapas, oppositional political initiatives are
apt to be found waging their struggles from within the neoliberal establishment.
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The anti-globalization movement is another exception, which still mainly serves
to prove the rule: impressive intensity of political energy, prescient in its global
analysis and scope, but largely disarticulated from, for example, the daily strug-
gles of those 220 million who seek immediate relief. To the economic paradox of
failed policies that continue to be implemented, add the following political one:
The best analyses of neoliberalism’s systemic ills inform political strategies that
most potential supporters cannot or will not follow.
This, in turn, raises the question of cultural rights. Are indigenous movements,
with their endorsement of a radically distinct cultural-political logic, demands,
and notions of rights, poised both to articulate strongly with a multitudinous base
and to advance an alternative political vision that directly challenges neoliberal
orthodoxy? In order to address this question, we must first expand our under-
standing of neoliberalism itself. This means thinking beyond its original mean-
ing: a set of market-oriented reforms meant to correct and eliminate the flawed
economic policies of import substitution industrialization and state-driven eco-
nomic development. Latin American neoliberalism, I will argue, has become a
full-fledged political project. Neoliberalism encompasses economic doctrine but
also promotes a reorganization of “political society” along the lines of decen-
tralization, trimming down of the state, affirming basic human rights, and calling
for minimally functional democracies. Most importantly for us here, neoliberal-
ism brings forth a new direction in social policy, emphasizing the development
of civil society and social capital, and an approach to cultural rights that at first
glance appears highly counterintuitive.
It is often assumed that the central tenet of neoliberalism, like the unadorned cog-
nate from which it derives, is the triumph of an aggressively individualist ideol-
ogy of “economic man.” In contrast, I suggest that collective rights, granted as
compensatory measures to “disadvantaged” cultural groups, are an integral part
of neoliberal ideology. These distinctive cultural policies (along with their so-
ciopolitical counterparts), rather than simply the temporal lapse between classic
liberalism and its latter day incarnation, are what give the “neo” its real meaning.
To emphasize the integral relationship between these new cultural rights and ne-
oliberal political economic reforms, I use the term “neoliberal multiculturalism.”
In previous moments of Latin American history, the hegemonic idiom of nation
building was mestizaje, a gesture of deep reverence for the indigenous (or, in
Brazil and perhaps Cuba, African) roots of national identity, combined with a
privileging of the European-oriented “mestizo” subject, as bearer of rights and
source of political dynamism that looks to the future (see, for example, Bonfil
Batalla 1981, Hale 1994, Gordon 1998, Stutzman 1981, Gould 1998). This pro-
foundly assimilationist project remains strong in many parts of Latin America,
but in general is waning and being replaced by a politics of “cultural recogni-
tion.” In part taking the rise of cultural rights activism as an inevitable given, and
in part actively substituting a new articulating principle, the emergent regime of
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governance shapes, delimits, and produces cultural difference rather than sup-
pressing it. Encouraged and supported by multilateral institutions, Latin
American elites have moved from being vehement opponents to reluctant arbiters
of rights grounded in cultural difference. In so doing, they find that cultural
rights, when carefully delimited, not only pose little challenge to the forward
march of the neoliberal project but also induce the bearers of these rights to join
in the march.
In this article I briefly examine three sites of neoliberal multiculturalism, drawn
from three different arenas of my own work in Central America: a landmark cul-
tural rights case in the Inter-American Human Rights Court in San José, Costa
Rica; struggles for black and indigenous lands in Nicaragua and Honduras; and
Ladino responses to the rise of the Maya movement in Guatemala. From this
analysis emerges, first, a strong and vivid sense of rights grounded in cultural dif-
ference as a rich, expansive, and volatile terrain of political mobilization. In each
case, powerful institutions played key roles in recognizing, encouraging, and
opening the space for certain versions of cultural rights. These institutions, how-
ever, cannot easily set limits on the mobilizations that follow, nor can they read-
ily fix the cultural-political meanings that people produce and affirm as they
mobilize. Yet in the struggles that ensue, the scope and meaning of cultural rights
become the focus of contention while the outcome of struggles in this arena often
remains ambiguous and highly contingent. The great efficacy of neoliberal mul-
ticulturalism resides in powerful actors’ ability to restructure the arena of politi-
cal contention, driving a wedge between cultural rights and the assertion of the
control over resources necessary for those rights to be realized. This is not a di-
vide between (endorsed) individual rights and (prohibited) collective ones but
rather a retooled dichotomy between base and superstructure: a Marxist vision
returning to social movements as a nightmare.
This dichotomy acquires such efficacy in part because it looks precisely like what
these movements themselves—especially indigenous movements—have been
struggling to achieve: affirmation of cultural particularity and relief from the
Marxist penchant to reduce all political contention to class struggle. The night-
mare settles in as indigenous organizations win important battles of cultural
rights only to find themselves mired in the painstaking, technical, administrative,
and highly inequitable negotiations for resources and political power that follow.
I develop this argument focusing on three sites of Central American research,
using each to explore a distinct effect of neoliberal multiculturalism: extending
the grid of intelligibility, defining legitimate (and undeserving) subjects of rights,
and remaking racial hierarchy. I conclude by pointing tentatively to pathways for
confronting and moving beyond these limitations: sparks of utopian politics that
change the subject; carrying on the cultural rights discussion in a language fun-
damentally at odds with the neoliberal multicultural frame; strategies for reartic-
ulating cultural rights with demands for political-economic resources from the
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start. These pathways embrace expansive political alternatives; not only have
local strategies been welcomed, but they have also started occupying the spaces
that neoliberal multiculturalism has opened.
The Awas Tingni Case in the Inter-American Human Rights Court
This first site should quickly dispel the gloomy sense of entrapment in my argu-
ment. The site is the Inter-American Human Rights Court, and the specific occa-
sion is the landmark case of the Mayagna (indigenous) community of Awas
Tingni against the Nicaraguan state. Very briefly: Awas Tingni brought suit
against the government for violation of their rights to communal lands and for
denial of due process in the national courts in adjudication of those rights. The
legal framework for the case was the American Convention on Human Rights,
formulated in the 1960s at the height of the previous era of assimilationist cul-
tural conformity and signed by Nicaragua in 1979. In keeping with the ideolog-
ical precepts of the time, the Convention’s guaranteed protection of “property
rights” (Article 21, “Right to Property”) had an unyieldingly individualist con-
tent (Inter-American Commission on Human Rights 1969):
1. Everyone has the right to the use and enjoyment of his property.
The law may subordinate such use and enjoyment to the interest of
society.
2. No one shall be deprived of his property except upon payment of
just compensation, for reasons of public utility or social interest, and
in the cases and according to the forms established by law.
The crux of the audacious strategy of the Awas Tingni lawyers was to convince
the judges that this clause should be stretched and reinterpreted in order to apply
property rights to a collective subject—an indigenous community—rather than
individually and to understand property not as a legal title but, rather, as a cul-
turally sanctioned occupation. During most of the trial, the community’s lawyers
built their case around the key term “ancestrality”: Awas Tingni inhabitants have
lived on this land for time immemorial, according to traditional cultural patterns,
and have property rights that take precedence over those granted by a late-com-
ing nation-state. This line of reasoning fit neatly within the lines of political con-
tention in the previous era: a hegemonic mestizo state defending one
cultural-political principle, and a militant indigenous movement, putting forth a
radically different and contradictory one.
In the final phase, in the face of the government’s relentless challenge of the an-
cestrality claim, S. James Anaya, the lead lawyer for the community, gave his ar-
gument a dramatically new twist. “There are two approaches (tendencias) that
states may follow in response to indigenous people’s claims for rights,” Anaya
began. One approach he called “modern”; he never gave the other a name, but he
associated it with the past, the out-of-date, the backward-looking, so I will refer
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to it as “backward.” The “backward” approach sought to assimilate indigenous
peoples, “stripping away their cultural attributes (rasgos), their cultural essence,
preventing them from prospering in the lands where they have lived.” The mod-
ern approach, in contrast, was to be found in all the recently approved interna-
tional laws, backed by the United Nations, that “strengthen the cultural essence,
the life ways of indigenous peoples, assign value to indigenous religious and
philosophical beliefs (cosmovisión) and to their relations with the land.” Anaya
gave the word “modern” and its cognates a striking amount of air time in the final
minutes of the courtroom drama, in contrast to the word’s near absence in the rest
of the proceedings. For example, one government argument was that Awas Tingni
people had moved around too much to have a claim to ancestral rights. Anaya re-
sponded:
It does not matter ... according to the modern criteria of the mod-
ern approach, reflected in the modern judicial instruments, it doesn’t
matter how much you move around; what matters is the continuity of
a historically constituted group, which maintains traditional traits and
patterns. This has not been disputed. (author’s emphasis added)
Modernity was a space that both the judges and the illustrious Nicaraguan state
imagined themselves to occupy, especially in contrast to the monolingual
Mayagna of Awas Tingni who filled the courtroom. Anaya had simply added a
key attribute to that same space: Judges and states alike, if they are indeed truly
modern, recognize and affirm the rights of indigenous communities such as Awas
Tingni. After lengthy deliberations, the judges delivered a sentence that resound-
ingly supported this contention.
The Awas Tingni victory has galvanized similar struggles by other indigenous
and black communities in Nicaragua and throughout the Americas. It has injected
a burst of energy in work to advance an international legal regime in defense of
cultural rights, and it has moved Awas Tingni community members closer to
achieving their fundamental goals of livelihood security and cultural survival.
These achievements, however, have come with a full complement of contradic-
tions.
The case in favor of Awas Tingni became so compelling to the judges for a com-
bination of reasons: On the one hand, community lawyers emphasized the pro-
foundly authentic cultural difference of Awas Tingni’s people, and on the other
hand, they convinced the court that such cultural difference deserves legal pro-
tection, because that is what modern nation-states are supposed to do. Although
the Nicaraguan government fought this position tooth and nail, more agile and
astute political elites might well have gone with the current. Two years later, it is
clear that Awas Tingni’s legal victory has come at the cost of deeper entangle-
ment in, to adapt a term from James C. Scott (1998), neoliberalism’s “grid of in-
telligibility.” This is not to argue that community members were foolhardy to
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wage the struggle nor that the cost was exorbitant, but, rather, to insist on seeing
the process as a transformation of power relations as opposed to resistance to-
ward empowerment.
Following the legal victory, in September 2001 government negotiators engaged
the community and its lawyers in a protracted twenty-month negotiation before
finally beginning work on the mandated demarcation of the community’s lands
in June 2003. Claiming lack of funds (due in no small part to the fact that the
president of the time, Arnoldo Alemán, stole untold millions from the govern-
ment coffers, a crime for which he was jailed), the state turned to the World
Bank, who agreed to finance the demarcation. As of this writing, the demarcation
study is being “reviewed” by government officials who, according to the negoti-
ated arrangement, are entitled to demand changes until they are satisfied.
Whatever the community gains in the final analysis—and it is likely to be sub-
stantial—the cost will be an unprecedented involvement of the state and of ne-
oliberal development institutions in the community’s internal affairs: regulating
the details of the claim, shaping political subjectivities, and reconfiguring inter-
nal relations.
This entanglement in a grid of intelligibility is a key feature of neoliberal gover-
nance. The transformation of power relations is especially productive because it
involves the concession—or, indeed the active promotion—of long-standing de-
mands for cultural rights. Its advance is deceptive, among other reasons, because
victory often comes in the face of vigorous resistance from recalcitrant elites who
defend the previous order. In the Awas Tingni case, for example, government
lawyers defended a remarkably aggressive and arrogant version of Nicaragua’s
“myth of Mestizaje” (Gould 1998), arguing that the claimants had no rights be-
cause they were racially mixed—an argument that showed contempt for their
“cultural backwardness” and suggested that their legitimate rights were no
greater than those of any mestizo peasant. This posture clearly irked the judges
and helped to set up Anaya’s modernity move, momentarily positioning the
Nicaraguan state as needing to be educated and disciplined.
The Awas Tingni case is especially challenging in relation to the problem of ne-
oliberal multiculturalism, because the rights in question go well beyond “cultural
recognition” (language, education, spirituality, identity) to encompass land and
resources. Do black and indigenous community land rights really fit within the
broader frame of neoliberal governance? In the course of a five year exercise in
activist research, a group of colleagues from the University of Texas and I, along
with others from Central America, have been reflecting upon this very question.
We accepted the World Bank’s offer to support black and indigenous land rights,
to find out whether such an offer might be put to the service of the more expan-
sive visions of political change that these communities nurture, whether these
communities can “use the system,” as one Garífuna activist intellectual from
Honduras put it, “to fight the system.
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The Black and Native Land Rights Struggles in Honduras and Nicaragua
Shelton Davis, activist anthropologist turned World Bank sociologist, led with re-
markable success a two-decade-long campaign from within the organization to
reform World Bank policies toward indigenous peoples (Davis and Partridge
1994). Playing strategically off rising cries of protest over World Bank “mega-
projects” and their deleterious effects on indigenous peoples (protest that Davis
himself helped to ignite with his early ethnography-exposé of development in the
Brazilian Amazonia, Victims of the Miracle), these insider reformers worked to
develop a new “operational directive” for indigenous peoples (known as DO
4.20), which committed the World Bank to an extensive new set of constraints
and obligations in recognition of indigenous cultural, political, and economic
rights.1Davis, who frequently makes university visits, gave an impressive
PowerPoint seminar at the University of Texas in the spring of 2003 that placed
the World Bank at the cutting edge of the trend in support of “development with
identity”: indigenous participation in all facets of project development; respect
for cultural difference; and multiculturalism as a forward-looking political sensi-
bility that the World Bank urges member states to endorse, all directly resonant
with Anaya’s “modernity move” in the Awas Tingni case. In keeping with this
policy shift the World Bank has funded “land demarcation” projects, intended to
map black and indigenous claims, as a prior step to definitive titling of their
lands.
The Caribbean Central American Research Council (CCARC), an activist re-
search organization of which I am a member, entered a competitive bidding
process for the research contracts in Nicaragua (1997–1998) and in Honduras
(2001–2002), winning both. Thus began a five year attempt to “ride the tiger,
about which we have just recently started thinking in analytical terms.2We man-
aged a combined budget of some seven hundred thousand dollars, worked with
teams of about twenty researchers in each country, and designed and employed a
participatory research methodology that involved community leaders in a dy-
namic process of discussion, elaboration, and validation of their land rights. The
most important research products were what we call “ethno-maps”: computer-
based cartographic representations of claims, created through georeferenced field
data collected by the community members themselves. Land use designations in-
side the perimeters of these claims demonstrate that, far from being “empty ter-
ritory,” this land encompassed a dense, long-standing network of human-resource
relationships. The products also include an accompanying text, which explains
and documents the claims, based on ethnographic research in the community.
Quite apart from these principal research results, the project also provided an oc-
casion to explore why neoliberal institutions are opening these spaces in the first
place.
The prevailing image of the World Bank and affine institutions in academic and
political circles on the Left is of ruthless guardians of a punishing economic
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model, bowing down obediently to the interests of capital and trampling on the
needs and rights of the poor.3This image is badly in need of revision. The point
is not that the overall effects depart sharply from this portrayal but rather that the
political sensibilities and institutional practices that drive World Bank policies to-
ward “agricultural modernization” in Central America, for example, are more
subtle, gentle, and comprehending—and thus much more effective. For every or-
thodox economist who sees the world in supply-and-demand equations driven
exclusively by individual interests, there is a “front-man” like Enrique, a former
friend of mine from Nicaragua solidarity days, who insists that he has not wa-
vered in his support for radical egalitarian political principles but simply has
added a dose of pragmatism in his methods for getting there—which, in neolib-
eral discourse, is called a shift from protest to proposal. Moreover, in policy and
ideological terms, it would be mistaken to assume that the architects of neolib-
eral policies need, or even prefer, a strictly individual notion of rights. Collective
rights to land work just as well, as long as they meet two basic conditions: The
first is that they cannot contradict the principal tenets of the long-term economic
development model, which, in these countries, is turning away from most large-
scale agriculture toward free-trade-zone manufacturing, financial services, com-
merce, tourism, and environmental management. The second condition is that
they cannot cross a certain line in the gathering of political clout, which would
threaten established power holders and destabilize the regime. This line, highly
subjective and unstable, is often drawn in the heat of the moment by state oper-
atives rather than Bank functionaries themselves. As long as these conditions are
met, collective land rights actually help advance the neoliberal model by ration-
alizing land tenure, reducing the potential for chaos and conflict, and locking the
community into a mindset that makes it more difficult for expansive political al-
ternatives to emerge.
To grasp the contradictory, three-way power relations behind these land rights
struggles, comprising the World Bank, the client state, and the subjects of cul-
tural rights, is to go to the heart of the puzzle of neoliberal multiculturalism in
Central America. The Nicaraguan and Honduran states have been dragged into
compliance with the new multicultural mandates, pressured not only by the
World Bank but also by organizations such as the Inter-American Development
Bank (IADB), the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), and the
Inter-American Human Rights Court, who advance “progressive” agendas along
these lines. In Nicaragua we heard constant protests from state officials assigned
as counterparts to our land rights study as well as denunciations of the World
Bank’s “new imperialism” in favor of indigenous rights. As one sharp-tongued
Nicaraguan Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources (MARENA)
lawyer quipped,
The costeños [black and indigenous residents of the Atlantic coastal
region] do not work hard to produce, they simply hunt and fish. They
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are generally lazy. How can we justify giving them so much land? In
any case, it is we Nicaraguans who have to decide who has rights to
communal lands. The World Bank should not be making this deci-
sion, exerting influence where it does not belong. These guys want
to turn all of Nicaragua into a national park.
Many times I heard Enrique gripe about the “dinosaurs” in the Honduran state,
whom he and others in the most recent “Bank Mission” had to bring into line.
World Bank funding props up these tiny, corrupt, bankrupt states and, in the
process, gains the informal prerogative to dictate policy, force out incompetent or
backward-thinking state functionaries, and even create new government entities
if the existing ones seem incompetent. High-level operatives in the resulting
pseudo-state chafe at this blatant intervention and at times protest openly, but
they generally are too well paid and too dependent to persist. They are more
likely to remain smiling until the “mission” leaves and then find ways to evade
full compliance. “Obedezco pero no cumplo” [I obey but I do not comply],4all
over again.
Local power holders, in contrast, feel much more directly threatened by the ad-
vance of cultural rights, and they have much less to lose in voicing protest. In
Honduras, for example, our Diagnóstico (Diagnostic) caused great disquiet
among members of the local mestizo economic and political elite, who would be
directly displaced if the land claims we had documented were actually granted.
In one public meeting, the mestizo mayor of Juan Francisco Bulnes, a tricultural
(Garífuna, indigenous, and mestizo) municipio, took a stance of vehement oppo-
sition to our Diagnóstico.
Here the question of adjudicating authenticity comes to the fore. Staunch opposi-
tion from one sector of local and national elites keeps the proponents of neolib-
eral multiculturalism on high ground, fighting the good fight against the
“dinosaurs,” while serving notice to the subjects of these newfound rights to stay
within certain pre-inscribed limits. Institutions such as the World Bank then pres-
ent themselves as pragmatic mediators, carving out a space of compromise be-
tween militant cultural rights activists and recalcitrant, powerful conservatives. As
Elizabeth Povinelli (2002) argues for parallel land rights claims brought forward
by aboriginal Australians, “late liberal” states can turn the tables astoundingly
quickly. They do so happens not by denying rights but rather by granting them, as
long as they maintain the prerogative to set standards of authenticity associated
with these rights and to decide who meets those standards.
A recent volume titled Indigenous Self-Representation in Latin America (Warren
and Jackson 2002) echoes similar concerns: The state has shifted from adversary
to arbiter, introducing a whole new set of problems for indigenous movements.
The following questions arise: Do the indigenous claimants measure up? How
must they behave in order to become and remain deserving subjects of these
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rights? When indigenous leaders or intellectuals occupy that authorized space of
compromise, they win an important battle in the struggle for recognition. Yet
when they exchange protest for proposal, they often lose the inclination to artic-
ulate more expansive, utopian political visions with the pragmatic tactics of the
here and now. Those expansive visions remain, most apt to burst forth as angry
repudiation of pragmatic compromise rather than as its strategically articulated
complement. This is the lesson we learned in the church hall meeting described
at the beginning of this article. Under the weight of this predicament, even cul-
tural difference, that reliable font of utopian counterdiscourse, submits to do-
mestication as indigenous “representatives” accept recognition in exchange for
compliance with the economic and political constraints that follow.
Ladino Response to the Rise of the Maya5
The most counterintuitive outcome of this shift is not the “domestication” ef-
fect—a feature of any governance regime—but, rather, the remaking of racial hi-
erarchy, even amid vehement condemnation of “classic” racism. To probe this
facet of the panorama, I turn to Guatemala, where Mayas constitute the majority
of the population and have made impressive strides over the past two decades in
nearly every realm of cultural rights: forging powerful cultural-political organi-
zations, contesting racism, and demanding and receiving recognition from dom-
inant actors and institutions who, a generation earlier, espoused a naturalized
scorn for “lo indio.Members of the dominant culture, known as Ladinos, gen-
erally have distanced themselves from the racism of times past, adopting instead
a position that affirms cultural equality and allows a limited space for cultural
rights but ultimately justifies a new form of racial hierarchy, letting culture,
rather than race itself, provide the rationale.
The yearly kite festival in the predominantly indigenous town of Sumpango, just
south of Chimaltenango on the Pan-American Highway, is a quintessential space
of Maya efflorescence. Starting months before November 1, the day of the festi-
val, groups of indigenous youth organize to raise funds and design and build
enormous kites made of brightly colored paper carrying emphatic messages, al-
most always revolving around Maya identity and cultural rights: “Tejemos nues-
tra propia historia” [we weave our own history]; “Identificamos como pueblo
maya” [we identify as the Mayan people]; panegyrics to Rigoberta Menchú, quo-
tations from the iconic Maya text, the Popol Wuj. Sumpango also is situated in
the midst of a vast quasi-free trade zone of maquiladoras, which line the Pan-
American Highway. Driving by on any weekday at dawn, one will find the bus
stops teeming with indigenous youth, waiting for transportation to their mini-
mum-wage maquila jobs. Only in an era of neoliberal multiculturalism could
such an image congeal: the same people working as producers of surplus value
for the Korean-owned multinational textile industry by day and as producers of
Maya cultural militancy by night.
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The middle-class Ladinos from Chimaltenango, whom I accompanied to visit the
Sumpango kite festival in the late 1990s, were duly impressed with the display
of energy around Maya cultural themes, if mildly ambivalent. Ramiro, a high
school teacher, drew my attention to one kite’s slogan he especially liked:
“Mataron nuestra gente pero no mataron nuestra cultura” [they killed our people,
but they did not kill our culture]. He shared the intense revulsion toward the pre-
vious military regime that the slogan reflected, and he also affirmed how impor-
tant it was that indigenous people have a strong sense of identity and cultural
pride. The ambivalence came out in a different register: a string of jokes playing
on musings by Ramiro’s sister-in-law Brenda, as we strolled around the soccer
field turned festival grounds. She said, “We are like the insides of a gaucho [the
greasy sandwich that is the favorite street food in festivals like this one]. The rich
evade taxes,” she continued, “the poor have nothing to pay, and we pendejos
(fools) from the middle class declare our incomes and pay with the illusion that
we are building democracy.” After an interlude of humorous banter—how bread
in the gaucho kept getting thicker and the meat inside more meager, how grease
from the meat must soak through and drench the bread to make it tasty—the con-
versation reverted back to more serious allusions of the metaphor.
Brenda, Ramiro and the others also feel “sandwiched” between a Euro-
Guatemalan elite, who control disproportionate amounts of wealth and power, and
an ascendant indigenous majority, who are fed up with their assigned place at the
bottom of Guatemala’s race-class hierarchical ladder. To make matters worse, the
Euro-Guatemalan elite seem willing to endorse and promote multicultural re-
forms, often at the behest of purveyors of multilateral aid, bolstering Maya cul-
tural rights activism that leaves provincial Ladinos at the margins. As school
teachers, both Ramiro and Brenda’s sister had serious reservations about the pro-
posed constitutional reforms meant to give legal expression to key provisions of
indigenous cultural rights, approved in the 1996 peace accords.6They both opined
that education in an indigenous language was not feasible. More generally, while
Ramiro approved of indigenous cultural pride, he worried that this emphasis on
cultural rights could go too far, causing fragmentation and strife:
The thing is, people here just do not feel Guatemalan. Quite apart from
everything else, they should have that identity. It doesn’t matter what
you are in addition. Mexico does not have this problem: as they say,
“Mexico first, Mexico second, Mexico third.” We are not like that: we
have no loyalty.... If we all identified as Guatemalans, there would
be no problem; we could accept one another differences and all.
The key to mutual respect for cultural difference, Ramiro believes, is a common
identity as Guatemalan that transcends that difference altogether.
Middle-class Ladinos provide a revealing facet of the relationship between neo-
liberal multiculturalism and racial hierarchies, because their anxieties remain
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unusually close to the surface and because their multiple responses confound any
neat cultural logic that could be associated with this new moment of political
contention. Among the many Chimaltenango Ladinos with whom I conducted
fieldwork over some three years in the late 1990s, I found near-unanimous repu-
diation of the racism characteristic of Brenda and Ramiro’s parents’generations:
a punishing assertion of indigenous inferiority, an emphatic presumption that
“indios” should be confined to separate and unequal spaces of Guatemalan so-
ciety. Repudiation of these former views comes as an endorsement of cultural
equality, an encouragement of cultural pride, and an anxious receptivity to de-
mands for cultural rights.
The anxiety deepens as the points of contact increase between Maya cultural ac-
tivism and inherited prerogatives of Ladino racial privilege. When Mayas claim
jobs that Ladinos might otherwise count on, predominate in local electoral poli-
tics, wrest resources for cultural rights programs by rearranging zero-sum budg-
ets, or broach the ever-explosive question of land distribution, Ladinos get
anxious. Yet, whether out of political maturity or prudence, most Maya organi-
zations do not pursue these hot-button demands in explicit ways; they dissemble,
highlight safer and less controversial demands first, gradually building the “outer
trenches” of cultural rights on which most can agree. In the face of these more
moderate demands, Ladino responses become perplexingly fragmented, multi-
plied, and contradictory. Some take a hard line against any hint of multicultural
recognition, a few join the struggle against recalcitrance in their own ranks, but
most embrace Maya cultural rights while seeking to define their limits.
These efforts to set limits on Maya cultural rights, without returning to the “clas-
sic” racism of times past, involve a series of loosely articulated approaches, but
rarely coordinated or thought through as such. The first is to question the au-
thenticity of demands made in the name of “lo maya. As I engaged Silvia, an-
other school teacher from Chimaltenango, in conversation about
indigenous-Ladino relations, her first inclination was to emphasize how res-
olutely the members of her profession endorse the principles of cultural equality
and to gently reprimand her sister, who also partook in the conversation, for dis-
playing overtly racist precepts that others such as herself had left behind. Yet
when the conversation raised the topic of the “Maya movement,” Silvia turned
surprisingly adamant:
They do not have the right, historically, culturally, they do not have
the right to call themselves Mayas. By the time of the Conquest, the
Maya Empire had disappeared; when the Spanish arrived, there was
already a mixed people here. There were Toltecs who came from
Mexico, and by that time the Maya had completely disappeared.
Afterwards, the Spanish came, and found a mixed culture....
Legally the indigenous people claim they are Mayas and this is a
lie.... There are no pure Mayas left.
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For Silvia, like many Ladinos of her ilk, something about the effort to ground
cultural rights in claims to continuity with the ancient Maya crossed the line be-
tween legitimate cultural pride and crass political opportunism. It raised the
specter of inauthenticity.
Following from this passionate deconstruction of authentic Mayan identity is the
second approach, an inclination to categorize indigenous people according to how
deserving they show themselves to be. In the previous moment of “classic” racism
toward Indians, few escaped its punishing effects. An indigenous person had to
“pass” as Ladino and display deep affinities to the new identity category to find
relief from opprobrium. Even then, doubts remained. Ladino responses in the cur-
rent era send a very different message: an explicit endorsement of the right to be
indigenous, of equal status that indigenous culture should enjoy, of freedom from
precisely the opprobrium that previously created such a strong impetus for assim-
ilation. Yet there are still behaviors, attributes, and dispositions that make certain
indigenous people undeserving of these rewards: If they are too expansive in their
demands, too drastic in their political means, too strident in their inclination to fer-
ret out and denounce persisting Ladino racism, they earn the epithet “radical.
Don Anselmo has worked for decades with the Cooperative movement in
Chimaltenango, in strong support of indigenous people’s economic organization
and betterment, but takes a dismal view of Maya cultural activism: “There are
about forty different groups, each one seeking its own power and advancement.
Their objective is now to cut ties with Ladinos, and to go it alone.” Echoing Silvia,
he believes that Maya religion, an important component of the efflorescence,
“lacks an actual Maya basis. . . . it is superficial, a maneuver to earn money and
to gain position.” Finally, when it comes time to weigh blame for these detours in
what could be an important contribution to social change in Guatemala, he points
to the extremism of the Maya leaders: “The people promoting this point of view
lack political vision. Like [names one prominent Maya intellectual] he is one hun-
dred percent radical.” With opportunist radicals at the helm, the argument sug-
gests, the healthy and moderate aspirations of the indigenous majority are
betrayed.
A third and final element in this disciplinary response to the perceived excesses
of Maya cultural activism comes in a familiar form: allusions to cultural pathol-
ogy. In some respects, these allusions represent a strong continuity from the pre-
vious era. When Silvia had finished her riff against the Maya movement, she
returned to her teacher’s vocation: help them superarse (better themselves). But
even when they better themselves, she reflected in conclusion, “some indigenous
characteristics just don’t go away.” Her brother Chepe, who also took part in the
conversation followed up:
They are mistrustful. It is as if they are angry that you [Ladinos] have
more than them [como que les da coraje que uno tiene las cosas]. I
see this when they work for me on my farm. Instead of taking care
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of things, they are destructive. A few Indians are good, but only a
very few.
Another school teacher, named Andrián, explained the problem in curt terms:
“they are drastic, and very arbitrary,” when they get into positions of power. He
continued, “Yes, Carlos, I’m telling you, their resentment [against us] runs in
their veins, and when they have power, they use it to take revenge.Although the
metaphor of resentment running in the veins might seem quirky and ill-chosen, I
found this quasi-Lamarckian reasoning to be surprisingly common. Indigenous
people have cultural traits, produced through the centuries, internalized, and
passed on from generation to generation through a process closely akin to bio-
logical inheritance.
Taken together, these brief invocations of Ladino responses to Maya ascendancy
should help to illustrate the articulation between neoliberal multiculturalism, on
the one hand, and what might be called cultural racism, on the other. These re-
sponses do not add up to a homogeneous or uniform position, however. Ramiro
and, especially, Brenda are much more sympathetic to Maya cultural rights than
the others. Moreover, the three facets are present and prominent to varying de-
grees, such that broad generalizations about “Ladino consciousness” would be
extremely hazardous to make. Yet these precepts do fit neatly together to form a
contention; a position, that saturates the social milieu of Ladino-indigenous rela-
tions and stands ready for people to tap into, affirm, or put to use. This position
stakes out the high ground of anti-racism and respect for cultural difference,
which in turn is connected with a differential evaluation of the indigenous bene-
ficiaries of this newfound recognition. Moderate Mayas are fully deserving of the
rewards of multiculturalism, while “radicals” display a lack of gratitude. Their
intransigence is not only unfair but borders on racism itself—a paradoxical “turn-
about” effect, since racism is a principal target of their activism in the first place
(Balibar 1991). Moreover, Ladinos portray the demeanor of Maya radicals as
having a deeper source: characteristics such as hotheadedness, treachery, and re-
sentment, long in formation, ingrained, quasi-inherent. Moderates, according to
this reasoning, have managed to shake free from these shackles, and in that sense
the problems are not completely without solution. Multiculturalism is predicated
on respect for and recognition of this “redeemable” Indian. Yet even redeemed
Maya remain in a shadow of doubt cast by their radical counterparts, having risen
above, but not completely freed from, the burden of their racialized origins.
Multiculturalism in this light becomes the alibi that deflects attention away from
the remaking of racial hierarchy, under the triumphant banner of its elimination.
Conclusions
In Guatemala, Maya cultural rights activism articulates with the various expres-
sions of indigenous identity politics that fall outside the bounds of the “indio per-
mitido”: the so-called Maya radicals; the poor rural indigenous population who
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do not form part of cultural rights activism; those engaged in processes of “meti-
zaje from below.”7Throughout the Central American region, the ideal of mesti-
zaje has lost its once prodigious power as an ideology of nation building,
supplanted by neoliberal multiculturalism, on the one hand, and increasingly
contested by newly assertive political subjects, on the other. Although
Guatemala’s particular route to this new “national project” has differed from
those of the other Central American states, current conditions are strikingly con-
vergent. Perhaps this shift away from the elite and state-driven myth of mestizaje
will free up the term, semantically and politically, to a different set of articula-
tions.
In Chimaltenango, I found large numbers of people—mostly urban, poor, and
young—who seemed to be refusing both the Ladino and the Maya identity cate-
gories. Members of the most popular youth gang in the city—which had taken on
the name “Cholos”—fit this description; so do a surprising number of high
school youth, who acknowledge indigenous descent of some sort and know they
are not Ladinos, but ultimately prefer to position themselves in between. Still
other “new mestizos” are Ladinos who have affirmed this refurbished identity
category as a gesture of solidarity with Mayas and as a critique of the persisting
racial hierarchy. Neither fully formed nor clearly defined, these expressions of
mestizaje from below are noteworthy for the way they cut against the grain of
state-endorsed efforts to carefully define each cultural group and its associated
rights. Perhaps greater articulations between established cultural rights activists
and those groups who “do not fit” might help to subvert the regulatory effects of
neoliberal multiculturalism while helping to recover the expansive vision of
Maya cultural rights activism, so palpable in the early phases of its reemergence
two decades ago.
In the case of black and indigenous struggles for land rights, we have focused on
the radical potential of multicommunal territories or bloques, which have become,
both in Nicaragua and Honduras, the emergent idiom of their claims. These blo-
ques appear to remain within the neat logic of the World Bank’s “agricultural mod-
ernization” schemes, but they go on to interrupt it by forging multi-communal
coalitions with much greater potential clout than individual communities could
hope for. When the bloques are multiracial, they disrupt another premise of ne-
oliberal multiculturalism by displacing efforts to define culturally bounded rights-
bearing units and substituting the principle of common cause among differentially
racialized peoples. Moreover, these multicommunal bloques suggest the possibil-
ity of a hybrid relationship among rights, identity, and territory: The demand is ex-
pansive in that the bloques are contiguous and together comprise territories that
black and indigenous peoples would essentially control; yet the proposed mode of
self-government is decentralized and not especially “nationlike,” which helps dis-
pel dominant actors’ anxieties about separatism and provides a modicum of assur-
ance that the ills of nation building would not be replicated at a smaller scale. The
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prospects for the multicommunal bloques are far from clear; they face ample op-
position from various quarters. They have no assured political or economic viabil-
ity. They do, however, offer an exciting potential challenge to neoliberalism’s
business as usual, more attractive still because they have emerged in part thanks to
funding from the very World Bank scheme that they now call into question.
In the end we may be left with a version of the dichotomy that Dipesh
Chakrabarty puts forth in Provincializing Europe. This dichotomy is between
“good” progressive history, which “expand[s] the scope of social justice and rep-
resentative democracy” but is ultimately constraining, and “talk about the ‘limits
of history, [which is] about struggling, even groping, for nonstatist forms of
democracy that we cannot yet either understand or envisage completely”
(Chakrabarty 2000). However much we sympathize with the latter position, I
contend that we need to devote much greater energy to theorizing effective artic-
ulations between these two stances. In brief moments of the Awas Tingni trial, as
in the Puerto Lempira meeting, this radical indigenous imaginary did indeed
burst forth. It called into question the long-standing histories of oppression, and
it also expressed skepticism toward the new framework of cultural rights. Yet the
militancy quickly faded, leaving in its place, yet again, an urgent need for polit-
ical strategies that would move forward, strengthen organizational bases, and
keep the conditions in place for a renewed burst of collective energy.
The thought of contributing to the domestication of indigenous movements with
the unreflective pragmatism of “good history” is horrifying, a critical reminder
to be kept always close at hand. Another image, however, should create equal un-
ease, especially for activist scholars: remaining at arm’s length as indigenous
movements grapple with the painful dilemmas of neoliberal multiculturalism, of-
fering a fully deployed cultural critique of domestication, while waiting patiently
for the truly subversive uprising to begin.
Notes
This article began as the keynote lecture for the workshop, “Language,
Ethnicity and Conflict,” Indiana University, October 2–3, 2003. I am grateful
to Jeffrey Gould and Daniel James for their comments on that earlier version.
Thanks also to Shannon Speed and Jane Collier for comments on the current
version. Many of the ideas in this essay were worked out through collective
work with Edmund T. Gordon, who also read and critiqued an early version.
1. DO 4.20 has had an ambiguous relationship to Afro-Latin communities, al-
though more recently the World Bank has placed them, at least rhetorically,
in the same category.
2. For a coauthored essay that offers some of this reflection, see the article by
Gordon, Gurdián, and Hale (2003).
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3. A good example of this discourse is the video on the World Bank in
Nicaragua, Deadly Embrace.
4. This was the stance attributed to colonial authorities, especially in the later
period of Spanish colonial rule, when obedience to the Crown became an in-
creasing irritation.
5. This section is taken from my forthcoming monograph, focusing on Ladino
responses to Maya cultural political ascendancy, titled Más que un indio...
Racial Ambivalence and the Paradox of Neoliberal Multiculturalism in
Guatemala (School of American Research Press).
6. For an analysis of the failed referendum on these accords, and its signifi-
cance for Guatemalan cultural politics, see Warren (2002).
7. For further elaboration of this concept of the indio permitido in comparative
perspective, see: Hale and Millaman (forthcoming).
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... For centuries, Indigenous communities, including those represented here, have been victimised, repeatedly, by processes of colonisation and neo-colonisation. Practices of governmental intervention that impose modern hierarchies, institutions and logics under the banner of neoliberal multiculturalism (Hale, 2005); educational systems designed to deculturise and disconnect Indigenous peoples from their worldview; well-intentioned outsiders that 'promote a program of education or salvation to help the Indigenous become more "civilized" and adopt the norms of Northern or Western societies' (Goyes, South, et al., 2021, p. 977); and the intervention of digital technologies that overlay Indigenous territorial space with new cyber-spaces, identities and cultures, are all contemporary technologies of neo-colonisation (see for a broader description). Health discourses and practices have become, over recent decades, an increasingly powerful technology of neo-colonisation (Barragán, 2011;Schwartz-Marin & Restrepo, 2013). ...
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To Die In This Way: Nicaraguan Indians and the Myth of Mestizaje, 1880-1965. Jeffrey L. Gould. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1998. xiv. 305 pp., bibliography, Index.