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Indigenous Leaders Angry at Vargas Llosa's Remarks

Kintto Lucas

Indian leaders in Ecuador reacted angrily to internationally renowned Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa's criticism of indigenous movements in South America, which he said posed a danger to democracy because of the "political and social disorder that they generate."

QUITO, Nov 12 (IPS) -- Indian leaders in Ecuador reacted angrily to internationally renowned Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa's criticism of indigenous movements in South America, which he said posed a danger to democracy because of the "political and social disorder that they generate."

"Vargas Llosa's thinking is stuck in the past, and he believes indigenous people should continue to be marginalised," Leonidas Iza, the president of the powerful Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE), told IPS Wednesday. But "if there is hunger, poverty and inequality, we cannot remain calm."

Iza was responding to remarks Vargas Llosa made at a seminar in Colombia, which were published Tuesday by the Ecuadorian daily El Universo. The writer spoke, for example, of the need to combat the growing influence of indigenous organisations in Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador.

In those movements there is a "deeply disturbing element that appeals to the lower instincts, the worst instincts, of the individual, like mistrust towards others, towards anyone who is different. They thus close in on themselves," he said.

"The indigenous movements of the 1920s, which seemed to have been left in the past, lie behind phenomena like Mr. Evo Morales in Bolivia. We have also seen them operating in Ecuador, and generating real political and social disorder," said Vargas Llosa.

The writer was referring to a recent wave of nationwide protests in Bolivia headed by leaders like leftist lawmaker Morales, an Aymara Indian and leader of the country's coca-farmers, that culminated in October in the resignation of then-president Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, and to the 2000 indigenous uprising in Ecuador that toppled the government of Jamil Mahuad.

Vargas Llosa's remarks are offensive and insulting to the people of Latin America, said Iza, who called for respect for the diversity represented by Ecuador's indigenous movement as well as indigenous groups in the rest of the region.

"If democracy means equality, we are after just that: true democracy," said the president of Latin America's most important indigenous movement.

Around 3.5 million of this Andean nation's 12.5 million people belong to 11 indigenous groups, which mainly live in rural areas.

The Kichwa make up the main indigenous community, inhabiting the Andean highlands as well as the Amazon jungle region. The Awa, Chachi, Epera and Tsáchila can be found along the country's Pacific coast, while the Cofán, Siona, Secoya, Huaorani, Achuar and Shuar are Amazon jungle communities.

The country's indigenous peoples are governed by ancestral values and live according to a communitarian model based on solidarity, which clashes with the individualism of modern society. They defend practices like the "minga" — community work, whether at harvest-time or in the construction of housing or roads.

Vargas Llosa lashed out against indigenous movements at an international seminar on "The Threats to Democracy in Latin America: Terrorism, Weakness of the State of Law and Neo-populism", held Oct. 5-8 in Bogota.

In Peru, the indigenous movement is led by "two or three 'little brothers' who, in the name of that collective identity, the indigenous, autochthonous, genuine identity, that of true 'Peruvian-ness', have launched a campaign that when examined rationally looks silly, almost comic, but which touches a nerve centre called 'spirit of the tribe'," he said.

That "spirit of the tribe never disappears, even in those societies that have advanced further along the path of civilisation," he argued.

He also said indigenous communities see themselves as victims of injustice, on the argument that they have been and are the victims of "imperialism, white people, the colonisers, and companies that want to steal their natural resources.

"In Bolivia, they complain that the companies want to steal their natural gas. In (the southern Peruvian city of Arequipa) the people rose up to keep two foreign companies from taking over the electric industry," he said in allusion to the main grievances set forth by indigenous movements in the two countries.

Vargas Llosa said such demands are incompatible with civilisation and development, "and in the short- or long-term drag us into barbarism.

"If we want to achieve development, we must choose civilisation and morality, and we must resolutely fight these outbreaks of collectivism," he argued.

Lawmaker Ricardo Ulcuango, the head of the Indigenous Parliament of the Americas and of the Ecuadorian parliament's Commission on the Affairs of Indigenous and Other Ethnic Groups, was also indignant over the writer's remarks.

"Mr. Vargas Llosa seems to have completely lost his identity and even the words that he used so well in his time to depict reality in Latin America, the reality of the long-suffering Latin America," Ulcuango told IPS in an interview.

Vargas Llosa, one of Latin America's most prestigious living writers, is the author of books like Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, The Storyteller, The War At the End of the World, and The Feast of the Goat, and has won leading awards like the Romulo Gallego International prize for literature, the Ritz Paris Hemingway prize, the Principe de Asturias prize, and the National Book Critics Award.

In 1990, Vargas Llosa, whose writing has often incorporated political and social criticism, ran as a conservative candidate for the Peruvian presidency and lost to Alberto Fujimori.

Ulcuango criticised what he saw as the writer's "exclusive and racist" worldview, and suggested that he bring himself up-to-date by reading International Labour Organisation (ILO) convention 169 on the rights of indigenous peoples. He also wondered what "civilisation" Vargas Llosa was talking about.

For the author, "does civilisation mean allowing a tiny group of people to profit from Bolivia's natural gas, privatisations in Peru, or Ecuador's oil? Does it mean polluting the environment until leaving it dried up, or selling the water from the rivers to whoever pays the best price?" he asked.

Vargas Llosa's mentality is "colonial," said Humberto Cholango, president of the National Confederation of Kichwa Peoples (Ecuarunari, in the Kichwa language), CONAIE's biggest member organisation.

It is positions like his "that do not allow us to make progress towards a more democratic, tolerant, participative and integrated Latin America that recognises the diversity of every country," said Cholango.

Former Ecuadorian agriculture minister Luis Macas, a founder of CONAIE, said the writer's statements seem to come "from someone who has forsaken his own identity, and, thus, his geography and history.

"Vargas Llosa is in favour of an exclusive, elitist power, similar to that proposed by U.S. President George W. Bush, in a unipolar world," he said.

"Indigenous people, on the other hand, propose another kind of power, known as 'Ushay' in Kichwa, which means perfecting living conditions and the ability to develop ourselves collectively, based on everyone's contribution," said Macas.

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