Representatives from Guatemala, Chile, and Peru spoke during a Zoom session on October 29th about their aims to construct a plurinational state within Latin America.

On October 29th from 3 to 5 pm, organizers Renzo Aroni and Czarina Aggabao Thelen spoke with Elisa Loncón, Thelma Cabrera, and Tania Pariona during a Zoom discussion entitled “Indigenous Women on Building a Plurinational State in Latin America.” The discourse largely surrounded the economic, political, and social issues each of the individual participants dealt with in their homelands of Chile, Guatemala, and Peru. In addressing poverty, racism, and gender-based violence within their respective nations, Loncón, Cabrera, and Pariona defended their aim to create a plurinational state within Latin America. 

Czarina Aggabao, a CSER research scholar at the university, alongside historian and humanities fellow Dr. Renzo Aronia, began the talk by giving a ‘thank you’ to the Indigenous Lenni-Lenape and Wappinger peoples whose land Columbia University was built on. The hosts then briefly introduced themselves, the discussion topic, and their participants. 

To establish the conversation’s theme, Renzo began by speaking about the recent socioeconomic and political explosions within Chile, Guatemala, and Peru, emphasizing that many of these issues have been framed by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has had drastic implications for not only the fiscal but also physical states of these nations. Before venturing further into his explanation of these struggles, Renzo addressed the roots of the problem: a series of colonial practices and legacies, dictator-like regimes, and neoliberal constitutions which have plagued these countries for centuries. Such origins have resulted in the criminalization and killings of Indigenous leaders, violence against Indigenous women, economic hardships, and general distress within parts of Latin America. Still, as Renzo expressed, Indigenous women have mobilized in order to fight back against these conflicts. These women include the panel’s three representatives, who introduced themselves next. 

First to speak was Elisa Loncón, an Indigenous rights activist, Mapuche linguist, and President of the Constitutional Convention of Chile in which she is currently collaborating with leaders and community members to draft a new constitution. As Loncón put it, after 30 years of democracy, “in government after government, [the leaders of Chile] have come to an agreement to define democracy the way they see democracy,” rather than what the Chilean people want. According to Loncón, the Chilean constitution was installed without Indigenous representation. As such, Chile doesn’t recognize Indigenous nations or their territorial rights and respective languages. This lack of acknowledgment has led to the destruction of fundamental human rights, economic crisis, the privatization of numerous institutions, and a loss of citizenship rights including retirement benefits, healthcare, and pensions. Thus, Loncón urged a new constitution which “involves those excluded” and encompasses the “deep struggle to have justice done” must be established.

Loncón then discussed how the idea of a new constitutional convention came to be. In summary, contributing factors such as the fight for feminism, Indigenous struggles, and student protests led to “dialogue that allowed [Chileans] to finally come to a new level of social movement,” which in turn highlighted the necessity of a new constitution. Loncón also spoke to the nature of the convention, saying, “We work together; we work as a majority.” Her current aim is to establish various commissions within the assembly in order to facilitate the constitution’s construction. 

Thelma Cabrera Perez, a native Guatemalan and prominent socio-political activist in the nation, spoke next. 

In her presentation, Cabrera mainly focused on how the dysfunction and corruption of the Guatemalan government has led to major issues for its citizens, and a so-called “collapse of the state.” “We are persecuted as terrorists within the state,” she explained, “In Guatemala, we are living under pillars of oppression… Justice is being purchased, sold, and we are not being paid attention to.” She continued, saying, “to the oppressive state, we don’t exist. We don’t show up in their laws, and [even if we do] we are still stigmatized.” This is why Cabrera has dedicated much of her life to representing the Indigenous women of Guatemala. 

Cabrera, who was only the second Indigenous Guatemalan to run for president in the country, fights to lessen the rates of poverty in Guatemala through various grassroots organizations such as the Campesino Development Committee (or CODECA). This group also attempts to reduce corruption within the state, in part by working towards implementation of the plural economy (which refers to a collaborative system of public, private, and Indigenous organizations and individuals): “we want to eradicate the roots [of dictatorship, so that] the democracy can be a collaborative [one],” Cabrera explained. Part of her aim in working within the government is also to defend the environment: “human beings cannot live without mother earth… Our territories are important, that’s why we defend them… We see the Mother as fountains of life,” she said. Another goal is to protect women and foster their participation within politics, as, often, even if women are on the ballot in Guatemala, their “names don’t even show up during voting times.” 

Tania Pariona, a political activist, Quechua leader, and former congresswoman of Peru, was the third and final panel participant to speak during the first section of the Zoom.

Pariona began by mentioning how “the pandemic has exacerbated the unemployment, the poverty, and has damaged the system of health.” “It was the Indigenous people who were most hurt [due to COVID],” she said, “but we were ignored in the reports of the effects.” Pariona then spoke about how the diversity of Peru—a country made up of more than 8 million Indigenous people and a majority of women—has often been satanized, largely because of the legal systems in place. She addressed how ethnic racism based on colonialist structures as well as thd patriarchy have served as barriers to Indigenous people in the construction of the plurinational state. “This constitution is anti-Indigenous and doesn’t recognize the [Indigenous people] and their rights,” Pariona said; “for 200 years or maybe even more—500 years—we have been invisible… what we’re asking for is the recognition of autonomy.” 

In the second half of the session, the hosts posed questions to each of the participants individually. 

Czarina first asked Loncón about how groups such as hers have worked towards establishing a plurinational state and how they have gone about ensuring that nations such as Chile adopt new constitutions. In response, Loncón outlined some difficulties in this process, including the fact that the Chilean government has immense territorial power: “they are the ones who have rights to the water… the territories… They are the ones that have gotten rich with the richness our Mother earth has on all levels.” The government, therefore, isn’t likely to support reforms to the constitution that would impact their access to such resources, which makes it hard to push for a new constitution. In addition, the convention has had a very short timeline to complete the process and has thus needed to request support. Although the group has gotten some help from the community and non-community members, those who could potentially offer much-needed financial support have declined: “the controversies have been mainly on how it’s read… The elite read the installation very differently than the Indigenous.” Unfortunately, the elites are the ones with the economic power, so part of achieving constitutional reforms rests in their hands. 

Next, Renzo asked Cabrera about the challenges in getting to the plurinational state and why such a state is even necessary. 

“We have to make a new house where all the people can fit,” Cabrera answered simply. Cabrera then discussed the difficulty in creating changes within the government, saying that the challenge is “to work within the electoral [as] a representation of the peoples.” Part of the reason why collaborating with the government is so tough is because, thus far, the government has ignored the people’s actions: even as they participated in the legal systems, working to make reform, they were ignored, humiliated, and criminalized. Now it’s up to them to make a change, Cabrera concluded. And she’s hopeful: “we can do it because we, the people, are the majority… We wrote our history in participating.”

Finally, addressing Pariona, Renzo asked about the position of Indigenous peoples in popular sectors in regards to these proposals, as well as the challenges she has faced when it comes to advocating for reform. 

Pariona spoke to the institutional discrimination she has faced within parliament, which has served as a barrier to progress. Still, Pariona is optimistic. So far she has collected enough signatures to reach a referendum, and she noted that “the organization of communities collectively have shown it has more power than a small group in parliament.” “All of this implies more dialogue,” so now a major challenge is articulating issues and differences; “common objectives… has to be the main thing.” Pariona also spoke to how including Indigenous peoples in political conversation is fundamental to change, saying, “we need our own mechanisms of political participation: independent, organized, able to compete.” 

It seems that the dedication of Indigenous women such as Cabrera, Loncón, and Pariona has been the driving force behind social and structural change in much of Latin America. From collaborating within community organizations, mobilizing protest efforts, and seeking reform through constitutional conventions, these leaders have sought to build a pluralistic nation that uplifts the impoverished, allows women to participate in democracy, and fights corruption at all levels. 

Latin America via Bwarchives.