Angel Cortes Sanchez, World
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Correcting Argentina’s Dark Past

Image source: Mercopress

How were indigenous people in one of the whitest countries in Latin America able to gain political and economic influence?

By Angel Cortes Sanchez

Being one of the whitest countries in Latin America, it may come as a shock that Argentina once had a huge and diverse Indigenous population. As a result of Spanish colonization, indigenous people started losing political influence in white-dominated Argentina. Over 800 tribes inhabited Argentina, including the Quechua and the Guarani, who represent a majority of the population in nearby Peru and Paraguay. These tribes had access to vast amounts of fertile farmland, perfect for raising livestock, Argentina’s main export. With its strong livestock industry and the lush natural resources available to support it, Argentina enjoyed being one of the 10 largest economies in the world in the 19th and early 20th centuries. This led to mass immigration, with over 6 million immigrants mostly from Italy and Germany calling Argentina home. They were drawn to the fertile farmland and the promise of high wages, something the Argentine government began withholding from the natives in the hopes of attracting immigrants. This led to increased tensions between European immigrants and Indigenous people over land, with the Argentine government siding with European immigrants, forcing natives into poorer rural areas of the country. With immigration increasing until the 1920s, native lands shrunk in size. 

Increasing economic and social tensions between Indigenous Argentines and European immigrants have led to mass killings of indigenous people. In 1920, the Argentine government was already in a decline, with income inequality being at an all-time high, as well as inflation. The GDP was shrinking, and the country was experiencing a severe labor shortage in its agriculture sector, one of its main exports at the time. The Argentine government prioritized incoming European immigrants over Indigenous tribes when distributing farmland, forcing millions of indigenous people to instead search for work on fields that once belonged to their ancestors. The Qom, a prominent tribe in Northern Argentina, were forced to work on cotton plantations owned by European farmers, as it was the only job the Argentine regime allowed them to have. Like other tribes at the time, they lived off vouchers and were taxed for the cotton they harvest. On July 19, 1924, hundreds of Qom protested the inhumane labor and economic conditions they were living with. They were met with an ambush from Argentine officials and European plantation owners, killing hundreds of them. It took nearly a century for the Argentine government to take responsibility for the massacre. 

In 1943, with poor labor conditions and human rights for lower class Argentines, Juan Peron took power seeking to solve these problems. Under his leadership, progress toward Indigenous rights took major steps forward. Perón started a center-right nationalist movement in Argentina, built upon the support of Indigenous tribes. Peron established the Office of Indigenous Affairs, which granted Indigenous landowners access to financial institutions, providing tribes with economic assistance and access to the latest agricultural technology. Perón also provided social security and allowed Indigenous workers to unionize without the fear of government penalties.  Indigenous tribes had near-universal access to education and obtained newfound representation in Argentine’s governmental bodies. In the late 1950s, a coup ended Perón’s reign. During this period, there were three different leaders, all of whom didn’t take indigenous rights into account. Since Perón, the economic and social conditions for Indigenous Argentines haven’t improved. 

Indigenous Argentines faced an uncertain future due to the many different coups and leaders during the 1950s. Some landmarks in indigenous rights came as soon as the far right gained power in 1957. After successfully winning the election in 1957, far-right president Arturo Frondizi decided to give states autonomy over indigenous rights. He believed that indigenous rights were a state issue and that the federal government couldn’t intervene in policy matters regarding indigenous groups. The state of Chac, a predominantly indigenous state, decided to create The Division of Indigenous Affairs in 1957. Chaco administrators trained Indigenous Argentines to be cotton farmers, enabling them to establish agricultural businesses and boost economic growth. Farmers were provided with tractors and machinery, improving efficiency by doubling production compared to the Perón era. With this newfound economic power, Indigenous Argentinians gained upward social mobility, with some even obtaining government positions. But these improvements for Indigenous Argentines were stymied by constant regime change and declining economic conditions in other parts of the country by the 1980s.

In the 1980s, under a new regime, Indigenous Argentines found new ways to exert political and social influence. A war between leftists and right-wing nationalists and the nationalists’ subsequent rise in power left Argentina in shambles, but disproportionately affecting Indigenous groups more. The Argentine government, under a new right-wing regime, took all the land and part of the profits from crop yields, frustrating Indigenous political leaders who advocated for autonomy over farmlands. In response, these political leaders found a different avenue for exercising political power and advocacy in the form of “Indian Institutes.” They were similar to Perón’s Office of Indigenous Affairs, except that it was formed by lobbyist groups outside the government. Political leaders were also able to secure funds for new housing and the expansion of property rights for Indigenous landowners. With the changes in government in Argentina, Indian Institutes were still able to remain influential.

In 2020, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Indian Institutes were able to advocate for themselves for a broader audience, in one way through international courts. Due to the economic crisis in Argentina and economic opportunities on indigenous lands, individuals have been attacking and intimidating indigenous Argentinians for their land. In Bariloche, Rio Negro, the government also sent police officers to spy on and harass the Mapuche for their land. Indian Institutes decided to take these matters into court where they won each case of harassment. However, the harassment continued and Mapuche leaders were forced to take their case to the international court, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. On May 2020, the  Inter-American Commission on Human Rights granted a precautionary measure in favor of the Mapuche people. It required the Argentine government to protect the cultural and physical well-being of indigenous Argentines. Through the influence of Indian Institutes, the Mapuche were able to get support from international organizations to get the Argentine government to respect their basic rights.

Through years of activism and favorable regimes that encouraged political organization of indigenous groups, indigenous people have been able to gain more autonomy in a majority-white country through Indian Institutes, which possess much more political power and influence compared to other Latin American countries. However, sentiments of Eurocentrism and racism against Indigenous people remain strong. With the increase in the political influence of Indian Institutes, attitudes towards Indigenous Argentines are slowly beginning to change.

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