Toppling Statues Isn’t Enough in Latin America

Rethinking the past is a tough challenge when colonial structures run deep.

A Chilean demonstrator holds a Mapuche Indigenous flag
A demonstrator holds a Mapuche Indigenous flag as she covers an eye—making reference to demonstrators hit by police pellets in their eyes—during a protest against the government of Chilean President Sebastián Piñera in Santiago, Chile, on Dec. 6, 2019. Photo by MARTIN BERNETTI/AFP via Getty Images

Statues have fallen across the United States in recent months, turning the issue into a political flash point. All of Chicago’s three monuments to Christopher Columbus have been taken down—at least temporarily. In Virginia, an array of Confederate statues have fallen so far. In response to that, U.S. President Donald Trump has promised new laws and deployed federal troops to defend America’s racist legacies.

For Latin America, the turmoil in its northern neighbor is nothing more than an anxious flashback. The region has already gone through the great statue wars—and discovered that the removal of stone symbols alone isn’t enough.

In late 2019, the regional movement that began with anti-austerity demonstrations by the Indigenous people of Ecuador suddenly gained momentum throughout Latin America. From Colombians striking over economic and political reforms to Bolivians marching as a result of the contested fall of Evo Morales, last year’s Latin American protests helped put some of the region’s historically overlooked demands in the spotlight—helping spark much-needed conversations on colonial legacies.

While settlers in North America worked to rapidly exterminate or drive out the locals, the level of integration that happened early on in Spanish colonies made efforts to whiten the population more complicated. Genocidal campaigns were certainly not uncommon, such as Argentina’s “Conquest of the Desert,” a late-1800s incursion to colonize Patagonia that resulted in the deaths of at least 1,000 Mapuche people and the displacement of 15,000 more, serves as a prime example of that. And as late as the 1990s, Peru was carrying out an ethnic cleansing campaign that sterilized at least 200,000 Indigenous women.

But while people of Indigenous descent remained a larger part of the population, their voices were often silenced in favor of the colonial elite or their descendants. Across the Andes beginning last September, though, they spoke loudly.

In Chile, as over a million people took the streets of Santiago in October to protest rampant inequality, different Indigenous communities—including the Mapuche, Aymara, Quechua, and Rapa Nui—came together around the statue of Spanish conquistador Pedro de Valdivia, the city’s founder, to object the country’s dominance of colonial history. In an effort to bring attention to Indigenous demands, the group dressed the monument in traditional clothing while performing native chants and dances.

In other parts of the country, Indigenous protesters took a more direct approach. South of Santiago, in cities such as Concepción, Temuco, and Collipulli, demonstrators tore down and decapitated monuments both to Valdivia and to some of his fellow conquistadors. The Chilean government estimated that property damage reached $1.4 billion as a result of the protests.

Elisa Loncón, a Mapuche activist and education professor at the University of Santiago, Chile, said this form of resistance has been used by Indigenous groups to address the country’s “parallel histories.”

“Colonial symbols are a key part of Chilean identity, but of the one that is associated with and carries the power,” Loncón told Foreign Policy in Spanish. “These are symbols that have been transmitted through the teaching of history—the curriculum that was left by the colonizers and later adopted by the Chilean oligarchy. This contrasts with the parallel history and memory that the Indigenous people are familiar with, the ones who know that these are not our fathers, especially the ones who carried out genocides.”

Statues have been a point of contention in Latin America for nearly three decades. Jeremy Adelman, the director of the Global History Lab at Princeton University, says targeting monuments has been a protest tactic since the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ arrival in the Americas.

“In 1992, they were connected to the rise of political Indigenous movements in Mexico and Peru, as well as those of the Mapuche in Southern Chile,” Adelman told Foreign Policy. “But the challenge was that these were movements in the name of an oppressed minority. It was not easy to make them part of the pantheon, to make these Indigenous leaders part of the pantheon of national leaders. To some extent what they were doing was criticizing even the concept of the nation.”

But more potent than isolated statues may be the geographical and urban markers that are still named for invaders.

“All streets remember them, but they are the ones who destroyed and killed communities, and the streets are full of their names,” Loncón said. “This is very tough for our Mapuche history and memory, because we know who the ones who have committed genocide in Chile are.”

Beyond that, the structures of imperial colonialism are still the norm in a distinct way. Adelman noted that the colonial period for most of Latin America came much earlier and ran deeper than in the United States and Canada, as “the English penetration in North America only skimmed the edges of one part of North America, it was very shallow in that sense and was cut short much sooner.”

“In Latin America, colonial institutions sank very deep roots,” said Adelman, who edited the collection Colonial Legacies: The Problem of Persistence in Latin American History. “Colonial peoples and structures persist. So there is an irony, because you had very well-organized, highly populated political structures, including empires. And the descendants of those empires are still there, and, in some cases, they are the majority of the population. The colony is alive.”

As of 2010, to take two examples from the region, Indigenous people made up 61 percent of the population in Bolivia and 24 percent in Peru. In the United States, where instead of integrating these groups governments opted for genocide, only 1.3 percent of the population identifies as Native American. And while in Latin America’s approximately 42 million Indigenous people comprise less than one-tenth of the region’s total population, they represent 14 percent of the poor and 17 percent of the extremely poor. Access to health care and education is also especially limited among Indigenous groups.

Yet, despite the colonial legacy that still haunts the Indigenous people of Latin America, Adelman noted that, in some countries, “reckoning with dictatorships is a more proximate memory.”

“For the Mapuche, there might be an anti-colonial discourse, but where it gets the most traction is in the ways the Mapuche were treated during the Pinochet dictatorship,” Adelman said. “If we are going to see a public fight over memory, it is going to be around that. But there are no statues to be taken down on the streets, so it will take a different form.”

For Loncón, Chile’s return to democracy in the early 1990s after nearly two decades of a bloody military dictatorship under Augusto Pinochet “has not meant democracy for the Mapuche.” She said Indigenous groups continue to tear down statues because they “do not represent the popular sectors or the Indigenous peoples, only the oligarchy that has taken advantage of the resources and the political power,” but she emphasized that their agenda goes beyond the removal of such symbols.

“Our demands have two main pillars: Self-determination, which means the right to manage our own politics, as well as cultural change,” Loncón, who is the coordinator of the Network for the Educational and Linguistic Rights of the Indigenous Peoples of Chile, said. “Chile is a colonial state, and colonialism is not gone yet, it is instead part of the institutions.”

Adelman agrees that the change needed in the region goes beyond removing symbols, and he argues that Latin Americans can revisit their own past in the way Americans have to examine some of the assumptions they have about the nation. “Not only its inclusions but also exclusions,” he noted.

“For Latin America, the uncomfortable thing is that the excluded people have historically been so many, and the dispossession so vast,” Adelman said. “In the United States, the exclusion was genocidal, practically. Indigenous people were not included at all within the nation. They were exterminated. Whereas in Latin America, in Brazil, Bolivia, Mexico, and even the whitest of the white like Argentina, although they had genocidal policies, a much higher percentage of the Indigenous population became part of the nation.”

While mass protests have lost momentum throughout South America, Indigenous groups in Chile continue physically resisting the country’s colonial legacy. Last week, a group of a hundred Mapuche people took over the city hall of a small town south of Santiago. Since then, demonstrators have occupied government buildings in at least five cities in the region, resulting in confrontations with the Chilean police. The tensions started one day after Interior Minister Víctor Pérez, a right-wing politician who served in Pinochet’s dictatorship, visited the area. He referred to protesters as “funded groups, with an operative and logistic capacity, who have decided that peace and tranquility should not exist.”

The Indigenous people of Latin America have been used to fighting since day one. They know that when statues fall, colonial legacies are not suddenly dismantled. But they recognize that symbolism matters. In a region that pretends to be colorblind, these groups have long been aware that breaking away from whiteness is the first step to actually achieve the diversity Latin America has always prided itself on.

Augusta Saraiva is a former intern at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @gutavsaraiva

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