Student Life | The independent newspaper of Washington University in St. Louis since 1878

First to arrive, last to speak

The globalized world has brought the plight of the indigenous peoples of the United States, Australia and New Zealand much deserved attention. However, in Central America, indigenous peoples are still subject to terrible suffering and social injustice. Globalization has been both a blessing and a curse for indigenous rights movements. On the one hand, globalization has allowed for the exploitation of Central American native lands, but on the other, it has facilitated the growth and protection of indigenous-rights interest groups. To clarify, the word “indigenous” is a blanket term that refers to the native people who are defined in international or national legislation as having a set of specific rights based on their ancestry and links to a particular region.

Recently, Washington University’s Association of Latin American Students (ALAS) hosted a lecture to raise awareness and facilitate discussion on the underpublicized issue of colonial discrimination toward Central American indigenous peoples. The fact is, because of current political and social paradigms, hundreds of thousands indigenous people have been killed or displaced over the past 50 years, with no reparations. In what the Center for Justice and Accountability calls the “Silent Holocaust” and the “Mayan Genocide,” 200,000 Guatemalans were killed between 1960 and 1996. According to the U.N.-sponsored Historical Clarification Commission, 83 percent of the dead were indigenous Maya and 93 percent of the human rights violations were committed by government soldiers, often funded by our CIA. Almost none of the predominantly white-skinned officials responsible for the attacks have been brought to justice. Outdated and disgusting colonial prejudice still runs rampant in most of Central America.

As an individual from Texas and having attended a private high school there, I encountered a large number of white-skinned, Spanish-speaking Latin Americans. In one discussion, a classmate, who is essentially a pseudo-plutocrat in Mexico, referred to the indigenous of Southern Mexico and Central America as “monkeys, because they look and speak like them.” His use of such prejudiced language was appalling. Similarly, professors in Wash. U.’s anthropology department, who study in Guatemala and Bolivia, believe that this sort of racism is part of the social paradigm of most of Central America. According to associate professor Bret Gustafson, he has been at dinners with the predominantly white politicians and controllers of vast private capital where they discuss how to keep the “Indians” in their place.

Bigotry toward the indigenous has resulted in their virtual subjugation. Representation of native peoples is also extremely low in Central America. In Guatemala, 51 percent of the population is considered indigenous, but they make up only 12 percent of the national Congress. The disparity between population demographic and representation in government is even more vast than that of the United States. This gap continues down to the regional governments in Central America. The narcotics trade has also had a dire effect on indigenous land, designated as such by the vast majority of the populations of Central American nations and recognized as such by the United Nations and other nongovernmental organizations. According to the BBC, drug trafficking is accelerating deforestation in Central America. Research in the journal Science has directly linked the increasing rate of deforestation in Honduras to increased remote narcotics operations. Consequently, the UNESCO World Heritage Committee has placed the Rio Platano Biosphere in northeastern Honduras on a danger list because of the narcotic industry’s destruction.

The so-called “narco effect” has been pushed by the American and Mexican governments’ militarization of the narcotics issue into indigenous lands. The people there have no defense and there is a common perception by urbanites that the indigenous are the cause of the drug issue. The reasoning for this stigma is, to be blunt, wrong. Often the drug trade is established in native lands first, and young men in particular sometimes have no choice but to join because of the hostile social conditions and poverty in their lives.

While there is a need to focus media on injustice in Asia, Africa and the Middle East, it should not come at the expense of attention that needs to be brought to the atrocities that are occurring just south of us.


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Student Life | The independent newspaper of Washington University in St. Louis since 1878