- From Movements to Parties in Latin America: The Evolution of Ethnic Politics
The rise of indigenous movements amid the decline of the traditional left and the decomposition of party systems in Latin America has recently occupied scholarly attention. Donna Lee Van Cott's timely comparative study explores how and why some indigenous movements in Latin America have spawned ethnic parties while others have not. She examines factors that lead to ethnic party formation and to the success of such parties, recognizing that variables affecting formation may differ from those affecting actual party performance.
This ambitious study compares indigenous movements and parties in six South American countries, three with large indigenous populations that appear to be relatively likely places for successful indigenous movements and parties (Bolivia, Ecuador, and Peru), and three with small indigenous populations that seem unlikely (Colombia, Venezuela, and Argentina). Why, Van Cott asks, have ethnic parties found success in Ecuador, Bolivia, Colombia, and Venezuela and not in Peru and Argentina? She also reviews the impact of the rise of indigenous movements, parties, and politics on the future of democracy in the region.
Van Cott begins by systematically reviewing the variables she seeks to employ in her study, providing theoretical and practical justification for her decisions to concentrate on certain variables over others. This tactic helps the reader follow the author's scientific process and judge the selection and evaluation of the variables throughout the cases. Van Cott concludes that institutional changes, party system changes, and social movement factors were all instrumental in fostering or hindering the formation and performance of ethnic parties in the case studies. Such institutional changes included decentralization, increased ballot access, reserved seats for minorities, and the creation of new districts with high proportions of indigenous peoples. Significant party system changes include dealignment, party system fragmentation, and the decline of leftist parties. Yet Van Cott does well to remind the reader that we must examine how such institutional changes interact with the "dispersion/concentration of ethnic minorities" in each case, because many movements have developed despite restrictive institutional settings, whereas in some more favorable institutional contexts, successful ethnic movements and parties have failed (31). While separating her cases into their national contexts, she also pays attention to internal differences and variation over time. For example, she [End Page 205] notes how tensions and distinctions between highland and lowland indigenous populations in Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Colombia may at times divide or unite their respective membership.
Innovatively blending institutional analysis with social movement theories, Van Cott highlights the importance of access to new constitutional rights, the maturity and unity of indigenous social movements, cross-country diffusion, and indigenous participation in the constitutional reform process. It is at this conjunction of institutional and social movement theories that the author's thesis is most original and strong. About participation in constitutional reforms, she writes,
this is where the literatures on social movements and political parties meet: at the moment when the heightened state of mobilization and the euphoria created by the achievement of longstanding demands causes social movement leaders to see themselves not as outsiders trying to push into the political system, but as viable actors within a political system whose institutions they have just helped shape.(41)
Van Cott labels such junctures "strategic decisionmaking scenarios" and organizes each country study around how social actors and movements, given institutional and party system changes and settings, make decisions at critical moments. In doing so, she deftly bridges the gap between structure and agency. By organizing her chapters in this manner, she helps the reader discern why events that, in some cases, exhibited outwardly similar institutional and structural factors, such as those in Peru and Bolivia, resulted in dramatically distinct outcomes. In addition, melding the literature and variables relating to institutions, parties, social movements, and strategic decisionmaking contributes to a more process-oriented understanding of the interaction of variables and actors over time.
In her concluding chapter, Van Cott develops...