Author Perspective: David Lehmann on Multiculturalism and Latin America

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David Lehmann, Emeritus, University of Cambridge, UK, is a former Director of the Centre for Latin American Studies and Reader in the Department of Sociology at the University of Cambridge, UK. His research and publications span the fields of development, religion, and ethnicity, especially in Chile, Ecuador, Mexico, and Brazil. He is the author of The Crisis of Multiculturalism in Latin America.

Why multiculturalism? How did this come about as the main topic for the book? 

The authors were all known to me or to Andrew Canessa as people with an attitude of skepticism to the unquestioning way in which ethnic identities are being discussed in the social science literature and in social science associations concerned with Latin America, by Latin Americans but especially by non-Latin Americans. We are not in the least ideologically, politically or indeed analytically opposed to the rights of indigenous people to land and to a decent livelihood, or to the reparation of historic wrongs perpetrated against indigenous people and blacks or Afro-descendants in the region, but we are concerned at the disproportionate weight being attached to the racial and ethnic dimensions of the region’s many problems.  The politics of identity seem to overshadow many other serious inequalities and injustices, which affect the indigenous and Afro-descendants themselves as well as others, and may themselves create new inequalities. We also believe that the recognition of cultural and collective rights should not distract from the task of combating racial discrimination and penalizing those who discriminate. It is particularly noticeable that the emphasis on cultural rights has tended to shine the light on indigenous movements at the expense of black populations who have a different origin, usually in slavery, and who stand to benefit more from anti-discrimination measures.

The book is also about the difficulties which arise when subjective categories like race and ethnicity are tied to rights and to the allocation of precious resources like land. This turns into a highly politicized process in which, as Joanne Rapaport says in her endorsement of the book, the state and the bureaucracy end up classifying and naming subordinate populations.   

What’s unique about the relationship between multiculturalism and indigeneity in the Latin American context?

 Latin American countries are more or less the only ones in the world to have signed the famous ILO Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention, no.169, of 1989. Only a handful of others have signed. This is because elsewhere demands for such rights are considered to be demands for separatism or autonomy which states do not tolerate, whereas most Latin American countries are now quite comfortable with granting rights to indigenous and afro-descendant peoples. The other side of this coin is that while the rhetoric emphasizes cultural and even racial difference, the demands made in the name of indigenous peoples in the region are to a significant extent the same demands that all movements of the underprivileged make: improved access to land and jobs, better and more primary, secondary and higher education, and an end to discrimination. But in addition there are demands for governments to allocate resources and grant entitlements to them because of their indigenous condition and heritage, and governments are quite receptive to such demands because they see them as a way of keeping the situation under control and pacifying movements’ leaders by favouring a more narrow set of beneficiaries.

What can the Latin American experience ‘teach’ the rest of the world?

That demands for ethnic recognition need not be demands for separatism or to break away: in many ways they are really demands for citizenship, but when they are expressed in terms of ethnic identity governments panic  and resort to repression or worse. It need not be so.