- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 4, 2003

SAN RAFAEL, Ecuador Dressed in bowler hats, masks and furry leggings, the men dance through the streets, brandishing bottles of liquor and branches draped with live, squealing guinea pigs offerings for Intiraymi, the Festival of the Sun.
Suddenly, the two bands stop playing and a smallish man holds up a panicked, fluttering rooster.
"I am proud to be continuing this tradition and celebrating our culture," announces Ruben Cholo, 38, sounding loud and boozy. "Gentlemen, this tradition is ours. This culture is ours. Let us never lose it."
The Otovaleno are an Indian group that has made it economically without losing its traditions. That makes them a rarity in Latin America, where Indians by and large still live in extreme poverty without running water and electricity, with little political power, often bearing the brunt of idiotic TV satires.
There were at least 40 million Indians in the two continents of the New World when Christopher Columbus arrived. That population was reduced by 80 percent to 90 percent by European diseases, war, oppression and genocide, but has taken off again, and some estimates place it above the original level.
Who, though, is an Indian today? In Mexico, for instance, most people have some Indian in them, yet the Indian population is officially 10 percent, because only those who speak an Indian language qualify.
Indian numbers range from more than 70 percent of the population in Bolivia to less than 1 percent in Argentina. Cuba's population counts don't even mention Indians.
Westernization has been both a blessing and a curse. It has brought services such as health clinics, running water and trade routes, but also deforestation and influxes of non-Indian populations that seriously threaten Indian identity and lifestyle.
It has brought education that is producing Indian lawyers and lawmakers. Improved health care has stamped out some of the diseases brought by the early settlers. But with the consumer society has come drug addiction and crime. Urbanization has created a slum-dwelling Indian underclass. Television has beamed violence, pornography and crass commercialism into Indian homes.
To see the effects, cut 600 miles north from Otavaleno country in the mountains of Ecuador to Panama and the town of Ipeti Kuna.
Here runs a graveled segment of the Pan American Highway, the 8,909-mile river of highway and dirt track that represents an old dream of linking North America to Patagonia by a single road. Big trucks rumble through town, picking up bananas and lumber to sell in Panama City.
"In the beginning, there were no settlers just trees, birds, different kinds of animals," said town official Orlando Hernandez, 40. "Since 1970, when they started to open La Pan Americana, that's when our problems started."
Ipeti is now three separate towns. Ipeti Kuna for the Kuna Indians, Ipeti Colono for mestizo loggers, and Ipeti Embera for another Indian tribe, displaced from its traditional lands. The three groups have had occasional clashes, sometimes deadly.
Women in Ipeti Kuna still wear dresses adorned with colorful fabrics called molas, only now they buy them machine-made from Panama City.
"Before, economically, people didn't worry so much. But now if you don't have money, it's like you don't have anything," said Ovitilio Perez, 27, wearing a Reebok baseball cap. The mountain provided farmland and animals to hunt for meat. "Now it all comes from Panama City."
Scattered reaction to such conflicts of development have exploded throughout the region. While most Indians continue to petition their governments for roads, electricity and Western comforts, others, often encouraged by leftist Europeans and Americans, have begun to resist modernization.
In southern Mexico, many Mayan Indians rallied around the Zapatista rebels, who rose up in 1994 in 12 days of fighting with the army that killed 145 persons. Although there has been no sustained fighting since, conflicts between Indians on either side persist.
The Zapatistas, who wear traditional tribal dress and ski masks, are led by Subcomandante Marcos, whom authorities have identified as a Spanish-descended philosophy professor from Mexico's Gulf coast.
The other leaders are Indian. When the Zapatistas went to Mexico's Congress in 2001, it was a Tzotzil Indian, Comandante Esther "I, a poor Indian woman and a Zapatista" who addressed the lawmakers on their behalf.
The Zapatistas want autonomy so Indians can make laws, hold elections and control resources, aspirations that rankle business interests looking for oil and minerals in the mountains of Chiapas.
Elsewhere, Indians have had more success in influencing government. In Peru, part-Indian Alejandro Toledo is national president, the first ever to be elected on an Indian-rights platform.
Calling himself a "stubborn Indian with a cause," he likened himself to a 16th-century Inca emperor, pledging to rectify 500 years of injustice and bring prosperity to Peru's 45 percent Indian population.
Seventy percent of Indians voted for him last year.
"It's a source of pride that for the first time an Indian will govern," Mariano de la Cruz, a Quechua Indian, said in halting Spanish as he voted in a Lima slum. "Discrimination has gotten worse, and he will be a symbol for all of Peru."
But 16 months into his presidency, Mr. Toledo is having trouble making good on his pledges. His popularity has plunged, and he has faced violent protests.
In Ecuador, Indians are 40 percent of the population and have had more success in influencing government. Elections to the Confederation of Indigenous Nations, an advocacy group, are treated with the same importance as presidential elections.
In 2000, Indian leaders joined army officers to depose President Jamil Mahuad and won a seat on the triumvirate that replaced him. Ecuador now has an elected non-Indian president, but the coup was a striking example of Indian power.
"The military came in on the heels of the Indians, not the other way around," said Simon Pachano, a sociologist at the Latin American Institute of Social Sciences in Quito. "The Indians in Ecuador are better organized than in any other Latin American country."
Ecuador's 21,000 Otovalenos have embraced globalism with a passion. They sell their handicrafts in New York and Paris, and have produced an astounding assortment of lawyers, doctors and engineers. And although much of the tribe remains in poverty, a large middle class has fueled the boom of the town of Otovalo, where car dealerships and real estate brokers do a brisk business.
"Society has created a very negative stereotype of Indians, and many times the Indians themselves assume that stereotype," said Mario Conejo, Otovalo's first Indian mayor, wearing sandals and bowler hat over a long ponytail. "We broke that cycle in Otovalo."
It hasn't been easy. Mr. Conejo recalled the 1996 Miss Otovalo pageant and its first Indian contestant. Amid national outrage, the city council barred Indians from the pageant.
That, Mr. Conejo said, exposed the racism of the mixed-race people who make up half the town's population. It got Mr. Conejo elected mayor in a contest marred by racial strife.
"It's difficult for many people who think of Indians as dirty, lazy and ignorant to accept that an Indian has a big house or drives a late-model car," he said. "A mestizo can't accept that an Indian is better than him."
Back at the Festival of the Sun, Marco Calapaqui breaks out of a dancing circle to offer a bottle of lemon liqueur to a stranger. The 28-year-old Indian lives in San Rafael, but has been to Houston and Toronto to study law, and dreams of working for the International War Crimes Tribunal at The Hague.
"I like defending drug smugglers, murderers, the hard cases," he said. "I dream of going to The Hague. And I will. It's a promise I've made to myself."
Mr. Calapaqui has cut his ponytail in a concession to Western ways, but he still gets drunk and dances at festival time.
"It's essential," he said. "It's our patrimony, our way of life."

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