“This constitutional reform is important because at least the state is committing itself to working on specific policies to strengthen the world vision, values and spirituality of our native peoples,” activist Betty Pérez, with the Salvadoran National Indigenous Coordinating Council (CCNIS), which groups around 20 organisations, told IPS.
The lawmakers who took office on May 1 must ratify the amendment approved Apr. 25 by the outgoing legislature, as established by the laws governing constitutional reforms.
But because the line-up of political forces in the legislature remained unchanged after the March elections, there are no doubts that the reform will receive the votes of the necessary special majority of two-thirds of the 84 members of the single-chamber Legislative Assembly. Indigenous leaders expect the amendment to be approved in June or July.
Although the Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) rejected the reform, the right-wing opposition party does not have enough legislators to block its passage by the left-wing governing Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) and its allies.
El Salvador is a signatory to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, adopted by the U.N. General Assembly in September 2007. But the state has not shown any interest in ensuring compliance with the international instrument.
There are no socioeconomic policies that directly benefit these ethnic groups, according to the Sociolinguistic Atlas of Indigenous Peoples in Latin America, published by UNICEF, the U.N. children’s fund.
Article 2 of the U.N. Declaration states that “Indigenous peoples and individuals are free and equal to all other peoples and individuals and have the right to be free from any kind of discrimination, in the exercise of their rights, in particular that based on their indigenous origin or identity.”
“The reform is a great stride forward, because this country has ignored the existence of the indigenous population, and as a result of that denial, all of the rights that they have as original peoples have been eliminated,” Carlos Lara, an anthropologist at the University of El Salvador, told IPS.
The prevailing view in this Central American country is that indigenous people are a thing of the past because due to historical circumstances, they disappeared or merged with the general population, he said.
According to this view, El Salvador’s population of 6.1 million is “mestizo” – an ethnic mix of indigenous people and the descendants of the Spaniards who colonised this territory starting in 1524.
But this essentially denies the existence of native communities.
However, the constitutional reform “puts things to right, because now El Salvador will define itself as a multicultural and multiethnic country,” Lara said.
According to the 2007 census, native people represent just 0.2 percent of the population – a figure that was immediately rejected by indigenous organisations and academics.
Indigenous associations cite instead the 2005 household survey by the Economy Ministry, which put the proportion at 17 percent of the population, mainly Nahua-Pipil Indians in the centre and west of the country, and Lenca and Cacaopera in the east.
There are still towns, like Santo Domingo de Guzmán in the southwestern province of Sonsonate, where indigenous people make up 80 percent of the population, Lara said.
Hidden in history
Native peoples were enslaved and exploited by the Spanish colonists and later by the “criollo” – native-born white – elites who governed the country after it gained independence in 1821.