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Autonomy, taken from the Greek (to give oneself laws), is both a politically and theoretically enigmatic term. It has very different meanings among different disciplines and discourses and is also viewed very diversely in political usage. It is, therefore, not only a term with unambiguous content, but rather a relational concept whose definition in terms of content is consistently contested. In Latin America, the term is closely related to discussions on ethnicity, indigenousness, social movements and multi-ethnic / multinational and multicultural constitutions.

Three levels dealing with the term 'autonomy' and its use in policy-making can be distinguished: the cultural-ethnic level, the political-legal and the territorial-economic level, none of which are clearly distinctive from one another either theoretically or in activist or state politics. In addition, they are also not homogenous and this lack of homogeneity is directly linked with inseparability. The manifestation of autonomy in political life and in legislation depends strongly on its conception. In any case, a congruence of all three levels, in which the cultural mannerisms and habits of a specific ethnic group are recognized as such in national legislation in order to grant them territorial sovereignty and to facilitate a subsistence economy, in reality is rare. In contrast, territorial endeavors for autonomy are also demanded by non-ethnically-specific groups (such as in the Media Luna regions in Bolivia), while the legislative entrenchment of collective self-determination law does not necessarily have to be territorially fixed or be accompanied by territorial sovereignty (as in many of the states considering themselves constitutionally multiethnic and multicultural).

The most prominent agents of autonomy projects in the last three decades were surely social movements implemented by indigenous peoples. Since the mid-1980s, the movements by indigenous peoples of various nations succeeded in establishing Statutes of Autonomy for their peoples in their respective national legislations (e.g. in Nicaragua in 1987).

The legal establishment of autonomy often went hand in hand with constitutional changes, which could also be interpreted as a renunciation of the modernistic nation state mentality: instead of understanding the state as being the common essence of a "people" or a nation, more and more countries – alongside Nicaragua and Guatemala (1985), Columbia (1991), Mexico (1992), Peru (1993), Bolivia (1994), Ecuador (1998) and Venezuela (1999) (cf. Schilling-Vacaflor 2010) – defined themselves as multiethnic / multinational and multicultural. These processes were strengthened by the reference of Convention 169 of the International Labour Organization (ILO) signed by many nations, which took effect in 1991 and determined among other things recognition of the indigenous peoples' endeavors "to exercise control over their institutions, their ways of living and their economic developments, and to maintain and develop their identities, languages and religions within the nations in which they live [....]."

In this way, claims to autonomy manifest themselves on the one hand in laws; on the other hand, however, not every multiethnic-multicultural nation state provides for autonomy. While Bolivia, Ecuador, Columbia and Venezuela have quite extensive and collective legislation affective land ownership, the multi-ethnicity in Mexico is principally related to the recognition of languages, customs and practices. Here, autonomy is not explicitly provided for.

Since the 1990s, indigenous autonomy has been described with increasing strength in political science, cultural studies and social sciences – not least as a reaction to the absence and / or poor implementation of autonomies – as being compatible with the nation state and at the same time as an enrichment to the process of national democratization (cf. Díaz Polanco 1997, López y Rivas 2004, Martí i Puig / Sanahuja 2004, López y Rivas/ Gabriel 2005). Díaz Polanco (1997: 15) describes the question of autonomy as a topic going considerably beyond the affairs of indigenous peoples and, thus, as "a key problem of the future multiethnic state". This broad interpretation of the autonomy problem is often accompanied by an especially narrow conception of autonomy: López y Rivas (2004: 49) discuss the Mexican background of "ethnic autonomies", who were to be supported in implementing a national democratization as a "participation of ethnic groups and peoples" (ibid.: 40) on all levels of the nation state: social, political and economic. The conception of autonomy as a form which gave itself contemporary ethnicity is also defended by Leo Gabriel / LATAUTONOMY (2005). Here, autonomy is described as a "sustainable system comparable to a biological cell, with relatively constant cultural characteristics" (Gabriel 2005: 25).

These definitions, however, must be understood as theoretically narrow. They not only combine autonomy with democratization, but also already deal with uniformity in the autonomy concept: indigenousness, ethnicity and autonomy are thus bypassed. Firstly, this must, as with the autonomy-democracy link, also lead to autonomy only being able to be described emphatically. Possible cultural exclusions or sexual inequalities evoked within the individual autonomy policies can therefore be described in just as limited a way as the autonomy projects which are only indirectly characterized as ethnic and non-indigenous, such as the endeavors for autonomy carried out by white members of the upper class in Santa Cruz and Bolivia. Secondly, the assumption of compatibility with the nation state, although markedly against opponents of the autonomy of political rights, results far too easily in agreement with them. In contrast, however, autonomy projects with transnational aims also exist The Zapatismo movement in Chiapas / Mexico mainly comprises of indigenous people, but it formulates its claims to autonomy beyond the nation state: on the one hand, it does not (any longer) primarily aim for recognition as a nation state, whereas on the other it distinguishes itself through international or transnational mobilization.

Not least due to this orientation, a second agent of autonomy projects comes into view: the Left movement. Especially since 1968, the conceptions of autonomy as a connection between concrete self-government and general anti-state living and working models have been discussed. In Mexico, debates on the question of the independence of government agencies and autonomy as the core of the planned utopia of student and trade union campaigns already took place in the 1970s. They, along with the rural-indigenous concepts, belong to the foundations of the understanding of autonomy in Zapatismo (cf. Hernández Navarro 2009). Here, autonomy was not only envisaged as a question of the own collective organization, but as a project for the whole society. In this socially involved dimension of the Left movement lies a further origin of the conceptional connection between autonomy and democratization described above. Furthermore, due to this autonomy model developed against the background of the corporate state identity, the relevance of democratization is to be seen as a historically and empirically defensible, yet also normative principle, because from the perspective of neoliberal state identity, autonomy could very well lose its emancipatory, transformatory connotations and turn out to be contributory to the neoliberal 'withdrawal of the state' (cf. Kaltmeier / Kastner / Tuider 2004).

Jens Kastner

Please cite as:
Kastner, Jens. 2012. “Autonomy.” InterAmerican Wiki: Terms - Concepts - Critical Perspectives. www.uni-bielefeld.de/cias/wiki/a_Autonomy.html.


Diáz-Polanco, Héctor (1997): La Rebelión Zapatista y La Autonomía. México D.F.: Siglo Veintiuno.

Gabriel, Leo (2005): "Vorwort." in Gabriel, Leo: LATAUTONOMY (Ed.): Politik der Eigenständigkeit. Lateinamerikanische Vorschläge für eine neue Demokratie. Vienna: Mandelbaum, pp. 7-38.

Hernández Navarro, Luis (2009): "Movimiento Indígena: autonomía y representación política." in: Gasparello, Giovanna / Quintana Guerrero, Jaime (Ed.): Otras geografías. Experiencias de Autonomías Indígenas en México. México D.F.: UAM, pp. 31-53.

Kaltmeier, Olaf / Kastner, Jens / Tuider, Elisabeth (2004): "Cultural Politics im Neoliberalismus. Widerstand und Autonomie Sozialer Bewegungen in Lateinamerika." in Kaltmeier, Olaf / Kastner, Jens / Tuider, Elisabeth (Ed.): Neoliberalismus – Autonomie – Widerstand. Soziale Bewegungen in Lateinamerika. Münster: Westfälisches Dampfboot, pp. 7 -30.

López y Rivas, Gilberto (2004): Autonomías. Democracia o Contrainsurgencia. México D. F.: Biblioteca Era.

López y Rivas, Gilberto / Gabriel, Leo (2005): Autonomías Indígenas en América Latina. Nuevas formas de convivencia política. Plaza y Valdés: Madrid.

Martí i Puig, Salvador/ Sanahuja, Josep María (Ed.) (2004): Etnicidad, autonomía y gobernabilidad en América Latina. Salamanca: Ediciones Universidad de Salamanca.

Schilling-Vacaflor, Almut (2010): "Die indigenen Völker Lateinamerikas: Zwischen zunehmender Selbstbestimmung und anhaltender Marginalisierung." in: GIGA Focus, Nr. 8, Hamburg, 2010. www.giga-hamburg.de/giga-focus (accessed on 06.09.2011)


ILO Konvention 169: http://www.ilo169.de/index.php?option=content&task=view&id=20&Itemid=31 (accessed on 06.09.2011)

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