President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) presented on February 5th, a package of constitutional reforms that includes at least twenty modifications covering diverse topics such as certain changes in the judicial system, the electoral system, fixing salaries, pensions, access to healthcare, student scholarships, prohibition of hydraulic fracturing technology, among other issues.
With just four months left until the general elections, it is evident that rather than seeking current approval, it becomes a sort of agenda for the new Judiciary that will assume office during this year.
At the time of presenting the initiative, AMLO stated, “…the essence of these norms and new rights is to channel public life on the path of freedom, justice, and democracy, as demanded by our ancestors and their dedicated leaders.”
The reference to the demands of the ancestors is made because one of the central axes of this reform deals with Indigenous Peoples and with Mexican Afro-descendant communities, as it proposes to recognize them as subjects of public law, prioritizing them for being the oldest and most forgotten in Mexico.
In Mexico, 25.7 million people self-identify as Indigenous, representing 21.5% of the country’s total population. In Mexican territory, 68 Indigenous peoples coexist. On the other hand, 1.3 million people consider themselves Afro-Mexicans, representing 1.2% of the national population.
The social, political, economic, and cultural relevance of these peoples and communities far exceeds the numerical percentage of their members, which is expressed, among other aspects, in the country’s regulations and institutional framework.
The current Constitution already recognizes rights to these peoples.
Article 2 of the current Constitution establishes, among other contents, that:
The Nation has a multicultural composition originally sustained by its Indigenous Peoples, who are those that descend from populations that inhabited the current territory of the country at the beginning of colonization and who preserve their own social, economic, cultural, and political institutions, or part of them. The awareness of their Indigenous identity should be a fundamental criterion to determine who the provisions regarding Indigenous Peoples apply to.
However, the need to advance in the constitutional recognition of more rights of Indigenous Peoples has been at the center of some of the social and political conflicts that the country has gone through and still faces.
Let’s remember that on January 1, 1994, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) uprising occurred in the State of Chiapas, which later led to a dialogue process between the Federal Government and the EZLN that concluded with the signing of the San Andrés Larrainzar Agreements, Chiapas, on “Indigenous Rights and Culture” on February 16, 1996.
These agreements reflected the will and consensus of all parties to address the demands and historical claims of the Indigenous peoples of the country, including a constitutional reform that recognized their fundamental rights.
After a long process, in 2001, Article 2 of the Federal Constitution was reformed, which, although it recognized a set of individual and collective rights of Indigenous peoples, did not adequately address their demands and historical claims, particularly those contained in the San Andrés Agreements.
While the new text recognized the right to self-determination and autonomy, the bases and mechanisms for its effective exercise were not established, a matter that ended up being delegated to the constitutions and laws of the federative entities.
The recognition of Indigenous peoples and communities was that of “subjects of public interest,” and not of “public law,”(sujetos de derecho público) with the purpose of undermining their collective rights and limiting their effective exercise and application, considering them mere passive subjects of public policies and actions.
In general, instead of recognizing their collective rights to address their historical demands, a set of normative limitations were imposed, which rather deepen or perpetuate their ancestral problems.
At the beginning of President AMLO’s government, the National Institute of Indigenous Peoples was created, which developed a proposal for constitutional reform that includes not only Indigenous peoples but also Afro-Mexicans.
The proposal, which sought to modify 16 constitutional articles, underwent an extensive consultation process conducted between June and July 2019 through 54 forums in Indigenous regions in 27 federative entities, as well as 62 follow-up assemblies, with more than 20 thousand municipal, agrarian, and community authorities during the year 2021.
The consulted document was delivered to the President of the Mexican Republic by a representative commission of Indigenous and Afro-Mexican peoples and communities in September 2021, within the framework of the “apology request to the Yaqui People and the Indigenous peoples of Mexico” event held in the state of Sonora on September 21, 2021.
Recognizing Indigenous peoples and Afro-Mexican communities as “subjects of law” implies recognizing their collective legal personality and, therefore, their capacity to enjoy and exercise rights as an entity that has legal action, endowing them with capacity and personality to decide their present and future.
This means that the transformation of their living conditions and the solution to their problems cannot come from top to bottom, cannot be the product of an external vision, or ignore their history, culture, and tradition.
Therefore, the promoters of the reform argue that it is necessary for the fundamental norm to recognize Indigenous peoples as subjects of public law, and as holders of a set of rights and obligations that allow them to have a relationship of respect, under conditions of equality and dignity, with the rest of the State authorities, as well as to have full legal capacity for decision-making and concrete and effective instruments for the enforceability of their rights.
We must be attentive to the reception of these reforms promoted by the president.
At least concerning Indigenous peoples and Afro-Mexican communities, what is proposed is preceded by a long history of struggles, agreements, and disagreements that currently deserve to be deeply addressed, promoting full respect for the cultures that inhabit Mexico.
This is an essential requirement to achieve justice and democracy, which according to President AMLO himself are at the core of this constitutional modification initiative.