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Land property and citizenship in Patagonia

Sebastián Barros (Univ. Nacional de la Patagonia-CONICET)

Social sciences and political science in particular have linked citizenship to legal agency. This means
that any individual living under a liberal-democratic institutional arrangement is considered an agent
and, thus, a citizen (O’Donnell 2010). Citizenship has a legal base that includes all citizens
“independently of their social condition and ascriptive characteristics (such as ethnic group,
language, religion), except their age and nationality” (O’Donnell 2010, 40).

Consequently, the process of integration of differences within states would have a strictly
institutional origin. This would give a specific character to political communities, which will be called
“civic communities” to differentiate them from those whose integration depends on the ascription
of an ethnic, religious or linguistic character.

From this point of view, legal institutions turn individuals into agents. There would be nothing
necessary or essential in citizenship but a legal definition implying that individuals have a capacity to
take reasonable decisions and be aware of their consequences: “these rights and liberties define the
citizen as an agent” (O’Donnell 2010, 40). The wilful actions of the citizen-agent may alter the ways
in which political regimes, states and societies organize and function. Citizen-agents may also
expand democracy by removing previously existing limits to citizenship stemming from regimen,
state and/or social institutions.

This is particularly relevant in Patagonia since it was not until recently that Argentina’s southern
National Territories became provinces which fully recognised political rights to their inhabitants. This
meant that until the 1950s dominant discourses about people living in Patagonia considered them as
individuals incapable of self-government. The corollary of this argument in mainstream social and
political science is that once the proper institutional arrangements were in place, through the
sanction of provincial constitutions, all adults living within provincial institutional limits were
transformed into agents, ergo, into equal citizens.

Taking evidence from the Constitutional Assembly of Chubut in 1957, I argue that the dominant
political discourse in the Assembly portrayed certain parts of the population as equal in terms of
political rights, but at the same time, those groups were assumed to be integrated by individuals
incapable of governing the community.

Drawing upon Foucault’s reading of democracy, I will analyse the political effects of the way in which
certain parts of the population were portrayed as groups that could not be taken as speaking the
truth. Foucault claims that in a democratic arrangement everybody can talk but not everybody can
speak the truth. This produces a tension in democratic discourses that is often forgotten in social
and political theory. In this presentation I will analyse the discussion about land property in Chubut
and its effects regarding indigenous people as full equal citizens.

Chubut Constitutional Assembly

The way in which indigenous people were presented in the Constitutional Assembly was a clear
example of the cleavages at play in the definition of the civic community. The debate shows that
members of the Convention portrayed indigenous people as a subject defined in terms of an
ascriptive character that did not fit the moral subject assumed by the legal notion of civic

The Convention discussed the “indigenous issue” when they review the land ownership regime for
the new Province. In the first intervention on this topic, conventional Roque Gonzalez (UCRP)
proposed that aboriginals should be “provided with education and means of subsistence” and that
they must be assured of the possession of the land they occupy (DS, 111). The recognition of the
ascriptive trait (aboriginality) was rejected by other members as a privileged distinction. Antonio
Gargaglione of the Christian Democratic Party (PDC) warned that: “we make a distinction between
the aboriginal and the non-aboriginal, that is, we recognize a kind of privilege, because in the norms
that we give for common education the aborigine is an inhabitant like any other.” (DS, 111) Up to
this point, the conformation of a civic community follows the argument posed by institutionalist
approaches. Citizenship should be supported by (civic) equality, beyond any ascriptive (aboriginal)

Lack of education was the reason why it was problematic to assure the aborigine the possession of
the land. “The possession of the land in the hands of these aborigines, often conspire against the
economy of the area where these Indians are located” (DS, 111). Gonzalez responded by mentioning
that there was a debt to the indigenous who were abandoned “since childhood to their own fate in
the tolderías”, but he pointed out that: “Working (...) is not their habit but I believe that with an
adequate instruction (...) we could incorporate the aborigine so he occupies the place that
corresponds to him” (DS, 112). The conventional Burgín (UCRP) put it in stronger terms that shared
the assumptions of their colleagues: “For the inhabitants of many areas the indigenous turns out to

be a problem more important than the red fox. There are places where the amount of sheep that
the indigenous steals or kills is greater than that the red fox can kill” (DS, 112). Therefore, he was

that before the problem of granting the land, there is the problem of knowing how to own
that land. (...) I consider that educating the indigenous to reach the state of being capable to
own the land, knowing what to do with a land and how it should be managed must be the
first step (DS, 113).

The discussion took another turn when they debated the alleged effects of González proposal: the
state seemed to be left in charge of granting the aborigine the means of subsistence. Gargaglione
explained that:

As I know several colonies of aborigines, the consequence of this proposal will be for the
state to take charge once and for all of these aborigines, who will have to depend exclusively
on the means of the state until they are provided with an appropriate moral education. (DS,

If this norm was sanctioned, the state should take charge of the aboriginal subsistence until it
became a moral subject. Although the law sought “to incorporate them into civilized life (...) we
cannot risk raising lazy people hopeful of state support”. (DS, 112)

This idea of “lazy people hopeful of state support” links the figure of the indigenous to the
representation of mass supporters of Peronism. The Convention took place with Peronism banned
from elections after the 1955 coup. Basically, the Peronist masses were portrayed as people ready to
exchange “a plate of lentils” for a vote instead of the allegedly autonomous and rational electoral
choice of the rest of the community. Even more, Peronist supporters were ready to accept living
under the tutelage of their leader as long as they didn’t had to work, depending on State support
and funding.

But the portrayal of Peronist’s supporters implied a social group that rejected the legitimate place
that the civic community had defined for it. In the case of the indigenous population, it was defined
by an ascriptive feature attached to a series of incapacities that hindered their full inclusion in the
civic community. That is, a subject who could not occupy a legitimate place in that community until
it was properly educated (whitened).

In turn, their incorporation should be careful enough not to “raise lazy” dependents on the state and
should tend to the appropriate education for a moral subject who did not seem to recognize the

imperative of labour, effort and rationality that sustains the creation of wealth. Care that the
Peronist government had not had in relation to its followers.

The case of the provincialization of Chubut faces us with a representation of the community that was
not only integrated by subjects who were considered autonomous and rational given their civic
inclusion beyond any ascription.

On the contrary, this case shows that the fiction elaborated to think that the demos is a sum of
autonomous individuals (Escolar, 2011) excluded from the legitimate word a significant portion of
those who lived in the community. The civic community sustained by the possession of rights did not
automatically translated, as the institutionalist approaches seem to assume, into a community
without ascriptive cleavages. The criterion of institutional belonging was crossed by a criterion of
legitimacy of the word that eclipsed equality in the possibility of participating effectively in the
affairs of the community.

Citizenship and agency

Chubut constitutional debates show that there is not such a thing as an autonomous agency that
could be distinguished from a religious, linguistic or ethnic adscription. The case of Chubut shows
that agency and autonomy are ascribed to subjects.

This would trigger two (among others) possible responses with important consequences for the
study of citizenship.

Firstly, citizenship could be treated as an identity (Mouffe), so we could study it as we do with any
other identity. I would put forward four basic elements for the analysis of identification: the relative
structurality in which an identification emerges, the presence of a particular content, a promise of
plenitude and the construction of an alterity. But, in this case we would be left with a very
descriptive analysis of citizenship (the emergence and dissolution of a process of identification).

Secondly, we should recognise that in any community there is more than one logos. Autonomous
rationality as it appears in Western political theory is not the only form that agency can adopt.
Contemporary indigenous’ discourses challenge this in a daily basis. This recognition forces the need
for a different perspective that starts re-thinking the certainties of modern western citizenship.

One of those certainties is about the place of the figure of the leader in a democratic regime.
Leadership, especially in Latin America, has been related to a charismatic rationality. In recent

theoretical proposals (Laclau 2005) charisma has been turned into the affective investment in a
figure that reduces the multiplicity of demands in a popular identification.

In this sense, since Marx’s Jewish Question we’ve been dealing with the gap between normative
realm and empirical account of citizenship. Closing the gap would imply the empirical realisation of
normative values. Normative conflict (and politics) would disappear. There would be no need to
discuss citizenship, we would rather argue about the administrative resolution of certain technical
problems. Maybe it’s time to start living with the gap.

Living with the gap would mean to accept that the dynamics of democracy introduce/inscribe an
inequality (to rule and to obey) in a relation among equals. This paradox or ambiguity (the gap)
cannot be superseded and, if it is, it represents the end of democracy. This is Foucault’s contribution
to a theory of democracy.

Two (rather quick) conclusions

One the one hand, speaking the truth means the possibility of effectively participating in the
direction of the community. In Foucault’s account, “regimes of truth” are historically specific
mechanisms which produce discourses which function as true in particular times and places. It is
clear from the Chubut example that indigenous people were not included in that regime as
legitimate parts of the community. That regime implied an autonomous subject, rational in her
decisions regarding the exploitation of natural resources. Indigenous were thus portrayed as “bad
parresiasts”, individuals who could talk because they had the right to but who could not speak the

On the other hand, the need for opening a debate on citizenship and political relations in Latin
America is clear. After a period of social and political mobilization in the last decade we face now a
retreat of public discussion that is often related to the way in which leadership operated within
popular political articulations.

Political relationships in a democratic regime, from Foucault’s account, introduce inequality in an

otherwise equal relation. Introduces a vertical axis where there should be a horizontal democratic
bond. Foucault argues that there cannot be a discourse of truth if there is no democracy. The access
to the truth springs from the free play among opinions that can be persuaded and this play needs
democratic institutions. But at the same time, and paradoxically, democracy ends if we assume that
the discourse of truth can be evenly distributed among citizens (Foucault, 2009, p. 194). In that case,
the need and possibility of a free persuasion disappears. In a community in which all its members

had access to truth persuasion would be redundant. This agonistic dynamic to persuade and win
ascendant might give us a few insights to theoretically challenge the “unmovably unequal
relationship between leader and masses” (Taylor 2004, 215) which characterises political
relationships, not only in Latin America.


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