A historical victory in Ecuador

Miriam Lang

In an unprecedented victory, Ecuador’s indigenous movement has forced the government of Lenin Moreno to withdraw a structural adjustment decree imposed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) as a precondition for a $4.2 billion loan to bolster the country’s finances. The adjustment package had mainly included the liberalization of formerly subsidized fuel and diesel prices as well as the withdrawal of significant workers’ rights. The government gave in after twelve days of popular uprising throughout the country. Some parts of the country witnessed heavy riots, especially the capital Quito. The situation was further complicated by the clear intent of the followers of former president, Rafael Correa to take political advantage of the protests. Ecuador’s political balance of power has shifted: in particular, it leaves the indigenous movement in a much stronger position, as the most visible spearhead of the protests in which unions, women, students and also middle classes took part. Now, the country faces the challenge of recovering after heavy human rights abuses and an outbreak of racism and classism in social networks. It also has to build a profoundly different economic policy which takes plurinationality into account.

An indigenous led uprising

Between October 3rd and October 12th, 527 years after the Spanish invasion to the Americas, barricades were burning in every part of Ecuador. The main arteries were blocked and tens of thousands of people were marching in the streets. They took control of several prefectures and even occupied the parliament building, temporarily. The building of the state comptroller was burnt down. Three of the most important oil fields in the Amazon were paralyzed for a few days, hitting the state at its most vulnerable spot. Taxi drivers and transport workers had started the protests but soon they were joined by members of the indigenous movement who began to spearhead the protests. They received strong support from students, women’s organizations and from the urban poor as well as middle classes. The urban population of the capital Quito and peasants from the surrounding provinces revived a tradition of solidarity which had already supported indigenous protests in the 1990s, donating food, blankets, warm clothes and medicine. Families cooked meals in their homes and brought them to the places where the protesters were camped. In a significant move, sheet metal workers made shields for the demonstrators, who were confronting heavy attacks by the police and military.

Protesters in front of the Parliament building in Quito. Picture – Miriam Lang

The government soon declared a state of emergency in the country, which brought thousands of military personnel and heavy equipment onto the streets. In response, and relying on the constitutional precept of plurinationality, the indigenous confederation CONAIE (Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador) also declared a state of emergency in its territories. It announced that police officers and soldiers who entered those territories without permission would be detained. This happened promptly on several occasions, for example in the province of Chimborazo in the Andes, where nearly 50 uniformed were detained for several days.

The largest demonstrations of up to 40,000 people took place in the capital Quito. Tens of thousands of indigenous and peasants from all parts of the country came in trucks and set up camp in the central Parque el Arbolito and in surrounding universities, taking turns in order to not exhaust themselves, which gave the protests a long breath. While the indigenous movement called for a massive, but peaceful protest, the marches were accompanied by violent riots, instigated mainly by students, young urban men and followers of former president Rafael Correa. The indigenous leaders kept a clear distance from these elements.

The repression unleashed by the government against the indigenous movement has never been seen previously in Ecuador’s history. It has included attacks on hospitals and universities, and violence against women with children. Eight people are known to have died in the confrontations, over 1300 were injured and almost 1200 people detained, according to the latest report of Ecuador’s Ombudsman. But, the investigations about human rights abuses have only begun.

Indigenous women leading one of the marches in Quito. Picture – Miriam Lang

The unwavering popular support to the indigenous movement finally forced the government to come to the negotiating table. On October 18th it acceded to all three conditions put forward by the movement: that the dialogue would be broadcast publicly to ensure maximum transparency; that the community media would be present during the negotiations; and the government would guarantee the safety and security of the leaders involved in the dialogue. With the mediation of the United Nations and the Catholic Church, the government finally agreed to cancel IMF’s decree 883, which had provoked the uprising.

The historical victory of the October uprising marks the indigenous movement’s recovery after twelve years of backlash and repression under former president Rafael Correa. But, simultaneously there are indications of a push back from the right. There has been an outburst of openly racist and classist comments on social networks. Also, armed bands of upper middle classes were seen patrolling before their gated communities during the protests. This political polarization constitutes a severe challenge in a country that still feels the effects of Jair Bolsonaro’s electoral victory in Brasil.

The Economic background – Redistribution for the rich

It is quite revealing to take a look at the developments which forced people to take to the streets in Ecuador. The government under Lenin Moreno wants a loan of four billion and two hundred million dollars from the International Monetary Fund. In order to achieve this, IMF demands certain structural adjustment measures to be introduced to the national economy, as was customary in the 1990s. This includes eliminating government subsidies for fuel, and adjusting diesel and gasoline prices to the world market. But the most significant demand is to revoke workers’ rights in order to make the labor market more flexible. According to the calculations made by social organizations, Lenin Moreno has exempted large companies from tax payments of exactly $ 4 billion and $ 295 million in recent years. It is therefore argued that this is a clear indication of redistribution from the bottom up. The broad population must pay to make the elite even richer. While the banks have made $ 554 million profit in 2018 alone, the salaries of the government employees with so-called occasional contracts are being reduced by a flat rate of 20%. Tens of thousands have already been dismissed from the state apparatus, into an economy that has stagnated and hardly has any jobs to offer.

Migration to the cities has inevitably caused impoverishment for the indigenous people. Picture – Miriam Lang

There was an initial increase of 123% in fuel. That meant an immediate impact on the general cost of living. Moreover, haulers and middlemen took the opportunity to increase their own profit margins. Consequently, bus tickets in public transport have already risen by 10 cents, along with a major hike in the prices of food and services. This was the main reason for the massive protests that erupted in Ecuador since the third of October and have practically paralyzed the country.

The adjustment package was not motivated by ecological concerns

Lest there is any doubt, the government was not advancing an environmentally friendly agenda by redirecting people from private car use to public transport through its decision to increase the fuel prices – as an investment in clean public transport to create a real alternative would be a precondition for this. In fact, the government’s move would have deepened economic inequality even further in a country where the economy is already highly monopolized, and the GINI index of inequality is at 0.97 in the top 20 economic sectors according to sociologist Napoleón Saltos. [1] This was one of the reasons why the ecology movement in Ecuador joined the protests in great numbers . As the NGO, Acción Ecológica stated, a consistent environmental and climate policy would commit to withdraw the multiple subsidies and tax exemptions for oil companies, mining and palm oil companies etc. in the first place. Instead, they are increasingly expanding their destructive activities in the country with the government’s support.

The role of former president Rafael Correa

In 2007, during the first months of its tenure, the progressive government under Rafael Correa had expelled the World Bank and IMF from Ecuador to highlight the country’s sovereignty, and declared much of the foreign debt unlawful after an audit. Nevertheless, it was precisely this same government that launched a war on indigenous peoples and trade unions, since it considered the state to be the only legitimate actor of social transformation and felt threatened by autonomous social organizations. Protest was systematically criminalized, criminal law tightened and street blockades classified as terrorism. Yellow unions (advancing employer’s interests) were formed, social organizations aggressively split and an all-embracing propaganda apparatus was built to dominate the national narrative. Not surprisingly, soon enough the executive branch had no significant counterpart left in the civil society.

The pristine ecological diversity of Yasuni National Park is under threat from oil exploration.

2013 onwards, Correa also acquired a two-thirds majority in parliament and the ruling party could implement whatever it pleased, with a policy that simply transformed the initially promised, profound and intercultural transformation into a process of capitalist modernization. That, not surprisingly, opened the country further for an infusion of transnational capital. Yasuní National Park, one of the world’s crucial biodiversity hotspots, was cleared for oil exploitation, and for the first time large-scale industrial mining contracts were signed in Ecuador. After international oil prices went down from 2014, the Correa government also returned to the welcoming arms of the international financial markets and the IMF, and began to increase the country’s foreign debt, which now stands at 38 billion dollars. A parallel narrative, which became apparent only after Correa’s ouster in 2017, was that of the historical depths of corruption that the country had sunk to under him. Most importantly, Correa’s misrule left behind a country without any significant social organization, which could have stood in the way of the subsequent government of Lenin Moreno, who brought the oligarchy directly back into the ministries. It has also radically changed the country’s foreign policy, aligning with the US and rightwing Latin American governments, and supporting the idea of a military intervention in Venezuela.

Contrary to the claims in parts of the international media, the October uprising by no means expressed the people’s desire to bring ex-President Correa back to the helm in Ecuador. Due to the corruption scandals and after the split of his party, Alianza País , in early 2018, Correa lost a substantial number of his supporters. In fact, the original label of Allianz País is now owned by his political opponent, President Moreno. Correa’s own party only won two of 23 prefectures in the regional elections in March 2019. The ex-president is in exile in Belgium and cannot return to Ecuador because of several court cases against him. He has, however, actively tried to influence the popular uprising through the aggressive political exertions of a tough core of his supporters and has also called for new elections. While they are quite correct in criticizing the Moreno government for solidifying the hold of neoliberalism in the country, the Correístas have systematically covered up the inconvenient fact that they themselves had initiated the implementation of these policies, for example, by signing a Free Trade Agreement with the European Union. The indigenous confederation CONAIE has clearly distanced itself from those appropriation attempts by the Correístas. In retrospective, it is difficult to say how much influence the Correísta instigations really have had on the uprising. Meanwhile, the Moreno government could opportunely claim that the October uprising was only a conspiracy driven by the Correistas and their allies in the Venezuelan government, instead of being an expression of genuine popular discontent. In the last few days, several well-known Correísta politicians have either been arrested or have asked for political asylum in the Mexican embassy in Quito.

The indigenous activists have become strategic in their political engagements in Ecuador.

It is noticeable that none of the official announcements of the CONAIE demanded the resignation of President Moreno, but only that of his Minister of the Interior and his Minister of Defense. There is a definite logic behind that. According to political analysts, the Moreno government sees itself as a transitional government designed to pave the way for the explicit political Right under the Christian Democrat, Jaime Nebot. Nebot, whose bastion is the harbor city of Guayaquil on the coast, sneeringly asked the indigenous protesters to “go back to their highlands”, losing whatever legitimacy he had in the Andean provinces of the country. It is worth stating that Ecuador has already lived through a shift to the right in public discourse and social media in the last two years, including attacks against refugees from Venezuela and increasingly offensive aggression in social networks. Moreno’s resignation could have catalyzed the rise of the Right to political power, while now on the contrary social organizations have the chance, and also the responsibility, to re-engage more strongly in the debate on the country’s future.

The challenges of Plurinationality and diverse civilizational horizons

Amid the uproar and tumult of the current uprising it is quite important to emphasize that the core issues of Ecuador’s indigenous peoples are significantly distinct from the intrigue of electoral and party politics. They were not only aiming at the withdrawal of the IMF package, but are also committed to moving away from extractivism, which continues to advance violently into their territories and threatens to upend their bare existence, both in material and cultural terms. As the indigenous peoples of Chimborazo have explained in a statement, they demand reparation for the plunder since colonial times. And not in hard cash, but in the form of a radically different agricultural policy, which does not aim at eradicating peasants and communitarian subsistence economy, but at strengthening it. They want access to irrigation, to non-patented seed banks and collectively owned fertile lands. They desire systematic promotion of organic farming methods instead of corporate kits which force farmers into the unctuous embrace of transnational capital. Plurinationality, the central demand of the indigenous peoples since the 1990s, also includes territorial self-government based on their own judiciary, education and health systems, as well as their own forms of democratic assembly. They aspire to the right to a mode of living, which is not dictated by global capitalism, and takes from the modern world only what the community sovereignly and collectively decides. That is what the Indigenous Movement of Ecuador is fighting for.

The indigenous population of Ecuador is asserting its right to strengthen its communitarian subsistence economy. Picture – Miriam Lang

While the October uprising was marked by state repression and violence, it also brought into stark relief issues of class and inequality, and entrenched policies of systematic impoverishment. While the Mestizo mainstream and the media declare that, “the Indian is poor by nature”, for the indigenous activists like the Kichwa lawyer Verónica Yuquilema, “the struggle is about ending these policies of colonial drain both nationally and internationally.” The indigenous are still depicted as “obstacles to progress and modernization”, an image which Rafael Correa himself underlined strongly during his rule. They, however, assert that the time has come to recognize and dignify their own modes of living, knowledges, forms of organization and political activity. “We are the State, but we are not taken into account. We labor, cultivate, we feed the cities, but nevertheless we still are treated as poor”, said Amazonian leader Mirian Cisneros during the public dialogue. The constitutional declaration of Ecuador as a plurinational country still has a long way to go before it becomes a reality.

Miriam Lang is a professor at the Universidad Andina Simón Bolívar in Quito.

[1] The GINI index shows inequality on a scale from 0 to 1, where 0 is the lowest inequality index and 1 is its maximum.

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