Ecuador: Clash of old and new


Denouncing the congress as "rubbish" and a "national disgrace", left-wing Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa called on the upcoming constituent assembly, for which there will be elections held on September 30, to dissolve the body, which is widely viewed as corrupt. The calls came after the opposition-controlled congress amended a number of recent laws introduced by the executive to curb unprecedented rises in the price of food.

Correa's call also came in the wake of congress's censure of finance minister Ricardo Patino over a scandal involving the secret filming of a discussion between the minister and figures from the banking sector. Patino is highly popular due to his hardline opposition to international financial institutions, recently stating that Ecuador should not pay its "illegitimate" foreign debt.

Reuters reported on July 25 that deputy economy minister Fausto Ortiz had been made Patino's successor. The news wire reported that "Ortiz, who has said his role is to make sure the government avoids a default on its foreign debt, told Reuters Ecuador would not do anything that might jeopardize foreign financing".

According to the July 22 edition of Venezuelan daily 2001, Correa made reference to the concerted campaign by big business to push prices up by 25%-50%, stating the "the groups of power are desperate and they will try to destabilise us by any means possible". He threatened business owners with prison terms if they were found to be involved in speculation.

"We will give them until Monday [July 23] for prices to return to their normal level or we will take measures [via] decrees and we will put in prison the business owners, the intermediaries, who are speculating."

He asked the population to be "prepared" because "this is only the beginning. Ahead of us are days which will be much more harder because the oligarchy, the partyocracy [a reference to the loathed traditional parties of the elite that dominate congress], certain media outlets, the banking sector, are desperate."

Dispute over hegemony

According to Virgilo Hernandez — a candidate for Agreement Country, an alliance formed by Correa's party Alliance Country to contest the constituent assembly elections — this clash was only the latest in an ongoing "period of confrontation" between Correa and "the oligarchic powers, financial powers, and large media corporations".

"We are living through a dispute over hegemony between the oligarchic forces, those forces that have opposed change, and the process of transformation being pushed by President Correa and other forces that are supporting Correa", he explained to Green Left Weekly during a visit to Venezuela in mid-July.

Correa contested the 2006 presidential elections with the stated aimed of bringing about a "citizen's revolution", uniting Ecuadorians behind a radical project aimed at moving Ecuador away from neoliberalism. Since day one of the Correa government, the international and local elites have been campaigning against the Correa government, which they see as a direct threat to their interests.

The congress has been one of the battle sites between the elites, represented in the form of the traditional political parties, and Correa's project. While Correa won convincingly in the second round of the presidential elections, his party did not contest the concurrently held elections for the congress. This left control of this widely discredited body in the hands of parties tied to the Ecuadorian elites. Instead, a central point of Correa's election campaign was to call a constituent assembly to do away with congress and rewrite the constitution to lay the foundations for a new Ecuador.

This is an idea shared by many in Ecuador. Blanca Chancoso, leader of ECUARUNARI, the largest indigenous organisation affiliated to the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE), told GLW that congress had lost all credibility, and that "it is the problem".

"The people are demanding its dissolution; it is not just a policy of the president. I believe that after the new constitution is approved, a new congress should be installed", she added. This was reflected in the strong show of support for Correa in April, when over 80% of Ecuadorians voted in favor of convening a constituent assembly, giving a massive boost to his popularity and his political project.

While Hernandez is not a member of Correa's party, his organisation, Democratic Alternative, has decided to come behind Correa's project, running candidates on his slate for the constituent assembly. Hernandez believes that Correa has a "clear conviction to create a homeland for all" and to construct a more democratic Ecuador. Through the constituent assembly, Ecuadorians will be able to work out "what we want our 'socialism of the 21st century' to look like".

For Hernandez, such a society requires "a democracy without end" with the extension and deepening of democracy "in the economic sphere, in the political sphere — [for example,] how can we democratise the right to education, health, housing, which until now have been in the constitution only in a rhetorical form".

Indigenous movement

On the other hand, Chancoso explained that CONAIE would be supporting the candidates of Pachakutik, the political arm of the Ecuador's powerful indigenous movement. "In the political, electoral sphere, Pachakutik is calling on different social sectors to converge, with a strong indigenous identity — which does not mean a movement or party that is exclusively indigenous, but rather that clearly identifies itself with the indigenous people."

Through the constituent assembly, Chancoso argues that Ecuadorians could begin to "lay the foundations of a new country that brings together the indigenous and non-indigenous population".

"We [the indigenous people] are more than 40% of the population. We have being putting forward our proposal of a plurinational state. Our country is not made up of just one people, but rather is comprised of many millenary peoples with different cultures, which existed long before the Spanish invasion."

Chancoso explained that for indigenous people, the demand of a "plurinational" state was a call for "unity based on diversity". This diversity allow for the self-determination of the indigenous peoples "as communities, as nations", but seen from within a "political process of identity, on the basis of a common political agenda, an agenda of sovereignty of the country".

"Our slogan is 'Never again a country without us'. Even if we do not gain a majority of delegates, we believe that we will be fighting inside [the assembly] to enshrine in the constitution real changes, a real restructuring to refound the country …"

Even though there are different lists that will represent different sections of the left in the upcoming elections — Agreement Country, Pachakutik and the Maoist-influenced Movement for Popular Democracy (MPD) — Hernandez said that there was an important need "to make the effort to have a common project. We [Agreement Country] are making an effort to find points of agreement to transform the country and to deepen democracy, which we characterise as part of this new socialism of the 21st century."