About 25,000 people squished themselves into the sports stadium of Chillogallo, the most populated area of Quito, to launch the candidates of President Rafael Correa’s Alianza PAIS (Country Alliance, or AP) on November 10. Elections are scheduled for next February for the presidency and National Assembly.
In the Venezuelan way, I was a little late for the rally, standing up on a trolebus (tram) as it stopped to let the president’s motorcade pass. Within a few minutes, Correa was speaking, starting the rally only five minutes later than it was called for ― setting an example in another country with grave problems with efficiency and bureaucracy.
People, packed into the stadium from the seated area to the grass field, wore AP’s highlighter green colour, waved the party flag and balloons, and blew plastic trumpets. Just like when Hugo Chavez speaks in Venezuela, it was extremely hot and feet were mashed as people tried to squeeze through non-existent gaps to get a little closer to the stage.
Nevertheless, where I was standing one man gave me half his seat, commenting: “Revolutionaries should always help each other.” He put a green flag over our heads to shade us from the sun, and as speakers announced the candidate lists for various provinces, the people around me shared water, sun cream, and ice-blocks.
The crowd voted symbolically for the candidate lists with cheering, clapping and holding up their delegate identification cards. Between the announcements, they chanted loudly, “Re-election!” and “just one round!” -- referring to the possibility of a run-off election should no presidential candidate get more than 40% of the vote and a lead of 10%, and also revealing a general confidence that Correa will win the elections.
Then, to the tune of “Hey Jude”, they sang: “Ecuador has risen up, a new country ... Always, always, always, citizens’ revolution!” (You can hear a formal version of the new “hymn” of the revolution hereHYPERLINK "http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1e8Y7PATDX0" herehereHYPERLINK "http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1e8Y7PATDX0" herehere.)
Ecuadorians will vote on February 17 for their president and vice-president, as well as for 137 members of the national assembly; drawn from provinces, a national list, and six migrant spots, and for their five Andean Parliament representatives. Electoral campaigning will be allowed from January 4 until February 14. Those elected will assume their positions until 2017.
Under the new constitution adopted by referendum in 2008, candidates must be “promoted in a fair and equitable way”. The Ecuadorian National Electoral Council has therefore established an electoral spending limit of US$1,749,000 for the presidential and vice-presidential candidates.
This amount doesn’t include media and billboard advertising, as that is assigned to each candidate from a state budget.
A disabled vice-president will be missed
In the lead-up to the rally, there had been a lot of media speculation over who Correa’s vice-presidential candidate would be. The current vice-president, Lenin Moreno, began to speak, and as he talked of not running, but of “staying in the citizens’ revolution”, the crowd refused to let him end his speech, chanting “Correa and Lenin!”, “Lenin, don’t go” and “Lenin, friend, the people are with you”.
Moreno was shot in 1998 in a car park as men tried to rob him. He lost the movement of his legs, and after two years bedridden and in pain, he turned to laughter therapy. Within another four years, he was well enough to go about in a wheel chair, and he started to promote humour through an organisation he created called “Eventa” and by writing 10 books.
As a paraplegic, he is one of the world’s few disabled national leaders, and has received a range of decorations and recognition for his work, including a nomination for the Nobel peace prize this year.
When Moreno became vice-president, he investigated the state of people with disabilities in Ecuador and found that the government’s entire budget for disability services was about US$100,000. He travelled the country and people with disabilities living in sheds and dark rooms and hidden away.
Moreno raised the disability services budget 50-fold, and the Ecuadorian government now provides assistance to more than 600,000 people, housing and income for 15,000 people and prostheses for a further 4000.
When Correa announced his running mate for February, there was a subdued response from the crowd. The candidate, Jorge Glas, is an engineer who has held various top level positions, including minister for telecommunications. He is now minister for strategic sectors, but has a relatively low public profile.
Glas is not known as a revolutionary militant, has not taken part in elections before. His speech on Saturday was short and unexciting. Private media here has since speculated that Correa chose someone who would not “overshadow” him.
Changing Ecuador requires political power
After talking about the need for new leaders (a woman near me yelled out “and participation of the masses!”) Correa’s speech was practical, concrete and inspiring.
“How Ecuador has changed!” he said, smiling. “How the people have changed, how much we’ve advanced, and I’ve been witness to this ...
“It’s something that can’t be done alone, there are millions of souls who accompany us ... Ecuador has changed because they had even stolen our hope.”
Since Correa came to power in 2007, his government has overseen the introduction of a new, progressive constitution and a raft of other measures.
Some of the social reforms include: opening up Ecuador’s borders to Peruvians and Colombians; passing criminal reform so that petty criminals do not go to jail; and prohibiting beauty contests in schools (something still allowed in Venezuela and even promoted by some leaders of Chavez’s party).
The Correa government’s pro-poor measures include: implementing a pension payment benefiting 1.2 million Ecuadorians, which was just raised to $50 to be paid for by higher taxes on banks; building schools in remote areas, renovating the many schools left to ruin under previous governments; increasing access to healthcare, and expropriating large farms or companies that have been abandoned or broken the law.
Internationally, Ecuador has withdrawn from the infamous US-run School of the Americas military training program, closed a US military base, granted diplomatic asylum to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and criticised many of the crimes of US imperialism.
Correa said: “The challenges are still huge though, we have to change the unfair economic structures ... and social and economic poverty is intolerable, we can’t tolerate it for one more day.
“But poverty won’t be cured just with solidarity and passion, but with political power exercised for the vast majority, unlike a bourgeois state which only serves a few ... That’s why these elections are important. We will return.”
Correa suggested a strategic aim for the February elections: to win an absolute majority in the national assembly; something Venezuela’s governing United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) failed to do in the last assembly elections, winning just a simple majority.
Correa also talked about how full-time workers for the movement have not been paid in months. He proposed that each AP candidate elected to the assembly donate 5% of their income to support the movement. They will also have two assessors each, “so if we get 80 legislators, that’s the equivalent of what the Gringos call a ‘think tank’ for the revolution”.
Correa outlined his plan for governing for 2013-2017. The plan is built on the last one and its seven themes of: Economic revolution, ethical revolution, social, education and health revolution, Latin American integration, justice revolution, a fight against corruption, and environmental revolution.
For 2013-2017 Correa, has added; a knowledge revolution, an urban revolution, and a cultural revolution.
Other presidential candidates
Two key people are also running for Ecuadorian president (though neither is likely to win), a banker Guillermo Lasso, and left-wing economist Alberto Acosta.
Lasso is running for the CREO (Creating Opportunities) party. He is main shareholder and president of Guayaquil Bank, and has been economics minister or assessor under previous presidents.
Lasso set up the Free Ecuador Foundation, which advocates private property and free market “solutions” to poverty. According to US embassy cables leaked by WikiLeaks, Lasso sent reports about the Ecuadorian government to the US embassy and also requested US help in 2007 to “counter the policies” of Correa.
In the cables, Lasso told the US of a publicity campaign he would air, linking Correa to Chavez and featuring Ecuadorians saying they would not like to live through the same experience as Venezuela. Lasso’s candidacy comes after Ecuador went through a profound crisis in 1999, with the state bailing out bankrupt financial organisations at a cost of billions of dollars.
Acosta, a supporter of the anti-globalisation and anti-mining movement, helped write the first government plan for AP. He is considered one of the main people who helped develop the ideology of the “citizens’ revolution”.
A former close ally of Correa, Acosta was the minister of energy and mining and president of the national assembly in the early stages of Correa’s government. But he now criticises the government for what he terms its “official authoritarianism”. He will be running for a coalition of political parties and movements.
A citizens’ revolution without citizen involvement?
Just a few days before the rally I talked to Rafael Quintero, president of the Socialist Party-Broad Front (PS-FA). Ecuador’s socialist party was formed in 1926 as a secular party that aims for social, political, and economic structural change in Ecuador, as well as the socialisation of the means of production and distribution.
In 1995, the party united with the Broad Left Front. In the 2006 elections, the PS-FA backed Correa.
In the February poll, the PS-FA will support Correa’s candidacy, but will run its own candidates for the national assembly.
“We tried to form an alliance with the AP, but they want support instead,” Quintero said. He had insisted I sit in on his meetings with the movement leaders and party presidents of different provinces so that I could “see how we work”.
“We’re interested in winning places in these elections. But what we’re really concerned about is training an active base, because without that, we’re not going to radicalise the process.”
Quintero graduated in politics, has written 26 political books, including one he gave me titled Political Animal: Readings to Politicise the Memory. His wife, Erika Sylva, is minister for culture.
Quintero told me: “I’m requesting a meeting with Correa, to argue with him about how his movement wants support and not alliances”.
When his meetings were over and he had a spare 10 minutes, I asked Quintero about one of the most glaring differences I’ve noticed between Ecuador and Venezuela; the lack here in Ecuador of large amounts of grassroots organising, political discussion, and grassroots participation in political decision making.
“I think there’s an ideological origin that differentiates Chavez from Correa, and that is the importance that they both give to organisation,” he replied. “Chavez came from the armed forces, he lived through a coup, organisation is everything for him, whereas Correa is an academic who doesn’t understand what organisation is.
“He never understood the importance of political parties, he never had any experience with them. His insertion in a political party was as a left-wing Christian, a humanist, an academic.
“So he has a basis for his politics and he understands well the importance of movements, but he doesn’t apply a policy of participation as something central. He has a big love for his country, he’s anti-imperialist, and he wants to modernise the country”.
How does Quintero hope his party can radicalise the process of change in Ecuador?
“We’re a political party that has a tradition of left unity ... as a party we believe that the country has advanced with Correa and will continue to, so we support him. There are ultra left organisations, but god only knows who they are really with, sometimes it seems they are with the opposition.
“So we support Correa, but we want radicalisation, we want an agrarian revolution, a change in the economic structure so that there are various types of property such as public property, cooperatives, and small and medium business, and that the rich are the ones who pay taxes.
“We want the quality of education to be improved, it has a little but it’s still bad. Correa has done a lot for education and health.”
“Socialism is a stage of transition; it’s not created in one presidential period. So we have a vision, a medium and long term one, we don’t believe in socialism overnight, because it’s complicated.”
The march of bicycles and green balloons
On November 12, Correa, Glas and thousands of others donned helmets, sun hats, placards, and more green balloons, and road bikes from the main plaza to the CNE to register their party’s candidates.
It impressed me, because it is something that probably wouldn’t happen in Venezuela, where we have long caravanas of people stacked into cars, honking horns, and waving red flags, and it’s fair to say that while they are impressive, they aren’t great for the environment.
Still, the movements in the two countries are like sisters. As Gabriela Rivadeneira, heading up the AP’s assembly list of national candidates, said that day at the CNE, Ecuador’s “Bolivarian project has gained strength with the victory [on October 7] of comrade Hugo Chavez in Venezuela”.
Not just Bolivar’s sword travelling around Latin America
At the sports stadium in Chillogallo, when 25,000 people dance under the hot sun after Correa finishes speaking, it struck me that Venezuela and Ecuador are not the same, but not so different either. Both face the same barrage of attacks from private media, the same discourse of insults, lies and demonisation.
And, it’s not just Liberation fighter Simon Bolivar’s sword -- as is chanted in both Venezuela and Ecuador, “Alert! Alert! Alert those who walk, Bolivar’s sword around Latin America!” --but also a wonderful fiesta creating waves across this continent.
I felt the same sort of energy, hopefulness and happiness that I have felt in marches in Venezuela. After decades of dictatorships, mass disappearances, repression, and after centuries of occupation and domination of this colourful continent, there may not yet be a movement that is completely clear on the finer points of socialist economics, but we have a glimpse at dignity for the poor majority.
[Tamara Pearson is a Venezuela Analysis journalist based in Merida, Venezuela.]