ECUADOR: Forging a 'citizens' revolution'

October 19, 2007

After winning a stunning 82% of the vote in the April 14 referendum for a constituent assembly to rewrite the constitution, Ecuador's left-wing president Rafael Correa scored his third major victory in a year on September 30 with his party, Country Alliance, winning 70% of the votes for the new assembly.

The extremely popular constituent assembly, based on similar projects in Venezuela and Bolivia, will begin sitting in mid-November, and will have at least six months to re-write the constitution. Correa's allies in the assembly will include the Socialist Party, the indigenous party Pachakutik and the Movement for Popular Democracy, however his party has the required majority to pass reforms without their support.

Unlike the constituent assembly in Bolivia, which has been bogged down by the right-wing opposition, the Ecuadorian assembly only requires a simple majority to approve any proposed measure. When its work is complete, the new constitution will be put to a referendum, and new elections called.

However, Correa is already calling for the dissolution of the Congress, a body widely regarded as corrupt and useless. While left-wing deputies have offered their resignations, the right-wing "party-ocracy", as Correa calls them, is crying foul, although they are too politically impotent to have any real effect.

Correa has also proposed that the assembly create a new constitutional court, to "guarantee the necessary and efficient separation of all the powers of the state". To attempt to ensure it is independent of economic or political interests, Correa is pushing for a model that would allow the court's members to be picked on merit, rather than political connections. At present, courts are chosen on the basis of political horse-trading.

Correa's government has already taken commentators on the left and right by surprise. Despite Ecuador's dependence upon oil, which accounts for 40% of Ecuador's exports and over a third of revenues, environmental issues have been high on the government's priorities — filing lawsuits against polluting mining companies, placing national parks off-limits to mining and asking the international community to subsidise conservationist policies.

In the final week of September, Correa suspended the controversial Ascendant Copper's plan for an open-pit mine in Junin. One of Correa's close advisers and likely president of the constituent assembly, Alberto Acosta, stated that he wants Ecuador to be declared "open-pit mining free". Like Correa, he has also said that the "economy should be based on human beings" and subordinated to human needs.

But the biggest surprise came only hours after the constituent assembly elections when Correa increased the government's share of windfall oil profits — profits gained from unexpected increases in oil revenues — from all private oil ventures from 50% to 99%, explaining that the extra revenue would go towards social spending and much-needed infrastructure. The government also demanded that oil companies pay US$317 million in unpaid windfall royalties from 2006.

Correa warned that if companies objected, the government might take 100% of windfall profits. Oil minister Galo Chiribogahe has since suggested a compromise position whereby foreign oil companies could switch their contracts for deals that will allow Ecuador to keep all the oil they extract. Correa's government has already used oil revenue to double social welfare, and has created two new provinces in the past month, undermining the power of local bureaucratic elites and opening the door for more grassroots democracy.

A major step forward in Latin American integration — a key part of Correa's platform — is the planned signing of the articles of agreement for Bancosur (the new Bank of the South proposed by Venezuela's socialist President Hugo Chavez and supported by Ecuador as an alternative to the World Bank and International Monetary Fund) on November 3 in Caracas.

To borrow a phrase from Chavez, Correa is indeed proving to be a "subversive in the Carondelet" (the presidential palace). Correa's strategy for far-reaching change in Ecuador, which he refers to as a "citizens' revolution", relies heavily on the involvement and mobilisation of the mass of people to construct what he, like his ally Chavez, calls "socialism of the 21st Century". He has repeatedly called on the Ecuadorian people to confront the corrupt system — whether at the ballot box, or by blockading the Supreme Court and the Congress.

Ecuador has a long tradition of mass mobilisations, leading to the overthrow of three presidents in the past decade. On September 18, a conference of Ecuador's indigenous organisations, including the powerful national indigenous federation CONAIE, met in the south of the country to form a new united front, the Southern Resistance Front, to fight environmental destruction caused by mining companies. They are also calling for the government to nationalise all mining and oil industries, and redirect all profits into social and environmental spending.

An "Open Letter to Ecuadorian Society" signed in February by individuals and organisations involved in the battle for the constituent assembly declared that "never before has the theory that it is the people who make history been so certain. We are today at the beginning of an era of popular power, of the constituent assembly's power. The impulse flows out of the depths of the Ecuadorian people. It is potent and tumultuous."

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