Indigenous movement makes gains in Ecuador

October 23, 1996

By Stephen Marks

Elections in Ecuador in May confirmed the rapid rise of the recently formed Pachakátic Plurinational Unity Movement-New Country Movement (MUPP-NP). The front was an initiative of the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities (CONAIE) and attracted mass support from the oil workers' unions, farmers' associations, Christian base communities, non-government organisations and intellectuals.

Eight MUPP-NP deputies were elected to the parliament, along with 11 mayors (including of the third largest city) and 41 councillors. Its presidential candidate, Freddy Ehlers, came third with 18% of the national vote, polling first in 11 out of the 21 provinces. Ecuador is sharply divided between the coast and the mountains, the "sierra", and Ehlers polled especially well in the latter, where most indigenous peoples live.

Indigenous peoples were largely denied the vote until 1978, when suffrage was extended to illiterates. While there have been indigenous members of parliament before, this is the first time that they have been elected in their own name. 85% of the 70 elected MUPP-NP candidates are indigenous people.

In the second round of the presidential voting in July, Abdalá Bucaram of the Roldosista Ecuadoran Party (PRE) defeated the Social Christian Jaime Nebot.

Ciro Gúzam Aldaz, the subdirector of the Popular Democratic Movement (MPD), gave me the following assessment of Ehlers' campaign.

While the front formed by the MUPP-NP rapidly won mass support, the social democratic parties which came behind Ehlers' campaign did so with the intention of weakening the left. The MUPP-NP is ideologically inconsistent, and two of its deputies left even before taking up their seats.

A large part of the MPD's electorate was attracted by Ehlers' anti-oligarchic demagogy. While he called for a constitutional assembly, a new constitution and for four revolutions — in ethics, economics, education and ecology — in essence his program was social democratic.

Ehlers didn't voice outright opposition to neo-liberalism and promoted a type of social accord by saying that he could get along with both bosses and workers, and could resolve problems through negotiations with the international lending institutions.

Progressive parties in Ecuador include the Revolutionary Popular Action (APRE), which came out of a populist party, the Assembly of Popular Forces (CPF). The CPF originally had its base amongst the poor masses of the coast and was the vehicle which made Bucaram president of the parliament in 1979, and Jaime Roldós the national president.

After Roldós died in an airplane accident, APRE fell apart, and General Frank Vargas, who had risen against the conservative government of Freres Cordero in 1986, became its leader. However, APRE is now much smaller and is collaborating with Bucaram.

The Ecuadoran Socialist Party (PSE), formed in 1926, was influenced by the Russian Revolution. After the Communist Party was formed in 1928, the PSE evolved into a bourgeois-tinted party. Radical left socialists later entered the PSE and gave it new life, but in the last few years it has become weaker again. It has teamed up with the legal wing of the pro-Soviet CP, to form the Socialist Party — Broad Front (PSE-FA), which supported Ehlers.

The other social democratic party, the Democratic Left (ID), was in government 1988-1992. It is affiliated to the social democratic Socialist International. Ehlers is one of its former members, and this party actually organised his candidacy.

Party politics are held in low esteem by the public, so it was advantageous for Ehlers not to be affiliated to any party. He is a prestigious independent journalist and television presenter. In the second round, all of these parties, sectors of the MUPP-NP and CONAIE supported Bucaram. Ehlers called for people to vote according to their consciences.

The MPD supported the presidential candidate of the Alternative Front of the People. This front brought together organisations such as the National Union of Educators, which represents 130,000 teachers, the federation the General Union of Workers, the Union of Farmers and Farm Workers, the Federation of Affiliates to Social Security, independent peasant groups, various social and cultural organisations, the Communist Party Marxist-Leninist (PCMLE) and the MPD.

The MPD-led front won 5-7% of the vote and gained two deputies. It used to have eight, so this result was a big setback.

The MPD grew out of the opposition to the 1970-1978 dictatorship, especially from the National Federation of University Students and the PCMLE. The mobilisation of workers, students, home makers, tradespeople, small business people and other sectors showed that they needed their own electoral option. The MPD was formed in 1978 to press their demands.

Populism, a strong current in Ecuador, has its origins with President José Velasco Ibarra in the early 1940s. Velasco Ibarra was elected five times, but only once completed his full presidential term. In practice all of Ecuadoran governments have used demagogy and populism to manipulate the people, especially the desperately poor.

For example, during the 1994 war with Peru, the popularity of President Sixto Durán rose from 5% to 90% (but went back down again within two months). Whenever the Ecuadoran and Peruvian bourgeoisie want to distract attention, they mount wars of a few days, or as in the case of the last one, a little longer.

There was hardly anything Bucaram didn't promise in his campaign: housing, lower interest rates and loans and so on. In a sense his vote reflects a real desire for change. While he attacked the oligarchy with leftist-sounding rhetoric, once elected, Bucaram formed an economic committee of bankers. One of his wealthy supporters even compared him to Carlos Ménem, the hardline neo-liberal president of Argentina.

The crumbs Bucaram will distribute will enable him to create a social base which could include neo-fascist elements which have the potential to confront the popular movements. The left has to explain the real causes of the crisis so that people not only recognise their real enemies but understand that real change can be carried out only by themselves.

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