Ecuador's 'citizens' revolution'

February 8, 2007

Since his January 15 inauguration, President Rafael Correa has set about implementing his plan for changing Ecuadorian society, centred on a "citizens' revolution" to refound the country and begin the construction of a "socialism of the 21st century" by investing economic wealth in social spending on health, education, housing and the environment.

In an effort to curb pollution, on February 3 Correa declared that Ecuador would suspend the contracts of oil companies who needlessly damage the environment. The decision follows the recent announcement that the Ecuadorian government had made US$1 billion from the oilfields of Oxy Petroleum, whose concessions were revoked a year ago for breach of contract. Correa has announced his intention to renegotiate contracts with other oil companies to give the government a larger share of the profits, to use for social spending.

Already under investigation is Brazil's Petrobras, which holds the right to explore Oil Block 31, located in one of the world's most biologically diverse regions. Another target of the government's ire is a mine planned by Ascendant Copper in Junin. Ascendant's environmental impact statement was rejected in late 2006, and the company is also accused of using paramilitary groups to intimidate and assault local opponents of the mine.

On February 5, Ecuador announced that it will take Colombia to the International Court of Justice over the spraying of glyphosate near the border and over parts of Ecuador. In December last year, Ecuador temporarily withdrew its ambassador from Colombia over the issue. The spraying is part of the US-funded "war on drugs" and is designed to kill coca plants, the source of the raw material for cocaine. However, it also leads to massive environmental damage, birth defects and the poisoning of the watertable.

The government's new budget, delivered on January 31, promised a $1 billion reduction in foreign debt payments and repeated the government's intention to renegotiate much of the debt. The government also outlined a plan to reform the tax system, lowering the value-added tax from 12% to 10% while increasing company taxes. On February 1, Correa announced the doubling of social benefits to more than a million of the poorest and most vulnerable, including the sick and single mothers.

Correa has already suffered some setbacks, however. Banana-growers have protested his choice of agriculture minister, Carlos Vallejo — a former associate of Correa's rival in last year's presidential election, Alvaro Noboa. Noboa is Ecuador's richest man and owns numerous banana plantations. He is accused of using child labour and violently breaking strikes. Another associate of Noboa's, Francisco Cucalon, recently appointed attorney-general, resigned on January 31 amid protests by Correa and others that his appointment was unconstitutional.

Another setback for Correa was the death on January 24, after only nine days in office, of Guadalupe Larriva, Ecuador's first ever female defence minister. Larriva died in a collision of two military helicopters near Manta air base. She was a former president of the Socialist Party of Ecuador and head of the teachers' union, and had been planning to renovate the armed forces, including increasing wages for low-ranking soldiers.

An independent investigation initiated by the government found nothing suspicious about the death. Nevertheless, Correa has replaced the head of the army. He has appointed another woman, Lorena Escudero, as defence minister. Since coming to power, Correa has also replaced three police chiefs, the latest on January 27, as he attempts to reform an institution rife with corruption.

The most important part of Correa's reform program, the convoking of an assembly to rewrite the constitution, similar to efforts in Venezuela and Bolivia, has set the scene for a major showdown with the political forces traditionally dominant in Ecuador. The Constituent Assembly, which is supported by upwards of 75% of Ecuadorians, has been hindered by the traditional parties that dominate the Congress and Supreme Electoral Court (TSE), which fear it will reduce their power.

The TSE deliberately dragged its heels on declaring the legality of a planned March 18 referendum on the Constituent Assembly, before handballing the decision to the Congress after hundreds of pro-assembly protesters broke into the courtroom on January 23. Congress, also hostile to Correa, has since been stalling on the bill, as the parties debate the exact powers that the assembly will have and attempt to water it down to ensure their continuing control.

On January 30, thousands of protesters stormed the Congress, demanding it pass the bill, chanting "Death to the rats!" and "Down with the Congress, yes to the assembly!" Authorities evacuated the building and dispersed protesters with tear-gas. Protesters were also incensed that members of Congress, regarded by most Ecuadorians as corrupt, had also just voted to increase their salaries.

On February 6, the Congress blocked a vote on the assembly. The Patriotic Society Party of former president Lucio Gutierrez, who was overthrown in a popular uprising in 2005, had previously promised to support the bill but refused to vote for it. The PSP is the second largest party in Congress with 24 out of 100 seats, giving it the balance of power. It is widely believed that the PSP's support for the bill will be conditional on them gaining key positions in the assembly and in the government.

Correa, who described Gutierrez as a "viper", has threatened that if the Congress continues to stall or doesn't pass the bill, it will be bypassed. Vice-President Lenin Moreno has suggested that an "ad hoc" committee could be convoked to set the parameters for the Constituent Assembly. Correa has also threatened to call further mass demonstrations to force the Congress to pass the bill, saying "The fight here is between the Congress and 13 million Ecuadorians".

The social movements are feeling similarly frustrated. Humberto Cholango, of the indigenous organisation ECUARUNARI, has threatened that an indigenous uprising could be organised to force the issue. Similar uprisings have led to the overthrow of three presidents in the last decade. ECUARUNARI, the main indigenous federation CONAIE and dozens of other social movements and organisations have united to form the National Front for the Plurinational Constituent Assembly. A massive march on Quito is planned for March 13 to demand the Congress obey the popular mandate.

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