Ecuador: The indigenous movement and Correa

August 4, 2007

When Rafael Correa was elected president of Ecuador in 2006, campaigning on a strong anti-neoliberal platform to bring about a "citizen's revolution", one key social force seemed notably absent from his campaign — the country's powerful indigenous movement.

For over a decade, Ecuador's indigenous people — who make up over 40% of the population — were central to national politics as the key protagonists in a new wave of struggle that toppled several presidents.

Luis Macas, indigenous candidate for Pachakutik and a leader of CONAIE, which unites the different indigenous organisations and nations, garnered less than 3% of votes in the first round of the presidential election — a far cry from the 20% obtained in Pachakutik's first electoral campaign in 1996. In the second round Pachakutik endorsed Correa, but played a marginal role in the victory for a candidate who has since begun to act on many of the movement's key demands, particular the convocation of a Constituent Assembly.

Speaking to Green Left Weekly during a visit to Caracas in July as an invited guest of the Miranda International Center (CIM), Blanca Chancoso, a well-respected protagonist of the indigenous movement and leader of the indigenous organisation ECUARUNARI, explained the somewhat contradictory nature of the relationship between Correa and the indigenous movement.

Chancoso said that while "there have been some changes under Correa", the movement is neither in opposition nor part of the government. "The Correa government has formed its own political movement, Country Alliance, but I don't think that should mean that we are under the obligation to be part of it. Instead I think that there is a need to maintain an identity", commented Chancoso, adding that the indigenous people have their own movement — Pachakutik — and are part of "a different process, which existed prior to the current government and which depends upon its own spaces".

Resurgence of indigenous struggle

While the indigenous people have waged a continuous struggle against colonialism for over 500 years, Chancoso said the end of the 1970s marked an important leap forward for the movement. Even though there had been previous attempts by left and communist parties to organise indigenous peoples, Chancoso noted that much was made of "class issues" such as land reform, yet a key weakness was that "there was no talk about the position of indigenous people in society".

"At the end of the 1970s a new process of recuperation of identity and regroupment occurred. New organisations emerged that incorporated issues of indigenous identity and defence of our languages, alongside traditional class issues."

This resurgence fuelled a growing indigenous pride, with people no longer "whitening" their surnames to hide their indigenous background. Instead protest leaders would dress in traditional clothing and sometimes address the crowds in indigenous languages. By 1986, this new expression of revolt had led to the creation of CONAIE.

As Ecuador became wracked by a growing economic crisis, the indigenous movement moved onto the centre stage of national politics with its first uprising in June, 1990, paralysing the country for nine days. Central to the mobilisation were the issues of land and agricultural prices and the demand to officially recognise the plurinational character of the state, granting legal recognition to the existence of the various indigenous nations.

Unity among indigenous and urban sectors

In 1994 an intense uprising forced the government to hold direct negotiations between the president and the indigenous leadership, consolidating the movement as a political actor that the elites could not ignore. By successfully combining mass mobilisations, a strong anti-neoliberal and pro-indigenous discourse, and gaining victories in negotiations with the government, the indigenous movement became the central axis of the broader reorganisation of left and popular forces, which had also begun to emerge in the urban areas.

One of the key actors in the urban youth movements was Virgilio Hernandez, who was active in a liberation theology-inspired youth organisation in Quito. Hernandez, who was also in Caracas as a guest of CIM, explained to GLW how this growing unity was reflected in the 1995 campaign against the government-initiated referendum over deepening neoliberal policies. This challenge required the "further coming together of the indigenous and urban left", through the Coalition of Social Movements (CMS).

The CMS helped bring together in a successful campaign different unions, liberation theology organisations, youth and women's groups and other urban sectors, in essence creating "a broad anti-neoliberal coalition, but which had at its core Ecuador's indigenous movement", said Hernandez.

According to Hernandez the growing unity built up by the victorious "No" campaign in the referendum, along with the constitutional reform enacted that same year, which opened the space for independent candidates to run in elections, acted as important stimuli for the formation of Pachakutik, taking the movement into the political arena.

Hernandez, who helped found Pachakutik and for almost a decade played an important role in its leadership, noted that Pachakutik's emergence was important in two senses: it was the first political force constructed by indigenous people to directly take up their demands, particularly that of a plurinational state that "radically challenged the existing state structure", but it also created a broad front to bring in other movements and concerns.

Pachakutik's full name was Movement of Plurinational Unity — Pachakutik — New Country, in order to reflect the three main components: CONAIE, the Amazonic indigenous movement and the urban sector. "It also became the party of thousands of citizens who had found no other way to participate in national politics", Hernandez said.

While Pachakutik gained strength in the parliamentary sphere, the indigenous movement continued protesting on the streets, which Hernandez referred to as a "dual strategy" to transform the state "from within and from outside". By 1999 the indigenous movement had led seven uprisings and had overthrown President Abdala Bucaram in 1997. With a deepening economic crisis hitting hard in 1999, then-President Jamil Mahuad reacted by freezing bank accounts, deepening popular discontent.

Chancoso recounts how having given Mahuad a deadline to negotiate by November, "we began to organise the 'parliaments of the people' in preparation for the insurrection. The insurrection was later delayed until January and by this time our demands had radicalised: we were calling for the abolition of the three powers of the state [executive, legal and judicial] and for a revolutionary government to be formed from below."

This insurrection led to relations being built between the movement and a section of the military, led by Colonel Lucio Gutierrez. This united force brought down the government on January 21, 2000, placing power in the hands of the Junta of National Salvation, but by the next day power had been ceded to the vice-president, Gustavo Noboa.

The movement enters government

After a dispute over candidates for the 2002 elections and several failed attempts at unity with other left and centre-left forces, Pachakutik was left with only one possible alliance, with Gutierrez and his Patriotic Society.

Almost immediately after being sworn in as president, Gutierrez began to betray the movements. Hernandez, who was sub-secretary of the interior ministry, was the first to speak out, resigning from his position. After seven months, when Gutierrez demanded that Pachakutik overturn its vote against his International Monetary Fund-endorsed economic program to allow it to go through parliament, Pachakutik broke its alliance.

A section of CONAIE aligned with Antonio Vargas, who had been president of CONAIE between 1998 and 2001, maintained its clientalist relationship with the government, which Gutierrez in turn used to further split the indigenous movement. According to Hernandez, Pachakutik's defence at all costs of institutional spaces it had won began to lead to a growth in cronyism and bureaucratism.

Differences grew and as discontent increased against the Gutierrez government, the indigenous movement retreated in the face of a growing identity crisis. As the middle classes of Quito erupted onto the streets against Gutierrez in April 2005, forcing his resignation, the indigenous movement — while supporting the protests — was unable to muster any mobilisations on the streets.

2006 elections

Pachakutik faced further splits from the urban sectors. "Serious debate became impossible. We were accused of being racists, mestizos", said Hernandez, who at the end of 2005 left Pachakutik.

According to Chancoso, Correa had approached Pachakutik to offer the vice-presidential spot on his ticket. "We first replied saying why not reverse the formula and have [Correa] as vice-president, but he refused", explained Chancoso. "Once again the impression was created that we the indigenous people came second." However Correa did propose primary elections among those forces that came behind a broad united project of change.

Disorientated and weakened by its alliance with Gutierrez, and fearing a possible repeat performance, Pachakutik decided it was better to run Luis Macas "to truly test our support". Macas came in last.

Although the mass mobilisations against the free trade agreement in March 2006 demonstrated a continued presence of the indigenous movement, today it has clearly lost its hegemonic role in the popular camp. New actors have emerged and a new process of change expressed through the leadership of the charismatic and radical economist with whom the majority of Ecuadorians sympathise and actively support.

For Chancoso, the indigenous movement today continues to identify with "a political agenda that is: No to Plan Colombia, no to the FTAs, no more military base in Manta, no to the payment of the external debt."

"We support this agenda of change against the neoliberal model. With Correa winning government, our proposals continue to remain within this agenda. Our struggle was for the convocation of the Constituent Assembly. So we identified with the call for a consultation on the Constituent Assembly. We have said we will support proposals as long as they are within this agenda … but if it does not fit within this agenda, we will have our own proposals."

Today the indigenous movement faces some real challenges. However forging unity between this process of change and the indigenous movement to help push forward and defend Correa as his government comes under heavy attack from imperialism will have an important impact on Ecuador's destiny.

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