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Reflections on the January 2000
Popular Uprising

By Guillermo Delgado-P.

Editor's Introduction:
On January 21, 2000, the international community was caught by surprise when Ecuador became the stage of the first Latin American coup-d'etat in over a decade. Many in Ecuador are calling the event a "levantamiento popular" (popular uprising) rather than a "coup," given it was led by a indigenous-military coalition with widespread popular support in the economically embattered nation.

Ecuador's indigenous population (over 4.5 million, or 45 percent of the country's total population) is made up of twelve nations, the Quichua being the largest. They have engaged in a very successful national movement with roots in a 1990 uprising, and are organized under the umbrella Indigenous Nationalities Confederation of Ecuador (CONAIE). The CONAIE has defined an economic and political plan that calls for the creation of a multinational state that recognizes the autonomy and rights of the twelve indigenous nations. They also demand the right to land ownership and agrarian reform.

January's uprising briefly toppled the government, replacing President Jamil Mahuad with a three-man junta. However, bowing to pressure from the U.S., after less than a day the junta handed power over to former vice president Gustavo Noboa Bejarano. Noboa quickly dismissed the uprising as "buffoonery," pledging to restore "law and order" and to continue the unpopular dollarization process of his country's currency.

To reflect on the implications of Ecuador's political, social and economic upheavals, ISLA invited Prof. Guillermo Delgado to write the following essay. Prof. Delgado teaches at UC Santa Cruz, and is advisor to the Abya Yala Fund (an Oakland-based indigenous support and information center). He is also member of Inkarrinet, a group that produces a web site on indigenous issues (



Ecuador's January popular uprising - during which a loose coalition of indigenous leaders and middle-rank military officials deposed President Jamil Mahuad - left most international observers overwhelmed and surprised. The media had been focusing almost exclusively on the highly publicized "dollarization"of Ecuador's currency- which the country's government claims to be the only solution to its severe economic crisis. Little attention was put on how marginalized communities such as the urban and rural poor were reacting to the government's unpopular neo-liberal policies. Dollarization is strongly rejected by Ecuador's indigenous population because they argue it translates into their definite exclusion. This economic policy, when finally implemented, will probably trigger sustained unrest from Ecuador's marginalized peoples.

Ecuador's Indigenous Movement

Amidst Andean countries, Ecuador has remained an isolated banana and oil exporter, with just under half of its population living in rural areas. Throughout the nineties, indigenous peoples have been demanding their right to land, autonomy and agrarian reform. In response, the government has committed itself to bringing about controlled constitutional changes to favor the twelve indigenous nations. However, they have not yet obtained full rights. Persistent racism and discrimination continue, undermining the indigenous movement's political achievements.

While Ecuador has not experienced great revolutionary changes (such as those of Mexico, Bolivia, Cuba or Nicaragua), the early 1990's galvanized a vigorous indigenous movement able to build alliances with organized labor (health, education, transportation, civil servants). Such previously unseen ethnic militancy contributed directly to promoting constitutional changes such as declaring Ecuador a "pluriethnic/pluricultural" state.

The appearance of the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE) in 1986 was indirectly reinforced by an international environmentalist movement. It is also a response to the impact of globalization politics in Ecuador. Although economists generally consider the 1980's to be Latin America's "lost decade,"it must be remembered that those years opened favorable spaces for women and ethnic minorities. Latin American civil society gained a feminist perspective (still in the making) as well as an indigenous political awakening.

During this period, Ecuador's indigenous movement - at that time led mostly by men - endured dismissive treatment from entrenched conservative governments, the military, and legal structures. On the other hand, the CONAIE successfully challenged the system. Their national coordination and resistance strategies pressed the nation-state to grant concessions such as the acquisition of Amazonian territory, bilingual education, the acknowledgment of a pluricultural and plurinational state, and amends to the agrarian law. They articulated a powerful critique of Ecuador's political instability caused by inefficient governance.

CONAIE is today one of the most successful organized social movements inspired on the notions of ethnicity. Among indigenous social movements of the Americas, CONAIE has been able to build inter-ethnic alliances in a country in which colonialism has left a legacy of mistrust amongst marginalized peoples.

The movement opened important political spaces for highland, coastal, and lowland indigenous nations. It enabled specific indigenous tribes of the Amazonian area to project their struggle to the international arena. Locally, the CONAIE voted their representatives to the National Congress. Another unique feature demonstrated by CONAIE is its effective principle of transferring power honestly. The previous leader, Quichua Luís Macas (recipient of the Goldman Prize for Environmental Protection), was replaced in 1996 by the democratically elected Antonio Vargas, an Amazonian Quichua.

In spite of being a very young social movement CONAIE is highly coordinated, spearheading the National Peoples' Parliament (Parlamento Nacional de los Pueblos), the Coordination of Social Movements (Coordinadora de Movimientos Sociales), the National Unity Patriotic Front (Frente Patriótico de Unidad Nacional), and the Pachakutic Movement for Multinational Unity-New Country.

As a result of persistent levantamientos (uprisings) in Ecuador over the last decade, indigenous peoples have gained legal protection to guarantee the use and ownership of land and water. They have also challenged the state to implement citizenship rights for them. These gains - which make Ecuador a signatory of the International Labor Organization's article 169 (in favor of recognizing indigenous rights within nation-states) - grant vital individual and collective rights to indigenous peoples. Recently, the emergence of a new generation of younger leaders with a renovated vision - several of whom are women - has been noticeable.

CONAIE exercised a unifying power that has been responsible for reforming several areas in the state structure (e.g. provoking the above-mentioned changes in the 1998 Constitution, and providing a rural social security program known as "poverty bonus"). However, those changes occurred against a contradictory backdrop: dire rural and urban poverty and unlimited yet selective upper-class privilege. This stratification benefitted national and foreign financial investors, and allowed for the state's cover-up of private debt and economic default in the banking system. The resulting impact on Ecuador's economy was accelerated inflation; monetary speculation; corruption; and fourteen bankrupt banks, all leading to the desperate plan to adopt the US dollar as national currency. This internal crisis must be seen as a precursor to the January popular uprising.

Towards a Redefinition of Democracy

After January, there were several recurring questions posed by many: why did the CONAIE ally itself with 'frustrated junior military officers' to oust President Mahuad? Why such a hurry to take over the state apparatus, when CONAIE had previously rejected such a strategy as unfeasible? Did the U.S. play an indirect interventionist strategy by not endorsing the triumvirate, but instead pressing the OAS to call for a reestablishment of 'democratic' rule in Ecuador?

The fact that CONAIE seems to have agreed to a politics of alliances with some army officials reflects a desperate need to redefine a state perceived as reaching a level of absolute corruption, undemocratic practice, and lack of accountability. One of CONAIE's objectives has been to redefine and implement inclusive forms of democracy that go beyond the mere electoral practice. CONAIE should be credited with redefining the notion of participatory democracy as one that would implement "popular parliaments" where interested citizens are able to submit actual proposals that answer to specific community problems. Such a measure would limit corruption and would open further debate with a broader spectrum of society.

In this way, Ecuador's indigenous peoples articulate a critique of conventional democracy. CONAIE and similar political organisms question what they label "electoral or narrow democracy," and propose instead a "democracy with citizens' actual participation." On the current state of Ecuador's democratic system, Journalist Javier Ponce has stated that it is "a democracy without citizens." (El Nacional, January 20, 2000) It remains to be seen how recent US economic assistance to Ecuador might encourage existing grassroots desire to practice democratic principles.

United States Interventionism

The U.S. and the OAS have played influential roles in the maintenance of the country's democratic rule. However, they have not endorsed transformative proposals by new participants, such as indigenous peoples, interested in redefining democracy from new positions of power. The U.S. and the OAS's indirect interventionism is a well-known story, and their January recommendation appeared to be concerned with protecting Ecuador's privileged sectors.

Moreover, the U.S. has geopolitical interests to maintain, since on November 12, 1999, Ecuador and the U.S. signed a ten-year agreement that allows the U.S. to build and command the Manta air base. Presumably, this base will make up for the recent relinquishing of the Panamá Canal, and will most probalby play a strategic role in the U.S.-supported drug wars in neighboring Colombia. The February visit of the State Department's Thomas Pickering to Ecuador is directly related to U.S. obsession with 'stability' and how best to preserve it in the midst of the Chávez model in Venezuela, and Colombia's violence.


CONAIE's incursion in national politics and interest in exercising higher levels of political influence can be read from two perspectives. First, that a non-violent indigenous coordination is being defined, open to broad alliances that challenge the character of the corrupt state. Within these alliances it's possible to see the participation of a younger generation of Ecuadorians (including some in the military rank-and-file) that think in a more open, multicultural, less racist way than previous generations. Second, that entrenched classism and racism in national institutions continues to frustrate attempts made by indigenous peoples to redefine the nation-state. For example, after January's uprising, incoming President Noboa Bejarano disarmed CONAIE's intervention by calling it "buffoonery," ('una cantinflada'), a blatantly classist and racist term. The strategy adopted by Noboa Bejarano - to restitute the "rule of law" ('estado de derecho') by punishing rebel leaders, thus minimizing the strength and wisdom of CONAIE's leadership - speaks of a classist, self-protective repositioning.

Known as "the revolution of ponchos," January's popular uprising offers observers of Latin American political life an opportunity to examine how globalization might be forcing marginalized communities to find ways of restructuring the nation-state and to challenge the narrow concept of electoral democracy. As recently stated by the Cientific Institute of Indigenous Cultures (ICCI) in Quito, there is an urgent need to "democratize democracy, given that 'democracy' has so far been discredited." (Monthly Bulletin, ICCI, January 2000)

It is no longer enough to delegitimize a corrupt regime; it's necessary to build alternative spaces that guarantee the direct participation of citizens - specifically indigenous peoples - beyond the mere act of voting, and to work on proposals that do not necessarily consider the military as a political force. Indeed, CONAIE's leader Antonio Vargas was very aware about the possibility of military betrayal. ICCI analysts and journalists who witnessed the January uprising - such as Ramón Vera from La Jornada (Mexico) - described the military-indigenous coalition a matter of "conjunctural convenience." The term "conjunctural" in Latin American political culture refers to unexpected coincidences or accidents of political life that place actors together despite opposite histories or interests. Still, a sharper understanding of economics is needed to appraise this process, as Ecuador cannot de-link itself from the influence of global capital.

Latin American nation-states committed to neo-liberal policies have been resorting to repressive strategies to discourage indigenous claims over territories, autonomies, sovereignty, redefined democracy, and human rights. As a response to this, confrontations against governments, the military, transnational (oil) corporations, and DNA bioprospectors, escalate daily.

It is to be hoped that Ecuador's non-violent indigenous movement lead to the emergence of a genuine inter-ethnic state that replaces the country's centralized, racially hierarchical institutions. But this will be a long struggle, especially in light of the political elites' reluctance to share power.









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