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Reflections on the January 2000
By Guillermo Delgado-P.
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 (http://www.inkarri.net/).
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"
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
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,
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
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.