On January 21 a popular rebellion, led
by a coalition of Indians, peasants, and urban workers, supported by junior
military officials occupied the Parliament, Judiciary, and surrounded the
presidential palace. A three-person junta was established including a leader
of CONAI—the Indian peasant organization—a civilian representing
the middle class, and a junior military officer. President Clinton, outraged
by the popular revolt, immediately intervened, threatening an economic boycott
of Ecuador and ordering the U.S. Embassy in Quito to pressure conservative
generals to act. The popular junta was overthrown and Vice-President Noboa
of the discredited regime was installed in power. Noboa’s first pronouncement
was that he would dollarize the economy, meet foreign debt obligations, and
impose “order and discipline,” beginning with mass arrests of peasants
and trade union activists.
On the surface, Ecuador appears as the typical “comic opera” of
a banana republic with six presidents in four years. The reality is that Ecuador
reflects the profound crises resulting from the neo-liberal policies promoted
and enforced by Washington and Brussels throughout the Third World. For the
past decade, Ecuador has had a series of neo-liberal presidents who have faithfully
applied the austerity and free market prescriptions of the IMF and World Bank.
The result is a precipitous decline of living standards, 60 percent rate of
inflation, an economic depression (-7 percent decline in 1999), first world
prices, and third world wages. Over the decade, each crisis required new loans,
greater austerity, and more privatizations of lucrative enterprises. Unemployment
and underemployment reached 80 percent of the labor force. Rising costs and
declining prices resulting from cheap foreign imports hit Indian and peasant
communities hard. Ecuador’s elite, on the other hand, speculated on scarce
commodities, pillaged the state treasury, and transferred World Bank loans,
amounting to millions of dollars, to overseas accounts in Miami. Presidential
candidates who pledged to end corruption and provide employment, in their
electoral campaigns, once in power reinforced the neo-liberal agenda. General
strikes and mass demonstrations became the norm, as the populace grew totally
disenchanted with an electoral system that only provided a choice of oligarchies
subservient to Washington. By mid-1999 the Ecuadorian treasury was empty,
the economy bankrupt. President Jamil Mahuad could not squeeze the impoverished
populace further. Ecuador reneged on its foreign debt. Despite mass poverty
and growing discontent the international financial institutions insisted on
new austerity measures and regressive fiscal policies. Mahuad obeyed and went
one step further in formalizing the neo-colonial relationship. Mahuad decided
to formally put Ecuador under direct control of the U.S. Central Bank by dollarizing
the economy. The Ecuadorian people realized the consequences: the cost of
basic foods and necessities would rise to U.S. levels while the Ecuadorian
population would continue to be paid in a devalued local currency (sucre).
In one day, January 6, the sucre fell 17 percent, 29,000 to the dollar. The
result was the popular rebellion followed by the U.S. intervention via the
military and the restoration of a client regime.
Popular disgust with corruption and servility of the last six presidents has
led the vast majority of the Ecuadorian population to seek extra-paramilitary
forms of political expression. The U.S., fearful of popular democratic movements
intervened through the military to overthrow the popular junta. The events
in Ecuador in January reveal the real political power behind the neo-liberal
electoral façade: U.S. imperial power and its local client generals.
Ecuador also demonstrates that the popular movements have the power to depose
neo-liberal presidents. Peasant-Indian movements have the capacity to catalyze
the urban poor, the trade unions, and even sectors of the sub-officials in
the military and lower clergy in the Church. While it is true that Washington
and its generals have temporarily imposed a new president, Gustavo Noboa (referred
to in Washington as “nobody”), it is also true that he is following
the exact same policies that provoked the popular rebellion that overthrew
his predecessors. While the Noboa regime is arresting hundreds of activists,
it is creating the conditions for a further radicalization among the people.
As one popular leader stated, “Our mistake was to think we could carry
out a peaceful transformation. Next time we will have to resort to arms.”
It would be a mistake to consider Ecuador as some exceptional circumstance.
The electoral buffoonery of the political elites in Ecuador and elsewhere
is a sideshow to the real drama of millions of citizens effectively excluded
from the key economic decisions that affect their lives. Dollarization, the
symbol and substance of recolonization, provokes a popular affirmation of
national resistance and social solidarity. The popular rebellion in Ecuador
demonstrates the strength and weakness of social movements. The lessons of
moving beyond protest to political power are being learned in all the neighboring
countries, especially Colombia, Brazil, and Venezuela. The events in Ecuador
suggest that the people in Latin America are reaching the limits of depredation.
Clinton’s speeches in praise of free market prosperity are just the kind
of obscene provocation that provokes anger and rebellion among the great mass
of unemployed in the streets and plazas of Latin America. It is a truism of
history that rulers do not expect revolutions until they happen. The U.S.
may have won the initial battle but the bitter Indians have let the Ecuadorian
elite know that the war is not over. Z
James Petras has written numerous books and articles, and teaches sociology
at SUNY, Binghamton.