Ecuador’s unknown president


The re-election last month of Hugo Chávez as president of Venezuela was no surprise. But few people even recognise the name of his leftist counterpart in Ecuador, Rafael Correa.

 

 

 ECUADOR has been in state of upheaval for years. As far back as June 1990 a powerful indigenous undercurrent broke surface with unprecedented demonstrations by the Conaie (Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador). In the years of rumbling instability that followed, eight heads of state came and went, with the Conaie as the only force in the country capable of mobilising social opinion.

 

 On 21 January 2000, a combination of mass discontent, mobilisation by the indigenous ethnic population and support from a group of army officers (including Colonel Lucio Gutiérrez) led to the fall of President Jamil Mahuad: he had sought to avoid a $7bn bankruptcy and save Ecuador’s financial institutions and so decided to freeze savers’  deposits (1). It seemed briefly that a popular government was in the making. On 22 January, the military intervened, placing power in the hands of the vice-president, Gustavo Noboa, who soon replaced the national currency, the sucre, with the US dollar (2).

 

 The revolt of the year 2000, despite the way it ended, furthered the cause of the indigenous peoples (and of the party they had created, Pachakutic), and of some of the mestizo (3) community. Gutiérrez, an ex-army officer, with his eyes on the October 2002 presidential elections, came forward as “nationalist, progressive, humanist and  revolutionary”. His campaign was based on the need “for a second independence”. Pachakutic decided not to field its own candidate and fell in behind Gutiérrez, who took the second round in November 2002. He offered indigenous representatives a place in his government (4). Then he dropped all those around him and signed an agreement with the International Monetary Fund to bring in structural adjustment, alignment with the United States and Colombia, and a pact with    Ecuador’s hard-line right, the Social Christian party (PSC).

 

 Pachakutic was less concerned with its political agenda than with negotiations for seats in prominent positions; it made little effort to prevent the appointment of neoliberal ministers. Its leaders cut themselves off from their base and were called “golden ponchos”. The economist Rafael Correa worried: “In terms of economic policy, [their participation] legitimised the shameful signing of the IMF letter of intent” (5). Gutiérrez had neutralised the indigenous movement through co-option, division and repression. It was not until July 2003 that Pachakutic finally withdrew its    representatives from the government. Gutiérrez’s agreements with the IMF and World Bank cut all domestic gas subsidies and led to the privatisation of the national electricity and telecommunication companies. The oil industry waited in the    wings (6).

 

 Latin American unknowns

 

 Imponderables in Latin America do not much respect decision-makers and their plans. It was Gutiérrez’s turn to be ousted in April 2005, when an impressive turnout by the young swelled the numbers of street protesters. Wilma Salgado of Quito‘s Simón Bolivar Andean University recalled: “In the 1970s the oil industry brought jobs. My generation reaped the benefits; my parents were far less well off. But for my children now, things are very different. Despite the money we’ve put into their education, there’s nothing for them once they leave school.”

 

 “We were in a real crisis,” she said. “The dollarisation of the economy wasn’t working out. Local production costs had risen even higher than those of our neighbours. Businesses had closed. It was even worse in agriculture. We were eating    US potatoes and Peruvian or Colombian melons.” The Ecuadorean economy had focused on boosting imports to satisfy the high demand it had created; less effort had been directed at the export market, and no resources committed to improving    productive capacity and the labour force. As a small farmer said: “You could get a loan to buy a car in 48 hours. But just try to get one to grow three hectares of potatoes.”

 

 At that point, exit Gutiérrez. According to the sociologist Werner Vásquez, “the revolt of the forajidos (7) was not so much a social movement as a reaction, by groups of the middle class, to the president’s immorality. The whole thing faded    in six weeks, with no proposals for change.” The vice-president, Alfredo Palacios, then took his ritual turn at the top and put the economy in Correa’s hands.

 

 Correa is middle-class with a Catholic education and calls himself “a humanist and a Christian”. After a year as a volunteer with an indigenous community in Cotopaxi province, he studied at universities in Leuven, Belgium and Illinois (US). In office he negotiated with the Venezuelan president, Hugo Chávez, the sale of $500m of foreign debt securities and the prospect of refining Ecuadorean oil in Venezuela. He then prompted the government to reconsider its use of Ecuador’s oil reserves, so that part of the revenue, instead of being used to service foreign debt (40% of the national budget), was earmarked for social spending.

 

Concern in Washington

 

 There was concern in Washington. Correa explained: “I was trying to change our economic policies radically: the past 20 years of neoliberalism have been a major disaster. The central bank and the oil industry, the US, the IMF, the World  Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank defend their own interests.They all put pressure on the president and I lost his confidence and support.” Unwilling to backtrack, Correa resigned. This left Palacios free to purge the nationalist-forajida wing of his government. He reached agreement with the business sector, settled scores with    Colombia (8), normalised relations with multilateral financial organisations and negotiated a free trade agreement (FTA) with the US.

 

 There was another eruption in March 2006, with roadblocks, felled trees and burning tyres. A state of emergency was declared in 11 of the 22 provinces which were paralysed by the indigenous organisations’ furious demonstrations against the FTA and the cry of “We are not a US colony!” By May, the interim president had no choice but to expel the US multinational Occidental Petroleum (Oxy) to reduce the    tension, and to confiscate its $1bn worth of assets for refusing to respect its agreements with the government. Washington suspended the FTA negotiations. Palacios’s move pulled the rug from beneath the feet of the social movement,    especially the indigenous organisations, in the run-up to the October 2006 presidential election: the expulsion of Oxy had  been one of its most pressing demands. Another new movement appeared: Alianza PAÍS, which Correa created from an amalgam of progressive groups, rejecting both the uncompromising    right and adulterated left of the traditional parties. The Alianza’s nationalist discourse closely followed developments in Venezuela.

 

 Polite refusal

 

 Correa needed the support of the indigenous movement to win the election, but it refused politely, having been scalded by its disastrous and mistaken alliance with Gutiérrez. This left the movement weak and divided; it was mistrustful of mestizos, introspective and no longer prepared to accept another borrowed politician, saying: “Our own candidate or none.”

 

 Pachakutic rejected Correa’s proposal for polls in the provinces to settle the pecking order (president, vice-president) of an alliance with a Conaie founder, Luis Macas. He was prominent in the 1990s and re-emerged when Gutiérrez made him minister of agriculture; he then set his sights on the presidency. Ricardo Patino, Correa’s political adviser, said: “Rafael said he would be honoured to run as the vice-president to a compañero representing the indigenous movement, as long as it maximises its potential.”

 

 There are no agreed figures on the size of Ecuador‘s indigenous ethnic population. The right claim that it is 10% and the left 25%; a few years ago, Unesco estimated it at 45%. It was unlikely that a leader from this background would be recognised by all Ecuadorian society, despite the role of  the indigenous peoples in blocking Oxy and the FTA negotiations. It was hardly a secret that the Macas-Correa ticket had no chance in an election. However, the Correa-Macas combination was another story. Pachakutik began to tear itself apart. According to Delfín Tenesaca, president of the Indigenous Movement of Chimborazo, Macas was seen “as a social leader, but not a politician, and that caused discussion”. At a Pachakutic council meeting on 23 June 2006, 13 of the provincial coordinations voted for Correa. The others stuck with Macas.

 

 There was total disarray. Even mestizo activists had doubts about Correa: “Where’s he from? The upper classes. He has no roots among the people.” Correa had been dean of the faculty of economics at the private university of San Francisco, the    most expensive in Quito, and this rankled. To add to the confusion, Chávez in Caracas expressed confidence in “his friend” Correa, while the Bolivian president Evo Morales, on a visit to Ecuador, supported the campaign of “his indigenous brother” Macas.

 

 The ideas of Macas and Correa are barely distinguishable: both demand agrarian reform and a constitutive assembly; they reject imperialism, free trade agreements and the Colombia Plan (9); they call for solidarity with Venezuela, Bolivia and Cuba, and support the world social forum. Macas said: “We understand that it’s a global agenda that counts. If we only focus on the indigenous population we’ll be boxing ourselves in. We’ll be solving neither its problems, nor those of the nation.”

 

A dirty campaign

 

 A dirty campaign by Alvaro Noboa and his Institutional Renewal Party of National Action followed. Noboa is a banana  baron, the richest man in Ecuador. He contended that Correa was being used by Chávez and Colombia‘s Revolutionary armed forces, the Farc, and said that Correa “will never get the people to vote for communism, terrorism and Cuba“. There was more division on the left and votes were split. On 15 October Noboa took the first round, possibly by fraud, ahead of Correa. Pachakutik and Macas collapsed. Ecuador is not Bolivia. The other parties faded away.

 

 Matters became serious. It was clear that there was a widespread consensus: the political system had to change. During the second round a broad-based citizens’ movement rallied around Correa: Pachakutic, the Democratic Popular Movement, the Socialist party, the Democratic Left and 200 grassroot organisations, including Conaie. On 26 November Correa won 56.67% of the votes.

 

 Under the Palacios regime new oil industry legislation had already ensured the state higher tax revenues from the multinational companies. This was not enough for Correa: “It is completely unacceptable for the multinationals to take four of every five barrels produced, leaving us with only one. We are going to have to look again at the state’s stake in these contracts.” Similar things had already happened in    Venezuela and Bolivia.

 

 Correa is against FTAs and refuses to embroil Ecuador in the Colombia Plan or consider the Farc a terrorist organisation. As he has no parliamentary support for his policies (his party fielded no candidates) he plans to appeal directly to the electorate to refound the republic through a constitutive assembly in 2007. “We are neither Chavist, nor Bachelettist nor Kirchnerist,” (10) he claimed. “But we are a force in    21st-century socialism: we are working for social justice and national sovereignty, control of our own natural resources and regional integration through the logic of coordination, cooperation and complementarity.” That programme sounds like the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas, so dear to presidents Chávez, Morales and Castro.   

 

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 (1) The state was later to reimburse savers, in part.

 

 (2) The sucre was named after Maréchal Antonio José de Sucre,    who helped South America out of the Spanish empire.

 

 (3) Mestizos have mixed European and Amerindian ancestry.

 

 (4) For the first time, a Latin American state could claim an    indigenous minister for foreign affairs, Nina Pacari.

 

 (5) Kintto Lucas, El movimiento indigena y las acrobacias del    coronel, Los Libros de Tintaji, Quito, 2003.

 

 (6) Ecuador is Latin America‘s fifth-largest oil producer.

 

 (7) Forajidos are “outlaws”. They adopted the term, first    used by the president to insult his opponents.

 

 (8) Relations with Colombia were strained early in Palacios’s    mandate.

 

 (9) This plan refers to a proposal by Colombian president    Pastrana in 1998-99, meant to curb drug smuggling.

 

 (10) The left and centre-left presidents Chávez (Venezuela),    Michelle Bachelet (Chile), and Nestor Kirchner (Argentina).

 

 

 

Translated by Robert Corner

 

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ALL RIGHTS RESERVED © 1997-2007 Le Monde diplomatique

 

      

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