Man in a Hurry, Better be Careful:

Man in a Hurry, Better be Careful: Rafael Correa and Ecuador’s Citizens’ Revolution (Gerard Coffey/

Wed, 10/21/2009

If politics really is the art of the possible then there is one certain way to judge a government, by comparing it to its predecessors. By that standard the administration of Rafael Correa Delgado is good, perhaps very good. This does not imply that it is perfect, rather that before Correa arrived on the scene Ecuador had suffered through decades of right wing, liberalising, corrupt and/or repressive governments, sprinkled with some half hearted attempts at social democracy. It is worth pointing out that in the period between 1996 and 2006 alone, nine presidents came and went, leaving the country crying out for ‘governability’.

Now the country has governability, and not everyone is happy about it. Electoral democracy has returned a government with a programme, the National Assembly is in the hands of the governing party, Alianza Pais, and the programme is under way. The President is personally powerful, has solid support throughout the country and seems determined to push through his generally progressive agenda. His version of social democracy is anything but half hearted and has carried all before it.

But, suddenly, something is not quite right, being a strong man with an agenda does not seem to be enough. The steamroller that was Alianza Pais is still moving forward, but has been slowed by a sudden surge of opposition. The country, the social movements, cried out for change, and they have it, but it is not exactly what they had in mind. As for Correa, it has become evident that anyone who wants to change things in a hurry better be careful. As Machiavelli shrewdly noted, there is nothing more difficult: those who benefitted from the old order are enemies, while those who may benefit from the new are still lukewarm.

From the beginning the government’s agenda has been full to overflowing, and beyond, and while points such as the closing of the US base have been almost unanimously popular and relatively easy to achieve, others needing fundamental legislative changes have proved to be somewhat less straightforward. The newly elected National Assembly may be under government control, but it is now in the process of considering some of the most contentious elements of the legislative programme, and is finding itself swamped.

For many sectors of society used to having influence over government policy, the principal problem is not lack of time, but that now they don’t. The press squeals mightily about independence and freedom of expression and runs its almost permanent anti Correa campaign, while retired military officers meet and ‘talk’. But the marginalised people and sectors are not confined to the right. For some on the left the lack of a real revolution leads to resentment, while for many social movements even mildly progressive governments are a problem. The opportunity for influence or profile, the possibility to put a particular programme into operation, or even receive a decent salary, are hard to resist, but weaken movement leaderships, while differences of opinion between supporters and opponents of a regime can provoke confrontations and internal ruptures. And with a robust government such as that of Rafael Correa, such problems only become more acute.

From the start Correa’s electoral strategy has been to play to the middle. The government has been careful to not align itself with any activist group or movement, even going so far as attempting to marginalize those that could either challenge or derail the agenda. The President has often gone on the offensive, belittling and even insulting particular organisations and people, in an effort to keep the road clear. In a country where the tough man, who ‘wears the trousers’, plays well to the crowd, it is an astute electoral tactic; if Correa does not attack you, it probably means that you are irrelevant.

Water Water

The indigenous people hardly fall into the irrelevant category. For the last twenty years they have played a fundamental role in combating regressive governments, and with the virtual demise of the union movement – with certain important exceptions – they were the only social force capable of doing so. The indigenous movement reached a peak of sorts with the downfall and exile of President Jamil Mahuad in 2000, but while visibility and approval brought positions of influence, above all locally, it also created fissures within the movement itself which diluted its historic agenda and resulted in a loss of ability to mobilise. A slow decline set in.

Since the disastrous experience off participation in the electoral victory and early stages of the Lucio Guttierez government (2003-2005) the indigenous leadership has been looking for opportunities to recover lost ground. Opposition to a Free Trade Agreement with the United States during the presidency of Alfredo Palacio (2005-2007) provided an opportunity, but what was regained was almost immediately lost. In 2006 the Correa candidacy split the movement and delayed the campaign of the high profile Indigenous candidate Luis Macas, who eventually polled only 2% of the vote. It is unlikely that Macas would have won in any case; the indigenous movement is not strong enough to win alone. But the affair was indicative of the troubled relationship the ‘indios’ had with Correa right from the beginning.

While Correa’s apparent scorn for the movement may be a backhanded recognition of its importance, it has understandably not been well received. His ex press secretary, Monica Chuji, recently accused him of racism. And perhaps it was naive to expect that people whose struggle is based on achieving dignity and recognition would simply take verbal attacks lying down, whatever their political position may be. A desire for reprisal is understandable, and recently the combination of a number of problematic elements has provided indigenous leaders with the opportunity to hit back.

The major dispute is over water. After years of corruption and chaos there was an evident need for profound reform in the way water was distributed and controlled. The administration stepped in with a proposal to centralise planning and authorizations and take control of what is increasingly being seen as resource more vital than oil. Seven versions of a proposed new law have been written, consulted and changed. Now the legislation is in the hands of the parliamentary committee charged with providing recommendations to the National Assembly as a whole.

Apart from issues related to pollution, costs, and how to organise management of water sources, there are very basic issues here for the indigenous communities, living as they do where much of the water is generated. Control is at the heart of the debate. The new legislation clarifies that water is strategic resource controlled only by the state, prohibits privatisation of water in any form, and sets priorities for use, with human consumption and food sovereignty in first and second place. But if in the final analysis the state controls, then, obviously, the indigenous communities do not.

Water and mining are also intimately related – a mine requires huge quantities of water and no one has yet come up with a non polluting mine – and according to the proposed law water for mining projects considered to be in the national interest can become a priority. Most of these projects are located in the South of the country close to the border with Peru, where a number of deaths occurred during recent protests by indigenous Amazon communities over the decision to allow their lands to be sold to resource companies. The trouble in Peru was a warning sign. And although the context was less ominous, it was nevertheless obvious that this was not going to be easy to resolve.

Nor was it a new issue. For the government mining has been a troublesome issue from the outset. Despite all attempts to override the opposition, initially in the environmental arena, it has never entirely gone away. The President has called the environmentalists ‘infantile’ and generally tried to paint them as a minority wanting to hold back the whole country, but their arguments have found an echo in the situation and political needs of the indigenous movement. Correa has been firm in his support for mining as a substitute for oil, his argument is that the country needs the revenue to pay for social programmes. It is hard to disagree, unless you are waiting for the ecological revolution. According a to a Shuar leader “it is preferable to have no roads or light, but to live healthy lives, without pollution.”[1] It’s an interesting proposal if you still have the option, but most people in Ecuador don’t, and that includes most indigenous people, and in fact they aren’t really interested. Some sort of ecological revolution may be inevitable, but it’s not likely or perhaps even possible that it start in Ecuador. Interestingly, oil extraction is also a heavy user of water, but no one seems to be proposing to deprive the country’s oil fields of water.

The downside of the uprising

For the national indigenous federation, CONAIE, the presentation in parliament of the administration’s new water legislation provided the moment: the leadership called for a national indigenous uprising. Marlon Santi, a leader from the Amazon region and President of CONAIE, called the legislation ‘genocide’. It may have been a bit of an exaggeration, but it was sign that the cards were down and all sides were betting. Correa did his best to belittle the effort, but took the precaution of visiting a number of indigenous areas. There were other protests under way at the same time, in particular that of the teachers, but this seemed likely to be the first real test that the President and his team had faced in its two and a half years in power.

Initially the government appeared to have gained an easy victory. In the mountain provinces, where opposition was expected to be strongest, the uprising basically collapsed after less than a day. It was in the southern Amazon provinces where the resistance surprisingly took hold. Tellingly, one indigenous leader from the Shuar nationality was quoted in a national newspaper as saying that “the water is ours, and we are going to defend it”. [2] Local organisations, in particular Shuar dominated groups, refusing to abide by CONAIE’s decision to call off the uprising, continued to protest.

A major confrontation with police ensued: tear gas on one side and shotguns on the other. A large number of people were injured, both police and civilians. One man, a Shuar, died after being hit in the head by a projectile. Santi and another prominent indigenous leader from the mountains, Humberto Cholango, hastily rushed off to the Amazon to join what proved to be the crucial battle.

Who actually started the exchange isn’t all that clear. Everyone blames everyone else. The police, who were under orders to clear the road, were blamed by the indigenous groups while the government, citing high numbers of police injured by shots, claimed the armed Shuar were to blame, that the police carried no, live ammunition and that dead man had actually been hit by a blast from a shot gun. A commission has been appointed to investigate the man’s death.

Whatever the causes, the effect was to first heighten the tension and then bring both parties to the table. After a dialogue in the Presidential palace which basically consisted of an hour long verbal confrontation, six points were agreed, including permanent dialogue, discussion of the water legislation and now, controversially, investigations into a Shuar radio station which the government claims incited violence during the protest. Regarding the water legislation there will be dialogue with CONAIE, but other, smaller, indigenous and campesino federations want their say, and they are allies of the government.

The government also agreed to a dialogue with the national teacher’s federation (UNE), which was probably lucky to have been able to tie its colours to the indigenous war horse.

Smelling of Roses?

Some observers have stated that both parties came out of the conflict on the winning side. Correa is now seen to be a more flexible and less confrontational, which is one of the more general complaints about his government. The ‘indios’ have gained as they are seen to be responsible for finally making him listen. Indigenous leaders have even stated that the movement has been strengthened by the dispute. This is doubtful. The focal point of the movement now seems to have shifted to the Amazon where, incidentally, ex President and likely future presidential candidate, Lucio Gutierrez, has his electoral base. But in the mountain provinces the uprising failed, and indigenous leaders still appear to be caught between a rock and a hard man.

In the Amazon, there are now calls for an autonomous region, where no mining, oil or hydroelectric projects will be allowed, where the indigenous population controls everything. Autonomy may in fact have been at the root of the trouble. Unsurprisingly, Correa has completely rejected the proposal. Other proposals call for 50% of revenues to go to indigenous authorities in the region, revenues which presumably can only come from extractive industries or electricity generation projects. Neither scheme is likely to have a major appeal for indigenous communities in the mountains.

The outcome of the ‘permanent’ dialogues remains to be seen. Rafael Correa has his plans and will likely stick to them, he is not for turning. But in the short term he may well pursue a more tactical course and possibly tone down the confrontation. However if he doesn’t get his way, he may well call an election or a referendum based on the most contentious issues. Contingency plans are probably already under discussion.

Humberto Cholango, the vice President of CONAIE, recently stated that what he wants is a President who comes from the ‘people’ a person with humble origins. [3] Exactly what he has in mind is not clear. He may be thinking of an indigenous President, a la Evo Morales, something that still appears to be a distant dream, or even of Alberto Acosta, the ex president of the Constitutional Assembly and founding member of Alianza Pais. Acosta was rather unceremoniously dumped by the ruling party when he became too popular and appeared to be leading the new Constitution in a direction and at a speed that did not suit. He has been active recently and may be considering, although very privately, a run for President if the omens are right. Acosta, who is not of humble origins, has a long history of involvement in social movements and may well be more receptive to environmental and indigenous demands, but whether he would be more radical or more effective is another question. And, of course, he would have to win.

Finally, it is worth keeping in mind that this is not a revolution, and Rafael Correa is not a revolutionary, at least not in what has come to be regarded as its classical form, and that Ecuador is not Venezuela or Bolivia. What this is, on the other hand, is the first serious attempt in many decades to rework a very one sided and hidebound social order, to shake it out of its post colonial roots and create a more responsible, more efficient, and more equitable society. That has always been the Rome, to which there is apparently now more than one road.


[1] Cited by Huberto Cholango, President of the indigenous organisation Ecuarunari, in an Interview published in the national daily El Expresso.

[2] Cited in an interview with Jorge Jurado, head of the National Water Authority. El Comercio 3 October 2009. P 20

[3] Interview with Huberto Cholango, published in the national daily El Expresso.

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