Left and indigenous forces in Ecuador are attempting to create an alternative to both Rafael Correa and the Right.
A woman at the indigenous march and People’s Strike in Quito, Ecuador earlier this month. Amazon Watch
30th August 2015
On August 13, an indigenous march and people’s strike converged on the Andean city of Quito, Ecuador’s political center. The march was coordinated principally by the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE), and began on August 2 in Zamora Chinchipe, passing through Loja, Azuay, Cañar, Chimborazo, Tungurahua, Cotopaxi, and Salcedo before arriving in the capital. Demands emanating from the different sectors of urban and rural groups supporting the initiative were diverse, and sometimes contradictory.
But Alberto Acosta, at least, sees a certain clarity in the tangle of ideas and demands. Acosta was the presidential candidate for the Plurinational Unity of Lefts in the 2013 general elections. An economist by profession, he was the minister of mines and energy and president of the Constituent Assembly in the opening years of the Correa government. After the assembly ended, he and Correa parted ways, but Acosta remains an important shaper of opinion in the country. In the lead-up to August 13, he maintained that, contrary to popular assessments, there was a discernible political core to the protesters’ demands.
According to Acosta, the people in the streets are opposed to any constitutional changes that will allow indefinite reelection of the president and demand an end to the ongoing criminalization of social protest. They are outraged by a new agrarian reform initiative that will displace peasants and advance the interests of agro-business, and they are lined up against the expansion of mega-mines and their nightmarish socio-ecological implications.
The demonstrators are defending workers’ rights to organize and strike, elemental freedoms limited in the Labor Code introduced in April this year. They are aligned against oil exploitation in Yasuní, one of the most biodiverse areas in the world, and a zone that Correa promised to protect and then abandoned. Finally, the popular organizations are opposed to the neoliberal free trade agreement Ecuador signed with the European Union that erodes the country’s sovereignty. These overlapping concerns, according to Acosta, overshadow other divisions on the Left.
A Day in the Streets of Quito
Despite this shared mission, walking through the different sections of the August 13 march, it was difficult to miss the contest for hegemony unfolding within the opposition. Left-wing unions called for dignified wages and the right to strike, while socialist feminists chanted slogans against Correa’s Opus Dei-inflected “family plan” and anticapitalist environmental groups marched against extractivism — particularly the expansion of the mining, oil, and agro-industrial frontiers.
Alongside these groups were social-democratic and revolutionary socialist and anarchist collectives, some with significant strength and long organizational histories, others little more than affinity groups. These eclectic expressions of a Left — broadly conceived — dominated the streets in numbers and political sophistication, but they have yet to cohere into a unified left bloc, independent of Correa.
CONAIE issued a public manifesto after a three-day conference in February, outlining demands that are clearly distinguishable from the politics of the Right — contrary to the suggestions of state officials — and reiterate longstanding aims of the indigenous movement.
It’s patently clear that Correa’s Manichean worldview, in which the population is with the government or with the Right, obscures more than it reveals. Still, the social bases, potential or realized, of the myriad faces of the right-wing opposition — Guillermo Lasso, the largest shareholder in the Bank of Guayaquil and 2013 presidential candidate for the Right; Jaime Nebot, the conservative mayor of Guayaquil; and Mauricio Rodas, the mayor of Quito — were also visible in the avenues and byways of Quito.
This politics found material expression in middle-class banners defending families and freedom, and audible resonance in the chanted echoes of “Down with the dictator!” President Correa points to the large demonstrations of last June against taxes on inheritance and capital gains as evidence that this Right is a real and imminent threat to stability.
The immediate battle lines of the demonstration — on the Left and Right alike — were delineated by the various participants’ desires to demonstrate social power in the extra-parliamentary domain, but anxious anticipation of the 2017 general elections weighed on every element of the day’s events. No one knows if Correa will amend the constitution and run a third time as the candidate for PAIS Alliance (AP), the party in power since 2007, and under Correa’s leadership since its inception.
During the commodities boom, life for Ecuador’s poor improved. According to official figures — which use $2.63 per day as the baseline — poverty in Ecuador declined from 37.6 percent in 2006 to 22.5 percent in 2014, while inequality income (measured by the Gini index) also improved.
In that economic context, Correa could maintain his popularity through a fluctuating amalgam of co-optive measures and targeted retaliation vis-à-vis the principal social movements, especially the indigenous movement, which is fighting a two-pronged battle centered on socio-ecological conflicts around mining and the integrity of indigenous territories. Under charges of “terrorism and sabotage,” several nonviolent indigenous leaders have been jailed and are serving punitive sentences for activities like blocking roads or preventing mining companies from gaining access to their (ever-expanding) concessions throughout the country.
But recently, amid an extended rut in oil prices and looming austerity measures, the Correa administration has suffered significant declines in popularity. According to the indispensable conjunctural reports regularly published by sociologist Pablo Ospina Peralta, polling data show the president has lost between ten and twenty points in popularity over the last few months.
In the face of growing discontent, the Correa administration has responded defensively by framing the demonstrations as either intentionally, or naively, playing into the hands of the domestic right and imperialism, reinforcing the destabilization of the country, and laying the groundwork for the Right to enact a golpe blando, or soft coup.
One AP congressperson, María Augusta, casually told the media that the CIA financed the indigenous march, although she offered no evidence for this claim. Correa himself blames indigenous and labor “elites” for the demonstration, arguing they have no sense of the interests and sentiments of their rank-and-file bases.
Activism has become sedition, and left-wing dissent betrayal of the country. Two prominent indigenous leaders were arrested at the end of the day on August 13 and roughed up by police: Carlos Pérez Guartambel, of the Andean indigenous organization ECUARUNARI, and Salvador Quishpe, the prefect of Zamora Chinchipe. Manuela Picq, a French and Brazilian academic and journalist who has lived in Ecuador for eight years on a cultural-exchange visa and is Pérez Guartambel’s partner, was also arrested and threatened with deportation.
Vying for Hegemony
Just as the right-wing anti-tax protests in June were a sign of the political fragility of Correísmo in the medium term, the weighty presence of the Left in the recent protests suggests that the popular sectors sense a change in the balance of forces as well. “What is at the center of the national debate is the exit from Correísmo,” Acosta explains. “How, with whom, towards what, and on what terms.”
Yet, as Alejandra Santillana Ortíz recently suggested, it can be misleading to map the trajectory of dissent leading to the present moment using proximate catalysts, like the falling price of oil. Ruptures between social movements and the state began to surface in earnest as far back as 2009 and have intensified measurably over the last three years. Their culmination in the strike on Quito is at least as much a question of this medium durée as it is the response to political-economic developments of the last couple of months.
Sociologist Mario Unda’s recent snapshot comparison of the country’s principal socio-political lines of demarcation in 2007 and 2013 (the first year of the first and second administrations of Correa, respectively) echoes this perspective. For Unda, the outset of the first Correa administration conflict was overdetermined in many ways, by the Right’s fear of Correa’s potential radicalism and the Left’s hope for the same.
Conflict gravitated around the political-institutional terrain of the state, with the Right still retaining control of the National Assembly and the Supreme Electoral Tribunal. Alongside this institutional competition with the Right, big private media corporations lined up against Correa, increasingly playing the role of conservative opposition, as the traditional parties of the Right imploded into irrelevance. The principal business confederations in the country also adopted an extremely confrontational stance in the face of the new government.
At the same time, even in 2007 it was possible to identify certain lines of conflict between the AP government and popular movements and sectors. Some of these were marginal and localized — disputes over rural and urban service provision, labor disputes, pension disputes, and so on. However, in the countryside the indigenous movement was already being drawn into battles with the state and multinational capital on the extractive fronts of mining, oil, water, hydroelectricity, and agro-industry.
Far from marginalia, these issues proved central to Correa’s development model in the years to come. In 2009, for example, a pair of laws on mining and water sparked the largest protests witnessed in the first three years of the Correa administration.
The mining law facilitated the rapid extension of favorable concessions to multinational mining companies throughout the length and breadth of the country, while the water law privatized access to communal water sources (crucial legislation for large-scale private mining initiatives), limited community and indigenous self-management of water resources, and relaxed regulations on water contamination. With mineral prices soaring on the international market and oil reserves diminishing in the national territory, Correa staked the country’s future on the gold under the soil.
By comparison to 2007, the divisions were much clearer in 2013. The scene was determined not by the axis of right-wing contestation with the government, but rather by the government’s growing disputes with popular movements and their historic allies. There were conflicts with the bourgeoisie to be sure, but these disagreements were only with certain sectors of the elite, and face-offs with capital no longer accurately captured the determining dynamics of the terrain.
Instead, the Correa government’s principal enemy had become the indigenous movement and “infantile” environmentalists, and consequently, the government threw all its coercive and co-optive powers in that direction. At the same time, Correa sharpened his relations with public-sector workers, most notoriously laying off thousands through obligatory redundancies.
High schools — students and teachers — were another live field of contention, as the government tried to ram through “meritocratic” reforms in the educational sector. All the while, criminalization and control of social protest and independent organizing was a primary concern of the government.
Ideologically as well, the Right had taken on novel forms by 2013, relative to their collective demeanor in 2007. Sections of the traditional right continued to battle for a purist retention of neoliberal axioms, but there were also new experiments — like Creando Oportunidades and the Sociedad Unida Más Acción — that sought to present a public image of moderation and modernity, appropriating much of the language of the Correa administration for itself.
The economic organizations of the bourgeoisie were also developing in interesting directions. The confrontational disposition of business confederations was largely eclipsed by 2013, and most federations had elected new leaderships whose mandates were to negotiate and reach agreement with a government seen to be far more flexible than originally anticipated. The negotiation hypothesis of the Right paid dividends in the creation of a new ministry of foreign trade, and the signing of the Ecuador-EU free trade agreement, which had the enthusiastic backing of all the big capitals.
Unda argues that the dispute between the government and the bourgeoisie had metamorphosed into an internal dispute, and while control of the state apparatus was still a domain of contestation, the field of consensus on capitalist modernization — a fundamentally shared vision of society and development — defined the broader politico-economic backdrop.
Of course, this did not mean the obsolescence of sectional and conjunctural conflict, but it did mean the bourgeois-state axis of conflict had been eclipsed by that of the state–popular movement. The disputes with business and the Right were disputes over control of the same societal project, whereas battle lines between popular movements and the state were drawn over distinct visions of society, development, and the future.
Latin America’s Passive Revolution
Massimo Modonesi’s reading of Antonio Gramsci’s “passive revolution” is useful for making sense of the trajectories of progressive governments in South America over the last ten to fifteen years. In Modonessi’s interpretation of Gramsci, passive revolution encompasses an unequal and dialectical combination of two tendencies simultaneously present in a single epoch — one of restoration of the old order and the other of revolution, one of preservation and the other of transformation.
The two tendencies coexist in tandem, but it is possible to decipher one tendency that ultimately determines or characterizes the process or cycle of a given epoch. The transformative features of a passive revolution mark a distinct set of changes from the preceding period, but those changes ultimately guarantee the stability of the fundamental relations of domination, even while these assume novel political forms.
At the same time, the specific class content of passive revolutions can vary within certain limits — that is to say, the different degrees to which particular components of popular demands are incorporated (the transformative tendency) within a matrix that ultimately sustains the fundamental relations of domination (the restorative tendency).
Passive revolutions involve neither total restoration of the old order, the full reenactment of the status quo, nor radical revolution. Instead, they involve a dialectic of revolution/restoration, transformation/preservation.
Capacities for social mobilization from below in early stages are contained or coopted — or selectively repressed — while the political initiative of sections of the dominant classes is restored. In the process, a new mode of domination is established that is capable of enacting conservative reforms masked in the language of earlier impulses emerging from below, and thus achieving a passive consensus of the dominated classes.
Rather than an instantaneous restoration, under passive revolution there is a molecular change in the balance of forces that gradually drains the capacities for self-organization and self-activity from below through cooptation, encouraging demobilization and guaranteeing passive acceptance of the new order.
In the context of Ecuador, Agustín Cueva’s Marxist theorization of impasse in the 1970s parallels Modonessi’s passive revolution most closely. There have been recurring moments in Ecuadorian history where the intensity of the horizontal, intra-capital conflicts, in combination with vertical contests between the ruling and popular classes, was simply too much for the existing form of domination to bear. As politicians sought new and more stable forms of domination, instability reigned in the interregnum, until an impasse was reached.
Overcoming such impasses, as sociologist Francisco Muñoz Jaramillo points out, has been the work of populists, in Ecuadorian history, of Caesars and Bonapartes. Think of the left-military government of Guillermo Rodríguez Lara (1972–75) or that of left-populist Jaime Roldós (1979–1982), which took up the ideological mantle of newly emergent bourgeois layers against some of the interests of traditional oligarchs and incorporated the popular sectors through corporatist techniques of sectional negotiation and bargaining.
Between 1982 and 2006, the dominant classes of the country attempted to introduce neoliberal restructuring through a variety of channels. It was a deeply unstable period, reaching an apex in the 1999 financial crisis, followed by a series of mobilizations that threw out various heads of state in succession before their mandate was completed.
The orthodox neoliberal governments of León Febres Cordero (1984–88), Sixto Durán Ballén (1992–96), and Jamil Mahuad (1998–2000) tried and failed, in many ways, to carry out far-reaching structural adjustment programs, giving birth to right-wing populist experiments, such as Abadalá Bucaram (1996–97) and Lucio Gutiérrez (2003–5).
Accused of embezzlement and corruption, mass protests succeeded in forcing Bucaram’s impeachment. A military man, Gutiérrez, after participating in a short-lived coup against Mahuad in 2000, ran on a left ticket in the 2002 presidential elections, but governed from the right, and thus was overthrown as well.
Correa and the Left
These were two decades, then, of a neoliberal variant of Cueva’s recurring impasse. Correa calmed the storm and restored profits in sectors like banking, mining, oil, and agro-industry, and has simultaneously coopted or crushed most independent social movement activity.
Rhetorically, the government has employed vague ideologies, from buen vivir (an indigenous conception of “living well”) in the beginning of the administration, to the techno-fetishism that has dominated the last several years (best exemplified in the Yachay Tech university debacle, and some dystopic model cities in the Amazon, as the excellent research team at the local think tank CENEDET has pointed out).
At the end of the day, Correa has been functional to capital. However, this isn’t the same as saying he is capital’s first choice — like all his populist predecessors, Correa is expendable. With the price of oil falling, capital is scrambling to collect what’s available and regain more direct control of the state. It’s an uncertain period ahead, and the sentiment on the Right is that Correa should go. A recent piece in the Economist captures this nicely, essentially thanking him for his service while showing him the door:
Mr. Correa faces a choice . . . He could persist in his bid for permanent power and risk being kicked out by the street, like his predecessors. Or he could swallow his pride, stabilize the economy and drop his re-election bid. He would then go down in history as one of Ecuador’s most successful presidents.
The various forces of the Left, broadly defined, are meanwhile trying to rebuild and regain initiative and forge the bases of a societal project that is a genuine alternative to both Correa and the Right. But the Left is starting from a point of weakness and disarticulation, and the present ideological and political landscape could scarcely be more complicated.