Ecuador’s President Correa in Conflict with Indigenous Movement

May 23, 2008 12:00 am Published by Leave your thoughts

The recent problems that have afflicted the relationship between the President of Ecuador, Rafael Correa, and Ecuador’s indigenous movement seem to be part of a recurrent pattern in Ecuadorean politics. Since the beginning of the 1990s CONAIE, an organisation which regroups different indigenous associations of the country, together with its political wing Pachakutik, has been characterised by an unprecedented indigenous political activism, capable of paralysing a considerable part of the Andean territory, which spearheaded the ousting of different Presidents from power throughout the decade. The decision to back President Lucio Gutierrez in 2003, followed by the betrayal of his early promises, has marked an inexorable decline of the movement and its party both in terms of electoral popularity and internal functioning. The movement has been plagued by internal contradictions regarding its role in society and its identity, and by allegations of secrecy in its internal management.

President Correa and the organised indigenous movement have maintained a somewhat distant relationship. Its first traumatic experience of power made it particularly wary of newcomers that wanted to benefit from the vote of the native population. In the first round of the 2006 elections it presented its own candidate, Luis Macas, which obtained a meagre 2.19%, only to back the future President in the run-off. Correa has been able to project a benign image of himself toward the bulk of the ‘indígenas’: his work in an indigenous community during his youth, his inclusive rhetoric, his attempt to speak Kichwa , the idiom of much of the native local population, as well as the indigenous-style ordination ceremony he set up at the beginning of his mandate, have further eroded the grip of the traditional movements. The electoral coalition between the Socialist Party and Pachakutik has had little success; despite the alliance with Correa’s party, they scored less than 1% in the election for the delegates who are now rewriting the Ecuadorean constitution.

However, a new interplay between the government and the indigenous movement has been emerging in the last few weeks. Until recently, the latter had accepted to play a minor role insofar as it saw recognised some of the political prerogatives it had historically sought. Two related questions have surfaced in the national political scenario creating the premise for a breaking of this alliance and the formation of a front of critique arising from a communitarian left. The first divisive issue has been the mining industry. Mining has been strongly opposed by local indigenous communities for its nefarious impact on the environment and the defacement of the local environment. In particular, open-cast mining has generated tremendous opposition for the destruction it visits upon the ecology. Moreover, the heavy involvement of Canadian companies is accompanied by accusations of imperialism and unfair exploitation of local resources.

Correa, by contrast, has seen mining as an important source of budget revenue to counter the increasingly worrying news coming from the national oil industry. It is well known that Ecuador’s oil reserves are quite limited, and can guarantee an ever decreasing quantity of export for another 20-25 years only. The proposal not to exploit one of the biggest reserves located in an ecologically delicate Amazonian area, that of Yasuní, for which the government is currently launching a campaign of international compensation, complicates even more the position of the fragile balances of the Ecuadorean state. The recent technical problems experienced by the national oil company, PETROECUADOR, and the various disputes the state is facing with various foreign oil companies for a variety of reasons, complete the picture.

In a decree expedited by the Constituent Assembly, mining concessions have been frozen until a new mining law will be approved. Correa proposes increasing the participation of the state in the industry, which will benefit the whole population, and maintaining a degree of environmental responsibility, even though he has declared himself in favour of open-cast mining. As for local communities, Correa has conceded that local referenda should be held to assess the opinion of the population, but they should not be binding, leaving the ultimate decision to the state.

This has created a strong tension with ecologist and indigenous movements, which have strongly criticised him for ceding in favour of powerful interests and being unsympathetic to the environmental cause. Serious accusations have been made by both parties and nervous relations have developed even within the government coalition, where an ecologist component is also present.

In the second element of the dispute, Correa has showed himself to be increasingly sceptical about the possibility of supporting the historical claim of the indigenous population to a plurinational state. The plurinational state entails a distribution of power to local communities in a strongly federalist fashion, which would put at risk the implementation of a national project, by effectively creating a state within the state. Correa has compared this claim to that of Guayaquil’s oligarchy, which is also seeking to promote highly decentralising measures. Correa has instead declared himself in favour of multiculturalism: “Part of our richness is being diverse; but united. Quite another thing are these attempts of making fictitious nations with their own territory and government.”

In recent days CONAIE has officially declared its opposition to the government and has announced a series of mobilisations due to take place in the next few weeks. However, they have still shown support and respect for the President of the Constituent Assembly, Alberto Acosta, a socially committed economist who is considered to be very close to the President. His role will be crucial in the mediation between the two contending parties. In any case, it is significant that other social indigenous movements, such as the FENOCIN, or other radical leftist parties, such as the MPD, have ratified their support toward Correa and invited CONAIE to revise its position.

Correa’s pragmatism does not derive from a shift to the right, as some people have suggested. Rather, it constitutes a realistic attempt to make redistribution meaningful, and to gather important state funds with which to launch a new model of economic development. Two vague models have emerged within the government: one is centred around the fostering of small-medium agricultural enterprises which, in a sort of Jeffersonian fashion, sustain themselves through financial and technical assistance supplied by the public sector; the other model is based on the accumulation of state resources to import technology and generate buoyant growth. The two models are still in development, but both imply a significant degree of wealth redistribution and the intention to redesign the political balance of the country, in favour of the popular classes. Either way, a state with sufficient funds and internal coherence is strongly needed.

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This post was written by Samuele Mazzolini

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