Difficult Times Ahead For Ecuador’s Progressive New Constitution

October 17, 2008 12:00 am Published by Leave your thoughts

Despite the fact that Ecuador tends to receive much more benign criticism, in the mainstream global media, than Venezuela or Bolivia, the new constitution of this little Andean nation, approved by almost the 64% of the country’s electorate on 28th September, has raised a good deal of suspicion among an increasingly anxious international liberal community, which has focussed its attention on one particular aspect of the constitution – the strengthening of the executive power – citing a perceived threat to the prerogatives of the individual as the prelude to the adoption of a number of ‘old-fashioned’ economic policies.

It is not by chance that such concerns have had little resonance in Ecuador, where ‘modern’ economic measures applied in the last 20 years have had impoverishing effects and have led to widespread rejection and unrest. Indeed, the leading and more convincing arguments of the opposition have had little to do with the tutelage of the harmless individual against the tyrannical state. Rather, the government has stumbled on the intervention of the Catholic Church, a very influential actor in the country, both in financial and cultural terms. Against what was perceived as the greatest danger for the new Constitution it has struggled for, the government has preferred to carry out a defensive campaign in the last few weeks before the referendum, denying the unfounded and backward critiques of the Church, readily employed by the politicians of the opposition.

Yet, it would be naïve to think that the majority of the electorate has voted in accordance to a strong popular rejection of deregulation and fiscal policy discipline, and that the politicisation of the country has reached the heights that it has in Venezuela. However, it is fair to say that ‘Correismo’ picks up upon different grievances that have arisen in this unstable country: those of the radicalised groups, those of a middle-class, especially in Quito, fed up with the abuse of power by politicians, and those of those who, without having a particularly defined political consciousness, have seen in the reduction of education and health care a real encroachment on their freedom.

This new Carta Magna contains many progressive elements, which have made tabula rasa of the 1998 Constitution that consecrated neoliberalism and legally impeded many of the projects the government had in mind. The text voted by two-thirds of the population sets clear limits on the revenue foreign companies can get out of their activities in Ecuador, and enhances the role of the State in the economy, both as a regulator and as an active actor. In particular, the constitution provides for a sustainable, fair and just plan of development, inspired by the indigenous notion of “sumak kawsay” – i.e. the good living. Education up to the third level and universal health care become rights for all citizens.

In other words, the principles and the legal underpinnings to go beyond a market economy are put in place, and notions such as solidarity and sociality find space in the new organisation of production and consumption. Many other areas are also affected by this wave of change: the first rights for homosexual couples are granted, the environment is recognised as a fundamental good to defend, vulnerable groups such as minors, old people, pregnant women, and the disabled are entitled to particular State attention, citizen participation is strengthened by the establishment of a fourth power, which will serve as a check against the abuses of any State official.

What now? It would fatuous to believe that the government will have it easy. If on one side it has created the necessary framework to radically renovate the institutions and the working of the State and thereby create a new consensus predicated upon inclusion, on the other serious difficulties risk undermining its legitimacy. Various sources of troubles await President Correa (pictured). In the first place, the behaviour of Guayaquil, Ecuador’s biggest city, has confirmed the worries of those who saw the consolidation of autonomist tendencies, intimately linked to the figure of Jaime Nebot, Guayaquil mayor, who has renewed the city in the last few years with pharaonic, if often unnecessary public works.

In Guayaquil, the votes against the Constitution have surpassed those in favour, and Nebot has swiftly asked to respect the autonomic and ‘efficient’ model that they have developed. Secondly, the government fears the attack of the ‘movimentist’ Left, which stresses the needs of the ecology at the expense of the meagre fiscal budget the State disposes of, and favours the communitarian claims of the indigenous movement (see LPJ # 20). Lastly, for a variety of reasons many of the changes brought about by the constitution run the risk of not being implemented at all, and this would create a tension with those constituencies which have struggled alongside the government to pass the measures. The fact is that the State has lost important organisational and institutional abilities in 20 years of neoliberalism because of the retrenchment of the State in several areas of the economy and many of its bureaucrats still have strong neoliberal sympathies, which makes them prone to obstructing the government’s progressive agenda.

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This post was written by Samuele Mazzolini

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