A New Indigenous-Left in Ecuador?

October 19, 2011


On August 9, about 400 delegates from Ecuador’s many social movements joined most of the country’s left-wing parties for the First Gathering of Social Movements for Democracy and Life. The gathering, held in Quito, brought together various sectors of the indigenous, peasant, labor, feminist, LGBT, Afro-Ecuadoran, and environmental movements. The Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE), the Ecuadoran Confederation of United Class-Struggle Workers Organizations, and the National Teachers Union of Ecuador together constituted the core of the social forces involved, while the broad political left was represented by Pachakutik, the Democratic Popular Movement (MPD), Montecristi Lives, Participation, and a dissident fraction of the Socialist Party.

In break-away sessions, speeches, and declarations, the participants expressed their disaffection with the government of President Rafael Correa—calling into question Correa’s deepening and extension of the extractivist development model into mining, the absence of agrarian reform in spite of government promises to the contrary, intensifying attacks on public-sector unions, the concentration of authority in the executive power, the absence of participatory democracy, and the criminalization of resistance under Correa’s watch.1

The continuity of capitalist extractivism under Correa and his predecessors dominated the discussion of natural resources and resistance. This session declared Correa “an enemy of the Ecuadoran people,” not least because of the “persecution and criminalization of social struggle” against extractive industries. The labor session similarly called Correa a “traitor to the project of change of the Ecuadoran people and an enemy of workers,” vowing “to reject and to fight” his government’s “anti-popular and anti-worker policies.” The break-away session on democracy focused on the criminalization of social protest and popular struggle under the Correa government and stressed how these repressive dynamics were necessarily linked to “the implementation of an economic model that strengthens and centralizes the state at the service of emergent Ecuadoran bourgeois interests and those of transnational corporations.”

The participants’ positions against the Correa government—as well as social movement mobilizations against it in recent years—can only be understood against a complex backdrop of relations between the state and social movements since Correa first scraped his way into the presidency in the second round of elections in 2006. This political contest took place at a time when the prestige of the indigenous movement—by far the most important popular force in Ecuador for several decades—had still to recover from the acute setback it suffered after participating in the ill-fated government of Lucio Gutiérrez (2003–5). Gutiérrez, of the Patriotic Society Party, had run his 2002 electoral campaign on an anti-neoliberal platform, but once in office he immediately capitulated to the neoliberal policy prescriptions of the International Monetary Fund. CONAIE supported the party’s election and even provided ministers for the government’s first cabinet. Within seven months, however, the rapidly intensifying rupture between the indigenous movement and the now evidently neoliberal Gutiérrez had been formally played out with the resignation of these ministers.

A mass explosion of resentment and agitation in April 2005 successfully forced the disgraced Gutiérrez from power. The protests were characterized politically by a largely urban middle-class sentiment that was anti-party, anti-neoliberal, and anti-corruption, but lacked a coherent political project.2 Rather than signifying a deep rearticulation of popular-sector power or organizational capacity—indeed, the indigenous movement was almost completely absent from the scene—the April 2005 revolt instead encapsulated a relatively spontaneous expression of disdain for the political elite and inchoate rage against the ongoing imposition of neoliberal economic restructuring.

This was the vacuum into which Correa’s party, Alianza País (Country Alliance, AP), positioned itself during the 2006 presidential campaign. His main right-wing contender, the multimillionaire banana magnate Álvaro Noboa, received more votes than Correa in the first round, but was sufficiently hated by the popular sectors that a second-round rally for the AP circumvented his rise to the presidency. The marketing team of AP, trying to tap into the widespread anti-party sentiment, refused to call the AP a “political party,” instead referring to it as a “political movement.” Correa in turn was pitched as a heterodox outsider, an anti-neoliberal economist who—as a consequence of missionary work as a youngster—spoke Kichwa and was familiar with the needs and aspirations of the country’s indigenous, peasant, and urban popular sectors.

The 2007–08 Constituent Assembly process solidified the president’s early popularity, as the country polarized around a hard-right camp represented by Noboa and a progressive poll led by Correa. Within the Constituent Assembly, as a result of this wider societal divarication, a “mega-bloc” of the left emerged around Correa, a bloc that included Pachakutik, the MPD, and the Democratic Left (ID), although always under the hegemonic guidance of Correa and the AP.3 The wildly popular process of a Constituent Assembly offered up an extended honeymoon for Correa and large cross-sections of society. A new, progressive Constitution received the approval of 64% of voters in a referendum in September 2008, and Correa was re-elected—this time in the first round—with 52% of the popular vote in April 2009.

Things began to sour soon after, however, when Correa’s failure to break with the quotidian banalities of the neoliberal economics he had inherited was difficult to reconcile with the president’s romantic and ostentatious slogans of “21st-Century Socialism” and “Citizen’s Revolution.” Indeed, the president would strain to align his practical commitment to aggressively reorienting the Ecuadoran economy toward the extraction of minerals by multinational corporations with his preferred rhetorical schemas for the next several years.

 “The new constitution opened the door for a series of profound changes,” argues Alberto Acosta, a former minister of energy and mines in Correa’s first administration and the president of the Constituent Assembly. “Its statutes guarantee the construction of a plurinational state. This means the incorporation for the first time of marginalized groups, like indigenous peoples and nationalities and Afro-Ecuadorans. The constitution mandates respect for their unique ways of life and community organizing, and a new way of structuring the state in general.”

Likewise, the new constitution includes probably the most progressive environmental commitments of any constitution in the world. The text ensures, for example, an allegiance to “living well,” or sumak kawsay, in Kichwa, “which is an entirely distinct way of understanding development,” Acosta explains.

Moreover, “nature is a subject with rights in the Constitution,” Acosta adds. “Ecuador’s Constitution is the only one in the world with this characteristic.”

In keeping with the spirit of the Constitution, the 2009 electoral campaign featured Correa’s promise to radicalize the Citizen’s Revolution.4 It quickly became apparent, however, that there would be a gaping chasm between the contents of the Constitution and the lived reality of the country under Correa’s rule. Shortly after the 2009 elections, Correa shifted decisively to the right, presenting “infantile leftism, environmentalism, and indigenism” as the preeminent threats to economic modernization and progress, particularly regarding the president’s plans to shift the extractive focus of the economy from oil to mining.5

Correa allowed the disintegration of the mega-bloc of parliamentary left forces that had held together loosely during the Constituent Assembly, as the MPD and Pachakutik abandoned the coalition in the face of the AP’s rightward drift. Key business federations that had been hostile to the first Correa administration notably altered their discourse and practical orientation toward the government in the post-2009 conjuncture, presumably as a reward for the government’s newly invigorated commitment to neoliberal continuity.6 Correa, now openly “allied with traditional, right-wing businessmen,” the Uruguayan sociologist Raúl Zibechi points out, “reserves his most poisonous darts for the left.”7

According to Marlon Santi, former president of CONAIE, “Correa entered the presidency in 2006 with the support of all the social movements—indigenous, environmentalists, human rights movements. But all of the social and political programs being introduced by this government have nothing to do with the program of his party, Alianza País, or a Citizens’ Revolution. The programs the government is introducing are based on other foundations, foundations that do not respect the collective ideas and demands of the grassroots that supported him.”

Indigenous peoples in particular are excluded from the decision-making circles of the Correa government, Santi says, adding: “There’s an important popular saying around our independence: the last day of oppression, and the first day of the same.”


By the end of 2009, the government was in open conflict with the indigenous movement. Mobilizations fought proposed water legislation that would have effectively privatized lakes and rivers in the interests of hydro-electrical development and the water needs of multinational mining corporations, at the expense of peasant and indigenous communities. Teachers unions and university professors, meanwhile, were locked in a confrontation with the government over a new law ostensibly about regulating higher education, but actually designed to weaken union power.

Throughout 2010, a series of conflicts continued to convulse the country. Indigenous movements agitated against mining projects, while public-sector workers engaged in defensive battles to defend their most basic of labor rights. Indeed, according to sociologist Mario Unda, the essence of 2010 can be captured in the phrase, “a project of capitalist modernization confronting social movements.”8

A high point in the indigenous struggle that year took place on June 5. Ecuador was hosting a presidential summit of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA) in the majority-Kichwa, Andean city of Otavalo. Despite the fact that the gathering was ostensibly called to discuss themes of indigenous and Afro–Latin American peoples within the ALBA countries, the principal indigenous organization of Ecuador, CONAIE, was not on the guest list.

The indigenous movement consequently organized a march of 3,000 people through the city and symbolically installed a parallel Plurinational Parliament in the streets and plazas.9 Police repressed the march, and serious charges of terrorism and sabotage were laid against key indigenous leaders. At the time of writing, some 200 activists are facing charges of terrorism and sabotage with the possibility of lengthy prison terms.10 Marlon Santi of CONAIE is one of them.

“When the presidents of the countries involved in the ALBA were meeting here in Ecuador, in Otavolo, they talked about indigenous rights,” Santi explains. “But the main representatives of the indigenous movement in the country, that is to say CONAIE, were never invited to the meeting. And we wanted to have a voice in ALBA. We wanted to say to the governments of ALBA that without the indigenous peoples of Latin America, ALBA can’t exist. We will not be excluded any longer. And for saying this in protests outside the ALBA meeting we have been given this new name of terrorists and saboteurs. We’re supposedly against the nation. But we believe the truth will rise to the surface about these claims.”

Acosta, now a leading left critic of Correa, says the charges are “tremendously shameful for the country.”

“They have no basis in justice or a democratic judicial system,” he says. “Even during the period of neoliberal governments, when social movements and the indigenous movement were massively involved in protests, there were never accusations of terrorism. This is an issue that is putting the Citizens’ Revolution itself at risk.”

The extreme right in Ecuador has objected to Correa’s increases in public spending, anti-poverty cash-transfer programs, the introduction of modest banking regulations, targeted tariffs on specific import items, and geopolitical ties with Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Cuba, and Venezuela, at the expense of closer diplomatic relations with the United States. Most dramatically, Correa expelled U.S. Ambassador Heather Hodges over WikiLeaks documents in April, in which Hodges accused Ecuador’s former police chief of corruption and recommended revoking his U.S. visa. The Correa administration has also secured multibillion-dollar loans from China in recent months as part of an apparent attempt to adapt older geopolitical relations to an increasingly multipolar world. At the same time, the United States remains Ecuador’s leading trade partner and an important source of remittances.

Coupled with the president’s propensity to employ radical sophistry at every turn, and his studied cultivation of a progressive political identity abroad, the Ecuadoran government is often misperceived as having broken much more thoroughly with the neoliberal model than is actually the case. Indeed, the rhetoric of revolutionary change figures so prominently in Correa’s discourse precisely because he relies on this mythology to mask some bitter truths.

Early this century, Ecuador enjoyed fairly strong economic growth, as a product of a regional boom for most of South America’s commodity exporters. For Ecuador, what mattered most was the high price of oil, its biggest export. GDP grew at roughly 3% in 2002 and 2003, spiked to almost 9% in 2004, and tapered to 6%, 5%, and 2% in 2005, 2006, and 2007, respectively. In 2008 GDP climbed again to 7%, before plunging to almost 0% in 2009 with the onset of the global crisis. (The contraction in GDP in 2006 and 2007 is partially related to the declining rate of production of private oil companies in the country over these years.) Preliminary figures show an almost 4% rate of growth in 2010, with an outlook of roughly 3% for 2011.11

Social-democratic analysts sympathetic to the Correa government often stress how this respectable growth rate has allowed for expansionary public spending under Correa. Increases in health and education spending, as well as the priming of pre-existing, targeted cash-transfer programs toward the poorest sectors of society, are often flagged in such commentary, as are reductions in the poverty rate under Correa’s command.12 Looked at comparatively, however, the figures for Ecuador do not seem to be the stuff even of post-neoliberalism, never mind 21st-century socialism. For example, social spending as a proportion of total public spending in Ecuador is situated in the bottom echelons of regional Latin American trends.

On average, social spending in the region rose from 12.2% of GDP in 1990–91 to 18% in 2007–08, whereas Ecuador’s fell from 7.4% to 6.4% over the same period. A casual perusal of Table 1 (above) indicates that Ecuador has a much poorer record in this regard than, say, Argentina or Chile, at best center-left governments during most of the 2000s. (The situation changed in Chile in 2010, when the far-right president Sebastián Piñera was elected.) Ecuador compares poorly even to Colombia under Álvaro Uribe or Mexico under Felipe Calderón, whereas Correa’s claims to be moving toward socialism of any type are simply laughable when social spending figures in Ecuador are juxtaposed with the record of the region’s leaders in this area, Cuba and Uruguay.

Similarly, the record on poverty reduction is underwhelming for a self-proclaimed socialist government. As Table 2 indicates (see page 13), while urban poverty fell from 49% to 40.2% in Ecuador between 2002 and 2009, it is less impressive when one considers superior outcomes in Kirchner’s Argentina, Lula’s Brazil, García’s Peru, or Calderón’s Mexico. (We look here at urban poverty rates because no comparable figures on total national poverty rates are available for Ecuador for the relevant years in this data set, apart from 2008 and 2009, when national poverty rates were 42.7% and 42.2%, and rural poverty rates 50.2% and 46.3%, respectively.)

As the global economic slump dips more deeply, repeatedly defying sunny recovery forecasts, international financial institutions and economic pundits have been forced to revise downward their outlooks for world growth for 2011 and 2012. As far as Ecuador is concerned, this could mean a drop in oil revenues as international prices fall, and a further decline in remittances sent home from Ecuadorans living abroad, particularly in Spain and the United States, where the economies are suffocating under the grip of austerity measures.

Political scientist David McNally, one of the most incisive analysts of the crisis on a world scale, explains what he means by the term global slump, and the reasons that we should not expect it to go away quickly. “Rather than describing a single crisis,” he writes, “the term is meant to capture a whole period of interconnected crises—the bursting of a real estate bubble; a wave of bank collapses; a series of sovereign debt crises; relapse into recession—that goes on for years without a sustained economic recovery. That, I submit, is what confronts us for many, many years to come.”13

For Luis Macas, former president of CONAIE, the Correa government’s motivation for targeting the indigenous movement is clear enough.

“It’s not that the government wants simply to get rid of the Indians, or that it is racism for racism’s sake,” he says. “The objective is to liquidate the indigenous movement in this country, to dismantle and destroy this movement.” He adds that the rationale grows out of the fact that “the indigenous movement is the principal social and political actor in the country that has struggled against the economic model, against neoliberalism.”


The conflicts over mining are likely to intensify further in coming months and years. Closed-door negotiations with multinational corporations seeking to secure large-scale mining projects were due to be completed in July, but have not yet come to fruition. While the details remain secret, it is estimated that $3.5 billion in foreign direct investment will flood the mining sector from 2012 forward.14 If past patterns are repeated, Canadian- imperial mining capital is likely to play a defining role.15

In light of these realities, the contradictions of Correa’s development model are likely to sharpen, conflicts to assume a more acute form, and state repression and ideological defamation of popular movements to become more extreme. This will be combined, no doubt, with parallel tactics aimed at co-opting social movements, such as extending clientelist and targeted petty handouts in the lead-up to the 2013 elections.

The indigenous movement is preparing for such eventualities. Severino Sharupi, an activist in the Shuar indigenous nation and youth coordinator for CONAIE, advised me that CONAIE has identified three strategic priorities—first, to rebuild and reinforce the rank and file capacities of CONAIE itself; second, to reorganize and strengthen ties between all of CONAIE’s wider array of allies within the indigenous movement; and, third, to build new organizational structures of resistance at the national level between all sectors of the popular movement.

“From CONAIE we can offer support to the broader movement, drawing from our experiences,” Sharupi said. “We want to move beyond thinking merely of this government, because governments are transitory. They are merely pieces in the game that capitalism uses for its own ends. Our job is longer term, a process of political and ideological formation of the popular sectors—of the indigenous sector, of all popular sectors.”

Delfín Tenesaca, of the Kichwa Confederation of Ecuador (Ecuarunari), echoed Sharupi’s sentiments, particularly the understanding that change will not come from the benevolence of leaders on high, but rather through the self-organization and self-activity of popular classes struggling from below.

“We are going to fight back, and fight back with a clear position, not one tied exclusively to 2013, when the next elections will occur,” says Tenesaca. “The government will be running for re-election, and there will appear a new leadership layer, the new saviors of the world, saviors of the country, saviors of the poor, and all the rest. Confronted with this scenario, our objective will be to save ourselves, beginning now with a fight against extractivism, neoliberalism, clientelism, and a legal system that is attacking our leaderships in an effort to shut us up. We will defend ourselves in the face of this.”



Jeffery R. Webber teaches politics at Queen Mary, University of London. He is the author of From Rebellion to Reform in Bolivia (Haymarket Books, 2011) and Red October: Left-Indigenous Struggles in Modern Bolivia (Brill Academic Publishers, 2011).



1. Pablo Ospina Peralta, “La unidad de las izquierdas,” La Linea del Fuego, September 8, 2011.

2. See Franklin Ramírez Gallegos, “Fragmentación, reflujo y desconcierto: Movimientos socials y cambio político en el Ecuador (2000–2010),” OSAL no. 28 (November 2010): 28–32.

3. Ibid., 38–39.

4. Mario Unda, “Ecuador 2010: El año 4 de la Revolución Ciudadana,” OSAL no. 29 (May, 2011): 138.

5. Ramírez Gallegos, “Fragmentación, reflujo y desconcierto,” 41.

6. Unda, p. 138.

7. Raúl Zibechi, “Ecuador: The Construction of a New Model of Domination,” Upside Down World, August 5, 2011.

8. Unda, “Ecuador 2010,” 138.

9. Raúl Zibechi, “Bolivia and Ecuador: The State Against the Indigenous People,” Americas Program, July 19, 2010.

10. Ospina Peralta, “La unidad de las izquierdas.”

11. Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, Economic Survey of Latin America and the Caribbean 2010–2011 (Santiago, Chile: United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, March 2011), 67.

12. See, for example, Mark Weisbrot and Luis Sandoval, Update on the Ecuadorian Economy (Center for Economic and Policy Research, June 2009).

13. David McNally, Global Slump: The Economics and Politics of Crisis and Resistance (PM Press, 2011), 8–9.

14. Economist Intelligence Unit, “Ecuador: Country Report” (September 2011), 13.

15. Todd Gordon, Imperialist Canada (Arbeiter Ring Publishers, 2010), 216–219.


Read the rest of NACLA's September/October 2011 issue: "The Politics of Human Rights."



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