Well-pressed white shirts covered the limbs of a few hundred bodies at the opposition march against Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa’s administration. I happened upon this march last month in north Quito’s Parque Carolina. The January 24 march was “in solidarity” with a much larger march of 130,000 in Guayaquil, Ecuador’s largest city, in support of that city’s Social Christian Party (PSC) mayor, Jaime Nebot. The Guayaquil mayor is quickly becoming the fractured opposition’s most likely national leader.
Marchers in blue and white, the colors of the Guayaquil flag. (Credit: Santiago Serrano, www.visumphoto.com)
Along with most Ecuadorian television and print media—controlled by wealthy conservatives—the opposition attacks President Rafael Correa for being a “dictator” and a “Communist.” At the moment, however, the elite are mainly upset about a new law that for the first time makes tax evasion more difficult and taxes inheritances. They are also irritated by Correa’s moves to increase state control over oil and mining operations, his confrontations with multilateral lenders and increased economic aid for the poor.
The march comes almost a year after voters overwhelmingly approved Correa’s proposal to convene an assembly charged with writing a new, more progressive, constitution. The assembly is scheduled to put the new constitution up for a referendum this August. The opposition’s biggest challenges this year will be trying to defeat the constitution and an effort to bolster their brand of “autonomy” for the provinces under their control.
Ecuador’s opposition, remnants of the collapsed political parties governing Ecuador since the 1979 transition to civilian rule, is in disarray, but is desperately trying to regroup. It is unclear whether the next year of Correa’s administration will offer opportunities for the mishmash of millionaires and right-wing populists to reorganize. Nebot called for the march in an effort to build a mounting opposition movement to Correa’s left-leaning government.
Correa’s approval ratings, at 57%, are remarkable for an Ecuadorian president—despite a 7% drop since December. This is a country where completing an entire year in office is a major accomplishment: Ecuador has had nine presidents since 1996, none of them completing a full term in office. Guayaquil political analyst William Sánchez Aveiga points out that “never before has a president maintained majority support for such a long time.”
In the 2006 presidential elections, Correa rode this wave of discontent and moved, in a short time, from relative obscurity to a decisive victory over Ecaudor’s richest man, banana magnate Alvaro Noboa. The businessman was the candidate of the neoliberal and religious conservative Institutional Renewal Party of National Action (PRIAN).
The Opposition Regroups?
The opposition is flummoxed. Since independence from the Spanish, competing elites from Quito and Guayaquil have always been able to buy off, trick, or repress the Ecuadorian people while spending most of their time enmeshed in factional power-grabs.
With Correa’s surprise victory and the initiation of a nationalist and anti-neoliberal Constituent Assembly, the government opposition is fragmented among various interests, regional and otherwise. Much of it is coalescing around Guayaquil mayor Nebot, who has distanced himself from the right-wing PSC, portraying himself publicly as an everyman standing up to a repressive central government.
Quito marchers demonstrated in solidarity with the Guayaquil protests. (Credit: Santiago Serrano, www.visumphoto.com)
It is not clear if this geographically based message will resonate beyond Guayaquil, although T-shirts at Quito’s “solidarity march” called for Guayaquil independiente (independent Guayaquil). Historically, highland and coastal elites have clashed over political and economic control of the nation. Elites in the mountains are a traditional landowning aristocracy, their wealth earned from the labor of poor (and in the past near-enslaved) indigenous labor. Coastal elites have made their money from export-oriented agriculture (in the past cacao, now bananas) and foreign trade. It remains to be seen the extent to which highland elites will follow the lead of the coastal populists.
Guayaquil has a long and peculiar history of right-wing populism and clientelism. As Sánchez notes, “Since its beginning, the city has been full of merchants descended from European families that join together in associations. They have formed an elite with major political influence. This elite has taken on populist tones since more than 20 years ago, with the rise of figures like [former president] León Febres Cordero and later Jaime Nebot.”
For example, Guayaquil has a private police force called the Guayaquil Citizen Security Corporation that operates independently of the national police and answers directly to the mayor and his PSC allies. It was created in 2005, with strong support from local business interests, after Nebot failed to win direct control of National Police operating in Guayaquil. This would be akin to the mayor of Boston asking for direct control of all FBI agents operating in his city. This is a prime example of the direct coincidence of Guayaquil-based commercial interests and the elite movement for regional “autonomy.”
Until recently, the private security force received $3 million a year from the federal government. Correa cut the funding, arguing that an unaccountable private security force posed a danger to public safety and democracy. A few weeks ago, Nebot defiantly announced that the Guayaquil police would continue working with the Corporation.
Sánchez says that most of Nebot’s supporters are from the middle and upper classes. But well-targeted public works projects and other clientelist schemes centered on neighborhood leaders has won him a following among poor Guayaquileños. Clientelism combined with reported management pressure on workers in both the public and private sector contributed to the large turnout at the January march.
Visiting Bolivian intellectual Elizabeth Peredo noted that the opposition demonstrations made her “feel right at home.” Like the Bolivian elites of the gas-rich eastern provinces, Ecuadorian opposition leaders are pushing for what they call “regional autonomy,” particularly for the coastal province of Guayas.
Unlike the autonomy demanded by indigenous peoples and other marginalized groups, the growing elite autonomy movement in Latin America is an effort to maintain the privatization of national wealth and resources in the face of social movements demanding—and governments promising—a just redistribution of land and income.
René Báez, an economics professor at Quito’s Catholic University, argues that the movement for autonomy arose in 1999 with the central government’s weak response to the financial crisis that brought down Ecuador’s banks. The government bailed out the bankers themselves and the economy was dollarized, while the country hemorrhaged capital. Provincial governments—especially in Guayas—took advantage of the situation to argue that federal-level governance was fraught with incompetence and that local government was more capable and efficient.
Opposition marcher in Quito. (Credit: Santiago Serrano, www.visumphoto.com)
The focus of the opposition’s march was the recently passed Ley de Equidad Tributaria (Tax Equity Law). The legislation aims to curb widespread tax evasion, as well as tax inheritances and luxury items, and control capital flight. The main complaint of Nelson Maldonado, a Quito doctor, radio host, and opposition leader that I saw at the march, is the so-called centralization of the government and “robbing of inheritances.”
The anti-government march is a sign that the opposition is trying to regroup and unite in the run-up to the referendum vote on the constitution. Sánchez argues the usually fractious traditional parties “have, on this occasion, as they have done before when they have seen their interests threatened, united to try to force their position and defend their mutual interests.”
A “Citizens’ Revolution”
The week before the opposition march, over 100,000 people celebrated Correa’s first year in power in the streets of Guayaquil. Correa’s victory was not only centered on social and economic justice issues, but also on a commitment to transform the country’s political process and culture. Correa’s government has promised a “citizens’ revolution.”
Citing the source of Correa’s rise to power, political scientist Catherine Conaghan says, “If there is any national political consensus, it is the widely held belief that a corrupt, self-interested political class has perverted democratic institutions and that status quo politics will no longer suffice.” Indeed, former director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) Michel Camdessus once baldly stated Ecuador suffered from “an incestuous relation between bankers, political-financial pressure groups and corrupt government officials.”
Correa, an economics professor turned politician, wrote his PhD at the University of Illinois at Urbana on the havoc wreaked by free market orthodoxy in Latin America. He made a name for himself as an opponent of neoliberal free-market policies when his predecessor, President Alfredo Palacio named him Economy Minister in 2005. He stayed around four months, just long enough to raise his profile but not so long as to become associated with Palacio’s ineffective administration.
(Credit: Santiago Serrano, www.visumphoto.com)
His government has focused its efforts on the writing of the country’s new constitution—Ecuador’s 20th since independence. But Correa’s supporters hope that this one will be different. The 1998 constitution written in the wake of President Abdalá Bucaram’s overthrow is in many ways socially progressive but staunchly neoliberal in its economic strictures. Government supporters say the new constitution being written will transform Ecuador’s decrepit political system and address the country’s long-standing social and economic inequalities.
So far, it is hard to say if they have been successful. The left is disappointed by, among other things, Correa’s slow approach in taking on multinational oil and mining companies and weak environmental policies. Regardless of these criticisms, Báez notes, “The most important difference between Correa and other presidents is that for once the political and economic models are under debate. This has opened more political space.”
Sánchez concedes the drop in Correa’s approval rating could be related to the President’s sometimes less-than-friendly outbursts and the fact that it is not just the rich who are upset about the new tax law—after all, they were not the only ones evading taxes. Some from Guayaquil may have also bought into the opposition’s propaganda that Correa treats their city unfairly—even though Correa is from Guayaquil.
Meanwhile, the country’s powerful indigenous movement remains wary of the new president, but is at the same time trying to avoid playing into the right’s obstructionist strategy. A position of critical support has proven to be a challenge for social movements across the region. The indigenous movement led by the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE) is demanding that indigenous rights be recognized by the Constituent Assembly. Specifically, they want the new constitution to explicitly define Ecuador as a plurinational state and defend the country’s rich biodiversity.
Regarding indigenous autonomy, Marlon Santi, the CONAIE’s new president, says indigenous people are not trying to balkanize Ecuador, as Nebot’s proposals would. Instead, he noted the CONAIE has always taken a lead in defending national sovereignty, from the proposed trade deal with the United States, to the overthrow of corrupt presidents and opposition to the U.S. military base in Manta.
At his recent inauguration as president of the indigenous organization, Santi announced a mobilization scheduled for next month and warned Nebot and others on the right that the CONAIE would not allow anyone to stand in the way of sweeping change in Ecuador and the rest of Latin America.
Whether Correa will follow through on demands for change and whether he will be able to survive attacks by an increasingly hostile right remain open questions. But many Ecuadorians, tired of years of deceit and corruption, seem ready to defend what they hope will be the definitive transformation of their country.
Daniel Denvir (daniel.denvir(AT)gmail.com) is an activist and freelance journalist living in Quito, Ecuador. His writing has appeared in Labor Notes, Portland Street Roots and upsidedownworld.org. He works with the Latin American Information Agency (www.alainet.org).
Santiago Serrano (santibaniez(AT)gmail.com) is an Ecuadorian photojournalist who splits his time between Buenos Aires and Quito. His work has appeared in www.sudacaphotos.com and other outlets.