Beginning his fourth year as president of Ecuador, Rafael Correa confronts a major challenge from some of the very social actors that propelled him into office. In an address to the country in early January, Correa expressed his ire with a "coming series of conflicts this month, including indigenous mobilizations, workers, media communications, and even a level of the armed forces."
While the country, amidst the global crisis, is facing a downturn in the economy and chronic electrical outages, the roots of the current confrontation run much deeper, to the growing disenchantment with the "Citizens Revolution" that propelled Correa into office in 2007 and formed the basis for his political organization, the Alianza País, or Country Alliance. Correa promised to re-found the country with a new magna carta and to rid the country of the corrupt partidocracia comprised of the financial and political elites that had imposed disastrous neoliberal economic policies on Ecuador for almost two decades.
Early on he enacted a series of social spending programs that have in part tapped the country's oil revenues to assist the poorest and convened a constituent assembly that drafted a pluri-national constitution providing for ample public participation in the country's social and economic institutions. Reelected president under the new constitution, he declared in his inaugural address last August 10 that the Citizens Revolution "adheres to the socialist revolution of the twenty-first century."
But his actions and relations with the social movements have been confrontational and belie a commitment to an authentic participatory socialism. As Rene Baez, a long time activist and coordinator of the Center for Alternative Thought of the Central University of Quito told me, "Correa advocates a statist model of development that allows for no real popular participation. His actions are a violation of the new constitution. Workers, teachers, indigenous organizations, and ecologists have no say in this government."
Among the groups that are planning for a national mobilization against the government are the National Union of Educators, the National Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE), the Federation of University Students, and a number of trade unions, including the Ecuadoran Confederation of Class Organizations. When ECUARUNARI, a large federation within CONAIE based in the Andean highlands, installed its new leadership on January 8 at the National Theater in Quito, thousands heard Humberto Cholango, the departing president, declare, "This is a message of unity [against the government], for this reason we have invited leaders and activists of all the organizations and movements of the left."
He then asked Alberto Acosta to take the podium. Acosta is one of the country's most respected economists, the Minister of Energy and Mines in Correa's first government, and the president of the constituent assembly until he was forced to resign by Correa. Acosta, calling for unity between the social and indigenous organizations, declared, "The new constitution "is becoming a straight jacket for the government because the transformations it requires are to be carried out by the people." He added: "Revolutions are not the product of two or three governing divas but of organizations and struggles."
The central struggle between Correa and the social movements is over control of the country's economy, particularly its extractive resources, petroleum and the rich mining deposits that have recently been uncovered. The conflict intensified a year ago when the legislative commission of the National Assembly approved a new mining law.
According to Accion Ecológica, a highly respected Ecuadorian organization with over a decade and a half of experience, the law was "written in the neoliberal model," favoring foreign investment over social and environmental concerns, putting the extraction of minerals over the rights of communities, as well as allowing for open pit mining and the destruction of biodiversity, including the unlimited tapping of water resources in the process of mining operations. The law also "criminalized protest and the right to exercise resistance."
Protests over the law took place in January 2009, organized by indigenous groups and urban, environmental, and humanitarian organizations, along with the federation of evangelical indigenous peoples. Demonstrators were met with tear gas and outright repression. All questioned the mining law, considering it an unconstitutional piece of legislation, rushed into law without ample national debate. In mid-March, 2009, CONAIE filed a lawsuit asserting that the law flagrantly violated the new constitution's recognition of indigenous land rights. This occurred as Canadian mining corporations received the go-ahead to survey for gold and copper deposits.
Correa, who the year before had declared that "the major danger" to the country's national development lay with "left and ecological infantilism," as well as "infantile indigenism," now asserted that the social movements were "promoting an uprising against the mining companies. ...With the law in hand we will not allow these abuses, we cannot allow uprisings, which block paths, threaten private property, and impede the development of a legal activity, mining."
Tensions reached a boiling point in September with the government's proposed new water law. Opponents claimed that it violated the constitution's provisions for absolute public and community control over water resources. The law allows for the privatization of water, set limits on community participation in water management, prioritizes access for industrial users, and above all place no real restraints on the ravaging of rivers and aquifers by the mining companies.
Once again protests broke out, this time mainly in the Andean city of Cuenca and the Amazonic town of Macas. As the police tried to dislodge two road blockades near Macas on September 30, violence erupted leading to the death of a bilingual teacher from the Shuar indigenous federation and the injury of several dozen others. To diffuse the explosive situation, the two sides agreed to a comprehensive dialogue that included discussion of the water and mining laws as well as the provisions for the pluri-national state that had been proclaimed in the new constitution.
But the talks have gone nowhere. At the turn of the year a representative of the ECUARUNARI, reflecting the general sentiments of CONAIE and other social movements declared that the Correa government "continues its right wing politics, its privatization of the country's national resources, and its general lack of political will to carry out the changes the country needs." He went on to call for a general mobilization to bring the government "to its senses." Along with the mining and water laws, the proposed law of communications also became a point of contention as the government shut down a Shuar radio station for allegedly "inciting violence."
The dispute over the proper exploitation of Ecuador's resources erupted within the government this past week when Foreign Minister Fander Faconi was forced to resign by Correa for "environmental infantilism" in his negotiations with the United Nations Development Program (UNDP). Fander Faconi had agreed to set aside the untapped oil reserves of the Yasuni National Park in the Amazonic region in exchange for $3.6 billion in payments from international donors. Ironically, when he took office in 2007, Correa, under the guidance of then-Minister of Energy and Mines Alberto Acosta, had made this a signatory project of his administration, demonstrating how the global south and north could collaborate to forge agreements over environmental issues.
But Correa has also allowed the state company, Petroecucador, to continue surveying and drawing up possible plans for the oil reserves in the park, while admitting that another state enterprise, Petroamazonas, was being charged with any actual exploitation and drilling. As Fander Faconi was in the process of setting up the trust agreement with the UNDP this month, Correa declared that the trust was severely flawed and that "neither international bureaucracies nor international usurpers" would be allowed to dictate to Ecuador. He accused Fander and Acosta of conspiring with others in his government and the Country Alliance to put up "barriers" around him to stop oil exploration.
Correa gave instructions to a new negotiating team not to allow the UNDP any role in administering the $3.6 billion, saying, "This money is ours and it will be put directly in the state budget." Acosta says the project "will fail if Correa continues to hold this attitude, adding that, "if a trust is not set up, there will be no agreement." The Shuar federation, in an assembly this weekend took a broader stance, passing a resolution calling for the revocation of Correa's presidential mandate, and proclaiming that if the government attempts to exploit non-renewable resources on their lands, "we will defend our territory."
Roger Burbach is the director of the Center for the Study of the Americas (CENSA), and a frequent contributor to NACLA.