Reality of Dreams: Post-Neoliberal Utopias in the Ecuadorian Amazon

A conversation with author Japhy Wilson about his recent book examining Rafael Correa’s plans for the Amazon during his time as president of Ecuador.

April 15, 2022

When Rafael Correa was elected president of Ecuador in 2006, it seemed the Left had finally found a born political leader and orator. Correa began well, promoting Latin American unity, vowing to clean up the justice system, supporting workers’ rights, and closing a U.S. military base on the Ecuadorian Coast. This was the real thing, a left-wing president who was not for turning, a man to drag the country into the modern age.

But cracks began to appear. The president of the Constitutional Assembly, Alberto Acosta, was ousted for going too slowly and because his popularity rivaled that of Correa. Problems also began to mount with the Indigenous movement over mining and water, and more generally over its ability to mobilize large numbers of people in opposition to government policy. But as the oil money rolled in after the crash of 2008/2009, the regime’s infrastructure plans—hospitals, schools, universities, and roads—began to take shape, and the problems appeared minor.

These plans included the country’s Amazon region, often portrayed as backward and a place where dreams of a new “development” might be realized. And the Correa team included many dreamers. But here, as others before him, Correa’s ship of dreams foundered on the reality of the Amazon’s shifting sands, on his inability to bend heaven and earth to his will, and on the impossibility of changing the world in 10 years. In his book Reality of Dreams: Post-Neoliberal Utopias in the Ecuadorian Amazon, Japhy Wilson analyzes what went wrong for Correa and Ecuador’s Amazon region. This discussion took place over email and has been edited for clarity and length.

Gerard Coffrey: Your book is about the failures of some of the grand plans Rafael Correa had for the Amazon. But this is not a straightforward critique; it seems you’re trying to get to some deeper truth about the nature of dreams and how they are perverted by power and local/global realities.

Japhy Wilson: Yes, that’s absolutely right. I’m using the case of the Citizens’ Revolution to explore these broader and more fundamental questions. The book is about the reality of dreams in two senses of the term: the constitutive role of utopian fantasies in the production of social reality, and the distortion and inversion of these dreams in the process of their realization. The multiple modernizing megaprojects that were launched by the Correa administration in the Ecuadorian Amazon—highways, ports, airports, cities, universities —and the post-neoliberal ideologies that they embodied all functioned as utopian fantasies that promised an escape from extractive capitalism. But they did so by concealing rather than addressing the material reality of the regime’s continuing complicity with this form of capital accumulation. This material reality ended up distorting and inverting these utopias, both ensuring their failure and repurposing them as elements of the extractivist system they were supposedly intended to overthrow. 

GC: Correa clearly did have plans—for example constructing roads and building hospitals and hydroelectric plants—but you say that in the case of the Amazon, the plans for transformation were not plans at all, simply a desire for change that lead to an ad hockery and confusion, of which Correa may not even have been aware.

JW: I don’t want to be dismissive of Correa or to deny the many real achievements of his administration. There is no question that Correa is a brilliant politician. He seized the unique historical opportunity opened by the confluence of an oil boom and the legitimacy crisis of neoliberalism in the country, launching himself into power, transforming the constitution, renegotiating oil contracts, and implementing a remarkably extensive series of policies and projects financed by oil wealth, many of which undoubtedly improved the lives of millions of Ecuadorians. But in the case of the iconic megaprojects that I researched in Ecuador together with my friend and colleague Manuel Bayón, I was repeatedly confronted with a barrage of apparently nonsensical scenarios and a seemingly endless litany of state dysfunction. This was primarily due, I think, to the subordinate position of Ecuador within the dynamics of global capitalism, essentially as a reserve of natural resources for the accumulation of capital in other parts of the world. The sudden influx of petrodollars during the oil boom allowed for the staging of spectacular infrastructural megaprojects, which are relatively easy to orchestrate if you happen to have the cash. But like most extractivist states, the Ecuadorian state had always been weak in institutional terms and had been systematically gutted by decades of neoliberal reforms prior to the arrival of the Citizens’ Revolution. It therefore lacked the capacity to integrate these material symbols of modernity into a deeper process of structural transformation.     

When the boom came to an end in 2014, the illusion collapsed. But even prior to the oil crash, the distance between the celebratory discourses of the government and the realities on the ground was surreal in its immensity. And as you say, Correa and his accomplices at the heights of the state frequently appear to have had very little knowledge of these realities. The book documents several cases in which Correa was seemingly misled into believing in the success of his projects by those engaged in their failed implementation.        

GC: In his first term, it became clear that Correa was trying to change the 200-year-old trajectory of the country in a few short years. He was supported by many people who seriously believed in a “most beautiful utopia,” while others warned that he was taking on too much. It appears the latter were right. Was this the reason any of these projects failed: trying to do too much too quickly, with the result that many spiraled out of control? Or was it Correa’s ego and sense of his own power that spiraled out of control?

JW: I think the two are very closely connected. When I spoke to people tasked by Correa with implementing his visions on the ground, they repeatedly commented on his unrealistic expectations for their rapid realization. Take for example the case of Ikiam, a biotechnology university constructed in the jungle. Correa had visited a so-called “Knowledge City” in South Korea, returning to Ecuador convinced that the country should immediately follow this recipe for the transformation of its economy from natural resource dependency to a “knowledge economy.” A specialist who Correa invited to participate in the project pointed out that South Korea’s success in this regard was the fruit of decades of industrial development, which could not simply be leapt over in the space of a couple of years. But Correa dismissed his advice and blacklisted him.

The planning for the university began in 2012, with its inauguration scheduled for 2014. A team of international scientists was assembled for the planning phase and insisted that the timeframe was completely unrealistic. But in the words of one of the architects, the response from Correa’s team was “There is no time! Build the fucking thing now!” This was not just an expression of Correa’s ego; many others around him were similarly hubristic.  At a deeper level I would say that it was symptomatic of the delusions of omnipotence that can grip anyone in charge of a state suddenly awash with petrodollars. The demand for rapid action is also a consequence, perhaps, of the awareness underlying such delusions that the boom could end at any moment and ruin everything. This is precisely what happened in the case of Ikiam: by the time of the hasty inauguration of the main campus in October 2014, the oil price had already begun its precipitous descent. The budget was repeatedly slashed as a result. Laboratories and entire campuses remained unbuilt, and scientists began appropriating Indigenous knowledge in the absence of facilities for conducting their own research. Meanwhile, budgetary shortfalls were being desperately compensated by an aggressive and increasingly privatized expansion of the primary commodity frontier. Needless to say, Correa’s dream of a knowledge economy did not come to fruition. This is only one of several such examples discussed in the book.       

GC: You talk about the fragility of the state, no matter the government, and the inevitable desire to project stability onto policies that can only be partly influenced by those who are supposedly in control.

JW: This is a crucial point to emphasize. I am aware that my critique of the Citizens’ Revolution could be misinterpreted as a neoliberal dismissal of all state-led attempts to improve the human condition, in favor of the supposedly superior operations of the market. This is absolutely not my point. Capital is a wild beast, which must constantly expand to survive, and which blindly cannibalizes itself in an interminable series of self-engendered crises. It is the fate of the state—be it in neoliberal or post-neoliberal guise—to attempt to harness this beast, while simultaneously projecting a reassuring illusion of coherence and stability. This illusion is bound to break down at certain moments, which are of great danger for state and capital alike. The book addresses such moments, in the form of explosive uprisings launched in the Ecuadorian Amazon against transnational oil companies and their militarized state protection. In contrast to the utopian fantasies of the Citizens’ Revolution, I argue that these moments offer glimpses of an insurgent utopia, grounded in direct confrontation with the forces of capital that such state fantasies attempt to conceal, and directly staging the utopian ideal of egalitarian freedom. In such moments the fragility of the state, and the dependence of capital on state power, are powerfully revealed. This helps to explain the violence with which the state invariably responds to such events.           

GC: In the context of the neoliberal governments of Moreno, and now Lasso, how do you see those early Correa years with their optimism and spectacular modernizing dreams?

JW: Despite the dramatic failure of the projects that I describe, it is difficult not to look back with nostalgia at this time, given the subsequent return to neoliberalism red in tooth and claw. But we should not forget the brutality with which Correa cracked down on dissent. This of course pales in comparison to Moreno’s repression of the October 2019 uprising. But unlike Moreno, Correa was leading a supposedly revolutionary project that claimed to be defending the poorest and most marginalized sectors of the Ecuadorian population against the power of capital. This adds a layer of profound hypocrisy to his violent repression of uprisings and resistances in places like El Pindo, Dayuma, and Playas de Cuyabeno, all of which were related to the depredations of extractive capitalism.

It is also important to emphasize that the Citizens’ Revolution was already shifting rapidly back towards neoliberalism before Moreno took over from Correa. This disavowed policy shift was arguably necessitated by the fiscal crisis resulting from the oil crash. But there is a sense in which it was inscribed into the project from the start. A careful reading of Correa’s first election manifesto, and many subsequent speeches and policy statements, reveals a consistent commitment to “systemic competitiveness,” a policy of adaptation to the logic of capital rather than a strategy for its subversion, which was more concerned with providing the infrastructures required by global capital accumulation than with breaking with its power. Such a break is of course no easy task. But despite Correa’s revolutionary rhetoric, this task was never attempted. The Citizens’ Revolution had an unprecedented historical opportunity to enact genuinely radical change. And it did not take it. This was its true failure, and the main reason why it should not be looked back on with nostalgia.                

Gerard Coffey is the founder and director of the on-line political journal (Quito 2010). Born in Wallasey, UK, he has lived in Ecuador for more than 25 years; he has published in numerous journals in both English and Spanish.

Japhy Wilson is an Honorary Research Fellow in Politics at Manchester University. Between 2014 and 2016, he was a member of the National Centre of Strategies for the Right to Territory (CENEDET) in Ecuador, a research institute financed by the Correa government and directed by the British Marxist geographer David Harvey.



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