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Ecuador: Left Turn? October 19, 2009

Posted by rogerhollander in Ecuador, Latin America.
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Ecuador: Left Turn? Print E-mail
Written by Marc Becker
Thursday, 08 October 2009
ImageSource: Against the Current

On April 26, 2009, Rafael Correa won re-election to the Ecuadorian presidency with an absolute majority of the vote. He gained broad popular appeal through a combination of nationalist rhetoric and increased social spending on education and health care. The victory cemented Correa’s control over the country as the old political establishment appeared to be in complete collapse.

Mainstream news outlets reported Correa’s triumph as another socialist win in Latin America. Barely a month earlier, Maurcio Funes of the former guerrilla Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) won El Salvador’s presidential elections, bringing the left to power for the first time in that country’s history.

Motivated by what is perhaps an unjustified optimism by the left, undue fear on the right, and the opportunism of eager politicians, socialism is increasingly seen as the dominant discourse in Latin America. Is Ecuador’s Correa justly included as part of a leftward tilt in Latin America, or is his inclusion in this trend a result of hopeful thinking?

On one hand, analysts now talk of Latin America’s “many lefts,” ranging through Chile’s neoliberal socialist president Michelle Bachelet, Bolivia’s Indigenous socialist Evo Morales, and Venezuela’s state-centered socialism of Hugo Chávez. On the other hand, this is not the first time that a new president in the small South American country of Ecuador has been warmly greeted as part of a leftward movement.

In 2003, in a seeming repeat of Chávez’s rise to power, Lucio Gutiérrez was elected president after a failed 2001 military-Indigenous coup. He quickly moved in a significantly neoliberal direction, alienating his social movement base and finally falling in an April 2005 popular uprising known the “rebellion of the forajidos” or outlaws. Gutiérrez continues to enjoy a significant amount of support from some sectors of the Ecuadorian population, particularly from evangelical Indigenous communities, but most of those on the left would now denounce him as a center-right populist.

While many outside observers either celebrated or bemoaned Correa’s consolidation of power as part of Latin America’s broader turn to the left, social movements in Ecuador have become increasingly critical of his populist positioning. Despite Correa’s claims that under his administration the long dark night of neoliberalism is finally over, Indigenous movements have condemned him for continuing basically these same policies through large-scale mineral extractive enterprises, particularly of petroleum in the ecologically delicate eastern Amazonian basin.

Rafael Correa and a New Constitution

Correa is a young economist and university professor who wrote his dissertation at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign attacking neoliberal economic policies known as the “Washington Consensus.” He does not emerge out of social movement organizing, but rather out of a Catholic left motivated by concerns for social justice.

Correa first came onto the public scene as the Minister of Finance in Alfredo Palacios’ government after Gutiérrez’s removal. Correa leveraged his popularity in that position to a win in the 2006 presidential elections.

In power, Correa appeared to attempt to follow Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez’s strategy to consolidate power through rewriting the constitution. He could then call for new elections that would reaffirm himself in office and provide for a more sympathetic legislature.

Like Chávez, Correa had run as an independent without the support of a traditional political party. The existing “party-ocracy” was severely discredited in both countries. Since 1996, not a single president in Ecuador had been able to complete a four-year term in office. Three presidents (Abdalá Bucaram in 1997, Jamil Mahuad in 2000, and Lucio Gutiérrez in 2005) were removed through massive street protests.

On April 15, 2007, three months after Correa took office, 80% of the Ecuadorian electorate approved a referendum to convoke a constituent assembly. Correa created a new political movement called Acuerdo País (AP) that on September 30, 2007 won a majority of seats in the assembly.

A year later, on September 28, 2008, almost two-thirds of the voters approved the new constitution that had been drafted largely under Correa’s control. As was the case with Venezuela’s 1999 constitution, Ecuador’s new Magna Carta so fundamentally remapped the country’s political structures that it required new local, congressional and presidential elections.

Lengthy and contentious debates in the constituent assembly resulted in a constitution that provided a basis for a more inclusionary and participatory political system. The new document rejected neoliberalism, and embraced increased resource allocation to education, social services and health care. Similar to Venezuela, it also employed gender inclusive language. It also expanded democratic participation, including extending the vote to those between 16 and 18 years of age, foreigners living in the country for more than five years, and Ecuadorans living outside the country.

The constitution also defended the rights of nature, Indigenous languages, and in a highly symbolic gesture, pluri-nationalism designed to incorporate Indigenous cosmologies into the governing of the country. The constitution also borrowed from Bolivia’s Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca the Quechua concept of sumak kawsay, of living well not just better. Sumak kawsay includes an explicit critique of traditional development strategies that increased the use of resources rather than seeking to live in harmony with others and with nature.

Following Venezuela’s lead, Ecuador also created five branches of government. In addition to the executive, legislative, and judicial, the constitution added an electoral branch and a Consejo de Participación Ciudadana y Control Social or Council of Citizenship Participation and Social Control. The last branch is in charge of nominating officials including the attorney general and comptroller general.

The purpose for the new branch is to increase citizen participation and improve political transparency, although the opposition complained that it would concentrate more power in Correa’s hands. While advocates argued that a stronger executive was necessary to bring stability to this chronically politically unstable country, social movements feared that it would come at a cost to their ability to influence policy decisions.

2009 Elections

Correa won the April 26, 2009 presidential elections with 52% of the vote. The significance of this victory cannot be overstated — the first time since Ecuador’s return to civilian rule in 1979 that a candidate won a high enough percentage of the vote to avoid a runoff election.

Most Latin American presidential campaigns are multi-party races that require either a runoff election between the top two vote getters or a congressional decision to select the victor. Salvador Allende, for example, won the 1970 presidential race in Chile with only 36% of the vote. Evo Morales’ 2005 victory in Bolivia with 54% of the vote was the first time in that country’s history that a candidate had won the election with an absolute majority.

Under Ecuador’s current constitution, in order to avoid a second round a candidate must either win more than 50% of the vote, or gain at least 40% of the vote and outpace the nearest rival by at least 10%. In Ecuador’s fragmented and contentious political landscape, it is unusual for any candidate to poll more than 25% of the vote in the initial multi-candidate round.

Correa’s closest competitor in this election was the former president Lucio Gutiérrez of the centrist Partido Sociedad Patriótica (PSP), who won 28% of the vote. Gutiérrez drew most of his support from his native Amazonian region, wining those provinces by a wide margin, and in evangelical Indigenous communities in the central highland provinces of Bolívar, Chimborazo and Tungurahua. His support rose as the election approached when the conservative opposition, including the most traditional sectors of the Catholic Church grouped into Opus Dei, recognized him as the best opportunity to defeat Correa.

Gutiérrez claimed he had evidence of a monstrous fraud that denied him victory, although the electoral commission rejected the charge. International observers, however, criticized Correa’s overwhelmingly dominant media presence as compromising the fairness of the poll.

The third-place candidate was billionaire banana magnate Alvaro Noboa of the right-wing Partido Renovador Institucional Acción Nacional (PRIAN), who almost won the 2006 elections. In 2009, with the right completely discredited but still running on the same neoliberal agenda of privatization, opening up the country to foreign capital, and lowering taxes on the most wealthy, he only polled 11%. This was his worst showing in four attempts to win the presidency.

The left did not fare any better than the right. Martha Roldós, daughter of the progressive president who returned Ecuador to civilian rule in 1979 but was killed two years later in a mysterious plane crash, only won four percent of the vote. She ran as a candidate of the Red Ética y Democracia (RED), which grouped labor leaders and other leftist militants. Her campaign was based largely on attacking Correa, without successfully presenting an alternative to his “citizen’s revolution” project.

Another leftist candidate Diego Delgado, who strongly questioned Correa’s commitment to socialism, only gained one percent. Many on the left preferred to opt for Correa instead of risking a conservative victory. Eight candidates in total competed for the country’s highest office.

Many on the left had urged Alberto Acosta, the popular former president of the constituent assembly, to run. When it appeared unlikely that he could rally the left against Correa in the face of the president’s overwhelming popularity he declined to enter the race.

The Indigenous party Pachakutik did not run a presidential candidate, and refused to endorse any of the candidates. In the 2006 elections when a possible alliance with Correa fell apart, Pachakutik ran their standard bearer Luis Macas but only polled two percent of the vote.

While Correa enjoys majority support from the voters, the same is not true for his AP, which lost its control over congress. In 2006, Correa campaigned without the support of a political party or alliances with congressional delegates. Three years later, Correa is still having difficulty pulling his new party together even though he personally remains quite popular.

The January 25, 2009 primaries for legislative and local races was fraught with difficulties and disorganization. The AP is by no means an ideologically homogenous or coherent party, which may be its greatest strength as well as its greatest weakness. While it incorporates a broad range of people, that diversity also threatens to pull the party apart into left and right wings.

In the runup to the April vote, Correa implemented several populist economic measures, such as restructuring the foreign debt, which appeared to be largely designed to strengthen the electoral fortunes of his congressional allies. The AP’s failure to win an overwhelming majority in the congressional contests complicates issues, particularly since Gutiérrez’s PSP is the second largest, and very antagonistic, power.

Even though the AP fell far short of the two-thirds majority it enjoyed in the constituent assembly, it still remains the largest party in the assembly. If it can build alliances with smaller leftist parties it might still be able to control the decisions. Such alliances are sure to be fragile. Nevertheless, the new constitution significantly strengthens executive power at a cost to the assembly, so losing congressional control may not prove so much a liability to Correa who could still rule through decrees and referendums.

Traditional parties such as the Partido Social Cristiano (PSC) continue to lose support. In fact, all the parties that largely defined the return to civilian rule in 1979 and actively contested power over the last 30 years the PSC, the Izquierda Democrática (ID), the Democracia Popular-Democracia Cristiana (DP), Partido Roldosista Ecuatoriano (PRE) -– have now largely disappeared.

The PSC did not run a presidential candidate, instead focusing its energies on congressional and municipal elections. In the coastal commercial port city of Guayaquil which has long been a bastion of opposition to Correa’s left-populist government, the conservative PSC mayor Jaime Nebot easily won re-election.

Even in Guayaquil, however, political allegiances fall out along class lines, with poor people strongly supporting Correa, including many of those who voted for Nebot as mayor. Reflecting deep-seated regional divisions, the AP’s Augusto Barrera easily won election as mayor of Quito.

Indigenous Movements in Opposition

Much of Correa’s support comes from urban professionals. Despite his seemingly leftist credentials, Ecuador’s leftist Indigenous movement has moved deeply into the anti-Correa camp. Because of his support for a new mining law that advocates resource extraction, Indigenous activists have criticized Correa for ruling with a neoliberal agenda. Furthermore, under Correa’s governance Indigenous movements have become increasingly fragmented, with militants accusing the president of attempting to destroy their organizational capacity.

The largest and best known Indigenous organization is the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE), founded in 1986 as an umbrella group of regional Indigenous organizations intended to represent all Indigenous peoples in Ecuador. CONAIE emerged on the national scene through a 1990 uprising for land and Indigenous rights that shook the country’s white elite to its core.

Perhaps the most militant Indigenous organization in Ecuador is CONAIE’s highland regional affiliate Ecuarunari, the Confederation of the Peoples of the Kichwa Nationality of Ecuador. Ecuarunari has consistently run to the left of Correa, challenging him for his failure to make a clean break with Ecuador’s neoliberal past. These organizations continue to press their agenda in a variety of ways, including with a proposed water law to conserve and protect water resources.

At an April 2 assembly, CONAIE made its position crystal clear in a resolution which stated that “Correa’s government was born from the right, governs with the right, and will continue to do so until the end of his time in office.” They condemned the government for creating organizations parallel to CONAIE, and stated that they would evict anyone from their organization who occupied positions in the government or worked with Correa’s electoral campaign due to “their lack of respect for our organizational process.”

In particular, CONAIE targeted Correa’s extractive policies, and especially large-scale mining and petroleum exploration efforts “because they go against nature, Indigenous peoples, it violates the constitution, and threatens the governance of the sumak kawsay.” They were eager to use Correa’s constitution as a tool to combat what they saw as his abusive policies. (“Resoluciones de la asamblea ampliada CONAIE 2 de abril del 2009,” www.conaie.org/es/ge_comunicados/2009/0402.html)

CONAIE stated that as an organization they would not support any presidential candidate, despite earlier conversations the leftist Martha Roldós. Refusing to support a presidential candidate is an explicit reversal of a policy in previous elections to support a candidate because otherwise campaigns would prey on rural communities to gain the Indigenous vote.

In 1995, CONAIE helped found Pachakutik as a political movement for Indigenous peoples and their allies to contest for electoral office. A short-lived alliance with Gutiérrez in 2003, however, was such a horrific experience that CONAIE and Pachakutik remained very shy of entering into another such similar alliance. Nevertheless, they did urge support for local and congressional candidates running under the Pachakutik banner.

Historically, Pachakutik has fared much better in local races. In this election, however, they suffered significant losses to the AP, and barely survived with only one seat in the national assembly.

In addition to CONAIE and its regional affiliate Ecuarunari, two competing Indigenous organizations are the National Confederation of Peasant, Indigenous and Negro Organizations (FENOCIN) and the Council of Evangelical Indigenous Peoples and Organizations of Ecuador (FEINE). FENOCIN has its roots in the Catholic Church’s attempts in the 1960s to draw support away from the communist-affiliated Ecuadorian Federation of Indians (FEI).

FENOCIN broke with the church and became much more radical in the 1970s, assuming a socialist position. Today it is allied with Correa, and some of its principle leaders including president Pedro de la Cruz serve as AP deputies. FEINE tends to be much more conservative, and recently has allied with Lucio Gutiérrez.

In the past, the three organizations (CONAIE, FENOCIN, FEINE) have sometimes collaborated to advance Indigenous interests, and at other times bitterly competed with each other for allegiance of their Indigenous base. Currently they are perhaps as fractured as they ever have been.

Twenty-first Century Socialism

Correa has been very eager to speak of socialism of the 21st century, but has never been very clear what he means by this term. During a January 2009 trip to Cuba, Correa rejected the “dogmas history has defeated” including “the class struggle, dialectical materialism, the nationalization of all property, the refusal to recognize the market.” (“Correa attempts to define modern socialism,” Latin American Weekly Report, WR-09-02, January 15, 2009: 3)

Discarding key elements traditionally associated with socialism while failing to identify alternative visions raises questions as to what exactly Correa means by 21st-century socialism.

Hugo Chávez in Venezuela has faced similar criticisms. At the 2005 World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil where Chávez first spoke of the Venezuelan revolution as socialist, he said that new solutions must be more humanistic, more pluralistic, and less dependent on the state. Nevertheless, both Chávez and Correa have relied on strong governmental control in order to advance their political agendas.

Indigenous intellectuals and their close allies such as economist Pablo Dávalos argue that once one looks beyond the rhetoric of socialism of the 21st century, regional integration, and the Bolivarian dream of a united Latin America, the reality on the ground often looks quite different.

Yes, there has been state intervention in the economy, most notably in important areas such as health and education. But the basic economic model remains capitalist in its orientation. Not only does Correa continue to rely on extractive enterprises to advance Ecuador, but he uses the repressive power of the state to attack anyone who dares to challenge his policies, including presenting dissidents with charges of terrorism.

In one of the most high profile cases, Correa sent the military into Dayuma in the eastern Amazon in search of “terrorists” who had opposed his extractive policies. The environmental NGO Acción Ecológica also faced a threat of removal of legal status, seemingly because of their opposition to Correa’s petroleum policies. When faced with a massive outcry, Correa quickly backpedaled, claiming that the government was simply moving its registration to a different ministry where it more logically belonged.

Although AP managed to liquidate the previous political system and emerged with a leftist discourse, Dávalos argued that “in reality it represented a continuation of neoliberalism under other forms.” This is clear in its themes of decentralization, autonomy, competition, and privatization.” Correa continued to follow traditional clientalistic and populist policies far removed from what could be reasonably seen as radical or as a socialist reconstruction of society.

Dávalos concludes that in no sense is Correa a leftist, nor could his government be identified as a progressive. Rather, he “represents a reinvention of the right allied with extractive and transnational enterprises.” (Pablo Dávalos, “Alianza Pais o la reinvencion de la derecha,” http://alainet.org/active/29776).

After Correa’s victory, Luis Fernando Sarango, rector of the Amawtay Wasi Indigenous University, criticized the president’s talk of radicalizing his programs. “What socialism of the twenty-first century?” Sarango asked. “What about a true socialism, because we have seen almost nothing of this of the twenty-first century.” Instead, Sarango proposed “a profound change in structures that permits the construction of a plurinational state with equality, whether it is called socialism or not.” (Boletin Digital Universidad Intercultural Amawtay Wasi 12, May 2009: 2)

CONAIE leader and 2006 Pachakutik presidential candidate Luis Macas criticized Correa for pursuing a “citizen’s revolution” as part of a fundamentally liberal, individualistic model that did not provide a fundamental ideological break with the neoliberal past. In contrast, Indigenous movements pressed in the 2006 electoral campaign for a “constituent revolution” to rewrite the structures of government to be more inclusive.

Correa stole the thunder from Indigenous militants in also pressing for a new constitution, and even going one step farther in granting CONAIE their long-standing demand to have Ecuador declared a pluri-national country. It is not without reason that CONAIE resents Correa for taking over issues and occupying spaces that they previously held.

At the same time, Correa holds those to his left hostage because criticizing him plays into the hands of the oligarchy who are equally anxious to attack him from the right.

At the World Social Forum

In January 2009, Correa joined his fellow leftist Latin American presidents Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of Brazil, Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, Evo Morales of Bolivia, and Fernando Lugo of Paraguay in a meeting with representatives of Vía Campesina, an international network of rural movements, at the World Social Forum (WSF) in the Brazilian Amazonian city of Belém.

Of the five, Correa was the president with the weakest links to civil society. Lula and Morales, of course, were labor leaders before becoming president. Lugo was a priest, influenced by liberation theology, who worked in rural communities. Chávez rose through the military ranks and used that experience to cultivate his popular support.

Correa, in contrast, comes out of the academic world, but of the five presidents at the forum he presented the deepest and most serious analysis of the current economic crisis. He began with a challenge to neoliberalism and the Washington Consensus. “We’re living a magic moment, one of new leaders and governments.”

Correa noted that capitalism is commonly associated with efficiency, whereas socialism emphasizes justice. Nevertheless, Correa argued, socialism is both more just and efficient than capitalism. Latin American countries need national development plans in order to advance, and Ecuador’s new constitution was part of that process.

He appealed to support for Indigenous cultural projects, the Pachamama (mother earth), and repeated the now common call for the sumak kawsay, to live well, not better. We need to be responsible for the environment, Correa said, and conserve resources for the next generation.

Capitalism is in crisis, Correa argued, and Latin America is in search of new models, one that would bring dignity to Latin American peoples. Even though Ecuador has resisted joining Venezuela’s Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA), for which Chávez publicly chided Correa at the forum, Correa still called for Latin American integration, for a United States of Latin America.

“We are in times of change,” Correa concluded. “An alternative model already exists, and it is the socialism of the twenty-first century.” Much of his rhetoric echoed that of the dominant discourse at the forum that has fundamentally shifted sentiments away from neoliberal policies.

Correa also seemed to be the most eager of the five to employ populist discourse in order to identify himself as with “the people.” Correa spoke favorably of Indigenous movements and the history of exclusion that Afro-Ecuadorians have faced. All this came in the face of his increasingly tense relations with social movements, particularly over his determination to build Ecuador’s economy on resource extraction.

Correa has not responded well to criticism, condemning what he terms as “infantile” Indigenous activists and environmentalists. At the closing of the Indigenous tent three days after the presidential presentations, longtime leader Blanca Chancoso denounced the “nightmare” that they were living with Correa who was undertaking resource extraction “at all costs.”

Perhaps the only current Latin American president broadly identified with the left who would have received more vigorous denunciations at the forum is Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega, who in particular has engaged in pitched battles with women’s movements.

Many Lefts

Following Chávez’s lead in Venezuela, Correa has sought to build his popularity on the basis of “petro populism,” which uses income from oil exports to fund social programs. But the fall of the price of oil threatens to put those programs at risk. At the same time, a growing inflation rate threatens to undermine some of his government’s accomplishments.

Although Correa talks openly of embracing a socialism for the 21st century, he has made no move to nationalize industries. Building his government on economic development without proper concern for the environment and people’s rights has cost him support, while gaining him the label of “pragmatic” from the business class.

On the other hand, Correa does follow through with enough of his policy proposals to assure his continued popular support. He promised not to renew the U.S. Forward Operating Location (FOL) lease on the Manta airbase when it comes due this fall, and it appears that Washington is proceeding ahead with his wishes to withdraw.

Last December, Correa defaulted on more than $3 billion in foreign bonds, calling the foreign debt illegal and illegitimate because they had been contracted by military regimes. Many people rallied to his defense, saying that he is defending the country’s sovereignty. In addition to tripling spending on education and health care, Correa has increased subsidizes for single mothers and small farmers. These steps played very well with his base.

Despite Correa’s attempts to mimic Chávez’s strategies, his policies are not nearly as radical as those of his counterpart. Of the many lefts that now rule over Latin America, Correa represents a moderate and ambiguous position closer to that of Lula in Brazil or the Concertación in Chile rather than Chávez’s radical populism in Venezuela or Morales’ Indigenous socialism in Bolivia.

The danger for popular movements is a populist threat with Correa exploiting the language of the left but fundamentally ruling from the right. It is in this context that a mobilized and engaged social movement, which historically in the Ecuadorian case means an Indigenous movement, remains important as a check on a personalistic and populist government. If Correa follows through on any of the hopeful promises of his government, it will be due to this pressure from below and to the left.

Correa continues to enjoy an unusually large amount of popular support in a region which recently has greeted its presidents with a high degree of good will only to have the populace quickly turn on its leaders who inevitably rule against their class interests. Chávez (and, to a certain extent, Evo Morales in Bolivia) have bucked this trend by retaining strong popular support despite oligarchical attempts to undermine their governments.

Correa is a charismatic leader, but in the Ecuadorian setting charisma does not secure longevity. José María Velasco Ibarra, Ecuador’s classic caudillo and populist, was president five times, but was removed from four of those when he failed to follow through on his promises to the poor. In recent history, Abdalá Bucaram was perhaps the most charismatic leader, but he lasted only seven months in power after winning the 1996 elections. Charisma alone does not assure political stability.

In the wake of Ecuador quickly running through ten chief executives in 10 years, Correa appears positioned to remain in power for 10 years if he can maintain his current coalition to win reelection in 2013. Correa has also said that it will take 80 years for his “citizens’ revolution” to change the country.

In quickly moving Ecuador from being one of Latin America’s most unstable countries to maintaining a strong hold over executive power, Correa appears to have been able to mimic Chávez’s governing style. Whose interests this power serves, and particularly whether it will be used to improve the lives of historically marginalized subalterns, remains an open question.

Ecuador: Paradox or Paradigm December 23, 2008

Posted by rogerhollander in Ecuador Politics, History, Government, Culture, Ecuador Writing, Ecuador: Paradox or Paradigm.
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(This is an article I wrote (October 5, 1999) and submitted somewhere, I don’t remember.  In any case it was rejected.  It summarizes Ecuador’s political and economic climate and suggests that it might be a paradigm for the rest of Latin America.)

 

Whereas the vast majority of Ecuadorians would not know what a Brady Bond is any more than they could identify the Brady Bunch, it can only be fear of violent Ecuadorian public reaction to further “belt tightening” measures that prompted the fundamentally conservative center-right government of President Jamie Mahuad to default on $44.5 million in Brady Bond interest payments earlier this month.  While Ecuador may be one of the smallest and least economically developed amongst its Latin American neighbors and thereby easily dismissed as not comparable to the economic “giants” such as Brazil, Mexico or Argentina, to overlook the significance of this event for that reason is to ignore a continent-wide unrest of which Ecuador is as representative as any other Latin American republic.

 

The relatively mild international reaction to Ecuador’s unprecedented action would indicate that the world banking community is convinced that the tail is not likely to wag the dog.  This, on the one hand, overlooks several key characteristics that Ecuador shares with its Latin American neighbors – large gaps between rich and poor, entrenched governmental corruption and instability, deep poverty, small and shrinking middle classes, overwhelming external debt, and dependency upon unstable world commodity markets.  More importantly, it fails to take into account the single most critical factor that economists love to under-rate: the angry passions of desperate masses.

 

Ecuador is blessed with abundant natural resources.  It is the world’s largest exporter of bananas and is also a major producer of cocoa, coffee, fresh flowers, coconut, pineapple, rice, and sugar cane.  Its offshore and inland fishing industry yields massive quantities of lobster, shrimp, tuna, tilapia, and other high demand seafood products.  The discovery of large oil deposits in its tropical rainforests in the 1970’s has thrust Ecuador amongst the leading petroleum producing nations of the Americas.  The same Oriente region is potentially rife with precious metals such as silver and gold.  With such natural riches, a diversity of bio-geographic regions (tropical rainforest, the Andes cordillera, lush coastal plains, and the Galápagos Islands) that is amenable to high yield agriculture and aquaculture production as well as regional and international tourism, and with a small population of just under thirteen million, Ecuador should be among the wealthiest nations on earth.

 

Yet, it is one of the poorest and it suffers perpetual economic crisis.  Ecuador has both the highest inflation rate and per capita external debt in all Latin America.  It has high rates of infant mortality and illiteracy that reflect a minimal public investment in health and education.  Nearly one quarter of its adult population is unemployed and half of those employed are underemployed, managing a bare existence by selling everything from hard candy to tropical fruit, tooth paste to toilet paper, on city streets.  The poverty rate is estimated at 80 per cent, with more than half of that considered to be deep poverty.  It is not uncommon to see children as young as four and five years of age begging and/or working on the streets of Guayaquil, a seaport of over two million inhabitants, which is the country’s largest city and which suffers from a dilapidated infrastructure, disease epidemic due to inadequate sanitation, air and water pollution, and which is experiencing the proliferation of bamboo housing slums on its borders due to the influx of refugees from even more severe rural poverty.

 

Ecuador returned to constitutional government after a military dictatorship that lasted throughout the 1970’s.  Its political culture is characterized by corruption, greed and incompetence.  Its judicial system is almost entirely politicized.  Over a dozen political parties jockey for power, and the inability of the legislative and executive branches to find common ground leaves the country in a state of almost perpetual political paralysis.  There is constant labor strife, fueled, among other things, by the fact that government workers, particularly teachers and health workers whose salaries are embarrassing low to begin with, are compelled to initiate work stoppages to force government ministries to release their pay checks, which are often several months in arrears.  In addition, there is chronic unrest amongst students, petroleum and utilities workers, Indigenous peoples and campesinos, and other sectors of society as a result unpopular policies that are perceived as throwing the burden of economic crisis on the backs of the poorest and most vulnerable members of society.  Even the Catholic Church, despite its essentially conservative nature, often finds itself along side more traditional dissidents in chastising the government.

 

In 1996, Abdalá Bucaram, a demagogic and  unbelievably vulgar “populist,” representing a party with  left wing rhetoric and right wing policies, won the presidency and ring-mastered a governmental circus that was overthrown by a Congress-led, military supported and bloodless coup d’etat which followed two days of massive nation-wide general strike in February of  1997.  With more than a bit of theatric irony, Bucaram, who proudly calls himself El Loco, was ousted by the Ecuadorian Congress on the constitutional ground of “mental incompetence,”  and went into exile in Panama. Immediately, the Congress, in violation of the constitution, appointed its own leader, Fabian Alarcón, as interim president, bypassing the legitimate successor, the elected Vice President, Rosalía Arteaga, who had the misfortune to have been born of the wrong gender.

 

In August of 1998, under the banner of the center-right Popular Democracy party, Jamil Mahuad, a former mayor of Quito, Ecuador’s capital city, began a four year presidential term, having barely edged out Alvaro Noboa, heir to Ecuador’s largest banana fortune and the country’s wealthiest individual, a man with no prior political experience other than an appointed position in the government of Bucaram, who would no doubt have returned from exile should Noboa have won.  Mahuad proceeded to implement a “paquetizo,” a package of economic policies far more stringent and devastating than those proposed by and which lead to the ouster of Bucaram.  By mid-1999 the government had more than doubled the price of gasoline, devalued the currency, and raised the cost of public utilities as much as five hundred percent.  A nation-wide banking crisis in the spring had lead to a week-long closure of all banks and was followed by the freezing of bank accounts.  Hundreds of thousands of Ecuadorians lost their life savings.  Things came to a head in early July, when a two day general strike called for by transportation workers ended up shutting down Ecuador’s inter-regional transportation for nearly two weeks.

 

The only political party in Ecuador with representation in Congress that as a matter of policy advocates the cessation of external debt payments is the Marxist-Leninist oriented Movement for Popular Democracy (MPD), which draws its major support from the teachers’ union and middle class professionals.  A handful of so-called “center-left” parties, who always morph into center-right should they capture the presidency, will sometimes echo such demand while in opposition.  However, nothing less than extraordinary circumstances can explain the unilateral withholding of a scheduled debt payment, particularly when such an action is taken by a government with no pretence toward or prior history of radicalism.

 

It is interesting to note that Ecuador is not among those countries for which the IMF is seriously considering the forgiving of past debt.  Ostensibly this is because of Ecuador’s relative “wealth,” which fails to take into account its skewed distribution, and because of the endemic corruption within the political process.  However, even if Ecuador were to be magically freed of the Albatross of external debt, apart from some undeniable short term benefit, this would not begin to solve the structural problems that lie at the root of the nation’s tragic history.

 

Crippling external debt is the symptom not the cause of Ecuador’s woes, and it can be argued that the same is substantially the same for virtually every Latin American nation.   In short, given its history of external resource exploitation which presents us with today’s reality, a reality characterized by brutal discrepancies in the distribution of wealth and an overall dearth of both physical infrastructure (roads, utilities, sanitation) and social infrastructure (health, education, democratic government), Ecuador simply is not a viable political/economic unit. As government after government has proven, no amount of reform, be it of the strong armed neo-Liberal variety, which is the current style, or the more traditional borrow and spend (or steal) it variety, will get to the root of the problem.

 

Ecuador lacks a responsible leadership class.  Election to public office is considered tantamount to a license to accumulate wealth.  Presidents, Vice-Presidents, and Congressmen who leave office are almost as likely to go into exile in Panama, Chile, Costa Rica or Miami as they are to return to private life in Ecuador.  There is no sense amongst Ecuadorians that its crisis can be solved at the political level as it presently exists.  An example of this was the Popular Assembly, a by-product of the February 1997 uprising that lead to the ouster of Bucaram, which was seen as a way to reform the Constitution over the head of the Congress, which was considered too mired in corruption to achieve meaningful change.  The interim government, however, set the ground rules for the Assembly, which resulted in the existing political parties being able to get their loyal supporters elected to and in control of the Assembly, which in turn produced nothing that constituted genuine change.

 

On the other hand, one does find in Ecuador a relatively strong union movement, militant teachers, angry students, a highly organized and effective Indigenous movement, a nascent and growing women’s movement, a discontented and fearful professional class, and millions of suffering and disillusioned “ordinary people.”  Like the Guagua Pinchincha volcano, which as been on low boil for nearly a year and only this week has begun to spew tons of ash and dust over nearby Quito, the repressed and volcanic passions of this small but not atypical Latin nation may erupt at any moment, and without warning.

 

 And the rest of Latin America may not be that far behind.

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