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Ecuador: The Siege Goes On December 23, 2008

Posted by rogerhollander in Ecuador Politics, History, Government, Culture, Ecuador Writing, Ecuador: The Siege Goes On.
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(After Mahuad was ousted and Noboa took over, a period of stunned silence over the betrayed near-revolution ensued.  However, with the same economic policies in place, protest was sure to break out soon; and when it did, I was “on the spot” to report to family and friends.  Maybe here is a good place for me to define what is meant by neo-Liberal economic policies.  We can trace modern day neo-Liberalism back to the 1973 (Sept. 11!) U.S. (CIA) supported, Pinochet led, military coup against the democratically elected socialist government of Salvador Allende in Chile.  Pinochet brought in Chicago Economist Milton Friedman to restructure the country’s economy.  It was what is usually and euphemistically referred to as “belt-tightening,” when a more apt metaphor, in my opinion, would be “neck strangulation.”  I compare it to that era in medicine when it was thought that cures could be achieved through blood-letting.  The major elements of neo-Liberal economics are threefold: privatization of utilities, natural resources and whatever else the government can get away with selling to the private sector; reduction in government funded social programs (health, welfare, education) and employee benefits; and the elimination of barriers to capital crossing national boundaries (i.e., free trade) with a concomitant bolstering of the barriers that prevent human beings from crossing from one border to another.  These policies are usually accompanied by bank “reforms” that usually end up in major scandals where national treasuries are looted and monetary policies that serve a similar function.

 

We are now almost exactly one year past the failed near revolution of 2000. New protests have broken out.)

 

Quito, 03 February 2001

 

Ecuadorian government tries to intimidate Indigenous groups

 

On the night of Wednesday the 31st of January, a truck full of food draws up to the gates of the

 

Salesian University in Quito. After a short discussion with two members of Congress, who press the police to let the truck pass, the captain commanding the 30 or so officers blocking the road sends the truck away from the university, and the 7,000 Indigenous men, women, and children lodged there. I only obey order he says, apparently oblivious to the historical implications of the phrase.  A European bystander asks the officer if he has ever heard of Adolph Eichmann, the second world war, or the Nazis. The captain shrugs.

 

In reality, the government strategy has more in common with the middle ages than the Nazis. There are elements of the classic siege. Cut off the water, the food supply, communications, and anything else you can think of. Starve them out. And if they do manage to get out then tear gas them until they run back inside. Fortunately a siege has its lapses, and in this case, before the police can counter, the truck finds another entrance where scores of volunteers speedily unload the cargo of hundred pound sacks of potatoes.

 

This is the almost warlike state of affairs in Quito, Ecuador, where the Indigenous movement has taken the lead in protesting the harshness of the economic measures imposed by President Noboa; measures which lead an incredible 49% of the work force to leave the country in 2000, at least temporarily, and to look for work in other parts of the world. Generally speaking, the Indigenous communities are the poorest in the country and the recent doubling of the price of cooking gas, and gasoline (which affects the price of everything else) has had a major effect on them. Not that they are alone. The urban poor who have no access to land are even worse off. The only thing saving them is the increased number of jobs available due to the huge migration under way. This is small comfort however, as unemployment rates are still high and even with a job there is no guarantee of sufficient money to cover the basic food and health needs. The latest figures from the National Statistics Institute show that an average family of four has 25% less income than it needs in order to cover its basic needs.

 

The government, on the other hand, is determined to show the native people a firm hand, by shooting them if need be, and by imprisoning their leaders. But up to now the strategy hasn’t worked. The shootings and the events in the capital have simply sharpened the resolve of the protesters. Primary roads have been closed in all the major mountain and Amazon provinces, and after a week there are no signs of slacking. Quite the opposite. The closures have now been extended to the secondary and tertiary roads. The army simply doesn’t have the capacity to manage the huge number of people involved in the closings and as Admiral Donoso, the spokesperson for the Military command admits, it’s a war of attrition. The roads are closed, the army opens them up, the native people close them again, etc, etc. It’s not difficult to understand the magnitude of the job; in only one stretch of ten kilometres for instance, one can encounter 15 barricades, always being rebuilt, re-dug, re-lit with burning tires.

 

Apart from the Chamber of Commerce of the Coastal Provinces (read: power groups from Guayaquil, the principal port) who demand even harsher measures (the “iron fist”) for those who block roads, almost everyone is calling for dialogue. The problem is that it’s not readily apparent how the two sides can talk on the principal issue of economic policy, which the government sees as its (and the IMF’s) sole reserve. While commissions have been formed to broker the talks, it seems unlikely that the native people will accept dismantling the barricades and settling for a series of talks. They’ve been taken in before (amongst others, by ex president Mahuad who never complied with his promises), and will therefore be extremely wary of abandoning the uprising without firm and controllable promises.

 

President Noboa, on the other hand, has virtually no room to move. Not applying the economic measures means not receiving the money from the IMF and other multilateral agencies (or debt swaps from the G7) that according to standard economic theory the country needs. Money which will serve to maintain, if not solvency (which is impossible) at least the fiction of solvency, thereby keeping the doors open for new credits with which to pay the old, and thus helping maintain another fiction, that of a healthy global financial system.

 

Although the government has backed off somewhat in the last few days (food and water are now entering the university) the two sides are still far apart. Given the context, the most likely outcome is that the government will keep on denying the position that it’s in, hoping that by maintaining a firm stance, or by praying to the virgin of Guadalupe, they can pull themselves out of the fire. Failing this, or a sudden about face in policy, the regime will probably collapse under the weight of its own contradictions. Its allies do not appear to be too solid. The army is apparently divided; the Air force Chief has told the president that he should negotiate. Only the navy and the police are firmly on side. How long this can continue is anyone’s guess.

 

(The Noboa government did survive to serve out the full term of ex President Mahuad.  In the 2002 presidential elections, Colonel Gutiérrez, the hero of the 2000 uprisings, came out of nowhere to soundly defeat banana magnate Alvaro Noboa.  He had formed a new political party and was supported by the Indigenous community and the traditional left.  His election raised high hopes.  We shall see if those hopes came to fruition.)

Ecuador: THE MONROE DOCTRINE IS ALIVE AND WELL December 23, 2008

Posted by rogerhollander in Ecuador Politics, History, Government, Culture, Ecuador Writing, Ecuador: The Monroe Doctrine is Alive and Well.
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(This is an analytic letter I wrote several months after the fact, with my interpretation of the significance of the events of January 2000.)

 

 

Subj: Fwd: Ecuador Bulletin 4

Date: 9/21/00 7:21:02 PM Eastern Daylight Time

 

 

In true Biblical fashion, before the cock crowed thrice, was the betrayal.  Antonio Vargas, leader of the Confederation of Indigenous Nations, made the mistake of taking the military at its word.

 

We went to bed Friday night with the military supporting a popular regime, and we awoke Saturday morning with the military in bed with its customary concubine (a U.S. approved Congress and President).

 

We have to interpolate, because what happens of importance happens behind closed doors.  Clearly, a new Ecuador, governed by a coalition of Indigenous (nearly half the population) peoples and one of the few judicial representatives not tainted with corruption and nepotism, was not acceptable to the existing power structure or its United States of America sponsor.  Peter Romero, the State Department’s Latin-American overseer, was giving interviews during the uprising to the effect that severe economic and political sanctions would result from a rupture of the sacred constitutional order.  Need I add that constitutional order and democracy are sacred only when they serve the geopolitical interests of the United States government?  Otherwise – and there are too many examples to list here – quite expendable.

 

Three hours into the “rule of the junta” General Mendoza withdrew the support of the armed forces thus ensuring its collapse.  I was critical of the inclusion of a General in the ruling group in the first place because it made it vulnerable to the criticism of being a military dictatorship.  The armed forces in support of (but not a member of) a popular based governing group, committed to creating new institutions backed up by popular referenda, to me was a viable option. 

 

Of course, neither Mendoza nor the military command ever intended to support a popular regime.  The ill-fated junta was a ploy to diffuse the uprising and it worked superbly.  Confused and disillusioned on the morning of the 22nd (Saturday), the protesters were easily dislodged from the Congress, Judicial and Presidential buildings.  That same morning the Congress met, considered that the presidency had been “abandoned,” and installed the Vice President, Gustavo Noboa as the new” constitutional” president.  Noboa lost no time in assuring the continuation of the economic policies of former president Mahuad that had lead to the massive protests in the first place.

 

Analysis: Although it has been hidden with all the clever rhetoric about the constitutional succession (i.e., the vice-president succeeding the president) which avoids a rupture of the constitutional order, this simply is not the case.  Had Mahuad resigned, everything would have been squeaky clean.  But he refused thereby forcing the military to depose him.  This constitutes a rupture of the constitutional order, and no amount of whitewashing can change that fact.  The hypocrisy of the U.S. government and its Quislings, the Ecuadorian political class and the Ecuadorian military, is transparent.

They are willing to gloss over the military’s deposing of a “democratically elected” president who has become a liability – in effect sacrificing him to calm the waters – as long as the replacement is acceptable, i.e., will not really rock the boat.

 

In 1997, when a two day general strike prompted the military to abandon then President Bucaram, they did not complain (the U.S. only mildly) about this rupture, nor did these same staunch defenders of the constitution cry out against the violation of the order of succession at that time (the then Vice President was a woman, Rosalía Arteaga, so the machista Congress appointed its own leader as the Interim President, who held the fort until Mahuad was elected in 1998).

 

In short, what matters to the US government and the Ecuadorian political/military class is not the constitution but who has the power.  To those of us who supported and support the notion of overthrowing an elected government it is incumbent upon us to demonstrate (and that is not so difficult to do here given the level of blatancy) the utter corruptness of the so-called democratic process.  In a country where there is a pathetically incompetent public education system (good private schools, though, for the elites), a totally inadequate public health system, and massive poverty, “democratic” institutions in the context of capitalist exploitation are largely a farce.  Because there are virtually no checks and balances, members of the government administration (from the president on down), Congress and the judiciary are virtually free to loot the public purse.  The judiciary is almost entirely politicized, judges are appointed by the ruling political party, and the major parties make deals with one another to convict and un-convict as power changes hands (one example, to gain the support in Congress of Bucaram for the economic package, Mahuad clearly had to promise PRE – Bucaram’s party – that the legal way would be cleared for Bucaram to return from his “exile” in Panama — his third exile, by the way). 

 

As well the extremes that the Ecuadorian “democracy” will go to achieve its ends extend all the way to murder.  Last year, a popular leftist Congressman was shot to death within a few blocks of the Congress.  The crime remains unsolved.  It should also be pointed out that Ecuador’s military elites, as just about in all of Latin America, save Cuba, are trained and indoctrinated in the infamous School of the Americas, which used to be in Panama but has moved to North Carolina.  President Monroe is no doubt smiling in his grave.

 

This ends the current chapter but not the story.  Nothing of substance has changed at the government level that will affect the levels of corruption, unemployment, inflation and poverty which cannot be ignored.  Although the opposition lacks cohesion and a unified philosophy, protests are continuing across the country.  The Indigenous leaders are saying that they will give the new government one month to show its colors before considering another serious uprising. 

Ecuador: The Night of Three Governments December 23, 2008

Posted by rogerhollander in Ecuador Politics, History, Government, Culture, Ecuador Writing, Ecuador: The Night of Three Governments.
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(This is my diary blow by blow account of the events of Jan. 21, 2000.  For weeks the Indigenous and campesino communities, the most politicized sectors in the country, had been planning a massive protest in Quito.  The government responded by blocking highways leading to the capital and searching buses that did get through.  It foolishly thought it could control the situation with such measures.  Despite this act of a desperate government, tens of thousands got through, and, evidencing amazing organizational capacities, found ways to feed and support themselves while living in city parks.  Finally they marched on the Congress building, which was surrounded by the army.  Their response was to surround the army, thus creating an interesting stalemate.  This was broken when some middle level army officers from a local training center, broke through the army lines and allowed the protesters to take over the Congress itself.  The military defenders of the Congress gave no resistance to the forces led by Colonel Lucio Gutiérrez, who apparently had won a high degree of respect within the military.  Once it was confirmed that Mahuad had abandoned the presidency the protesters inside the Congress declared a “Junta of National Salvation,” that consisted of Gutiérrez, the Indigenous leader, Vargas, and the head of the Supreme Court.  I was glued to our small seven inch black and white television for hours on end and watched as all this was telecast live from within the Congress.  My friend Gerard Coffey, who was inside with the protestors, told me that the tension there was palpable, given that there was good reason to believe that they might be attacked by the Ecuadorian Army at any moment.)

 

Subj: Re: From Ecuador Bulletin 3

 

On Sat, 22 Jan 2000 10:13:46 EST Rogerholla@aol.com wrote:

 

At 3:00 a spokesperson for the Joint Command of the armed forces announced that the joint command had withdrawn support from President Mahuad and were requesting his resignation.  This same general (the brother of retired General Paco Moncayo) was sent to give the president the news and apparently was put in charge of the Presidential Palace and the President’s security.

 

Minutes later the President went on television with the standard “never say die” speech.  If I had a million sucres (forty US dollars) for every time today I heard the words “democratic order” and “constitutional order” coming from the mouths of those in power, I would be a rich man.  According to the elites who defend “constitutional democracy” at all costs, he disorder and suffering caused by government policy apparently is legitimized by being sanctioned democratically and constitutionally, even if replete with corruption and antidemocratic administration.

 

Then from the halls of Congress, Antonio Vargas, the Indigenous leader, announced that within an hour or two they would be on their way to take the Presidential Palace.  Within minutes it was announced that the President and his aides had evacuated the Palace for a “more secure” location in Quito.  Unconfirmed rumors have him on the way to the airport.

 

10 PM: The Minister of Government insists that Mahuad is being protected by the military at a base in Quito and still has no intention of resigning. Meanwhile, it appears that more than ten thousand protesters have surrounded the Presidential Palace while their leaders are inside negotiating alongside the rebel Colonels with the Joint Command of the Armed Forces.  Apparently, Paco Moncayo [the head of the Joint Chiefs, and future Mayor of Quito] and ex-Supreme Court Justice, Carlos Solórzano (who sent ex-Vice President Alberto Dahik packing to Costa Rica and who has a populist profile) are also present.

 

In Guayaquil, two factions of the army are in confrontation over control of the government buildings.  There are street demonstrations, traffic blockages, car burnings and attempted take overs of government buildings all over the country.

 

One TV station is reporting a poll taken on the streets that has 65% of the

sample supporting the rebels (Indigenous and campesinos backed by the junior officers), 6% supporting President Mahuad, and 80% are against a dictatorship.

 

12:00 am (Jan 22)

 

They have emerged from the confab at the Presidential Palace (actually the Palace of Government) and given a press conference with the following results: with the full support of the full military command, a three man junta has been formed to rule the country and form a government.  General Carlos Mendoza, the current Chief of the Joint Military Command, former Supreme Court Chief Justice Carlos Solórzano, and CONAIE [the nation-wide Indigenous organization] president, Antonio Vargas.  At the news conference Mendoza took the lead, but made it clear that the three had equal authority.  Solórzano spoke to the legality of the junta and Vargas gave his remarks first in Quichua then in Spanish.  It was suggested that Colonel Gutiérrez might be the new government’s Minister of Government.  The question of what will happen to Mahuad was evaded (there is a rumor he is at the airport).  Solórzano suggested that with such strong popular support and the full backing of the military, the US would have no choice but to recognize the new regime.

 

At this moment it appears that, because of the decision of the military, Mahuad and the Congress have been left out to dry.  I guess we’ll know more when we wake up tomorrow morning.

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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