August 27 2015

One of the things the 2013 presidential candidate Alberto Acosta remarked on after the left’s comprehensive defeat, was that the political stability Rafael Correa brought to the country after a decade of chaos had been a major factors in his victory at the polls. People had appreciated it more than was evident at the time. The thought comes to mind now, in the wake of August’s major anti-government demonstrations that in all probability are only precursor of an even greater test of strength in the next few months. The Pax Correana may be finally be coming to an end.

The president rather unsurprisingly dismissed the protests as the work of a few, adding insults for good measure, as is his wont. Few they were not however, although diverse they certainly were. And after days and nights of tear gas and anti Correa chants, of arrests, violence and the de facto deportation of an indigenous leader’s partner[i], a respectable number were still protesting a week later. Tenacity was certainly not lacking. Although the marches and demonstrations may have come to an end, this is not the end, the protestors will be back in mid-September. Round two promises more of the same.

The government’s customary confrontational attitude exacerbated everything, but then no one expected Rafael Correa to lie down and be rolled over; the South American Margaret Thatcher, though clearly with another agenda, is not for turning. But Margaret Thatcher was finally turned, by her own people. Decisiveness and strength may be useful in a politician, cutting through Gordian knots is a talent, but limits there are, and in the end strength can too easily become weakness, as Thatcher found out. The hope is that the comparison between the two leaders will not be lost on any government official or legislator that cares to think about it. Unfortunately, few likely will.

A major difficulty is the country’s political structure. The indigenous populations, there are a number in the country, have been denigrated and ‘repressed’ since the time Columbus stumbled into the Caribbean, and the long fight for recognition and equality is not yet in sight. Nor has racism disappeared and can be counted on to erupt when the ‘indios’ claim their rights, in particular hen the government denigrates them in the name of governing for the great majority. At the same time, trying as Rafael Correa has to impose the evidently unsuccessful French model of the supposed equality of all – we are all Citoyens in Correa’s Ecuador – was never likely to succeed in the multicultural world of the Andes. One of the indigenous groups’ deepest fears is disappearance, a slow melting away into an amorphous population that might acknowledged their (its) past but not their present or future.

Anything that may consequently hasten that evaporation – loss of control over territory due to large extractive projects such as mining and oil, loss of influence over water supply as a result of recently passed legislation, added to lack of support for the small scale farming on which many, and the internal market, still depend – will as a result be fiercely resisted. Understanding that man does not live by bread alone is crucial. In addition, we have the President’s tendency to insult anyone getting in his way, and as the group with the most to organize against him, the ‘indios’, have consequently received special attention. Given their history it is hardly surprising that derision is not appreciated.

So the indigenous people have legitimate claims, but no way to make them heard, or rather have them resolved. As a minority, representative democracy does not work in their favour, but as a special case, and few would care to deny that this they are, they deserve better. They know it and so do we; so when they say that building roads, schools and hospitals is not enough, we should be listening. If we do not, if the government does not, because as the President likes to repeat ad nauseum, he has an electoral mandate, then the obvious answer for indigenous groups is to use whatever tools they may have at their disposal: blocking roads being one of them.

Blocking roads is of course prohibited, and to emphasise the point President Correa stated the obvious: that roads would be cleared, more or less ‘at any cost’. Fortunately ‘at any cost’ did not come to pass, but costs in the form of violence and arrests came quickly enough. The use of the police and military to control the population in times of trouble may be necessary, the government can hardly be expected to hand over control to whoever cares to challenge it, but the cost will be high, both in terms of people injured and credibility lost. And all sides know it[ii].

The pattern is familiar: the police attempt to dislodge the protestors who in turn resist, at times violently, the police, hardly known for being gentle in these kinds of situations, react with even greater violence, and so on, and so on… the protestors finally lose and the road is cleared. No one accepts any responsibility, not police, who have their own injured to show for their efforts, or the government, which claims that it is just trying to maintain order and that the police are heroes, or even the indigenous groups, whose protest may be legitimate, but whose tactics may be questionable unless the idea is to use the victims of police violence as evidence of the state’s lack of legitimacy.

Whatever the case may be, the outcome of the latest battles will not bring peace. This war is not over. Neither the violence, nor the arrests, nor the confrontational rhetoric, nor the clumsily belligerent threat of legal action against the head of the country’s most important indigenous organization will be enough to stop the next march, or the one after that. In all likelihood they will have the opposite effect. And there is also the small matter of the debate in the National Assembly over whether to allow Rafael Correa to be indefinitely re-elected[iii]. Planned for December, insistence on passing the measure without a national plebiscite (according to the polls eighty percent or more are in favour of being consulted) will bring a lot more people onto the street: the indigenous groups, the right, the left, the center, the good, the bad and the ugly…

The indigenous agenda is not the only one of course; there are many grievances – the use of the justice system to hound political enemies; the setting up of government sponsored social organisations to divide the opposition; the decision to drill for oil in Yasuní National Park; the imposition of Catholic values on a constitutionally lay state; the president’s bellicose style, etc. etc. – but it is the central theme around which the others will likely gel. Even the right will support it to some degree, until it regains power.

That all things pass is not at issue, the real question is the timing. Rafael Correa’s time as President has not yet been defined: he might survive to run again, he might even win, but the end of his tenure and of the region’s ‘progressive’ governments seems to be drawing closer; only the faithful or those with vested interests would argue the contrary. On the other hand, his reign has not been a failure; many good things have happened over the last eight years. But added to the erosion of his personal credibility, the political and economic atmosphere is not what it was in 2005 when he first ran for President, witness the situations in Brasil and Venezuela. Ecuador is not Venezuela, not yet at any rate, and no major corruption scandal has stained the government as in Brasil, not yet at any rate, but as in that country the rapidly deteriorating economic situation will almost inevitably increase disillusion with ‘progressive’ leaders, and consequently add to the President’s woes.

The only bright spot for Rafael Correa and his supporters is that until now no credible opponent has appeared, certainly not on the left, which has no real electoral structure and appears to be betting everything on the protests. The tactic would appear to be somewhat shortsighted as despite the dire economic situation[iv] people want to believe in something, in the possibility of a brighter future, however defined. Optimism is the opiate of the people as Milan Kundera once concluded and Rafael Correa is if nothing else the master of optimism, a sort of Ecuadorian pied piper if you will, whose approval rating is still at a healthy fifty percent. Correa seems far from finished, but then again the same appeared to be true in Brasil before Dilma Rousseff ran for reelection; now she hangs on for dear life and makes deals with the neoliberal right. Despite the wisdom of the old adage, previously disdained opposition candidates have a habit of becoming credible in the face of already known and increasingly unpopular devils.

[i] Manuela Picq a Franco-Brasilian academic who has also written for the Al Jazeera English Network, is the partner of Carlos Pérez Guartambel, the President of Ecuarunari, the country’s principal Kichwa organization. She was arrested during the protests, was about to have her visa rescinded when she decided to leave voluntarily. She is unlikely to be allowed back in.

[ii] It has been suggested that infiltrators were used by the government to provoke attacks on the police and discredit a pacific protest.

[iii] According to the country’s reigning Constitution, approved in 2009, the President can only be re-elected once. Amending the Constitution can be done in two ways: by popular vote if it the changes are deemed to alter the fundamental nature of the state, or if not, by a two thirds parliamentary majority, which Correa’s party has.

[iv] Since 2000 Ecuador’s currency is the US dollar, which presently stands at an almost historic high against other currencies. Without the capacity to devalue the country’s exports are suffering, at the same time that the price of oil, the country’s major export has dropped below $40 a barrel. The president recently suggested that Ecuador’s income from oil would amount to no more than US$40 million this year.