Fragile Alliances, the “Citizen’s Revolution,” and the Future of Ecuador

Armando, from Mingasocial, a community-based “horizontalist” media organization in Quito, has taken it upon himself to guide me through the complexities of Ecuador. This includes, by necessity, the strange world of cuisine, or better put, home cooking, in the local Parque del Relleno, otherwise known as “Parque de las comidas,” or “Food Park.” We pass by the stands of food cooking in the open air as evening falls and the last bright burst of sunlight shines brilliantly in the background. Someone is passing out pieces of food with pinchers and I take it before I see what it is. I know, from the shape, that it’s some sort of tripe and only when I try to chew it and some strange “sauce” squeezes out into my mouth, does Armando tell me the name for it. It’s known colloquially in English as “goat guts” but the Spanish name is euphemistic and translates as “chicle” or “chewing gum.” In fact, it’s so chewy that I give up and eventually swallow it whole, and then politely pass on a full order of it. We settle instead on “habas” (some sort of fava bean) with “chocho” (some sort of corn) and “queso” (some sort of cheese).

As we eat, Armando continues to guide me through Ecuador as he talks about the reforms taking place under President Rafael Correa with his “Citizen’s Revolution.” He explains this “revolution” (a word we would both put in quotes) by contrasting it, as I will discover is his habit, with the indigenous cosmovision. Armando, like a growing number of Ecuadorans, has come to believe that the only way “forward” is into the “past.” “You see, in the Andean cosmovision, the past is in front of us and the future is behind us.” It’s a conception I still can’t quite grasp intellectually, but I can deeply appreciate Armando’s integration of that cosmovision with a libertarian left ideology. While left politics is generally expressed in terms of ideology, the Andean cosmovision is generally offered in the form of fables and stories, as in Armando’s response to my question about democracy in Ecuador.

Armando tells me that there was a town near Otavalos, a couple of hours east of Quito, where, many years ago, the people decided to build a road. Everyone in the town agreed that the road was to go from here to there,” he says, indicating an imaginary line through the park with his free hand. “Everyone, that is, but an old man. They all went to him hear why he disagreed and he told them that in one direction was a well (ojo de agua) and if they made a road over it, there would be no water for future generations.” Armando finished by offering the moral of the fable. “So the indigenous way is not majority rule, because that isn’t democracy. Democracy is consensus.”

Building consensus in a country like Ecuador might seem a utopian endeavor, given the struggle between an oligarchy determined to maintain control of the country, and indigenous and social movements equally determined to wrest the country from its clutches, a phenomenon currently reflected in the fight over the new Constitution. Between these two forces stands Correa and his supporters, largely drawn from the educated middle class and the former “Forajidos” who overthrew Lucio Gutierrez in 2005. For now, the more radical left has joined forces with the middle class, small business and other center-left reformist sectors that make up the core of Alianza País and that large block is likely to win the support of the majority in voting through the new Constitution this September.

Luis Angel Saavedra, president of INREDH (Fundación Regional de Asesoría en Derechos Humanos), a human rights organization in Quito, offers Armando and me a brief analysis of the social conflicts that have rocked Ecuador in recent years. “For the past thirty years in Ecuador, we’ve seen the consolidation of political parties linked to powerful economic interests,” Luis explained one day in his office. “Each powerful economic group has had two modes of expression: A political party and the media. And so the social movements have had alternatives because the political parties and the media were completely controlled by those powerful economic interests. The only means of expression for social movements was the power of revocation by means of demonstrations, demonstrations aimed at the overthrow of presidents.” Luis went on to explain that the presidents during this period were elected for their leftist discourse, but were overthrown for not following through on it.

Ecuadorans suffer neither fools nor liars. In this Andean culture, the three rules of conduct as preached and practiced by the Incans to the present, are still taken as seriously as, and arguably more so than, the Ten Commandments in Alabama: Don’t lie, don’t steal and don’t be lazy. So far Rafael Correa and the Constituent Assembly he convoked last year to write a new constitution, have passed the first tests of conduct. But greater tests of a more pragmatic nature lie before those proposing a new course for the nation which Correa calls the “Citizen’s Revolution.”

The Ecuadoran constitution, born into public life less than a month ago, already has a group of sworn enemies determined to defeat it when it goes up for a nationwide vote on September 28th of this year. The class lines in this struggle couldn’t be more clear: the Constitution, drawn up by the Constituent Assembly, voted into power last year, has spent its life drafting this document which is broadly supported by social movements and popular opinion. However, the Guayaquil, Quito and other oligarchies, along with the Catholic Bishops and Evangelical Christians, are determined to defeat the new Constitution. This divide between the oligarchy, backed by reactionary Christians, on one hand, and the social movements, the majority of the country’s poor, indigenous, campesino and Afro-descendents, on the other hand, is symbolic of a long struggle that is reaching a new stage in the refounding of the nation through the new Constitution.

Evidently the good bishops of the Church feel that a constitutional protection of human life “from conception” isn’t strong enough to defend a fetus from the wiles of already-born humanity. The bishops, the right wing media (owned by the sectors of the oligarchy) and the evangelicals claim that the Constitution, in the words of the good minister Francisco Loor, is “pro-abortion, pro-homosexual and has taken the name of God in vain so as to get more votes.” But the “No” forces are few even while vocal and their arguments, on a par with the right wing in the U.S., are not likely to convince many.

Still, the fight over the constitution has gotten dirty and, while most of the lies and manipulation have predictably come from an oligarchy terrified of losing control of the country, President Rafael Correa has thrown his share of mud — not only at the “pelucones” (“wig-wearers,” a term referring to colonial oligarchs who wore wigs) but also at his presumptive allies on the left. In his weekly show, Dialogue with the President, a show similar to Hugo Chavez’s Hello President, in which the two national leaders address their respective publics, Chavez on Sunday, and Correa on Saturday, Correa continued his minor tirade, begun the day before in his talk before the National Assembly as he received the Constitution from their hands.

What is little understood outside of Ecuador, is that, despite Correa’s rhetoric of the “Socialism of the 21st Century” for Ecuador, the president seems to be committed to a capitalist dependency model of development for the country. As Daniel Denvir puts it, only outside Ecuador is Correa viewed as a “leftist,” while inside Ecuador itself “conflicts between Correa and the social movement Left—the indigenous movement, environmentalists and unions, among others—have become increasingly heated” (I recommend the full article).

Speaking from Chongón, in the province of Guaya, the day after accepting the new Constitution from the Assembly, Correa again castigated the “infantile leftists” and “infantile environmentalists” and “infantile indigenous” without being more specific about what made them “infantile” and why they caused him so much ire. After all, he’d gotten what he wanted: his people had “edited” the entire Constitution prior to the final vote by the Constituent Assembly, some argued so as to make it more amenable to his “reformed-capitalist extractionist policies” and also to strengthen his own presidential powers. Because his party, Alianza País (Country Alliance) was the majority, all the “infantile” sectors had to choose between approving the illicitly redacted document or voting against it and allying themselves with the oligarchy and its religious lackeys.

These shenanigans on the part of Correa’s people, however, didn’t go unnoticed and Ecuanuri, the largest indigenous organization within CONAIE, called for an “extraordinary assembly” on the following Tuesday, July 29, to consult on whether or not to accept the document as edited.

The theater of the National Museum was filled by the time the meeting began, opening with part of a short film on the mobilizations of indigenous people in 1990 which began a nearly twenty year process culminating in Rafael Correa’s rise to power, the founding of the Constituent Assembly and the writing of the Constitution. The film, although low budget and poor quality, was extremely moving, filled with images of indigenous people rising up at last to claim their rights as humans, disinherited in their own lands.

After the film, several of the members of the Constituent Assembly spoke of the Constitution as having been called into being by those very demonstrations and, indeed, the new social contract describes Ecuador as “plurinational” and “intercultural” and recognizes the rights to communal land and territory and recognizing not only individual rights, but the rights of “communities, peoples, nationalities and collectives.”

It is the first constitution in the world to grant rights to “Pachamama,” or “Mother Earth” and it also grants rights to the indigenous to carry out justice as they see fit in their communities, within the limits of national and international standards of justice. The document emphasizes that “Ecuador is a territory of peace. The establishment of foreign military bases nor foreign installations with military objectives will not be allowed.”

Advocating “quality of life” (from Kichwa, “sumaj kawsay,” el buen vivir), the document guarantees the right to water in an article against privatization of that resource, and it guarantees the “right to secure and permanent access to healthy, adequate and nutritious food, preferably produced at the local level.” This chapter two, article 13 was changed by Correa’s people at the last minute, where “guarantees” became “promote:” “The Ecuadoran state will promote food sovereignty.” Nevertheless, even the redacted constitution has the fingerprints of the indigenous movement, environmentalists and leftist values all over it, especially in the articles guaranteeing free healthcare and education, right to “adequate housing” and social security for all, regardless of whether or not one has paid into it.

Even though many Assembly members expressed outrage over the last-minute changes to fifty articles of the Constitution that Correa’s people made to the final draft, the overwhelming majority of the speakers urged the gathering, mostly indigenous members of CONAIE, to vote “Yes” in the referendum on the Constitution. Among the “infantile left” who spoke was Dr. Albert Acosta, president of the Constituent Assembly until just a few weeks before when he resigned at the urging of Correa and by vote of the assembly because he wanted to prolong the proceedings so that more voices could be heard.

Without a note of bitterness, but rather with an enthusiasm that inspired a prolonged applause, Acosta began by agreeing that the Constitution wasn’t perfect, but that it should be approved with “a ‘yes’ and a thousand times ‘yes.’” He reminded people that the approval on September 28th would be only the beginning of the new Social Contract in which it would be “an instrument for struggle” which represents “a new stage of that struggle.”

The struggle will be sharpest between the uneasy coalition of Correa’s centrist party, Alianza País and the left, comprised mainly of those Correa calls “infantile”: the indigenous, environmental and social movements, all favoring the Constitution, and the Catholic hierarchy, the Evangelical churches and the oligarchy, opposed to the Constitution.

Correa would be wise to recall that all those people, groups and organizations he has categorized as “infantile” and accused of “infiltrating” his Alianza, are his allies in a struggle against the right. He’ll need their help to pass the new Constitution, but also to govern the country afterwards if he wants to continue the gains of what he calls the “Citizen’s Revolution.” Rather than his customary approach to governing by power politics and decree, many believe Correa needs to look at the way the indigenous see democracy as the building of consensus and unanimity. Correa, some would say, is prone to tantrums, and his outbursts against his allies have already alienated many on the left, leading one powerful indigenous leader to say, “We support ‘yes’ on the Constitution, but we no longer support Correa.” Increasing numbers of people from diverse sectors in the social movements would say the same thing, and they are the very ones who have overthrown an entire crop of presidents leading up to Correa. If Correa continues to blur the distinction between his allies and his enemies, he may no longer find himself to be the exception.

Clifton Ross is a writer and videographer. His book, Translations from Silence won the 2010 Josephine Miles Award for Literary Excellence from Oakland PEN and has just been published in Spanish by Editorial Perro y Rana, Venezuela. His film, Venezuela: Revolution from the Inside Out was published in 2008 by PM Press. He can be contacted at clifross1(at)yahoo.com. Read other articles by Clifton.