Bitter Indians Let Ecuador Know Fight Isn't Over
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Thu Jan 27 09:32:20 MST 2000
NY Times, January 27, 2000
Bitter Indians Let Ecuador Know Fight Isn't Over
By LARRY ROHTER
LATACUNGA, Ecuador, Jan. 25 -- Last week, the Indians marched by the
thousands from this Andean market town to overthrow the government in
Quito. This week, with a new president in place but all their other demands
unmet, those same protesters have been drifting back to the farms here,
feeling defeated, angry and bitter and warning of the fire next time.
"We were betrayed by a treacherous clique of generals and admirals,"
Antonio Vargas, president of the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities
of Ecuador, the country's principal Indian group, said after the rapid
collapse during the weekend of the three-man military-led junta of which he
was also a member. "But our struggle is not over, and we may have to be
even tougher when we mobilize again."
To this country's largely white and Spanish-speaking elite, those are
powerful and disturbing words. Though the Indians here constitute about
one-third of the country's 12.5 million people, they have been treated as
second-class citizens, deprived of economic and educational opportunities,
with their languages and culture ridiculed, for even longer than Ecuador
has been a nation.
Raúl López, the Roman Catholic bishop in this commercial center at the foot
of the towering Cotopaxi volcano, points out that not too long ago
newspaper advertisements "offered haciendas for sale with Indians included,
as if they were cattle or horses." But in recent years, with financial
support and advice from groups in Western Europe and North America,
indigneous peoples have coalesced around demands for what they call "a
plurinational and multi-ethnic state" here.
Though last week's uprising was the largest and most dramatic and ambitious
that Ecuadorean Indians have ever staged, it was by no means their first.
Such protests have been an effective and favorite tactic of the
increasingly better organized indigenous movement since 1990, when what
began as a civil rights protest soon took on broader political dimensions.
"We were tired of bus drivers insulting indigenous passengers, refusing to
allow them to board or telling them to take off their hats," said César
Umajinga, president of the Cotopaxi Indigenous and Peasant Movement, the
leading Indian group here. "After several of our people died from being
thrown off buses, we decided it was time to demand respect and an end to
At a news conference with foreign reporters on Monday, Gustavo Noboa, the
new president, who took power on Saturday after the collapse of the
Indian-military junta, acknowledged past injustices to indigenous peoples.
He promised a "dialogue" with Indian groups and expressed sympathy for many
of their goals.
"The indigenous theme is longstanding and hereditary, the result of a lack
of confidence," he said. "The fact is that they have been deceived for
centuries and their demands are right in part."
Indians rose up last week, he said, because governments "have not kept
their word" after making promises to and signing agreements with indigenous
leaders like Mr. Vargas.
Other nations throughout the Andes, as well as Central America and Mexico,
must also contend with restive Indian populations demanding social equality
and economic opportunity. But experts on the region say that the situation
here is probably worse than elsewhere precisely because of government
"Ecuador is a country that has basically forgotten about its agricultural
and rural base, so conditions in the countryside have deteriorated in the
last decade," said Eduardo Gamarra, director of the Latin American and
Caribbean Center at Florida International University in Miami. The
resulting "process of pauperization in the countryside," he added,
"marginalizes indigenous people almost by definition" because of their
strong links to the land.
That trend has only been accentuated by an economic crisis worse than any
other this country has faced in 70 years. Inflation, at 60 percent for each
of the past two years, is the highest in Latin America, the government
defaulted on half its $13 billion in foreign debt four months ago, and the
country's currency, the sucre, lost 67 percent of its value against the
dollar in 1999 and 20 percent this month.
"The price of seed, fertilizer and insecticide is tied to the exchange rate
of the dollar and has risen so high that some of us can no longer afford to
plant our crops," complained Gregorio Chiguano, a 54-year-old farmer here
who took part in the march on the capital last week. "But we get paid in
sucres for the potatoes and other products that we grow, and so we are
suffering terrible deprivation."
In an effort to address inequities, Ecuadorean governments have carried out
agrarian reform programs since the 1960's. But Indians have not only ended
up with most of the least fertile plots of land, many of which have now
been divided up as a result of population growth to the point they are
barely productive, but have also received little in the way of credit and
technical help from the government.
In addition, Indian leaders from the countryside who were here today to
sell their wares at a weekly market all complained that their villages were
the last to receive electricity, water, telephones and sewers. Struggling
to fulfill the austerity measures they have had to agree to in order to
secure loans abroad, successive administrations have also reduced support
for bilingual education programs for speakers of Quechua and other Indian
"The situation is truly tragic," Bishop López said. "The government has cut
the budget for everything in the social sector in order to satisfy the
demands of the International Monetary Fund and to make payments on our
The government's decision this month to make the American dollar the
country's new currency has further fed the discontent. Indian farmers here
are vehemently opposed, seeing the measure as just another scheme by
bankers and businessmen to further impoverish them.
"The dollar may be fine for mestizos and the big folks, but we are peasants
and do not know how to manage dollars," said Apolinario Quishpe, 51, a
farmer who was another of those who made the 55-mile march on Quito. "Many
of us do not know how to read and write and do not understand what this is
about. We feel cheated."
Indian leaders and their supporters emphasize that their uprisings and
campaigns of civil disobedience also reflect frustration with the nature of
the political process here. Though candidates on the right as well as the
left say they are concerned about advancing Indian interests and rights, no
Indian has ever held a cabinet post, they complained, and until very
recently few had been elected to Congress.
"One thing about Ecuador that has always struck me is that the Indians are
not treated very well by white society," Dr. Gamarra said. "Political
parties spend very little effort to work with them, and whatever
representation occurs is usually done in a very patrimonial way. They don't
really have a voice or a party of their own."
Indian leaders here say that their unexpected alliance with the military,
though temporarily unsuccessful, has gained them new respect as a political
force. But Bishop López argues that last week's coup and its chaotic
aftermath are better seen as a setback for the indigenous cause.
"By trying to achieve an unreachable utopia, they have deeply angered and
frightened the Ecuadorean population, which had been sympathetic to many of
their demands," he said. "They broke with the rules of the Constitution,
and that has cost them a lot of support."
The Indigenous Parliament that represents the country's Indian peoples is
to meet here this week to try to draw lessons from the failed uprising,
devise a new strategy and prepare an agenda for the next round of
negotiations with the government, scheduled to begin next week. But Mr.
Umajinga warned that "we are tired of being marginalized and treated as
orphans by the government" and said the day might soon come when the
talking would have to end.
"This was not an armed uprising, and that may have been a mistake that will
have to rectified in the future," he said. "We do not even have weapons,
and this is not the time to take up arms. But I want to tell you clearly
and emphatically that if this system is not changed in the next five years,
then you are going to see our people take up arms."
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