[Marxism] Wayward Allies: President Rafael Correa and the Ecuadorian Left
daniel.denvir at gmail.com
Fri Jul 25 19:14:43 MDT 2008
Wayward Allies: President Rafael Correa and the Ecuadorian Left
Written by Daniel Denvir
Friday, 25 July 2008
Outside of Ecuador, most progressives consider President Rafael Correa
to be a Leftist champion of social and economic justice. Inside the
country, however, conflicts between Correa and the social movement
Left—the indigenous movement, environmentalists and unions, among
others—have become increasingly heated. On June 23, Constituent
Assembly President and long-time social movement ally Alberto Acosta
resigned his post after high-profile disagreements with Correa over
issues of procedural democracy and indigenous, economic and
environmental justice. Acosta headed the legislative body charged with
writing a new constitution.
The new magna carta was approved by the Assembly on July 24, sending
the text to a popular referendum this September. While social
movements have been sharply critical of Correa, it is expected that
they will join the "yes" campaign in support of the new constitution,
fearing a right-wing resurgence if it fails. Critics within Correa's
Alianza País party and Leftist members of the indigenous party
Pachakutik unanimously voted to approve the text. Leftist Martha
Roldos, a member of the Ethical and Democratic Network (RED)
abstained, citing a top down process.
To the degree that it exists, popular perception in the U.S. and
Europe has been colored by Correa's stance against U.S. hegemony in
the region, along with his forceful rejection of Colombia's March 1
attack on a FARC camp on Ecuadorian soil. The mainstream media has
simplistically lumped him in with the Spanish-speaking "axis of evil"
stretching from Bolivia and Venezuela to Cuba. The Left media has, on
the other hand, under the assumption that the enemy of my enemy is my
friend, championed him as a man of the people. Greg Palast, a
well-known progressive journalist, wrote an article in terms so
emphatically glowing that it is clear he spoke to no one except the
President and his spokespeople when he parachuted into the country. A
five-minute conversation with any social movement leader would have
significantly complicated his analysis.
I myself arrived in Ecuador this past January excited about being
excited about Correa, assuming (or hoping?) that he was part of this
social movement propelled Left tide sweeping across the region. For
Ecuadorian social movements, however, the doubts and uneasiness were
present from the beginning. In 2006, Patchakutik, the electoral arm of
the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE),
decided to run CONAIE leader Luis Macas for president. The CONAIE and
other social movement groups only decided to endorse Correa in the
second round where he faced right-wing Institutional Renewal Party of
National Action (PRIAN) candidate Álvaro Noboa. A conservative
Christian banana magnate and Ecuador's richest man, Noboa represented
everything that is socially and economically retrograde in the
Correa is a U.S. and Belgian trained economist who, before running for
President was relatively unknown and had almost no history working
directly with Ecuadorian social movements. As his dark horse candidacy
gained steam, however, and he made it into the second round, he picked
up some long-time social movement demands, including opposition to a
Free Trade Agreement with the U.S. and a pledge to close the U.S.
military base in the port city of Manta. He proclaimed a "citizen's
revolution," promising to convene a Constituent Assembly to write a
new constitution and to put an end to the "long night of
When Ecuadorians approved a referendum convening the Constituent
Assembly in September 2007, social movements were cautiously
optimistic. It was perceived as a chance to make gains on pressing
social, economic and foreign policy issues. Social movements saw the
election of economist and long-time environmental and social activist
Alberto Acosta to the Assembly's presidency as a particularly
Meeting just a few miles away from the soon to be closed U.S. military
base in the town of Montecristi, the Assembly has been a mixed bag of
progress, stasis, retreat and confusion. On the one hand, the Assembly
has broken with the neoliberal model by increasing state participation
in the economy, enshrining the right to education and healthcare and,
in a historic move, forcing rich people to pay taxes. It has also
taken some important steps for the environment, recognizing that
natural ecosystems are themselves the subject of rights.
Many indigenous, women's, labor and campesino leaders, however, feel
that this was a missed opportunity to confront historic injustices and
embrace a more social and sustainable economic model. In addition,
social movements have not viewed this as a particularly participatory
process. Few Ecuadorian have a solid grasp on what is going on in
Montecristi and many proposals were generated from the top down. Most
glaringly, Correa has exercised near total control over the majority
Assembly Members from his Alianza País party. There is a sense that
Correa has taken over a process of change that other people—namely
social and indigenous movements—have painstakingly built over the past
According to Ivonne Ramos, a leader of the prominent environmental
organization Acción Ecologica, the social movements' sense of cautious
optimism has descended into an open conflict.
"There have been different currents in the Constituent Assembly, some
defending capitalism and neoliberlism, and others pointing to a new
model. We see that many of the proposals aiming to undermine social
movements' demands are coming from the President," says Ramos. "The
mining debate highlighted these different positions. The main power
struggle isn't between the President and the Right. It is between the
President and the Left, including within his own party." Acción
Ecologica has close ties to the CONAIE and works with communities
resisting mining and oil exploitation.
Economist Pablo Dávalos, who served under Correa when he was President
Alfredo Palacio's Finance Minister, says that Correa's Leftist
discourse conceals a developmentalist and neoliberal economic policy
based on natural resource extraction. Dávalos has long argued that the
forajidos, a new sector of the middle class created by dollarization,
have been Correa's base since the beginning.
"I think that the Correa government's intention is to put the country
in harmony with the new currents of global capitalism, particularly
with regard to the exploitation of natural resources, the IRSA
[multimodal infrastructural integration project] and territorial
privatization," says Dávalos. "Correa is doing everything possible to
integrate Ecuador into this new global division of labor as a provider
of primary materials, commodities and energy."
The media often contrast Correa internationally with right-wing
leaders like Colombian President Alvaro Uribe and nationally with
characters like Jaimie Nebot, mayor of the Ecuadorian coastal
metropolis of Guayaquil. In Ecuador and abroad, this leads to an
inaccurate, black and white, Right versus Left framework.
The Ecuadorian Right, whose pricey clothing and snow white skin stuck
out in the Assembly, has been weakened and discredited, having
corruptly presided over decades of disastrous free market economic
policies. The main criticisms of opposition parties like the Social
Christian Party (PSP), PRIAN and the Patriotic Society Party are that
Correa is trying to turn Ecuador into "another Cuba or Venezuela,"
supports abortion and is centralizing power. The first two charges are
patently false, while the question of authoritarianism is more
properly a complaint for social movements than the Right, whose fall
from power can only be blamed on its own incompetence and
Dávalos has persisently argued that Correa's "citizen's revolution" is
focused on what he calls the "moralization of politics." Rather than
fundamentally change Ecuador's economic model, Correa and his forajido
supporters, who have risen up through what they perceive to be a free
and fair market, are focused on making the government more
transparent. One social movement activist told me that, "Correa just
wants to formalize everything. If someone sells you bubblegum on the
streets, he wants to make sure that taxes are paid and that you get a
receipt." But the disgrace of what is widely referred to as the
"partidocracy," tainted by decades of corruption, lends Correa support
far beyond his middle class base.
While Correa was elected and has consolidated power through a Leftist
discourse prioritizing socio-economic justice and national
sovereignty, he has increasingly moved to break ties with organized
social movements. Many analysts say that Correa, buoyed by high
approval ratings, is intentionally demonstrating that he need not
depend on any organized body. Seeing alliances with the CONAIE,
environmental and labor movements as restrictive, Correa is building
an institutionally unmediated and populist relationship to voters,
allowing him to be the country's sole decision maker.
Correa, long known for lashing out against opponents on the Right, has
increasingly made verbal attacks against social movement activists and
Leftist politicians. On June 7, Correa made some particularly harsh
comments on his weekly radio program, stating that enemies of oil and
mining are not part of the Alianza País led process of "revolution."
"I hope that the Leftist radicals who do not believe in the oil
companies, the mining companies, the market or the transnationals go
away," said Correa.
Ecuadorian sociologist Natalie Sierra noted that Correa's "is a
government that has declared itself anti-neoliberal, but I always
thought that the main anti-neoliberal struggles were those against the
His revolution has, to the Left's dismay, remained one comprised of
individual citizens and not organized movements. Correa has explicitly
discarded relationships with organized social movements and relied on
high levels of personal popularity to push through policies.
Repression in Defense of Oil and Mining Megaprojects
Correa's government has consistently demonstrated that it is willing
to use the police and army to repress social movement resistance.
The Correa government's first major act of repression took place in
November 2007. The President declared a state of emergency in the
Amazonian town of Dayuma after protests blocked oil operations.
Residents set up roadblocks to a number of oil fields, angry about the
government's failure to follow through on promised infrastructural
improvements in the town of poor mestizo settlers (colonos). Violent
repression followed and 23 people were arrested, many of whom were
dragged from their homes at gunpoint. Shocked social movement and
human rights activists demanded an investigation of the abuses and
amnesty for the arrested protesters.
Correa initially threatened to resign if government's handling of the
protests was investigated. In the end, Correa relented and the
Assembly declared an amnesty for the arrested protesters along with
hundreds of other jailed environmental defenders and social justice
activists. The Assembly also determined that police had used excessive
force against Dayuma residents. The repression in Dayuma put
Ecuadorian activists on notice that Correa was committed to an
economic model based on natural resource extraction and was willing to
use force to defend it.
It was at this point, when his commitment to an economy based on oil
and mining became clear, that activists and Leftist intellectuals
increased their criticism of Correa. Critiques began to focus on the
shift from U.S. and European foreign investment to the penetration of
state companies, particularly from Brazil and China. The centerpiece
of this realignment is the Multimodal Megaproject Manta-Manaos,
referring to the cities in Ecuador and Brazil, respectively, that will
be the multi-modal transportation and trade project's two central
Unions have also criticized Correa's economic policies, which they say
are a continuation of the neoliberal, privatizing model. Oil workers
union leader Fernando Villavicencio says that while he at first tried
to believe that bureaucrats or functionaries misinforming Correa were
causing problems at state oil company Petroecuador, it is now clear
that these policies come directly from the President.
"The leader of the País Movement has consciously pushed an illegal
project of privatizing oil...leading the public company Petroecuador
to be dismantled," says Villavicencio. "These policies benefit the
same old mafia groups and some new ones...They are doing what the
Right and the partidocracy could not accomplish over the past 25
The government has also repressed anti-mining blockades in the
southern highlands, calling protesters "antipatriotic" troublemakers,
"carried away by their ideological obsessions." Protesters claim that
mining will ruin their land and poison their water. It appears that
conflicts over mining will increase over the next few years. Correa
and Canadian mining companies have mounted a large-scale advertising
campaign linking increased mining to better jobs and a strong economy.
With many communities prepared to resist mining operations, a battle
is on for the sympathies of the broader public.
Most recently, on July 8, the National Police arrested 10 protesters
in the Ecuadorian canton of Chillanes for opposing the concession of a
nearby river for the construction of a private hydroelectric dam. The
villagers had peacefully occupied community land in protest over the
last six months.
The conflict with Colombia has also led to heightened accusations of
ties between Colombian guerrillas and Ecuadorian social movements. On
May 6, Ecuadorian police arrested five members of Ecuador Indymedia,
accusing them of maintaining ties to the National Liberation Army
(ELN) guerrilla group in Colombia.
Conflict with the Indigenous Movement Comes to a Head
The CONAIE made it clear early on that its top priority for the new
constitution was the recognition of Ecuador as a "plurinational"
state, meaning a state made up of many nations. Rather than a hollow
symbolic gesture, plurinationality would ensure land, cultural and
economic rights. Social and indigenous movements have, in particular,
demanded that the principle of "free, prior and informed
consent"—requiring communities to approve any resource extraction
projects on their land—be enshrined in the new magna carta. Indeed,
prior consent is not only about community control, but about a larger
debate over whether large-scale mining is a sustainable path for
While the concept of plurinationality has been included in the
proposed constitution's text, prior consent was not. The text instead
requires "prior consultation," meaning that communities cannot decide
whether oil and mining projects take place on their land. "Prior
consultation is rather paradoxical," according to Ivonne Ramos. "If I
come and ask you if I can come and mess up your house, you say "no",
and I still go ahead and do it anyways. It doesn't make much sense."
Plurinationality and prior consent have created divisions within
Alianza País, as well as between Alianza País and the CONAIE's
political party, Pachakutik.
On May 12, the CONAIE broke communication with the Correa government,
accusing the President of continuing neoliberal economic and racist
social policies. Later that month, most of Ecuador's prominent social
movements signed a letter backing the CONAIE and articulating other
problems with the government.
The most recent insult to the indigenous movement has been the
rejection, at Correa's urging, of a proposal to make Kichwa an
official language alongside Spanish. In response, Patchakutik's four
Assembly Members walked out in protest. They were joined by Alianza
País Assembly Member Monica Chuji, an Amazonian Kichwa long affiliated
with the indigenous movement. Many have criticized Correa for showing
off his basic knowledge of Kichwa on the campaign trail while
rejecting indigenous movement demands. On the second to last day of
the Assembly, CONAIE President Marlon Santi called Correa a "racist."
At 2 a.m. on the Assembly's second to last work day, a compromise
proposal was approved. It declares Spanish the "official language of
Ecuador, while Spanish, Kichwa and Shuar are official languages of
intercultural relation. Other ancestral languages are for official use
for the indigenous nationalities in the zones that they inhabit and
within terms determined by the law." Shuar is an indigenous language
spoken in the Ecuadorian and Peruvian Amazon.
Chuji says that the included text maintains the rights established in
the 1998 constitution—which were in danger of being eliminated—but
does not necessarily constitute a step forward. She considers the
phrase "official languages of intercultural relation" to be profoundly
vague, but says that there is space for improvements when the
constitutional text is elaborated into law by a future legislature.
One analyst told me that Correa's allies inserted Shuar at the last
moment to undercut Kichwa, which spoken by two million Ecuadorians and
the only indigenous language that could function as a national
language. Indigenous activists were forced to accept the compromise,
as they could not argue against the recognition of Shuar.
In an interview, Chuji criticized the Assembly's failure to support
indigenous rights, but nevertheless considers the new constitution a
step forward. "While my analysis is overall positive, we've made very
little progress on the topic of indigenous rights...but that Ecuador
is a plurinational state has been included, even though it doesn't
include all of the content that it should, it is at least a first step
and opens doors for future discussions."
A majority of Assembly Members initially supported the proposition to
make Kichwa an official language. But last week, Correa and the
Alianza País executive committee pushed against it and succeeded in
excluding it from the proposed constitution. Ecuarunari, the Kichwa
federation of Ecuador, denounced Correa, saying "We, the indigenous
peoples and nationalities, do not ask for a right just for ourselves.
Rather, we demand that all of Ecuador assume and recognize its own
historical, cultural and social value. To continue to not recognize
the indigenous peoples and nationalities' languages means the
continuing displacement of indigenous cultures as tourist objects or
as simple elements utilized to decorate the discourses at government
inauguration ceremonies, for the inauguration of little infrastructure
projects and political rallies. Kichwa is spoken while its legitimate
representatives are insulted."
The CONAIE sees language rights as central to preserving indigenous
communities and cultures and criticizes opposition to Kichwa as
motivated by racism. Just a few minutes before writing this sentence,
I overheard someone in the Assembly pressroom make the linguistically
improbable claim that Kichwa could not be included because it "does
not have a grammar."
In an interview on the Assembly's second to last day, Pachakutik
Assembly Member Gilberto Guamangate noted that gains on
plurinationality and the rights of nature had been achieved but
criticized the failure to recognize Kichwa as an official language.
"We consider the fact that they have declared Ecuador a plurinational
state" but not made Kichwa an official language "is basically making a
body without a mouth." He also emphasized that prior consent, while
not achieved in the Constituent Assembly, could be fought for in the
proposed National Assembly. Moreover, Guamangate noted that regardless
of any political decision, stopping mining and oil projects would
always be decided at the local level through community decision making
Alberto Acosta's resignation as President of the Constituent Assembly
marks a break between social movements and Correa, leading to a major
drop in the body's approval ratings. Correa forced Acosta out after he
insisted that the Assembly needed more time to finish the
constitution, refusing to cut debate time.
While Alberto Acosta's resignation as president of the Constituent
Assembly was proximately caused by this procedural dispute with
Correa, his departure reflects deeper divisions over economic and
environmental policy within Alianza País. As disagreements over
economic and environmental policies were building up between the two
leaders, Acosta's demand for an extension to finish the Assembly's
work infuriated Correa and led to the forced resignation. Acosta
insisted that something as important as a new constitution should not
be rushed. Correa, in contrast, thought that delaying the
constitution—which will be sent to voters this September—would entail
impossibly high political costs.
With three days to go until the end of the Constituent Assembly,
Correa's allies are rushing to fix a series of errors that the Editing
Committee, in its hurry, missed. Instead of accepting responsibility
for this predicament, Correa has attacked his own Assembly Members for
allowing "barbarities" into the text and claimed that the errors were
all made during Acosta's tenure.
Acosta's strong support for procedural democracy and refusal to engage
in ad hominem attacks on his opponents has led to curious gestures of
sympathy from the opposition Right and the conservative media, event
though the Assembly's former president is significantly to Correa's
left. Fernando Cordero, the Assembly's new President, has aggressively
limited debate and rushed to put the final touches on the proposed
As an Assembly Member, Acosta has been freed from his administrative
and mediatory duties, speaking in favor of recognizing Kichwa and
opposing cuts to teachers' pensions. Correa has counterattacked,
calling Acosta and other Leftist members of Alianza País
"infiltrators" who should leave if they do not agree with the
Chuji responded in a statement on Wednesday July 23, the Assembly's
second to last day, reminding Correa that Ecuador's entire process of
social change did not begin with his leadership. She emphasized that
agreeing with the President was not the litmus test for Alianza País
membership and that it was her responsibility to be faithful to her
principals. She said it is strange that "they call us infiltrators or
accuse us of having a right wing agenda for supporting human rights,
social security, freedom of expression, the environment, justice,
communication, the women's agenda, campesino rights and the indigenous
As Ivonne Ramos notes, a strong disagreement over Correa's proposed
agricultural law was also a deciding factor in Acosta's departure. The
Assembly initially was debating and passing an Agriculture Law that
would support food sovereignty and small farmers. It included the free
circulation of seeds and government credits to small farmers.
"The President then launched a campaign pushing his own Agricultural
Law," which "favors the importation of agrochemicals, it favors
subsidies to an agribusiness model. Those who will benefit from this
are the importers of agrochemicals, producers of agrochemicals, the
sellers of agrochemicals, the massive companies that own monoculture
crop export operations, and the people who control the circulation of
food in this country," says Ramos. "This was in many senses the
breaking point that led to Acosta's resignation."
The Agricultural Law, in its vision of development through active
government support of national and transnational corporations,
encapsulates Correa's social and economic programs. While the increase
in the state's economic role is a break with neoliberal orthodoxy,
Correa supports the basic contours of the current economic model,
prioritizing "growth" through the exploitation of natural and human
Intensive efforts by The National Federation of Campesino, Indigenous
and Black Organizations (FENOCIN) and the CONAIE led to significant
changes in the Agricultural Law. A shift towards supporting small
farmers instead of agribusiness garnered Acosta and Pachakutik's
support, leading to the proposal's overwhelmingly approval on the
Assembly's second to last day.
The mainstream media in Ecuador has tended to focus on these
procedural issues instead of the social justice demands dividing
Correa from the Left. I would guess that this is because it is one of
Acosta's only positions that the Right supports. But it's not just
Acosta's legitimate demands on procedural questions, but "a
fundamental difference over the model of economic development that
Ecuador should follow" that, according to Ramos, has caused ruptures
in the Constituent Assembly.
"Acosta was supporting a model that was friendly to people and the
environment," says Ramos. "What we're seeing now is a model totally
capitalist and that favors the large groups of power. We see this in
two ways. First, from the presidential decrees directly from Correa
and second, in his direct interventions into the Assembly's work."
The Constituent Assembly legally possesses what is known as plenos
poderes, or full powers. Plenos poderes makes the Assembly the
country's highest power and replaces the former Congress, which was
declared "in recess" for the Assembly's duration. But Correa and
Alianza País's executive committee's forceful interventions have
undermined the Assembly's work and reputation. As progressive
journalist and Correa chronicler Kintto Lucas put it, "The impositions
of power are not agreements."
CONAIE Vice-President Miguel Guatemal argued that Acosta's resignation
was just one of Correa's many strong-armed interventions into the
Assembly. "There was an ideological and political conflict. While
Acosta defended our proposals, the President has opposed them. The
National Constituent Assembly, with its plenos poderes, should be
above the President. But this is not happening. The President decides
whether something passes or not. The Assembly is just a technical
Ramos, however, emphasized that under Acosta's leadership the Assembly
was at times able to exercise its plenos poderes. "We saw Alberto
Acosta's presence in the Constituent Assembly's presidency as an
assurance that crucial issues would be addressed, issues like the
rights of nature, plurinationality, water, food sovereignty,
transgenics, protected areas and collective and environmental rights.
Some of these have been incorporated. Especially in the case of
amnesties for arrested environmental defenders, we actually saw the
Assembly exercising its plenos poderes."
In an interview on the Assembly's second to last day, Acosta said, "I
have a certain bittersweet feeling. While I'm happy with what we've
done I'm not happy with how we are finishing our work. There are too
many topics that were very rushed, without a clear idea of how we can
respond to so many outstanding issues. We should have taken a few more
weeks." But he went on to say that there were innumerable
achievements—in areas such as education, healthcare and national
sovereignty—that make a "yes" vote on the constitution the right
While all of the Left is expected to come around to supporting the
"yes" campaign, it is unclear what is next for Acosta and his
Social Movement Demobilization and the Upcoming Referendum
Correa's meteoric rise and high approval ratings have put social
movements and the Left in a complicated position. In previous fights
like those against Free Trade Agreements and the U.S. military base,
social movements were able to clearly define themselves against
conservative governments. Correa's Leftist discourse and occasionally
progressive policies have demobilized the Left, who now face the
September referendum without a coherent strategy.
According to Ramos, social movements must take stock of the good and
the bad in the new constitution. In addition, the political costs of
not supporting the proposal must be evaluated.
"There is the question of public sympathy, which is complicated when
you have a president with such high approval ratings. Any action that
a social movement takes can be read, understood or publicized as an
action in support of the Right, since this government is supposedly a
Leftist one," says Ramos. "This has produced a climate of uncertainty
over what positions to take, what actions to take."
According to Dávalos, social movements have not articulated a united
position because they have all been waiting until the final moment to
see if the Assembly will support their priorities.
"The only united opposition right now is from the Right, which more
than anything helps the government," says Dávalos. "This opposition
allows the government to legitimize itself, to position itself against
the Right, because the Right has little support and is so
The president's break with the social movements should not be read as
accidental. As Davalos points out, "Correa is trying to form a solid
center-left block and marginalize the radical left and take on the
right-wing—Jaime Nebot and Lucio Gutierezz. Neither of whom will win.
This is his calculus, which isn't bad. It is within the possible."
Correa will go on a publicity campaign for the "yes" vote, banking on
his personal popularity to compensate for the Assembly's falling
support. And he does not need to win by a large margin. Correa just
needs to marginalize the Left and take on a weak Right. He has no one
who can beat him in upcoming elections if the Constitution is
And it appears certain that these conflicts between Correa and the
social movements will only increase over the coming months. At the
Assembly's closing ceremony, the President attacked "infantile
environmentalism" and "infantile indiginism" as obstacles to Ecuador's
development. Verbal attacks will not make social movements, built
through decades of struggle, disappear.
While a "yes" vote may be necessary to ensure the Right's defeat,
Dávalos argues that the Left needs to get back to what it does best:
organizing. "I think that the Left needs to recuperate political
space, space that has been co-opted by Alianza País, and generate its
Daniel Denvir (daniel.denvir [at]gmail.com) is an independent
journalist from the United States in Quito, Ecuador and a 2008
recipient of NACLA's Samuel Chavkin Investigative Journalism Grant.
He is the Editor-in-Chief at caterwaulquarterly.com and reluctantly
blogs at glocalcircus.blogspot.com.
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