<i>"The Name of Our Country is América" - Simon Bolivar</i> The Narco News Bulletin<br><small>Reporting on the War on Drugs and Democracy from Latin America
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Ecuador’s Indigenous Vow to Oppose Plan Colombia

The Specter of Another Uprising Haunts President Gutierrez, Say Popular Leaders at Mexico City Forum


By Dan Feder
Special to The Narco News Bulletin

October 14, 2003

MEXICO CITY: Leaders of Ecuador’s massive indigenous movement, who two months ago broke from the governing coalition of President Lucio Gutierrez, came to Mexico City this month to explain the crisis in their country and raised the specter of another indigenous uprising of the sort that toppled the former regime in 1999.


Don Miguel Lluco
Photo: D.R. 2002 by Linsey McGoey, Narco News
With the split, Gutierrez has effectively lost his popular mandate. It was only by allying with the indigenous that the ex-Colonel could count on popular bases of support during his campaign, and those bases are now allied against him. This was clear from the words of Leónidas Iza, leader of the Ecuadorian Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities (CONAIE in its Spanish initials, which represents about 85% of the country’s indigenous groups) and Miguel Lluco, outgoing director of the Pachakutik party, who expressed their now-formal opposition to the Ecuadorian government in a forum sponsored by various universities in Mexico City.

Just three days before the two leaders spoke in Mexico, the Pachakutik party held its third national congress. Members of CONAIE and other social movements, who use the organization as their voice in the government, control Pachakutik democratically. It has grown to be one of the country’s most powerful political parties. The 650 delegates at the congress, reported Iza, voted to make complete opposition to the Gutierrez government and its policies an official party position.

That vote may prove a serious blow not only to the Gutierrez government, but also to the US-imposed “war on drugs” in the entire region.

As Narco News reported in August, Pachakutik left the coalition after Gutierrez introduced several “neoliberal” policies, started secret negotiations with the International Monetary Fund, and began to cozy up to the wealthy, right wing Christian Social Party. However, Iza and Lluco now say that Gutierrez’s breaking of a campaign promise to limit activity at the US airbase in Manta, Ecuador, and his related sell-out on the matter of Plan Colombia, Washington’s multi-billion dollar military intervention into the affairs of Ecuador’s neighboring country, were key reasons for their new opposition.

The US military base in Manta, supposedly a launching pad for anti-drug operations, was a contentious issue in the elections. Ex-president Jamil Mahuad signed an agreement with the US government allowing them to use the base. But Mahuad was overthrown soon after in an indigenous uprising supported by Gutierrez, then an army Colonel, and other dissident officers. Many expected President Gutierrez to renege on the offer, but in the end he upheld it, guaranteeing a US presence there for at least the next decade.

“We have always said that the base at Manta is unconstitutional,” said Iza, “because [ex-President Mahuad] didn’t even consult Congress on it. The base shouldn’t be there. It is there on the pretext of fighting drugs, but we feel that it could be the base for another war, a way for the US to control the entire continent. We will continue demanding a new policy, one that defends our national sovereignty.”

At their recent congress, Pachakutik also elected a new chief to replace Lluco – Guilberto Talahua, a CONAIE leader who has long opposed the base at Manta. After the government split in August, Narco News reported that Talahua was one of the first to tell the world that the entire social movement was now in “opposition to the government in the social, the political, and the economic, realms.” In the same statement, Talahua mentioned the possibility of “mobilizations or even an indigenous uprising.”

According to Lluco, the indigenous movement has two major objections to Plan Colombia. First, they believe it is being used as a pretext for foreign involvement in Colombia’s complicated civil war. And second, they say that the chemical spraying of coca and opium crops – the centerpiece of Plan Colombia’s anti-drug strategy – causes suffering among the predominantly indigenous farmers near the Colombian border. Ecuador shares a border with Putumayo, Colombia’s top coca-producing province.

“We’re worried about Ecuador’s involvement” in the conflict in Colombia, said Lluco. “We’re making a campaign in which we demand that the US government not get involved, and that the Colombian government commit to a political solution.”

“Our organization has always been against Plan Colombia,” he said. Especially in the regions close to the Colombian border, “it’s the mayors, it’s the local officials, it’s the congressmen, it’s the social leaders – they all have the same message. And that’s the attitude that [Pachakutik’s] representatives in Congress take.”

Both CONAIE and Pachakutik have been demanding a full government investigation into the fumigations’ effects on health and on the land, and have just scored their first victory on that front. Two days after Iza and Lluco’s talk in Mexico City, the Colombian government announced that it would temporarily stop fumigations in Putumayo and some other regions while a bi-national team of scientists and investigators studies the impact of the spraying on local people.

“They should be fumigating at least 10 kilometers from the border. But US and Colombian planes often pass over Ecuadorian territory,” said Iza. “This, to us, is really perverse. On the one hand, it represents a violation of national sovereignty. On the other hand, we have all the damage that this fumigation has caused. President Gutierrez has done nothing to protect our territory, our homes, our health, our environment, the biodiversity and water supplies threatened by contamination. The fumigations have made children, and even adults, sick, and forced people off of their land.”

The US and Colombia insist that glyphosate, the chemical used to spray coca crops, is harmless to people. Glyphosate is used in Monsanto’s RoundUp herbicide, the most popular industrial herbicide in the world. However, farmers with land near targeted areas have long reported sickness, especially among children, after spraying. The special glyphosate mixture used in Colombia has not been tested as commercial RoundUp has, and is sprayed from planes flying much higher than traditional crop dusters. Many Colombian and Ecuadorian farmers say this makes the chemical drift into their fields and water sources.

The event in Mexico City was one of a series on the indigenous resistance movement organized by Fabiola Escárzaga, a sociologist at the Autonomous Metropolitan University (UAM), where the event took place, and Raquel Gutiérrez, a researcher at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), columnist for the popular newspaper La Jornada, and professor of the Narco News School of Authentic Journalistm. Iza and Lluco were scheduled to attend an earlier event in May, where indigenous and other social leaders from several Latin American countries discussed the issues facing them. The overwhelming consensus from that event was that the movements from across the continent should organize on a more international scale. The two Ecuadorians apologized profusely for not having been there, and explained that they were dealing with an internal crisis at home – the crisis that would eventually lead to their split from the government.

Like the participants in May’s forum, both men spoke about the need for indigenous unity across Latin America. Pachakutik’s experience in the Gutierrez government, said Iza, showed that the indigenous must look beyond their national borders to take real power. In Ecuador, the indigenous are more than a third of the populaion. “Here in Mexico, you are only 10%,” he said. “We will always be minorities, outside of power, in our own countries. We must unite to make real changes.”

The recent events along the Colombian border may offer a preview of this unity. Small farmers in Putumayo province have had little success in their own country trying to stop the chemical spraying. They are a minority with little political power, threatened with violence from local landowners and paramilitaries. However, now that the issue may be causing problems for Colombia’s relations with its neighbor, Ecuador, due mostly to the activism of groups like CONAIE and Pachakutik, the government has agreed to stop and study the matter.

The movement’s leaders now begin to plan for the future. In the past year, the government has tried to use its alliance with Pachakutik to create divisions within the movement. Last month, a leading Ecuadorian daily claimed that tensions had arisen between CONAIE and Pachakutik during the split. The election of a veteran, radical CONAIE leader as the new director of Pachakutik was a signal that these attempts had failed.

“The government has tried to divide us, to break us apart,” said Iza, but “the indigenous movement is now demonstrating its unity.”

In the next national elections, in 2006, Pachakutik will not form more coalitions with traditional parties. Any presidential candidate, say Iza and Lluco, will be their own. And with one of the most active popular bases in Latin America, a major uprising is still a possibility.

“We lead big mobilizations,” said Iza. “We don’t know how to do marches of one or two days. When we go out into the streets, into the plazas, it’s for a month.” However, he said, the indigenous, farmers, students and workers can overthrow as many presidents as they want; there will always be another one to take his place. Something more fundamental also has to change.

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The Narco News Bulletin: Reporting on the Drug War and Democracy from Latin America