Ecuador’s Social Movements Fight for Democracy
A Talk with Indigenous Leader Manuel Ilaquiche
By Paul Henry and Chris Fee
Special to The Narco News Bulletin
April 28, 2005
Recent events in Ecuador have once again proven that the people can exercise democratic power. For the third time in eight years the people of this small Andean country have evicted the resident of Carondolet, the presidential residence. The first two times the evictions were for outright thievery, but last week, president Lucio Gutiérrez was ousted due to his disregard for the constitution and the people who elected him. As has been widely reported, Gutiérrez twice, within a four-month span, dismissed and reconstituted the Supreme Court, when it would not rule in his favor. His extra-constitutional use of power, and finally his increasing use of force against protesters, proved to be more than the people would allow. As the situation in the streets of Quito worsened, military leaders announced that they would no longer support the president and he was forced to step down. The following report of a talk with a local indigenous leader was prepared in March, when the Quito protests that forced Gutiérrez out had only just begun taking shape. It illustrates how the ordinary people of Ecuador, long left out of the governing process, have been able wield democratic power.
Manuel Ilaquiche is the communications director of the Indigenous and Peasant Farmer Movement of Cotopaxi (MICC in its Spanish initials), an umbrella organization currently made up of 28 local groups representing hundreds of rural and indigenous communities in Cotopaxi, Ecuador. Cotopaxi is an Andean highland province. The picturesque capital city, Latacunga, straddles the Pan American Highway between Quito and Ambato, the second and fourth largest cities respectively. Latacunga’s strategic location and the strength of the indigenous movement there have made the city key to the movement’s ability to wield democratic power through strikes and road blockades. Mr. Ilaquiche describes MICC and its work at the local level, and comments on broader issues facing the people of Ecuador. They have made democracy work for the people through community organization that takes what might be thought of as “grass roots” to a higher level. The indigenous culture contains a practice of communal work called minga, a word from the native Quichua language that has been adopted by the wider population. In a minga, a whole community will come together to complete a project. MICC is the expansion of this practice to the provincial level. Manuel spoke of three areas in which MICC works for the communities it represents.
The first area of work that Manuel spoke of was education (the strength of real democracy) and the fear of oligarchs. MICC works to promote bilingual, bi-cultural education to protect the culture and language of the indigenous communities. This has been an area where the movement has had success: many communities now have bi-lingual schools. Manuel stressed the importance of education for the long-term strength of the movement. Education and training of the youth is viewed as a step toward greater self-sufficiency, by eliminating the need to go outside the community to hire licensed professionals such as lawyers and engineers. They work to provide scholarships to enable youths from within the community to go on to study at the university level. MICC also works with nongovernmental organizations to provide adult education, from basic literacy to technical training. Though not mentioned by Manuel, according to Prensa Latina, Cotopaxi under the administration of indigenous prefect Cesar Umaginga is the second province in Ecuador to sign an agreement with ILCRA, a Cuban-based educational assistance organization, to reduce illiteracy in the province.
Land and water rights is the second area of work Manuel described. MICC works to protect individuals and communities from losing their land rights through foreclosures and legal maneuvers. The indigenous communities regained some of their land rights with land reform in the sixties. Since then, the hacienda owners have worked to take back the best land. MICC helps fight against the big landowners’ use of legal maneuvers and foreclosures to retake indigenous lands. As important as land rights are in this semi-arid region, are water rights. Water use rights are a major concern for the highland indigenous communities. MICC provides organization among the communities to secure their rights to irrigation and drinking water.
The last area of work Manuel mentioned is what gives the movement its strength, and is key to success in other areas. Manuel and other promoters go out into the communities daily to organize. They bring together community level groups to form alliances to provide strength in numbers giving MICC its democratic power. They have applied the spirit of the minga on a larger scale to assert the rights of a once politically marginalized group. The have used this democratic strength to achieve successes within the constitutional system, such as forcing the government to provide bi-lingual education. They have also proven their ability to exert force from outside the system – MICC has been instrumental to the success of national strikes. All of their political power flows from the daily organizational work of Manuel and his many colleagues.
After Manuel finished describing the work of MICC, we asked him to comment on various topics of current political interest. We first asked him to comment on the Free Trade Agreement (known as the TLC in Spanish) currently being negotiated among Ecuador, Columbia, Peru, and the United States.
He told us of the current efforts to use the organizing abilities of the Indigenous Movement to keep Ecuador from signing the TLC. The TLC has replaced the well-known Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) after protests in Quebec, Quito, and Miami forced a change in strategy into smaller regionally based trade agreements with the U.S., rather than a hemisphere-wide trade agreement. The FTAA was a major issue in the last presidential election in which the indigenous movement, through the national federation CONAIE helped elect Lucio Gutiérrez. It was subsequently an important issue in the split between CONAIE and the Gutiérrez administration when the president took a pro-FTAA stance. Currently MICC, along with the wider indigenous movement, is working to collect the necessary signatures to force a consulta popular, a national referendum allowing the people to decide on whether or not to accept the TLC. According to the Ecuador YMCA, another partner in the campaign, 700,000 signatures are needed to force such a referendum.
“The Constitution provides for a popular consultation (consulta popular), which the Law of Elections refers to more specifically as a plebiscite (generally held as a vote of confidence on an action of a government) or a referendum (generally held to approve the text of the law). Either the executive or the legislative branch of government may call on the electorate to resolve a divisive issue, although the former has greater prerogative to hold a popular consultation… The decision adopted by a popular consultation is final.”
Manuel explained the anti-TLC position of MICC, in simple terms, “the TLC is a bad deal for our people.” The people represented by MICC are mostly small farmers who cannot compete with the heavily subsidized industrial agriculture of the United States. Also, the United States is stressing enforcement of intellectual property laws in the TLC negotiation, so the agricultural goods that MICC members sell would go down in value while the products they consume, such as software, would cost more.
Next we asked Manuel about MICC’s stand on Plan Columbia. He laughed and asked us if we meant “Plan B”, since the current Plan Columbia is just the latest incarnation of the U.S.’s strategy of using the drug war to exert its power in the region. He told us that MICC supports the CONAIE position of wanting no U.S. involvement in Columbia’s problems.
We then asked Manuel how the movement could go beyond merely unseating presidents, as they have proven they can do – Mahuad in 1999, Bucaram in 1997, and now Gutiérrez in 2005 – to actually gaining power on the national level. In his answer to this question he used the phrase “gobiernos de turno” (literally, “government by shift”), implying that the changing of administrations in Quito merely involves a new head taking its turn on the same old monster. He lamented the almost immediate split between CONAIE and the Gutiérrez administration. CONAIE was instrumental in Lucio’s win in a tight race against Alvaro Noboa, head of the Noboa Group, Ecuador’s largest business conglomerate. Manuel was confident, though, that the movement would eventually gain power on the national level. Gains have been made: MICC’s organizational power was demonstrated in 2004 with the election of Cesar Umaginga, a member of CONAIE, to the post of prefect of Cotopaxi (similar to a state governorship). He beat the second place candidate by a four-to-one margin, demonstrating strong popular support for CONAIE’s positions in Cotopaxi.
Manuel’s confidence that the movement would eventually gain national political power led us to our last question. Given that CONAIE’s positions are unpopular with the “gobiernos de turno” in the U.S., could Ecuador survive political retribution from the U.S. such as we have seen in Venezuela? Manuel had obviously pondered this question before, and gave us a quick, confident yes. He described the rich natural resources of Ecuador, which is a net exporter of both food and energy, then stated that what Ecuador lacked in terms of self-sufficiency could be corrected through trade with Bolivia and Peru. The cross border solidarity of the indigenous movement, he stated, could withstand any pressure from the North.
Paul Henry divides his time between farming outside of Santa Domingo, Ecuador, and landscaping homes and offices during the Spring and Fall in Manhattan. Narco News copublisher Chris Fee, after twelve years as a recording engineer, has returned to farming in the Mid-West primarily helping to create wildlife habitat on out of production land. Both Paul and Chris have been friends since the fourth grade, after meeting in a small rural school district on the edge of the Appalachian foothills in Ohio.
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