Issue 238 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published February 2000 Copyright © Socialist Review


The battles are only beginning

A protest movement which brought Ecuador to a standstill is described by Andy Brown

The provincial centre of government was occupied by armed peasants

For a few brief days at the end of January the language of the corridors of power in the Latin American country of Ecuador changed. Instead of the rarefied, establishment, rhetorical Spanish of the ruling class, the language was Quechua--that of the highland indigenous people of the Andes. The presidential palace, the supreme court and the congress lay besieged by thousands of them, responding to a call by their umbrella organisation, Conaie, to bring the capital, Quito, to a standstill.

For days they had poured into the city, defying a military blockade to keep them out. Slipping in through back roads, bringing food and supplies, and setting up field kitchens in courtyards, parks and playgrounds, they had laid siege to the institutions of state. The language and some of the demands were indigenous, but they were giving voice to the complaints of the whole working class and the poor--the vast majority of Ecuador's population. Support came from the trade unions in the urban centres, the teachers and students, the rural workers of the coastal plantations and the hundreds of thousands who live in the slums. Conaie's 12 point programme demanded a total change: an end to privatisation, the creation of jobs, a cut in interest rates, an immediate moratorium on the payment of external debt, and a withdrawal of 'dollarisation'. This latter policy, of effectively abolishing the Ecuadorian currency and adopting the US dollar, spelt ruin for the poor already wracked by runaway inflation and vicious free market policies. Meeting in mid-January, Conaie's general assembly--dubbed the 'People's Parliament'--described the policy as 'putting a dollar sign on poverty, dumping all wealth in private hands and smashing social resistance'.

A week long encirclement of the presidential palace was accompanied by demonstrations all over the country. From the Conaie heartlands in the mountain provinces of Cotopaxi, Tunguragua, Chimborazo and Imbabura, the demonstrations spread. Workers supported them in Pichincha, around the capital. Major confrontations with the police took place in the coastal province of Manabi, with serious disturbances in the country's largest city, Guayaquil, demanding the removal of President Jamil Mahuad. Roads were closed by demonstrators in Ambato, Riobamba and Latacunga and the Panamerican Highway was closed to traffic. Oil workers struck. Student organisations and the main teachers' union joined the movement. An increasingly nervous army faced down the mobilisations.

On 21 January the soldiers defending the presidential palace deserted their posts. Many joined the revolt. The corridors of power were occupied by the indigenous people and the president was forced from office. What was happening? Some senior officers of the army joined the rebels, and during the night a three man junta, including Antonio Vargas, leader of Conaie, was proclaimed.

But Portugal 1974 this was not. There was no Armed Forces Movement, and no revolution to support the overthrow of the government and open the floodgates to a huge insurgent workers' movement. Nor was it a supposed progressive military movement, as in Peru or Panama in the past. After just three hours the military leader in the junta, General Carlos Mendoza, resigned and the military high command took charge of events. Mahuad had gone, but was replaced only by his vice-president, Gustavo Noboa, at the behest of the military. Always powerful players in Ecuadorean politics, they had opted for the status quo and had been strong enough to impose their will. The political establishment, breathed a collective sigh of relief.

The reaction of the leaders of Conaie was perhaps surprising in its naivety. Vargas bitterly denounced the military leaders who had joined the revolt only to betray it. 'He's a traitor. He sold us out,' he said of Mendoza. In fact, the reaction of the military was to be expected. The highest and most powerful figures in it had not deserted the government anyway. According to the Guayaquil daily El Universo, those who had joined the rebels were largely young and had no significant forces under their command. Luis Miniguano, leader of the Movimiento Indigena de Tunguragua, was succinct: 'The generals and admirals betrayed us. They're not the ones who are hungry,' he said. 'They only eat imported food.'

Gustavo Noboa assumed the presidency with fine talk of rooting out the rampant corruption at the top of Ecuadorian society and 'restoring ethical values', but he could only offer more of the same free market policies. The state of emergency, imposed to quell the popular revolts, remained in place. 'The dollarisation project will continue, as the state of the economy demands,' he affirmed, alongside vague promises of devolution.

The rejection of the new regime by the indigenous people was widespread. Blockades remained in place. In Riobamba a mass demonstration stretching for 20 blocks of the city centre greeted Noboa's accession. It was broken up by the army and police. The provincial centre of government in Latacunga (seat of a major military base) remained occupied by armed peasants.

There is a mass of unfinished business in Ecuador. Even the normally conservative Quito daily El Comercio recognised the legitimacy of the popular protests and the continuing instability of the government. It denounced the elites who care nothing for the fate of the mass of the population. 'They are quaking in the face of the actions of the huge part of the population which is most forgotten and most marginalised in this country', it warned. While welcoming the short term survival of the government, it recognised the enormous risks to it if the current economic crisis and the attempts to make the working class pay for it continue. The military emerges bruised and divided, uncertain of how to react in the face of mass rejection of the government and its unpopular policies.

For the indigenous people's movement which currently leads the popular protests there are also lessons to be learned--not least that a search for quick solutions through an alliance with supposedly progressive military forces is a blind alley. On the other hand, muscles have been flexed. A president has been deposed specifically because of the measures he took against the working population of the country. Those policies remain in place. The rejection of them by working people is near total. The battles are only beginning.

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