MUISNE: THE ISLAND THAT REFUSED TO DISAPPEAR

Gerard Coffey

June 27, 2017

 

“They’re not going to send the police or the military to get us out of here, but they want to make life difficult by withdrawing state services and putting pressure on international institutions not to help us rebuild.”

 

Standing by the sea – today it’s green and angry, the wind strong and the sky threatening – the scene looks very similar to the last time I was here in Muisne, some twenty years ago. A large number of tide born logs covers the long and hard beach where, says Hipólito, the owner of the hostel where I’m staying, even light aircraft can land, adding after a second, that of course these belong to the government. Walking towards the town, the environment is still as I remember it.  Solitary birds sing sporadically wrapped in the heat of midday and an almost medieval silence, there are virtually no cars here and their absence makes this island of Muisne something very special.

What is different is that these days the beach is full of plastic, of all colors and sizes, although I don’t suppose that is really so different, it’s happening to almost every beach in the world. A recent report tells us that on an uninhabited Pacific island more than 17 tons of plastic were collected. People don’t bother, says Hipólito, they leave the bottles, the bags and what have you, the sea carries it all away and then brings it back again. Unlike the new esplanade that forms part of the bridge built and just opened by the central government, there’s no-one here to clean up after the people have gone. But while plastic may be a problem for tourism, one of the important sources for the island before the April 2016 earthquake, it is by no means the only one facing the people who live here.

More worrying than plastic, although less visible, is that the people of this island in the South of the Province of Esmeraldas, Ecuador, are under threat of eviction. The 2016 earthquake left many homeless and changed the life of the island. Families abandoned their land to go and stay with relatives or were housed in the government provided lodge on the other side of the river, a few kilometers away, on high ground. After the tragedy now ex-President Correa declared the island unfit for habitation due to the threat of a Tsunami or flooding due to high tides. People had to go to the ‘mainland’, he said, the island should be reserved for tourism, and what was more the state would not help build any new homes or repair those affected by the quake. All state services were to be withdrawn.

Frank Navarrete, a member of the ‘Mesa’ (Round Table of Communities and Civil Organizations of the Island of Muisne) explains that Presidential Decree 1215 signed by Correa after the earthquake suspends the right to housing and free movement of those affected: “… as some citizens intend to return to their homes located on properties that are precisely a risk to their life or physical integrity.”  What this represents, says Navarrete, is passive eviction. They’re not going to send the police or the military to get us out of here, but they want to make life difficult by withdrawing state services and putting pressure on international institutions not to help us rebuild. “It is a disgrace and we are determined to stay.”

He says that immediately after the earthquake 90% of the population left the island, but little by little they returned; they hadn’t lost their homes and while there was damage, it could be repaired. “The Island is their home,” Frank says firmly, angry, thumping his fist on the table, “that’s where they’ve built their lives, their businesses.” Outside on the main street, a banner hanging from the second floor of his office-hostel challengingly states: “Here we stay.” It’s a challenge as much as a statement.

The earthquake isn’t the only thing that‘s changed in Muisne. The new bridge over the narrow river separating the island from the mainland is pedestrian, an evacuation measure for the population in case of emergency. Sitting nearby on the newly paved embankment, some of the neighbors tell me that the bridge is no help to tourism, what‘s needed, they say, is something wider that will allow vehicles to cross. But there are actually more vehicles now than before. These are the mototaxis that carry people over to the ‘continental’ side, as they call it, where they can do their shopping; one shop owner I talk to tells me there’s more trade than before. Besides, he says, the prices on this side are lower. Why this should be is not entirely clear, but I suppose he must know.

The multiplication of the mototaxis has in turn had an impact on the people who used to earn their living with the launches that ferried people from one side of the river to the other. “Before, 30 families made their living with the boats,” explains Hugo, one of the few who continues to work on the ‘lanchas’ as they are known. “Now only four boats still working: they carry the heavier loads, the ones the mototaxis can’t handle.”

Vested interests

Wandering the streets, people have little reservation about discussing the situation they’re in. “We don’t understand,” says an older man whose daughter lost everything and now lives with her parents, “why they want to get us off the Island.” The suspicion is that there are interests in play, that it’s not really necessary to leave their homes, that the threat of tsunami is minimal, that in the whole history of the island no damage has been recorded due to a tsunami, and that if it ever happened it would not be just the island that would be affected. “What will happen if a Tsunami comes?”, another Islander asks me as we talk a few feet away from some destroyed houses. “People on the other side of the river will also be affected. And that new Millenium College the Vice President just opened, how many meters above the sea level is it? If they’re really worried about a tsunami, why did they build it right on the other side of the bridge, on low ground. It makes no sense. What is really going on here? If they really want to prevent a Tsunami from affecting people, they would have to take us all a long way from here, they would have to build a whole new city. And then how are we going to make a living? ”

The islanders suspect that the official version is a pretext. The real interest, they say, is to get them off the island so luxury apartment buildings can be erected for tourists from the capital, Quito. They mention beach towns such as Tonsupa or Atacames that have already gone down that road, and resorts such as the Decamaron de Mompiche about thirty miles further down the coast. “We don’t want that,” a local grocery shop owner tells me, “tourism, yes, but not that kind of tourism. We ‘re not going to let them evict us so that others can come here and make money out of our Island.”

They talk about people like Pierina Correa, the ex-President’s sister, or his brother Fabricio, while others mention ‘the Chinese’ who, they say, came to explore here before the earthquake. There’s titanium in the black sand they’ve been mining at Mompiche, one man tells me, wondering if that’s what they were looking for. People admit that there’s no evidence or documents they can show me, although they do mention similar cases such as Port Engabao in the Province of St. Helena, where people are fighting not to be evicted from communal lands, to not have developers take over and build resorts that will leave them out in the heat, with no land and no work.

The suspicions were only reinforced by the inconsistencies in the Risk Management Secretariat’s Resolution No. 073-2016, which underpins the proposed eviction. Says Kashyapa A. S. Yapa, an engineer with a PhD from Berkley California. “we’ve analyzed in detail the flood map of the island mentioned in the decree. The map uses references without no technical analytical  weight. The main reference is a degree thesis of an ESPOL-oceanography student from 2004 that sets out a flood zone due to a possible tsunami in the city of Esmeraldas (some 2 hours to the North) by copying the damage that occurred due the earthquake and tsunami of 1906. And in 2012 the Risk Secretariat technicians took the height of that flood and painted the whole island of Muisne red as a risk zone! ”

 

The Concheras of Muisne

Risk there may be, but life itself is a risk, and the Islanders are prepared to stay and deal with it. Father Julio Anan, the catholic priest who participated actively in the campaign to remain, says the Island’s population has the support of his church. “We all decided, priests and religious sisters, to return to the island and accompany the population. There are a lot of very poor people here,” he says, “it’s their home, and what we have to do is help them live a dignified life.”

He does recognizes that staying was not an option for everyone; some lost everything and were forced to leave. A good number ended up living in the shelter operated by the Ministry of Economic and Social Inclusion, MIES, obliged to stay for more than a year in order to receive state support in the form of an apartment. One such person is Fanny Mina, a woman well-known on and off the Island for her long fight on behalf of the women shellfish pickers in the area. “These women” she recounts “were affected the shrimp farmers arrived over twenty years ago and destroyed much of the mangroves we depended on.” Irony then, that now, talking outside the ‘house’ the government handed over to her a few days ago, we can see a shrimp farm, situated just on the other side of the road.

Despite it all, she says, she’s pleased to at last be out of the shelter and its regimented life. “I didn’t really like it there,” she says, pointing to the blue chines donated tents that will be around for a few more days, until all the occupants have gone to their new homes. “Of course, they gave us everything, and it was a great help, but the truth is that it was hard to live in a tent for so long, to have to be home at 10 at night. It was a very regimented life. I didn’t like it. Others couldn’t stand it, left, and as a result didn’t get any help from the government. Nothing.”

Fanny was the first to receive her house, or rather, apartment of 40 square meters. “I feel good,” she says, “but I’m a long way from my neighborhood and the people I know. They gave me this apartment, they say it’s worth US$ 10,000 and I only have to pay US$1,000 in installments over three years. It doesn’t sound like much, but there’s no work in Muisne, and these days I can’t pick shellfish: I’ve got heart and lung problems because of the home made cigars you need to smoke in the mangrove to keep the flies away.” “Besides”, she grins, “I’m getting on in years.”

The problem is real and not just for her. For people who can’t work, have no money and no pension, life will not be easy even with a new apartment. How is she going to pay? I ask myself, and then her. “God will provide,” she says with an unconvincing smile. “How are you going to furnish the house? How what are you going to pay the mortgage?

Each case is different, no doubt for some with families able to support them, the process will be relatively easy, but for others without family resources the story will be different. Forging a new existence away from the surroundings of a lifetime is no small thing, even with a new apartment.

It’s not that life in Muisne was ever easy. “This has been forgotten territory,” says Father Anan, “but the earthquake has put the island in the spotlight both nationally and internationally. Most people have decided to stay, we are united, and I truly believe that the people who continue to struggle in their daily lives will receive God’s blessing.” The priest speaks with surprising solidity, he’s young but quite clear about how important the island is for his parishioners.

What is not clear, on the other hand, is exactly what Rafael Correa was thinking when he signed Presidential Decree 1215. Did he imagine that it would be possible to remove an entire town of ten thousand inhabitants, families that have lived for a century or more on the island? Did he have in mind building a new city, clean and shiny but far from the sea, far from the work, far from the previous life of its population? Who, he imagined, would be in charge of building the necessary houses and facilities in times of austerity? We don’t really know what he was thinking. But what we do know is that the Decree he signed now looks more like a visceral reaction than a considered decision, based on solid arguments and criteria. Or perhaps, as they say, there really are interests in play and that’s why the solidity of the criteria isn’t really important, they simply serve as a way to facilitate the eviction, nothing more.

There is risk, it makes no sense to ignore it. The island is only 4 meters above sea level, but without technical fundamentals it is impossible to estimate that risk and decide on what measures to take. To attempt to expel an entire town without dialogue and without listening to the inhabitants is simply irrational. The population, meanwhile, voted with its feet, returned and wants to stay, knows its reality and has raised its voice. Would not it be logical to help them improve their lives, rather than against them?, asks Father Anan, “The government has to listen to the people, it has to listen to the popular will.” Amen.

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HASTA LA VICTORIA SIEMPRE

2008

 

I am starting to feel a little paranoid. I see irregulars, guerillas and paramilitaries at every table.  I am beginning to feel surrounded. The problem is that we are in Quito, the capital of Ecuador, and the war, they say, is over the border in Colombia.

As I collect my laundry, three chicos are in the shop at the same time.  It is a regular routine in this part of town, the Mariscal, or the ‘zone’ as it is known locally, where the majority of foreign tourists hang out. All three men are in their early twenties, dressed New York Latino style: baggy trousers, t-shirts, sneakers, everything except the hoods. Nothing noteworthy, nothing more than a bit of a swagger, a hint of cool, a suggestion of danger. It is not that unusual.

But there is something unusual about these three. They are not tourists. Their Colombian accents, their severe, military style haircuts give them away, lend more than an edge to their swagger.  After they leave, I speak to the woman who owns the place. ‘I didn’t know the Colombian army holidayed in Quito,’ I say, using a cautiously low tone. ‘ I don’t trust Colombians,’ she replies. ‘Don’t you think there’s a lot of them around.’ ‘Yes, but not like these. No, not like these.’

Are they military? Probably not, not with this kind of look and attitude. More likely they are guerrillas or paramilitaries.  But then who knows. And that is the problem, you never do. What you can be certain of is that all sides are here: on holiday, taking a break from life in the forest or the mountains, looking for someone or other, for information, threatening, coercing, intimidating.

Part of the fallout from Colombian attack on Ecuadorian territory on March 1st is that we now know, for those who didn’t already, or were unwilling to think about it, that the Guerilla, the FARC, or the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia to be more precise, are here, somewhere, amongst us, like fish in water. Before Raul Reyes, the FARC second in command, was killed in the raid, he came and went, unrecognized, dressed, like these three, in civilian clothes. What we also know, is that where the FARC are, the paramilitaries are sure to be close behind. They are also hard to see, impossible to recognize, or at least be certain, unless you know, unless, like Maria Agusta Calle, they put a gun in your face.

Calle is a representative of the governing Alianza País party in the Constitutional Assembly, presently debating the new constitution in Montecristi, close to the port of Manta on the Pacific coast. According to the Colombian government, documents found in the now famous computer belonging to Reyes, link her to the FARC. Messages from ‘Alicia’ (Calle’s cell name, according to the Colombians) were published together with photographs showing her in the company of Reyes’ daughter, and a well known FARC representative in Ecuador, who was said to have been killed in the March 1st raid. Calle has strenuously denied the accusations, and has stated that as a journalist it was part of her work to interview people. And then again, if photographs count as proof of FARC sympathies, ex President Lucio Gutiérrez (who once promised to be the US’ most faithful ally in the region) would be suspect number one: he was photographed with Raul Reyes himself.

Conveniently, from the Colombian government point of view, Calle is also the Ecuadorian representative of the Venezuelan regional news channel Telesur , which allows them to make a putative link with Venezuela. Although, to be honest, Telesur Representative is more of an honorary title than anything else; the network has few subscribers in the country.  That is small comfort however, when you are looking down the barrel of a gun, when your children’s lives have been threatened.

Later the same week I am in a local café watching the Champions League semi-final between Manchester United and Barcelona. The place is full, and I am sharing a table with a couple who support Barcelona. There is something familiar about the woman. I am pretty sure I do not know her personally, but her look is certainly familiar: pleasant, straightforward, somewhat earnest face, straight unadorned black hair, polo neck sweater and plain flat shoes. To me she looks like a guerrillera. We talk about the game; she likes football. I can’t make out her accent: she and her companion speak softly. He is wearing a silk bomber jacket with a Magpies logo emblazoned on it. ‘Newcastle?’ I ask. ‘No, I got it in the Philippines’ he says. I’m tempted to mention that I also know a few people in the Philippines, to drop a few names just to judge the reaction, but in reality there is little opportunity. The game absorbs us until the final minute.  Manchester win, Barcelona sink deeper into a bad season. My ‘friends’ are disappointed.  I wish them good luck, and add conspiratorially ‘Hasta la Victoria Siempre’. But, of course, it could be that they were simply tourists, and bemused by my odd attitude. Who knows?

For me it’s almost become a game: spot the combatant. Fortunately, it’s a game with few consequences in the capital. Quito is generally quiet and, as far as we know, no one has been killed by the enemy, at least in the ‘zone’.  And we all like football here.  If my football fanatic table companions are indeed FARC, then I have no doubt they are not alone. It is quite possible that the well muscled Israeli men I can see over at another table are security ‘advisors’ to the Colombian Military, or that in a café just down the street, possibly talking to other gringos, their counterpart paramilitaries were enjoying the game, just like us. And perhaps Colombian or US military intelligence agents were also watching. Maybe they knew the result before the game was over.

Quito may be relatively peaceful, but closer to the Northern border the environment becomes more complex and dangerous.  Later that same week I find myself at a meeting about 100 miles from the frontier, in a community center situated in a steep valley where a white, presumably clean, river rushes and bounds over the huge boulders that try to block its path. When the gathering is over, the interminable speeches finally terminated and the entertainment under way, we move inside to the community hall as the rain starts to fall.

The motive for the celebration is victory over a Canadian mining company that was finally forced to leave due to pressure from the locals. The battle was long and far from easy, everyone is understandably in a good mood, and we sing and dance well into the evening. Amongst the crowd, I spot a man I had spoken to earlier in the day when we were held up by a landslide on the road into the village. At least I think it is the same man, his face is familiar, but this time he is dressed in green fatigues and wellington boots. A couple of people from the area who are paying attention, and are still relatively sober, remark that he looks like he is FARC.

I say hello and he invites me to step outside to talk. He suggests that I go with him to a local farm with a ‘veterinarian’ who is travelling with him, and a driver who stands close by, saying nothing. I decline politely, saying that I will be staying the night in another community close by.  They seem to lose interest and I see nothing more of them. When I ask, no one seems to know who they are. ‘Do you see anything of the FARC in these parts?’  I ask my hosts later, as we drink our hot chocolate and eat home-made cheese before turning in.  ‘No, not around here, not as far as we know…….’   But I wonder if they do know, and consider it ‘unwise’ to say anything. After all, we are not too far from the border and the guerrilla probably has a fair number of sympathisers  in the area. In retrospect it seems  more likely than not that my ‘friend’ was indeed a guerrillero, and that I unknowingly had an interview with kidnappers. I was lucky. With a few more drinks under my belt, at this moment I might be enjoying lunch with Ingrid Betancourt.*[1]

[1] Colombian presidential candidate who was held by the FARC for 8 years.

REFERENDUM: the after math


Gerard Coffey

01 October 2008

On the morning after the referendum the streets of Quito, the Ecuadorian capital, are normal enough: the sun is shining, shops are opening, smoke belching buses thunder down crowded streets. Only on the paper stands is it possible to see that something important has happened: Yes vote wins, says the headline of the El Comercio, the Capital’s major newspaper. ‘Socialism Under Way’ shouts “La Hora’ the main opposition daily. As for the people themselves, it is hard to discern much emotion. Certainly there is nothing close to the river of elation that flowed through the city after ‘la Liga’, a local football team, was crowned champion of South America.

The previous night crowds gathered outside the headquarters of the governing party of President Rafael Correa; they were jubilant but relatively sparse. It rained intermittently but that’s normal enough here and not enough to keep people away if they really feel like celebrating, or protesting. It seems that most stayed at home after voting; the television channels predicted victory of the YES campaign at around five in the afternoon.

But people are interested. The man who sells me the paper tells me he is for the new constitution. “The only ones against it are the fat cats” he says. But while there may be more than a grain of truth in that, it’s not the whole story. A friend stops me on the street and tells me he voted ‘nulo’. “The President is an animal he says, I wouldn’t vote for him. I wouldn’t vote for the opposition either. But anyway, you know that in this country Constitutions come and go and most of them are not worth the paper they’re written on.”

He is right. Ecuador has had many constitutions since it first declared independence in 1809. Most have been relatively short lived and often treated as inconveniences to be adapted to the needs of the country’s various ruling parties and power groups[i]. Most referendums are also votes of confidence, or otherwise, in the ruling party or its leader. In the case of voting for or against something as complex as a new Constitution , about which few are more than dangerously half informed, trust plays a huge part.

Despite the feelings of my friend and those like him, Rafael Correa the ex-economics professor evidently enjoys the confidence of the population; the results of the referendum reflect a healthy majority in favour of the new Constitution. Voting is mandatory and of those of voting age sixty four precent were in favour and twenty eight percent opposed. One percent was spoiled.

The campaign for a null vote, lead in Quito by left wing ex priest, Eduardo Delgado, found an echo in just over seven percent of the voters, a not inconsiderable tally. The majority were cast by people like my friend who can’t abide Correa’s confrontational style or those who are disillusioned by his brand of 21st Century Socialism. Apparently many are still waiting for the ‘real thing’.

If the null vote is counted as a protest against the President rather than opposition to the Constitution itself, which is a fair guess, then the approval figures would have reached into the seventy percent zone[ii]. A better figure than some observers, including myself, would have guessed before the vote. As is often the case a fair number of No votes were also cast on a personal rather than political basis.

In the local shop the owner tells me she voted no because her god isn’t in the constitution’. I had to admit to being surprised. She is not a person I would ever have considered religious, at least not in the ethical sense. God wasn’t in the last Constitution either, but for the faithful of whatever stripe that’s irrelevant, what counts is the pious opposition of the monsignors and bishops of the Church hierarchy.

According to formal agreements between the state and the church, the latter is not supposed to interfere in political matters, but while not running a formal campaign its pulpit pronouncements about the document being ‘pro abortion’ and ‘pro gay marriage’ were a clear call for a no vote. In the final count the Church’s flimsily disguised campaign probably backfired, helping to secure its passage. In matters of faith the church probably has the trust of the population, but when it comes to earthly concerns few are impressed by its self-righteous disregard for the poor.

The only places in the country where the NO vote did prevail were the Amazonian province of Napo, where ex president Lucio Gutierrez has his power base, and the city of Guayaquil, the last bastion of the once powerful right wing Partido Social Cristiano (PSC ). Napo is not irrelevant, Gutierrez is always capable of making a nuisance of himself, but the major problem is doubtless Guayaquil, the country’s financial centre and major port and its largest city.

Taking the bus down to the coast from Quito it’s obvious that the major battle over the constitution was centred here, principally in the Province of Guayas. Competing signs are still visible even a few weeks after the vote. A quick glance at the slogans painted on every available wall, especially along the roadside, seems to confirm that the NO campaign was more ‘inventive’: no more atheists, no to poverty, vote no for freedom, say no for the dignity of women, are some of the more amusing slogans still on display.

The vote in Guayas Province went to the YES side, while in the city the NO vote edged the YES by a slim one per cent. Neither side managed more than 50%, both claimed the null votes as theirs. The PSC’s Jaime Nebot, the mayor of the city and a three time losing presidential candidate, is the last of the line of a once powerful political lineage whose national influence was slowly but surely eroding until finally imploding when Rafael Correa arrived on the scene. Before the vote, Nebot claimed that if the YES vote won he would not run for another mayoral term in the February elections. He managed to save face, but only just.

He may have only scraped home but Nebot is likely to provide a bit of a headache for Correa. Very popular in the city, it would be difficult to find a candidate with enough credibility to unseat him in the coming election. The added risk is that a Nebot victory over a Correa heavyweight candidate would give the opposition a tremendous boost. The government’s short term strategy is likely to consist of undermining him without resorting direct confrontation. Nebot is also unlikely to openly defy the new constitution. His options centre on opposing Correa’s economic and social policies and on a continued push for autonomy for the city. The PSC have long advocated independence for Guayaquil, their dream being to turn what they optimistically call the ‘Pearl of the Pacific’ into another Singapore, with them at the helm of course. While the current international economic reality has probably dampened enthusiasm for the project even amongst the city’s most hardened free marketeers, there seems little doubt that Nebot and his people will form the nucleus of whatever right wing opposition there is to Correa. They may even have US support in mind.

3.

Back in Quito, on the grungy walls that fence an unfinished and abandoned high rise building close to where I live, I can still see the remains of posters promoting the YES vote. One is particularly appealing. ‘Pardon the inconvenience’ it says, ‘this is a Revolution’. It’s clever, and captures the mood, but it’s not totally truthful.

Despite what the poster and some of the more elevated members of the ruling party say, this is not a Revolution. Correa and his companions are not, as they are wont to claim, the heirs of Ché Guevara. For some, the only real experience of left is the way off stage. But it all makes good listening, and if you are conscious that your strings are being pulled then there’s little harm done. The Constitution is undoubtedly not a Revolution in the Cuban mould, but it’s not a dinner party either. Things are being done in a country where for at least the last fifty years nothing much has been done for anyone other than the rich. Besides, it all depends on perspective. For Sendero Luminoso, Ché Guevara’s revolution was bourgeois, while at a conference in London a young, rather bourgeois looking Bolivian Senator from the ruling party MAS explained that for him Correa’s Revolution was not valid because it did not come from the ‘people’. It all depends on context.

And in the context of recent Ecuadorian political regimes the new government in Quito represents a radical shift, no matter how you brand it. There are of course no guarantees that the promises contained in the new constitution will become reality. The new Constitution and the Revolution will cost money. Much will depend on political will, but perhaps to an even greater degree on the price of oil. Ecuador is an exporter and has benefitted from the sky high prices of the last year or so and the policies of free operations in state hospitals, of free education up to and including study at state university, of rising salaries etc, were drawn up in times of plenty. With the price of oil falling like a stone, financing the new mandate is not going to be a simple as it appeared a few months ago.

The likelihood is, and Correa has been up front about this, that some of the reforms will take time to implement. What he has not said, is that in the present economic climate perhaps some changes will never become a reality. Next year’s budget is still up in the air and will not be published until the global economic crisis settles, presuming that it does, and the results of any OPEC production/price stabilization cuts are clear.

Yet, despite the difficulties, there is a generalized hope that the Constitution marks a turning point, and that however things work in practice, the country has entered a different more equitable phase. The power and the politics behind the new Magna Carta, the form in which it was deliberated, and the general political climate in the region have lead many to think that this time things really will be different. After two years people are still in love with Rafael Correa. At a recent cultural event the audience broke into spontaneous applause when his name was mentioned.

The politics of this government are those of a social democrat regime whose calling card is efficiency. They will make the trains run on time, which would not be an inconsiderable achievement. The norm is also confrontation with those seen as enemies of the regime’s plans, no matter from which side of the political spectrum they may hail. The result has been the creation of divisions within the individuals and organizations that would normally have given wholehearted support the types of policies the government is proposing, and to some degree already carrying out.

The once all-powerful indigenous movement is a case in point. Divided and weakened by the machinations of previous governments, World Bank programmes that hand money out depending on ethnic origin[iii], and by internal political rivalries, the movement has been divided since, and by, Correa’s candidacy. The President has not been kind to the indigenous people, branding the national organization CONAIE as a spent force. It was a pre-emptive strike against a group that could at some point pose a threat, but at the same time a blow aimed at the environmentalists (who Correa has branded as ‘Infantile’) who in their fight against large scale open pit mining are supported by a number of indigenous organizations and high profile leaders.

The movement still supports Correa, with reservations, but the coming presidential and parliamentary elections may change that, at least superficially. All the political parties, particularly those allied in any way to the government now need to find some space for manoeuvre. CONAIE and its political arm, Pachakutik, have chosen natural resources and the Amazon as their battle ground, accusing the government of running an extractivist economy which has negative implications for native people. They are right, but in the government’s defense it’s hard to imagine how, in the short term at least, that can be changed. While the falling price of minerals and the tightening of credit markets may stall many of the proposed mining projects, oil will no doubt continue to be the major pillar of the economy.

The indigenous campaign is also partly for internal consumption, designed to promote cohesion within the movement and recover lost political ground. Whether that can be achieved during Correa’s mandate is debatable, and the risk is that any opposition to projects which will raise living standards of the majority, or are posed as such, will shear away much of the middle ground support the native people enjoyed during the nineties, and to some degree still do. The indigenous movement isn’t going to go away any time soon, but there’s little doubt that they are on shaky ground and that Correa and his people are more than willing to confront them.

The other major split is more philosophical: ends versus means. On the one hand are the Pragmatists[iv] who argue that politics is dirty and to win it is essential to use the same tactics as the right. People get tired of losing and are consequently willing to take something less than the ideal while they wait for the second coming. On the other are the Idealists, who believe that in the long run process is as important as, if not more important than, the results. It is hard not agree if you are looking at the longer term. Alberto Acosta the President of the Assembly that designed the New Constitution, is an idealist.

An economist like Correa, Acosta is the great nephew of José María Velasco Ibarra, five times President of Ecuador[v]. A brilliant orator with a long association with social organisations and the indigenous movement, Acosta later founded the now governing ‘Alianza Pais’ party together with Correa and a small number of collaborators. Elected to the Assembly as the leading government representative, he received the most votes of any of the elected ‘Asambleistas’. During his time as President he was clear that from his perspective the process of political education through constitutional debate was as, if not more, important than the Constitution itself. It’s doubtful that Rafael Correa and his group of pragmatists were in complete agreement[vi].

Clashes between Acosta and Correa became more frequent as time went on, and on…. Clauses were included in the new document that were clearly not to the liking of the Government[vii], and Acosta was finally ousted. His Vice President, the less idealistic and more pragmatic party man, Fernando Cordero, took over and finished the job in record time, while saluting vaguely in the direction of process. Acosta had also become a problem because as President of the Assembly his visibility was higher than that of the President himself. Within the ruling party elite he began to be seen as a possible future threat.

There was a more pragmatic reason for forcing Acosta to step down, one which goes back to the means and ends debate and in which both sides could easily claim to be right. For Acosta the purpose of the Assembly was to write a well thought through, widely consulted and lasting Constitution, and shortening the process would clearly damage the final product. He was clearly right. For Correa and his circle the Assembly had already overrun its temporal mandate and was in danger of becoming an electoral liability rather than an asset. It was. From a purely pragmatic point of view it is easy to see why they felt they needed to pull the plug. They did.

Whatever the internal politics of the situation, Acosta campaigned wholeheartedly for the YES vote.

The new constitution came into force a few weeks ago, after being published formally in the official gazette. One of the most important elements is the possibility of Presidential re-election. After already serving two years, under the provisions of the new constitution Correa is now eligible for two more four years terms. He could be around for ten years, the longest serving premier since Velasco Ibarra.

The prospect of having to put up with both Correa’s in your face style and the social policies being implemented by his government have led many opposition figures to call Correa a dictator, but that’s hardly a logical conclusion. It would be somewhat closer to the truth to call him authoritarian, and there is a fear in some sectors, both left and right, that power will become increasingly concentrated in his hands. But no matter what the opposition might like to imagine, he is a democrat, and the positive aspect of his mandate is that are is that the country finally has a principled, intelligent President dedicated to improving the living conditions of the majority of the population. In contrast to previous Ecuadorian heads of state, that President also has a solid working majority in Congress, and the possibility of getting things done. It is not perfect, and there is a real need for voices to be raised to make sure the administration stays on track, but it is certainly a major advance on corruption, inefficiency and lack of sovereignty of previous regimes.

For decades the proliferation of small parties and ‘movements’ in Congress and consequent shifting alliances, and corruption, led to legislative stagnation, which was used by one economic group or another to further its own interests. Many commentators laid the blame for the country’s lack of ‘progress’ on this lack of ‘governability’. What we have now is not dictatorship but the very ‘governability’ so long desired by many of those who now malign it.

[i] In 2001 when President Jamil Mahuad was deposed by an indigenous/military uprising, the ruling Congress, meeting in Guayaquil, called the event outrageously unconstitutional. It clearly was. Rebellions or revolutions generally are. But when the Vice President was installed, little was made of the unconstitutionality of his appointment. At the time Mahuad was still in the country and legally still President.

[ii] It is hard to be precise but a good percentage of No votes were undoubtedly influenced by the President’s style rather than any concrete objections to the Constitution itself.

[iii] The practice of funding nationalities has meant that many groups on the verge of disappearing altogether have re-emerged. Whatever the merits of this resurgence, it can hardly have helped unity.

[iv] Some call them right wingers, but this is a misnomer. A more apt description would be ‘pragmatic’ or even Machiavellian, but according to its actions it is difficult to see how Correa and his government could be called right wing. The danger is more one of centralisation of power and dependence on the personal power of one person; unless institutionality is strengthened, once Correa leaves the scene the whole project could collapse.

[v] Of his five Presidencies Velasco Ibarra only managed to complete one (1952 -1956), the other four were brought to a premature end by the army.

[vi] Claims have been made about the manipulation of the final document. Articles approved by the Assembly plenary have apparently been removed. Kintto Lucas, advisor to Assambleista Paco Velasco, has stated that a clause related to not ceding legal jurisdiction in disputes between foreign companies and the Ecuadorian state has been eliminated. Kintto Lucas. ODEBRECHT Y LA CONSTITUCIÓN. 20 Oct 08

[vii] The fear exists that as it interprets the Constitution, the newly installed Constitutional Court, now the country’s highest legal authority, will use its power to make some of the provisions more agreeable to the government. The new Court is the old Constitutional Tribunal re named, and self proclaimed, a fact which has led to criticism on all sides of the spectrum as the transitional regime for the implementation of the new constitution laid down a specific procedure for its formation.

 

ARE YOU FOR REAL…

Are you for reeeeel? asks Bill, a big brawny guy who was probably gay. Well, I don’t know, I tell him as we sit around after work. Not that I pay much attention to him. More theatrical than reeel, Bill doesn’t spare anyone his question. Don’t know if anyone ever really answers him, or even thinks about it that much.

What’s for real here on the backstretch anyway, amongst the horse shit and the straw? Maybe what’s real is getting kicked in the stomach or bitten as you’re walking a ‘hot’ because nobody warned you that that horse, the one that just got a hold of your shoulder and shook you around a little bit, is a bit of rogue, a bit nasty.

Maybe it’s just getting up, day after day, at five or so, feeding the horses, working off the litres of beer that you drank the night before, smelling the shit. Not that the smell is bad. In fact you sort of get to like it after a while, let’s say a year or so. But then you probably don’t even notice it after a while, let say a year or so. The others, the ones that don’t work back here, probably do though, judging by their faces.

On the backstretch. Cleaning out the stalls, eating doughnuts by the dozen and drinking coffee by the jug when it’s bitterly cold outside. February in Toronto, in the open, when the water freezes on your hands. Your hands break open, but gloves don’t work, you can’t feel through gloves. The horses breathe steam and everyone stays out of doors only as long as they need to. Head to the tack room, or your room, which is the same but different, full of saddles. Your room has no saddles, no tack, just an iron bed, the smell of liniment, the smell of your boots and heat that would cure tobacco in two hours.

A while back I lived in the room next to old Jack, or Mr Meoff as we used to call him when he wasn’t around. He had worked with the horses for years, liked to talk about the good ones. Couldn’t get the names right most of the time, but we knew what he meant. We found him dead one morning. Got a bit too drunk and choked on his own vomit. Not that it was that unusual, dead that is. There were others, jockeys like Avelino Gomez who went down when his hose fell in a race. And then there were those that didn’t hit the headlines, the ones who died from injuries on the backstretch or the living dead, the kids who did too much stuff, the would-be jockeys who wanted to go faster than their horses, the kids who liked the wind in their face.

Avelino’s nephew, Victor, was a would be jockey, a would be champion like his uncle, or if that wasn’t possible, just a jockey. He was friend of mine, a lanky kid from Mexico, well sort of from Mexico, he may have been born just down the street from the race track for all I know, but that didn’t seem to matter much at the time. Victor had the blood and that was what counted. Avelino was a hero, the champ, the best. Victor wasn’t the best, he was just too big, to lanky and heavy, a sort of Mexican Lester Piggot but without the drive to win. Victor wanted to win in order to drive; life was to be enjoyed on the way to stardom, just in case you didn’t make it. He didn’t.

Victor had a pal, Rubén. Rubén was Mexican too, a real Mexican, from Mexico. We used to hang out together, Victor Ruben and I. Ruben taught me to swear in Mexican: Chinga a su puta madre cabron!!!!!. I didn’t really know what it meant, but I guessed it wasn’t something to say to your girl friend. Ruben was a good guy, and one day he told me he was going to Mexico and was going to bring back hand made riding boots. Did I want a pair? I wasn’t really interested in riding boots. I didn’t see myself as a cowboy, they didn’t have them where I came from and I couldn’t ride. Shit sack was what we called the bad jockeys. Most likely they called me plain dangerous.

But to get back to Ruben. He asked a lot of people, people who were riders or thought of themselves as cowboys. He collected a lot of money. Of course, we never saw him again. I liked him though; he was always smiling.

HE HAS A GUN, AND WE’RE A LONG WAY FROM ANYWHERE.

 

It’s late when we get to the border, high in the chill of the Guatemalan cordillera. After two dusty, gear grinding bus rides from the town of Huehuetenango, I’m tired and hungry. So when the border guard gives me a bad rate for the local money I want to change into Mexican pesos, I don’t see much point in arguing. I just want to get over to the other side.

But the bus is behind schedule, if that really means anything, and the border is closed for the night. Still, there’s beans and rice at the small, dimly lit, one-story house which functions as a restaurant. We’re in a sort of no-man’s land between two border check points and it’s the only place there is. The owner, a round, smiling, dark-skinned woman is sympathetic. She tells me I can sleep, no charge, on the concrete porch of the house, and in the morning walk down the hill to the border post only a short distance away on the Mexican side. It opens at six, she tells me cheerily.

So with a few shots of tequila to dull the sharp points of my concrete bed, I go to sleep in the company of fireflies. I wake at daybreak in the company of vultures and donkeys, slowly rousing themselves from their animal dreams. I check the time and as soon as the big hand hits the twelve and the little hand is on the six I struggle out of my grungy sleeping bag and wander groggily down to the Mexican border control. When I arrive I can see that it’s little more than a small hut, and to my surprise there doesn’t seem to be anyone around. In fact, there is no one around. Whatever my host told me, there’s no activity here. I tell myself it’s Tuesday. Maybe that’s the reason, or perhaps I’m the only person anxious and foolish enough to get up this early in the morning.

I knock and call, and finally a border guard appears. He looks sleepy and maybe hung over. It not really a surprise: there doesn’t seem to be a lot to do around here other than drink yourself stupid. I wonder what it must be like to live in this god forsaken frontier post. I wonder if it’s some kind of punishment. But whatever the case, life here doesn’t seem to have had a positive effect on this particular border sentinel. He’s evidently not pleased to see me. He asks me how much money I have, and tells me that there’s a requirement for people entering Mexico. I tell him what I think I need to have, but my luck is out. He asks to see it. I realise then that I’m in trouble. I don’t have what I told him I did. I’ve calculated exactly what I need to get back to Canada, and what’s in my pocket is all I’ve got, not a cent more, nor a peso less. And it’s not enough to get into the country.

It’s probably an attempt to be bribed, but I’m unaccustomed to the game. I take him seriously when he tells me I can’t get the entry stamp without the money. I tell him it’s in the bank in Mexico City, which could easily be the case. But he doesn’t buy my story, he just wants to be bought, or see me suffer for waking him up. It’s a standoff, and we go our own ways. He, no doubt, back to his bed and tequila nightmares, cursing the stupid gringo who doesn’t understand, wondering if this is part of his bad dream. I head back up the hill in the mist and pale morning sun, past the vultures and the donkeys, who, heads to one side, seem to watch me curiously, perhaps wondering if their own dreams are still not over.

Back at my restaurant where I stayed the night, the owner feeds me more beans and rice for breakfast. She’s sympathetic but either doesn’t understand the problem, or my bad Spanish. Either way, I have to pass through the Guatemalan border post once again. I ask to change the Mexican pesos I got the night before back into local currency. The same guard gives me another bad rate, instead of returning the amount I gave him earlier, as I politely ask him to. I get angry. I call him a bandido. It’s appropriate, but perhaps not so diplomatic. It certainly doesn’t get me a better rate, quite the opposite in fact. Honour offended, he tries to attack me, only to be restrained by the other border guards. It may be show, but I’m not taking any chances. He’s smaller than me, but like the rest of the guards he has a gun, and we’re a long way from anywhere.

The ride back to Guatemala City is not pleasant, it’s just as bumpy as the ride out, but this time I have the worry about what to do next. After a short search I find a hotel, at least that’s what it says over the door. In reality it’s more like a prison cell: damp concrete walls, small window, iron bed and giant cockroaches. The difference is that here I pay, as long as I have money, and can move out tomorrow, if I have anywhere to go. But I don’t; it’s the cheapest place I can find and money is now in seriously short supply.

Early the next day I make my way to the Canadian consulate where they tell me they can’t do anything: although I live in Toronto I’m not a Canadian citizen, just a landed immigrant. Sorry. The British are more sympathetic, they offer to repatriate me, to Britain. I decline. Finally the Canadian Consul suggests that I could wire someone in Canada and ask them to send me money.

The only people I can think of who are likely to have money are Pete and Sue. The problem is that when I left their flat on Butte Street in Vancouver the goodbye was rather strained. I suppose it all started with sex in the afternoon, with a woman Sue obviously was not particularly keen on, and Pete probably was, or at least had been before Sue got wind of it. It definitely came to head after the accident, after I drove the car of that same woman it into the back of her boyfriend’s vehicle as we slipped away from a party. The accident wasn’t serious and though I banged my knee it wasn’t particularly painful. But it was good for a little sympathy. And as we decided it was best to say that she had been driving, I was able to stay out of the way and avoid the worst of the trouble. I felt sorry for her, but I never saw her again.

It seemed like a sign; it was time to leave and head South. I said a rather strained goodbye to Pete and Sue, who had also been at the party, and set off down to the border with the guy who was going to give me a ride to San Francisco. Unfortunately, he forgot to mention that although he was Canadian he had been living in the US until fairly recently and had only left when it looked like they might send him to Vietnam. He was a draft dodger as they called it. I had no problem with that, but trying to cross the border with him was not a smart thing to do. He was probably lucky the US border guards only turned him back. They weren’t known for being generous.

When I showed up again at Pete and Sue’s place I didn’t get a particularly warm reception. I got the feeling that they had seen enough of me for a while. I stayed two days and then caught the bus to Portland. A small girl travelling alone cried the whole way.

So now, three months later, stranded in Guatemala City with no money and no friends, Pete and Sue seem to be the logical if somewhat awkward choice. I console myself with the fact that apart from the recent circumstances, they’ve been good friends and anyway, there really isn’t anyone else. I send the telegram and I wait.

I’m on my own except for the roaches, and I can do without their company. I take to lying down at night with my boots on, suddenly switching on the light and stamping on as many of them as I can. But the brown shirted army can afford to sustain a few losses, and always seems willing to come back for more punishment. They always win, and I turn over and go to sleep. In the meantime they busy themselves eating into the paper bag I keep my daily bread in. On the positive side, they don’t seem to like bananas, the other staple of my meager diet, which unfortunately doesn’t seem to agree with me. I get diarrhea. As I don’t have any money for pills, I just suffer, and try to take it out on the cockroaches.

In the mornings I walk down to the market and buy my daily ration of bread and fruit. In the afternoons I hang out wherever it´s cheapest or just wander aimlessly around the city. In the well to do neighbourhood I watch the rich with their cars and their bodyguards armed with automatic weapons. In the city centre I watch the desperately poor indios and their children selling baked corn bread and vegetables on the street. For amusement there´s the independence day military parade featuring a World War II fighter fly-by.

I talk to the few American travelers that have wandered in, and to the inevitable Peace Corps members, who commiserate with my predicament. I wonder which of them work for the CIA. The days pass slowly. I´m hungry. The smell of tortillas and roasted corn is seeping slowly into my skin.

* events of September 1971

CHECKMATE CHARLIE

March 2006

Berlin brings a lot of things to mind, but I can’t ever remember thinking of friendliness as one of them. So arriving at the West Berlin bus station late one slushy January night, it was with little surprise, and no little dismay, that I listened to the husky voice at the other end of the telephone line tell me that no, it was not possible to stay, that the friend of a friend now ill with a un-named and unconvincing ‘communicable disease,’ would not, as previously arranged, be able to put us up.

A second phone call produced the name of a hostel at which we might find shelter from the storm, a vague address and the number of a bus that would surely take us to the door. Rominter Allee, I said to the bus driver. Jah, he replied as we sat down. But after fifteen minutes of driving through the dark and wet Berlin night, Rominter Allee remained as elusive as a needle in a wet haystack. Aware of our plight, some of our fellow passengers suggested in broken English that, no, this was perhaps not the bus that would take us there, wherever it might be. We changed buses, but our luck was no better. We changed to a taxi. Surely a taxi driver would know the city well enough to get us to Rominter Allee. The driver was more friendly than the bus driver and seemed to know the city well enough. Ah, Rominter Allee! Jah, he said, and we felt reassured. After ten minutes we ended up at a British army base.

We changed strategy. We asked the driver to take us to a cheap place to stay, but after the second three star hotel in a row, and with the witching hour closing in, we had to insist that cheap really meant just that. He finally obliged and although we had no idea where we were, we felt relieved as we ascended the small creaky staircase to our second story room. It seemed like a palace. Our happiness only increased as we drank the bottles of wine that we were no longer obliged to share with our unwilling host.

In the morning our heads were cloudy but everything else was clear. The hostel was located in a reasonable area, the cost was within reach and the rotund and garrulous owner, while not the godmother of last night’s fairy tale, did seem decidedly good natured. The weather was less so, but that and the brick wall visible from our room seemed pretty much irrelevant. We had two days to kill before we left for Poland; we spoke no German, but we had good boots. We bought a map.

We walked and walked. The weather held and a weak sun occasionally poked its welcome face through the murk. We ate bad donner kebabas late at night outside the main railway station, wary of the fierce looking punks and drug zombies that lurked in its dark recesses. We paid the obligatory visit to the Wall and Check-Point Charlie, peering spy like through the mist into the forbidden zone of East Berlin. We took shelter from a tidal wave of demonstrators that moved at surprising speed towards us and away from the helmeted, shielded and truncheoned police that chased them. We made preparations for the journey.

There was the problem of the Polish we didn’t speak, and Polish-English dictionaries, we realized, were not high demand items in Germany. But by then it was too late to worry, we had survived these last days without much German and surely it couldn’t be worse. We made our way to the station as dusk approached and the furtive night dwellers began to take up their positions. We settled into the train’s old style compartment. The only other occupant was a small overweight woman in a fur coat accompanied by two large suit cases and a small son who said nothing. She told us in strange American English spoken with heavy accent that she was from Riga the capital of Latvia. The train jerked, clanked, and left the station.

Unexpectedly, we stopped a few minutes later in East Berlin; Soldiers lining the platform. This was not part of the agenda. No one else was visible apart from a man in a different colored uniform who we took to be the station master. Our traveling companion who might have been expected to know more than us, looked disturbingly confused. Passengers began disembarking while we looked at each other in panic. Did we need to change, perhaps this train only went as far as East Berlin and another would take us on to Warsaw. We had no idea and no way of asking. We looked at each other blankly. No, we should stay on the train. Yes, we should get off with our bags.

The Latvian woman decided to make her move, lowering her bags and disembarking. We decided to follow suit. We changed our minds and put them back on. We took them off again. We asked the station master about our destination. He looked at us disdainfully, spoke a few words we did not understand, and moved away, imperiously issuing orders. We walked up and down the line of soldiers who stood, impassively, bayonets fixed, along the length of the platform. They were guarding something but it wasn’t clear what. Keeping us in, or keeping others out? We pleaded with one who seemed to show just a flicker of sympathy. “Warsaw, Warsaw,” we said, gesticulating as if somehow our hands would magically would produce the answer our words could not, but the guard stood mute. There was no other way out. We got back on the train and waited.

Events of January 1990

I WILL NOT STAND IN THE WAY: Jamil Mahuad and the revolt of January the 21st

I WILL NOT STAND IN THE WAY

25th January 2000

By Gerard Coffey

The week of the 17th of January begins slowly. There is a sense of expectancy, but the signs are contradictory and it is hard to define the mood. The strikes by bus and taxi drivers are petering out: an agreement has apparently been reached with the government. The public school teachers are still out, but no one pays a much attention, perhaps because it’s such a common occurrence. Some roads are blocked, but there is little evidence of the indigenous uprising called for later in the week. The government apparently senses victory, and presidential spokespeople seem relatively relaxed.

The confidence does not last. As the week progresses, the situation begins to change. The Ágora of the Casa de la Cultura Ecuatoriana, a huge barn of an auditorium with a capacity of some 5,000, has been chosen as the venue for the native groups that we hear are on their way to the capital. And as Monday wears on people do begin to trickle in and the numbers inside the building, although small, grow steadily throughout the day. Stories circulate about others being stopped on their way by the military, taken off buses or trucks or whatever form of transport they try to use. The tactic is not new, and not particularly successful: the larger groups simply splinter and take other routes.

In the evening, the new arrivals are camped outside, exhausted after their long journey, sleeping in tents in Parque El Arbolito, or wherever they can find a space: under the building’s exterior colonnade, on the ground, under the stars. Long lines of people wait uncomplainingly to be fed from huge cauldrons that serve dozens at a single sitting. Inside, speeches reverberate in the brittle air of the half empty concrete shell, tirade after tirade launched against the government and its policies. Cheers and chants rise up sporadically: Viva la Patria, Viva el Ecuador, Abajo Mahuad, abajo la dolarización!

There’s little food and even less medicine for the people who begin to arrive the following day. Many women have swollen feet after walking with their children from communities located hundreds of kilometres to the North and South of the Capital. Others arrive complaining of stomach problems from drinking tainted water, their children suffering from exposure to sun, cold and rain. Everyone is hungry. But, perhaps surprisingly, despite the difficulties, they keep coming, and by the end of the second day a couple of thousand native people in traditional dress are lodged inside the hall.

The marchers continue to trickle in throughout the night, and by dawn on Wednesday the numbers have swollen, perhaps doubled. The speeches and chants are louder and more frequent, reinforced now by other groups that begin to link up: unions, students, clients of failed banks, retired soldiers. In the afternoon, a clearer picture begins to emerge. The leaders of the ‘People’s Parliament’ (I am officially an adjunct to the so called ‘communications team’ which has no real structure and does very little) will meet with the Military Joint Command. The Military will maintain order, they report later, but are open to dialogue. Later that afternoon the association of retired police officers and the association of retired infantrymen promise their support. A major change seems to have taken place, the resignation of previous days has given way to expectation, and barring some sort of appeasement from the government side, an upheaval now seems inevitable, probably imminent.

As Thursday morning breaks, the numbers have grown further. The huge hall is now full of indigenous people from all the mountain provinces: it is a mass of brightly coloured clothes, banners, music, conversation and announcements about the progress of the movement. It is no longer possible to call it anything else.

At midday the mass leaves the Ágora and marches out onto the streets. Intersections are blocked and traffic diverted for hours while the protestors sit in the road and sing the national anthem. Surprisingly perhaps, the police maintain a respectable distance. No tear gas is fired and no injuries are reported. There is to be a press conference at 3 o’clock, where the major speaker will be Monsignor Lunar Tobar of Cuenca, country’s third most important city located some 12 hours to the south. The nominal President of the ‘People’s Parliament’, the popular Lunar Tobar has been roundly criticised by the church’s eminently conservative hierarchy for siding actively with the indigenous people and the so called social movements.

But the event never takes place, and the main body of the 8,000 or more people gathered outside the Agora now begins to move up the hill towards the national Congress, taking up positions to block all access to the building. The protestors, in particular the women from the Province of Cotopaxi with their traditional hats and skirts, are determined that no one who enters will leave, and that anyone looking vaguely like a Congressman or an advisor will not be treated kindly. Some are able to evade the throng, others are not so lucky. A number of men sporting suites, and unknown to the crowd, are taken in hand. Most take it seriously and offer little resistance. They are lined up against the wall and verbally harassed. Some are cleansed by a shaman who bathes them in the smoke of traditional herbs.

One man, who doesn’t seem overly keen on the idea, is hauled by his tie over to the main body of protesters and verbally harassed. The head of the Political Committee of the People’s Parliament also falls victim to the general desire to humiliate parliamentarians. He generally wears a suit and tie, unfortunately marking him as the enemy. He is surrounded and harangued. Unrecognised by a group of fierce looking indigenous women, he is about to be dragged off and ‘cleansed‘. He shouts to me, begging to be saved. I do him the favour.

At about half past seven in the evening, the crowd seems relaxed: chatting, eating whatever is at hand, moving from one spot to another in small groups, watching to make sure that no one can leave the Congress building. The atmosphere is quiet, there is little activity and it appears that everyone is settling in for an all-night vigil. I don’t know what the strategy is, and from all appearances this is to be a thing of days. I try to leave, there doesn’t seem to be much sense in staying overnight, or maybe I’m just too soft, but whatever my reasons the guardians of the lines, the same indigenous women from the south, are not keen to let me pass. Gringos are not welcome they tell me. Fortunately I have my credential from the ‘People’s Parliament’, and with a little discussion, and shouts of “we don’t want dollars” I’m accepted as an ally and allowed to pass without incident.

It’s the night of the 20th, the night of the lunar eclipse, the red eclipse. In a café down the hill from the Congress building we drink till about ten and then go home to rest and prepare for the next day’s events. Later that evening the television news programmes show images of small scale skirmishes around the Congress building; groups of indigenous people are repelled by tear gas and a strong military presence. But it doesn’t appear to be serious.

Much to our surprise the cordon is breached in the early morning, and the multitude enters the Congress with the help of a group of mid ranking military officers. I enter with the crowd and stand high up in the balcony listening as Colonel Lucio Guttierez, the apparent leader of the military faction, makes a speech of patriotism, honesty and respect, while the crowd shouts, cheers, and sings the national anthem. There is a lot of confusion, and the thousands crammed into the legislative building all seem to be shouting at once: ‘the government of the corruptos and the bankers has fallen’, ‘the people control the country’. It is hardly that simple. The President of the country’s leading indigenous organisation CONAIE, the Amazonian Antonio Vargas, is not popular with all factions and there is a sense that the occupation of congress does not have the support of some established leaders from the Mountain provinces. There is also the small matter of the rest of the armed forces and the government itself led by President Mahuad, although no one seems to doubt that the majority of the country supports the uprising. Whatever the case may be, there is an overwhelming sense that there is no turning back.

The atmosphere is hard to describe. Most of us in the building have this strange feeling, this intermingling of exultancy, suspense and anxiety, of hoping that things work out, that we do rather than die. But no one knows for certain. So we busy ourselves with the ‘People’s Parliament’, which now installed emits its first resolutions. In a frenzy of voting legislation is passed: to prosecute fugitive bankers, unfreeze funds, cancel the state of emergency imposed by Mahuad, depose the President and cancel the dollarisation of the economy; the Sucre is declared to be once again the national currency. Huge cheers erupt from the seats of a Congress Hall now occupied by multitudes of multicoloured ponchos that rise and fall in seemingly never ending waves.

But the passion wanes and amount of legislation we can think of shrinks, so we pass the hours listening expectantly to the few radios that are available. The military is with us here but not there, in Guayaquil the Governor’s Palace is occupied, the occupiers are then dislodged. In Cuenca the story is similar, while just down the street from the Congress, the Supreme Court is occupied. The once reluctant taxi, bus and heavy transport drivers have now decided to throw their lot in with the indios. They are jeered, but not rejected. The Colonels are to give a press conference in Congress. The press arrives, some sneered at and jostled as accomplices of the government. Colonel Cobo is angry, shouting accusations at the President and the press. We wonder if anyone will broadcast what he says. We doubt it. The television channels are not sympathetic.

Rumours circulate that a tank division is on its way from the military base in Riobamaba, four hours to the south. The news is worrying, but there is little to do but wait, the action is now all outside: the situation will be resolved in other parts of the country, in other buildings, on other streets.

I’m a press officer but there’s not much to do. We talk about translating some of the news bulletins that are being produced, but apart from the reporters allowed to broadcast the ad hoc press conferences, there’s little way to get information to the outside. In the press room a few news men, isolated inside the building, sit watching television reports. We consider smashing the sets to keep them from hearing the biased information and staged interviews being shown on the national networks. In the end we leave them alone, deciding that they can’t do much harm. We wander aimlessly around the Congress floor, sit and listen with friends and colleagues, speculate on how the new government will be, what it will do, who will form part of the great experiment. We try to find something to eat or drink and, above all, we wait, we wait and we wait.

Radio reports are now saying that that Mahuad has been asked to resign, but that he rejects the idea. Other bulletins have him fleeing the Presidential Palace and the country. Peter Romero, the ex U.S ambassador to Ecuador, broadcasting from Lima, threatens to isolate Ecuador. We will turn it into another Cuba, he says. His statement brings a little light relief to the situation. We laugh and joke but the serious side soon intrudes. There are reports that documents at the Central Bank are being burning, that bankers and businessmen are ready to board planes, that they are sending their money out of the country in suitcases, although the truth is that here inside the building no one really knows what is going on.

A small number of soldiers suddenly rushes to the outside of the building. They are unarmed and ask us to circle them, to form a human shield and protect them from the troops they say are now approaching. We are prepared, and go outside with them, thinking little about what may come next. I am surprised at my lack of reflection. It is not something that I would have expected of myself. I am not a physically brave person: what is operating here seems to go beyond that. But the tanks and the troops never arrive, and we return, wearied, to the interior of the building.

At around four o’clock the battle appears to be over, or rather not to have begun. The tanks have apparently turned back. Generals Paco Moncayo and Rene Yandun, heroes of the 1994 border war with Peru, arrive, saluting the Parliament and stating their support for the indigenous people and the military who ‘have bravely faced up to the economic powers of the country’. The presence of Moncayo, the head of the Joint Military Command during that conflict, is the most significant. Respected by almost all sectors, he is an elected Congressman and the public resignation of his seat, his submitting to being cleansed by shamans on the congress floor and his strong support for the new parliament, serve to strengthen the crowd’s resolve. With him on board there is a feeling that the rebellion has succeeded. Only the press, the elites and, of course, the U.S. are on the other side. It’s hard to believe, but it looks like the country is about to change. It is hard to believe, and to be honest I don’t know whether we do.
Reports now confirm that Mahuad has fled, and the crowd is anxious to march on to the Presidential Palace. At six thirty a huge throng of ten or perhaps fifteen thousand people moves off through the narrow streets of a colonial sector jammed with people. The clamour reverberates off the centuries old buildings as people salute from the balconies, throwing flowers and confetti. At times it is hard to move, or to stop. A cordon of civilians surrounds the unarmed military contingent, which in turn surrounds General Moncayo.

The day is fading, and we near the Presidential Palace we are told that the palace guard has orders to shoot if necessary to secure the building. As the crowd makes its way through the streets close to the main square, tear gas begins to rain down, we duck for cover while the military contingent goes to the front. The tear gas drifts away and negotiations take place while the mass waits patiently, hoping not to fall at the last hurdle. Finally the police and the military guard withdraw and the multitude enters the Plaza de la Independencia: triumphant, singing, shouting.

In the square even the cigarette and the soft drink sellers seem relaxed. Mahuad has gone, the bankers and the right wing have been overthrown. Indigenous, Military and Social movement leaders salute from the balcony of the Presidential Palace. Thumbs are raised. The new government of national reconciliation is declared. A chance to start over. Ama quilla, ama shua, ama llulla…… No lying, no stealing, no laziness. The ‘Indios’ have returned after five hundred years to save us from ourselves.

The mood is peaceful, and by midnight people are beginning to drift away; as we walk home the roads are empty and the silence profound, surprisingly complete.

At home we watch the formation of the National Salvation Government on television: General Mendoza, the head of the Joint Military Command, Antonio Vargas, the President of CONAIE, and Carlos Solorzano, the head of the ‘People’s Parliament in Guayaquil will form a triumvirate. We sleep fitfully, wondering about a possible backlash. But it doesn’t seem to matter much; all that will be dealt with that later.

At five a.m. the phone rings. The triumvirate has fallen. Mendoza has resigned. Mahuad’s Vice President, Gustavo Noboa, has been asked to form a government, although by who is not entirely clear.

As the light breaks over the city, Ricardo Ulcuango, the vice president of CONAIE, is standing outside the Congress building, speaking to a large group of indigenous people from the province of Cotopaxi. “We will surround the building and defend it. If they try to dislodge us,’ he says, ‘we will be ready”.

The mood is tense as our small group waits for the troops to arrive, for the inevitable fight, which we will inevitably lose. But Antonio Vargas arrives first. We will leave peacefully he says. We will be back if necessary. There will be tears, but there will be no blood. He gives a final press conference in the Congress building. Not everyone agrees; many want to stay and fight. The police and troops arrive, weapons at the ready. The occupiers leave en masse. The U.S wins the round. The bankers breathe a sigh of relief.
The old Congress, meeting in a hotel in Guayaquil condemns the coup. Noboa, the new president, speaks to the country. Mahuad speaks from a house in Quito. “I am still the President,” he says, “but I will not stand in the way”.