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”.