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.


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.



Man in a Hurry, Better be Careful: Rafael Correa and Ecuador’s Citizens’ Revolution*

21 October 2009

If politics really is the art of the possible then there is one certain way to judge a government, by comparing it to its predecessors. By that standard the administration of Rafael Correa Delgado is good, perhaps very good. This does not imply that it is perfect, rather that before Correa arrived on the scene Ecuador had suffered through decades of right wing, liberalising, corrupt and/or repressive governments, sprinkled with some half hearted attempts at social democracy. It is worth pointing out that in the period between 1996 and 2006 alone, nine presidents came and went, leaving the country crying out for ‘governability’.

Now the country has governability, and not everyone is happy about it. Electoral democracy has returned a government with a programme, the National Assembly is in the hands of the governing party, Alianza Pais, and the programme is under way. The President is personally powerful, has solid support throughout the country and seems determined to push through his generally progressive agenda. His version of social democracy is anything but half hearted and has carried all before it.

But, suddenly, something is not quite right, being a strong man with an agenda does not seem to be enough. The steamroller that was Alianza Pais is still moving forward, but has been slowed by a sudden surge of opposition. The country, the social movements, cried out for change, and they have it, but it is not exactly what they had in mind. As for Correa, it has become evident that anyone who wants to change things in a hurry better be careful. As Machiavelli shrewdly noted, there is nothing more difficult: those who benefitted from the old order are enemies, while those who may benefit from the new are still lukewarm.

From the beginning the government’s agenda has been full to overflowing, and beyond, and while points such as the closing of the US base have been almost unanimously popular and relatively easy to achieve, others needing fundamental legislative changes have proved to be somewhat less straightforward. The newly elected National Assembly may be under government control, but it is now in the process of considering some of the most contentious elements of the legislative programme, and is finding itself swamped.

For many sectors of society used to having influence over government policy, the principal problem is not lack of time, but that now they don’t. The press squeals mightily about independence and freedom of expression and runs its almost permanent anti Correa campaign, while retired military officers meet and ‘talk’. But the marginalised people and sectors are not confined to the right. For some on the left the lack of a real revolution leads to resentment, while for many social movements even mildly progressive governments are a problem. The opportunity for influence or profile, the possibility to put a particular programme into operation, or even receive a decent salary, are hard to resist, but weaken movement leaderships, while differences of opinion between supporters and opponents of a regime can provoke confrontations and internal ruptures. And with a robust government such as that of Rafael Correa, such problems only become more acute.

From the start Correa’s electoral strategy has been to play to the middle. The government has been careful to not align itself with any activist group or movement, even going so far as attempting to marginalize those that could either challenge or derail the agenda. The President has often gone on the offensive, belittling and even insulting particular organisations and people, in an effort to keep the road clear. In a country where the tough man, who ‘wears the trousers’, plays well to the crowd, it is an astute electoral tactic; if Correa does not attack you, it probably means that you are irrelevant.

Water Water

The indigenous people hardly fall into the irrelevant category. For the last twenty years they have played a fundamental role in combating regressive governments, and with the virtual demise of the union movement – with certain important exceptions – they were the only social force capable of doing so. The indigenous movement reached a peak of sorts with the downfall and exile of President Jamil Mahuad in 2000, but while visibility and approval brought positions of influence, above all locally, it also created fissures within the movement itself which diluted its historic agenda and resulted in a loss of ability to mobilise. A slow decline set in.

Since the disastrous experience off participation in the electoral victory and early stages of the Lucio Guttierez government (2003-2005) the indigenous leadership has been looking for opportunities to recover lost ground. Opposition to a Free Trade Agreement with the United States during the presidency of Alfredo Palacio (2005-2007) provided an opportunity, but what was regained was almost immediately lost. In 2006 the Correa candidacy split the movement and delayed the campaign of the high profile Indigenous candidate Luis Macas, who eventually polled only 2% of the vote. It is unlikely that Macas would have won in any case; the indigenous movement is not strong enough to win alone. But the affair was indicative of the troubled relationship the ‘indios’ had with Correa right from the beginning.

While Correa’s apparent scorn for the movement may be a backhanded recognition of its importance, it has understandably not been well received. His ex press secretary, Monica Chuji, recently accused him of racism. And perhaps it was naive to expect that people whose struggle is based on achieving dignity and recognition would simply take verbal attacks lying down, whatever their political position may be. A desire for reprisal is understandable, and recently the combination of a number of problematic elements has provided indigenous leaders with the opportunity to hit back.

The major dispute is over water. After years of corruption and chaos there was an evident need for profound reform in the way water was distributed and controlled. The administration stepped in with a proposal to centralise planning and authorizations and take control of what is increasingly being seen as resource more vital than oil. Seven versions of a proposed new law have been written, consulted and changed. Now the legislation is in the hands of the parliamentary committee charged with providing recommendations to the National Assembly as a whole.

Apart from issues related to pollution, costs, and how to organise management of water sources, there are very basic issues here for the indigenous communities, living as they do where much of the water is generated. Control is at the heart of the debate. The new legislation clarifies that water is strategic resource controlled only by the state, prohibits privatisation of water in any form, and sets priorities for use, with human consumption and food sovereignty in first and second place. But if in the final analysis the state controls, then, obviously, the indigenous communities do not.

Water and mining are also intimately related – a mine requires huge quantities of water and no one has yet come up with a non polluting mine – and according to the proposed law water for mining projects considered to be in the national interest can become a priority. Most of these projects are located in the South of the country close to the border with Peru, where a number of deaths occurred during recent protests by indigenous Amazon communities over the decision to allow their lands to be sold to resource companies. The trouble in Peru was a warning sign. And although the context was less ominous, it was nevertheless obvious that this was not going to be easy to resolve.

Nor was it a new issue. For the government mining has been a troublesome issue from the outset. Despite all attempts to override the opposition, initially in the environmental arena, it has never entirely gone away. The President has called the environmentalists ‘infantile’ and generally tried to paint them as a minority wanting to hold back the whole country, but their arguments have found an echo in the situation and political needs of the indigenous movement. Correa has been firm in his support for mining as a substitute for oil, his argument is that the country needs the revenue to pay for social programmes. It is hard to disagree, unless you are waiting for the ecological revolution. According a to a Shuar leader “it is preferable to have no roads or light, but to live healthy lives, without pollution.”[1] It’s an interesting proposal if you still have the option, but most people in Ecuador don’t, and that includes most indigenous people, and in fact they aren’t really interested. Some sort of ecological revolution may be inevitable, but it’s not likely or perhaps even possible that it start in Ecuador. Interestingly, oil extraction is also a heavy user of water, but no one seems to be proposing to deprive the country’s oil fields of water.

The downside of the uprising

For the national indigenous federation, CONAIE, the presentation in parliament of the administration’s new water legislation provided the moment: the leadership called for a national indigenous uprising. Marlon Santi, a leader from the Amazon region and President of CONAIE, called the legislation ‘genocide’. It may have been a bit of an exaggeration, but it was sign that the cards were down and all sides were betting. Correa did his best to belittle the effort, but took the precaution of visiting a number of indigenous areas. There were other protests under way at the same time, in particular that of the teachers, but this seemed likely to be the first real test that the President and his team had faced in its two and a half years in power.

Initially the government appeared to have gained an easy victory. In the mountain provinces, where opposition was expected to be strongest, the uprising basically collapsed after less than a day. It was in the southern Amazon provinces where the resistance surprisingly took hold. Tellingly, one indigenous leader from the Shuar nationality was quoted in a national newspaper as saying that “the water is ours, and we are going to defend it”. [2] Local organisations, in particular Shuar dominated groups, refusing to abide by CONAIE’s decision to call off the uprising, continued to protest.

A major confrontation with police ensued: tear gas on one side and shotguns on the other. A large number of people were injured, both police and civilians. One man, a Shuar, died after being hit in the head by a projectile. Santi and another prominent indigenous leader from the mountains, Humberto Cholango, hastily rushed off to the Amazon to join what proved to be the crucial battle.

Who actually started the exchange isn’t all that clear. Everyone blames everyone else. The police, who were under orders to clear the road, were blamed by the indigenous groups while the government, citing high numbers of police injured by shots, claimed the armed Shuar were to blame, that the police carried no, live ammunition and that dead man had actually been hit by a blast from a shot gun. A commission has been appointed to investigate the man’s death.

Whatever the causes, the effect was to first heighten the tension and then bring both parties to the table. After a dialogue in the Presidential palace which basically consisted of an hour long verbal confrontation, six points were agreed, including permanent dialogue, discussion of the water legislation and now, controversially, investigations into a Shuar radio station which the government claims incited violence during the protest. Regarding the water legislation there will be dialogue with CONAIE, but other, smaller, indigenous and campesino federations want their say, and they are allies of the government.

The government also agreed to a dialogue with the national teacher’s federation (UNE), which was probably lucky to have been able to tie its colours to the indigenous war horse.

Smelling of Roses?

Some observers have stated that both parties came out of the conflict on the winning side. Correa is now seen to be a more flexible and less confrontational, which is one of the more general complaints about his government. The ‘indios’ have gained as they are seen to be responsible for finally making him listen. Indigenous leaders have even stated that the movement has been strengthened by the dispute. This is doubtful. The focal point of the movement now seems to have shifted to the Amazon where, incidentally, ex President and likely future presidential candidate, Lucio Gutierrez, has his electoral base. But in the mountain provinces the uprising failed, and indigenous leaders still appear to be caught between a rock and a hard man.

In the Amazon, there are now calls for an autonomous region, where no mining, oil or hydroelectric projects will be allowed, where the indigenous population controls everything. Autonomy may in fact have been at the root of the trouble. Unsurprisingly, Correa has completely rejected the proposal. Other proposals call for 50% of revenues to go to indigenous authorities in the region, revenues which presumably can only come from extractive industries or electricity generation projects. Neither scheme is likely to have a major appeal for indigenous communities in the mountains.

The outcome of the ‘permanent’ dialogues remains to be seen. Rafael Correa has his plans and will likely stick to them, he is not for turning. But in the short term he may well pursue a more tactical course and possibly tone down the confrontation. However if he doesn’t get his way, he may well call an election or a referendum based on the most contentious issues. Contingency plans are probably already under discussion.

Humberto Cholango, the vice President of CONAIE, recently stated that what he wants is a President who comes from the ‘people’ a person with humble origins. [3] Exactly what he has in mind is not clear. He may be thinking of an indigenous President, a la Evo Morales, something that still appears to be a distant dream, or even of Alberto Acosta, the ex president of the Constitutional Assembly and founding member of Alianza Pais. Acosta was rather unceremoniously dumped by the ruling party when he became too popular and appeared to be leading the new Constitution in a direction and at a speed that did not suit. He has been active recently and may be considering, although very privately, a run for President if the omens are right. Acosta, who is not of humble origins, has a long history of involvement in social movements and may well be more receptive to environmental and indigenous demands, but whether he would be more radical or more effective is another question. And, of course, he would have to win.

Finally, it is worth keeping in mind that this is not a revolution, that Rafael Correa is not a revolutionary, at least not in what has come to be regarded as its classical form, and that Ecuador is not Venezuela or Bolivia. What the Cotozens´revolution is, on the other hand, is the first serious attempt in many decades to rework a very one sided and hidebound social order, to shake it out of its post colonial roots and create a more responsible, more efficient, and more equitable society. That has always been the Rome, to which there is apparently now more than one road.


[1] Cited by Huberto Cholango, President of the indigenous organisation Ecuarunari, in an Interview published in the national daily El Expresso.

[2] Cited in an interview with Jorge Jurado, head of the National Water Authority. El Comercio 3 October 2009. P 20

[3] Interview with Huberto Cholango, published in the national daily El Expresso.

If anyone wants to reprint this article, please feel free to do so along as the original source is credited.

* Published by

Rafael Correa and Twenty First Century Socialism


Gerard Coffey*
Quito August 2007
It was the decade of the indigenous peoples. The nineteen nineties saw a tide of anger and hope sweep them and everyone else, we imagined, towards a different, more equitable land. But it didn’t quite happen that way. Now new hopes have bubbled up in the form of Rafael Correa, elected President in 2006 on the basis of a radical platform that is challenging entrenched economic power and promising to usher in ‘Twenty First Century Socialism’. Correa’s first major test will come on September 30th when a Constituent Assembly will be elected with the goal of changing the way this small Andean nation works. Things appear to be going to plan, but there are growing doubts about what that plan is all about.

This is not the first time in the recent past that hopes have been raised. A national unity government was installed in January 2000 after a rebellion overthrew the then President, Jamil Mahuad. It collapsed after only three hours when the military withdrew its support under pressure from the United States, which threatened to blockade the country and ‘turn it into another Cuba’. For many the prospect did not seem so terribly threatening.

Two years later, Colonel Lucio Gutiérrez, the military leader of the early stages of the rebellion, entered the 2002 presidential race with the backing of the majority of social groupings including CONAIE, the country’s major indigenous organisation. The ex-military man talked the talk and, allied with CONAIE’s political arm, Pachakutik, topped the first round of voting. He went on to be elected President in the second.

There’s many a slip between cup and lip as the saying goes, and this may be the most generous way to sum up the experience of the Gutiérrez’ mandate. His dramatic change of direction took most by surprise and it was perhaps inevitable that many (of us), desperate to believe, were loath to admit our mistake: legitimising a neoliberal regime whose president boasted of having signed an agreement with the IMF in ‘record time’ while promising to be the US’ most faithful ally in the region. This was not part of the plan.

Heavily criticised for their role in the Gutiérrez government, it was no surprise that the demoralised indios should play little part in the mainly middle class inspired demonstrations (aided by a withdrawal of US embassy support ) that forced Gutiérrez himself to flee in 2004.



Hopes bubbled to the surface once again as Gutiérrez’ Vice President Alfredo Palacio came to power vowing to restructure the nation. In retrospect his administration was more than a little disappointing. While not totally inept, his government was characterized more than anything else by a type of ministerial musical chairs in which many were called, but few retained. Rafael Correa, a relatively unknown economics professor who became the first Minister of Economy of new government, fell into the latter category. A socially progressive nationalist with an interest in the fate of more marginalised groups, he seemed bound to meet resistance. He did, and after three months was ousted, amongst other things for refusing World Bank loans and proposing to raise money by selling bonds to Venezuela. But unlike other disposable ministers he did not return to the shadows.

Whether the Presidency itself was always an objective is unclear, but once out of office the ex minister certainly lost little time in declaring himself to be a candidate. He had the profile: a US educated economist, born and raised in the coastal city of Guayaquil, he was a personable man with a strong commitment to social justice. To top it off he was articulate, good looking and knew how to play the part.

Correa hit the presidential road early. Before most of the other left wing possibles had even declared themselves, or were fighting the Free Trade Agreement and Occidental, he could be seen touring the country shaking hands, talking and smiling, always smiling. His advantage was that of being a newcomer at a moment when all parties and all politicians were being branded, justly or otherwise, as inept.

Even so, others were seen as more likely winners. Correa was clearly middle class and struggled to make a connection with the marginalized districts; he appeared to be toiling in the wilderness, stuck in fourth place. On the left, Luis Macas, the leader of CONAIE and one of its most respected figures, appeared to be a more solid candidate, capable of taking votes from Correa. There was even some suggestion that Correa and Macas might run on the same ticket, but there was never really any serious dialogue (just some tersely worded letters) and a union of the two forces never seemed likely.

Radicalising his position, Correa became more popular. He finished second in the first, and first in the second and ultimate round of voting, trouncing the clown prince of Ecuadorian politics, the neoliberal Alvaro Noboa, also the country’s richest man. After such a long time the political landscape of South America was changing and it appeared that the kind of change which had seemed so close on other occasions, might now, just, be within reach. As for the Macas’ campaign, it started late, dogged by internal differences. He polled only 2.5% of the first round vote.

The major question now was, just how far would Correa be able, and willing, to go. The initial signs were not encouraging, the new cabinet was hardly a group of revolutionaries: some had questionable politics and others little or non. Several were even booed at their inauguration, calling the President’s political wisdom, and his agenda, into question. There were high notes however. Alberto Acosta, a committed social activist and internationally recognized economist, became minister of Energy and one of the political driving forces of the regime. The cabinet was also noteworthy for the inclusion of several female ministers, including the Minister of Foreign Affairs and the Minister of Defense, subsequently killed in an unexplained (military) helicopter crash. No native people were included, so this was clearly not a government of national unity.

In Correa’s defense it is clear that the plan has always been comprised of two halves: before and after the Constituent Assembly. The difficulty, that of getting from the first to the second stage, the before (and during) always likely to be more difficult than the after. Correa’s Presidential campaign tactic of  running without a party to back him in Congress, on the basis that the legislative body was not ‘fit for purpose’, proved to be effective but also something of a double edged sword. Unable to get crucial legislation passed, his programme has been characterized by promoting the Assembly and baiting the local oligarchs and the (their) mainstream press. After some political bloodletting from which Correa has not escaped unhurt, a referendum on holding the Assembly was finally authorized, and in April of this year approved by more than 80 % of voters. Present indications are that the government list of candidates will win handily.

Unsurprisingly, the opposition, which now somewhat ironically seems to be coalescing around deposed President Gutiérrez, has been fighting back. The government has been snared by a hostile Congress, but the lack of cooperation may have backfired as the legislative body is one of the least respected institutions in the country and its reform the single most important, and popular, plank of Correa’s political platform. Frequent personal attacks, above all by the media, helped along by the President’s sometimes erratically confrontational style, have been used in an attempt to undermine his popularity. And while his support has dropped, to around 70% at last count, his challenges to the media, the bankers and Congress have raised the profile of issues previously discretely ignored. His often polemical style may even have solidified hardcore support for his program. His courage is evident, even when he oversteps the mark.


Courage he may have, but can Correa win a majority in the Assembly? and if so, how will that majority be used? What is the long-term plan?

The first question seems the easier to answer. The bewildering number of candidates (more than 3,000 for 124 seats) and the prohibition on most traditional forms of advertising may favour the traditional parties and already established names, but the overwhelmingly positive response to the Referendum indicates that the government list, headed by Alberto Acosta, is likely to get a majority.

On the negative side, the experience in Bolivia has shown that a majority may not be enough. There, the two thirds majority finally agreed for major constitutional changes mean that Evo Morales needs allies in order to achieve his goals, and the Correa government may well find itself in a similar situation. Even if, perhaps especially if, an overall majority is obtained, the right’s tactics in Bolivia have shown that violence and major disruptions may be aimed to slow or even put an end to the Assembly’s work.

For the long term, there are pointers. Correa is an integrationist – Latin America for the Latin Americans you might say – and as such supports a common currency for South America. He has paid off Ecuador’s debt to the IMF and taken the country into the Banco del Sur, the Chávez backed alternative which is presently grounded on the rocks of Brazilian resistance. Correa has promised not to renew the lease on the American base in the port of Manta when it comes up for renewal in 2009, and has stated his liking for a Quito-La Paz-Caracas axis, while playing safe by simultaneously strengthening ties to Brazil and its drive for Pacific Ocean outlets to Far East markets.

In the meantime there is work to be done at home. The administration’s position isrumored to be divided internally between right and left and it is totally dependent on the President and his public image; it also has many enemies. The relationship with the military, whose higher ranks are holdovers from the Gutiérrez period, is one of mutually cautious acceptance, while the lack of the type of grassroots support that sustains Morales in Bolivia is a real handicap. The Ecuadorian leader has shown a distinct lack of interest in uniting the social forces that might sustain him in difficult times. He seems more interested in keeping them at arms length for political purposes while forming his own grassroots support. Hit out at the Right while letting the Left distance and divide itself.

It’s not a new strategy. The gamble is to maintain high overall public support by appealing to the middle ground. One crucial difference, is that the kind of legislation that might keep some of the more traditional allies onside, even if marginally, can not be passed while the present Congress is in office.

The tactic may still prove workable but Correa needs to be careful not to overstep the mark. The use of force to suppress campesinos demonstrating in the South of the country against mining development was a major error. Many communities are fighting back after feeling the sharp end of the miners pick, but present legislation is of the Father Christmas variety, written a number of years ago under the auspices of the World Bank, and cannot be changed given the attitude of Congress.

Correa has said that Assembly can resolve the problem, but the use of violence against people trying to defend their land has shocked many and lead to increasing levels of scepticism amongst would be supporters.

Perhaps the sceptics are right, Correa and his Twenty First Century Socialism could be anything. He would not be the first to approach the Presidency like a violin, picking it up with the left and playing it with the right. But many (including myself) are still doggedly hopeful that he won’t disappoint, as so many others have before him, and that at worst he may prove to be a social democrat able to remove at least some of the more glaring injustices in this country of so much poverty and inequality. And while Alberto Acosta forms part of the administration, the signs will remain positive.

* Published in the e-bulletin  Focus on Trade of  Focus on the Global South, this is an updated expanded version of an article which appeared in the September edition of Liberation (UK) <>