POINT COUNTERPOINT* – Of democracy and constitutions and how the indigenous movement changed the nature of political power in Ecuador.

POINT COUNTERPOINT* :Of democracy and constitutions and how the Indigenous movement changed the nature of political power in Ecuador.

February 2000

by Gerard Coffey

On Friday the 21st of January of the year 2000, more than 500 years after the arrival of the Spanish in the “New” World, the Indigenous people of Ecuador held, if ever so briefly, the reins of power in its hands. That they did so by taking over the Congress and the Presidential Palace with the help of sympathetic mid ranking military, and not through the ballot box, has led to some debate over the political nature of the event. Those who finally retained power have charged that it was an unconstitutional and undemocratic action, and that those who occupied Congress on the 21st and subsequently deposed the President, should be charged with sedition and punished, according to the new President, with the full weight of the law.

Unfortunately, while they may be technically correct, their point of view loses much of its weight given that the accession of the new President, Gustavo Noboa, is also unconstitutional, as the previous president, Jamil Mahuad, refused to resign and should therefore according to the supreme law of the land still be the true president. It should be mentioned that there is one point on which both sides agree, constitutional or not, Mahuad will not be back.

Further complicating matters is the fact that Mahuad himself apparently approached the armed forces with the idea of taking control in an unconstitutional “Fujimori” style take over. Of course, when talking of Fujimori it might be worth remembering that his running for the Presidency of Peru for the third time is also ‘unconstitutional’.

So one might be forgiven for asking what exactly is the constitution, and what is or isn’t constitutional or democratic. What was it about the actions of the indigenous movement and its allies that provoked the chorus of cries of unconstitutionality? Perhaps the answer lies in the fact that the winners write the history books, while the losers go home, or to jail. That the provisional “National Salvation Government” which the indigenous people championed, finally had the ground cut out from under it by the Military member, General Mendoza, who resigned under pressure from the United States, is undeniable. That the indigenous people went home the next day, and a new “constitutional” president was proclaimed is also clear. This is apparently what makes the occupation of the Congress and the installation of a new popular government more unconstitutional than other “events” which have been swept aside as irrelevant by a wave of official press coverage.

What is perhaps more relevant is the question of whether we should be debating the constitutionality of this “dark episode”, as is charmingly referred to by the press and others whose morals and judgement have been stunted by self interest, or rather the value of democracies and constitutions which serve only as a guise for the most appalling acts of robbery and corruption. Should we talk therefore of constitutions or should we rather talk of ethics?

If the constitution is a set of rules to which all generally agree to abide in the best interests of the people of the country, but which are evidently, as in the case of Ecuador, unable to control the avarice of the bankers and the corruption of the politicians, how then can these vices be rooted out? What should one do if the very apparatus of rule making and change is controlled by the politicians and bankers who benefit from the status quo. The case of President, ex-president, Jamil Mahuad makes the dilemma extremely clear.

With a campaign financed in the main by one banker, who is in jail waiting some sort of “trial” for withholding taxes and embezzling clients through loans to non-existent companies, one could be pardoned for asking if Mahuad was able to act independently. It is also interesting to note that the ex-president’s campaign also received contributions from companies with state contracts, and that the one huge campaign contribution only came to light because the Banker’s crime was of such a nature that it was politically impossible not to jail the man, who unlike the other robber bankers, was arrogant enough not to flee the country. In a flurry of counter charges the contribution was revealed. Unconstitutional – no. Unethical – most certainly.

Another amusing anecdote also illuminates the problem. In March of 1999, after a bout of bank failures, inflation and devaluation, which at one point took the exchange rate of the national currency from 5,000 Sucres to the dollar to18,000, before “dropping back” to around $10,000, the government declared a banking “holiday”. Banks were closed for three days, after which all accounts were frozen. Some of those accounts, in particular terms deposits, have never been unfrozen, and their owners will now have to wait up to ten years to get their money back. After investigation, one Congressman made it public that members of the Presidential Cabinet and personal circle had, forewarned, taken all their money out of the country. No legal action was ever carried out. Unconstitutional – No. Unethical – absolutely.

Finally it is worth mentioning that in order to save his government, ex President Mahuad was on the verge of making a deal which would have allowed Abdala Bucaram, another deposed President, and one who has a string of corruption charges against him, to return to the country with impunity. No comment.

And so to the dilemma of the indigenous people. What to do when all the cards are stacked against you. When the majority of native people live without basic services, and around 80% of all Ecuadorians, indigenous or not, have an income equivalent to about US$1.50 a day. Constitution or ethics? The choice was, and still is, brutally clear.

Ethics and justice demand that corruption be rooted out, that inequality be levelled and that political and economic structures be changed. The need for dramatic change can hardly be doubted from the overall economic picture. The national currency lost 75% of its purchasing power: it was devalued by 300%, in only one year. Thousands of millions of dollars were spent on bailing out banks while spending on social services was cut to virtually nil. The price of basic foodstuffs increased between 50 and 100% in the week after the unconstitutional “dolarisation” of the economy was announced. And in reality, the country does not have sufficient dollars in order to exchange all Sucres, and therefore had to resort to maintaining term deposits frozen.

That the need for drastic change was supported by the vast majority of the population is made dramatically evident by the fact that after the indigenous people and their allies took over the National Congress and installed a popular parliament, the act was supported by a an overwhelming 70% of the population. And that according to a poll taken in a country where 90% of people cannot pay for telephones with which to answer pollster’s questions.

However, necessary or not, supported or not, ethical or not, the United States intervened to convince the Military member of the Triumvirate which was to clean up and reorient the country that he should resign and thus restore democracy and respect for the constitution. It did so with threats that the country would be isolated and cut off from all support. Turned into another Cuba. On whose behalf did it intervene one might ask ? A political concept? On behalf of the global political/financial/commercial system which it supports and controls ? On behalf of the 80% who can barely feed their families?

And so now things have “returned to normal”: the 20,000 indigenous people who took over the country’s roads and the capital city Quito have gone home; a number of the colonels that bravely supported the indigenous people and their allies in making the necessary changes will be tried by the military courts; arrest warrants have been taken out on the indigenous leader Antonio Vargas; the new government has been formed by the same politicians who have haunted the scene for the past twenty years, and are implicated through their direct or indirect associations with the economic policies, and sheer robbery, which have impoverished millions; the economic policy which was the basis for the uprising is unchanged. And now the trouble with normal is all too easy to see.

It seems almost inconceivable that the new “constitutional” government would simply continue blindly with the policies of the previous President, almost. It seems incredible that it doesn’t seem to matter that by doing so, the anger and resentment within the indigenous population and the lower ranks of the military will be pushed out of sight until the next time, and that the plight of the marginalised 80% of Ecuadorians will be made worse.

There appears to be a certain amount of panic within the political ranks, which for a day saw the control of their domain slip away, and only with the help of the United States and the shameful support of almost all the press, were able to maintain themselves and their system in place. Now that the power of the indigenous people, and the level of support for their ethical vision of government have been made plain, the economic changes that the government is proposing will have to carried out quickly, in time to avoid the next uprising. The panic can also be seen in the fact that instead of negotiating, the government has rushed to issue a warrant for Antonio Vargas, which if executed would almost certainly lead to an even more serious revolt. The feeling that this government is even more unstable than then last is unavoidable.

In the meantime the allies of the “constitution” are raising their voices. The official Catholic Church for example, in the name of Monsignor Mario Ruiz, hypocritically condemned the “Coup” while also stating that there was a social debt to be paid, but was silent on how this debt was to be repaid by present policies, or exactly how the injustice which the official church supposedly opposes, could be changed “constitutionally”.

So where does all this leave us? With an indigenous movement strengthened by the realisation of its own power; with an armed forces whose actions were ethical but which have been condemned; with an economy in ruins, and a political class desperate to finish the job of neoliberlising the state.

John Maynard Keynes once pointed out that in the long run we are all dead, but Keynes didn’t live in the Andes and his western view of economics never envisaged the tenacity with which the indigenous people have held onto their culture and economy during a long night that has lasted five hundred years. The fact that this time the native people were ultimately deprived of their opportunity to transform a corrupt and oligarchic country is, in the long run, unlikely to matter. The native people have stated that they are open to dialogue, but that the dialogue will need to be about fundamental change. If these fundamental, and fundamentally needed changes are not achieved, there seems little doubt that they will be back.

As Salvador Quishpe, one of the principal indigenous leaders stated, the major objective was to show that the indigenous people had the ability to hold power, and by doing so to reinforce their demands for a new social and financial structures based on ethics and justice for all Ecuadorians. And the likelihood is, United States or not, that in the near future they will achieve it.

* with all due deference to Aldous Huxley.