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.



ENEMY OF THE STATE: The battle over sustainable development in Intag.

by Gerard Coffey

Born in Cuba, Carlos Zorrilla left the island when he was 11 and emigrated with his family to the United States. But the promised land did not live up to his expectations. Like many of his peers he found it hard to accept the war his adopted country was waging in Vietnam, not to mention the politics of then President Richard Nixon. So he left, looking for somewhere to live in peace. In 1978 he found himself in the Intag valley in Northern Ecuador where, he tells, he found an attractive agricultural area populated by solid and supportive communities. So he stayed. “I love agriculture” he says with a smile.

Attractive is probably an understatement.  Intag, located in the western foothills of the Cotacachi volcano in Imbabura Province, some 150 miles south of the Colombian border, is warm, green and unequivocally beautiful. Populated in the late nineteenth century by families that migrated from other parts of the province, the area is a sub tropical and primarily agricultural district with plenty of water, high levels of biodiversity and spectacular landscapes.

But the story of Zorrilla and Intag is not one of bucolic bliss. As he found out, peace and harmony do not come so cheaply. There is copper in the hills, and twice in recent decades mining companies have come looking for minerals to exploit. “The first we knew about mining in the area,” he says,”was in late ninety four, when Bishimetals, a subsidiary of the Japanese multinational Mitsubishi, showed up. At the beginning we didn’t know why they were here.”

It didn’t take them long to find out, and the following year Zorilla and others, including a local priest, set up DECOIN (Ecological Defense and Conservation of Intag). The goal was to protect the local environment and implement sustainable development projects. “We knew that the projects were going to be important for the area’s future,” says DECOIN’s now president, Silvia Quilumbango. Time seems to have proved them right. One of the most important results of the group’s efforts, and presently the area’s most important product, is the organic coffee produced and sold internationally through the local coffee growers association (ACRI). “There’s a global market for the coffee,” adds Zorrilla, presently DECOIN’s executive director, “but it’s not the only positive consequence of the work we’ve done over the years, Intag also has a growing tourism industry. That was our initiative too.”

There was a less positive side to the mining company’s presence, explains Zorrilla. Conflicts sprang up, local communities took sides for or against the mine and what it represented. It wasn’t possible to be neutral. The disputes came to a head in May 1997, when hundreds of demonstrators came down from their communities in the hills to occupy the Bishimetals camp. After three days of ‘dialogue’, tempers frayed, part of the camp was dismantled, the equipment was removed, and what remained was burned. The predictable response was not long in coming, in the form of prosecutions. A number of community leaders, including Polivio Perez, a local leader from Junin where the mining concession is centered and who is still involved in the fight against the proposed mine, were the subject of legal action. For a time Pérez went into hiding[i].

Faced with solid local opposition backed by substantial international support, including in Japan, Bishimetals decided to cut its losses and in 1998 packed up and left. But the peace proved to be short lived. Six years later the Canadian company Ascendant Copper arrived, and with it came new and increasingly severe conflicts. The company used more aggressive tactics than Bishimetals, and the fight intensified. There were death threats and intimidation; clashes between pro and anti mining groups become more common.


Part of the problem, explains Zorrilla, was a parallel community association, CODGEM, set up by the company to create divisions amongst the local the communities. The organization had links to what he generously calls ‘unpleasant’ characters, at one point being directed by a former parliamentarian, Ronald Andrade, in whose hacienda four people linked to the drug tradewere killed[ii].  Andrade, who was accused of having links with convicted drug king Oscar Caranqui[iii], is presently on the run, and now appears on the INTERPOL’s  ‘most wanted’ list.

And in December 2005 history repeated itself. An Ascendant Copper work camp was burned down, some 300 people agreeing to take collective responsibility for the act.

As a prominent member of the opposition Zorrilla was in the eye of the storm, finding himself the subject of a preventive detention order. Fortunately, he says, the decision was overturned: according to the judge there was insufficient evidence to warrant detaining him. He was also accused of ‘robbery’ and ‘harm’ by an Ascendant Copper employee. The incidents allegedly took place while she distributed company information at an anti mining demonstration in front of the Ministry of Energy and Mines in Quito.[iv] The complaint was also dismissed. According to witnesses and footage taken at the protest, Zorrilla took no part in a confrontation between protesters and the company employee. Not a hair on her head was touched, he adds.

The complaint may not have had a solid basis, but it was enough to induce a raid on Zorrilla’s home by the police. Weapons and drugs were said to have been found, and in October 2006 a case was brought against him for illegal possession of arms and narcotics. Once again he walked free. In March 2007 the case was thrown out after the local prosecutor declined to accuse him[v].

Not that he was alone. As Zorrilla points out, he was just one of the targets of the company’s aggressive tactics. A group of 30 people led by company employees attempted to lynch Polivio Pérez, but he managed to escape. His motorcycle did not: it was thrown into a ravine. Masked gunmen entered a house where a group of environmentalists were holding a meeting; tied them up and stole their equipment.

Other events were more serious. In December 2006 a group of 15 armed security guards attacked opponents of the mine with tear gas and firearms. But they got more than they bargained for. The locals regrouped and took them hostage, together with 40 other guards sent to build a camp, and held them for six days in a nearby forest. The guards were released after the National Department of Energy requested that the mining company refrain from any further activity in the area.[vi]

In the long run the opposition proved stronger and more numerous, and in 2006, the last month of President Alfredo Palacio’s mandate, they managed to once again stall plans to install the mine. But as with Bishimetals, the company’s exit was not the end of the story. Ascendant Copper brought a claim against the Ecuadorian government for having terminated the concession. Carlos Zorrilla is now a key witness for the defense.

The third time – lucky for who?

The battle over, the breathing was easy, but as Zorrilla points out, no one was fooled, “we were always on the alert” he says. The companies had gone, but the copper was still there, and that meant that the miners would likely be back at some point, in one form or another. And they were right.

This time, the third, it is President Rafael Correa, a former finance minister in the Palacio government, who is leading the offensive. And the battle could prove even tougher than before. Alianza País, the governing party, has the resources, controls the security forces and enjoys a high level of national support. So there was little surprise when on the 26th of July 2012 it was announced that Correa had signed an agreement with Chilean authorities to revive the project in Intag; Chile is to participate through the national mining company CODELCO. The road map was now drawn, and for good or bad, Carlos Zorrilla, the most visible of the local opposition, was once again at the forefront of the conflict.

In the circumstances it is perhaps not that surprising that the president should assail the Cuban -Ecuadorian. In one of his Saturday ‘Enlace Ciudadano’ speeches, he linked a manual on non violent resistance co-written by Zorrilla with a demonstration in which diplomats from Chile and Belarus were harassed. “I had nothing to do with the demonstration organized by the now closed Pachamama foundation,” he protests. “nothing at all. To connect me with it is simply an attempt to discredit me, because in the president’s view I represent an obstacle to his plans, so he has to get me out of the way.”

“The irony,” says Zorrilla “is that the manual was written to deal with illegalities and abuses committed by of transnational corporations, and when government agencies are mentioned, it suggests cooperating with them.”

Given the time he has been living in the country (with four children born here), it is not hard to understand him being offended by the President’s words. “I’m not at all surprised to be verbally attacked by the President,” he says, “that’s the nature of politics, but what does surprise me is being labeled a destabiliser who is promoting foreign interests and interfering in government policy. It’s an outrage. And as for calling on people to react, that’s nothing less than stirring up xenophobia.”

He is concerned. Being designated by the President as an enemy of the state, complete with photos, is few people’s idea of a good time, and could quite easily have consequences for him and his family. Amnesty International concurs. In December the international institution issued an alert[vii] which noted ‘a growing concern for the safety of Carlos Zorrilla, environmental activist from Ecuador, and others who have protested against development projects in the Intag region.’  Zorrilla tells that in that month the police visited his house on the pretext of a carrying out a survey. They took pictures of the property, he says.

In the final count, he comments, “It’s wrong to say we’re getting in the way of the country’s development. What I and others represent is a different vision, a proposal for another way of living, a way of life that has more to do with Sumak Kawsay[viii] (Buen Vivir) than a development depending on the extraction of minerals. We’re not naive or destabilisers, we’ve seen the results of mining in Peru, and believe me, they’re not pretty. Here in Intag we’ve got another vision of the future.”

All mines pollute.

What he says is hard to deny. Mining is one of the dirtiest industrial extractive activities. If drilling for oil can cause serious environmental consequences, mining is clearly worse, and in Intag the proposal is not for one, but several mines. “Copper is not like gold,” says Zorrilla, “deposits are scattered, so mining in the local Toisan mountain range would be a disaster,” adding for good measure that the mining sector is the biggest polluter in the U.S.

Of course, not all mines or mining companies are alike; there are ways and ways of extracting metals, some better than others. Official sources in Ecuador talk of using leading edge technology, but in the end even the best technology in the world cannot eliminate the solid waste caused by opencast mining. And there is an awful lot of it. From what is known, the concentration of metal in the Intag concession is around 0.7 %, which means that 99.3% of the removed rock ends up as waste. For every ton of copper, more than 99 tons of rock are mined and then left lying around. Apart from the tremendous amount of land needed to store the waste, or mine tailings, an added problem is that the latter are not inert. “They can release heavy metals and trigger acid drainage” explains Zorrilla, “causing serious impacts in the environment, especially rivers. And here we’re at the headwaters of several major river systems that feed the coastal region, and in an area where the rain is a strong and permanent presence.”

But the arguments did not bend any official ears. According to the state mining agency, Enami EP, present holder of  the mining concession in Intag,[ix] in order to obtain an environmental license from the Ministry of Environment, ‘it is necessary to comply with favourable, documented administrative acts approved by various authorities, amongst which, according to cantonal economic development land use and social planning, is the Cotacachi Municipal Council [x]’. And the acts, of course, require site measurements.

Orders may be orders, but Enami’s words did not carry much weight in Intag either. Site visits and measurements might be ‘necessary’ for the mining agency and for the Ministry of Environment, but when technicians from both CODELCO and the national mining company tried to enter the Junín area of in September 2013 accompanied by police, the local response was to block the road and keep them out.

Rafael Correa ‘s reaction was blunt. “Let’s learn from this…not to allow a few to hinder the progress of the many and undermine the common good; to reject these people who with pretty labels such as the ‘right to resistance’ want to impose their group, family or individual interests, and undermine democracy itself… Have faith in this government” he concluded “one that seeks nothing for itself, but for you. Responsible mining can get people out of poverty, in particular the people living in these areas.”[xi]

So the battle goes on. At the moment the confrontation is no more than verbal, but there is always a danger that it will become violent. The president, as is his wont, does not seem willing to compromise his position, and opponents of the mining project are sticking to theirs. They have been through these battles before and don’t doubt their ability to resist.

Development and El Buen Vivir

It is true that in Ecuador there is a lot of poverty, that is to say a great many unmet basic needs, and it is equally true that to meet those needs – providing drinking water, sanitation, education and health services – money is essential. Few would doubt it. The question is not whether to try to resolve the problems, but how. For President Rafael Correa it is crucial to use the resources available to the country to maintain social and infrastructure programs that will improve Ecuadorians’ lives. Faced with an uncertain oil future, he might say, there is no sense in being beggars sitting on a sack of copper.

The inteños who oppose the mine protest that protecting the area’s environment is not simply a matter of keeping their land and way of life unsullied. Nor is it designed to impose their agenda on other Ecuadorians. They proffer economic arguments related to the value of  ‘ecosystem services’ for the country. Silvia Quilumbango explains that “our position is not uninformed rejection. As regional leaders in generating financial resources for communities in alternative ways – by respecting nature, by respecting local customs – we have consolidated a less damaging development model and don’t want it to be ruined.”

A study done in 2011 by Earth Economics[xii] shows that the value of the environmental services that would be destroyed by mining in Intag could be greater than the value of copper extracted. According to the document, by applying a 3% discount rate, ‘…we find that the 17 ecosystem services examined provide an asset value of between $3 and $ 28 billion. This shows that the current natural and agricultural systems of the Intag region are enormous national assets. Because natural assets appreciate, rather than depreciate over time, the actual discount rate is likely closer to zero.’

‘In our research’, the authors continue ‘we found that 17 of 23 ecosystem services across the land cover types in Intag provide the regional and national community an average of $447 million in yearly benefits.’ They end by saying that ‘The overall conclusion of the report is that economic development within the Intag region is best achieved by tapping the vast value that ecosystem goods and services provide…’

The authors explain that the study is not the final the final word on ecosystem service valuation for Intag, nor a full ecological economic analysis. What is does represent, they say, is one part of a debate that is not happening. It is just the first step in understanding the economic and social risks of mining in the region.

Laudable goals

As might be expected, not everyone in the Intag area opposes the project; some see benefits in the presence of a mine and the jobs that it may create. The question is how significant a proportion of the local population they are. The president of the Apuela Parrish Council puts it another way, claiming that the percentage opposing the mine is less than 20 %, while Enami sources speak of majority support based on a survey commissioned by them.[xiii] For Zorrilla the numbers lack validity. “In the zonal and county meetings,” he says “the proportion opposing mining is 90 %. As for the polls, I have no idea where or how they were carried out.”

Notwithstanding the differences between sectors of the local population, external factors could have a decisive influence on the fate of the proposal. One is the international price of copper. The metal has fallen about 25 % from its high point of U.S. $ 4.50 in 2010 to around $ 3.30 today, even though still high compared to historical levels. In 2004, for example, copper traded at less than a dollar a pound.

Much will depend on the Chinese. The country consumes 40% of global production and any reduction of demand will clearly have an impact on copper prices and hence the profitability of mining in Intag. Will the price of the metal rise or fall? Opinions differ. For some[xiv] it is likely to remain stable, while for others a dramatic drop is possible, above all if the housing bubble driving Chinese demand finally bursts. There is also talk of a significant oversupply of copper in 2014, as well as the existence of millions of unreported tons[xv] Both factors could cause a significant price decline in the near future.

Whatever happens to the price of copper, the basic question is how much destruction can be justified in the name of building a more modern and equitable society. And while it is true that all human activity has a negative impact on the environment, the argument is clearly insufficient. As the Earth Economics study implies, the environmental and social cost of open face mines in the Toisán Cordillera could exceed the value of the extracted copper. And that without considering ‘remediation’, the skeleton in a mining industry closet that no one wants to open.

The question becomes even more important in an area where for decades people have been trying to develop less harmful ways to make a living. The opponents of the mine ask why the government does not consider the long term benefits other options might provide for the country, for example improving the area’s tourism infrastructure – a pillar of the plan of the previously loudly proclaimed Plan del Buen Vivir – or promoting the production and export of the area’s organic coffee.

Whatever is finally decided, the real battle Intag is clearly not about the few imposing their agenda on the many, or a personal dispute between Carlos Zorrilla and Rafael Correa and his government. Nor is it a matter of bad faith. Rafael Correa wants to use the money from the mines to improve the lives of the many, as he would say, while the inteños are trying to prove, with some success, that another world is possible. These are laudable goals, but clearly mutually exclusive.

Resolving this clash of interests is important for the Intag area, and for the country as a whole, but the best way to do so is not by personalizing the debate and demonizing Zorrilla. The tactic is grotesque, and probably counterproductive, but more to the point it obscures what is basically a conflict between two ways of seeing and living in the world, and two ways of reading economic texts.

[i] In 2008 Perez and other community leaders around the country who had been living in the shadow of jail sentences for their efforts to protect land and resources, were granted an amnesty by the National Constituent Assembly.

[ii] La Hora, Imbabura.  Clues to the massacre in Otavalo appear. 16 January 2007

[iii] Caránqui, the self named ‘Jaguar’ whose book ‘La Roca: Cementerio de los Hombre Vivos’ (La Roca: cemetery of the living) was confiscated by the police in February 2013, was himself killed in July 2013 in the ‘La Roca’ jail in Guayaquil while serving a 25 year sentence for drug trafficking.

[iv] The demonstration took place in July 2006.

[v] World Organization Against Torture: Ecuador: Judicial harassment against Mr. Carlos Zorrilla.

[viii] Sumak Kawsay  or el “Buen Vivir” is enshrined in the constitutions of both Ecuador and Bolivia, referring to a way of living that promotes social economic and cultural rights as well as a more harmonious relation with nature. Sumak Kawsay is contrasted with ‘extractivism’ and the emphasis on an economy whose singular goal is the pursuit of money and economic growth at all costs.

[ix] The concession encompasses an area of 4,956 ha in the parishes of García Moreno and Peñaherrera, more specifically in the community of Junín.

[xi] ENAMI Noticias: President backs work of Enami EP in Intag, and rejects sectors that impede the common good.

[xii] Earth Economics An Ecological Study of Ecuador’s Intag Region: The Environmental Impacts and Potential Rewards of Mining (2011). Earth Economics is a non-profit organization based in Tacoma, Washington, EE.UU.

[xiv] Jesse Colombo Forbes Magazine: If This Chart Breaks, Copper And Copper Exporters Will Plunge. 13 November 2013

[xv] Tatyana Shumsky. Wall Street Journal. Millions of Tons of Metals Stashed in Shadow Warehouses. 27 December 2013.


There are always surprises, but probably not this time

13 February 2013
Hugo, Chavez, South America´s best known politician may, or may not, recover from what is obviously an extremely serious illness. But even if he does manage to recover, it seems unlikely that he will be able to maintain the political rhythm he and his followers have become accustomed to. Whether dauphin Nicolas Maduro or any of the other ‘pretenders’ could steer Venezuela as successfully as Chávez is an unknown, they have had plenty of time to prepare, but that does not always make it any easier, as others in similar situations have become painfully aware.

The larger question related to Chávez is his influence outside of his home country. He is the undoubted leader of the more radical brand of ‘twenty first century socialism’ and although the oil keeps flowing, the most prominent critic of United States influence in the region, although the Brazilians and the Argentineans , while not receiving the same attention in US media outlets, are in practice very little behind the Venezuelan leader. Who will inherit the Venezuelan leader’s legacy is therefore an important question for the stability of the region and its continued fight to free itself from the political and economic interference of the United States.

Heinz Dietrich, inventor of the ‘twenty first century socialism’ concept, has publicly speculated about who could possibly take Chávez’ place on the international stage, if that should prove to be necessary. Dietrich´s conclusion was that Rafael Correa, the Ecuadorian President, was the most obvious candidate, while warning that “Ecuador does not have the necessary clout that would enable Correa to fill the void that Hugo Chávez is leaving” . And while Correa himself has declared a lack of interest, there is little doubt that given his charismatic personality and evident ability to communicate, that welcome or not, he could easily find himself receiving increasing amounts of international media attention over the next few years.

There is a small problem however. The Ecuadorian president´s mandate runs out this year and the post Chavez debate will hardly concern him if he is not reelected in next Sunday’s (February 17th) presidential elections. Correa has never lost an election, and the opinion polls do in fact predict a win, with possibly enough votes to avoid a second round run-off. Unfortunately, the pollsters’ research is generally considered to be unreliable, lending the process a slight air of doubt, and there is at least a slender chance that another candidate might upset Correa´s apple cart, and set the pundits scurrying to find another ‘successor’ to Hugo Chávez.

The magnificent seven

Of the seven candidates challenging Rafael Correa, only two, the banker Guillermo Lasso and Alberto Acosta , the candidate for the left wing front, Unidad Plurinacional, appear to have any real chance of springing a surprise. The other five are in the race to position themselves for future electoral races (Mauricio Rodas of SUMA, although this could also apply to Lasso); consolidate a new party (Norman Wray, Ruptura); or to preserve their party´s seats in the National Assembly (Ex President Lucio Gutiérrez, Sociedad Patriotica, and Nelson Zavala of the PRE). The last of the eight, the curiously comic banana magnate, Alvaro Noboa, appears to be running in response to a battle over taxes, using the campaign in a rather futile attempt to take some measure of revenge on Rafael Correa.

While Lasso and Acosta may have to be given some sort of chance of forcing a second round of voting, for this to happen the pollsters would have to be making dramatic errors. With only a few days to go before election day, Correa is apparently riding high. In a poll carried out by ‘Perfiles de Opinion’ the incumbent had a voting intention of more than 60%. Others are not so generous, but no one gives him less than the 40% he would need to secure a victory in the first round. Acosta´s campaign people put him at 15% and growing, but even that, or Lasso´s 20%, would be far from enough to take either of them into a second round.

Guillermo Lasso´s numbers also probably represent the limit of his popularity. The banker likely has a high negative vote given that he acted as a chief economic advisor to ex President Jamil Mahuad, in exile since a financial meltdown threw the country into chaos in 2000; the destructive effects of that period have not been forgotten. Perhaps understandably, Lasso has been notably absent from the political field in the intervening years. The financier´s recent resurgence is due in part to the right´s need for a challenger who is not Lucio Gutiérrez, the very same colonel who led the military-civilian coup that toppled Mahuad, and who, despite finishing second in the last presidential election, is not viewed with much enthusiasm by the country´s right wing elites. Lasso’s campaign has also been helped by the financial resources at his disposal, and the fact the bank of which he is the major shareholder (Bank of Guayaquil) provided a convenient pre campaign promotional vehicle.

But the avuncular Lasso´s links with Mahuad have quite understandably been a problem for his now apparently stalled campaign. He is too easy a target and his presence as a major candidate speaks volumes about the lack of options on the right. The economy is another factor. The financial elites are doing quite well thank you very much; the country´s economy is rolling along at a healthy rate (last year GDP grew at slightly less than 8% and is projected to grow at around 4 to 5% in 2013) and are understandably ambiguous about fixing something that is evidently not broken.

The country´s economic health and Rafael Correa´s use of the available resources to bolster investments in Education and especially Health, an area where the results are more immediate and more than evident to those with little money have brought him high levels of approval throughout his mandate. The middle classes meanwhile have their salaries and expanding opportunities as well as a much improved highway system and a new airport. Overall social spending has, in fact, risen substantially, although in percentage terms the rise is not quite as impressive and Ecuador remains in the mid-lower ranks in terms of social spending as a percentage of GDP.
The fact that corporate power has grown under the present government is one of the major reasons cited by followers of Alberto Acosta (Unidad Plurinacional or Plurinational Front) for their opposition to Correa´s re-election. And while it is evident that with a healthy economy the wealthy are bound to do well, even consolidating their power through the proliferation of economic groups and a concentration of resources , the lack of change in the productive matrix (recognized by Correa himself) and the very slow reduction of the inequality index lend weight to left wing claims. The weakness of the reforms is a problem in another sense: without deep roots any transformation will be easily overturned by future right wing governments.

Magic Socialism

Ecuador´s governing Alianza País may not be economically right wing, but what has become clear over the years is that even in Venezuela or Bolivia Twenty First Century Socialism is not socialism at all, at least not in any recognizable form. This too is a sore point with many one time supporters of the ‘Citizen´s Revolution’, although it is hard to believe that there was ever much evidence that Rafael Correa himself was anything other than a very strong willed social democrat with a church based philosophy of ‘helping the poor’. Strong willed may be putting it too mildly. There is less talk today of dictatorship, a term promoted by the right and unfortunately adopted by the left, but there is no doubt that discipline is the order of the day. A series of punish and pardon exercises has been used to squash opposition to government policies or extraction schemes and to tame the right wing press and avoid situations such as the present standoff in Argentine where the media group Clarin and President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchener have locked horns. But the opposition press is not the only political force on the government´s list, and in fact, anything that looked vaguely as if it might comprise a political threat to Correa has been systematically attacked. The indigenous organisation CONAIE (Confederation of Ecuadorian Indigenous Nationalities) has been a major target for that very reason.

Despite having lost a lot of its political clout in recent years after a devastating alliance with Lucio Gutierrez that fractured the organization and resulted in a loss of credibility, this indigenous group is still a force in Ecuadorian politics. CONAIE and other indigenous organizations are one of only two social sectors with any real ability to put together a healthy political campaign outside the parliamentary system . And the fact that many of the major mining and oil exploration projects are also located in indigenous territory has lead to heightened tensions and conflict.

As a consequence indigenous leaders have been branded ‘terrorists’, arrested and jailed for short periods , and while apparently none are presently in jail a many of the charges are still pending : a time tested tactic for shutting people up. The trend is worrying, to say the least. The most recent and most serious case involves the Luluncoto 10, a group of young people arrested while planning a protest against the government as part of the mass demonstration of March 2012. Supposed members of the Group of Popular Combatants (GCP) none of the ten had committed any crime. The evidence against them consists of pictures of Ché Guevara, pamphlets, left wing books and more seriously, a manual for producing a bomb, a fact that while evidently not admissible as proof of intent, does raise serious concerns .

The major charge against the ten is that they belong to the GCP , something which the state has not been able to prove, and that that group exploded a number of pamphlet bombs in November 2011, also a supposition. The ten were held without trial until only recently, a period of approximately ten months. Seven men were granted bail before Christmas but two women are still being held; the trial has now been interrupted and will not conclude until after the elections. The Attorney General is quoted as saying that the group “planned to destabilise our democracy …… there are mobile phone messages which clearly show that their intention is to take power by force of arms”. But in the circumstances that seems laughable, and, all in all, it is difficult to see the case as anything other than a bad dose of paranoia.

The episode has produced an extensive but relatively low key response in the mainstream press (the GCP is hardly looked on with great sympathy). But on the left the issue has been roundly criticised and has become a cause célèbre; the issue of class is also important here. An interesting comparison could be made with the case of a communication sent to clients by the directors of four large banks. The e-mail suggested that a proposed tax increase on their profits, levied in order to increase welfare payments to the country´s poorest sectors, could have an impact on client´s savings. While the action produced a lot of noise from the government side, and whose results could have been extremely serious, much more so than a supposed pamphlet bomb, the only action taken was to fine eight directors of the four banks involved.

The constant campaigner

These events, concerns and forces (apart from the bankers) have found a voice in the Acosta campaign which is presently running well behind Rafael Correa. There are always surprises, and there may be some hidden support for Acosta in provinces whose indigenous populations are higher, but it seems more likely that the real battle will not be for the presidency but rather for control of the National Assembly. Here the left wing front lead by Acosta may have more success, although one of the major problems is that the alliance’s principal candidate on the national level, Lourdes Tiban, can only generously be described as being on the left and who does not generate much enthusiasm in the general population.

Another problem is proportional representation. The method used to take into account minority voters has recently been changed, with the result that Alianza País candidates are likely to fare better in the final count, and could possibly be elected in large numbers. Two recent polls do in fact predict that Correa’s party could end up with a large majority in parliament.

A third factor is the efficiency that has become one of the hallmarks of the present government. The political arena is clearly part of the tendency and the constant campaign strategy already visible in governments in other parts of the world has now been instituted here in Ecuador. In the short term it seems virtually impossible for any opposition movement to overcome the electoral deficit, in particular against a President as popular as Rafael Correa. In the long term the result almost certainly signals the need for a reorganization of existing political organisations, something the new Constitution aimed at but which can now be seen to have been only partially successful given that 12 parties are registered officially for the February elections.

Correa´s way of doing politics is likely to become the norm, and given that no other presently existing electoral force has the capacity to mobilize resources and propaganda in the same way, any future challenge to Correa´s green machine will involve changes. What might that mean for the hard left, whose parties are generally small and operate with severely restricted financing? The options seem to be three: to operate even more marginally than at present; join forces with other less radical parties in a broad spectrum alliance; or leave the electoral scene all together. The right, with its financial resources, presently appears far better positioned to deal with this new state of affairs.

The consequences of victory.

On the electoral front, the Unidad Plurinacional will likely have some time to sort itself out after the elections are over. It is possible to win losing, however, and the positive side of this electoral exercise is that there is, in practice, a left wing front that, if the process can be maintained in the face of personal and organisational agendas, may be able to position itself well for the post Correa era. The big decision is whether that should be as an electoral force.

On the social front, nothing short of victory will be enough for the left wing opposition, the post oil economy proponents, the indigenous leaders or the organizers of anti mining protests. In Correa´s lexicon legitimacy is equivalent to victory at the ballot box and, as a consequence, if you do not win then you have no right to protest and impede the agenda, and if you do, then you had better watch out. And while a higher than expected vote for Alberto Acosta might have some momentary impact and strengthen the resolve of that opposition, in the longer term it is unlikely to have any great impact on the economic plan. It can be said of Correa and his agenda that ‘this man is not for turning’. The implications are a greater likelihood of mobilisation and confrontation over oil, mining and water projects and, on the part of the government, greater use of the police and armed forces and attempts to ‘convince’ local leaders of the value of these projects for their people as well for as the wider community. This local–national/rural- urban debate is in fact one of the two that underlies almost every issue, the other being how to avoid the trap of an extractivist economy and what that implies on every level.

Rafael Correa clearly falls on the National Urban side of the divide, and whether or not you agree with his methods, there is no doubt that he and his team are excellent strategists. They will be hard to defeat in any arena, including the political. As for the candidate himself, it seems likely that he will be reelected either in the first or second round of voting. And given the increasing sense that, if he lives, Hugo Chávez will no longer be the force he was, as President of Ecuador once again, Rafael Correa will be called upon to play a greater part in the ongoing battle for the soul of South America. It is a battle he clearly believes in, and an arena in which he will have the support of the majority of the regions leaders. The internal politics of his country look somewhat more complicated.



[1] A Cold War has apparently developed between Argentina and the US. The most recent events in the standoff are the cooperation between Iran and Argentina to investigate the bombing of  a Jewish bank in Buenos Aires in 1994 in which 85 people died,  and the  ruling by an Argentinean appeal tribunal that ratifies an embargo on the assets of Chevron oil company due to a ruling in an Ecuadorian court that awarded damages against the company of US$19,000 million. and the dispute with the IMF over official financial data.  Brasil has just refused to recognize the Apple Iphone trademark.


[3] International recognized economist and ex President of the Constitutional Assembly which wrote the 2009 constitution.

[4] Partido Roldosista Ecuatoriano, PRE, was founded after the death of President Jaime Roldos in an air ‘accident’ in 1981, the year in which President Omar Torrijos of Panama also died in similar circumstances. The PRE’s de facto leader is the deposed and exiled ex president Abdala Bucaram who presently resides in Panama.

[5] With his wife Anabella Azin as his Vice-Presidential nominee,

[6] If is, if he wins 10% more than the second place finisher. Otherwise he would need 50% +1 to avoid a second round.

[7] Mahuad who now teaches at Harvard University was recently, and not so coincidentally, the subject of an Ecuadorian request to Interpol for his arrest and subsequent deportation. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the request failed.

[8] According the Economic Commission for Latin América and the Caribbean, ECLAC, Ecuador’s social spending amounted to 9.3% in 2011, up from 7.5% in 2007 but down from 9.5% in 2010. The economy has of course grown substantially and the amount of constant dollars spent has therefore increased in proportion, by (a dramatic) 28.5% in 2009, 4.8% in 2010 and 6.2% in 2011. In terms of public spending Ecuador at 36% of GDP  in 2010 was amongst the highest in Latin  America. (Panorama Social de América Latina. ECLAC, January 2013 p173.  Cuadro IV.1 AMÉRICA LATINA Y EL CARIBE (21 PAÍSES): GASTO PÚBLICO TOTAL, GASTO PÚBLICO SOCIAL Y GASTO PÚBLICO NO SOCIAL, 2008 A 2011

[9] There is another side to the story.  Major increases in public service pay scales – teachers, police, armed forces and state bureaucrats – have also been a major feature of this government.

[10] Even though Ecuador is now amongst the least unequal countries in the region (headed by Venezuela and Uruguay) its Gini index is still just under 5. (Panorama Social de América Latina. ECLAC, January 2013.  P 91. Gráfico II.2 AMÉRICA LATINA (18 PAÍSES): DESIGUALDAD SEGÚN DIVERSOS ÍNDICES, AÑO MÁS RECIENTE.

[11] Correa´s variety of politics was recently branded ‘Magic Socialism’ by the Quito based journalist Roberto Aguilar

[12] Rafael Correa is a practicing Catholic.

[13] The other being the National  Teachers Union, UNE, whose political expression is the Marxist Leninist party, the Movimiento Popular Democrático, MPD. The union has successfully resisted attempts to divide it, but rising salaries and better conditions have weakened its core support.

[14] A new round of oil exploration concessions has been advertised and offers will be declared in March of this year. The 13 blocks, of 200.000 Ha. Each, are located principally in the south eastern –Amazon area of the country, and have been rejected by indigenous and environmental organizations .

[15] Recent conflicts include oil exploration around Sani Island and the Mirador and Fruta del Norte mining projects.

[16] Prominent amongst these is Pepe Acacho, ex President of the indigenous Shuar Federation, who was arrested in a combined Police and Armed Forces operation and taken by Helicopter to Quito. He was charged with terrorism and sabotage in connection with a September 2009 protest against proposed water legislation in which one person died. He was held for 7 days before the charges were thrown out as invalid. He was also charged with being an accomplice to the murder of Bosco Wizuma the man who died in the protests, and those charges are still pending despite the fact that the murder has never been resolved. Acacho is now a candidate for the National Assembly. El Comercio Pepe Acacho, preso en el ex penal García Moreno  02 febrero 2011.

[17] “Según informes de organismos de derechos humanos y de la Defensoría del Pueblo del Ecuador, en el 2011 existían 129 defensores de derechos humanos judicializados por el gobierno y por empresas privadas, así como 31 activistas políticos que tiene juicios en su contra o están sentenciados” En Ecuador hay presos políticos que necesitan la solidaridad y compromiso de todos y todas. 22 June 2012

As of December 2012 47 social leaders were facing charges for terrorism. Lunes, 10 Diciembre 2012 ECUADOR: 47 DIRIGENTES AFRONTAN JUICIOS POR TERRORISMO. Agencia Ane

[18] The presence of the manual on how to produce a bomb raises questions about who knew about the manual, and about whether this was a serious plan to produce a bomb (in all likelihood a pamphlet bomb designed to attract attention and spread propaganda) and finally at what point the police or the authorities in general should intervene, if at all, if there is a suspicion that a pamphlet bomb could be made and could be used.

[19] The implicit accusation is that this group is the armed wing of the Ecuadorian Marxist Leninist Party, although no arms were found in the raid.

(20) “pretendían desestabilizar nuestra democracia… Hay mensajes de celular que claramente determinan que su intención es tomarse el poder por las armas.” Quoted in  LOS DIEZ DE LULUNCOTO ¿TERRORISTAS? por Ramiro Ávila Santamarí 29 January, 2013

[21] Bank profits have been taxed in order to pay for an increase in welfare payments to the poorest sectors

[22] Market and Santiago Perez.

[23] The entire process of re-inscription of political parties was plagued by irregularities, principally the use of false signatures by all organizations involved, including the governing party.


THE POLICEMAN COMETH: Yesterday’s insurrection by the police is over, but the results are far from certain.

Quito . 1st October 2010

It felt strangely like a film, a very long film. It was exciting, at times dangerous, and had a good ending. The good President (Rafael Correa) was rescued after a gun battle between the army and the police, returned triumphant, and denounced the evil ex President (Lucio Gutierrez) as being the influence behind police units that took him hostage. So at ten o‘clock, when it was all over, I switched off the television and went to bed.

This morning it doesn’t seem quite so clear cut. On the radio I can hear talk about the next time, about the police and the military joining up with the civil servants affected by the new legislation that supposedly sparked yesterday´s insurrection. A friend warns me: “in Latin America “, he says “these semi coups are often followed by real ones”. He’s probably thinking about Chile in 1973. It was a long time ago though, and things have changed. Maybe. Still, his words are worth pondering.

On the radio I can hear a repeat of yesterday’s  pronouncements by  the head of the joint military command, General Ernesto Gonzalez. He’s saying that the fault lies with the imposition of the legislation, and while Correa is not mentioned by name, it is evident that he is the one implicated. General Gonzalez also suggests that the legislation be amended or shelved, hardly a ringing endorsement of the government or a condemnation of the police. On another station, someone asks why the military took so long to act. We don’t know. It could have been nothing more than logistics, but it is valid to ask why it took from around three in the afternoon, when Gonzalez made his declaration of support, until about eight at night, for the special forces to get to the hospital where the President was being held.

Once there, it has to be said that they did their job well. There was a lot of shooting. A lot. In total the confrontation lasted about five hours; some members of the military were taken hostage by the police, but there was little bloodshed  (at the time it was said only two policemen and one soldier died- although more recent figures put the overall total at 8 dead and 193 injured). The president was successfully rescued, ‘carried out like a corpse’ as he put it later, and if anyone seriously doubted that this was an attempted coup (at least by some elements of the police), then the long drawn out gun battle needed to get Correa out of the hospital must have put those reservations to rest. There seems no other explanation. This was clearly not the result of a dispute over a piece of legislation.

Today there is some police presence on the streets, but little evidence of the military apart from the odd helicopter flying overhead. Things are quiet. Relief is the general sentiment and people are talking, exchanging stories, commenting on the events of the day before: the looting and bank robberies in Guayaquil; the robberies in Quito, where two banks were also broken into; the aggression of the police. A friend who took part in the march to the hospital where Correa was being held, tells me he´s never seen so much tear gas.

I had my own stories. I was punched to the ground when I tried to intervene to save a man being attacked by about seven policemen; I later had to escape when police charged with guns drawn firing live ammunition into the air, at least as far as we could tell. There wasn’t much point in hanging about to make sure.  So we all ran, like hell.  I later saw one man lying on the ground surrounded by a few friends, looking seriously injured, although from where I was at that point  there was no way to tell. At that moment police reinforcements arrived: a phalanx of motorcycles that began chasing the crowd into the park, while I took shelter on the other side of the street. 

My neighbor has his own account. He is about 65, works as a carpenter´s assistant and can only be described as having humble origins. He tells me he was in the main square until eleven at night listening to the President who had returned triumphant. “We said we were going to stay and die there, or wait till Correa came back.”

I was also in the Plaza de Independencia, but earlier in the day. The square was full, and most of the people were like my neighbour, working class, although that’s a bit of a misnomer; most of them likely don’t have full time work, are sub employed as they say. The same thing couldn’t be said for the people I met a little later outside the National Assembly. They were evidently protesting and the red flags led me to think, somewhat naively, that they were Correa supporters. But no. These were judicial workers, also affected by the new Civil Service legislation, and they were also angry, and well dressed. The flags belonged to the Marxist Leninist party and its political wing, the MPD, which seemed to be behind the demonstration. I asked one woman if they supported the police. She said yes. The world was off its axis. I shook my head and walked away. On television  I saw images of other MPD supporters confronting a group of Correa supporters, ‘a palos’ as they say, .

For Correa this is part of the problem. In his four years in office he has made a lot of changes, mainly for the good, but also a lot of enemies. He has never courted the social movements and they’re not all on his side. However, despite what the woman said to me outside the National Assembly, it seems unlikely that the unions, the indigenous groups, the environmentalists , the majority of teachers , or even the majority of civil servants, actively support the police. There is general agreement that they are dangerous, often in league with thieves and recently the subject of accusations of Human Rights violations made by the Truth Commission. But that does not make them Correa supporters, they don’t like him that much.  His major support can be found amongst the poorest, least organized sectors, and that could be a bit of problem if it comes to another confrontation.

A lot of people have been affected by Correa’s confrontational, steamroller style. He´s a man in a hurry, and that causes problems. but there have been major positive changes. He far outshines the other do-nothing governments I’ve know. The country is no longer the banana republic it was for example in the time of President Bucaram, in the mid nineties. The opposition on the other hand, of whom many previously spent a lot of time calling for governability, doesn’t seem to understand that in a democracy the ruling party implements its agenda, and there is little the rest can do about it except shout. Or maybe they do understand. They just don’t like it. That is fine, but even for them actions such as yesterday’s can hardly be called democratic. The police have no business taking control of the streets.

For their part the media are calling for more democracy, more dialogue, although it’s hard to understand what that means, unless you take it as a call for Correa to implement what the opposition wants. And for better or worse, ´dialogue´ is not Rafael Correa´s strong point.  As for the agents of law enforcement, no one seems sure of what will happen. What do you do with a group of armed and dangerous people in uniform?  In the long term the rebellious elemants, the kidnappers, have to cleared out and dealt with. But  in the short term it’s hard to imagine that much can or even should be done. No one wants a repeat of yesterday, and that is still a possibility. It´s still a delicate situation and there is undoubtedly a lot of resentment. There is also the question of relations between the police and the military. The police will undoubtedly feel aggrieved that their ‘legitimate’ protest was put down by the army. However, if the police do decide to take to the streets again, there is a feeling that the support of the military may not be that firm the next time around.

The most important point is that government is back in control. Plans will likely include a large scale march of support for the President that will bring people in from all parts of the country.  Correa himself is still very popular nationally, with approval ratings over sixty percent, and this may help to dissuade any further troublemaking.  But things do need time to cool down.  And for the time being at least, a more rational, less confrontational approach would seem the wisest course of action.

WATER ON THE BRAIN: no winners in the conflict between Ecuadorian indigenous groups and President Correa

Quito 27th May 2010


The recent confrontation between the Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa and the country’s indigenous organizations was the second within a year. The first took place in September 2009, and while there was no clear winner, the fact that Correa did not, was telling. It was the first time he had met major resistance. Winning had been easy, but all of a sudden it was hard. This time it has not been easy either and the President has suffered his second bloody nose in a row. Worse still, there appears to be more to come. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the Citizen’s Revolution is in a little bit of trouble.  Although Rafael Correa will doubtless survive this and other confrontations with indigenous groups, unless he can clearly win or, most unlikely, decides to negotiate, key aspects of his programme now appear to be at the mercy of future indigenous mobilisations.

Equitable Water

The context for the clashes is water and the challenge of putting the country’s chaotic and often illegal water usage into some sort of logical order. Attempting to initiate a more equitable redistribution never promised to be easy, despite the fact that few would disagree about the need to do it, or that the status quo is unfair and unsustainable. Many campesino and indigenous communities working small parcels of land dependent on irrigation have very limited access to water, while agro industrial producers use virtual rivers and pay almost nothing for the privilege, if they pay at all; some plantations simply use water not assigned to them, as if by divine right.

The new Constitution took the first step in 2008. The country’s Magna Carta now speaks of water as an inalienable right, prohibits any form of privatisation, sets priorities for use, and requires the revision of and equitable redistribution of water concessions. The complementary legislation now in the National Assembly generally keeps to the spirit of the constitution, but there are a number of fundamental and operative issues that have not been resolved during more than a year of consultations and the drafting of numerous versions of the bill. The review of water permits required by the constitution has not been carried out and, as indigenous leaders rightly point out, 64 percent of the country’s irrigation water[i] is still in the hands of one percent of the population.

The country’s major indigenous organization, CONAIE, (Confederation of Ecuadorian Indigenous Nationalities) also points out that while Constitution prohibits privatization the legislation permits hydro electric and mining projects considered priorities under the national development plan, to take precedence over other uses. But the principal dispute concerns who will have the final say over water use and planning: the state, or a pluri-national council that would represent all users. The President is clear that he will never allow the indigenous people to control water that belongs to all Ecuadorians. For its part CONAIE claims that it will not allow this government to gain control over water resources.  There are holes in both arguments. No one is clear about who would end up controlling a pluri-national council. It would presumably operate by consensus, but as in all consensus decision making, some participants would be more equal than others; some group or groups would inevitably end up with control.

The government’s position also has limitations. The state as presently constituted might do a reasonable job of planning and control, and in doing so take into account the more marginalized economic groups, including indigenous communities. But some future government, some future right wing government, might very well use the same powers now being proposed in order to change distribution in favour of agro- exporters and mining companies. Of course, these hypothetical future governments would have to contend with the indigenous movement.

In normal circumstances most of these differences would have be resolved with only minor delays. But relations between the President and CONAIE have never been so grim; in an environment poisoned by accusations and insults, positions have become increasingly rigid. There is no dialogue, nor hope of one at any time soon. Marlon Santi, President of the organisation, has even called for Correa to be deposed. Delfin Tenesaca, President of CONAIE’s major regional affiliate ECUARUNARI, contradicted him, but would evidently not be troubled if the Correa government should fall.

Debate over the new legislation has now been suspended while a constitutionally required consultation is carried out with the native people. The latest dispute centers on whether the result of the consultation should be binding. CONAIE has stated that it must. It is not hard to see the their point of view; a non binding consultation is little more than an exercise in legitimacy and, worse still, could be used by the government as an opportunity to undermine leaders and divide communities. Legislation to regulate this type of consultation is lacking, but the Constitution does not allow for binding consultations and there is little likelihood that the proposal will be accepted by the government.

Binding consultations put power in the hands of the consulted at the expense of the state, and the state is the raison d’être of this government. It is not hard to imagine that binding consultations over natural resources such as oil or minerals also leading to a breakdown in the political structure of the country. A redesigned, decentralized state where regions exercised control over resources would not necessarily be a bad thing, but if that is the issue it would be better debated in another form and in another context. To suggest that a binding consultation would do nothing more than provide for better bargaining is rather ingenuous.  In any case, other groups have the right to be consulted, and if consultations were binding it is not hard to visualize one group’s suggestions or requirements being contradicted by another’s.


No one has, or should have been, taken unawares by all of this. The conflict has been easy to predict.  Three years of government invective, small and not so small confrontations, failed dialogue, dialogues that were never intended to succeed, differences of style and distinct vision of what Ecuador should be, and who should benefit from natural resources provide the context. As for the specifics, this protest is characterised by CONAIE’s need to recover political ground and dignity in the face of the President’s assault on its authority. In recent years the organisation has been floundering. No longer the force it was, when in the nineteen nineties and early years of this new century it also spoke for large part of the non indigenous population, the movement has been feeling its lack of influence and is fighting to be heard by a government that, ironically, has been doing more for indigenous populations than any other in the country’s history.

Unfortunately for all concerned the government’s strategy has involved disqualifying any social sector organizations that could provide opposition to its political agenda. It was no surprise therefore that Rafael Correa was so keen to disrespect and divide the indigenous leadership, given its evident, if until now latent, political power.  It was most likely a political strategy rather than personal choice, and as such has not been limited to indigenous groups. In some cases the strategy has worked in discrediting political enemies, but it has evidently not worked with CONAIE. The President’s exhorting of the non indigenous population to support him, and rise up against the indigenous people, has hardly helped. What it has done is to provide a measure of legitimacy for racism which, although significantly reduced in historical terms, is still present, especially amongst older and economically more comfortable sectors of the population.

One of the President’s themes is that the general level of the present indigenous leadership is poor, and that Marlon Santi himself would be better off in an a more subordinate position.  Whatever the truth of the statements may be, and while there is a feeling that Santi will not go down as CONAIE’s greatest leader, he is its elected President, and as such due the respect his position merits.  Insulting the leader is tantamount to insulting the group as a whole, and as a result the confrontation has become extremely personal; many indigenous people now hate Rafael Correa.

The intense feeling of personal antagonism is widely shared, but beyond it the indigenous position is hardly homogenous. There are personal goals: Santi anxious to disprove what the President says about him, the recently elected Tenesaca eager to prove his mettle and leadership capacity, and Lourdes Tiban, the indigenous Asambleista , for whom personal goals appear to have the upper hand.  The movement is also changing. Newer more right wing figures are emerging, class is becoming a factor and young indigenous people are far more connected to the outside world than was the case twenty years ago. There are also larger agendas. Leaders and communities from the different regions have different visions of the state and their participation in it. Those from the mountain communities generally live shoulder to shoulder with the mestizo population and this influences their agenda and possibilities for action. On the other hand, leaders from the central/southern Amazon region, (Santi is from the Amazon community of Sarayaku, which has long resisted oil exploration), work with an agenda based on the autonomous control of large ancestral territories.

As part of this independent world view, some Amazonian leaders appear willing to work with whoever seems prepared to help them achieve their aims. The recent meetings with the Junta Civica, a right wing business organisation from the City of Guayaquil, is a case in point. The meeting, which apparently involved  gaining support from the Junta for joint actions against the President, was roundly condemned by most left of centre observers, and the leadership of CONAIE (Marlon Santi was strangely absent at the time) was heavily criticized by its own membership. While there has been some suggestion that the meeting was a well concealed government sting, the attitude of the Amazonian leaders seems to confirm that that the Junta Civica’s advances were not entirely unwelcome.

The end game

Whatever course the confrontation may take in the near future, it is evident that President Correa has been put in check. His statement to the effect that he is willing to shelve the water legislation, a proposal now seconded by the head of the Water Authority, can be seen as a bluff.  This is not a real answer.  If the legislation is shelved, everyone loses, including Correa. The Citizens Revolution will lose momentum, and will almost certainly find itself in the same position over other pieces of legislation, and the implementation of major mining projects in indigenous territory. For Correa, winning or going home appear to be the only options.

It is obvious that the strategy based on electoral success is falling short. Winning the Presidency is not enough. There are groups in society that are too important to ignore, whatever the results of an election may be. In many democratic countries the mainstream press and the bankers cannot be ignored by any class of government. In this particular case, with the help of the water legislation the indigenous movement, particularly that of the central mountain provinces, has been able to place itself in the same position.

How far CONAIE is willing to push its agenda is uncertain; future action will depend in part on who has the upper hand within the organisation itself. Marlon Santi´s position, and his political stance vis a vis President Correa, can only have been strengthened by this latest round of resistance. The major question though is whether the organization and its leadership can resist the government´s media firepower. A taste of what is to come has been provided the latest accusation that the CONAIE leadership has misused funds, something strenuously denied by the organization.

While cooler heads might once have been able to resolve this impasse, positions have become so polarised, and the bitterness so ingrained, that at present it is hard to see any kind of constructive dialogue taking place.  One erudite left wing commentator recently wrote that the battle over the water legislation had resulted in a historic victory. But while indigenous groups appear to have won something, on closer examination it is hard to see exactly what that something is. The suspicion remains that there are no winners at all in this conflict.

[i] According to concessions handed out up to 2005. This does not account for massive amounts of illegal water usage.

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) <>