Friday, September 26, 2008

Ecuadorian President Comes Into Conflict with Both Right and Left

By Daniel Denvir, September 25, 2008

As Ecuadorians prepare to vote on a proposed constitution this Sunday, President Rafael Correa is coming into conflict not only with the conservative elite but also with the Left, including rebellious members of his own party. While social movements are by and large hailing the constitution as progressive, indigenous and other activists are concerned about what they see as Correa's increasing moves to the Right.

But coverage of Ecuador's president in the U.S. corporate media has primarily relied on caricature and political simplification, leaving most US readers the assumption that Correa is a "Leftist." He is thus usually vilified by U.S. conservatives and deified by progressives. This is true whether you're reading The Associated Press referring to Correa as a "socialist" or The New York Times facilely miming Colombian charges of FARC ties. The situation in Ecuador is far more complicated.

Monica Chuji, a former Assembly Member from Correa's Alianza País party, recently disaffiliated from the party, angry over Correa's support for large scale mining and attacks on the indigenous movement. Correa recently said that "infantile leftism, environmentalism and indiginism" pose the "greatest threat" to Ecuador's progress.

Correa and supporters of the proposed constitution are framing the vote as a stark choice between change towards a brighter future and a return to a past governed by a corrupt oligarchy. Concretely, backers point to the proposed magna carta's establishment of free access to education and healthcare, universal social security, and support for public and community media.

Ecuadorians (like Americans) want to believe that change is coming. Over the past 10 years, three presidents have been ousted by popular and overwhelmingly peaceful mobilizations against corruption and neoliberal economic reforms. People are overwhelmingly sick of the old guard elite (generally referred to as the oligarchy). Correa promises to end to the "long night of neoliberalism," an era of deregulation and privatization that culminated in the 1999-2000 banking crisis when Ecuadorian deposit holders lost $8 billion.

A number of moves have contributed to Correa's sky-high approval ratings. He recently seized the property of the Grupo Isaías, whose owners ran one of the banks responsible for the 1998 crisis. He has also acceded to popular demands and is closing the US military base in the coastal city of Manta when the contract expires in November 2009. And perhaps most importantly, he has increased "solidarity bonuses" for the poor urban and farmers.

The Right, on the other hand, has been trying to frame the debate around the issues of abortion and gay rights—sound familiar? While the abortion issue is a red herring—the new constitution retains the not too progressive status quo, allowing for "therapeutic" abortion to save the mother's life—there are significant advances for GLBT rights, namely the historic legalization of safe sex civil unions. Discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity would also be prohibited.

The Right also opposes provisions that put restricts on large landholdings and increase the state's role in economic planning and regulation. They also smear Correa for his ties to Venezuela, Bolivia and Cuba—a tactic similar to McCain's ad hyping a Castro "endorsement" of Obama.

Correa's election—and the conservative reaction against him—is, as the recent crisis in Bolivia reminds us, part of a broader regional phenomenon. Social movements across Latin America have been buoyed by widespread dissatisfaction with the orthodox free market model imposed over the past few years by Washington and the two lead International Financial Institutions, the IMF and the World Bank. And the U.S.' long history of heavy-handed political and military interventions have heightened demands for national sovereignty. This popular ferment has led to the election of a political and ideological smattering of new leaders, from Venezuela and Bolivia, to Argentina and Uruguay, to Brazil and Chile. Washington has been left with only a handful of governments willing to unquestioningly carry out its dictates, namely Colombia, Peru, Mexico and El Salvador. But the new leadership has challenged the status quo—or left it in place—to varying degrees, making it problematic to generalize about the "Latin American left."

Many social movements have called Correa's discourse mere window dressing, criticizing the government for, among other things, failing to reverse the privatization of natural resources and supporting agro-industry. Correa has also raised the ire of the country's powerful indigenous movement, led by the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE), because of his support of large-scale mining and opposition to certain demands for indigenous cultural and territorial rights.

Nevertheless, the CONAIE is critically supporting the constitution since it declares Ecuador a "plurinational" state and makes the Kichwa concept of "good living" (sumak kawsay)—based on a harmonious relationship between individuals, community and nature—the philosophical underpinning of national development.

Environmentalists and the CONAIE are also pleased that the proposed constitution would recognize nature as a legal subject of rights and guarantees the right to water as a fundamental human right. But they worry that Correa, who successfully blocked a provision that would have given local communities veto power over mining and oil projects, is planning to pay the "social debt" through ecologically destructive mining and oil policies. This would pit the beneficiaries of social services against rural community members resisting resource-extraction projects.

It is overwhelmingly likely that the new constitution will be approved, with polls generally showing between 51 and 57% support. And the numbers continue to rise as undecided voters increasingly move into the "yes" camp.

The Left and social movements are in an awkward situation, defending the Constitution against the Right while opposing many of Correa's policies. A Leftist academic who publicly supports the government surprised me last week when he said that he hopes the constitution doesn't win "by too much." The Left is unsure whether Correa will credit social movements for a referendum victory or whether it will reinforce his attitude that he is the leader of a one man movement.

It is difficult to predict what will happen if—and probably when—the new constitution is approved. On the one hand, a fractured opposition is searching for new leaders with the capacity to take on a President with sky-high approval ratings. For social movements and the Left, the fight short-term fight will be translating a mostly progressive constitution into a set of progressive laws and norms. There is the possibility that if Correa fails to meet popular expectations around social and economic justice, his approval ratings could take an overnight dive. The long-term fight depends on Correa and the social movements. How hard will Correa push for more-of-the-same policies around large-scale mining and other issues? And will Ecuadorian social movements have the mobilizing capacity to resist?

Daniel Denvir ( is an independent journalist in Quito, Ecuador and a 2008 recipient of NACLA's Samuel Chavkin Investigative Journalism Grant. He is the Editor-in-Chief of

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