Rafael Correa and the Popular Movements
by Yeidy Rosa, WW4 REPORT
When Alvaro Noboa, Ecuador’s richest man, won enough votes during the October 15 first round of the presidential election to advance into the final runoff on November 26, rural and urban social movements throughout the Andean nation mobilized in a campaign against him. The prospect of the presidency falling into the hands of the Bonita banana magnate, notorious for the violent repression of workers’ attempts to unionize and even for the use of child labor on his plantations, sparked a nationwide mobilization by indigenous, environmental, youth, anti-militarist, and other social justice groups—not necessarily out of a belief in electoral politics, but in repudiation of Noboa’s neoliberal platform plans to establish free trade agreements with the United States.
There was no doubt relief when Rafael Correa, labeled by the (US) media as a “radical leftist economist” and “friend of Hugo Chavez,” gained the greatest number of votes November 26. Correa’s campaign promised to dissolve congress, rewrite the constitution, permanently halt free trade agreement talks with Washington and shut down the US military base in Ecuador’s western city of Manta. His victory is now being disputed by Noboa, who is demanding a recount.
But these same social movements, following Ecuador’s most ideologically polarized presidential election in recent history, have a new task at hand: holding Rafael Correa true to his commitments.
It was arguably the grassroots campaign that made the difference in the November 26 runoff. Alvaro Noboa, who ran under PRIAN (Partido Renovador Institucional de Acción Nacional), a party he created in order to postulate himself, won 27% of the first round votes, compared to Rafael Correa’s 23%. Critics charge he bought votes by giving away computers, wheelchairs, bags of rice, medicine and cash along his $2.3 million campaign trail, and spent more than twice the legal limit for campaign spending. Also contributing to his initial victory was the thought that Noboa’s wealth—with over 110 businesses, reportedly worth $1.2 billion—would preclude corruption within his administration. Yet—as information disseminated by the various movement activists documented—Noboa’s wealth has not stopped him from evading over $50 million in taxes and creating over 200 shell businesses for such purposes. Activists also distributed a video of the 2002 Los Alamos banana worker strike, where, on May 16, some 1,000 striking workers seeking to unionize were violently attacked by over 400 armed individuals, admittedly hired by Noboa. Dozens of workers were wounded in the attack, and one lost a leg. Workers at Los Alamos are paid $25 for 84-hour work weeks. Two Human Rights Watch reports found 40 children between the ages of eight and 13 working on just one of the Noboa plantations. The reports found child laborers were being sprayed by aerial fumigations as they worked tying insecticide-laced strings to banana plants for 12 hours a day. Yet, during this, his third consecutive failed presidential campaign, Noboa called himself “a man of the people.”
Organizations such as the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE), Radio La Luna, Cordinadora Campesina, Fundacion Pueblo Indio, Pukayana, Servicio Paz y Justicia (SERPAJ), Asociacion de Jovenes Cristianos, and others rapidly mobilized after the October 15 election, convening meetings in Quito in order to establish the strategy to be used in the campaign against Noboa. People and resources were then brought together within the local communities each organization had established ties to. In localities throughout the country, announcements were made on loudspeakers that meetings would take place in public squares, community spaces, and on the streets. At the meetings, videos were shown, flyers and informative materials were distributed, and workshops held in order to expose Noboa as an impresario that exploits his employees, monopolizes the flour industry in Ecuador, dodges taxes, and uses violence against workers. The campaign especially focused on rural campesino areas where Noboa had a particular stronghold. Areas on the coast, such as the provinces of Manabí and Guayas, some of the poorest in Ecuador, had been especially strong Noboa supporters, as he reportedly exchanged a pound of rice per promise of a vote. Xavier Leon, a Quito-based activist that worked on the campaign, stated, “The people’s reaction was one of astonishment because they didn’t know the entire Noboa story. Folks wanted to know more about his barbarities.”
This popular organizing paid off. For the third consecutive time, Noboa lost Ecuador’s second round presidential elections—contrary to what polls had projected up to mid-November. Rafael Correa won the election with 58% of the vote. Social movements now say their task is to make sure Correa remembers who put him in power.
Correa, 42, holds a PhD in Economics from the University of Illinois at Urbana, and served as economy minister under current president Alfredo Palacio—resigning after five months under pressure from those opposing his efforts to strengthen economic ties with Venezuela. Though he had been projected as the frontrunner going into the October 15 election, it was reported that his comments regarding his friendship with Venezuela’s populist President Hugo Chavez scared away voters. Some questioned this analysis, considering the popularity Chavez enjoys in Ecuador. Running for the political party PAIS (Patria Altiva I Soberana, or Proud and Sovereign Fatherland), Correa’s campaign proposed calling a constituent assembly and rewriting Ecuador’s constitution—a clear echo of the experience of both Chavez and Bolivia’s Evo Morales. International criticisms of his platform centered on his proposal to restructure foreign debt in order to allocate more under social spending, his stance against a pending 2009 renewal of US military use of the Manta base, and his call for permanently halting already stalled free trade agreement talks with the US. The threat to default on foreign loan payments was reported to have upset financial markets, but, as Ecuador is effectively excluded from international credit markets as it is, this seems to not have been as big a factor among voters. Venezuela’s offer of a $300 million loan from Venezuela also allayed these fears.
Recent history has shown that when there is popular discontent in Ecuador, it is not a matter of waiting four years until the next elections. In the last 10 years, Ecuador has had nine presidents, as popular unrest removed Abdala Bucaram in 1996, Jamil Mahuad in 2000 and Lucio Gutierrez in 2005. This crisis in the legitimacy of the political system is no surprise in a country where the average person is worse off than they were 25 years ago, where social spending has been cut in half since 1993, and where 45% of the population lives below the poverty level, with an average per capita income of $5,392. Rampant corruption has resulted in an utterly discredited political institution.
Some recent presidents, especially Lucio Gutierrez, talked a populist line to get elected—then changed colors once in office. It remains to be seen if Rafael Correa will join them in their ignominious fate, or remain true to the base that won him the day.
“Ecuadorian Banana Workers Violently Attacked:
International Campaign Targets Bonita Bananas”
U.S./Labor Education in the Americas Project (US/LEAP) Newsletter, August 2002
“Ecuador: Widespread Labor Abuse on Banana Plantations;
Harmful Child Labor, Anti-Union Bias Plague Industry”
Human Rights Watch, April 25, 2002
“Profile: Ecuador’s Rafael Correa,” BBC News, Nov. 27, 2006
“For the ‘Total Transformation’ Of Ecuador:
An Interview with Pachakutik Presidential Candidate Luis Maca”
by Rune Geertsen, Upside Down World
WW4 REPORT #126, October 2006
From our weblog:
“Ecuador: leftist trails as election goes to second round”
WW4 REPORT, Oct. 19, 2006
Special to WORLD WAR 4 REPORT, Dec. 1, 2006 Reprinting permissible with attribution