by Marc Becker, Upside Down World

In a lengthy meeting on July 29, Ecuador’s highland Indigenous organization Ecuarunari decided to support in a tepid and tentative manner President Rafael Correa’s project of rewriting the country’s constitution.

Ecuarunari (the Confederation of the Peoples of the Kichwa Nationality of Ecuador) as well as the national organization CONAIE (the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador) have long advocated the drafting of a new constitution that would embody their demands to declare Ecuador a pluri-national country.

Indigenous leaders, however, have come to resent President Correa for taking over one of their principle demands. They have also complained that the president has taken over political spaces that social movements had previously occupied.

Correa was a political outsider who took power in January 2007 without support from existing political parties. He convoked a constitutional assembly, and then formed his own political party called Alianza País (Country Alliance) to run candidates for the assembly. Alianza País won an overwhelming majority of seats in the assembly, giving Correa complete control over the drafting of the new constitution. The assembly had been given until July 25 to complete its task. The text now faces a national vote on September 28.

Rather than rooting his base in a long history of social movement organizing, Correa announced that his government would be a citizen’s revolution. Unstated was that he would not be held accountable to the corporatist nature of social movement demands. Those who won elections had the right to rule, rather than those who could mobilize large street protests that have repeatedly pulled down governments over the past decade.

Many of those who allied with Correa were from the academic and non-governmental organization (NGO) worlds. Social movements were largely excluded from the centers of power, and Correa has not included any Indigenous peoples in his government. Already, social movements were mounting growing criticisms of the (negative) influences of NGOs and the depoliticization of social struggles. Correa’s government has only deepened these tensions.

While Correa is broadly seen as part of the pink tide sweeping across South America, his positions have often placed him at odds with others on the left. Correa comes out of a Catholic Socialist tradition, which means that his positions on topics such as abortion are not the same as those of leftist feminists. Environmentalists oppose his state-centered development projects, which has led to significant tensions over mining and petroleum concerns. His agrarian policies also minimized support for small farmers.

Some Indigenous leaders complained that rather than moving forward, the new constitution would turn the clock back to before the current constitution that was promulgated in 1998. In the end, however, Ecuarunari and others on the Indigenous Left view the new constitution as a mixed bag. In some aspects, it is a step forward, whereas in others it is a jump backward.

Indigenous organizations have long led struggles against neoliberalism, and the new constitution promises an end to what Correa has termed the long dark night of the Washington Consensus. Strengthening the state sector, however, does not necessarily favor Indigenous communities. Correa’s supporters argue that a stronger executive is necessary to bring political stability to Ecuador. Critics, however, point out that this strategy may play directly into the hands of conservative, who will be strongly competing for power in the next elections. Correa may unwittingly be laying the ground for a new round of authoritarian governments with disastrous results for popular movements.

Since 1990, Indigenous organizations have demanded that the first article of the constitution be revised to recognize the plurinational nature of Ecuador. For the first time, this constitution includes this text.

Another struggle was whether Kichwa and other Indigenous languages would be granted official status. At first the assembly, under Correa’s control, Kichwa was not included in the document. At the last minute, the constitution was revised to state:

“Spanish is the official language of Ecuador; Spanish, Kichwa and Shuar are official languages for inter-cultural relationships. Other ancestral languages are for official use for Indigenous peoples in the areas they inhabit and on the terms that the law stipulates. The State will respect and will stimulate their conservation and use.”

Even though the text recognized the importance of Indigenous languages, activists criticized the document for stopping short of granting them official status equal to Spanish. By all appearances, this last-minute change was either a concession or a sap to Indigenous organizations in order to gain their support. It is easy, of course, to make minor cultural concessions rather than fundamentally changing the political landscape that would create more inclusive social and economic systems.

It is this mixed bag that places Indigenous organizations in such a difficult position. The most vocal and steadfast opposition to the new constitution comes from the conservative oligarchy. The most reactionary elements of the Catholic Church have also called for a vote against the document, largely because of its ambiguous stances on abortion laws and same-sex marriages. If popular movements oppose the constitution because it does not have everything they requested, they play directly into the hands of their traditional enemies. If they support it, they strengthen the hand of a political force that does not embody their interests.

Facing this conundrum, Ecuarunari decided to take what they could get rather than losing everything on a more principled stance. Ecuarunari’s leader Humberto Cholango is calling for massive support for the referendum on Sept. 28. But this decision is by no means a blank check. Supporting the constitution, Cholango declared, is not the same as supporting a political party or an individual. Rather, he cast the gains of the constitution as the result of long struggles of diverse social movements.

Competing Indigenous organizations FENOCIN (the National Confederation of Peasant, Indigenous, and Black Organizations) and FEINE (the Council of Evangelical Indigenous Peoples and Organizations of Ecuador) have also announced their support for the new constitution. CONAIE will hold a national assembly next week in order to decide its position.

If the constitution is approved, Ecuador will hold new presidential and congressional elections in January 2009.


This story first appeared July 31 on Upside Down World.


Ecuarunari resolutions on the constitutional process

See also:

The New Voice of Ecuador’s Indigenous Movement
by Marc Becker, Upside Down World
WW4 Report, February 2008

From our Daily Report:

Ecuador: indigenous movement condemns Correa
WW4 Report, May 17, 2008


Reprinted by World War 4 Report, Sept. 1, 2008
Reprinting permissible with attribution