Latin America’s Leftward Turn
Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution
Crisis in Bolivia: Evo Morales, MAS and Elite Resistance to Change
Rafael Correa and the Struggle for a New Ecuador
Jennifer N. Collins
All Change in Paraguay: The Promise of Fernando Lugo
Indigenous Peoples and the Left: Tentative Allies
Donna Lee Van Cott
Brazil’s Landless and the Revolt against Neo-liberalism
Harry E. Vanden
Bachelet’s Chile: Business as Usual?
From Néstor to Cristina: Argentina and the Kirchners
Mark P. Jones and Juan Pablo Micozzi
The Costs of Indifference: Latin America and the Bush Era
Omar G. Encarnación
James J. Brittain
Cuba after Fidel: Continuity and Change
Strugglers for a Decent Colombia
Bonaparte in Egypt: Precursor to Bush
Warren I. Cohen
Volume 10 ● 2008—Latin America Turns Left
Rafael Correa and the Struggle for a New Ecuador
On 25 July 2008, President Rafael Correa of Ecuador celebrated the completion of a new magna carta for his country of thirteen million people. Convening in a beautiful futuristic complex in the small coastal town of Montecristi, Ecuador’s Constituent Assembly had concluded eight months of arduous work by drafting a thoroughly revised constitution. Subjected to popular approval in a national referendum on 28 September, the new constitution passed easily, with 64 per cent of Ecuadorian voters backing the measure.
For President Correa and his PAIS Alliance (Country Alliance) party, the constitution represents a chance to refound Ecuador on new economic, political, and even social principles, and to exorcise from its body politic the living ghosts of neo-liberalism, political corruption, elite dominance, and social and economic exclusion. Hailing September’s referendum outcome as a “clear, historic victory”, Correa acclaimed the constitution as embodying the profound changes that the Ecuadorian people had entrusted him to bring about. He urged them to help him “achieve a brave, sovereign and dignified homeland, equitable, just and without misery”.1
The constitution-drafting process has been the centrepiece of the so-called “citizens’ revolution” that Correa and his political movement have been leading since this young, charismatic, leftist economist was elected president in November 2006. The journey that Correa and his PAIS Alliance have led the country on since the election has been full of political daring and acumen, and has generated a remarkable degree of hope and optimism among a public deeply suspicious of politicians and yet desperately desiring change.
Correa has not disappointed his supporters in his willingness to stand up to powerful international and domestic interests and to use his political capital to attempt to carry out fundamental changes to Ecuador’s political and economic system. After years of struggle, the Ecuadorian left is finally in a position to set the political agenda and the moment is pregnant with the possibility of change: to bury the failed neo-liberal experiment, to create a state that can defend its sovereignty, and to lay the foundation for a development model that incorporates the poor and protects the environment. If Correa and his alliance of leftist intellectuals, activists, and technocrats fail in their efforts now it will be a major setback for Ecuador as well as for regional efforts to promote greater co-operation and integration within Latin America.
Challenging Elite Power
The PAIS Alliance is a hybrid of sorts, the product both of a charismatic leader and political outsider, and of long years of organising, struggle, and protest by Ecuador’s vibrant social movements. Unlike Evo Morales in Bolivia, Correa himself is not a product of his country’s social movements, but at the same time neither is he a Hugo Chávez, who organised in Venezuela a social-movement base largely from above. Correa instead forged his own political debut as an outsider, but he did so within a context that Ecuador’s powerful social movements and organised civil society had helped to create. He owes his election in no small part to the support of an active civil society whose organisation predates his rise to power, and he has largely retained that support, although not uncritically. The imprint of Ecuador’s indigenous, environmental, and grassroots social movements is evident in the new constitution, which embodies a radical vision of a post-developmentalist and sovereign state in which a broad range of rights for the poor and dispossessed is recognised.
Correa was elected in November 2006 after a decade of popular struggle against neo-liberal reform, two decades of indigenous organising and protest, a series of devastating economic crises, and a long decade of political instability and turmoil which led to three elected presidents being forced out of office in the wake of massive popular protests. Ecuadorian citizens had completely lost faith in the traditional political elite, which time and again had proven itself more accountable to powerful international and domestic financial interests than to the Ecuadorian people.
Prior to running for the presidency, Correa had never been elected to public office; his only experience in government was a brief four-month stint as economics minister. Given his youth (he is forty-five) and lack of governmental experience, his rapid rise to power was remarkable. His outsider status and strident critiques of the so-called partidocracia or party elites were a central element of his appeal to voters. The clarion call of his campaign was to throw the old, corrupt political elite out and remake the whole system. And his strategy, which was integral to the authenticity of his campaign, was a daring one. Correa ran no slate of candidates for Congress; instead, he promised that if elected he would convene a national Constituent Assembly to rewrite the constitution. This message resonated with a public hungry for change, and he won an impressive 56.7 per cent of the popular vote in the second round against the wealthiest man in Ecuador, banana magnate Alvaro Noboa.
But this strategy also created the conditions for an institutional crisis at the start of Correa’s term: he had won a strong popular mandate, but had no party base in the legislature, which along with other government institutions was controlled by opposition parties. An intense battle ensued as Correa pressed for the right to convene a Constituent Assembly with unlimited powers. The opposition fearing, as it turns out correctly, the loss of its own political power, refused to grant its consent. In the end, Correa was successful in using his substantial popularity to outmanoeuvre the opposition, painting it as an obstacle to the deep changes being demanded by the electorate. The battle between Correa and Congress was one of brinkmanship and daring, with Correa’s supporters holding massive demonstrations at the Congress building and a couple of times even storming the legislative chambers. Correa’s gamble paid off and he got the referendum he wanted: one that asked the public to approve the formation of a Constituent Assembly with the power not only to rewrite the constitution but also to dismiss any political institution or public authority, including the president and Congress. This body would have pleno poderes (full powers).
This daring confrontation at the start of his term, and the fact that he won the fight, added to Correa’s credentials as a leader who was not afraid directly to challenge and take on the powers that be in order to make change. Compared to the traditional style of politics in Ecuador, characterised by backroom deals, incongruous alliances, the infamous maletín (briefcase to deliver bribes), and collusion between politicians and elites, Correa’s willingness to stand up to Congress was exhilarating. For most of 2007, his public approval ratings remained well over 75 per cent and often topped 80 per cent—a remarkable feat in a country fractured along deep regional, ethnic, racial, and class lines.
On 15 April 2007, the yes vote in favour of convening the Constituent Assembly crushed the opposition, garnering an astonishing 80 per cent of the vote. Correa had won a second and even stronger popular mandate for sweeping political and economic change. The April referendum was not the last battle against the right, but it was a first major blow, from which it has still not recovered. Then, in September, elections were held to form the 130-member assembly. The PAIS Alliance, this time running its own candidates, won eighty seats and 70 per cent of the popular vote. Since only a simple majority would be required to pass assembly decisions, the PAIS Alliance now had the power to rewrite the constitution without having to compromise with opposition parties. Correa had succeeded in neutralising the opposition, at least for a time.
The PAIS Alliance–dominated assembly quickly voted to dismiss Congress, and thereafter assumed legislative powers in addition to its constitution-drafting power. Opposition parties vehemently denounced the move, questioning its legality and accusing Correa of having dictatorial tendencies, but the assembly and the PAIS Alliance had received such a strong popular mandate that these protestations failed to gain traction.
Somewhat surprisingly, despite the fact that Correa’s PAIS Alliance had a solid lock on the Constituent Assembly in terms of votes, representatives of opposition parties remained integral to the process. Much of the assembly’s success in keeping these parties involved must be attributed to the talented leadership of assembly president, Alberto Acosta, a well-known leftist economist, intellectual, and confidante of Correa’s. Instead of using the PAIS Alliance majority as a bludgeon, Acosta emphasised democratic deliberation and was careful to give space to opposition voices and debate.
While this approach was successful in keeping all parties at the table, it arguably also slowed down the process of drafting the new constitution. This eventually led to a public disagreement between Acosta and Correa in late June 2008 over whether or not the assembly should be granted more time to complete its work beyond that stipulated in the referendum. Unwilling to speed up the pace of work in order to meet the 26 July deadline, Acosta eventually resigned under pressure from Correa. Acosta’s replacement, Fernando Cordero, dramatically accelerated the speed of deliberations and votes. As noted above, the assembly beat the deadline by one day, finalising on 25 July a draft constitution for ratification in a referendum in September.
After the Assembly Victory
Much of Correa’s first year as president was absorbed with the political and electoral battles described above. Having dispensed with the opposition-dominated legislature and secured the PAIS Alliance’s dominance in the assembly, Correa was able to move forward with other initiatives during his second year in office. He has focused on three major areas: oil policy, debt restructuring, and legal proceedings aimed at recovering assets from financial groups implicated in the crisis of 1999.
Crude oil is Ecuador’s biggest export and contributes 35 per cent of state revenues. Rather than pursue nationalisation, Correa has chosen to negotiate hard with the twenty transnational oil companies that produce 49 per cent of Ecuador’s oil. Days after the PAIS Alliance’s triumph in the Constituent Assembly elections, Correa announced a dramatic increase from 50 per cent to 99 per cent in the windfall-profits tax on these companies, with the aim of significantly increasing the government’s share of oil profits. The oil companies were obviously not overjoyed with this decision, but most have chosen to negotiate rather than to pull out altogether. Revenue from this tax hike will not be used to repay foreign debt, but instead will go into savings funds aimed at building a financial cushion to protect Ecuador’s economy against a future drop in oil prices, as well as into another fund that targets productive investments. Correa is attempting to use today’s oil revenues to ready the country for a post-petroleum economy. He also engineered Ecuador’s re-entry into the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) after an eighteen-year hiatus.
Correa has also sought ways of reducing the country’s crushing foreign debt, which when he assumed office was $11 billion. Ever since the debt crisis of the 1980s, a significant portion of Ecuador’s budget has gone to servicing the debt, leaving little for social investments in health and education, infrastructure development, or poverty alleviation. Correa promised to stop sacrificing the needs of the people in order to pay the debt, explaining that the government would “pay only what we can after attending to the needs of the poor”.2 Correa has hinted at times at the possibility of a debt moratorium, but to date has not taken this risky step. He has spoken admiringly of Néstor Kirchner’s successful debt renegotiation, which in effect reduced Argentina’s debt burden by about 75 per cent. He sought advice and counsel from Kirchner until the latter stepped down as Argentina’s president in December 2007. Correa also put a technical team together to study the debt question and come up with alternatives to reduce the sum. At the time of this writing, significant action on Ecuador’s debt has yet to be taken, but everything indicates that it is high on Correa’s agenda and that he will tackle it before the end of his term.
During his first year in office, Correa launched a creative initiative that tied together the debt issue and the environment. The Ecuadorian government offered to forgo its right to drill in the Yasuni National Park, a huge biodiverse Amazonian territory that is home to isolated Indian tribes as well as the site of the country’s largest oil reserves, in exchange for foreign aid and debt cancellation. The proposal was applauded by many in the international community as innovative and forward looking, and received commitments from a number of European governments and the United Nations Development Programme. While it has not yet obtained as much support as necessary to make it economically viable for Ecuador, it is an example of Correa’s willingness to pursue unorthodox and far-sighted development policies, in this case one that would move Ecuador in the direction of a post-petroleum economy.
In the area of international relations, Correa has sought to reduce Ecuador’s dependence on and subservience to the United States and instead to align the country with the Latin American project of regional integration. He has demonstrated strong support for the efforts of leading countries—Brazil, Argentina, and Venezuela—to strengthen and deepen Latin American economic, political, and military integration through new regional institutions such as the Banco del Sur (Bank of the South), to which Ecuador has committed $400 million, and UNASUR, an intergovernmental union of several South American countries that is modelled on the European Union.
However, Correa has announced that Ecuador will not join ALBA, Hugo Chávez’s regional trade and development programme that purports to represent a new model of interstate relations based on solidarity and exchange, as opposed to simply trade. Correa’s decision appears to be an attempt to avoid too close an association with Venezuela’s radical and controversial leader. If Correa is seeking to maintain a little distance from the region’s most voluble critic of the United States, his motive might be a desire to pick his own battles, because in terms of concrete policies Correa has pursued a strong anti-imperialist agenda. He has firmly opposed a free-trade agreement with the United States, a position that is strongly supported by Ecuadorian indigenous organisations and social movements. Another highly popular stance with Ecuador’s left has been his opposition to renewing the US lease on the military base at Manta, which is due to expire in 2009. Correa’s decision not to renew the lease has been ratified by the Constituent Assembly, which approved wording in the new constitution that declares Ecuador a “territory of peace” and that expressly prohibits the presence of foreign troops or bases on Ecuadorian soil, in effect making a renewal of the US base at Manta unconstitutional.
Correa’s handling of the diplomatic crisis with Colombia occasioned by the latter’s military incursion into Ecuador in March 2008 further strengthened his nationalist credentials at home and signalled his emergence on the regional diplomatic stage as a powerful voice in defence of state sovereignty. The Colombian military’s attack on a FARC guerrilla camp located on the Ecuadorian side of the border with Colombia set off a major diplomatic crisis. After news of the attack emerged, Correa severed ties with Colombia and went on the diplomatic offensive, driving home the point that Colombia’s actions were an inexcusable violation of Ecuador’s territorial sovereignty and therefore dangerous for regional stability. He insisted that the Organisation of American States condemn Colombia’s incursion lest a precedent be set for similar actions.
The Colombian crisis also led to increased tensions between Ecuador and the United States, not only because Colombia is Washington’s closest ally in the region, but because it emerged that it may have been US intelligence, probably supplied from the Manta base, that provided the Colombian military with the location co-ordinates of the FARC camp, thus making the attack possible. Even more disturbing for Correa’s administration was the revelation that top-ranking officers in the Ecuadorian military received prior notice of the attack but failed to inform the president. When this came out, Correa took bold action: he dismissed a number of senior officers and asserted very publicly that Ecuador’s intelligence services were infiltrated by the CIA and too closely tied to US interests.
Despite his sometimes impolitic remarks, Correa seems to enjoy strong public support in Ecuador on international issues. His handling of the Colombian crisis contributed to a leap in his approval ratings.
While Correa has undertaken a number of important initiatives and proven a strong and principled leader, the key to his “citizens’ revolution” is the Constituent Assembly. It is through this mechanism that the deeper transformations in politics and the economy for which so many Ecuadorians have struggled over the last two decades will be institutionalised. With the PAIS Alliance’s substantial majority in the Constituent Assembly, the election to the latter of a number of brilliant intellectuals and activists, and solid public support for the government, the opportunity is within reach to lay the foundation for a new, more progressive, sovereign, and participatory nation. Indeed, many of the ideas generated by the assembly are far reaching and even revolutionary.
Globalisation, Trade, and Treaties
The assembly’s working committee on “Sovereignty, International Relations, and Latin American Integration” has drafted new rules that would put checks on the executive’s ability to sign treaties. Under the 1998 constitution, the executive has the exclusive right to negotiate and sign treaties. A change approved by the Constituent Assembly would require congressional consent on international treaties and would allow citizens to challenge a treaty by bringing it to a popular referendum after collecting signatures from 5 per cent of registered voters. This is an attempt to put brakes on the executive’s ability to enter into treaties that are strongly opposed by the public, such as the agreement signed with the United States to build the base at Manta. It is also a way to block any future attempt to sign a free-trade agreement with the United States, something that previous governments pursued even in the face of strong opposition from the indigenous movement, small farmers, and environmentalists.
Even more radical, another provision drawn up by the same committee would bar Ecuador from entering into treaties or conventions that require ceding jurisdiction to international arbitration bodies in commercial or contractual matters. This would appear to rule out Ecuador’s entrance into bodies such as the World Trade Organisation or region-wide agreements such as the US-backed Free Trade Area of the Americas. Progressive activists of all stripes in Ecuador have opposed free-trade agreements with the United States and are highly suspicious of free trade and globalisation generally. However, the highly restrictive language in this clause might also preclude efforts towards greater regional integration. For instance, it might make it difficult for Ecuador to join an expanded MERCOSUR—South America’s leading trading bloc—at some point in the future. Nevertheless, considered together, these two measures by the committee are important efforts to keep the state accountable to its citizens in the context of globalisation—a context in which international corporate and imperial interests have enormous ability to impose on democratically elected governments agendas that contravene popular interests.
Reclaiming the State
The constitution contains a number of reforms that aim to regulate and curtail the power of major financial groups. Historically, the Ecuadorian state has been controlled, some would say colonised, by the country’s most powerful economic groups. The intimate web of relations between Ecuador’s economic and political elites made a myth of state autonomy. The state was an arena of battles between elites, but not an autonomous actor with the ability to impose conditions and controls on them. One of the aims of the new constitution, then, is to decolonise the state, to strengthen its autonomy vis-à-vis powerful economic actors.
In the devastating financial crisis of 1999, President Jamil Mahuad bailed out all the major banks, while at the same time freezing depositors’ assets, an action that many argued served only to deepen the crisis and cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars. The new constitution prohibits the state from bailing out private banks in the event of a similar economic crisis.
Another constitutional article takes aim at the common practice among Ecuadorian businesses of hiring workers informally so as to avoid paying insurance and social security taxes for them. The new constitution obliges these companies to regularise employment conditions, offering stability and the benefits of formal employment. This law, which puts onuses on employers to act in favour of workers, is extremely popular and is viewed as an important selling point for the constitution.
The Constituent Assembly also passed the Tax Equity Law, which aims to shift more of the tax burden from the poor to the middle classes and the wealthy. In place of a regressive sales tax, the Tax Equity Law introduces a progressive income tax which taxes inheritance, creates mechanisms to curb widespread tax evasion and capital flight, and imposes heavy taxes on luxury items consumed by the wealthy.
A package of constitutional articles addressing monetary and financial policies prohibits financial groups and institutions from diversifying their business activities into other areas, and in particular from owning or having shares in mass media outlets. Thus, ties between the mass media and financial groups are in effect outlawed under the new constitution. This is an assertive piece of regulatory legislation, and the right is painting it as an undemocratic restriction of press freedom. However, from the vantage point of the left, this legislation is a tool for democratising the media. Media concentration in Latin America is high, with most of the major media outlets owned by powerful financial groups. These groups have been some of the most virulent critics of the new leftist governments, precisely because these governments seek to redistribute wealth, increase state regulation of business, and generally act on the principle that business has social obligations. So, in Venezuela, Argentina, Bolivia, and Ecuador, the corporately controlled media are waging propaganda wars to discredit these governments and foment opposition. In this context, Ecuador’s constitution targets one of the roots of the democratic deficit in countries with highly unequal levels of income and wealth: the control of the media by powerful economic interests.
A Green Plurinationalism
Over the past two decades of struggle, Ecuador’s social movements have developed a strong post-developmentalist agenda, one that challenges capitalist arguments about economic growth and development and instead emphasises environmental sustainability, local control, and human needs. For these movements, the alternative to neo-liberalism is not another state developmentalist project, but a post-developmentalist paradigm that is more small-scale, more participatory and grassroots-led—a project which seeks to use the state to protect those at the bottom from powerful international and domestic economic forces, but which at the same time is unwilling to entrust to the state the role of primary agent of development. In Ecuador, the indigenous and environmental movements have been the main advocates and nurturers of this model and their influence is visible in the new constitution.
The indigenous movement’s main demand has been the inclusion of its concept of plurinationalism. This would recognise Ecuador’s ethnic and cultural diversity and enshrine rights to protect this diversity of communities and nations within one nation-state. In theory, it would allow different groups to define, within limits, the rights they feel are inherent to their survival as cohesive communities.
The Ecuadorian indigenous movement has always maintained that plurinationalism does not entail the breaking-up or destruction of the nation-state; rather, as indigenous assembly member Mónica Chuji Gualinga explains, “Plurinationalism, by allowing society to recognise openly the differences contained within it and to accept these as part of the foundation for the construction of the democratic process, embraces a position of unity in diversity.”3 For example, in a plurinational state, certain indigenous models and practices for implementing justice would be legally recognised and allowed to function at the local level in communities where they have traditionally held good. This model has been compared to Spain’s regional autonomy system.
One of the most controversial aspects of the plurinational proposal has to do with the rights of communities to control their land and its resources. Adoption of plurinationalism will not change the regime of property rights concerning underground natural resources: these resources will remain the property of the state. However, plurinationalism obliges the state to consult and gain the consent of affected local communities for all extractive activities. This provision will give local communities a central role in the decision-making process about such projects and presumably the power to block them. This will allow them to insist upon environmental guarantees and protections, and will increase their ability to demand a greater share of the economic benefits from mining, oil-drilling, and other activities carried out on their lands. Because it really puts teeth into the plurinational concept this provision was controversial, but under great pressure from the indigenous movement the Constituent Assembly ended up approving it for inclusion in the new constitution.
In an example of the implementation of these new principles, in April 2008, in response to pressure from groups opposed to and directly affected by large-scale mining, the Constituent Assembly approved the so-called “mining mandate”. This cancelled a majority of Ecuador’s mining concessions, suspended many others, and imposed a moratorium on new concessions until the government rewrites the nation’s mining law. The mandate was a major victory for Ecuador’s growing anti-mining movement and appeared to be yet another bold move by Correa’s administration in defence of the environment and the wellbeing of rural communities in areas targeted for mining and drilling.
Correa himself, however, appears to be less radical on these issues than some members of his political movement. After the Constituent Assembly passed the mining mandate he expressed support for “responsible mining”, arguing that if properly managed mining can help Ecuador to develop. He also met representatives from international mining companies to try and assuage their fears and has openly criticised those who seek to stop all extractive activities.
The new constitution also contains a number of provisions designed to protect peasants and small farmers. It establishes that the government should act to promote “food sovereignty”, which entails protecting and aiding small and medium-sized producers who grow food mainly for the domestic market. The constitution sets out as a duty of the government measures to eliminate rural poverty, including redistributive policies that guarantee farmers access to water, land, and other productive resources. The new constitution also bars the privatisation of water and bans the import and use of genetically modified seeds and crops.
Popularly approved in September’s referendum, Ecuador’s new constitution represents a significant triumph for indigenous peoples, environmental activists, small farmers, and local citizens’ groups seeking to protect their lands from the ravages of resource extraction and their markets from unfettered globalisation. This new constitution gives these groups the tools to challenge such processes as it establishes a new rights regime that recognises not only individual and private property rights, but the rights of communities, and of nature itself.
Correa began his presidency with many cards stacked against him, but he proved remarkably adroit at building popular support for his political project and using it to force the hands of his opponents. After a year in power, Correa appeared to have succeeded in reshuffling Ecuador’s political deck and dealing his movement a number of aces. However, in the middle of his second year in office, his prospects for completing the deep political and economic transformation of Ecuador that he has promised appear a bit less certain than they did a few months ago, if by no means improbable.
Correa’s popularity has been key to keeping the opposition in check long enough to carry out his desired institutional reforms. However, within the past several months Correa’s approval ratings have slipped as economic problems have arisen, namely, a slow growth rate and creeping inflation. Ecuador had one of the slowest growth rates in Latin America in 2007, and this year the Central Bank is predicting a rate of 3.1 per cent. While up from the year before, this would still be one of the lowest in the region. Compounding matters, inflation has also been on the rise, reaching 9.29 per cent in June 2008, substantially higher than the 2.68 per cent when Correa came into office.
The right is blaming Correa’s economic policies for scaring away investors, but the more important reasons for the economic slowdown have to do with Ecuador’s dollarised economy. As the dollar loses value relative to other currencies, the price of imports is rising, which in turn is generating inflationary pressures. However, because its economy is dollarised, Ecuador cannot use monetary policy to mitigate these impacts. If economic indicators do not improve, or if they get worse, this could open up space for the opposition, whose interests and power are threatened in fundamental ways by the new constitution and Correa’s policies.
The electoral contests of 2007—the referendum and Constituent Assembly elections—were major blows to the right. Right-wing parties in particular were exposed by losing virtually all their popular support. Dazed and reeling, they have been incapable of mounting effective opposition. However, they are trying desperately to regroup and it is possible, some would say likely, that they will pose a more formidable challenge to Correa in the near future.
The strategies the right is attempting to use are the same ones being employed by the Bolivian and Venezuelan right, although to much less effect in Ecuador. The first strategy is to accuse the Correa administration of being undemocratic. It has been arguing that provisions in the new constitution threaten freedom of the press. In July 2008, the administration confiscated more than 180 businesses belonging to the powerful Isaias group as part of a major court case in which this group was found to have acted illegally during the 1999 financial crisis and to owe the state hundreds of millions of dollars. Among the businesses confiscated were two of Ecuador’s leading television stations. The right immediately painted this action as an attack on the media. The right also opposes the Constituent Assembly’s decision to change the constitution to allow for immediate presidential elections, and claims that this is just another power-grabbing move by Correa.
The Ecuadorian right has also been testing out the strategy used to such great effect by the Bolivian right against Evo Morales—that of demanding regional autonomy and thus fracturing the country and weakening the power of the central government. So far, however, this strategy has not generated the kind of popular support that it has in Bolivia. In Ecuador, it faces some structural problems that make it less appealing. For example, oil, one of the country’s major sources of wealth, is not located on the coast, where the right is strongest, but in the Amazon, where there is a powerful indigenous movement. If the coastal provinces push too forcefully for radical autonomy they may open the door to their being cut off from Ecuador’s bountiful oil pump.
Another difficulty regional elites have in provoking opposition to Correa is that he himself is from the coast. The centre of social protest and progressive politics in Ecuador since the 1990s has been the highland and Amazon regions; the populous coastal provinces, by contrast, have always proved difficult for the left to penetrate. However, with his coastal origins, Correa has been able to serve as a bridge between leftist forces in the highland and Amazonian regions and new alienated voters on the coast, thereby eroding the traditional base of right-wing parties. The decision to convene the Constituent Assembly on the coast was a brilliant move as it gave people from that region a stronger sense of identification with the process.
So, the Ecuadorian right remains relatively weak, but if public frustration with the economy grows, political space may be opened up which the right could exploit to foment opposition against his administration.
A New Ecuador?
The victory of Correa and the PAIS Alliance in September’s referendum has given Ecuador for the first time a constitution that seeks to move the country away from the neo-liberal model. The role of the state in the economy has been strengthened, and so has the power of ordinary citizens and popular movements to challenge the initiatives of governments and political elites that threaten their interests. Ecuador now also has a constitution that is remarkably progressive in terms of environmental protections, putting significant limits and controls on exploitation of the country’s natural resources.
The stakes henceforth are high for Ecuador and for the region as a whole. The success or failure of Correa and the PAIS Alliance will have implications for progressive agendas and movements in other Latin American countries and for broader projects of regional co-operation and integration being led by and dependent on left-leaning governments. Approval of the constitution alone, of course, does not solve Ecuador’s many problems and challenges, despite all the hopes that have been pinned on it; it is in reality only one step, if an important one, in a longer process. However, public rejection of the constitution could have been a fatal blow to Correa’s “citizens’ revolution”, which despite its contradictions and imperfections represents the best hope yet for progressive forces in Ecuador to set the country’s agenda and move it in a direction whereby democracy really lives up to its promise of governmental accountability and responsiveness to the needs of the common people.
Correa’s poor but resource-rich country now has its best chance yet to carve out some new space for itself in our globalised world, to dare to chart an alternative development path that puts human needs and protection of the environment ahead of the desires of corporate capital. Over more than two decades of struggle, Ecuador’s left has forged alliances, developed new economic and environmental visions for the future, and successfully mobilised citizens around impassioned critiques of neo-liberalism, corruption, and imperialism. The Ecuadorian left created the conditions for its own assumption of power. Now it must remain united in order to exercise that power successfully.
1. Haroon Siddique, “Ecuador Referendum Endorses New Socialist Constitution”, Guardian (London), 29 September 2008.
2. “Ecuador: Rafael Correa Sworn in as President”, Notisur 17, no. 4 (26 January 2007).
3. Mónica Chuji Gualinga, “Diez conceptos basicos sobre plurinacionalidad e interculturalidad”, ALAI, 9 April 2008 [http://alainet.org/active/23366] (my translation).