Ecuador’s indigenous confederation looks to a new leader, fresh mobilizations, changes in the Constituent Assembly and a critical juncture in the relationship with president Rafael Correa.
On Thursday January 31st, Marlon Santi was formally inaugurated as the new president of the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE), Ecuador’s most powerful social movement organization. By 10:30 a.m., nearly 300 people—mostly members of the confederation’s base in the highland, Amazonian and coastal regions, joined by the Guatemalan, Cuban, Venezuelan, Spanish, Brazilian, Norwegian and Argentinean ambassadors—packed into the third floor of the CONAIE’s north Quito office to witness the event. Many wore traditional dress, which the press eagerly photographed. People waited patiently for an hour after the scheduled time for the festivities and speeches to begin.
In the front of the room, the incoming and outgoing CONAIE leadership assembled under a bright red CONAIE banner and a wiphala flag, a multicolored symbol of indigenous diversity across the Andes. In the middle sat new president Marlon Santi—in a traditional Amazonian Kichwa feather headdress and face paint—and outgoing president Luis Macas Ambuludí—wearing the customary striped poncho and feathered cap of the highland Saraguro Kichwa peoples. There was a palpable sense of anticipation in the crowd. The Ecuadorian indigenous movement is at a critical juncture: the Constituent Assembly convened by President Rafeal Correa has the historic opportunity to decolonize the nation’s political structure, but Ecuador’s indigenous people, accustomed to politician’s breaking promises, must mobilize to ensure that their voices are heard.
Santi faces the complex challenge of defending the Constituent Assembly from right-wing attacks while at the same time pressuring Assembly members to recognize Ecuador as a plurinational State. As president of the Kichwa Otavalo community Maria Tamberla notes, ¨Correa is a little better compared to other presidents. But we´re not convinced that he will defend the people, especially the indigenous people. And unfortunately, with respect to mining, we have seen no change.¨ Meanwhile, Santi must also reunite and strengthen the CONAIE, whose political arm Pachakutik took a beating in last year’s presidential elections.
Before the speeches began, CONAIE spiritual leaders presided over a series of indigenous ceremonies, transforming the drab meeting hall into a space filled with cultural significance. Speaking in a mix of Kichwa and Spanish while evoking pre-Incan symbolism, burning aromatic wood and calling on the sacred energy of the pachamama (mother earth) and generations of ancestors, the shaman proclaimed: "We are the cultures that defend the earth, defend the water, defend life!" The ceremonies were followed by a brief musical interlude, during which the otherwise stoic Santi energetically danced with an elderly woman who jumped up from the crowd.
Finally, the speeches began. Outgoing president Ambuludí began his long oration in Kichwa before switching to Spanish. He spoke in a reserved, scholarly tone, describing the CONAIE as a space for analysis and debate over the fundamental issues of constructing a plurinational State and transforming Ecuador’s colonial political structure. He warned against the Correa administration "capitalizing" on the indigenous movement’s victories and spoke strongly against the capitalist extractive model that is depleting the Amazon and impoverishing indigenous communities.
After representatives of the three regional indigenous organizations spoke, Santi took the stage. As he began to speak, his youth, energy and militancy were immediately apparent. As a leader formed in the fight against oil companies operating in the Amazonian province of Pastaza, the 32-year old Santi spoke strongly against the corporate sacking of Ecuador’s natural resources and the detrimental ecological impact of extractive industries. He demanded that the Constituent Assembly recognize and protect Ecuador’s biodiversity.
For the CONAIE, the only way to transform Ecuador’s political and economic structure is for the new Constitution to finally recognize plurinationality, a longstanding demand of the indigenous movement. In his speech, Santi argued that the affirmation of the diversity of peoples and cultures that constitute Ecuador is a fundamental precondition for real national sovereignty. He noted that the CONAIE has been at the forefront of Ecuador’s greatest movements for national sovereignty: successfully mobilizing against a Free Trade Agreement with the United States, for the cancellation of oil contracts with Occidental Petroleum and, of course, overthrowing corrupt business-friendly presidents.
[Photo: Panel of CONAIE leaders. In the center, Marlon Santi (left) accepts the CONAIE staff from outgoing president Luis Macas Ambuludí (right).]
Santi argued that without the recognition of Ecuador as a plurinational state, Correa’s discourse of the "Citizen’s Revolution" will in effect exclude its indigenous people. If Correa embraces the ideology of the "universal citizen", he will reinforce the colonial and liberal ideologies that at once oppress and erase the unique history of the 30 nationalities that constitute Ecuador. By emphasizing the primacy of individual rights, the liberal citizenship model has historically worked to deny indigenous peoples collective control over land and natural resources. Neoliberal economic policy has further exacerbated this situation by giving multinational corporations control over Ecuadorian oil.
Santi’s speech was a powerful challenge to neoliberal economic policy and to the modern idea of the nation-state. To ensure that the demands of the indigenous movement are heard, the CONAIE has planned a mobilization this March at the Constituent Assembly’s headquarters in Montecristi. Members of the ECUARUNARI (The Confederation of the Kiwcha Peoples of Ecuador), one of the three regional organizations that make up the CONAIE, will organize the demonstration. The CONAIE has a history of impressive mobilizations, which have blocked several attempted neoliberal reforms and helped depose three presidents over the last decade.
This could be a turning point in the Constituent Assembly and will surely mark a critical juncture in the relationship between the CONAIE and the Correa administration. It will also send a message to the right-wing Ecuadorian elite, who have stepped up their protests against the Correa administration. Hopefully, Ecuador will be able to avoid the extreme political polarization and elite mobilization that have frustrated the Bolivian Constituent Assembly and instead emerge as a plurinational, sovereign, and just nation.
Thea Riofrancos is living in Quito, Ecuador. She works for the Agencia Latinoamericana de Información (ALAI, www.alainet.org) translating and writing.