Ecuador – CONAIE Leader: “We will not defend wealthy media interests”

Ecuador’s Indigenous movement leader recognizes that there are internal differences in the organization, but they will never join with the political right.


Ecuador’s Indigenous movement leader recognizes that there are internal differences in the organization, but they will never join with the political right.

CONAIE supported the Communications Law because it believes that the most affected, excluded, and vilified sectors of society have been Indigenous peoples, “while entrepreneurs and wealthy media interests concentrated their power to insult, denigrate, offend, and slander.” Their challenge now is to gain access to the media.

Who is he?

Full name: Manuel Humberto Cholango

Date of birth: 1976, Canguahua, Ecuador

Education: Graduate of Human Sciences

Experience: President of CONAIE.

Translated with permission from El Telégrafo (Quito, Ecuador), translation by Marc Becker

Interview by Geovanna Melendres

From his office in the north of Quito, the main Indigenous leader reflects on the challenge facing the movement to keep its ancient struggle alive in the face of new scenarios.

What is the ideological principle that currently motivates the struggle of the Indigenous movement?

Our base is the community and it might be called socialism or communism, but never capitalism. We have always fought for equality and the redistribution of wealth, to terminate monopolies that have affected the development of society. Our argument is that society must re-democratize and that this will help strengthen institutions in the country.

What do you mean by re-democratize?

It means giving power to the people, not only through referendums or with the election of a mayor or prefect. It means building the people’s government from the grassroots, to monitor justice and an economic model based on the Sumak Kawsay (living well). It is essential that budgets are participatory on a local level. We do not want a society that only achieves power to govern at the polls, but one that engages in processes of real change. For that type of re-democratization it is fundamental to construct organizations with a pluricultural and plurinational vision.

How do you evaluate the situation of the Indigenous movement, which in the last election was fragmented and now we have, for example, lawmakers with Rafael Correa’s Alianza PAÍS and in the plurinational bloc with the leftist MPD party?

We are in a phase of internal redefinition. In no way can we say that we are fragmented, but we do have our differences, something that is normal in an organization like ours that consists of 18 different Indigenous peoples and nationalities. But on an ideological level we stick together in a struggle against injustice, poverty, and in a fight for more rights. In elections we have participated in different ways, but the worst thing is–and this is something that I cannot ignore–that there are some Indigenous peoples who think the same way as those on the political right and have even been identified with them. The Indigenous movement will not tolerate that they think like the right, that they behave and join the right to become an Indigenous elite. That would be a total failure.

If there are common areas of agreement such as the fight against injustice and poverty, in what areas do the redefinitions fall?

In an ideological identity, in being leftist, progressive. This redefinition is part of the construction of a plurinational state, in the re-democratization of Ecuador, in the need to open a dialogue with other groups and sectors, in placing the struggle against capitalism and neoliberalism on the national and international level.

Do you mean that the 18-35 alliance between Pachakutik and Correa that was formed in Chimborazo was not ideologically opposed to the principles of the movement?

We had a Plurinational Alliance of the Left supporting the candidacy of Alberto Acosta and we said that the left was gathered there. Obviously, in some provinces they made alliances, which are not there now, but we would have to evaluate the results: if they have served to combat poverty and promote sustainable and efficient alternatives or if they are doing so now. We would have to assess how far the discourse goes in terms of supporting autonomous and decentralized governments that offer an alternative to the country.

Have you evaluated why these leaders, in the last election, allied with Correa’s Alizana PAÍS?

In the past alliances were made with the Democratic Left (ID), the Socialist Party (PSE), with Lucio Gutiérrez, which was a historical and tactical mistake that we keep paying for, even if we were not the ones responsible for it. We are willing to recognize those mistakes, but we need to return to our roots.

In terms of such alliances there was an agreement with the government in 2006 and several leaders continue on that front …

We did not have an alliance. Several Indians participated individually, but that does not mean that the movement took that position. We agreed with the Constituent Assembly, with the expulsion of the Manta base, against signing the Free Trade Agreement with the U.S., in the nationalization of natural resources, and we called for a vote for Rafael Correa in the run-off election. The Constituent Assembly was held, there is a Constitution that maybe does not contain all of our desires, but it was a historic struggle. As for the economic recovery, changing the mode of production, the agrarian revolution, and the Water Law–these have not advanced and the president has acknowledged that this is a shortcoming, but he has said that for four years and has not started work on reviving agriculture. We are critical of the president’s actions, but we also recognize his work; we are not fundamentalists. We recognize that the roads and public investment have improved, but we must consider the quality of spending. In international politics, UNASUR, CELAC, asylum for Julian Assange, solidarity with Cuba and Venezuela are all good positions. Why would we to oppose these if we have been in favor of integration?

When evaluating proposals from the government’s 2006 campaign, it appears that there were not any irreconcilable points, but the confrontation in the last election was overwhelming …

We proposed a policy option, although we may not have been very polished in the realm of electoral politics. The government had a huge advantage in having state structures behind it. In short, we could argue many things, but our proposal did not gain traction with the citizenship. Maybe it was a methodological flaw or maybe this time the people did not see us as a policy option, but we did propose things to the country that have not been more deeply explored.

Alberto Acosta presents a self-criticism in his book “El país que queríamos” (“The country that we want”) in which he recognizes that his proposal was not in tune with the people. Was it a publicity issue or was it the content of the proposal?

I do not think it was a lack of ideological harmony because we are a movement that has carried out a social struggle and people know where Alberto Acosta is going. I think it was a matter of strategy, we did not read the political situation very well.

What do you mean?

We did not use strategies for an election campaign. We acted like any other political group but not as a campaign where you have to go out and win votes. We will reflect on the successes and problems of that process.

Was the alliance with the MPD successful?

The MPD has also struggled to vindicate the rights of workers, students, and the poorest sectors of the country. They have their faults and weaknesses but we do not hold them responsible for the electoral results and we do not say that it was a mistake to join in an alliance with them.

How do you explain that leaders like Tituaña Auki decided to ally with a banker (Guillermo Lasso)?

We have been victims of colonization, of a process of a savage imposition and extermination, of being subject to inhumane working conditions and, therefore, the state has been built with that mentality. Who was in charge of the economy? The bankers, big business. Who influences public opinion? The large media monopolies that supposedly provide information. That is the struggle that we are carrying out, and in the case of Mr. Tituaña, you know the answer, the Indigenous movement said that he no longer would be part of the organization.

He was expelled, but did not this alliance reveal an ideological flaw?

Yes there are Indians who think just like the bankers and the political right, but that is not the structure of the Indigenous movement. I am not here just to say good things, but the man was expelled.

The Assembly passed the Communications Law and Pachakutik voted for two sections of it. What was the thinking behind that?

The Communications Law is a constitutional mandate. We have fought for more than 20 years for space on the radio dial, as well as for the construction of a plurinational state … because we believe that voices are crucial to democratizing society, so that diverse voices can be heard. For this reason, CONAIE supported the law.

I recognize that there were differences, but our two assembly members–including Lourdes Tibán–voted for the two sections because we believe that the most affected and excluded sectors of society have been Indigenous peoples, while businesses and wealthy media interests have concentrated power in their hands. And some have used this power to insult, denigrate, offend, and slander, and not to defend democracy or to inform society. We believe that to gain 34 percent of the airwaves is a worthy struggle despite whatever they say, despite whoever opposes it.

Has the divorce between CONAIE and its assembly members now been smoothed over?

We will not defend wealthy media interests, and even less so those on the right. These differences were settled last week in an assembly where our base supported CONAIE’s position on the Communications Law. This time the base said that this is a historical struggle for the Indigenous movement, and we will fight for access to the media because now we have a legal instrument for doing so. Before we had nothing.