Ecuador: The “Citizens’ Revolution” vs Social Movements

In this way, thousands of indigenous communities, and tens of thousands of civic organizations, are under the control of the State. The arrival of Rafael Correa’s government and his Alianza País was made possible thanks to the fight of the movements, who are now criminalized and under control … The new power devours those who made it possible.

Source: Americas Program

The intent of Rafael Correa’s government to evict the principal indigenous organization from its building shows the contradictions of the “citizen’s revolution.” What’s in play is the country’s plan, a neo-developmentalism anchored in mining, oil and major hydroelectric projects cloaked in the Good Living mantra.

“This building today represents the symbol of this people’s resistance against absolute power. This structure is the product of the indigenous movement’s struggle, stemming from the early 90’s uprising, and that’s why we are here to defend the historical memory of our people,” stated Carlos Pérez Guartambel, president of the Kichwa Confederation of Ecuador (Ecuarunari), on Jan. 6 during the demonstration to defend the CONAIE’s building in Quito.[1]

“Throwing Conaie out of its building is an unjust and politically senseless act,” reads the open letter Portuguese sociologist Boaventura de Sousa Santos sent to President Rafael Correa. [2] The CONAIE is the country’s most important social movement and one of the most outstanding in Latin America. It has occupied its headquarters in the northern part of the city since 1991, when President Rodrigo Borja signed a pact with the organization.

“They’ll have to evict us,” said Quechua leader Blanca Chancoso. The indigenous organization was at the forefront of various uprisings since June 1990, paralyzing the country in order to place indigenous demands at the center of the political agenda. The CONAIE groups more than 5,000 mountain, jungle and coastal indigenous communities together, and played an outstanding role in toppling the governments of Abdalá Bucaram in 1997 and Jamil Mahuad in January 2000, ousted in the middle of massive demonstrations.

In Ecuador, indigenous and popular leadership has played an outstanding role in delegitimizing the neoliberal model, clearing the path for progressive governments and a new Constitution (2008). Since 2007, Correa has governed, largely dominating parliament, and counting upon a packed judicial system.

The CONAIE argues that the free use contract by which it occupied the building remains in effect until 2021, but the government intended to evict them on Jan. 6. In its Dec. 15 press release, the CONAIE denounced the colonial nature of the measure, as the offices were offered by the State as part of historic reparations. Director Nina Pacari emphasized that in reality they are being subject to “political persecution by this government against indigenous peoples and low-income sectors.”[3]

In early January, the government stepped back and suspended the eviction for two months, in the midst of an indigenous demonstration defending the building and in the face of increasing international repudiation, as Correa seeks to maintain his image outside the country. In any case, the episode serves to show the type of regime being constructed in Ecuador, and the nature of the relations it wants to maintain with social movements.

A Bad Year for Correa

Relations between Correa and social movements have never been good. In March 2009, the government rescinded the legal status of NGO Acción Ecológica (Ecological Action), which had existed for more than 20 years, for having “not fulfilled the goals for which it was created.” A letter from Eduardo Galeano and extensive international solidarity convinced the president to drop the measure.

It should be remembered that there are about 200 indigenous leaders and activists accused of disturbances including terrorism, by doing the same things that movements did under the neoliberal model (blocking thoroughfares, interrupting marketplaces, marching and demonstrating), a type of activism from which those presently occupying the Executive office have benefitted. Mutual antagonism is not something new, but it has become more pointed over the last few years.

The confrontation between Correa and the movements also contrasts with relations maintained by some governments during the neoliberal period. Social democrat Borja negotiated with the Inti Raymi indigenous uprising in 1990, promoting the deliverance of lands to communities, as well as encouraging literacy and bilingual education.

Over the last few months, this distancing became a mixture of repression and harassment, because 2014 was a bad year for Correa: he ended the Yasuní Initiative, setting off a broad-based social movement in defence of the national park; and he suffered an unexpected defeat in the elections as social protest grew exponentially.

The government decided to end the Yasuní Initiative, according to which oil activities in the national park bearing the name had been suspended as the country’s commitment to global warming. Income not collected by Ecuador would be compensated by international contributions. The government decided to suspend the Initiative on Aug. 15, 2013, and the Yasunidos movement gathered 700,000 signatures to convene a plebiscite, an option rejected by the National Electoral Council.

Ecologist Esperanza Martínez, member of Acción Ecológica, reveals the way in which authorities hindered the plebiscite. They applied all types of measures, from intending to “demoralize the collectors (of signatures) to direct traps.”[4] The Yasunidos movement gathered enough signatures to largely exceed the 5 percent required by law to convene a plebiscite.

But the signatures were held at a military barracks, where movement members had no access to them. Then the National Electoral Council began a mass elimination of forms, with minimal presence of Yasunidos members in the verification process. Finally, the majority of signatures were discarded and the plebiscite could not be convened.

According to Martínez, it was “a foregone fraud.”

Electoral Defeat and Labor Protest

The government had a major electoral defeat in the 2014 local elections. It is worth looking over the results of the Feb. 23  elections because it was the first time he was defeated in that area and because from that moment, officialdom became fearful of being displaced from state power.

Alianza País (Country Alliance), Correa’s party, was defeated in the country’s three major cities, Quito, Guayaquil, and Cuenca, and lost support in the highlands, which had been its social base from the start of the process. The defeat of the pro-government candidate in Quito (Augusto Berrera) was resounding: around 20 points in favor of center-right Mauricio Rodas. It is important to note that in the capital, which was run by a pro-government leadership, the government expended enormous resources and gave complete institutional support.

In Guayaquil, on the contrary, though the right won for the sixth consecutive time, Alianza País was close. It also lost in mining and oil expansion zones and retreated in the highlands. As noted by sociologist Pablo Ospina, “All the prefects who came out against large scale mining activities got more votes than in 2009.”[5]

The government lost ten provincial capitals but the loss in terms of mayors was even greater: in 2009, it won 73 mayoralties out of which it only retained 65. The number grew on the coast but plunged in the highlands, going from 36 to 14 mayors. The indiegnous population, the most politicized, lives in the highlands, and they were the ones who led the resistance to neoliberalism and were the social base of Correa’s government. That is why Ospina maintains that we are faced with “a displacement of Alianza País’s electorate from the highlands to the coast.”

“The great majority of the national government’s authoritarian episodes over the last year can be held perfectly responsible for part of the electoral defeat,” said Opsina. Two of the parties that maintained their strength or grew are from the left: Pachakutik (allied with the CONAIE) grew in the highlands and obtained 26 mayoralties, and the Socialist Party got 12. But the new center-right parties grew too.

Some analysts, such as economist Francisco Muñoz Jaramillo, maintain that the government had a “strategic reversal” in the elections, which may signify the regime’s loss of hegemony as much as the creation of “a situation that could reverse Correa’s winning electoral trend over the last seven years.”[6]

It begs the question of why it is a strategic defeat, when we’re only up against an electoral decline, an important but not necessarily definitive one. According to Muñoz, and something shared by other Ecuadorean analysts, the lack of structural changes in the country, in relation to the historical demands of lower-class and indigenous sectors, “influenced and even determined Alianza País and the pro-government supporters’ recent electoral losses.”

November’s massive protests against labor reform, led by Conaie and the Frente Unitario de Trabajadores(United Workers Front – FUT), were a just as important warning bell for the government as the electoral defeat. It was the third wave of protests in less than six months, with marches in the cities. Mesías Tatamuez, of the FUT, said the trades union mobilization seeks “to defend the right to organize, especially in  the public sector,” as the reforms eliminate labor unions for state employees.[7]

A good part of the demonstrators also rejected Correa’s intention to institute presidential re-election through a constitutional reform. The latest sign of authoritarianism occurred on Dec. 4, when the Foreign Ministry denied entrance into Ecuador of a group of German parliamentarians who planned to visit various projects in the country, the Yasuní National Park in particular.

The Economic Crisis and the Left’s Racism

Last June, Ecuador delivered half of its gold reserves to Goldman Sachs as collateral for a loan of $400 million, thus a return to foreign financing, with no risk to the lender precisely because it was a pledge in gold. The government is in need of funds, among other things $700 million in order to settle liabilities abroad, and another billion that it wants to invest in hydroelectricity.

According to economist Oscar Ugarteche, “The changes in the international economy are affecting Latin American economies that thought themselves out of the reach of external restrictions.”[8] For the moment, one of the most affected countries would be Ecuador, but Argentina, Venezuela and more recently Brazil have also joined the club. The fall in oil prices is an acute problem for the first three.

Until the gold pledge, Ecuador’s almost sole lender was China, which set certain conditions, among them oil exploitation in the Yasuní. But the problems don’t stop there.

“As long as the BRICS contingency fund is not signed, and its economic monitoring body is not set to continue supporting emerging economies, it is improbable that some actor besides the same International Monetary Fund would provide that collateral,” maintains Ugarteche.

In this unfavorable  scenario, everything indicates that the government wants to shut down the domestic front. The questions posed by De Souza, who has shown his support of progressive governments, seem therefore pertinent.

“Why are we foolishly wasting a unique opportunity to transform Ecuador into a more just, intercultural and plurinational society? How is it possible not to see that such an opportunity will not come back for many decades?” he writes in his letter.

But perhaps the most important, and painful, would be: “How is it possible to so easily transform adversaries with whom we should debate into enemies that want to defeat each other? How is it possible that the Latin American left’s racist genetic code quashes us when we least expect it?”

Sociologist Natalia Sierra maintains that “the government has designated indigenous-campesino peoples and communities and ecological collectives as enemies to its plan.”[9] It’s possible, she points out, that social movements have started to become “obstacles” to progressive governments’ modernizing  and developmentalist plans, especially mining and oil.

Controlling Organized Society

Perhaps the most worrisome aspect of Ecuador’s reality is the Correa regime’s permanent intent to control society. On June 4, 2013, Correa issued Decree 16, which regulates the operations of social organizations through the Sistema Unificado de Información de Organizaciones Sociales (Social Organizations Unified Information System, SUIOS) and the Registro Único de Organizaciones Sociales (Single Registry of Social Organizations – RUOS). The objective is to regulate and control movements that will no longer be able to exist without State approval and can be dissolved if they stray from declared purposes.

The indigenous movement, as with other movements, opposes the regulation. According to Quechua attorney and Ecuarunari President Carlos Pérez Guartambel, the government is seeking “total control over the country’s social and community organizations,” through various registries that “constitute a sort of GESTAPO or KGB recording all of our personal information.”[10]

In effect, Article 43 obligates organizations to give up-to-date information on all aspects of the organization, and Article 40 obliges them to deliver assembly minutes, financial reports and any information the State requires to the government. “Only organizations created by the Government and under its direction will be able to engage in issues of public interest, according to the stipulations of Article 26,” explains Guartambel.

“Whoever doesn’t follow the directives of the government or resists will be left on the margins of the law and be accused under the law of illicit association,” the Quechua attorney added. The entire spirit of the decree and the form in which the Ecuadorean State operates it testify to a type of control that undermines the autonomy of society and social organizations.

The Coordinadora Ecuatoriana de Organizaciones para la Defensa de la Naturaleza y el Medio Ambiente(Ecuadorean Coordinator for Organizations Defending Nature and the Environment – Cedenma), maintains that the decree “ignores the capacity for self-determination of civil society as a whole and undermines the basic principles of a democratic society,” as well as violating various articles of the Constitution[11]. The Coordinator challenges that regulating social organizations was decided without any dialogue or consultation, but through presidential decree.


In this way, thousands of indigenous communities, and tens of thousands of civic organizations, are under the control of the State. The arrival of Rafael Correa’s government and his Alianza País was made possible thanks to the fight of the movements, who are now criminalized and under control. A history over two centuries old, since the French Revolution, repeats itself. The new power devours those who made it possible.



[1] Conaie is the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador, composed among others by Ecuarunari, the highland Quechua organization.

[2] In

[3] El Universo, 11 December 2014.

[4] Esperanza Martínez, “Yasuní: la democracia en extinción” in Various authors, La restauración conservadora del correísmo, Motecristi Vive, Quito, 2014, pp. 138-141.

[5] Pablo Ospina, “Radiografía de un remezón. Las elecciones seccionales del 23 de febrero de 2014”, Various authors, ob. cit., pp. 77-84.

[6] Francisco Muñoz Jaramillo, “Elecciones 2014: el correísmo en declive”, Various authors, ob. cit., pp. 85-99.

[7] Infobae, 19 November 2014.

[8] Alai, 9 June 2014.

[9] PlanV, 14 December 2014.

[10] Carlos Pérez Guartambel, “Decreto 16, la antítesis al Sumak Kawsay”, in El derecho a reunirnos en paz. El Decreto 16 y las amenazas a la organización social en el Ecuador, Fundamedios, Quito, 2014, p. 71.

[11] Cedenma, Quito, 27 June 2013.