Ecuador’s Economy Under Rafael Correa: Twenty-First Century Socialism or the New-Extractivism? – An Inteview with Alberto Acosta

“There has been a series of very interesting processes in Latin America – in Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador. However, none of these new processes have managed to overcome the economic structures of extractivism,” said Alberto Acosta, ex-President of Ecuador’s Constituent Assembly.

I spoke with Alberto Acosta, ex-Minister of Energy and Mines, and ex-President of the Constituent Assembly, in his Quito office on July 8, 2010.

Jeffery R. Webber: In a few words, can you describe your political formation and political trajectory?

Alberto Acosta: I’m an economist. I’ve worked as an international consultant and as a university professor. I’ve been an advisor to social movements, to the indigenous movement. I’ve been involved in various struggles in the last few years which are trying to build a country based in equality, liberty, and justice. In the early part of the Rafael Correa government, I was the Minister of Energy and Mines and the President of the Constituent Assembly.

JW: As a former Minister of Energy and Mines, can you talk about the strengths and weaknesses of the economic model being advanced by the Correa government in the current conjuncture?

AA: We can’t talk about the economic development model of only this government. Stretching way back, Ecuador has had a model of accumulation based on the extraction of natural resources. Ecuador has been a country based in the production of bananas, flowers, shrimp, and oil, and there are people who now believe that it can be a country based in mining production.

In reality, we’ve been living off the rent of nature. In the last few decades, since the 1970s, Ecuador has had as its principal source of revenue the exploitation of oil – the extraction of crude oil and the export of oil into the international market. This is a fundamental characteristic of the Ecuadorean economy. And this has not changed substantively under the government of Correa.

It’s true that he’s sought greater participation of the state in generating the oil rent. There’s been a certain increase of state control over oil activities. There’s been an attempt to increase the efficiency and to strengthen the state oil company. And the state’s greater take of the oil rent has allowed for improvements in education, health, and social welfare.

But at the root of things, the fact that Ecuador has an economy dependent on natural resources has not been altered, and we remain highly dependent on our insertion into the world market.

JW: You were also President of the Constituent Assembly. Can you talk about this process, and the advances and setbacks related to the new Constitution.

AA: The new constitution opened the door for a series of profound changes. Its statutes guarantee the construction of a plurinational state. This means the incorporation for the first time of marginalized groups, like indigenous peoples and nationalities, and Afro-Ecuadoreans. The constitution mandates respect for their unique ways of life and community organizing, and a new way of structuring the state in general.

The Constitution also commits the country to “living well,” or sumak kawsay, in Quichua, which is an entirely distinct way of understanding development. It’s another form of development. It’s an alternative to development, an alternative not within development, but an entirely different concept to development. Along these lines, the Constitution guarantees the rights of nature. Nature is a subject with rights in the Constitution. Ecuador’s Constitution is the only one in the world with this characteristic.

The Constitution also notes that water is a fundamental human right, not just access to water, but water itself. Water is a strategic patrimony. Water is part of biodiversity. It is central to nature.

JW: How do you explain the contrast between, on the one hand, the rhetoric of the Correa government – “citizens’ revolution,” “twenty-first century socialism” – and, on the other, the tense relations, often open clashes, between this government and prominent social movements?

AA: These phrases, citizens’ revolution and twenty-first century socialism, have to be understood in their full context. Socialism of the twenty-first century has absolutely no meaning. It has no meaning. We need to rescue socialism from the errors of the last century, but we can’t do this by promoting some kind of “new age” socialism. For me, twenty-first century socialism has no meaning, it is pure rhetoric.

The phrase citizens’ revolution is what popular struggles in Ecuador proposed and struggled for beginning in 2006 and 2007. Lamentably, it would appear that the Correa government has its doubts about making a revolution in reality. The very things this government proposed initially it is failing to make a reality; it is failing to respect the integral components of the new Constitution. This is the crucial thing to take note of.

At the moment, the “citizens’ revolution” suffers from a major deficit of citizens’ involvement.

JW: And the contradictions with the social movements, the indigenous movements, government accusations of “terrorism and sabotage”?

AA: I believe that these types of accusations are tremendously shameful for the country. They have no basis in justice or a democratic judicial system. Even during the period of the neoliberal governments, when social movements and the indigenous movement were massively involved in protests – there were never accusations of terrorism. This is a question that is putting the citizens’ revolution itself at risk. It would appear that there are forces that are configuring themselves in a type of counter-revolution, without citizenship.

JW: For Canadian readers, can you describe some of the conflicts in the mining sector, and the role of Canadian companies, because they have a massive presence in this country.

AA: Without a doubt. Look, Canadian companies have been very active in this country for some years. One could say that Canadian companies were the primary beneficiaries of the new disposition of the mining laws throughout the early 2000s. These laws were meant to strengthen the presence of mining companies in Ecuador. This was a project pushed forward by the World Bank, and which received support from the governments of that epoch. We’re talking about the neoliberal epoch.

Canadian companies were the ones who took advantage of the new laws with the greatest enthusiasm, to invest in Ecuador. Canadian companies have expanded their presence in various regions of the country. In the Cordillera de Condor, in the Intag Valley, and elsewhere. They’ve managed to win a huge number of mining concessions. Ecuador gave out over 5,000 concessions in an irresponsible manner, without any controls or criteria. The great majority of these concessions were concentrated in the hands of just a few companies, Canadian companies.

We can also see how some Canadian companies, such as Ascendant Copper, have tried to impose their objectives in an authoritarian manner in the country. They have established schemes of paramilitarism, in order to divide the communities of Intag, to intimidate these communities, and to impose mining activities.

I was personally a witness to how this company mobilized people to protest against my presence as Minister of Energy and Mines at the time because my politics ran against this type of corruption. I remember receiving threats and having rocks thrown at me during a meeting in the city of Ibarra, in the province of Imbabura. We saw how they acted, and how they threatened the communities. Thanks to the struggles of these very communities, and the actions of the Ministry of Energy and Mines at the time, we managed to disarm these paramilitaries, and achieved some justice. But there are still many problems in the region. I believe it’s important to highlight these events and what they signify.

JW: Shifting themes, we’ve seen a shift to the left in Latin America – full of contradictions, but nonetheless a shift – over the last decade. What has Ecuador’s role been inside this regional turn to the Left?

AA: There has been a series of very interesting processes in Latin America – in Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador. However, none of these new processes have managed to overcome the economic structures of extractivism. Bolivia continues to be dependent, even more dependent than before, on natural gas. Bolivia is making concerted efforts to extend oil, gas, and mineral extraction. In Ecuador the orientation is toward ongoing exploitation of oil. Although, one has to highlight the proposals of Ecuador to leave the oil under the ground in the National Park of Yasuni, which is positive. But, in general, it’s clear that there is no coherent position against the extractive model. There is a lot of talk of transformation and revolution, but it continues to be more of the same.

As I suggested, I don’t think there’s anything to what they’re calling socialism of the twenty-first century. What we’re witnessing instead is a neo-extractivism of the twenty-first century.

JW: In the long term, what does Ecuador need to change in its development model?

AA: What we need to do in the medium- to long-term is overcome this model of accumulation. We need another way to organize the economy, which is not so dependent on the exploitation of natural resources. We need to move from an extractive economic model, to one based in the knowledge, and forces, and needs of human beings, individual and collective. We also need another way of inserting ourselves into the world market that is more intelligent than simply providing raw materials. We need to start producing other kinds of products for the international market. But more than anything, fundamentally, we need to strengthen the internal market and to strengthen regional integration in Latin America. Ecuador needs to break with the extreme concentration of assets and income, and change the pattern. We need to achieve equality if there is to be justice and freedom. This is what we need. And this requires a lot of democracy. Always more democracy, and never less.

Jeffery R. Webber teaches politics at the University of Regina. He is the author of Red October: Left-Indigenous Struggles in Modern Bolivia (Brill, 2010), and Rebellion to Reform in Bolivia: Class Struggle, Indigenous Liberation and the Politics of Evo Morales (Haymarket, 2011).