Wayward Allies: President Rafael Correa and the Ecuadorian Left

Outside of Ecuador, most progressives consider President Rafael Correa to be a Leftist champion of social and economic justice. Inside the country, however, conflicts between Correa and the social movement Left—the indigenous movement, environmentalists and unions, among others—have become increasingly heated.

Outside of Ecuador, most progressives consider President Rafael Correa to be a Leftist champion of social and economic justice. Inside the country, however, conflicts between Correa and the social movement Left—the indigenous movement, environmentalists and unions, among others—have become increasingly heated. On June 23, Constituent Assembly President and long-time social movement ally Alberto Acosta resigned his post after high-profile disagreements with Correa over issues of procedural democracy and indigenous, economic and environmental justice. Acosta headed the legislative body charged with writing a new constitution.

The new magna carta was approved by the Assembly on July 24, sending the text to a popular referendum this September. While social movements have been sharply critical of Correa, it is expected that they will join the “yes” campaign in support of the new constitution, fearing a right-wing resurgence if it fails. Critics within Correa’s Alianza País party and Leftist members of the indigenous party Pachakutik unanimously voted to approve the text. Leftist Martha Roldos, a member of the Ethical and Democratic Network (RED) abstained, citing a top down process.

To the degree that it exists, popular perception in the U.S. and Europe has been colored by Correa’s stance against U.S. hegemony in the region, along with his forceful rejection of Colombia’s March 1 attack on a FARC camp on Ecuadorian soil. The mainstream media has simplistically lumped him in with the Spanish-speaking "axis of evil" stretching from Bolivia and Venezuela to Cuba. The Left media has, on the other hand, under the assumption that the enemy of my enemy is my friend, championed him as a man of the people. Greg Palast, a well-known progressive journalist, wrote an article in terms so emphatically glowing that it is clear he spoke to no one except the President and his spokespeople when he parachuted into the country. A five-minute conversation with any social movement leader would have significantly complicated his analysis.

I myself arrived in Ecuador this past January excited about being excited about Correa, assuming (or hoping?) that he was part of this social movement propelled Left tide sweeping across the region. For Ecuadorian social movements, however, the doubts and uneasiness were present from the beginning. In 2006, Patchakutik, the electoral arm of the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE), decided to run CONAIE leader Luis Macas for president. The CONAIE and other social movement groups only decided to endorse Correa in the second round where he faced right-wing Institutional Renewal Party of National Action (PRIAN) candidate Álvaro Noboa. A conservative Christian banana magnate and Ecuador’s richest man, Noboa represented everything that is socially and economically retrograde in the country.

Correa is a U.S. and Belgian trained economist who, before running for President was relatively unknown and had almost no history working directly with Ecuadorian social movements. As his dark horse candidacy gained steam, however, and he made it into the second round, he picked up some long-time social movement demands, including opposition to a Free Trade Agreement with the U.S. and a pledge to close the U.S. military base in the port city of Manta. He proclaimed a “citizen’s revolution,” promising to convene a Constituent Assembly to write a new constitution and to put an end to the “long night of neoliberalism.”

When Ecuadorians approved a referendum convening the Constituent Assembly in September 2007, social movements were cautiously optimistic. It was perceived as a chance to make gains on pressing social, economic and foreign policy issues. Social movements saw the election of economist and long-time environmental and social activist Alberto Acosta to the Assembly’s presidency as a particularly encouraging development.

Meeting just a few miles away from the soon to be closed U.S. military base in the town of Montecristi, the Assembly has been a mixed bag of progress, stasis, retreat and confusion. On the one hand, the Assembly has broken with the neoliberal model by increasing state participation in the economy, enshrining the right to education and healthcare and, in a historic move, forcing rich people to pay taxes. It has also taken some important steps for the environment, recognizing that natural ecosystems are themselves the subject of rights.

Many indigenous, women’s, labor and campesino leaders, however, feel that this was a missed opportunity to confront historic injustices and embrace a more social and sustainable economic model. In addition, social movements have not viewed this as a particularly participatory process. Few Ecuadorian have a solid grasp on what is going on in Montecristi and many proposals were generated from the top down. Most glaringly, Correa has exercised near total control over the majority Assembly Members from his Alianza País party. There is a sense that Correa has taken over a process of change that other people—namely social and indigenous movements—have painstakingly built over the past decades.

According to Ivonne Ramos, a leader of the prominent environmental organization Acción Ecologica, the social movements’ sense of cautious optimism has descended into an open conflict.

“There have been different currents in the Constituent Assembly, some defending capitalism and neoliberlism, and others pointing to a new model. We see that many of the proposals aiming to undermine social movements’ demands are coming from the President," says Ramos. "The mining debate highlighted these different positions. The main power struggle isn’t between the President and the Right. It is between the President and the Left, including within his own party.” Acción Ecologica has close ties to the CONAIE and works with communities resisting mining and oil exploitation.

Economist Pablo Dávalos, who served under Correa when he was President Alfredo Palacio’s Finance Minister, says that Correa’s Leftist discourse conceals a developmentalist and neoliberal economic policy based on natural resource extraction. Dávalos has long argued that the forajidos, a new sector of the middle class created by dollarization, have been Correa’s base since the beginning.

“I think that the Correa government’s intention is to put the country in harmony with the new currents of global capitalism, particularly with regard to the exploitation of natural resources, the IRSA [multimodal infrastructural integration project] and territorial privatization," says Dávalos. "Correa is doing everything possible to integrate Ecuador into this new global division of labor as a provider of primary materials, commodities and energy.”
The media often contrast Correa internationally with right-wing leaders like Colombian President Alvaro Uribe and nationally with characters like Jaimie Nebot, mayor of the Ecuadorian coastal metropolis of Guayaquil. In Ecuador and abroad, this leads to an inaccurate, black and white, Right versus Left framework.

The Ecuadorian Right, whose pricey clothing and snow white skin stuck out in the Assembly, has been weakened and discredited, having corruptly presided over decades of disastrous free market economic policies. The main criticisms of opposition parties like the Social Christian Party (PSP), PRIAN and the Patriotic Society Party are that Correa is trying to turn Ecuador into “another Cuba or Venezuela,” supports abortion and is centralizing power. The first two charges are patently false, while the question of authoritarianism is more properly a complaint for social movements than the Right, whose fall from power can only be blamed on its own incompetence and unpopularity.

Dávalos has persisently argued that Correa’s “citizen’s revolution” is focused on what he calls the “moralization of politics.” Rather than fundamentally change Ecuador’s economic model, Correa and his forajido supporters, who have risen up through what they perceive to be a free and fair market, are focused on making the government more transparent. One social movement activist told me that, “Correa just wants to formalize everything. If someone sells you bubblegum on the streets, he wants to make sure that taxes are paid and that you get a receipt.” But the disgrace of what is widely referred to as the “partidocracy,” tainted by decades of corruption, lends Correa support far beyond his middle class base.

While Correa was elected and has consolidated power through a Leftist discourse prioritizing socio-economic justice and national sovereignty, he has increasingly moved to break ties with organized social movements. Many analysts say that Correa, buoyed by high approval ratings, is intentionally demonstrating that he need not depend on any organized body. Seeing alliances with the CONAIE, environmental and labor movements as restrictive, Correa is building an institutionally unmediated and populist relationship to voters, allowing him to be the country’s sole decision maker.

Correa, long known for lashing out against opponents on the Right, has increasingly made verbal attacks against social movement activists and Leftist politicians. On June 7, Correa made some particularly harsh comments on his weekly radio program, stating that enemies of oil and mining are not part of the Alianza País led process of “revolution.”

“I hope that the Leftist radicals who do not believe in the oil companies, the mining companies, the market or the transnationals go away,” said Correa.
Ecuadorian sociologist Natalie Sierra noted that Correa’s “is a government that has declared itself anti-neoliberal, but I always thought that the main anti-neoliberal struggles were those against the extractive model.”

His revolution has, to the Left’s dismay, remained one comprised of individual citizens and not organized movements. Correa has explicitly discarded relationships with organized social movements and relied on high levels of personal popularity to push through policies.

Repression in Defense of Oil and Mining Megaprojects

Correa’s government has consistently demonstrated that it is willing to use the police and army to repress social movement resistance.

The Correa government’s first major act of repression took place in November 2007. The President declared a state of emergency in the Amazonian town of Dayuma after protests blocked oil operations. Residents set up roadblocks to a number of oil fields, angry about the government’s failure to follow through on promised infrastructural improvements in the town of poor mestizo settlers (colonos). Violent repression followed and 23 people were arrested, many of whom were dragged from their homes at gunpoint. Shocked social movement and human rights activists demanded an investigation of the abuses and amnesty for the arrested protesters.

Correa initially threatened to resign if government’s handling of the protests was investigated. In the end, Correa relented and the Assembly declared an amnesty for the arrested protesters along with hundreds of other jailed environmental defenders and social justice activists. The Assembly also determined that police had used excessive force against Dayuma residents. The repression in Dayuma put Ecuadorian activists on notice that Correa was committed to an economic model based on natural resource extraction and was willing to use force to defend it.

It was at this point, when his commitment to an economy based on oil and mining became clear, that activists and Leftist intellectuals increased their criticism of Correa. Critiques began to focus on the shift from U.S. and European foreign investment to the penetration of state companies, particularly from Brazil and China. The centerpiece of this realignment is the Multimodal Megaproject Manta-Manaos, referring to the cities in Ecuador and Brazil, respectively, that will be the multi-modal transportation and trade project’s two central hubs.

Unions have also criticized Correa’s economic policies, which they say are a continuation of the neoliberal, privatizing model. Oil workers union leader Fernando Villavicencio says that while he at first tried to believe that bureaucrats or functionaries misinforming Correa were causing problems at state oil company Petroecuador, it is now clear that these policies come directly from the President.

“The leader of the País Movement has consciously pushed an illegal project of privatizing oil…leading the public company Petroecuador to be dismantled," says Villavicencio. "These policies benefit the same old mafia groups and some new ones…They are doing what the Right and the partidocracy could not accomplish over the past 25 years.”

The government has also repressed anti-mining blockades in the southern highlands, calling protesters “antipatriotic” troublemakers, “carried away by their ideological obsessions.” Protesters claim that mining will ruin their land and poison their water. It appears that conflicts over mining will increase over the next few years. Correa and Canadian mining companies have mounted a large-scale advertising campaign linking increased mining to better jobs and a strong economy. With many communities prepared to resist mining operations, a battle is on for the sympathies of the broader public.

Most recently, on July 8, the National Police arrested 10 protesters in the Ecuadorian canton of Chillanes for opposing the concession of a nearby river for the construction of a private hydroelectric dam. The villagers had peacefully occupied community land in protest over the last six months.

The conflict with Colombia has also led to heightened accusations of ties between Colombian guerrillas and Ecuadorian social movements. On May 6, Ecuadorian police arrested five members of Ecuador Indymedia, accusing them of maintaining ties to the National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrilla group in Colombia.

Conflict with the Indigenous Movement Comes to a Head

The CONAIE made it clear early on that its top priority for the new constitution was the recognition of Ecuador as a “plurinational” state, meaning a state made up of many nations. Rather than a hollow symbolic gesture, plurinationality would ensure land, cultural and economic rights. Social and indigenous movements have, in particular, demanded that the principle of “free, prior and informed consent”—requiring communities to approve any resource extraction projects on their land—be enshrined in the new magna carta. Indeed, prior consent is not only about community control, but about a larger debate over whether large-scale mining is a sustainable path for economic development.

While the concept of plurinationality has been included in the proposed constitution’s text, prior consent was not. The text instead requires “prior consultation,” meaning that communities cannot decide whether oil and mining projects take place on their land. “Prior consultation is rather paradoxical,” according to Ivonne Ramos. “If I come and ask you if I can come and mess up your house, you say “no”, and I still go ahead and do it anyways. It doesn’t make much sense.”

Plurinationality and prior consent have created divisions within Alianza País, as well as between Alianza País and the CONAIE’s political party, Pachakutik.

On May 12, the CONAIE broke communication with the Correa government, accusing the President of continuing neoliberal economic and racist social policies. Later that month, most of Ecuador’s prominent social movements signed a letter backing the CONAIE and articulating other problems with the government.

The most recent insult to the indigenous movement has been the rejection, at Correa’s urging, of a proposal to make Kichwa an official language alongside Spanish. In response, Patchakutik’s four Assembly Members walked out in protest. They were joined by Alianza País Assembly Member Monica Chuji, an Amazonian Kichwa long affiliated with the indigenous movement. Many have criticized Correa for showing off his basic knowledge of Kichwa on the campaign trail while rejecting indigenous movement demands. On the second to last day of the Assembly, CONAIE President Marlon Santi called Correa a “racist.”

At 2 a.m. on the Assembly’s second to last work day, a compromise proposal was approved. It declares Spanish the “official language of Ecuador, while Spanish, Kichwa and Shuar are official languages of intercultural relation. Other ancestral languages are for official use for the indigenous nationalities in the zones that they inhabit and within terms determined by the law.” Shuar is an indigenous language spoken in the Ecuadorian and Peruvian Amazon.

Chuji says that the included text maintains the rights established in the 1998 constitution—which were in danger of being eliminated—but does not necessarily constitute a step forward. She considers the phrase “official languages of intercultural relation” to be profoundly vague, but says that there is space for improvements when the constitutional text is elaborated into law by a future legislature. One analyst told me that Correa’s allies inserted Shuar at the last moment to undercut Kichwa, which spoken by two million Ecuadorians and the only indigenous language that could function as a national language. Indigenous activists were forced to accept the compromise, as they could not argue against the recognition of Shuar.

In an interview, Chuji criticized the Assembly’s failure to support indigenous rights, but nevertheless considers the new constitution a step forward. “While my analysis is overall positive, we’ve made very little progress on the topic of indigenous rights…but that Ecuador is a plurinational state has been included, even though it doesn’t include all of the content that it should, it is at least a first step and opens doors for future discussions.”

A majority of Assembly Members initially supported the proposition to make Kichwa an official language. But last week, Correa and the Alianza País executive committee pushed against it and succeeded in excluding it from the proposed constitution. Ecuarunari, the Kichwa federation of Ecuador, denounced Correa, saying “We, the indigenous peoples and nationalities, do not ask for a right just for ourselves. Rather, we demand that all of Ecuador assume and recognize its own historical, cultural and social value. To continue to not recognize the indigenous peoples and nationalities’ languages means the continuing displacement of indigenous cultures as tourist objects or as simple elements utilized to decorate the discourses at government inauguration ceremonies, for the inauguration of little infrastructure projects and political rallies. Kichwa is spoken while its legitimate representatives are insulted.”

The CONAIE sees language rights as central to preserving indigenous communities and cultures and criticizes opposition to Kichwa as motivated by racism. Just a few minutes before writing this sentence, I overheard someone in the Assembly pressroom make the linguistically improbable claim that Kichwa could not be included because it “does not have a grammar.”

In an interview on the Assembly’s second to last day, Pachakutik Assembly Member Gilberto Guamangate noted that gains on plurinationality and the rights of nature had been achieved but criticized the failure to recognize Kichwa as an official language. “We consider the fact that they have declared Ecuador a plurinational state” but not made Kichwa an official language “is basically making a body without a mouth.” He also emphasized that prior consent, while not achieved in the Constituent Assembly, could be fought for in the proposed National Assembly. Moreover, Guamangate noted that regardless of any political decision, stopping mining and oil projects would always be decided at the local level through community decision making and resistance.

Acosta’s Exit

Alberto Acosta’s resignation as President of the Constituent Assembly marks a break between social movements and Correa, leading to a major drop in the body’s approval ratings. Correa forced Acosta out after he insisted that the Assembly needed more time to finish the constitution, refusing to cut debate time.

While Alberto Acosta’s resignation as president of the Constituent Assembly was proximately caused by this procedural dispute with Correa, his departure reflects deeper divisions over economic and environmental policy within Alianza País. As disagreements over economic and environmental policies were building up between the two leaders, Acosta’s demand for an extension to finish the Assembly’s work infuriated Correa and led to the forced resignation. Acosta insisted that something as important as a new constitution should not be rushed. Correa, in contrast, thought that delaying the constitution—which will be sent to voters this September—would entail impossibly high political costs.

With three days to go until the end of the Constituent Assembly, Correa’s allies are rushing to fix a series of errors that the Editing Committee, in its hurry, missed. Instead of accepting responsibility for this predicament, Correa has attacked his own Assembly Members for allowing “barbarities” into the text and claimed that the errors were all made during Acosta’s tenure.

Acosta’s strong support for procedural democracy and refusal to engage in ad hominem attacks on his opponents has led to curious gestures of sympathy from the opposition Right and the conservative media, event though the Assembly’s former president is significantly to Correa’s left. Fernando Cordero, the Assembly’s new President, has aggressively limited debate and rushed to put the final touches on the proposed text.

As an Assembly Member, Acosta has been freed from his administrative and mediatory duties, speaking in favor of recognizing Kichwa and opposing cuts to teachers’ pensions. Correa has counterattacked, calling Acosta and other Leftist members of Alianza País “infiltrators” who should leave if they do not agree with the majority.

Chuji responded in a statement on Wednesday July 23, the Assembly’s second to last day, reminding Correa that Ecuador’s entire process of social change did not begin with his leadership. She emphasized that agreeing with the President was not the litmus test for Alianza País membership and that it was her responsibility to be faithful to her principals. She said it is strange that “they call us infiltrators or accuse us of having a right wing agenda for supporting human rights, social security, freedom of expression, the environment, justice, communication, the women’s agenda, campesino rights and the indigenous movement’s aspirations.”

As Ivonne Ramos notes, a strong disagreement over Correa’s proposed agricultural law was also a deciding factor in Acosta’s departure. The Assembly initially was debating and passing an Agriculture Law that would support food sovereignty and small farmers. It included the free circulation of seeds and government credits to small farmers.

“The President then launched a campaign pushing his own Agricultural Law,” which “favors the importation of agrochemicals, it favors subsidies to an agribusiness model. Those who will benefit from this are the importers of agrochemicals, producers of agrochemicals, the sellers of agrochemicals, the massive companies that own monoculture crop export operations, and the people who control the circulation of food in this country," says Ramos. "This was in many senses the breaking point that led to Acosta’s resignation.”

The Agricultural Law, in its vision of development through active government support of national and transnational corporations, encapsulates Correa’s social and economic programs. While the increase in the state’s economic role is a break with neoliberal orthodoxy, Correa supports the basic contours of the current economic model, prioritizing “growth” through the exploitation of natural and human resources.

Intensive efforts by The National Federation of Campesino, Indigenous and Black Organizations (FENOCIN) and the CONAIE led to significant changes in the Agricultural Law. A shift towards supporting small farmers instead of agribusiness garnered Acosta and Pachakutik’s support, leading to the proposal’s overwhelmingly approval on the Assembly’s second to last day.

The mainstream media in Ecuador has tended to focus on these procedural issues instead of the social justice demands dividing Correa from the Left. I would guess that this is because it is one of Acosta’s only positions that the Right supports. But it’s not just Acosta’s legitimate demands on procedural questions, but “a fundamental difference over the model of economic development that Ecuador should follow” that, according to Ramos, has caused ruptures in the Constituent Assembly.

“Acosta was supporting a model that was friendly to people and the environment," says Ramos. "What we’re seeing now is a model totally capitalist and that favors the large groups of power. We see this in two ways. First, from the presidential decrees directly from Correa and second, in his direct interventions into the Assembly’s work.”

The Constituent Assembly legally possesses what is known as plenos poderes, or full powers. Plenos poderes makes the Assembly the country’s highest power and replaces the former Congress, which was declared “in recess” for the Assembly’s duration. But Correa and Alianza País’s executive committee’s forceful interventions have undermined the Assembly’s work and reputation. As progressive journalist and Correa chronicler Kintto Lucas put it, “The impositions of power are not agreements.”

CONAIE Vice-President Miguel Guatemal argued that Acosta’s resignation was just one of Correa’s many strong-armed interventions into the Assembly. “There was an ideological and political conflict. While Acosta defended our proposals, the President has opposed them. The National Constituent Assembly, with its plenos poderes, should be above the President. But this is not happening. The President decides whether something passes or not. The Assembly is just a technical group.”

Ramos, however, emphasized that under Acosta’s leadership the Assembly was at times able to exercise its plenos poderes. “We saw Alberto Acosta’s presence in the Constituent Assembly’s presidency as an assurance that crucial issues would be addressed, issues like the rights of nature, plurinationality, water, food sovereignty, transgenics, protected areas and collective and environmental rights. Some of these have been incorporated. Especially in the case of amnesties for arrested environmental defenders, we actually saw the Assembly exercising its plenos poderes.”

In an interview on the Assembly’s second to last day, Acosta said, “I have a certain bittersweet feeling. While I’m happy with what we’ve done I’m not happy with how we are finishing our work. There are too many topics that were very rushed, without a clear idea of how we can respond to so many outstanding issues. We should have taken a few more weeks.” But he went on to say that there were innumerable achievements—in areas such as education, healthcare and national sovereignty—that make a “yes” vote on the constitution the right choice.

While all of the Left is expected to come around to supporting the “yes” campaign, it is unclear what is next for Acosta and his followers.

Social Movement Demobilization and the Upcoming Referendum

Correa’s meteoric rise and high approval ratings have put social movements and the Left in a complicated position. In previous fights like those against Free Trade Agreements and the U.S. military base, social movements were able to clearly define themselves against conservative governments. Correa’s Leftist discourse and occasionally progressive policies have demobilized the Left, who now face the September referendum without a coherent strategy.

According to Ramos, social movements must take stock of the good and the bad in the new constitution. In addition, the political costs of not supporting the proposal must be evaluated.

“There is the question of public sympathy, which is complicated when you have a president with such high approval ratings. Any action that a social movement takes can be read, understood or publicized as an action in support of the Right, since this government is supposedly a Leftist one," says Ramos. "This has produced a climate of uncertainty over what positions to take, what actions to take.”

According to Dávalos, social movements have not articulated a united position because they have all been waiting until the final moment to see if the Assembly will support their priorities. 

“The only united opposition right now is from the Right, which more than anything helps the government," says Dávalos. "This opposition allows the government to legitimize itself, to position itself against the Right, because the Right has little support and is so discredited."

The president’s break with the social movements should not be read as accidental. As Davalos points out, “Correa is trying to form a solid center-left block and marginalize the radical left and take on the right-wing—Jaime Nebot and Lucio Gutierezz. Neither of whom will win. This is his calculus, which isn’t bad. It is within the possible.” Correa will go on a publicity campaign for the “yes” vote, banking on his personal popularity to compensate for the Assembly’s falling support. And he does not need to win by a large margin. Correa just needs to marginalize the Left and take on a weak Right. He has no one who can beat him in upcoming elections if the Constitution is approved.

And it appears certain that these conflicts between Correa and the social movements will only increase over the coming months. At the Assembly’s closing ceremony, the President attacked “infantile environmentalism” and “infantile indiginism” as obstacles to Ecuador’s development. Verbal attacks will not make social movements, built through decades of struggle, disappear.

While a “yes” vote may be necessary to ensure the Right’s defeat, Dávalos argues that the Left needs to get back to what it does best: organizing. “I think that the Left needs to recuperate political space, space that has been co-opted by Alianza País, and generate its own proposals.”

Daniel Denvir (daniel.denvir [at]gmail.com) is an independent journalist from the United States in Quito, Ecuador and a 2008 recipient of NACLA’s Samuel Chavkin Investigative Journalism Grant.  He is the Editor-in-Chief at www.caterwaulquarterly.com and reluctantly blogs at www.glocalcircus.blogspot.com.