Facing the New Conquistador: Indigenous Rights and Repression in Rafael Correa’s Ecuador

Source: Intercontinental Cry

On 10 January Andrés Donoso Fabara, Ecuadorian Secretary of Hydrocarbons, filed a formal complaint against eight indigenous leaders: Humberto Cholango and Bartolo Ushigua, President and Vice-president of CONAIE (Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador); Franco Viteri, President of GONOAE (Governing Body of the First Nations of the Ecuadorian Amazon); Sarayaku leader Patricia Gualinga; Zapara leaders Cléver Ruiz and Gloria Ushigua, and Achuar leaders Jaime Vargas and Patricio Sake. The Minister accused them of ‘making threats’ while opposing the government’s 11th round of oil auctions, and recommended they be imprisoned.

Cecilia Velasque, former public attorney with the national Department of Indigenous Peoples and Communities, and now Coordinator of REMPE (the Network of Political Women of Ecuador), says: “More than 200 leaders have been prosecuted, both indigenous activists and trades unionists. Marlon Santi of Sarayaku is one of those prosecuted.”

Marlon Santi, former head of CONAIE was president of the Amazonian Kichwa community of Sarayaku when it successfully argued before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights that Ecuador had violated their rights by allowing oil companies to operate on their land without their consent. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has also ordered precautionary protective measures be implemented to protect the Tagaeri and Taromenane Peoples in the Yasuní region of the Amazon.

The order has been ignored by Quito and the Taromenane are threatened with extinction in a conflict linked to the effects of government-approved oil exploration; the contrast between such achievements for indigenous rights at the international level and their continued neglect in Ecuador couldn’t be clearer. In an article on the Ecuadorian government’s presentation of its recent oil auction to potential investors in the Beijing Hilton, the Guardian reports the same minister of hydrocarbons, Andrés Donoso Fabara, saying of indigenous territories:

“We are entitled by law, if we wanted, to go in by force and do some activities even if they are against them, but that is not our policy.”

Their policy, according to Amnesty International, is to “undermine communities’ claims for greater participation by arguing that expanding the extractive industry is not only necessary for national development, but also beneficial” to the environment through providing funds that can be used to improve water quality. A further part of their strategy is to cast “doubt on the legitimacy of the protests and indeed to curtail the rights to freedom of expression and assembly of some of the most marginalized sectors of society.”

Carlos Pérez, President of ECUARUNARI (Confederation of Kichwa Peoples of Ecuador), says “Unfortunately in Ecuador we are putting in place a model which we thought we’d overcome; a fascistic model in which all official capacities, from the judiciary to the ministries, are under the control of one person.”

President Rafael Correa has little time for the claims of CONAIE or the indigenous electoral alliance Pachakutik, telling Green Left Review: “Their view is fundamentalist and strongly influenced by foreign NGOs who provide a distorted ecological discourse that fails to take into account the great needs of the Ecuadorean people.” The president particularly rejects their demand that indigenous communities be able to control whether mining and oil drilling take place within their territories: “With so many restrictions, the left will not be able to offer any viable political projects.”

Carlos Pérez advances a widely expressed indigenous perspective: “We need to decolonize ourselves from this view of development. We’re part of nature, we’re the children of the Earth and if we don’t protect our mother we’re headed for suicide.”

Activists can point to Correa’s own Constitution of 2008 to say that the government’s embrace of extractivism runs counter to the nation’s recent achievements. Articles 71 through 74 state that Nature/Pachamama ‘has the right to integral respect for its existence and for the maintenance and regeneration of its life cycles, structure, functions and evolutionary processes’. Furthermore the state shall prevent ‘the destruction of ecosystems and the permanent alteration of natural cycles’, and respect the right of communities to enjoy the environment in a way that permits ‘good living’.

“The Government is appropriating our spiritual values of the Amazon region, it’s seeking to deconceptualize our cultural concepts”, says Pérez. “It doesn’t know what Pachamama is. It doesn’t understand the rights of nature. It doesn’t understand Sumak Kawsay (good living), it doesn’t understand the right to water.”

Rafael Correa argues that non-extractivism is opposed to development: “There are people here who seem ready to create more poverty but leave those resources in the ground, or who even see poverty as something folkloric.” The president, trained as an economist, observes: “In the classic socialist tradition I don’t know where Marx, Engels, Lenin, Mao, Ho Chi Minh or Castro said no to mining or natural resources. This is an absurd novelty”.

The contrast between Correa’s energy policies and the 2008 Constitution encapsulate much of the ideological conflict taking place in Ecuador. Marc Becker, author of Pachakutik: Indigenous Movements and Electoral Politics in Ecuador, told Counterpunch that the Constitution “is supposed to incorporate alternative visions of development, and Correa wants to see those exclusively on the levels of symbolic statements rather than something that will be operationalized.”

A similar dynamic is at play with other elements of the Constitution, the first Article of which defines Ecuador as a pluri-national state. Asked what this signified to indigenous peoples, Cecilia Velasque says:

Plurinationality signifies the recognition and self-determination of indigenous peoples; that there will be a political sphere of government by and for indigenous peoples. But plurinationality has been forgotten in the economic model, has been forgotten in environmental policy and in the management of natural resources, has been forgotten in the area of water, has been forgotten in the area of culture, has been forgotten in the area of the decolonization of public and private institutions. Because colonialism still thrives in Ecuador; there is discrimination against indigenous people, it marginalizes us, it expresses itself through racism, it excludes, and it minimalizes the existence of indigenous peoples.

Marc Becker writes that when Correa’s PAIS Alliance delegates were working on the terminology of plurinationality in the Constitutional Assembly, they “wished to leave the term vaguely defined, essentially ensuring that it would remain on the level of rhetoric without any significant substance or concrete implications.”

Correa himself is emphatic on the ambiguity of the first Article, he says it “did not mean committing ourselves to a fragmentation of the state or an end to national unity. The idea has always been to recognise diversity and difference in order to be more integrated and cohesive as a nation, not so as to make room for any kind of territorial autonomy that weakens the national state.”

The president is quoted by the Economist magazine as saying that every element of the Constitution should be interpreted ‘in good faith’, and the magazine describes similar ambiguity throughout the document: “The article calling for the redistribution of the means of production, for example, should be understood as seeking equal opportunities for all” it reports.

To Velasque, Correa’s interpretation of the Constitution reflects his entire political project: In order to gain power after years of upheaval and a national exhaustion with neoliberal policies, Correa “needed to have an agenda with an immense amount of validity, a great amount of acceptance”. The platform on which Correa sought election speaks to “a political project constructed together from the great demonstrations which involved all groups of society, together with the indigenous uprising of 1990 …but the president stole this political project to hide the obsolescence of his ideas. Deep down the president always knew what his project was, and while the façade of the government is that it is a government for all, in reality it is something else.”

The social movements and indigenous confederations which played such a key role in pressing for a new Constitution were excluded from the Constitutional Assembly, have been excluded from the policy-making processes, and were even excluded from ALBA’s conference in Ecuador at which indigenous rights were top of the agenda. Asked to define the nature of Correa’s political project, Velasque said that despite the government’s frequent proclamations of its leftist credentials, it is “right-wing with a neo-liberal and extractivist ideology: Above all, it wants to exterminate every single organized movement of the Peoples.”

Carlos Pérez has been arrested three times for environmental protesting, including for opposing the government’s proposed water law in May 2010. Amnesty’s report into his case warned that his arrest reflected “a pattern of criminalization of community leaders who have participated in peaceful protests and then face unfounded charges, arbitrary arrests and strict bail conditions simply for campaigning against laws and policies on the use of natural resources.”

Such exclusion is not simply being pursued through the courts. Pérez says: “The president has insulted us in 12 of his broadcast Saturday speeches, saying we are irresponsible people who are working against the country.”

Correa has also twice used his Saturday public address to target environmental protestors opposing a proposed copper mine in the cloud forests of the Intag region, claiming that green activist Carlos Zorrilla and others were ‘destabilizing’ the country. Correa called on Ecuadorians to ‘react’ to ‘a foreign-led interference with government policies’, prompting Amnesty International to express its fear for the safety of Zorrilla and other environmental activists in Intag.

Velasque says that indigenous leaders “are described as terrorists, as saboteurs”, part of an official discourse that has broader cultural and ideological dimensions.

“I don’t know what term I can use to capture it exactly, but it’s more than racist; we are considered as inferior, ignorant, as people who don’t believe in development… And in reality we believe in development, but we don’t believe in the development that terminates Mother Earth. We believe in a development that respects Mother Earth, that respects the human being and that respects our own economic model.”

Such claims are borne out by an in-depth study published in 2012, in which Amnesty reports that Ecuadorian officials were participating in the stigmatization of human rights defenders. In a context of social polarization, “senior members of the government have contributed to the atmosphere of hostility. They have used confrontational language when referring to indigenous and campesino leaders, characterizing them as “enemies” of the state in an effort to undermine the credibility of their claims.”

Such language may lead to violence, for according to the study:

After nationwide protests against the proposed Water Law in the last week of September 2009, the CONAIE began negotiations with the government and suspended the demonstrations, with the exception of a bridge blocked by Shuar communities in Macas, Morona Santiago province. According to reports, a Quito government delegation travelled to the area to speak with the protesters. After some initial dialogue, both parties agreed to take a two-hour break to consult colleagues and then reconvene to sign a final agreement.

However, in this two-hour period before the final agreement was to be signed, the police used tear gas and helicopters to disperse the crowd which was on the bridge, resulting in clashes that injured over 40 people, police officers as well as protesters. One Indigenous teacher, Bosco Wisuma, was shot in the head by an unidentified gunman and died instantly.

Before a full and impartial investigation could take place, President Correa publicly congratulated the police for their actions and said: “The violence did not come from the state; it did not come from the police”. He also blamed local media outlets for inciting violence. There was concern that these comments could jeopardize the objectivity and impartiality of investigations, as well as the presumption of innocence of those who participated in the protest.

Two days after President Correa’s public comments, the National Committee for Telecommunications (Consejo Nacional de Telecomunicaciones, CONATEL) initiated an administrative procedure against the Inter-provincial Federation of Shuar Centers (Federación Interprovincial de Centros Shuar, FCSH) to revoke the license for its radio station which had broadcast calls by community leaders for people to join the protest.

On the most recent Human Rights Day the Ecuadorian government claimed that “all citizens are free to exercise their human rights as constitutionally enshrined in several articles of the Constitution.” For its part the government-owned El Telégrafo newspaper celebrated by leading its ‘Law’ supplement with the title: “Latin America advances in respect of rights”. Accompanied by a photo of Ecuadorian officials unveiling a plaque commemorating the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the article was based on a presentation Bolivian ‘activist’ Sacha Llorenti gave on the theme of human rights to Quito’s ‘Conference for a Responsible Journalism’.

Llorenti told the conference that for the last 40 years, human rights had been violated across Latin America; torture, imprisonment and disappearances had been used as policy by dictators guided by US interests. Subsequent leaders elected during the ‘long neoliberal night’ then oversaw the dilapidation and systematic violation of social, cultural, and economic rights and the contemporary destruction of strategic companies. Now however, the continent is in the midst of a third epoch, shaped by “the hope of building a different society”, in which regional governments are regaining control of strategic assets and natural resources, and are leading the way in realizing human rights – a struggle identified with that for national liberation, dignity, and sovereignty.

What wasn’t mentioned by the newspaper was that the ‘activist’ is Bolivia’s Ambassador to the UN, and was the country’s Interior Minister (‘Minister of Government’) when the police violently suppressed indigenous demonstrators at Chaparina on 25 September 2011. Bolivia’s Human Rights Ombudsman Rolando Villena investigated the incident and described how the police shouted “We’ll kill these indigenous dogs” as they used ‘cruel, inhuman and degrading’ punishment and acts of torture against protestors. The Ombudsman stated that Llorenti had planned the operation with police chiefs on the day before the crackdown.

Bolivia’s first female Defense Minister Cecilia Chacón had resigned in protest at the Chaparina violence, and wrote that Llorenti’s subsequent appointment to the UN not only signified “impunity for those responsible, but is a tacit affirmation that what happened is considered valid and justifiable”. The protestors had been campaigning against the construction of a Brazilian-funded road through the territories of the Mojeña, T’siman and Yuracare nations in the Isiboro Sécure National Park and Indigenous Territory (TIPNIS). Their supporters have prepared a petition urging Llorenti’s dismissal in order to face charges.

Ecuador and Bolivia have cooperated in attempting to reduce international criticism of their suppression of freedom of expression by proposing a series of measures to diminish the level of autonomy that the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights enjoys from member states, and to prevent it from publishing reports on freedom of expression. Despite threatening to withdraw from the Commission the two countries were defeated after a twelve hour deadline day debating session at the OAS on 22 March 2013.

In its Human Rights Day message the government asserted that:

One of the most important human rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration is the Right to Freedom of Expression, which is promoted and defended by the Ecuadorian government, allowing citizens to freely express their views, while respecting the honor and integrity of others.

They continued to claim that under their government there had been no cases of journalists being impeded from investigating alleged corruption or crime. On 27 December armed police mounted a pre-dawn raid on the home of journalist Fernando Villavicencio, confiscating his computer equipment and records. Villavicencio had been investigating alleged high-level government corruption involving oil concessions and Chinese companies.

A media law passed last year placed wide restrictions on freedom of the press, and Dr Frank La Rue, UN rapporteur on freedom of expression, argued that the law is unacceptable as it constitutes “violations of Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and Article 13 of the American Convention on Human Rights.”

According to Carlos Lauría of the Committee for the Protection of Journalists, the government’s media law marked “the latest step in the deterioration of press freedom in Ecuador that has occurred under President Rafael Correa… The law not only undermines journalists’ ability to report critically but threatens the right of citizens to be informed about sensitive issues. This legislation puts into law a key goal of the Correa presidency: muzzling all critics of his administration.”

When critical news is published abroad, Correa uses familiar strategies. He used his 11 January Saturday broadcast to attack a Newsweek article which reported on the potentially genocidal war being waged between the Huaorani and Taromenane peoples, a conflict directly related to oil exploration in the Yasuní region of the Amazon. The author Bethany Horne (who previously worked with El Telégrafo) had described how Miguel Angel Cabodevilla’s book on the conflict was initially banned in Ecuador, and claimed that Correa’s decision to drill in Yasuní threatened to undermine parts of his political base.

Correa denounced the report as “a bunch of lies” from a “north American right-wing magazine” that is part of the “propaganda machines that try to annihilate anyone who defies the system”. He was echoing the words of Sacha Llorenti, who when speaking on human rights in Quito said: “There is a continuous process of manipulative attacks and slander made against progressive governments”.

Llorenti referred to his book, La Verdad Secuestrada (‘The Kidnapped Truth’) in which he describes how the media were invariably manipulated by private interests to direct politics towards perpetuating the power of the elite. The work draws on the theses of Carlos Fazio and describes how established power and the media co-operate to ensure that if “the social movements and emancipatory voices are in resistance, they will be criminalized, branded as the internal enemy, as delinquents, as the heralds of disorder and anarchy.”

It falls to the Bolivian critics behind current affairs magazine ‘La Mala Palabra’ to point out the obvious:

Is that not what the government achieved through its media against the leaders of the indigenous march of TIPNIS, who were criminalized and linked to drug trafficking? Then Sacha (actually Fazio) is right, the media can manipulate, the only difference is who controls the manipulation: the government or the opposition.

Both Bolivia and Ecuador are pursuing what Uruguayan political ecologist Eduardo Gudynas terms ‘the new extractivism’, in which avowedly ‘progressive’ governments stimulate cash-transfer programs to the poor rather than touching the underlying class structure of society, becoming what he terms ‘compensatory states’. Jeffery Webber, author of Red October: Left Indigenous Struggle in Modern Bolivia, writing in Jacobin Magazine applies the thesis of Gudynas to the violence at Chaparina:

Reproduction of these political economies depends on states prioritizing the maintenance and security of private property rights and juridical environments in which multinationals can profit. Because the legitimacy conferred by relatively petty handouts runs on the blood of extraction, the compensatory state increasingly becomes a repressive state on behalf of capital, as the expansion of extraction necessarily accelerates what David Harvey has called accumulation by dispossession, and the variegated forms of resistance it regularly spawns. …The government in turn has sponsored counter-demonstrations, as well as police repression of the opposition, who it claims is manipulated, even led, by foreign NGOs and the domestic right.

Having gained control of the Ecuadorian media, and used the courts to criminalize protest, Correa has now turned his attention to controlling the membership of social organizations. Last year he passed an executive decree that allows the government to dissolve organizations for infringements such as ‘compromising public peace’, ‘interfering with public policies that undermine national security’, or for moving ‘away from the objectives for which it is created’. The decree also prevents organizations being able to choose who can enroll in them, and forces them to divulge their membership to the state.

The indigenous federations that have often led powerful social mobilizations are clearly in the sights of the government, but Carlos Pérez does not sound intimidated: “The only thing we are defending is our territory, which is our duty. We won’t be defeated because we’re defending Mother Earth. …For 552 years we’ve been resisting in this beautiful land that Pachamama gave us, and we’ll never surrender.”