Interview with Alberto Acosta: The “Citizen Revolution”, the Extractive Model and the Left Critiques

Source: Revista Viento Sur

The “citizen revolution” in Ecuador is one of the symbols of the South American “post-neo-Liberals” experiences and Rafael Correa’s Government is often considered a reference for many of the European left.  The next presidential elections will be held in the country on February 17, 2013, in a political climate in which the conservative opposition has been unable to present a single candidate and the government retains a strong lead in the polls, although with a slight decline after six years in power. Two years ago, we made a first critical assessment of the Ecuadorian experience in the course of a conversation with the intellectual and former President of the Constitutional Assembly, Alberto Acosta/ 1 Acosta is now a candidate for the presidency for the Plurinational Unity of the Left, coalition that brings together a dozen of organizations ranging from center-left to the radical left, including the Pachakutik indigenous party considered the political arm of the Confederation of Indigenous of Ecuador, CONAIE) and the Democratic Popular Movement of Maoist origin, which has a remarkable union implementation (particularly in education). We have now been able to continue that conversation and the fraternal debate that we had started to understand the ongoing processes in the political arena of the Ecuadorian left.

F. Gaudichaud:  Alberto, we are in the national electoral political process in Ecuador, for the presidential elections to be held next February 2013. You have been a leading figure of Alianza País, Assemblyman Minister, President of the Constituent Assembly, and now you appear as head of a leftist opposition candidacy / 2 to the government of President Rafael Correa. What has happened? How do you explain this situation and your own personal political journey?

A. Acosta: At present, the government of Rafael Correa is similar to a bad bus driver … the kind that puts directional left when it actually turns right.

Correa’s government is no longer a leftist government, much less revolutionary and even less of ‘ the citizens’. This is a government that lost its compass in the way and that as the maximum expression of the contradiction, now seeks to destroy one of the greatest achievements of this process: the Montecristi Constitution, approved by a large majority of the people of Ecuador in September 2008. In this respect it should be noted that violations of the Constitution of Ecuador by the Government of President Correa are multiple and could spend hours narrating them.
The president of the Republic himself, who defended the Constitution four years ago describing it as “the best in the world” and that it would last, according to him, “three hundred years”, says now that this Constitution has too many rights, that is ‘hipergarantista’ and therefore it needs to be revised. Does it not sound, this string to the speech, what so-called liberal or neoliberal governments have said on other occasions, regarding laws that conditioned them because it guaranteed the rights of citizens or consumers? Correa became a character who does not want to support a constitution that he helped develop and approve. That is the sign of the evolution of the Ecuadorian government.

But at the international level and within the ranks of a large part of the global left, he is described as a progressive, consistent government, in action, a reformer. The government of the “citizen revolution” appears as a government of social change, which could be described as type “posneoliberal”, and it is true – according to what I have seen here in Quito and in the rest of the country – that concrete progress has been made in several areas: progressive tax changes, real social reforms, public plans aimed at the poorest sectors, large infrastructure construction plans, especially in areas neglected so far (part of the coast or the Amazon)…

The reforms that you reference are true. And if we were comparing the government of Correa with the previous governments, we arrive at the conclusion that this is a better government than we have had before, which by the way were so bad that this comparison is, in itself, almost an insult. . If you ask me if the Correa government is better than Gustavo Noboa, the Lucio Gutierrez or other styles of the time, I’ll say so, but I’ll ask: what is the merit that it has? The people  who committed themselves with the proposal of change that originally was proposing the project of Alliance Country, we did not want only a better government, we wanted a government that was transforming the structures of the country, which does a real democratic revolution based on the civil participation. The Unit Plurinacional of the Left sides at present raises a government in which decisions are made democratically, participative, agreed upon, and not a government with a selfish, authoritarian style or caudillesco, which is what we have now.

It is read often in academic magazines and under the pen of some authors of the critical left side to Correa, that this government would have “authoritarian features ”. In what sense is it really justified to affirm that, if the “citizen revolution” seems to be, above all, a democratic process, it has even opened some instances of consultation of the population?

True, there have been many elections and referendums in this period, but elections do not guarantee democracy. Remember that often tyrants and dictators resorted to elections and referendums and resorted to this type of institutional legitimation. Therefore, and far from questioning the processes of vote led by the citizenship in Ecuador, I say that democracy understood this way, then, would have to evaluate also if the dissents have the same access to inform to the citizenship about the positions that the government has, if the use of the device of the State for electoral campaigns on the part of the party of government is not a deslegitimación of the process, etc.Our commitment goes beyond representative democracy and plebiscites, where the tools of the State are used disproportionately to intoxicate the information intended for the citizens. To be honest: nowhere in this Government there are already real spaces of decision-making together with citizenship. That is why we call for a radical democracy.

You could call me Utopian, but if you lived here all year, you would see that the government propaganda is a farce and, as it was theorized many years ago by the antifascist thinkers Frankfort School as Adorno or Horkheimer, “propaganda manipulates men; to shout ‘freedom’ is self-contradictory.” In summary, the falsehood is inseparable from the propaganda. It is precisely this situation that allows not many of the constitutional rights to be respected even the most basic. Be it the right to work or the right to resistance, both recognized in our Constitution.

To give a couple of examples regarding the violation of the right to work, I can make reference to the issuance of a Presidential Decree 813, which establishes “the purchase of mandatory resignations” in the public service, which enabled a perverse logic of layoffs that has left thousands of officials outside the public service and that will continue to serve as a tool to lay off more workers. Not even the neoliberals dared to proceed with untimely dismissals to civil servants this way. Similarly, President Correa, more than a year ago, vetoed the legislation of wholesaler retailer, which guaranteed all retailers -who are the majority in the country-, social security and other benefits, while the government and their municipal branches continue pursuing informal workers in the streets and seizing the products they sell, against what the Constitution mandates. With regard to the scope of the dissidence, today there are more than two hundred popular leaders on the banks of the courts, accused even of “sabotage” and “terrorism”, using laws of the era of the oligarchical governments, in a country where there is no terrorism. The right of resistance has been outlawed and in Ecuadorian prisons there are more than one dozen of young people arrested without legal justification. Elements such as I have described show that we no longer speak of a revolutionary government, I would dare say not even leftist.

About what revolution are we speaking? Rights linked to the autonomy of local governments and decentralization are also violated systematically. We are absolutely in agreement with the “return of the State” after this would be reduced to its minimum expression following almost three decades of neoliberalism, but we oppose that such State minimizes the work of the prefectures and municipalities, which at this time, are being crushed and replaced by the central government for a new process of centralism. The Correa government is shaping a Hobbesian state of luck that is attempted against the rights of citizenship: A state model which dictates among other atrocities that citizens are being prohibited to drink a beer or a bottle of wine on Sundays. Do you think that such acts define a state as a revolutionary? To me, I rather get the feeling that they are themselves a government, in essence, quite conservative.

So for you and the alliance that you represent in these elections, the government would have ceased to be a government of the “left”?

Ecuadorians are already accustomed to see a President singing along with his ministers every Saturday the “until forever Comandante Che Guevara”, but we also see that in the meantime there is no agrarian reform, despite the fact that our Constitution prohibits the latifundio, hoarding and the privatization of water. The president of the Republic himself has been repeated on countless occasions that he does not believe in the agrarian reform, – pointing out  – as it might make any Ecuadoran boss of estate – that to distribute the ground is “ to distribute misery”.

It is noted that the Gini index of concentration of land in Ecuador is 0.81. The concentration of water is even more pronounced (farmers represent 86% of irrigation water users, and control 13% of the irrigation water, landowners represent less than 1% of agricultural production units, and control Irrigation water 64%). That is to say, we are speaking about a country where the ground and the water concentrate on very few hands, while the indigenous misery – for the most part peasants – is superior to 50 %.

All I have expressed previously is not intended to deny the existence of improvements in certain aspects. But we must keep in mind that this Government has the largest number of tax revenue in the history of the Ecuador; It has indeed benefited in the oil field largely due to increases in the price of crude oil in the international market. This situation has made it possible to sustain a policy of subsidies – but not of transformation – which makes certain social sectors fall in government patronage networks. However, the contradictions are enormous and the concentration of wealth in a few hands is somewhat difficult to justify in a Government that has been six years in office and which describes itself as “revolutionary”; a Government which, moreover, has had the greatest revenues in the entire history of the Republic.

The concentration of sales in my country is such that the decile of the largest companies controlled 96% of sales. The main economic activities are concentrated in few companies: 81% of the non-alcoholic beverage market is in the hands of one company, a company equally against 62% of the beef market, five sugar (with only three owners) controlled 91% of the markets in sugar, two companies 92% of the market of cooking oil, two companies control 76% of the market of hygiene products, we could go on, one by one, productive and commercial sectors. The profits of the one hundred largest groups increased 12 percent between 2010 and 2011, and come to the astronomical figure of $ 36 billion. In this regard, it is worth highlighting that the utilities of the economic groups in the 2007-2011 period grew by 50% more than in the previous five years, i.e. during the neoliberal period…

Although, by constitutional mandate, the banking and bankers can no longer have properties beyond those relating to their specific activity, the profit growth of the private banking was sustained. In the exercise of the fiscal year 2011, given the liquidity registered by the Ecuadorian economy, the banking sector increase its profits by 52.1 % compared to the previous year. Between January and December, 2011, the private banking registered utilities superior to 400 million dollars; in these five years of government of Rafael Correa, including the critical year of 2009, the annual average of the above mentioned utilities borders on 300 million. Interestingly, over 40% of demand deposits and time deposits of COFIEC, a financial institution of the State, have been placed in the Bank of Guayaquil, owned by the candidate-banker Guillermo Lasso… a bank which also benefits as one that delivers the human development bonus.

Look how far it reaches the power of big Ecuadorian capital: the Constitution of Montecristi prohibits the cultivation of GM crops in the country, but now Correa wants to allow these crops through a constitutional amendment. Who would want this? There is a national company that has representation in Ecuador and Monsanto dominates 62% of the meat market, which could be the great beneficiary.

The data handling is official data from public institutions. If certain political analysts – inside and outside the country–that progressives, themselves seek further to continue defining this Government as a “left-wing” Government, in my view such a situation shows more the deplorable situation in which the left finds itself at the international level.

In fact, in view of the fact that this government wants to expand the oil frontier and force the ‘mega mining’, rather than speaking of “socialism of the XXI Century”, what we should be talking about is “extractive 21st century”. That is to say, that this government instead of re-turning his national economy into a productive dynamic system, which generates positions of employment and which exports products bravely added, diminishing the dependency on the transnational capital, it continues to be a Government dependent on multinational corporations and supplier of natural resources to alleviate the needs of the world market capitalist. Do you really think that you can think of building socialism, while feeding the global capitalist system with raw materials such as oil and minerals that serve even their needs for speculation?

Accurate, but at the same time we know that a small dependent and impoverished country like Ecuador, needs to use its resources to respond to the immense social urgency and poverty that left the “long night of neoliberalism”.  What are your proposals concerning the extractive and how to build popular and democratic alternatives to this effectively predatory and unsustainable development model?

From the left we have been finding on the fringes of Rafael Correa’s Government, we believe that it is essential to have clarity on the need to overcome the extractive, and this has to be done with clear policies. First of all, it is necessary to put our house in order. Ecuador extracts oil with the highest social and environmental cost; we export oil and import derivatives of oil.

In 2011, we imported four billion dollars: this is a lot of money, too much money I would dare to say. Then, we came to the conclusion that a country which extracted oil but has to import derivatives lives an absurdity. We must promote the modernization of refining infrastructure, which involves rehabilitation and repowering of the Esmeraldas State refinery. You will surely need another refinery, it is therefore necessary to review what has been done to the construction of the refinery of the Pacific, seeking, in case that suits national interests their continuation, causing no serious environmental affectations for the wrong venue.This government has spent six years in office, where is the new refinery? Did they already repair the existing refinery in the country – that of Emeralds? The response is not.

Here there is an even more serious problem, since we burn the derivatives of the oil, including the imported ones, to generate electricity. In six years of government they have advanced very slowly the construction works of hydroelectric plants, it remains untapped adequately solar energy, or the geothermal energy; something has been done in the field of wind power. There is no policy of efficient use of energy.

This government has introduced some important tax reforms, but clearly insufficient. Beyond that the rate of tax burden in Ecuador (14 %) is far from the highest in the region (22 %), there is still 40% of tax evasion. In our government the ones who have the most should be taxed heavier, especially given the economic concentration levels quoted above. If you raise the fiscal pressure at the levels that has at present for example Bolivia, there would be sufficient resources to finance the public investment and expense, without betting for extractive projects as those of mega mining, which constitute a tremendous environmental irresponsibility for the future generations, and more of that, they do not comply with the economic outlook with which they are presented. It should be noted in this regard that tax pressure in Europe is more than 40%, in the United States of more than 36%, in a country like Sweden is above fifty.

While Ecuador has raised significantly more in this than in previous government, I ask again: does it seem to you that we are before a revolutionary government?
Let us remember that we understand by “reforms” the correct errors to the current system, whereas when we speak of “revolution” we are referring to transfer the power of some actors to others.

Faced with this situation, what political agenda do they defend collectively? Can you present to us in short what is the Unidad Plurinacional and what are the prospects for which they work?

The Unit Plurinacional of the Left is a response to a government that is away from the basic principles and begins to systematically violate the Constitution. From the Unit Plurinacional one begins to agglutinate different progressive forces and social movements in order to face the aggressions of this government.

Our first collective action occurs in the context of the popular consultation that was convened by the president in May of 2011. Organizations that today make up the Unit Plurinacional of the Left came together in the initiative “Not this time Mr President”, by issuing a very clear message to the citizenship of the country: not follow with your authoritarian practices Mr President, we are against your taking justice assaults against the independence of the powers of the State.

Months later, in August 2011, the Multinational Unity would consolidate around a document of 12 basis points that later served as the basis for the popular mobilization called “March for Life, water, and the dignity of the peoples” of the month of March 2012. The mobilization was a major triumph of social movements, which resisted provocations, repression and setbacks that, as Lucio Gutierrez used to do, were carried out by the Correa government.

In August 2012, the Multinational Unity decides to undertake an unusual process in Ecuador: to nominate its presidential candidate through a primary process and traveling throughout the country with its six candidates, among whom I was.

Already having been chosen as a candidate of the Multinational Unity for the presidential elections of February 2013, the National Electoral Council, the agency that should be presumed autonomy with respect to the State questioned signatures that legalized the two most important political organizations to the inside of the Multinational Unity, Pachakutik and the People’s Democratic Movement.

Suffice it to say that the President and the members of the CNE are all linked to the ruling party, being its President a former Minister of Correa and his second, a political operator of the current Chancellor of the Republic. We all had to take to the streets to collect citizens’ signatures, demonstrating once again to the Government that neither were they going to frighten, nor gag us. Overcome this obstacle, we enrolled our candidates on October 13, 2012. The unit was completed in 34 of the 36 assembly-lists of potential national and provincial-migration, over the presidential duo indeed.

We are currently developing jointly with citizenship and the social tissue organized the Government program, while we cover the country chatting with the citizens and city dwellers and weaving an endless number of solidarities with our political proposal, which does not drift apart much from the basic proposals that had in his origins the citizens’ revolution. Curious paradox, is it not?

However, if you look at the independent opinion and survey polls, we can see that Rafael Correa continues to have a very high popularity, even after years of government. Had it not been more effective to try to build a politically radical left within Alianza País (AP), and thus attempt to dispute Correa the hegemony over most of the popular classes, with alternative proposals departing from the AP left wing?

This is a question which could be incorporated into a book that I am going to write some day and that will be called “Reflections for after they are dead”… Like all mortals, dear friend, I have made many mistakes in my life and probably will continue committing them. To think now if Alberto Acosta should have been left behind in the interior of Alianza Pais to fight with a regime that has increasingly become authoritarian or with a leader that far from the internal democratic participation becomes a commander, is a thing that serves no purpose. We are here today, invigorating along with others, a perspective of left-wing opposition to the government that presumes to be what is not.

In order to build democratic alternatives of government and power ‘from below’, we all know it takes to forge political spaces from and with the popular sectors mobilized and organized: what is your relationship with the social movements?

We have a very good relationship with the social movements, which are being strongly attacked at this time by the government. They are being persecuted, attacked, they are trying to divide or control them, and this is one of the greatest historical errors of this government. If one of the candidates on the right would win the election in February, which I really hope it does not happen, the weakening of resistance historically staged by social movements will be the saddest legacy will of this government. Does it seem to you explicable that a government which defines itself as revolutionary, instead of strengthening the social organizations and empowering the citizenship, debilitates it?

If we compare the social movement – and in particular indigenous – current with what they have been the big struggles anti neoliberals of the 1990-2000, it is impossible not to underline a certain demobilization and even certain apathy and fragmentation. Several sociologists and intellectuals closer to Correa, say that it is not that the government has debilitated to the social movement, but rather that the struggles reached the end of an ascending cycle, and that also the government with his post neoliberal orientation has answered several of the claims of the collective mobilizations of the previous period, which is quite different.

Do you think has to do with an end-of-cycle that the most challenged leaders of the indigenous movement, as is the case of Antonio Vargas in the Amazon or Miguel Lluco in the Central Highlands are the strongholds of the ruling party within the indigenous movement? Do you think is the result of the end of a cycle that government officials are trying to buy the wills of the indigenous communities, extending checks from the surplus oil tanker? Does it seem to you that it is the end of a cycle that there are more than two hundred social leaders with records opened by sabotage and terrorism in a country where we all know that no armed group exists for years?

It rather gives me the feeling that it is a government strategy to intimidate, divide and weaken social movements.

Now, from a broader strategic perspective, say, medium and long term, is it possible to build or deepen a truly post-neoliberal perspective, with clear and eco socialists, anti-capitalist objectives currently in Ecuador?

Not only do I think that is possible, I think that is essential. Otherwise there will be no future for the country, there will be no future for democracy, for life with dignity, and there will be no “Good living”. I say that it is essential because we have to move in an alternative way of organizing society. In Ecuador, and other countries in the region, we are in a moment that could be called a post-neoliberal phase, but not post-capitalist. That must ever get over it very clear to our friends abroad. We are seeing very positive that the government is not bound to the Washington Consensus, but now other conditions imposed from China, especially when it has to do with the credits. The magnitude of this problem would have to see then how much such Chinese credits add up to and what its importance to the country is. This is a very interesting find issue. That is why at the Plurinational Unity we decided to complete and update the audit of the debt and we commit ourselves with the audit of Chinese loans and all the credits that come in the future. Neither is just talk the conditions of this credit, which have to do with oil fields, mineral deposits, large infrastructure works, interest rates very high (one of more than 9% as is the case of the financing of the Sopladora megaproject).

Although we have to recognize advances with regard to previous governments, what are the real structural changes that have occurred in Ecuador for the past six years?

If we review the structure of imports and exports, these changes do not exist; what is more, it allowed the rapid growth of the non-oil trade deficit, which is close to eight billion dollars. The government is now trying to take some action, with which I agree, but it is insufficient, because it does not transform the structure of the economic system, or the pattern of accumulation, something that it’s recognized by the president of the Republic himself. On the other hand, I would point out some areas in which the failure of the Correa government is rotund, for example in the field of production. Not only are there no changes in the structure of production, but the country remains dependent on primary commodities, the dependency logic is maintained, and we still maintain a renting economy in which scarcely it is invested to produce. We remain tied to the conditional ties of foreign capital and of the world market. There is no real effort, in terms of exterior politics and commerce, and neither there is a real and serious proposal in the area of production. The defeat is widespread.

Another area where the government has failed is in the topic of the civil safety, violence and delinquency. The indexes in this matter have risen in a vertiginous way. Although it is true that the increase of the insecurity and the violence is not entirely the fault of this government – we are speaking about the world of organized crime–,  which is indisputable is the lack of responses in this aspect on the part of the Executive.

Which would be the minimum conditions to engage in a democratic process, from the current dynamic, that is in nature a dynamic post neoliberal anti-capitalist and post extractive?

To find the appropriate roadmap for real change system at times like this, it serves us much the Constitution of Montecristi. This has several key points: on the one hand, a series of rights that shape the country we must build – our project of life in common and the society of the future-model; at the same time, and to realize this, they are the institutions that should be built, however, all of them have been abused by Government control over these years, but it is in these that we should find guarantees for the citizens. For example, the Constitution says that the latifundia and hoarding of water is forbidden. This situation should compel a government consistent with the constitutional mandate to proceed with water and land redistribution. Similarly, our Constitution has specific errands in regard to food sovereignty. We are not talking about just anything, given that any model of applicable agricultural reproduction in the country should be designed in the context of food sovereignty, which collides with the current proposal related to biofuels and transgenic seeds that the Government now intends to enforce.

Contrary to this, what we require is actually a genuine agrarian reform, a response that serves small and medium enterprises in the countryside and the city, cooperatives, associations, communities and all those community projects and associations that are currently marginalized.The least this Government could have done is to put all that popular and solidary economy within the responsibilities concerning the Ministry of the economy, and not in the Ministry of Social Inclusion as it is at the moment. The small and medium companies generate more than 76 % of the employment in Ecuador: the small-scale enterprises that 95 % of the establishments represents, scarcely take part with 16 % of the selling at national level. This is the reality of the country, which demonstrates that the real changes have not happened.

And what about the call to build the “good life” and the “samak kawsay”, claimed both by important leaders of the government and by the left opposition, do they fall into this perspective?

With this government project is not possible to achieve the good life, it is walking in the opposite direction, it is deepening the ‘unsavory’. If you add to this that the government has created a climate of great suspicion and fear among the citizens, then we will conclude that Ecuador insists on bad-quality living, accompanied by a process that leaves much to be desired from the point of view of democracy.

After February, 2013, let’s imagine (and it is the most probable thing) that it gains again the presidency, the candidate Rafael Correa: how do you see from the alliance that you represent the future Ecuadorian political cycle?

First, hopefully win the election Correa facing right … If it is true that Rafael Correa has a high popularity as the polls say, so is the president came to the May referendum in 2011 with popularity bordering on 80%, and obtained only 47% of the votes. However, the future for the Ecuadorian social and political left will be to keep up the struggle.

We realize that our fight is not over in an election, so we have said that the problem is not just to defeat President Correa, winning elections is important but not sufficient, because our goal is to transform Ecuador.