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Ecuadoran Indians raise political stakes

WASHINGTON ? Last year, thousands of Indian people gathered in the capital of Ecuador to protest against the government and its policies, forcing the country's president to abandon his position and give up his office.

Those who participated were Indigenous people from across Ecuador, protesting against corruption and mismanagement which they believe led to a dismal economy and extreme poverty.

In February of this year, they again marched on the capitol, forcing the new president to sign a detailed agreement on Indigenous rights. Now, with a foothold firmly established in the nation's political structure through the establishment of a political party and movement, the Indian people of Ecuador are poised to become one of the most powerful political forces in the country.

'Our struggle for power is the goal of transforming society, a cultural transformation,' said Dr. Luis Macas, a Quichua Indian and president of the Indigenous University of Ecuador and director of the Institute of Indigenous Science and Culture. 'In the 1950s and 1960s it was fashionable to attach a leftist air to a movement. Now we are 'Beginning on the Inside' working on our own Indigenous movement.'

Dr. Macas, who is also the former president of the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador, or CONAIE, is recognized by many as one of the most influential Indigenous leaders in the world. Macas says that in Ecuador the Indigenous movement has grown into a national political actor because of what the movement stands for.

'It is the emergence of an Indigenous identity, the emergence of a new society that has been invisible,' Macas said. 'We have not created this to create animosity, but to get to a point of recognizing other peoples. Only with mutual respect and recognizing diversity are we going to live in harmony.'

In 1997, Indigenous people also led protests which resulted in the impeachment of then-President Bucaram. It was during this time that the Indigenous movement set its sites on electoral politics, establishing the Pachakutik political movement or party. Amazingly the new party won a number of local government positions and seats in the National Congress.

Indigenous leaders say there is cause for alarm because Ecuador's Indigenous people, who represent approximately 25 percent of the country's 12.5 million people, make up the poorest segment of society and are more likely to feel the impacts of the economic crisis Ecuador now faces.

In February of this year, nearly 6,000 Indigenous people from across the country gathered in Quito to take part in a demonstration, led by CONAIE, and a coalition of other Indigenous groups, to force the government to reverse its economic policies.

The protesters occupied the coliseum of the Salesian Politechnic University and blocked most of the country's main highways. Police used tear gas and riot gear to suppress the crowds and a state of emergency was imposed.

Government officials and Indigenous leaders were then locked in a stand-off, as police and demonstrators battled throughout the city.

'It was not about money or power, but about the recognition of our rights,' Macas said. 'It's been a very difficult process and we are very young and growing, but the missionaries and anthropologist talked for us before, now we talk for ourselves.'

Today, with an agreement reached between the Indigenous people and the government over some basic rights, the Pachakutik political movement has grown with eight national deputies in the National Congress, 27 mayors and a number of local seats. The party has also now come to stand for diversity and change, appealing to a broad spectrum of Ecuadorans.

'We're learning to live together now, all the different groups,' Macas said.