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Indigenous resurgence: Ecuador

Nowhere have indigenous movements made their power felt in national politics as in Ecuador. Indians are in the lead of a revolutionary movement in Ecuador that has brought down one government and been instrumental in the rise of the country's current populist president.

In January 2000, an unprecedented alliance between Ecuador's indigenous peoples, labor and elements of the military seized the nation's capital, Quito, and brought down President Jamil Mahuad. The last-minute intervention of the military chief prevented an Indian-led revolutionary junta from taking power Jan. 21, replacing it with Mahuad's vice president. Unrest had been mounting in Ecuador for months over 60 percent inflation, the highest in Latin America. The Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE) had been coordinating national protests demanding debt relief, a halt to planned U.S. military bases, and official declaration of Ecuador as a "pluri-national and multi-ethnic state." Then, in January, the Harvard-educated Mahuad announced plans to eliminate the national currency, the sucre, and adopt the U.S. dollar instead.

Indigenous campesinos were already bearing the costs of Mahuad's attempts to stabilize the sucre, dramatically worsening an already agonizing economic situation in the countryside. Prices for fuel oil and agricultural inputs, pegged to the dollar, soared, while the minimum wage and prices for domestic crops did not keep pace. Additionally, foreign debt payments mandated deep cuts in rural aid programs and bilingual education in Quechua and other indigenous languages.

After the dollarization plan was announced, CONAIE forged an alliance with the Patriotic Front, a coalition of unions, student groups, peasant groups, neighborhood organizations and business associations.

On Jan. 5, the day before a planned national protest by the new alliance, Mahuad declared a state of emergency, suspending freedom of assembly. In response, campesinos blocked provincial highways, while riot police broke up marches in Quito, Guayaquil and Cuenca with tear gas. On Jan. 17, indigenous marches converged on Quito from throughout the country. Thousands of army troops blocked all roads into the city, but over 10,000 Indian protesters slipped through along creeks and foot-paths, setting up a camp in the central Arbolito Park. The port city of Guayaquil saw huge solidarity protests, while the Amazon region of Oriente was shut down by an oil workers' strike.

On Jan. 19, a Parliament of the Peoples of Ecuador was proclaimed in Quito. Later that day, 15,000 indigenous protesters stormed the Congress building, supported by some 500 army officers, including a group of colonels. Simultaneously, the Patriotic Front seized the abandoned presidential palace. The Supreme Court building was also occupied.

On Jan. 21, CONAIE president Antonio Vargas Huatatoca announced formation of a "Junta of National Salvation," and began negotiating with the military for a transfer of power. As Mahuad took refuge on a military base, a new ruling triumvirate was proclaimed, made up of Vargas, a former justice and armed forces chief Gen. Carlos Mendoza. The triumvirate announced the state of emergency would be lifted and new elections held. But Gen. Mendoza pulled out of the triumvirate and announced he was appointing Mahuad's Vice President Gustavo Noboa as new president. The following day, Noboa took power. He pledged to go ahead with the dollarization plan, but also promised a "dialogue" with indigenous groups. Vargas warned that if demands were not met, "there will be a great popular uprising, and perhaps a civil war."

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Noboa continued his predecessor's policies, and - as vowed - Indians returned to militant protest a year later. On Jan. 21, 2001, CONAIE started blockading roads in half of the country's 22 provinces. Farmworkers, students and others joined in the protests, and the government has sent military forces to break up with blockades with teargas and firearms, resulting in several Indians casualties, and several hundred more arrested. On Jan. 26, indigenous organizations called for a national march on the nation's capital, Quito. The army was patrolling the streets when up to 10,000 Indians began arriving over the next several days.

But the next upsurge came through the ballot. Last October, populist former army colonel Lucio Gutierrez won the first round in Ecuador's presidential race. Gutierrez ran on the ticket of the January 21 Patriotic Society (SP21) - named for the Jan. 21, 2000 uprising, in which he took part - and the Pachakutic Plurinational Unity Movement-New Country (MUPP-NP), an indigenous grassroots electoral alliance. CONAIE, which declined to support a candidate in the first round, announced its support of Gutierrez in the run-off. Both CONAIE president Leonidas Iza and Pachakutic spokesperson Ricaro Ulcuango emphasized that their organizations oppose Ecuador's entry into the Free Trade Area of the Americas. Gutierrez, who wore military fatigues throughout the campaign, said he is open to dialogue with all sectors of society because he believes "that the country needs consensus," but warned he will "never give in to pressure from the groups of power."

In the Nov. 24 run-off, Gutierrez prevailed. He was sworn in as the new president Jan. 15, and immediately issued a warning to the "corrupt oligarchy that has stolen our money, our dreams and the right of Ecuadoreans to have dignified lives."

The election of Gutierrez gives Ecuador's indigenous movements unprecedented access to power - which could mean dilemmas for Gutierrez. He will have to decide whether to continue with a trans-Andean pipeline project being built by a consortium led by Occidental Petroleum to deliver oil from Ecuador's Amazon region to a Pacific port. The pipeline route has been repeatedly blockaded by Indians and peasants.

CONAIE president Leonidas Iza and Pachakutik national coordinator Miguel Lluco were in New York City this April for a luncheon at the Harvard Club sponsored by the Americas Foundation. "With or without the government, we are going to continue to demonstrate the possibilities for changes," said Iza in his remarks. "We will be vigilant under this government too."

Pachakutik's Lluco told an audience that included several high-level bankers: "We believe in a strong role for the state. Without social direction, foreign investment can only heighten the social contradictions." Such words fly in the face of the current free-trade dogma, and highlight the conflicting pressures Gutierrez is certain to face from his grassroots backers and Ecuador's foreign creditors.

CONAIE's Iza summed up how the indigenous perspective informs the more general struggle for social justice in Ecuador - and the planet. "We are not just struggling for the Indians, but for all the most marginalized sectors of the country, and for humanity and Mother Earth. Earth is like an airplane - if it crashes, we are all going to die."