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Ecuador's Indigenous Movement Breaks with President, not with Democracy - 2003-11-17

Ecuador, like other countries in the Andean region, has a large indigenous population, which has grown increasingly vocal and active in politics in recent years.

Suzana Sawyer, professor of anthropology at the University of California at Davis, studies the native Indian populations in Ecuador: “Ecuador over the century plus of its existence has been a fairly elitist, exclusionary, racist state. And the whole indigenous movement has been trying to shake up race relations and class relations in the country.”

She says indigenous groups emerged on the country's political stage in 1986 after the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador or CONAIE was formed. CONAIE is one of the main forces behind the Pachakutik Movement.

Pachakutik is a Kichua word that roughly translates as a gathering together or a mobilization. Suzana Sawyer says although the indigenous groups are the driving force behind Pachakutik, the movement is actually a broader coalition: “It's not just indigenous peoples. It's indigenous peoples, intellectuals, social critics, urban movements, and workers movements. It encompasses a lot.”

Pachakutik is part of a rising tide of leftist-populist movements throughout the region. The majority of Latin Americans say they have not reaped the benefits of nearly two-decades of Washington-backed economic reforms. Despite positive growth rates in the region, the new wealth is not reaching Latin America's working class and poor.

Pachakutik leaders complain that loans from the International Monetary Fund, or IMF, are accompanied by demands for change that are economically and socially harmful.

Francisco Cornejo, co-director of Georgetown University's center in Quito, says a great majority of Ecuadorians view the IMF as an unjust arm of the U.S. government: “These indigenous people and their leaders oppose and resent these IMF economic policies because they hurt the weakest. So in this context the United States is considered an enemy of the poor and this sentiment is widespread among Ecuadorians in general.”

Seventy percent of Ecuador's people live below the poverty line and unemployment is currently at 14%. The country does have substantial oil and produces roughly 400,000 barrels a day, most of it is sold to the West Coast of the United States.

Indigenous groups like Pachakutik want the government to spend oil revenues on social programs to help the poor. But President Lucio Gutierrez has pledged to use the money to pay off the country's foreign debt and thus secure additional IMF funding.

Pachakutik supported President Gutierrez in the 2002 election, in part because he promised to stand up to the IMF's harsh economic prescriptions. But once in office, he backed down and came to an accommodation with the multi-lateral body.

That extra IMF funding - a lifesaver for a government struggling to make payment on its $14 billion foreign debt comes at a high price. Ecuador must eliminate government subsidies on cooking gas, gasoline, electricity and diesel fuel. Pachakutik legislators in Congress refused to back the IMF mandated reforms, saying they fall heaviest on the poor.

Georgetown University's Francisco Cornejo says the Pachakutik movement feels betrayed. In August the party abandoned the coalition government, but not the democratic process, as indigenous groups have in the past.

In January 2000 Ecuador's Indians, unhappy with a worsening economic situation, took to the streets demanding the resignation of then President Jamil Mahuad. These demonstrations set the stage for a military coup that ousted the president and installed an interim government. Francisco Cornejo says the indigenous groups took a gamble on Mr. Gutierrez, a former army colonel who led the coup. They lost:

“So I think that they are aware the indigenous people that they made a mistake when they participated in the overthrowing of President Mahuad because in the end they got nothing. So it seems this time they want to get real power. They want to win the elections especially local elections. They want to get more mayors elected. And in this way they want to build real power. They know that even though they are very powerful on the streets, in the end they are weak because they lack leaders who can be in charge of the country.”

Francisco Cornejo says the loss of Pachakutik support has left President Gutierrez very little room to maneuver. Instead he must rely on the support of the military and the Social Christian Party, the traditional party of the elite and business class.

But Miguel Diaz, director of the South America program at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, or CSIS, says although Mr. Gutierrez no longer has the support of the Pachakutik movement, that doesn't necessarily mean he's in danger of being overthrown. Miguel Diaz doesn't expect to see a mass indigenous revolt like the October uprising that ousted Bolivian President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada:

“I don't think you can really equate what's happened in Bolivia with Ecuador. The problems are similar to the extent that you have a marginalized indigenous community in Ecuador as you have in Bolivia. But I think there's a big difference in terms of leadership of both groups. The indigenous leadership in Bolivia strikes me as being irresponsible not capable of offering a constructive agenda for the country, whereas the Ecuadorian indigenous leadership has been a little more sober in the way they've approached the current government.”

While praising Ecuador's native Indian leadership, Miguel Diaz says its reaction to the IMF agreement was somewhat immature. Politics is about compromise, he notes. All parties in Ecuador need to recognize this: “It's incumbent on both sides to be a little bit more understanding, to be a little bit more flexible and be more willing to talk through some of the issues. And in the case of Pachakutik they were not as responsible in my opinion as they should have been. I think it would have served their interests to have stuck with the coalition and continue to use whatever leverage they had to change some opinions but not to react the way they did.”

Miguel Diaz says that's not to downplay their complaints. The native Indian people in Ecuador have been marginalized for centuries. Like other disenfranchised groups in Latin America - blacks in Brazil and mestizos, or mixed race people, in Venezuela - Ecuador's Indians are becoming more involved in politics. He says this is good for Ecuador and the region.

The majority of Ecuadorians appear to oppose another coup or presidential overthrow. Those voices may prevail unless economic and social conditions turn so grim that indigenous anger sweeps all before it.