10 Days Which Shook Ecuador

Once again Ecuador started the year with mass demonstrations and strikes. For ten days the whole of the country was paralysed by peasant road blocks, demonstrations and occupations of government buildings. A year after the revolutionary events of January 2000 very little has changed for the masses of workers and poor peasants who fought for a fundamental change in their living conditions.

Once again Ecuador started the year with mass demonstrations and strikes. For ten days the whole of the country was paralysed by peasant road blocks, demonstrations and occupations of government buildings. A year after the revolutionary events of January 2000 very little has changed for the masses of workers and poor peasants who fought for a fundamental change in their living conditions.

The aborted revolution of January 21 2000 gave way to the Noboa presidency which implemented basically the same austerity policies which had sparked off those revolutionary events in the first place. As soon as president Noboa came to power he made clear he wanted to follow the economic policy dictated by the IMF: privatisation of the publicly owned companies, flexibilisation of the labour market and dollarisation of the economy. That was supposed to be the magic solution for the battered Ecuadorian economy which had shrinked by more than 7% in 1999.

A year later the economic situation of the country is hardly better. The number of people living under the poverty line has increased from 70% to 79% according to official figures, inflation reached 90% in the year 2000 (the highest in Latin America), only 25% of the population have a full time job (the rest are either barely surviving on the "informal" sector of the economy or are unemployed) and more than 3,000 companies declared bankruptcy last year destroying 200,000 jobs.

Even under conditions of economic disaster inequalities have continued to rise. The poorest 10% of the population get 0.6% of the country's income while the richest 10% get a staggering 42.5% making Ecuador one of the most unequal countries in the whole of Latin America.

Some say that the economic conditions would have been even worse if it had not been for dollarisation. Bourgeois economists point out that inflation could have soared to 700%. But the real reason why prices have not gone up even more is because of the massive fall in consumption. If people do not have any money to buy goods, prices can hardly go up!

And this situation has developed during a year in which the oil price increase has greatly benefited the Ecuadorian economy. Income from oil exports was more than $2 billion up from $1.3 bn in 1999. Another important factor in the economy is the money sent back by the hundreds of thousands of Ecuadorians living abroad, $1.2bn in 2000. More than 400,000 people were forced to emigrate in the year 2000 alone, in a country of about 12 million people.

The process of dollarisation which was already one of the main reasons for last year’s revolution has not improved at all the living conditions of the masses. For the whole of 2000 there were all sorts of mobilisations and strikes by all sections of the population: public sector workers, oil workers, poor peasants, teachers, small shop keepers, etc. The CONAIE collected more than a million signatures demanding a referendum on dollarisation and finally the Constitutional Tribunal recently ruled that 44 articles of the “Ley Trolebus”, a key economic bill introducing labour market “flexibilisation” and privatisation of public companies amongst other measures, are unconstitutional.

Austerity measures spark off the movement

But the straw which broke the camel’s back for the Ecuadorian masses was a new package of economic measures announced by president Noboa at the beginning of the year. These measures included a 100% increase in the price of home cooking gas, 25% increase in gasoline prices, 75% increase in public bus fares, increase in Value Added Tax, and others, and are part of the conditions for a $2 bn loan from the IMF.

These austerity measures are strikingly similar to the ones that sparked off the revolution just one year ago. The reason for that is that the chaotic state of the country’s economy leaves the bourgeois with practically no room for manoeuvre to make any concessions.

So at the beginning of January we saw mass demonstrations of workers, students, poor peasants and others to commemorate the first anniversary of the revolution, to demand an end to dollarisation and the repeal of the austerity plan.

Students and school students fought running battles with the police all over the country even before the schools were opened for lectures. On January 10 there was a national day of action of students who occupied schools and universities all over the country.

On the 17th the representatives of the military officers who had participated in the January 21 revolution the previous year made a public declaration defending their actions and stating that a year ago “we proved that the Ecuadorian Army is on the side of the people and not blindly at the service of the elite that has led the country to chaos”.

By January 27 the Indian and peasant organisations, after holding mass meetings in the provincial capitals started to blockade roads all over the country and sent some representatives to the capital Quito despite tight police and military road blocks.

The movement was truly national affecting all regions of the country and had certain insurrectionary features, although it did not reach the same level of last year when “people’s parliaments” were elected and took power in many provinces. Apart from establishing generalised road blocks, poor peasants and city dwellers took over Government buildings and key communications facilities. For instance in Cuenca thousands of people occupied the Cathedral and established a people’s assembly, the same was the case in Riobamba, the capital city of the Chimborazo province. In Pastaza the demonstrators took over the provincial government building and in the Province of Bolivar a mass meeting elected a people’s governor and put him in place in the government building. In the province of Tungurahua protesters occupied a key telecommunications facility used by five TV stations and about 50 radio stations to broadcast their programs and the same was the case in the province of Chimborazo. Also in Tungurahua the Indians occupied the provincial capital's Water Distribution Centre.

The government, fearing a repetition of last year’s events, prevented the 10,000 poor peasants who arrived in the capital from setting a camp in the main square and banned all public demonstrations. Public Administrations Secretary Marcelo Santos made clear the reasons for that when he said that a mass demonstration in Quito “could become a factor of uncontrollable violence”. He added that “we have recent historical antecedents and we are not a naive government, so we will not be fooled this time”.

The Indians then went to the private Salesian University and were rapidly surrounded by anti-riot police. From the beginning it was clear that the authorities were very scared and started using heavy handed repressive methods. Helicopters flew over the University campus dropping tear gas canisters at the protesters while the police outside the university were firing tear gas at very close range. Hundreds had to be given medical attention. Water supply and telephone lines to the university building were cut off. Dead dogs were found covered in blood with messages saying “you are playing with death ‘manueles’” (an abusive term against Indians).

During the last week of January the main leaders of the peasant and trade union organisations were unlawfully arrested. Amongst them were Antonio Vargas, the main leader of the most important Indian organisation CONAIE, the leader of the Popular Front Luis Villacis and the trade union leader Mario Morales. These were released shortly afterwards as a result of mass pressure of thousands of peasants. But as soon as these were released other leaders of the movement were arrested, including the president of the national teachers union UNE. Other peasant and union leaders, who were arrested at the end of a meeting to decide the course of the protests, were forcibly released by the people themselves.

State of emergency

On Friday February 2nd president Noboa declared a state of emergency in the whole of the country which empowered the government to prevent group meetings, demonstrations, nationwide travel, search private homes without legal authority, and other special powers.

At the same time the government tried to impose a tight censorship in the flow of information by cutting off phone lines in the offices of the main peasant and trade union organisations and warning journalists “not to spread alarmist information about the protests”.

The employers organisation in Guayaquil demanded “decisive measures” from the government to put an end to the unrest, and urged the protesters to be met with “repression and jail”.

Eyewitnesses reported how mounted police was patrolling the streets of the capital and would charge at any groups of more than three people. On Monday February 5th four people were killed (including a fourteen year old boy) when the police opened fire on a peaceful demonstration of thousands of people who were blocking the main bridges in the Amazonian province of Napo. The masses reacted violently and stormed the local airport in Tena to prevent the army from sending reinforcements. According to army sources nine soldiers suffered gunshot wounds as they were attacked with guns and dynamite sticks. A curfew was declared in the region.

Tension was mounting as it became increasingly clear that the government was going to try to storm the University where the poor peasants had been camping in Quito. Furthermore the main trade union organisations, including the powerful oil workers union, had called a national strike for Wednesday 7th. Most provincial cities started to feel the effects of the blockade with the beginning of food scarcity. According to the employers’ organisation $20 million were lost daily during the protests.

The agreement

Finally on the night of Tuesday 6th the government reached an agreement with the Indian organisations which then called off the protests. Nevertheless the general strike went ahead, although its following was uneven because of the confusion surrounding the agreement. Also because of the heavy handed police repression all week and the state of emergency which was still in place only small demonstrations took place in Quito, Guayaquil and other cities.

What made the government change its mind and make concessions instead of relying solely on repression to end the movement? First of all repression had already been implemented and had not managed to stop the protests. On the other hand the government wanted to prevent the movement of the poor peasants from linking up with the general strike of the workers who had already expressed sympathy for the protesters.

But another important factor is that Noboa was not sure of whether the armed forces would remain united if they were ordered to fire on the demonstrators. We must remember that last year sections of the young officers joined the revolution when the protesters pushed forward to take the Congress and presidential buildings in Quito.

Malaise in the military

There is a strong uneasiness amongst lower ranking officers and soldiers about the way in which the country is being run to the the benefit of a handful of well connected corrupt bankers and “national sovereignty” is being given away to the United States.

The government for instance has cancelled unpaid loans worth $300 million to big business groups while taking no measures against the corrupt bankers who caused the massive banking crisis two years ago by giving out $3.6 billion in bad loans (many to their friends in exchange for favors). At the same time public funds are still being siphoned off into the banks (the total amount is estimated at $6 billion) while thousands of people with small amount accounts have lost all their money.

There is also strong malaise in the Armed Forces about Noboa’s administration decision to allow the US Armed Forces to use the Manta military base and harbour.

According to military sources quoted by the IPS news agency there were opposing views within the Armed Forces with sections of the Army and the Air Force refusing to participate in the repression of the Indians, while most of the Navy would be in favour of a heavy handed approach. The same military source argued that to stop the movement by repression “it would mean killing hundreds of people”. This mood inside the Armed Forces is probably the explanation for the statement by Oswaldo Dominguez, chief commander of the Air Force who asked the government to open dialogue and reach agreements with the protesters.

Some of the policemen outside the Salesian University told reporters that they would join the protesters, as they did last year, if it came to a serious clash. A statement of the peasant organisations issued after the massacre in Napo appealed to police officers and soldiers to make clear whether “they are with the people or with the oligarchy” and to join the protesters.

The government in fact has not been able to punish the officers who participated in last year’s revolution. They were given an amnesty by Parliament in the Spring of last year

The final agreement between the government and the Indian organisations was seen as a partial victory by the thousands of poor peasants who were camped in the Salesian University. They achieved a 40 cents decrease in the price of home cooking gas, the freezing of gasoline prices for a year, more government money for the Banco de Fomento Nacional which gives loans to poor peasants and a 50% reduction in public bus fares for children, students and the elderly. The agreement also included the release of all jailed protesters, the lifting of the state of emergency, and government compensation for the families of the dead and wounded during the protests.

General crisis in society

The government has not come out of these events strengthened. On the contrary, Noboa’s popularity rating has collapsed from 51% on January 21 to 28% now. The ruling class in Ecuador is deeply divided and doesn't know what to do next. Noboa has not even got a majority in a parliament split between different right wing parties. Some of the right wing parties with a strong base in the coastal city of Guayaquil are toying with the idea of breaking away from Ecuador in order to preserve their privileges.

The middle classes have been severely affected by the economic crisis and were the main victims of the collapse of the banking system and the massive devaluation of the national currency, the Sucre, two years ago. It is significant to note the participation of small shop keepers and street traders organisations in this year's and last year's protests.

The masses of workers and poor peasants have learnt very valuable lessons in the last five or six years of struggle where they have overthrown four different governments through mass mobilisation. The main feature of last year's aborted revolution was the idea that changing a government is not enough and therefore the main aim of the movement was the overthrow of all political institutions. The lack of clarity about what to do next was what allowed the generals to regain control of the situation, derail the revolution and finally hand back political power to Noboa who at that time was the vice-president.

New information has now emerged about what happened in the four hours in which the people's parliaments took power and how it was possible that power was lost. In a new book called "The Fourth Way to Power" by Heinz Dietrich Steffan he describes in detail how the process unfolded on the basis of interviews with the main participants. In the book Antonio Vargas, the main leader of the Indian peasants accepts that when they agreed to negotiate with the generals instead of basing themselves on the junior officers who had joined the revolution and launched an appeal to the soldiers, then the revolution was lost.

Interestingly he mentions that there was opposition to this move and that "a section of the movement were demanding decrees to arrest the corrupt bankers, occupy the radio and TV stations and the ministries". The book also reveals how general Carlos Mendoza, who replaced the junior officers at the head of the National Salvation Junta, was acting under instructions from the US embassy, and his only reason for joining the movement was from the very beginning to give power back to the legitimate institutions of bourgeois power.

A region in turmoil

It is clear that the unstable situation in Ecuador has repercussions for the whole of the Andean region, what some call the Bolivar Triangle (Ecuador, Venezuela and Colombia, to which we would add Bolivia). All the countries in these region are riddled by social, economic and political crisis which cannot be solved under capitalism. The Colombian government is unable to beat the guerrillas by military means but it is not able to reach any long lasting peace agreement either. Despite the approval of Washington’s “Plan Colombia” which includes financial aid worth $1.6 billion, president Pastrana is in a very shaky position. There is a clear danger of the Colombian civil war spilling over into Ecuador. There have been a series of reports of clashes between the Ecuadorian army and Colombian drug dealers inside Ecuador and the Noboa government is trying to discredit the peasant movement by saying they are acting on behalf of the FARC guerrillas in Colombia.

Washington wants to use the Manta military base in Ecuador for its counter-insurgency surveillance operations in Colombia. Therefore they are very worried about “progressive” elements in the Armed Forces of Ecuador. The Chief of the Southern Command of the United States Armed Forces, Charles Whilhem said last summer that one of his main aims was the “reorientation of the Armed Forces of Ecuador". He specified that “part of this reorientation was the change in the military training of the Ecuadorian military for one like those of the Southern Cone or the Colombian one, within a repressive doctrine”. In order to achieve this aim he stated that “it was necessary to eliminate any progressive elements which could oppose it, and this is only the beginning”.

In fact military sources quoted by the IPS news agency declared that the suspension of the junior officers who had participated in the January 21 revolution was due to pressure from the US rather than a will to punish them on the part of the Ecuadorian army. Just after being given an amnesty the leader of the rebel officers, colonel Lucio Gutierrez was put under arrest for 96 hours for a statement he had made to the press opposing the concession of the Manta base to the US.

One of the demands of the recent movement in Ecuador was precisely opposition to the regionalisation of the Plan Colombia and this was finally accepted by the agreement which put an end to the protests. However it is clear that these are just words on the part of the government. Foreign Minister Moeller made it very clear that Ecuador "is going to stick with whatever friends we find and in this case it is the government and the people of the United States".

Washington is also worried about the situation in Venezuela with the coming to power of Chavez who based himself on radical populist demagogy and managed to crush all established parties of the right and the so-called left.

Bolivia also experienced an uprising in March - April last year which started as a protest against the privatisation of water in the city of Cochabamba but acquired a national character and also had insurrectionary features with the formation of people's committees, a mutiny in the army, a general strike, etc.

As we said before, the whole of the region is in crisis and one of the weakest links is probably Ecuador, this is why Washington is paying so much attention to the small Andean country.

The masses of workers and peasants in Ecuador have already shown many times their willingness to struggle. They can no longer accept the conditions under which they live. Unfortunately the leadership of the movement has no strategy of where to go, as was clearly shown in last year's revolution.

Clear socialist program needed

It is necessary to understand that the austerity measures are not implemented because of the will of a particular government but are the direct result of the crisis of capitalism in Ecuador. All governments in the last four years have applied exactly the same policies following the diktats of the IMF.

The struggle must therefore base itself on a clear strategy of building workers' and peasant committees in all the neighbourhoods and communities and linking them up at a regional and national level following the example of last year's people's parliaments. This must be democratically elected and with the right of recall.

Another problem that must be addressed is that of violence. The movement so far has insisted on its peaceful character, but it is clear that the ruling classes have no intention of giving up power and privileges without putting up a fight. The use of guns and dynamite in the recent clashes with the army and the police shows the determination of the masses not to allow themselves to be slaughtered without resistance. It is clear that there are enormous sympathies for the movement amongst the soldiers and even lower ranking officers who are also suffering from the economic crisis and are not prepared to fire on the masses. But this mood must be given an organised expression. Soldiers committees must be formed and these should be linked to the workers and peasants movement. Only by winning over the majority of the soldiers to the side of the revolution can a peaceful taking of power be guaranteed. This should be the main focus rather than conspiratorial agreements with different elements amongst the officer cast who might be sympathetic.

In order to prepare for a complete transformation of society the movement of the workers and peasants must adopt a thorough program of economic measures to be implemented including the arrest of all corrupt bankers and the confiscation of their assets, and the nationalisation of the whole of the banking sector. The nationalisation of the main industries (specially the banana plantations) which are under the control of a few monopolistic groups and the end of any projects to privatise publicly owned utilities and the oil industry. Only in this way would the necessary resources be made available to improve the living conditions of the masses of poor people which now represent 80% of the population. The movement must adopt a clear socialist character.

Finally the movement already has an anti-imperialist character which must be deepened and combined with an internationalist appeal to workers and peasants in Colombia, Bolivia, Peru, Brazil, etc. If there was a victorious revolution in Ecuador the United States would do everything in their power to smash it, that is quite clear. The only effective way of fighting against the most powerful imperialist power on earth would be by spreading the revolution across the whole of Latin America starting with the "Bolivar Triangle" where conditions are already ripe.