The uprising in Ecuador marks the beginning of the 21st century

Sunday, 23 January 2000
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After a week of mass mobilisation, demonstrations, strikes and clashes, on Friday 21st of January tens of thousands of Indians, peasants, workers and students in Ecuador took over one by one the buildings of the Parliament, the Supreme Court and the National Palace and established an alternative government. Faced with these events the world's mass media, which had remained silent for the whole week, started to scream that a military coup had overthrown the government of president Jamil Mahuad. It is therefore necessary to clarify first of all that what has happened in Ecuador in the last week is a revolution.

"At those crucial moments when the old order becomes no longer endurable for the masses, they break over the barriers excluding them from the political arena, sweep aside their traditional representatives, and create by their own interference the initial groundwork for a new regime" 

Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution

After a week of mass mobilisation, demonstrations, strikes and clashes, on Friday 21st of January, tens of thousands of Indians, peasants, workers and students in Ecuador took over one by one the buildings of the Parliament, the Supreme Court and the National Palace and established an alternative government.

Faced with these events the world’s mass media, which had remained silent for the whole week, started to scream that a military coup had overthrown the government of president Jamil Mahuad. It is therefore necessary to clarify first of all that what has happened in Ecuador in the last week is a revolution, the main feature of which is, as explained by Trotsky, "the direct interference of the masses in historic events".

In order to understand the magnificent mass movement in Ecuador in the last few days we must go back to the beginning of the 90s when a whole series of governments, both of the right and of the "left", started to apply faithfully the structural adjustment plans dictated by the IMF. The results are now clear for all to see: two thirds of the population under the poverty line, hyperinflation and mass unemployment.

In 1995 Ecuador waged a short war against Peru with the main aim of diverting the masses' attention from their social problems into a wave of nationalist fervour. But this lasted for a very short period of time and a few months later there were mass workers’ protests against the economic policies of the government. The generalised discontent of workers and peasants expressed itself in 1996 with a massive vote for Abdalá Bucaram who won the presidency on the bases of demagogic promises. In a few months he had broken all his promises and adopted the same adjustment plans dictated by the IMF, including massive price hikes for all basic products. Overnight, electricity went up by 500%, gas by 340%, telephone charges by 700% amongst others. This was the spark which ignited the accumulated malaise. The trade unions called a national strike on February 5th and 6th, 1997, which then became an indefinite strike. Bucaram tried to hold on to power using repression, declaring a state of emergency and taking the troops onto the streets, but this did not stop the protests. He then tried to withdraw the whole package of economic measures, but this did not work either, and finally Bucaram "the mad" had to flee from the country.

The Ecuadorian bourgeoisie, gripped by panic by the magnitude of the movement and their inability to stop it by repression, quickly patched up a compromise and appointed Fabián Alarcón as an interim president. Already at that time the trade union organisations warned that the aim of the strike had not been only to force the resignation of the president but the rejection of his economic policies.

The new Alarcón government followed exactly the same policies as Bucaram's and so did Jamil Mahuad since he was elected in 1998. A poor and highly indebted country like Ecuador has very few room for manoeuvre as far as economic policies are concerned. As long as the logic of capitalism is accepted there is only one possible way out: to unload the burden of the crisis on the shoulders of workers and peasants. They have resisted every single one of the attacks on their living standards launched by the government and in a number of occasions defeated them. In March last year a 48 hour general strike forced the government to withdraw its adjustment plan and the same was the case in August of the same year.

Dollarisation of the economy

The year 2000 started in Ecuador with 62% of the population below the poverty line, 70% of the workforce either unemployed or underemployed, a fall of the economy by 7.2% and an inflation rate of 70%. Faced with this situation the Mahuad government decided to decree the dollarisation of the economy at a rate of 25,000 sucres per dollar.

The dollarisation of the economy, which has already been applied in Argentina, represents a desperate attempt by the Latin American bourgeoisie to find a way out. The argument is that this will increase the "confidence" of foreign investors. Far from solving the economic problems of the country, tying an economy in deep recession to the US economy will only mean further austerity plans. By losing their autonomy in monetary policy, the only measures which a government could use to get out of recession would be more cuts in public spending, privatisations, cuts in wages and subsidies, etc. This, far from being a recipe for the recovery of the economy, would further contract the internal market, plunging the country into an even deeper recession. In the short term dollarisation might have the effect of controlling inflation, but only by paralysing economic activity almost completely. It is clear that in the midst of a deep recession it is difficult to increase prices.

In the concrete case of Ecuador, dollarisation at 25,000 sucres per dollar is also a nice gift for capitalists and bankers who have dollar denominated accounts which they bought at 15,000 sucres!

On the basis of these past experiences the labour and peasant movements of Ecuador decided to go for this week’s uprising. The National Confederation of Indian Nationalities (CONAIE) and the Coordination of Social Movements (CMS) set up the National People’s Parliament and announced a national indefinite uprising from January 15th, and the taking of Quito by thousands of Indian peasants coming from all over the country.

The character of this movement reveals a qualitative change. The struggle is no longer just to change president or to force new elections. Now the open aim of the struggle is a "national insurrection", the establishment of people’s parliaments at national, regional and local level as the sole bodies of power, and the abolition of the three branches of state power (executive, judiciary, and legislative).

The Ecuadorian paper El Comercio described it in this way:

"The Indian and social movements changed what had been their leadership and political platform since they first appeared as a resistance force in the early 90s. This change, in the form of the current uprising, led them to break completely with the established forms of power. ... They are looking to set up a parallel state, with their own rules and representatives ... the ultimate goal of this movement is not to overthrow president Mahuad or to take their demands to Congress. This they have already done and they did not achieve any results... This is why they raise the need to establish new forms of organisation. The path they have chosen is not only the continuation of their so-called provincial parliaments and the national one, but also the creation of new ones at county level. A democracy which they call direct, without asking anyone for permission, and without resorting to middlemen. In the past they already used them but failed to get any results" (El Comercio, 16/1/00)

The challenge to the bourgeois state and the setting up of organs of worker and peasant’s power represents a very significant step forward in the consciousness of the masses in Ecuador, which is the direct consequence of the previous years’ struggles.

The uprising started on January 15th with the declaration of the state of emergency by the government and mass arrests of trade union and student leaders. It is important to make clear that the movement was started by the Indian organisations but had the support and the participation of the working class. The workers at the national oil company, Petroecuador, declared an all-out indefinite strike to support the Indian movement and against the government’s economic and social policies. According to the Agencia Pulsar: "the secretary of the Petroecuador Trade Union, Diego Cano, said they are not afraid of the presence in the streets and roads of more than 30,000 soldiers and police and that their intention is to protest until Jamil falls with the whole of his government". The United Workers Front and the Ecuador Confederation of Free Trade Unions also joined the insurrection. In the words of Saltos Garza, spokesperson for the Social Movements Coordination, "this is not an Indian uprising, it is an uprising of the peoples of Ecuador, of the social movements and of the citizens who are being hit by inflation". (El Telegrafo, 16/1/00).

A national uprising

The insurrection acquired a truly national character and mass demonstrations took place all over the country. The common feature is the taking over of government buildings and the setting up of local and provincial popular parliaments. In Cuenca for instance an impressive demonstration of 50,000 people clashed with the police and the army and took over the government building.

In Guayaquil, the country’s economic capital, thousands of workers, peasants and students demonstrated every day from Monday in support of the insurrection. The demonstration got the support of sections of the petty bourgeoisie (mainly small shop owners) which joined the movement all over the country.

In Loja, in the South, there were daily demonstrations and clashes with the police. The army occupied the university campus and arrested 150 students.

Despite the impressive police and army deployment to prevent the entry of the Indians in the capital Quito, by Wednesday there were more than 20,000 of them in its streets. CONAIE leader, Antonio Vargas "said that the Indians and their urban supporters will not kneel down in front of the thieves and corrupt people who have the economic and political power. He appealed for the formation of a united front, as only the people can save the people. He appealed to the police and the army to aim their guns at those who are looting the country and not at the Indians or the people, who are their brothers." (PULSAR, 19/1/00)

In Chimborazo province "some 50,000 Indian peasants blocked all the roads of the province. The army talks about a red tide because of the colour of the ponchos traditional to the Indians in this region". At the same time the provincial people’s parliament in the Amazonian region announced the taking over of the oil wells by workers and Indians.

The insurrection acquired a more massive character as the days went by and its was not stopped by repression nor by the lies of the government which even printed fake communiqués in the name of the CONAIE threatening to kill all non-Indians.

On Thursday the army occupied the oil refinery of Esmeraldas, one of the biggest industrial complexes of Ecuador, but failed to get the workers back to work.

Tens of thousands of Indians, workers, students, and small shopkeepers participated in the demonstrations in Quito. For days they surrounded the institutions of state power with the aim of taking them over. The government organised the defence of these buildings with the army and protected them with barbed wire. But there is no force able to stop a whole people when it has decided that enough is enough, and finally on Friday 21st they took over the parliament. This is how Pulsar describes it: "The Indian and peasant movements of Ecuador, together with the organised urban sectors and with complete support of the middle layers and soldiers of the three branches of the armed forces have set up an alternative power in this country. This took place when the big mass of Indians and peasants in Quito broke the siege of the Parliament building and took it over. At the beginning there was resistance by the soldiers but suddenly hundreds of soldiers arrived in armoured cars, coming from the Military Academy and supported the occupation". A group of 70 young colonels led by Lucio Gutierrez declared that they were joining the insurrection.

The role of the army

When analysing the fact that a section of the army joined the insurrection we must take into account a number of factors. On the one hand it is clear that an important section of the soldiers, NCOs and even some officers identify themselves with the struggle of workers and peasants who after all, as Antonio Vargas said, are "their brothers". Fraternisation of soldiers and NCOs with the revolutionary workers and peasants is a feature of every revolution, be it Russia in 1917 or Spain in 1936.

On the other hand it is also possible that sections of the Army officers feel honestly disgusted by the economic policies of the Quito government which favour just a handful of bankers and which at the end of the day amount to the "selling out of the country to imperialism at throw-away prices". This section of "patriotic" officers who want to rid  the country of corruption and foreign intervention have an example to follow in the Chavez movement in Venezuela which has precisely these same features. It is significant that it is the first time in years that we see the entry of sections of the army into the political arena on the side of the most oppressed layers of society.

In the period after the Second World War the impasse of capitalism in the colonial world forced sections of the officer caste to take power in a number of countries in an attempt to get them out of their backwardness and free them from dependency from imperialism. In some cases, taking as a model the Soviet Union’s Stalinist model they nationalised the economy expropriating imperialism and the weak national bourgeoisie. The Stalinist model was useful for them as a planned economy allowed the economic development of the country and at the same time the absence of a workers’ democracy allowed these officers to give themselves all the privileges of a ruling caste. This is what happened in countries like Syria, Burma, Ethiopia and Afghanistan amongst others.

Now the model of the Soviet Union is no longer there to be followed, but the complete impasse of capitalism in a number of countries still forces sections of the officer caste to enter into politics with a very confused programme, a mixture of populism, anti-imperialism and rejection of the "neoliberal" economic model, i.e. the policy of "structural adjustment", privatisations, etc. The most clear example of this is Chavez in Venezuela.

It is not clear how far will they go under the pressure of the masses. But it is the duty of the Marxists to stress that the revolution must be carried out by the working class leading all the oppressed layers of society, otherwise at most we would see the establishment of a Stalinist regime under the firm control of this officer caste.

Probably the group of 70 officers who decided to support the uprising on Friday morning belong to this category of discontented "patriotic" officers. It seems that the contacts between the peasant leaders and the social movements and this section of the army already started back in December. After the taking over of the national congress a National Salvation Civilian-Military Junta was set up. The composition of this junta and its first statements clearly reflect the shortcomings of the movement. The Junta is made up of CONAIE leader Antonio Vargas, former Supreme Court president Carlos Solórzano and colonel Gutierrez.

In his first statement, Lucio Gutierrez appeals to: "former presidents of Ecuador, honest politicians, the Church, the media, honest businessmen and bankers, workers, the unemployed and the women to support a change in the country. (Pulsar 21/1/00). In the same guise Carlos Solórzano states that: "We want to invite good willing businessmen and honest bankers to participate in this government. The only thing we want from now on is that the country is not looted. Enough of stealing. We want an Ecuador free of thieves. I think this is the main slogan." (Pulsar 21/1/00)

Confusion of the leadership

Here we can see clearly how the main weakness of the movement is precisely its leadership. After the workers and peasants had taken power, their own leaders were already thinking about how to handed it back to the bankers and capitalists (although only "honest" ones for now). The confusion of the leaders of the movement led them to rely on elements of the old state apparatus in order to create a new one. The power was already in their hands but they did not realise it. Thus, the movement which was very radical in its character and organisational forms was very weak and confused in its political programme.

On Friday evening, the "communards" (as they are called by the press) with the support of sections of the military finally took over the Supreme Court and the National palace, from where Mahuad had already fled.

Then, the supreme commander of the armed forces, general Carlos Mendoza, seeing power slipping from his hands decided to join the insurrection (after it was already victorious, and only to be able to betray it from within), and replaced colonel Gutierrez in the Salvation Junta.

This closed the first chapter of this revolutionary movement. The masses had proved once again that when they start to move there is no power on earth which can stop them. This time their goal was clear: the overthrowing not only of a government but of the whole of the state apparatus and its replacement by another one based on the peoples’ parliaments. In just five days the peasant and worker masses of Ecuador, using their traditional methods of struggle, the general strike, the insurrection, the mass mobilisation, and winning over a section of the army to their side, succeeded in taking power.

The problem is, as in so many other revolutions, the lack of a genuinely revolutionary leadership able to carry through the movement to the end. Thus, as in Russia in February, in Germany 1918 and Spain 1936, the masses took power and their leaders handed it back to the bourgeoisie.

On Saturday Ecuador woke up to the news that general Mendoza, supposedly a member of the Salvation Junta, had handed back power to Mahuad’s vice-president Gustavo Noboa. His first statement affirmed that he "will continue mostly with the economic policies of the deposed Mahuad" and that "dollarisation, the banking system rescue plan and the modernisation started by the deposed Jamil Mahuad will continue unopposed". It is now clear that general Mendoza has acted as a pawn of those sections of the bourgeoisie who feared that Mahuad’s attempt to cling to power could have ended with the complete overthrow of their regime. The decision to hand over power to the vice-president was taken by general Mendoza after visiting the US embassy. Jamil Mahuad who saw the power of the class he represents miraculously saved, publicly declared his support for the new president Noboa.

At the time of writing, the news is still confused. The group of colonels who joined the insurrection feel betrayed and colonel Gutierrez has been arrested. It seems that in the early hours of Saturday the masses discussed the possibility of retaking the Government Palace. Romelio Gualán, Indians and peasant leader says that: "the Indian people do not fear death, as they are already dying of starvation in the fields, so they would rather die in the roads, on the streets of the cities, seeking for a change for the whole of the Ecuadorian people".

In the end, the leadership of the movement, which had based all its strategy in the support of a section of the army, feeling betrayed by the generals, abandoned the field of battle. The truth is that general Mendoza did not betray the movement, as from the very beginning he put himself at its front only in order to behead it. On Saturday morning the situation was not yet lost. If the leaders had based themselves on the formation of soldiers’ committees and the extension of the peoples’ parliaments to all levels and the purging from those of all bourgeois elements, they could still have retained power. As the events of Friday 21st showed, power was not in the hands of its official representatives (parliamentarians, judges and president) but on the streets of Quito and all over the country; in the hands of the peoples’ parliaments and the national parliament of the people.

Who had the power?

But the leaders of the popular and peasant movement were disoriented by the appearances of power and when general Mendoza, at the head of the Salvation Junta decreed its dissolution and appointed president Noboa, they did not know how to respond and accepted it. They did not realise that general Mendoza had very little real power to back him as most of the army was on the side of the communards. If they had made an appeal to the assembled masses of workers and peasants to take over the National Palace again and to the soldiers to aim their guns against the generals and to join the movement, the situation would have been entirely different.

The latest news seem to indicate that the Indian peasants have left the capital and disbanded the peoples’ parliament. Some provincial people's parliaments have not been disbanded and there are reports of the mass movement continuing in some of the provinces. Thus on Sunday 23rd El Comercio reported:

"In Riobamba and Guaranda the Indian demonstrations continued with the slogan of continuing the movement. There were also mobilisations in Ambato and Otavalo... In Riobamba, some 15,000 Indians marched to the Condamine market and forced its closure. Then they held a rally at the Indian House where their leaders ratified the indefinite character of the uprsining... In Guaranda, at 10,30 a march of more than 3,000 Indians forced the closure of the market and the shops. The leaders declared that were disappointed by the course of the movement and ratified the continuation of the uprising" (El Comercio 23/1/00)

Despite this the general trend seems to be the disbanding of the local people's parliaments and the end of the movement.

Whatever the immediate outcome of this uprising, it is clear that the masses of workers and peasants have learned a lot, about the role of the state, the role of the army commanders, their own strength, etc. The Ecuadorian bourgeoisie is completely unable to solve any of the urgent economic problems of the country and therefore this is not the end of the process, just another important chapter.

Ecuador is not an isolated case in Latin America. Colombia, Venezuela, Argentina, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Brazil, the whole of the continent has witnessed mass mobilisations, general strikes and peasant insurrections time and again in the last few years. All the conditions are there for a victorious revolution. As soon as this takes place in one country it will spread like wildfire throughout the continent.

The most urgent need for the workers in the cities and the countryside in Ecuador and the rest of the continent is to forge a revolutionary leadership firmly based on the principle of class independence and a genuine socialist programme, the only one which can offer a way forward for the masses of the continent.