Ecuadorian masses deliver blow against the oligarchy and imperialism

On Sunday, April 15, the masses of Ecuador delivered a blow against the oligarchy and imperialism by voting massively in favour of calling a Constituent Assembly. In the face of opposition of all the parties over 81% voted Yes. The situation in Ecuador is going in the same direction as that in Venezuela.

On Sunday, April 15, the masses of workers and peasants of Ecuador delivered a blow against the oligarchy and imperialism by voting massively in favour of calling a Constituent Assembly. The final results announced by the Supreme Electoral Tribunal were 5,350,000 votes for the Constituent Assembly (81,72%), and barely 824,000 against (12,43%).

The scale of the victory surprised all commentators. In only three of the country's 22 provinces did the Yes vote score below 80%. Even in the province of Guayas, where the country's second largest city Guayaquil is located and a traditional stronghold of the country's oligarchy, the vote was 75% in favour and 18% against. The Yes vote reached 87% in the provinces of Azuay, el Oro, Imbabura, Loja, and 85% in Carchi, Pichincha, Tungurahua and Zamora Chinchipe.

The referendum campaign was extremely polarised with all the country's traditional parties opposing the current president Rafael Correa in his proposal of a Constituent Assembly. The mass media, in a campaign reminiscent of those waged against Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez, accused Correa of being an authoritarian, a communist, dug up all sort of dirt on his past and his family and generally created an extremely polarised atmosphere.

For all these reasons the Yes vote in the referendum has to be seen as a reflection of a deep seated opposition to all political parties and to the political system as a whole.

10 years of revolutionary movements

Ecuador has lived through nearly 10 years of social turmoil. The last president to finish his full term of office was Sixto Durán in 1996. The same year saw the election of the populist Abdalah Buccaram, who became known as Buccaram "the mad". Having been elected on the basis of demagogic promises he immediately introduced an IMF-recommended structural adjustment plan which led to a wave of protests culminating in a general strike in February 1997. He tried to quell protests by sending the troops against demonstrators but finally had to flee the country.

The next elected president Jamil Mahuad followed the same policies and was soon facing a number of general strikes and movements of the country's powerful organisation of indigenous peasants, the CONAIE. In January 2000 he decreed the dollarisation of the country's economy, which was the spark for the revolutionary events that culminated in a national uprising and the setting up of a parallel Parliament of the Peoples which, with the support of a section of junior military officers, briefly took power on January 20 and 21 (see: The uprising in Ecuador marks the beginning of the 21st century). The movement was derailed back into bourgeois parliamentarism but was a clear expression of the anger of the majority of Ecuadorians caused by the crisis of capitalism and of a deep mistrust towards the political institutions of bourgeois democracy which had proven useless as a vehicle for the masses to solve their problems.

November 2002 saw the election of Lucio Gutierrez, one of the army officers that sided with the people in January 2000 as the country's new president (see: Ecuador - Lucio Gutierrez victory opens a new revolutionary stage). He had the support of the workers' and peasants' movement and great hopes were put on him. However, he soon moved towards following IMF dictated policies and to attack the trade union movement. Demoralisation with his government culminated in a new movement of the masses in April 2005 which overthrew the Gutierrez government. An interim administration was set up, headed by Palacios, and with Rafael Correa as a finance minister (see: Ecuador: Popular uprising overthrows Lucio Gutierrez).

It is interesting to note that despite the demoralisation that flowed from the betrayal of Lucio Gutierrez, the masses of workers and peasants have rallied again once a clear leadership has been offered to them. This is in part the result of the development and continuation of the Venezuelan revolution, which serves as an example and a source of inspiration throughout the continent.

What we see clearly is how the masses once and again have taken the route of mass mobilisations and direct action to try and bring fundamental change. They have been able to overthrow 4 different governments in less than 10 years. This reveals that there is an enormous reservoir of strength in the mass movement of workers and peasants in Ecuador. The problem is that every single time they have been deceived.

The same thing happened with the Alfredo Palacios government. This time the spark of the movement was the attempt of Palacios to sign a Free Trade Agreement with the United States. Mass demonstrations and strikes took place in March 2006 (see: Ecuador: State of emergency declared to halt protests). This time the movement found an expression in the election of Rafael Correa (who had resigned as finance minister in the Palacios government in protest at his economic policies) as the new president in November 2006 (see: Ecuador: Neither the millions of dollars, nor the corrupt brown envelopes could defeat the dignity of the people).

The masses and the Constituent Assembly

From the beginning Correa had a clear programme: no signing of the FTA with the United States, end the contract for the US military basis in Manta and to organise a referendum to call a Constituent Assembly. The latter was the key point of his campaign and was seen by the Ecuadorian masses as a chance to get rid of the whole of the political system in the country, always dominated by less than 200 families that make up Ecuador's oligarchy. So insistent was Correa about doing away with the country's political set up that he deliberately refused to put forward any candidates for the National Assembly.

The choice was clearly expressed by the candidate opposing Correa in the second round of the presidential election: banana plantation magnate Alvaro Noboa, the country's wealthiest man (with assets worth an estimated US$1bn). In a very polarised campaign Correa soundly defeated Noboa by 58% to 41%.

The last few months have been marked by the battle over the calling of the referendum for the Constituent Assembly. The country's Supreme Electoral Tribunal agreed to Correa's proposal, and when members of the national assembly tried to block it, the Electoral Court suspended 57 of them. This was accompanied by demonstrations of Correa's supporters surrounding parliament to prevent the suspended assembly members from going in.

It is in this context that the masses of Ecuador have put their hopes in the Constituent Assembly, which they see not just as a way of changing the country's constitution but as a the beginning of a radical transformation of their lives, as they can see is happening in Venezuela. Indigenous peasant leader Humberto Cholango before the referendum was convinced that "millions of conscious poor that demand change will prevail against the millions of dollars of the pro-imperialists". Reflecting what is behind this massive vote he asked: "How is it possible that 173 people are the owners of 3 million hectares of land in this country and control most of the water... it is time to rise up and put an end to this injustice. Oil and water must belong to all".

The president of the powerful peasant indigenous confederation CONAIE, Luis Macas, added: "We are going to rule from the Constituent Assembly. We are going to brush aside the old state and put an end to the privileges of a handful of rich"

The first announcement of president Correa after the referendum was that Ecuador was going to pay off the remainder of its debt to the IMF, break all further links with that institution and expel the representative of the World Bank from the country. This move, which has also been taken by Venezuela this week, without being as radical as a full repudiation of the foreign debt, surely has a powerful symbolic impact on the minds of the masses as well as on the minds of the oligarchy and imperialism.

Like in Venezuela, even the attempt of Correa to make the rich pay taxes has become a revolutionary move. According to figures compiled by ALAI journalist Eduardo Tamayo, the 17 largest economic groups in the country control 563 companies and have an annual income of 5 billion dollars (14% of the country's GDP), but their tax payments represent only 6% of the state's tax revenue. Amongst these groups is Noboa's own company with an annual turnover of more than 500 million dollars and annual profits of 3.9 million.

It is this obscene concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a small number of families linked and subservient to US imperialism, together with the fact that between 60 to 70% of the population live below the poverty line, that makes social conditions in Ecuador so explosive. The number of Ecuadorians forced to emigrate from their country has gone over the 2 million mark (mainly to Spain and the US); this in a country of barely 13 million inhabitants. For the masses the Constituent Assembly is not viewed just as a change of form of government but as a way to achieve radical change in their living conditions.

Lessons from Venezuela

President Correa's programme is not a socialist programme of bringing the wealth of these 200 families into public ownership and democratic planning and redistributing the land they owned. But like in Venezuela, even a programme of progressive reforms backed by the mass mobilisation and organisation of workers and peasants, is a direct threat to the rule of the oligarchy, the wealthy landowners, banana magnates, bank owners and captains of industry who have dominated the country since its foundation to the benefit of US imperialism. In Venezuela the oligarchy and imperialism organised a military uprising against Hugo Chávez. If Correa stays true to his programme of reforms, there is no doubt that the oligarchy and imperialism are going to try the same thing.

The campaign to prepare for his violent overthrow has already started. A deafening chorus in the media, particularly in Spain and in the US, is preparing public opinion, by accusing Rafael Correa of being an authoritarian who is concentrating all power into his own hands.

Following his Venezuelan counterpart, Rafael Correa has also come out in favour of socialism. This is really the only solution. The experience of the revolutionary movement in Venezuela shows that there are three main obstacles that need to be overcome for the revolution to succeed:

  • One is the question of the state apparatus. As Marxists have always argued, the old state machinery cannot be taken over and used to serve the interests of working people, it must be destroyed and replaced by a new form of organisation based on democratic assemblies and elected and recallable representatives. The Ecuadorian masses already have the experience of the Peoples' Parliaments that were set up during the January 2000 revolution.
  • Two is the question of the economy. While important sections of the country's economy remain in private hands the ruling class will use them to sabotage the democratic will of the majority. In Ecuador this means the expropriation of the wealthiest 200 families and imperialist companies that own the natural resources, the land, the banks and industry.
  • And three is the question of the revolutionary organisation. This must be democratic and based on the mass activity of workers and peasants.

What needs to be understood clearly from the Venezuelan experience is that the masses can only rely on their own strength, organisation and mobilisation in order to implement and defend revolutionary change. The Constituent Assembly can be a tool used by the masses, but cannot solve all their problems. For ten years the Ecuadorian masses have brought into office and then removed a number of governments in an attempt to improve their conditions. Now it is necessary to understand that only by the taking over of the fundamental levers of the economy by the workers and peasants themselves can this be achieved.

The next few months and years will see a further sharpening of the class struggle in Ecuador. The most advanced elements need to draw all the necessary conclusions and organise to give a clear leadership to the movement.

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