A piece that Raul Zibechi wrote about Ecuador early this year has been circulating on Twitter recently as leftists around the world try to understand anti-government protests by a few groups claiming to be of the left. Zibechi depicts the indigenous federation CONAIE as being engaged in a noble struggle against Rafael Correa’s government. Zibechi makes the ideological assumption that CONAIE’s leaders are more credible than Correa’s government and that they speak for most indigenous people in Ecuador. Unfortunately some leftists, especially those outside Ecuador who have not followed the country closely, will find Zibechi convincing. Indigenous groups who support Correa’s government like the National Confederation of Campesino, Indigenous and Black Organizations (FENOCIN), or former CONAIE president Antonio Vargas and other grassroots leaders who strongly reject CONAIE’s belligerence towards Correa’s government are either ignored or dismissed as sellouts. Long-time indigenous rights activists like Virgilio Hernandez (now a parliamentarian with Alianza Pais, the political party Correa leads) and Ricardo Ulcuango (a CONAIE founder who is now Ecuador’s ambassador to Bolivia) are even easier to disregard as “co-opted” by leftists who find anti-state rhetoric appealing. “Social movement” leaders with negligible support in Ecuador become the only people worth listening to.
Zebechi’s article makes no mention of a coup attempt on September 30, 2010 in which Correa was briefly held hostage by mutinous police. CONAIE issued a joint statement with the political party Parachutik a week later that said in part
“We energetically announce that there never was any attempted coup d’etat, much less a kidnapping, but an event that responded to the uncertain political management of the government that causes popular discontent through permanent aggression, discrimination and violations of human rights consecrated in the Constitution.
We do not recognize this dictatorial “democracy” because of its lack of freedom of speech, the kidnapping of all the powers of the state by the executive branch in its political system of one government, that does not generate spaces to debate the projects, and laws elaborated from the indigenous movement and other social sectors.”
It is important to reflect on what a reprehensible statement this was.
Correa first took office in 2007 facing a political establishment, a private media in particular, determined to maintain the neoliberal policies that had devastated the country since the mid-1980s. To break entrenched resistance, Ecuadorians voted in a referendum to initiate a process to write a new constitution. Voters then elected a constituent assembly to draft one. Correa’s party won the majority of the seats in that assembly. The constitution was then ratified in a referendum. In 2009, under the new constitution, Correa easily won re-election and, in the National Assembly, his party won 59 out of 124 seats (three times more than its closest competitor). By the time of the coup attempt in 2010, Correa had just prevailed in five elections within four years. That didn’t stop some right wing politicians, including one Pachakutik member, from saying that the coup attempt had been staged to boost Correa’s popularity. Pachakutik won only 4 out of 124 seats in the National Assembly in 2009. Unable to make any significant impact through elections (and that remains the case today), CONAIE and Pachakutic looked to magnify their influence by winking at putschists and parroting their rationalizations.
The remark about “freedom of expression” in the CONAIE/Pachakutik statement is especially odious because CONAIE and its allies have regularly used Ecuador’s right wing media as a platform from which to attack the government.
Consider the interview that Carlos Pérez Guartambel gave on the private broadcaster Ecuavisa on August 13. Bear in mind, this takes place years after the private media had allegedly been muzzled by Correa. Carlos Pérez is the president of ECUARUNARI which is part of the CONAIE federation. His partner, Manuela Picq, recently made international headlines when she faced deportation. Much of Pérez’s tirade echoes the left critique that Zibechi makes, but in the last three minutes of the interview Pérez veers sharply to the right. He opposes Correa’s proposals for inheritance and capital gains taxes. He claims they are a desperate attempt to raise money by a government that will be bankrupt within months. He suggested the taxes will hurt most Ecuadorians and declares “we will not accept them”. Mimicking right-wing deficit hawks, he accuses Correa of burying future generations in debt. Zibechi’s article also echoes neoliberal economists in the way it mindlessly demonizes public sector borrowing. Ecuador’s gross public debt is actually very low (about 30% of GDP). More importantly, public sector borrowing and spending has not been wasted. It has been wisely invested in building productive capacity and reducing poverty.
In June, CONAIE announced that their fight against Correa is not “only” about his tax reform proposals – and said that the proposals will “not impact big capitalists”. Anyone can go on the website of Ecuador’s tax agency and calculate how much tax they would pay under Correa’s proposed tax reforms (here and here). It is easily verified that the taxes are aimed at the wealthiest 2% and will have negligible impact on the overwhelming majority. Correa’s most irrational opponents (like the ones who claimed the 2010 coup attempt was staged) might say the website generates bogus numbers, but think about how crazy that is: the government providing the entire public with a powerful tool to easily discredit the government if it lies.
On August 18, Carlos Pérez gave an interview on another private network, Teleamazonas. Sitting alongside Manuela Picq (just out of jail after a judge ruled that there was insufficient evidence to justify her deportation) Pérez denounced Ecuador’s “autocracy” and called on the military and police to rebel. Manuela Picq added that she had been “kidnapped” by the government. The interviewer could not have been more sympathetic towards them.
Zibechi’s article very credulously quotes Carlos Pérez accusing Correa’s government of seizing “gestapo” like control over social movements. The allegations stem from changes to laws regarding the registration and regulation of NGOs and non-profits. Such regulations exist in all countries to protect people against fraud, exploitative labor conditions and other abuses. In any country, valid concerns can be raised about a government abusing these laws, but Carlos Pérez is hardy a credible source about anything.
Zibechi, claimed that another “sign of authoritarianism” was Correa’s refusal to allow German parliamentarians to inspect projects in Yasuni National Park. That was actually a sign of anti-colonialism, but Zibechi is so irrationally hostile to Correa’s government that he sees German politicians as legitimate authorities in Ecuador. If Ecuadorian politicians demanded the right to inspect projects in Germany they’d be seen as megalomaniacs, but no position is too absurd, and no source too unreliable, for Zibechi when it comes to attacking Correa’s government.
I don’t believe Zibechi has bad intentions, but left writers who offer a blinkered and ideologically driven analysis are helping a vicious propaganda campaign against progressive governments in Latin America. As for Correa’s vehement left critics in Ecuador, it is not always easy to distinguish dogmatism from vile opportunism, but they lead to the same thing: direct assistance to the right and attacks on democracy.
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