The powerful Ecuadorian indigenous movement faces one of its biggest challenges yet in the October 15th presidential elections â€“ for the first time they are presenting their own candidate. For them it is not about winning, it is about continuing the indigenous struggle after a great crisis. When the Ecuadorian indigenous movement backed a candidate in the last presidential elections, it was a huge victory that quickly turned into a disaster.
In 2002 Pachakutik, the political arm of the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador ( CONAIE), formed an alliance with Lucio Gutierrez, former coup leader, military man, and a fierce anti-neoliberal. Gutierrez won. Four Pachakutik members were appointed ministers, most notably the indigenous foreign minister, Nina Pacari. Yet only a few months after taking office, Gutierrez shifted to the political right and signed deals with the IMF, thus continuing the country’s neoliberal track. At the same time, he began to subvert the indigenous movement from within.
Pachakutik left the Gutierrez government after only three months in 2003 but the political credibility and the strong organization that the indigenous movement had built up through 20 years of scrupulous work and uprisings was left shattered. Commentators who had once called CONAIE one of the strongest social movements in Latin America started writing obituaries on the movement.
Yet after licking its wounds, CONAIE reorganized and elected their historic leader Luis Macas president. He traveled all over the country outside the media spotlight, and visited indigenous communities with a message: “We are in danger, get ready for a new uprising.” The danger was the government’s plan to sign a free trade agreement with the US, and the indigenous movement was intent on stopping it.
In March of 2006, with a level of strength and element of surprise almost equal to the 1990 Inti Raimi uprising that made visible indigenous presence and demands â€“ the indigenous rose again, along with workers, students and peasants, and paralyzed the country for weeks with their “Defense for Life” mobilizations. They demanded an end to free trade (TLC) negotiations with the US, the expulsion of US oil giant Occidental, the nationalization of the oil industry, and a call for a constituent assembly.
The mobilizations were not only proof that CONAIE was very much alive: they created a domino effect that led to the government cancellation of the Occidental contract, and thus, to the US pull-out of free trade agreement negotiations.
The October 15th presidential elections neared. Leftwing candidate Rafael Correa, recognizing the importance of the indigenous vote, invited Pachakutik into an electoral alliance and promised the vice-presidency, if elected. But after lengthy discussions and analysis, the indigenous movement opted to run their own candidate: Luis Macas. He co-founded CONAIE in 1986 and is one of the movement’s most important personalities. He organized the 1990 uprisings and was the first indigenous man elected to parliament in 1996. Macas served as Minister of Agriculture in the Gutierrez government until Pachakutik pulled out in 2003.
This interview with Macas took place in early August, when he was polling at less than 10%.
Rune Geertsen: Why did you decide to run for president after the bad experiences Pachakutik has had at the last presidential elections?
Luis Macas: Well, first of all it wasn’t my decision. Everything we do within the indigenous movement is a collective decision. My candidacy came as a proposal from Ecuarunari (biggest regional indigenous organization in Ecuador, part of CONAIE) and was later passed in Pachakutik, where there were some difficulties because Pachakutik converge various social sectors. There are the indigenous, the workers, the peasants, the students, the women’s movements, the urban movements. Some of these sectors preferred to back Rafael Correa but the indigenous sector have been united in supporting me as candidate. I accepted because they asked me to.
RG: Why was it necessary for the indigenous movement to present their own candidate?
LM: In recent times there has been dispersion within the indigenous movement after the political participation in alliance with Lucio Gutierrez. So we have been working to recompose the organization and hopefully these elections will maintain and strengthen this reconstruction of the indigenous movement. What we want to achieve in these three months of campaign is to clearly position Pachakutik as a leftwing movement, a revolutionary movement. We are not here just to participate, to get seats as mayors or councilmen. We are here to fight.
RG: Some say you are losing out on a great opportunity to be vice-president if running with Correa, an opportunity that would give you power to redistribute wealth to the poor for example.
LM: I have fundamental things to say about that. First of all, we don’t know who Rafael Correa really is. Just like we didn’t know who Lucio Gutierrez really was. Gutierrez tore us to pieces. His intention was to divide the indigenous movement. We are not in these elections to win. We won with Gutierrez and where did that leave us? The country is worse off than ever!
We are in this because we are constructing a solid process from the roots, a political project with our own hands, using our own minds. This is how we will advance. It doesn’t matter if we win or lose.
RG: Your most important proposal is the creation of a plurinational state â€“ why is this necessary?
LM: It comes from a critique of the established political system. The political institutions here are exactly the same as the ones that were constructed in Europe. There hasn’t been a contribution from the social and historical processes from here. We speak thirteen languages in this country, we are thirteen nationalities here, but these are not recognized by the state, and they are not reflected in the educational system.
We want a state that covers everyone, that reflects the sociopolitical, cultural, and regional reality in this country, where every nationality can express their fundamental cultural, political, and historical rights. What we have now is a colonial state, an exclusionary state, a uninational state that says that the culture is this, the official language is that, etc.
RG: Will this not just split the country in thirteen small states?
LM: We are not seeking to atomize the country, not at all. What we are saying is that every ethnic group should have the right to exercise their territorial and political rights and decide how they organize themselves. The way different peoples exercise democracy should be in accordance with their own process, not homogenic. Another thing is diversity. We don’t see participation of women, or of the youth. They need to exercise their rights too.
Everyone in Ecuador says they want national unity, but how? By putting everyone in the same sack? By imposing the same way of living on everyone? I don’t think so. What we want for this country is unity in diversity, for if this doesn’t exist, the unity is in danger. We need to establish, little by little, a different coexistence between the whites, the white-mestizos, the indio-mestizos, the blacks in the context of mutual respect. We call it: “to weave a different fabric.”
RG: How do you see the indigenous peoples excluded from the state as it is now?
LM: We are excluded in general, but if you look at these elections, it [is clear]. True, our constitution says that everyone has the right to be a candidate, to be elected. But in practice, what are the possibilities for indigenous people if there has never been an education system in the indigenous communities? If we never had basic services like water, lights, electricity? In this country, thirty percent of the population is illiterate. This is a form of social exclusion.
Another problem is the distribution of wealth, which is totally discriminatory. If you look at the campaigns of Roldos or Viteri (other presidential candidates) â€“ they have huge electoral machines. We hardly have the means to move around. Our only strength is that we have to work together, united, what we call the minga, collective work where everyone help out, some help with transportation, others come with food, everyone chips in for gasoline and other necessities. This is how we’ve worked since we started participating in electoral politics in 1996. We have to rise up united. Any other way would be impossible.
RG: In your election rallies you talk about that we live in a global crisis that is the absence of self recognition, absence of human values and community. What do you mean by that?
LM: I am talking about the crisis that people who belong to a certain culture, a certain identity, are going through. Modernity is finishing off the identities that exist in the world, not only the small indigenous peoples in our region. I see it as a true plague, really. Because when you don’t have the possibility of doing what you have always done, to stay in your territory, when economic hardships forces you to move away to find a way to survive, this provokes the decomposition of the family, the decomposition of the community. It makes you a different being. You are no longer part of the community you were before, you have to dress differently, you have to eat other things, you have to act differently. The value, for example, of learning collectively disappears when you are displaced.
That is why I say that the ruling economic modelâ€”neo-liberalismâ€”is perverse. It will definitively finish off the indigenous cultures. And this economic model is much more perverse when it arrives in indigenous communities. When the World Bank and the Interamerican Bank (IADB) and others come and say: “This is what we will do so these people can develop themselvesâ€¦” â€“even though it is foreign to the people’s vision. We are obviously, in these moments, in great danger.
RG: And how can you confront these dangers?
LM: Well, not only do we have to strengthen our instruments of resistance, but we have to begin to somehow combat these harmful things that arrive to our communities, to our peoples. And how will we do that? Like we’ve done historically, through struggle. We’ve done mobilizations and uprisings. That is one front.
Electoral politics is another front where we come forward with our proposal, not only for the indigenous movement, but for the whole nation. Like a constituent assembly, which we see as the only way to transform the structures of the state, the transformation of the political system. We do not only want a plurinational state within in a bourgeois state, it has to be a total transformation, a social and economical transformation
RG: The mobilization against the free trade agreement in March was part of this struggle?
LM: Yes. The FTA is the clearest example in recent times on how an economic empire, with its surplus, is imposed on us. It is like saying: “Well, we don’t have room for all this in our warehouse, so here is our corn, our rice, our milk, our meat.” But what happens with our food sovereignty? It is a way of weakening us in every way. Nutrition is a fundamental part of our lives, of our families, of our communities. It has to do with our history, our culture, our territory. That is why I call it “nutritional independence.”
We don’t want to happen to us, what happened in Cuba, for instance, in the early nineties. Cuba got so accustomed to receiving everything from the former Soviet Union. And when the Soviet Union fell, it left an enormous crisis in Cuba. We don’t want that. And we don’t want what happened in Mexico when the US came with their corn. Now there are ten million people unemployed.
If we don’t find a way out, if we don’t find an alternative to strengthen ourselves internally, strengthen our productive apparatus with technology, improve the quality of our land and water to secure our daily nutrition, wellâ€¦ they are going to impose everything on us.
RG: What did you learn from being in government as Minister of Agriculture?
LM: Well, I learned what a government is. I learned what political spaces are. I learned that you cannot do anything if there is not support and understanding from the president. And there clearly wasn’t in the case of Lucio Gutierrez. The guy went to the US shortly after he was elected and got cozy with the [multilateral institutions] and did exactly what the governments before him did. He didn’t even take into account the plan to strengthen national agriculture in Ecuador that we had elaborated.
RG: How did you feel personally when he betrayed Pachakutik?
LM: I felt very, very sad. But at the same time I left with a lot of courage: This Gutierrez is not going to deceive me. We are going to recover our strengths and never again let anyone else in charge of what we need to do.
Rune Geertsen lives in Bolivia and is a journalist with the Danish NGO IBIS that works with indigenous people’s rights in Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru.