The people of Ecuador are rising up to refound their country as a pluri-national homeland for all. This inspiring movement, with Ecuador's indigenous peoples at its heart, is part of the revolution spreading across the Americas, laying the groundwork for a new, fairer, world. Ecuador Rising aims to bring news and analysis of events unfolding in Ecuador to english speakers.

Friday, November 23, 2007

A green light to transform Ecuador

By electing a Constituent Assembly on Sept. 30, Ecuadoreans gave President Rafael Correa an ample majority, with which he has carte blanche to change the rules of the political-economic game. Although badly defeated at the polls, the right immediately stood on war footing to oppose the official project: a regulated economy, social redistribution, a participative democracy, regional integration, "21st-Century socialism". But the winds of change are blowing throughout the region.

By Hernando Calvo Ospina Progreso Weekly, 22-28 November, 2007

"Now is the beginning of the challenge of change," says Rocío Peralbo, a social communicator and well-known human rights militant. "All the conditions are favorable. We won't have anyone else to blame if we fail."

The history of Ecuador had not seen a triumph as overwhelming as that obtained by the Alianza País movement on Sept. 30. That day, the people who must draft a new Constitution were elected. Seventy percent of the voters placed their trust on the candidates who share the project with President Rafael Correa Delgado. With 80 representatives out of 130, they will have an absolute majority in the Constituent Assembly. Therefore, the chief of state can now "re-found the Republic" and activate a model of development that will break away from neoliberalism.

Alianza País began as a project in late 2005 "not as a group on enlightened people but as a group that fed from the struggles and efforts of many social and political sectors," says former Energy and Mines Minister and future president of the Constituent Assembly Alberto Acosta. In the November 2006 elections the movement took Correa, an economist and educator, to the presidency. "We went from being specialists in protest to enacting the proposal. With the presidency, we had to begin to build."

In his simple office in Carondelet Palace, a colonial-type building that is the seat of government, President Correa states: "We have begun a 'Citizens Revolution' that must take us to radical, deep and swift changes of the structures of this country, because the current ones don't work."

Taxi drivers, newspaper vendors, bootblacks, officer workers -- all of them have faith in the project led by the president. Ecuador is a country that has had eight presidents in 10 years; most of its citizens do not trust Congress, which they consider incompetent and corrupt. Aware of the Congress' discredit, Alianza País did not submit any candidates to the latest legislative elections, choosing to put all its bets on the Constituent Assembly.

The results for the Constituent Assembly were a decisive rejection of "partidocracy," as President Correa calls that parties that dominated the political scene. The vote reflected the collapse of those who have really been fiefdoms, groups directed by strongmen without ideological support. Monsignor Eugenio Arellano, who was born in Spain, has lived in Ecuador for more than 30 years, "always very close to the people." For that reason, he says he knows "what 90 percent of the inhabitants think."

"This new government has conveyed a very big hope to the people: to radically improve their living conditions." He says the Ecuadorean Church has taken a position: "We must support, accompany, become spokesmen for that hope." But, as the popular saying goes, "the road twists like a snake."

Ecuador is estimated to have 13 million inhabitants. The National Institute of Statistics and Census (INEC) says that in 2006 12.9 percent of the citizens did not have $1.06 a day to cover their nutritional requirements and thus landed in the group of "indigents." The average percentage of people who live in chronic poverty is 38.3. Sixty percent of the people are underemployed. According to the same source, inequality is enormous: the wealthiest sector's consumption level is 35.5 percent; the poorest sector's is 1.9 percent. Twenty-six percent of the families borrowed money to pay for medical care, buy food, pay for education, etc.

The immediate source of resources for the execution of the development projects espoused by President Correa is oil. Ecuador is the fifth-largest oil producer in Latin America. The oil history in this country has been a bit peculiar.

A coup d'état was carried out in 1972 by "nationalist army officers conscious of sovereignty and homeland," says Vice Adm. Gustavo Jarrín, at the time the Minister for Natural and Energy Resources. Oil exploitation, which at the time was in the hands of U.S. companies, was taken over by the State. Several foreign companies left, others accepted the officers' conditions, including the fact that exploitation contracts would thereafter last 20 years, not 50.

In 1973, Ecuador joined the Organization of Oil-Producing Countries (OPEC) and the United States suspended its military aid. Oil-derived revenues changed radically: the State began to receive 90 percent, instead of about 5 percent. The economy entered its golden age.

As Jarrín remembers it, the democratic system was reestablished in 1978, when the center-left candidate, Jaime Roldós, won the presidency. He died in a strange airplane accident on May 24, 1981. And in less than 30 years, the situation was reversed: 80 percent of the oil revenues went to the transnational corporations. "In several instances, the land ceded to the oil companies included churches and people's parks," Jarrín says.

Incredible, but legal," Acosta confirms. The Constitution said so: "Freedom of private investment." Acosta, Energy minister in Correa's first Cabinet, saw the impossibility of changing things within the current legislation. So, he resigned in June to lead the campaign for the Constituent Assembly. "The oil has not been a guarantee of development for Ecuador, even though it was a basic element of the economy."

In fact, the populations with the highest levels of poverty and cancer are in the oil-producing provinces. "The Amazonian jungle was destroyed and two native populations were wiped out by the actions of the transnational corporations (which acted like a demolition crew) and by the lack of dignity of our governments," Acosta says.

President Correa is intent on recovering the oil resources. As in Venezuela and Bolivia, foreign investors will be welcome if they hew to the national interests, "but an unbridled commercial opening will be rejected," Acosta says. "No country that behaved like that has been successful; to the contrary, it lost a lot."

Another strategic task is to seek regional sovereignty. "We have to bury that vision of opening up to the empire [the United States] and closing down to our neighbors. We have to fight for Latin American integration," Correa says. When asked what his role is in all that, the president answers: "I am just another 'laborer,' alongside presidents Hugo Chávez and Evo Morales. Although we can also count on the presidents of Brazil and Argentina, who are also in the same spirit."

Several concrete facts demonstrate that it is not a simple intention. For example, in August, Quito and Caracas signed an accord on energy integration that involves the construction of a refinery in Manabí, Ecuador. That facility will make it unnecessary for Ecuador to export its crude oil at the price set by the multinationals and import it refined, at the world market price.

"Integration is a social characteristic of the 21st Century," the president continues. "It is necessary and unavoidable. Perhaps many people don't realize it, but we are going through an extraordinary moment in this part of the world. We must contribute to build the Grand Homeland that was Simón Bolívar's dream." As can be imagined, this new discourse has not made conservative circles leap with joy.

Jorge Ortiz, a star journalist in the political programs on the Teleamazonas channel, has little doubt about the trajectory President Correa's project may take: "One of the greatest possibilities is that he will choose the 'Chavist' economic model, because he has already copied the invention of 21st-Century socialism, something nobody understands."

The most used technique to attack President Correa is to compare him with his counterpart Hugo Chávez. It is not gratuitous. The Ecuadorean press has for years stressed that the Venezuelan is a 'demon,' a 'madman,' a 'communist' who has impoverished and divided his people. There is no need for structural changes, Ortiz says. "Why not continue with the economic model that we had if it worked? It only requires strengthening."

In many of the interviews the president has given, the past does not exist. It seems like the country's problems began on Jan. 15, 2007, inauguration day. It is clear that the objective of some journalists is to back the president against the wall. But he disarms them with his academic training, an excellent memory and up-to-date information. He shows them they are deliberately lying, that they play with figures and facts. He drives them to despair. And they press on.

Ortiz maintains that the press acts toward President Correa as it did with the previous presidents. "The difference is that the others respected the criticism, while this man is viscerally intolerant," Ortiz says. "But his behavior is not visceral but cerebral, because he needs to discredit the role of the press to shirk the criticism and be able to destroy the existing democratic system."

Without being a "Correist," Rodrigo Santillán, former president of the National Journalists Guild and president of the guild's Court of Honor, recognizes that from the moment that Correa "began to talk about the need for changes in the nation's structures, attacks and insults rained from the most important means of communication."

Santillán says he felt ashamed "because two journalists who publicly insulted the president [during press conferences] were not taken before the Court of Honor but turned into heroes." The aggressiveness of one journalist was such that the president's security escorts had to remove him from the place.

Ecuador does not have public radio or television, a situation that the president plans to remedy. Meanwhile, every Saturday, the president travels to a different city and delivers to the people "a state of accounts." On every occasion, he invites two or three journalists to question him as a panel.

Rocío Peralbo says that, for the first time, communicators from alternative and provincial media are taken into account, "and that helped increase the unease toward the president." Correa's answer has been clear: "We are democratizing information. We have decided not to give more privileges to the usual privileged [journalists.]"

Earlier this year, while looking away from the relationship between the press and economic powers, in coordination with the principal communications media in Ecuador, some international organizations that advocate freedom of the press protested against the president's decision not to grant interviews to specific journalists.

Again, the president spoke concretely: "If they have insulted me and manipulated my words, as a person and president I exercise my freedom of expression to tell them that I will no longer [grant them interviews] in the name of freedom of the press."

Another reason for annoyance, according to former minister Acosta, is that for the first time a government "does not have an incestuous relationship with the press. Although we are not the only country in the world where this happens, it has been routine to see media owners be appointed members of the Defense Board as a reward."

Six of the seven Ecuadorean television channels are dominated by banking groups or dependent from financial clans. It is not difficult, therefore, to mistake freedom of expression for freedom of business. Bishop Arellano says that "the social class formed by 100 or so families, the same class that has held de facto power, has created public opinion and generated a kind of social philosophy to its own advantage, inasmuch as it owns the mass information media."

"Democracy is good," the president says,"until the danger arises that it will impinge on the interests of the oligarchical sector; until a government attempts to redistribute the nation's wealth. At that moment, the press becomes aggressive. Therefore, the great communications media and the journalists are not responsible for the country's ills but have contributed a lot to them."

For his part, Santillán "knows" that the U.S. Embassy in Quito "acts discreetly, but it acts. It increased its flirtation with the great media, and they are happy. Soon, the campaign of demonization against the president will become massive. It will be the first step toward an attempt to destabilize [the government.]"

Seen from Washington, the determination of the Ecuadorean government could become insubordination. "We hope that the United States, as well as the European Union or any other country, will respect us, and that no nation will try to dictate the policies we need to follow or attempt any kind of intervention" the president says.

More than an action by the United States against the current government, what's most worrisome is the internal war in Colombia. In addition to the estimated half-million Colombians who live permanently in Ecuador (hundreds of thousands of them displaced by the war), hundreds arrive daily seeking temporary refuge. The social problems on the border occasionally heat up, although this government and its Armed Forces have acted cautiously and humanely.

Ever since Correa assumed the presidency, he has said he will not get involved in that civil war and that he will not consider the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (the guerrilla group known as FARC) as a terrorist group. He has repeated that his government is ready to contribute to the search of a peaceful solution to the conflict. But he continues to say categorically that "the Plan Colombia, implemented by Bogota and Washington, is militaristic and violent and has not served to solve the grave situation but to worsen it."

President Correa not only has asked his Colombian counterpart Alvaro Uribe not to carry out the fumigation of coca plantations near the border but also has denounced him to the world and has warned that he would take the case to international courts. Government and independent commissions have recognized the grave effects that those poisons have on humans, water, animals and plants. "Colombia is a brother country, but we must limit the Plan Colombia," he says.

The preceding is already grave. There is some concern that the Colombian government will agree to become Washington's Trojan horse, to assist in an attempt to destabilize the Ecuadorean government. We mustn't forget -- and this is public knowledge -- that on several occasions Washington did the same against the government of President Chávez.

If the government didn't enjoy an 80-percent approval rate, a coup would have been attempted a long time ago, some observers say. But Vice Admiral Jarrín, who remains in contact with military leaders, assures us that "I have not perceived the slightest intention on their part to engage in a putschist adventure."

It is true that the government is gaining sympathy among the men in uniform by taking measures that benefit the soldiers as citizens. Soldiers and policemen have been mistreated in their work and lives.Besides, important projects of national development are being turned over to the Corps of Engineers, which is something private and foreign businesses do not like. The president defends the ability of those professionals but also argues that, logically, part of the money invested in them will revert to the state.

Until now, "everything has favored the speculative financial capital, not the real generators of wealth," the president says. "In Ecuador, the contradictions have been such that, while the productive sector -- which generates wealth -- was in crisis, the financial sector -- which manages the producers -- was setting historical records for revenue."

"The problem," Correa continues, "is that there is many a deceitful businessman who does not pay taxes, exploits his workers, disrespects the environment, etc. They are the ones who fear our project for a new State, and those who prefer the destabilization of a government that they cannot dominate."

Journalist Jorge Ortiz sees the future with pessimism and fears a catastrophe. "We shall see moments of great confrontations, especially because President Correa has become a man who generates hatred, rivalry and division among Ecuadoreans."

Bishop Arellano proposes another explanation for the coming difficulties. "That minority of privileged people is intent on interrupting this life project. For that reason, it will attack, because its unbounded privileges will be affected. These people are like a baby removed from his mother's breast: he cries."

Hernando Calvo Ospina is a Colombian journalist and writer who lives in France. This article was first published in Le Monde Diplomatique.

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