By Mercedes Alvaro
Of DOW JONES NEWSWIRE, October 5, 2009
QUITO (Dow Jones)--The latest rift between President Rafael Correa and social groups may leave the self-avowed socialist leader without some of his most stalwart supporters, and may polarize Ecuador once again.
Correa faces protests by indigenous peoples, teachers and students, who together formed his largest support base during his campaign and three years in office.
Indigenous leaders, whose protests last week ended in at least one death, are scheduled to meet with Correa at the Presidential Palace in Quito Monday.
The meeting is seen by some as a capitulation, as the government had said it wouldn't talk to the protesters. Teachers and students have also joined indigenous people in making noise against the administration recently, putting the government in somewhat of a crossroads.
Last week, indigenous peoples blocked various roads in the Amazon provinces of Morona Santiago and Pastaza, and protests there Wednesday resulted in death of a teacher, who was also a member of the Shuar native group.
The Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador, or Conaie, organized the protests, which started and ended last week. But Indian groups from the Amazon Indian Federation, or Confenaie, a Conaie arm, continued the blockade.
Natives are protesting against a proposed law regulating water, which they say is a step toward privatization of water resources - a claim the government has denied. They were also protesting mining activity on their lands.
The indigenous groups have "made a radical reading of the Water Law, in an attempt to unite rural and indigenous organizations that were facing internal bickering, and to recover the power the Conaie had in 1990s," said Franklin Ramirez, a political studies professor with the Facultad Latinoamericana de Ciencias Sociales, or FLACSO.
The Conaie played an important role in the overthrow of former presidents Abdala Bucaram and Jamil Mahuad in the late 1990s and in 2000, but has seen its influence dwindle since then.
Initially, indigenous leaders said they were open to dialogue with Correa, but he would have to meet them in the Amazon region. However, the native peoples have all temporarily stopped their protests while they are in talks with the government Monday in Quito.
The meeting comes after a high-level government delegation met with representatives of the natives to receive a list of the tribes' demands and start a dialogue.
Protests and strikes have been an effective mechanism of pressure in Ecuador, where they are often seen as part of the traditional political system.
Oswaldo Leon, with think tank Investigative Center On Development and Social Movements, said the problems in the Amazon region could signal how the relationship between the government and indigenous and other social groups will be in the future.
"In the beginning, the government said that it would not speak with protesters, but finally it accepted a meeting, which can be seen as a triumph of the indigenous peoples and the example could be followed by any group that wants to pressure," Leon said.
"There are dissatisfaction and uneasiness in several sectors. Amazon's indigenous peoples will be a thorn in the government's side. There is a real risk that in the medium term the country sees a polarization of positions," he added.
Ecuador's biggest teachers union, the UNE, and students also have launched protests against educational reforms proposed by the National Secretary of Planning. They are also protesting stricter policies instituted by the Minister of Education and changes made in the teachers' career-advancement opportunities.
Ramirez said the relationship between the government and social groups is "delicate."
That relationship began to deteriorate in January, after lawmakers approved a new mining law to allow mining activity to resume in the country. Mining had been temporarily stopped by the Constituent Assembly in April 2008.
"I can see that belligerency from social groups is increasing. Now the government has political opponents from conservative and leftist groups, something that we had not seen since Correa took office," Ramirez said.
During his weekly radio address Saturday, Correa said last week had been "one of the hardest" in his government and that "radical, uncompromising groups can be the best allies for the conservative groups."
Political analyst Alexandra Vela, however, said current protests from teachers, students and indigenous people aren't massive and won't generate changes in the government's political goals or its leadership style.