By Luis Ángel Saavedra
New challenges and lessons came to light after the Fourth Congress of the Confederation of Indigenous Organizations of Ecuador (CONAIE), the country´s main indigenous organization, held in the Amazonian town of Puyo on April 1-2.
The objective of the event was to name new leadership for the indigenous organization and to analyze its position regarding the government´s agenda, especially the call for a plebiscite and referendum to amend the Constitution in the fields of justice, media, preventative detention and other topics such as the prohibition of bullfighting and the operation of casinos.
President Rafael Correa called for the vote, which will take place on May 7; the indigenous movement intends to vote “No” on these reforms.
Criticism for the referendum
The plebiscite put forth by Correa is under question because it seeks to modify the conformation of the National Court of Justice and the Judicial Council through a committee of three delegates from government bodies. This has been interpreted as an attempt toward a “concentration of power.”
“We will not allow Correa to control every branch of government, which is why this time we will vote no, a thousand times no,” said Gustavo Larrea, former interior minister, as he introduced the “Vamos por el No” Coalition, which unites several leftist organizations that oppose the administration; CONAIE is part of this group.
Similarly, the right rejects the referendum and argues that in addition to the control of the judiciary, it is an attempt to control the media by putting to a vote the creation of a Communication Council that would regulate media content.
Among the 10 referendum questions are some without much political significance but that are deeply rooted in certain social sectors. These include the ban on bullfighting, which draws animal welfare organizations to vote “Yes”; and the penalization of non-affiliation to social security, which calls for positive feedback from labor unions.
Correa called for trust on his behalf. “Have faith in your president. If we interfere in the judiciary, it is to put an end to corrupt judges,” said Correa as he launched the campaign to promote the “Yes” vote. The complexity of the 10 questions has meant that the debate is essentially reduced to a vote of confidence for or against his administration.
Despite the importance that it should have had, the Fourth CONAIE Congress was the most troubled of all, and it highlighted the fragmentation being experienced by the indigenous movement. In addition it demonstrated that the indigenous leadership is responsible for this due to a disconnection with their bases and the electoral negotiations it has conducted under a similar setup as traditional politicians.
Humberto Cholango of the Kiwcha Confederation of Ecuador (ECUARUNARI), was elected as the new president of CONAIE in a secret vote; 1,050 delegates participated and he obtained 472 votes.
In second place with 353 votes was Auki Tituaña, former mayor of Cotacachi and leader of the Federation of Indigenous and Campesino Peoples of Imbabura (FICI), followed by the Amazonian Shuar leader Pepe Acacho with 205 votes.
Organizations that backed Tituaña questioned Cholango´s appointment, claiming the need for an absolute majority, though this is not provided for in the Governing Council´s election regulations. At first, Acacho joined Tituaña in his grievance, but when offered the vice presidency decided to support Cholango´s victory.
Ultimately, only the president and vice president were elected. The Congress was suspended in the absence of a quorum, as organizations that backed Tituaña deserted the conference. Still pending is the election of five additional members to complete the CONAIE Governing Council.
A member of the Kichwa Kayampi nation, Cholango has a long history of militancy within the indigenous movement. He has participated in social mobilization since he was a child; at nine years old, he was secretary of his community in Canguagua, 80 km north of Quito.
He was also twice president of ECUARUNARI from 2003 to 2009 and was detained during the government of Lucio Gutiérrez (2003-2005), accused of having insulted the then-president.
Cholango is under scrutiny for his alleged closeness to Correa´s administration. Acacho´s calling card, meanwhile, is his hardline opposition to the government. He was arrested Feb. 1 on charges of terrorism for being one of the Shuar leaders during the protests against the Water Act in September 2009, as well during those in which indigenous teacher Bosco Wisum died.
The new CONAIE president has denied being a supporter of the government and said he would vote “No” in the referendum. He also questioned the government´s extractives policy.
“Correa is working for public and private multinational companies. We´re looking to expel all multinationals from ancestral lands, primarily for the Ecuadoran Amazon,” he reaffirmed.
Leaders far from their roots
The results of the vote in Congress showed the leadership´s departure from considering their indigenous bases´ positions; the electoral agreements reached previously between the leaders were not respected by the bases, either because they disagreed with those partnerships, or because they were not informed of them.
One example is what happened with the Confederation of Indigenous Nations of the Ecuadoran Coast (CONAICE). CONAICE leadership had pledged their support for Tituaña´s candidacy, but the vote by the indigenous people of this region was split between Cholango and Tituaña. The latter only differed from his opponent by eight votes.
Also missing was an agreement among the delegations of the Confederation of Indigenous Nations of the Ecuadoran Amazon (CONFENIAE), and each decided to support candidates on their own.
Moreover, some delegations were formed by new indigenous groups to pool more votes for one candidate or another. The recognition of these new groups was also questioned and efforts were made to prevent their participation in the elections — all this due to electoral calculations.
The two large nations of the CONFENIAE, Kichwa and Shuar, attended the Fourth Congress divided; the Kichwa supported Tituaña, while the Shuar went with Acacho, a split that was key to Cholango´s success.
The president of the Fourth Congress, Salvador Quishpe, prefect of the Provincial Government of Zamora, called for unity. He invited the representatives of the three regions and the outgoing CONAIE Governing Council, led by Marlon Santi, to meet, because “it is necessary to find a way to avoid fragmentation,” he said. A subdued Quishpe added: “Perhaps it was necessary to get to where we are, perhaps it was necessary to have this experience, but now we must start from where we are to build unity and recover the glorious CONAIE from the old days.”
Quishpe´s call was answered days later, when leaders of the three indigenous regions that comprise CONAIE agreed to meet to “smooth things over” and decide the date on which Congress can resume and complete the election of the Governing Council.
Meanwhile, they have ratified their opposition to the referendum put forth by Correa, supporting the “No” vote.