By Luis Ángel Saavedra
The Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE) led a new national uprising this past August and plans to continue again mid-September. Although the leadership of the main Ecuadorian indigenous organization considered it a success, this demonstration against various governmental measures did not achieve the political impact of the uprisings in the 1990s (from which this movement emerged) which succeeded in stopping the advance of the neoliberal model in Ecuador and bringing down two Presidents.
On Aug. 2, campesino and indigenous organizations of the southern Amazon, led by Salvador Quishpe, prefect of Zamora, launched the indigenous protest with a march of more than 800 kilometers that brought them to Quito, the capital, in ten days. The march faced the continuous harassment of the Police and small groups of government sympathizers that attempted to stop them without success; to the contrary, there were more groups that encouraged the marchers than those opposing. In cities such as Cuenca, Saraguro and Latacunga, the march was received by massive gatherings of more than 20,000 people in each place.
The demonstrations in the provinces made it possible to predict the size of what would happen in Quito. In effect, on Aug. 13 more than 200,000 people demanded President Rafael Correa not to run for reelection modifying the Constitution, and to shelve definitely the laws regulating water and land that harm peasants because they impose an administrative system foreign to the communal systems established by traditions. Also, they demanded the repeal of Decree 16 which granted the government political control of social organizations.
According to Carlos Pérez, president of the Kichwa Confederation of Ecuador (ECUARUNARI), the main indigenous organization of the Ecuadorian highlands, the size of the demonstrations against Correa’s policies implies that the fear to the criminalization of social protest and government persecution of social leaders has been lost.
“We have lost fear, Mr. President; if we have to return to jail, from the jail we will resist. This uprising demonstrates that we are no longer afraid of you,” affirmed Pérez in Quito, upon welcoming the march that arrived to the capital on Aug. 12. Pérez has been imprisoned on three occasions during this government.
State of exception
At the same time of the march to Quito, in various Ecuadorian cities in the highlands and the Amazon, there were road closures and confrontations with the policy and military personnel. The military assumed control of public order by a questionable decree on Aug. 17 establishing a state of exception in all the country, justifying it due to the danger of a possible eruption of the Cotopaxi volcano, in the central mountain range.
“We know that this decree is against us, against our uprising, but this will not stop us,” warned Quishpe.
The main points of conflict occurred with the Kichwa Saraguro people, in the province of Loja, in the southern highland, and with the Shuar nation, in the province of Morona Santiago, in the southern Amazon area. CONAIE reported that there were wounded and abuses of power in these confrontations. A large part of the people wounded and mistreated were women, while President Correa accused CONAIE of using women and children as human shields, intending to justify the aggression.
On Aug. 21, the uprising was suspended to be able to attend to the legal needs of the detained people and gain strength to return on Sep. 16. This decision was also due to the lack of support from the urban sectors, especially from the unions, that had committed to support the actions of the indigenous movements.
Correa adopted three strategies to confront the indigenous uprising: first, introduce a discourse in which indigenous people were branded as violent and allied with the right; then he called upon his followers to defend the streets, and finally he mobilized indigenous sectors who are his sympathizers to declare against the uprising and against the CONAIE leaders.
Correa’s call to defend the streets was not heeded by his supporters and only a few people could be seen waving the flags of the governing party, Alianza País, while the demonstrators were passing by. Instead, the discourse of violence and alliances with the right was insistently repeated in the governmental media and assumed as own by the indigenous leaders that support the government.
In Zamora, the government, acting through Euclides Sarango, an indigenous leader who was political lieutenant in the Chicaña parish, attempted to start a process to revoke the term of office of Quishpe.
“We are going to coordinate with all the organizations and present to the Provincial Electoral Council a Plan for the Revocation of the Mandate because it is not possible that the prefect has a sixty day leave,” said Sarango upon making public the request for permission to participate in the indigenous march by Salvador Quishpe.
Sarango also denounced the supposed blackmail to force people to support the indigenous uprising. “Blackmail by the prefect, Salvador Quishpe, and indigenous leaders happens. Our brothers Kichwas and Saraguros were forced with threat of cutting off their water to participate in the failed march.”
Rejection of Correa’s allies
Sarango’s statements were refuted by the Saraguro people who all travelled to the city of Loja to defend the 26 men and women of this community who were detained and wounded during the uprising.
The government also sought international condemnation of the indigenous uprising. One of the main allies of President Correa was the President of Bolivia, Evo Morales. “I wish to say to brother indigenous of Ecuador that they shouldn’t let themselves be used against the Ecuadorian government,” stated Morales on Aug. 11 from the Bolivian city of Tarija.
Blanca Chancoso, historic leader of the indigenous movement, disputed the declarations of the Bolivian leader.
“If [President Morales] does not understand the current struggle that we carry on against this neoliberal government of Ecuador, we ask him to respect the historical struggle we wage as we have respected and supported the Bolivian process in spite of the critical reports that reach us. If President Evo Morales is not capable of respecting us, he can honor with his silence the friendship that he has had with our movement, from which, in a time, he also learned to recognize himself as indigenous,” wrote Chancoso in an open letter to the Bolivian president, published on Aug. 26.
Leaving aside consideration of what will happen after Sep. 16, the success of the indigenous movement is to have recovered its role in national politics which had been coopted by the right, and having brought together social sectors that had distanced themselves from its organizational structure.
However, the cost was very high. According to the indigenous lawyer, Verónica Yuquilema, of the Regional Foundation for Human Rights (INREDH), the repression carried out by forces of public order has resulted in imprisonment of 130 people, principally indigenous, judicial cases have been initiated against 111 for aggression and resisting authority, closing of public space and sabotage, and 62 have been sentenced to preventative prison for 30 days.
CONAIE, for its part, has reported that 201 people have been arrested of which 30 remain in prison.