The Ecuadorian Political Irruption
Uprisings, Coups, Rebellions, and Democracy
Catherine E. Walsh
n this article I present and analyze the events that resulted in the overthrow of Ecuadorian president Jamil Mahuad in January 2000 and offer a brief discussion of what has transpired since Gustavo Noboa assumed the presidency. My intent is to actively involve the reader in “living” the crucial moments that emerged day by day during the week of 15 January and to illuminate the complexity of Ecuador’s political, economic, and social crisis, as well as the increasing political force of the indigenous movement. By offering various ways to read what happened in the so-called coup, I hope to reveal the different motives and interests behind the indigenous, military, and government roles in the events of 21 January and make clear the present result: a strengthening of the neoliberal agenda and the consolidation of business and elite sectors within the government institution.
Lived and Televised Events
Saturday, 15 January. The people’s uprising announced by the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE) begins. The government employs a thirty-ﬁve-thousand-member police force and sanctions the use of violence in order to ensure, on the one hand, that the main roadways remain open and, on the other, that the indigenous people cannot reach Quito—the nation’s capital and the designated meeting site. There is
N e p a n t l a : V i e w s f r o m S o u t h 2.1 Copyright 2001 by Duke University Press
no sign of the indigenous people on that day, and everything seems to be under control. 16 January, at daybreak. A labor union leader and two leaders of the social movements are arrested, forcibly taken from their homes by men wearing hoods. Despite the fact that no one is able to explain this arrest at the time of the event, the press later reports that the armed forces have agreed to permit the indigenous march on Quito on the condition that the labor unions, the social movements, and the Democratic Popular Movement (MPD)—a political party with Maoist tendencies—not be involved. Monday, 17 January. The indigenous people begin to arrive in Quito, at ﬁrst by the major highways, some in buses, some in rented trucks, others on foot, and in small groups so as not to arouse suspicion. Police control and militarization on the roads are strengthened. People are forced out of the buses; trucks and supplies are conﬁscated. Many of the compañeros indígenas choose to walk; women, men, and children dodge the police and the armed forces, taking secondary roads or mountain footpaths in the darkness of the night, or, when there is an opportunity, hiding under fruits and vegetables in the back of produce trucks on the way to market. Upon arrival in Quito, they scatter to small neighborhoods so as to be able to move unsuspected toward their ﬁnal destination: the Parque del Arbolito, situated behind the Casa de Cultura (House of Culture), a place that, both in name and function, ironically singularizes, homogenizes, and “folkloricizes” the millennial cultural diversity of the nation. On Tuesday, the press reports that ﬁve thousand indigenous people have arrived. Less than twenty-four hours later, this number has more than doubled. Meanwhile, despite strong militarization, the indigenous people have blocked the main roads in most of the provinces. Apparently, the armed forces are giving their implicit support to the indigenous people—how else could the indigenous people take over roads and come by the thousands from the countryside to Quito? In the principal cities and county seats, there are demonstrations and marches that continually grow in strength. And in Quito, since Monday, 17 January, the People’s Popular Parliament for National Salvation has been in session, presided over by Monsignor Alberto Luna Tobar.1 This Popular Parliament intends to build a new political authority, an alternative to the national Congress and a participatory space in which the people can discuss social, economic, and political problems and collectively make proposals without having to go through the bureaucratic mechanisms of the electoral and political party structure.2 Its development began several weeks before,
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ﬁrst at the local and then at the provincial level, with sessions in twenty of the twenty-two provinces that elaborated proposals and elected representatives for the national parliament in Quito. But while these parliaments’ goal was to build a representive base from all popular sectors, their success varied greatly from region to region.3 The week begins in Quito with armed policemen on every street corner. A heavy tension can be felt in the air, worsened by tear gas, the result of student protests and small confrontations between the indigenous people and the police. The streets surrounding the Parque del Arbolito and the Casa de Cultura are cordoned off, marking the makeshift campsite and territorial space of the indigenous arrivals. From their cars, homes, and ofﬁces, the white-mestizo city inhabitants wonder what’s going to happen. But there is also uncertainty among indigenous organizations, social movements, and allied groups not directly part of CONAIE’s inner leadership. Unlike the July 1999 protests against the government’s handling of the economic crisis, which actively engaged a number of social movements and sectors of civil society, this time there was a visible level of skepticism and apathy, particularly in Quito. This skepticism and apathy was largely attributable to President Mahuad’s televised speech on 9 January—the eve of announced strikes and the indigenous uprising—in which he announced the plan to dollarize the economy. According to Mahuad, this plan offered the only possibility of pulling the country out of the deepest economic crisis in its history and the greatest monetary devaluation in Latin America (348 percent between August 1998 and January 2000, and an additional 33 percent in the ﬁrst weeks of 2000).4 More of a political strategy than an economic one, Mahuad’s announcement reﬂected the building of a new alliance between right-wing parties and powerful business people and bankers designed to directly beneﬁt the oligarchy and to unite the dominant classes. Yet for the general public, this new alliance building was far from evident. Despite the real poverty rate of 80 percent, the situation of bankrupt banks, lost funds, and frozen bank accounts, a lack of currency, generalized corruption, and the probable inability of the Mahuad government to implement dollarization, most read a new level of leadership in Mahuad’s words, placed hope in dollarization as the way to save the economy and the nation, and assumed that the government was somehow strengthened. All this had a somewhat calming effect, contributing both to a demobilization of the social sectors that were about to unite forces in the strike and the national uprising and to an overall lack of interest, particularly among the middle class, in joining the indigenous-led protests.
Also contributing to apathy and making mobilization more difﬁcult was the radicalness of CONAIE’s and the People’s Popular Parliament’s demands for the overthrow of the three state powers—the national Congress, the Supreme Court, and the government. While polls indicated that a wide range of the population shared the opinion that these institutions were both inefﬁcient and corrupt, most saw the institutional overthrow as overly idealistic, radical, and not presenting concrete alternatives. But in addition to the hope generated by dollarization and the concern over the radical character of the demands, there was another element that affected the possibilities of adherence: a speciﬁc kind of self-isolation by the indigenous people in relation to other sectors of society, including social movements, labor organizations, and unions. While in cities like Cuenca popular sectors were strongly represented, both the “occupation of Quito” and the leadership of the national Popular Parliament were overwhelmingly controlled by CONAIE, to the exclusion of other indigenous and nonindigenous organizations. With the national palace and the historical city center surrounded by barbed wire, tanks, bomb-release gear, military personnel, and police cordons, the indigenous nacionalidades and pueblos—terms of identiﬁcation now used by the Ecuadorian indigenous movement in order to highlight millennial cultural differences, the relationship between identity and territoriality, and collective and legal rights—begin to protest and march. In the ﬁrst days of the week, there are few confrontations with the police, and the marches are largely ignored, barely reaching the status of brief news reports. However, with the passing days, the rebellious actions increase in intensity, take shape, and begin to get local, national, and international attention. On Tuesday, 19 January, a people’s march stretches for thirty city blocks with an estimated ten thousand, mainly indigenous participants, but also with representatives of social and labor movements, and sympathetic members of civil society. Rumors circulate about planned strategies and what might follow, but the secrecy of the inner indigenous leadership keeps most people in the dark as to what will transpire until the ﬁnal hours of Friday, 21 January. On the afternoon of Thursday, 20 January, thousands of natives surround the streets around the national Congress, the Supreme Court, and the comptroller’s ofﬁce. The employees of Congress and of the various institutions and ofﬁces in these areas ﬁnd themselves sequestered. The
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armed forces and the police try in vain to rescue them. The employees are forced to spend the night in their ofﬁces or in the street. At daybreak on Friday, 21 January, an impressive military presence surrounds the Congress. Confrontations between the military and the indigenous people intensify; tear gas permeates the air, and sticks and stones clutter the street. Suddenly, the confrontations diminish, and the military operations noticeably change. The uniformed forces unexpectedly step aside and allow the indigenous protestors to enter the Congress. Buses of young troops arrive to support the indigenous occupation. A ﬂash on the radio at 10:15 a.m. Screams of fear, amazement, and disbelief from the public: the indigenous people have occupied the Congress with the help of the military. In short order the buildings of the Supreme Court and of the comptroller’s ofﬁce are also occupied. (According to indigenous leaders, the plan was to occupy the Congress on the previous night but the military delayed its support until Friday.) The indigenous leaders and military ofﬁcials start to make joint pronouncements in the media. They announce a newly formed Government of National Salvation established by the Popular Parliament, whose members are Antonio Vargas, president of CONAIE, Colonel Lucio Gutiérrez from the armed forces, and Carlos Solórzano, former president of the Supreme Court and vice president of the Popular Parliament.5 Vargas is the ﬁrst to speak:
The Ecuadorian people have triumphed. This time we won’t disappoint you like the traditional political parties have. This time we will be with the people. We, the junta of the Government of National Salvation, are the slaves of the Ecuadorian people, we are neither authorities, nor chiefs. . . . The Ecuadorian people’s union with the military forces is one more Latin American experience. But with the difference that, in this case, we have been able to carry out a revolution without bloodshed. We will work from an ethics based on amaquilla, amashua, amallulla; that, from now on, will be the slogan for all the authorities in the Ecuadorian state. That is to say, no lying, no stealing, and no idleness.
Gutiérrez speaks second, directly addressing the need to end corruption:
Today, we begin a struggle. A tenacious, implacable, and paciﬁc junta that will work against a new form of slavery in order to throw off the chains that bind us to the most gruesome corruption. We are here to overthrow this ignominious model, to change the structures of the state, and to strengthen democratic institutions. We are acting peacefully in order to recover and salvage the self-respect, the pride, and the honesty of the Ecuadorian people, we are here in order to avoid governmentsponsored corruption and impunity. . . . We received this land in better shape from our forebears and we must pass it on healthy to our sons and daughters.
Unlike their counterparts in other Latin American countries, the Ecuadorian armed forces have never had a reputation for violence or strong repression. Neither are they known to be progressives or allies of social movements, and even less to be allies of the indigenous organizations, even though a relationship has existed for a number of years between the indigenous people and the armed forces in the Amazonian region. In recent years, however, an increasing identiﬁcation with the popular sector’s struggle has developed among some troops and ofﬁcials. Despite the recent history of these developments, the majority still wonders about the real signiﬁcance of this new position and alliance. Lines of barbed wire and a strong smell of tear gas still surround Congress. Truckloads of young members of the armed forces greet the people as they pass by. Indigenous women, men, and children from a variety of provinces, each with their distinctive dress, congregate in front of Congress along with university and high-school students and representatives of the social movements and organizations—a kaleidoscope of faces and colors that represents the cultural diversity of Ecuadorian society. The doors of Congress are open, something that normally never happens. The same diversity can be seen inside, including many young members of the armed forces with conspicuous uniforms over which thay have draped huipalas—the indigenous movement’s multicolored ﬂag. Everyone, indigenous or otherwise, is known as compañero. There is a strong smell of palo santo, a kind of wood that is burned for spiritual puriﬁcation, and in the center of the Congress stands a table with herbs and other instruments for the shamans or yachags. Indigenous leaders along with delegates of the Popular Parliament are seated at the president’s desk and at those of
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other members of Congress. Representatives of the social movements and unions and some members of the press all circulate freely. The elite and political party–driven institution of Congress is thus turned into a “house of the people” with the announcement of the installation of the Popular and Patriotic Parliament. The Junta for Salvation moves to the inner ofﬁces of the congressional president. This is a historic moment; it would seem that a democracy is being built. However, many of those present cannot stop worrying: How will this end, and what will the end result be, given the historic racism, exclusion, and lack of social justice in a country where a few families have always ruled over the majority? In ofﬁces and homes, all eyes are glued to TV screens. According to polls, 94 percent of the population followed the events either on TV or on the radio. Very few people actually came out to show their support. After all, this was an indigenous-military revolution. A televised rebellion. Around midday on Friday, 21 January, General Carlos Mendoza, chief of the armed forces, publicly demands President Mahuad’s resignation. Colonel Fausto Cobo, director of the military academy, appears alongside Colonel Gutiérrez, along with a good number of young ofﬁcers. There are rumors of wide military support. In the provinces, protestors backed by the military begin to occupy government buildings. Several hours later, reporters announce that President Mahuad has ﬂed the presidential palace, hidden in an ambulance headed to the air base. The presidential palace is protected by heavily armed police and special forces with orders to ﬁre against anyone trying to invade it. The television cameras focus on the machine guns, on the uniformed men occupying the roofs and balconies of the palace, and on the surrounding buildings. The revolutionary show continues, and the plot thickens. Meanwhile, Vice President Gustavo Noboa leaves his native port city of Guayaquil and heads for Quito in an armed-forces plane. A military commando receives him at the airport and takes him to a Quito apartment, where he remains, in direct and constant communication with the military high command, until the early hours of Saturday. A massive march of thousands leaves Congress and heads to the presidential palace. In the ﬁrst line are members of the Junta for Salvation, the indigenous leadership, and Paco Moncayo and René Yandun—both former generals and legislators of the Democratic Left. A confrontation is expected when the marchers arrive at the barricades and the military cordons.
Television reporters speak of a possible massacre. Between images of the military cordon and the approaching protesters, the channels transmit live interviews with right-wing legislators and leaders. Along with markedly racist comments about the indigenous people, and accusations that the rebellious colonels are “traitors,” these legislators and leaders issue an appeal to “save democracy, the motherland, and the constitution” and to work against a “minority” movement that doesn’t represent the nation’s interests. Former presidents also have their say in the matter. The most important intervention is that of ex-president Osvaldo Hurtado, still a respected political ﬁgure. Obviously upset, and calling the events of 21 January “the perpetration of a coup,” Hurtado declares himself to be in favor of President Mahuad and calls on Ecuadorian society to defend the constitution—he is the ﬁrst to use this symbolic referent. He calls for a pro-Mahuad march to be held on Monday, 24 January. Meanwhile, in the northern, mostly elite sector of the city, a huge protest on behalf of the upper and middle classes takes shape—known to some as the “march of the turned-off cellular phones.” Some actually carry weapons. The TV cameras jump between both scenes—the palace with the indigenous people and the popular social sectors, and the elite marchers chanting, “We are not indios!” What is not known at the time is that while the junta and the protesters are marching, the military high command is already inside the presidential palace, meeting and consulting by telephone with Vice President Noboa, with congressional president Juan José Pons, with the leader of the right-wing Social Christian Party, Jaime Nebot, and with former president and then mayor of Guayaquil León Febres Codero. In this meeting the decision is made to replace Colonel Gutiérrez in the junta with General Mendoza, chief of the joint high command and acting minister of defense. The high command has apparently decided to take power. Its goals are to ensure the overthrow of President Mahuad and then to gain control over the division building within the armed forces. In a document elaborated by the Council of Generals and Admirals, and circulated on Friday at 10:30 p.m., the armed forces assume power, asking for international understanding due to “the political, economic, and moral splitting of the groups the people had democratically put in charge of managing the nation,” and declaring that “due to this, we are assuming full powers from today onward until we reestablish order and peace. . . . During our stay in power, we will promote a restructuring and purge of the state in order to build a solid base that can respond to the people’s mandate.”
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The television cameras focus on the moment of the junta’s arrival at the plaza in front of the presidential palace. The heavily armed special police are perched on the building tops, and the military barricades maintain their positions. But to everyone’s surprise, after a few moments’ discussion, the police forces make way, ﬁrst for a few representatives to pass, and then for the masses. People ﬁll the Plaza of Independence—a name that could have been chosen especially for this moment. The triumvirate composed of Vargas, Gutiérrez, and Solórzano enters the palace, accompanied by colonels and by several indigenous leaders. From the terrace of the palace, they salute the people with triumphant gestures. Juxtaposed with these images, the main television channels increase their interviews with members of the Right, now also combined with telephone interviews with brigade commanders who denounce the “insurgent colonels.”6 While the thousands of protesters and the millions of TV viewers are waiting for news, the military high command is in a tense meeting behind closed doors with indigenous leaders, generals, and a group of colonels that includes Gutiérrez. Meanwhile, Vice President Noboa speaks out on television in favor of the maintenance of the “democratic” system: “I ask that the indigenous people rid themselves of attitudes that can contribute to the rupture of the democratic system and to a fratricidal confrontation among Ecuadorians.” Many foreign governments and international organizations declare their opposition to the “coup,” and the United States threatens to cut all ﬁnancial aid. According to later reports, such as James Petras’s 29 February article in Madrid’s El mundo, President Clinton ordered the U.S. ambassador in Quito to pressure the conservative generals to take action. It thus seems that the United States, in effect, intervened through the military to bring down the junta. The TV channels display the results of a poll conducted by CEDATOS: 71 percent of the population is in favor of the indigenous peoples’ movement; 74 percent support their occupation of the Congress; Vargas is backed by 34 percent of the population, and Gutiérrez and Solórzano have 26 percent and 21 percent of national support, respectively. Yet while they strongly supported the indigenous people, 79 percent of Ecuadorians supported the maintenance of “constitutional order.” In the meeting going on inside, the generals ﬁnally present the changes in the cast: Mendoza will replace Gutiérrez. The argument is that no general could possibly receive orders from a colonel. The indigenous people refuse this. The negotiations are opened. Representatives of the indigenous people come up with a counteroffer that includes both Gutiérrez
and Mendoza. The generals reject it, once again arguing in favor of the importance of military rank and giving their word that they will work together and respect the indigenous movement’s great trust of Gutiérrez. Vargas and the other leaders ﬁnally accept. At 11:40 p.m., the triumvirate of General Carlos Mendoza, Antonio Vargas, and Carlos Solórzano is announced. They take an oath, sing the national anthem, and together say a prayer. Following that, the new presidents go to a planning session. Suddenly, Mendoza disappears. The military men who had ﬁlled the halls and terraces until then are also missing. “From that moment on, we realized that the move had been a betrayal,” comments one of the indigenous leaders present at the time. At 2:50 a.m., General Mendoza presents his resignation, claiming that, from the start, his intention, and that of the military high command, has been to avoid the rupture of the armed forces, to avoid bloodshed in the plaza, and to back constitutionality. He refers to himself as a “scapegoat,” self-sacriﬁced in order to save the country. Ecuador awakes with a new president, Gustavo Noboa, sworn in not in the presidential palace but in the ministry of defense. The press declares that the “dictatorial perpetrators of the coup” have been overthrown, control over the armed forces has been regained, the indigenous people have returned to the countryside, peace has been restored, democracy and the constitution have been saved, and Gutiérrez, the “insurgent colonel,” has been jailed. On that same Saturday, Congress installs itself in session in the building of the Central Bank in Guayaquil. The same legislators criticized for their corruption in the days before shout political pronouncements against the indios and military traitors, thank the “democratic” process for saving Congress and replacing Mahuad with the former vice president, Noboa. They denounce the perpetrators of the “coup” and the legislators involved, calling for punishment and trials.7 Meanwhile, Vladimiro Alvarez, minister of government under Mahuad, announces to the press that he will probably write a book titled Tras de los ponchos [Behind the ponchos]. Early this same day, Antonio Vargas gives a speech before representatives of the indigenous peoples and nationalities still present, ﬁrst in the Congress building and then in the Parque del Arbolito. Mendoza’s betrayal is spoken of as a deception of the masses. Vargas also speaks of the successes of the people’s uprising: overthrowing President Mahuad, creating national awareness of the inefﬁciency and corruption of the three state powers, and showing the country and the rest of the world the mobilizing and political strength of the indigenous people.
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On Monday, the attorney general announces that those involved in the “coup” will be tried in court.
The Indigenous People and the Military: A Relationship of Temporary Convenience
One of the most surprising aspects of 21 January, from the occupation of Congress until the failed “coup,” was the apparent alliance established between the indigenous movement and the armed forces, an alliance unprecedented in Latin America. Although the indigenous uprisings in March and July 1999 showed a clearly different use of strategies and alliances from the uprisings of the past, no one expected an insurrection within the armed forces themselves or an alliance of these insurgent forces with the indigenous movement. As such, the events of the week of 15 January forever changed the stage and the imaginary of indigenous uprisings. During the 1990s, the indigenous uprisings in Ecuador were primarily directed at obtaining indigenous rights, recovering territory, and other ethnic demands, although opposition to the hegemonic power of the state and to the perpetuation of colonial/neocolonial conditions undergirded these demands. The protests of March and July 1999, led by the indigenous movement in alliance with various social and labor groups, including transportation workers, were aimed instead at the escalating economic crisis and its impact on the majority of civil society. The support and participation of various sectors were great, particularly in July, when the mobilizations virtually paralyzed the nation. As a result, the government agreed to negotiations. But unlike in the past, these demands negotiated by indigenous leaders with the government, including freezing the prices for fuel and bottled gas, and the unfreezing of bank funds, reﬂected the needs and interests of a majority of Ecuadorians and not just those of the indigenous sector. The result was that the indigenous movement managed not only to gain new recognition and support from the society at large but also to make clear to both the national society and the government their role as one of the most important political actors in the present situation. And it is in its increasingly strong and central opposition to the policies, politics, and corruption of the government and, most recently, to the resulting economic crisis that the indigenous movement in Ecuador has become a recognized and important force in political and social arenas, the only group speaking out for the need to change the model of the state and to create alternate spaces of popular power. It is because of its emergent force
and unique ability to mobilize sectors of the population that the armed forces saw the usefulness of an alliance.
The Military High Command and the “Movement of the Insurgent Colonels”
Since the “insurrection” of 21 January more and more information has been released in the press regarding the participation of the military in the failed coup, most of it attempting to cover up the strong divisions within the armed forces themselves, as well as the involvement of the higher ranks in overthrowing the president. According to former ofﬁcials of the Mahuad government, there were two central players in the occupation of power and the manipulation of the indigenous people: Generals Carlos Mendoza and Telmo Sandoval. Mendoza and Sandoval are part of a military group known as “warriors.” Both received training at the School of the Americas in Panama and had experience commanding battalions during the border clashes with Peru. Mendoza was the minister of defense at the time of the uprising and was also the chief of the joint high command; Sandoval was chief of the land forces. (With Mendoza’s resignation, Sandoval ended up at the head of the joint high command.) It seems that high command’s interest in a presidential change began in 1999, especially after the July protests and in response to the government’s inability to pull the country out of its crisis. Some generals met with various sectors, including leaders of CONAIE. But while the indigenous movement spoke of the need for an entirely different state model, the military leadership’s main interest was to overthrow Mahuad. According to Sandoval, the joint high command prepared an evaluation of the crisis in which they emphasized ﬁve points: (1) the economic crisis and its effect on the military institution; (2) the relationship between the government and Fernando Aspiazu, president of the bankrupt Bank of Progress; (3) the lack of concrete actions against corruption; (4) the agreements with former president Abdalá Bucaram’s party and Bucaram’s possible return to the country from exile in Panama; and (5) the ﬂawed relationship between high command and Minister of Defense José Gallardo. The ﬁrst and last points in this list made the conﬂict personal. Mahuad’s executive decree cutting the state budget, including 60 percent of the armed forces’ funds, was interpreted as an insinuated accusation of corruption. Subsequently, relations between the armed forces and
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the government worsened. Another point of contention was the relationship between high command and Mendoza and Sandoval. In December, Minister of Defense Gallardo recommended that the president “cut off the heads” of Mendoza and Sandoval, due to their lack of support for the government and to the suspicion that they were involved in a conspiracy. Meanwhile, Mendoza and Sandoval pressured Mahuad to remove Gallardo from his position as minister of defense, which Mahuad ﬁnally did at the beginning of January. Mendoza was then named minister in charge. With the level of support for Mahuad as low as 6 percent in the ﬁrst week of January, high command presented the president with a few possible scenarios, including the convenience of immediate rectiﬁcations intended to avoid general chaos, as well as his resignation, in order to make way for the succession. At this meeting, the parties discussed the possibility of an autogolpe,8 a “fujimorazo,” in Mendoza’s words, equivalent to a civil dictatorship with the support of the armed forces. According to Mendoza, Mahuad, Gallardo—the minister of defense—and Minister of External Affairs Benjamín Ortiz were the ones who came up with this plan. On the following day, 8 January, military installations in Quito were ﬁlled with tanks and troops. But on 9 January, Mahuad announced the dollarization and thus mufﬂed calls for his resignation. In the armed forces themselves, increasing discontent and a spirit of division reigned. This was due not only to the political crisis, but also to the economic deterioration within the institution and its impact on the troops and middle management. A group of young ofﬁcers—“the uniformclad intellectuals”—uneasy with high command’s lack of action regarding the crisis and convinced of the need to act urgently and radically, began to get organized. The four colonels at the head of the “movement of the insurgent colonels”—Lucio Gutiérrez, aide-de-camp to former presidents Bucaram and Alarcón, Fausto Cobo, director of the Academy of War, Gustavo Lalama, director of the School for the Improvement of the Army, and Jorge Brito, deputy director of Army Operations—were recognized and respected leaders, always at the head of their classes. All four were from the ground forces, and all four were familiar with poverty and indigenous realities. They shared a distinct vision for the country in which social justice and ending corruption were central. The indigenous peoples’ call for a different state model and alternative means of participation and power made sense to many of these military men. Not satisﬁed with the management of the country, and convinced of the depth of the crisis and the urgent need for action, the colonels began
to analyze the situation several months before the coup, together with a group of almost two hundred young ofﬁcers from the Polytechnical School of the Army. In these meetings, they asked the joint high command to form a military-civilian junta and to arrest the president and the vice president. Gutiérrez was the main protagonist, sending a letter to high command that questioned Minister of Defense Gallardo, requested that he be ousted, and urged his superiors to take action against the growing corruption and the government’s inactivity. According to Mendoza, it was the need for immediate action that “justiﬁed Colonel Lucio Gutiérrez’s desire to seize power in order to overcome the national crisis.” Soon after, according to some sources, CONAIE got in touch with Gutiérrez, and together they started to plan means of both express and tacit support. What kind of relationship existed between the young colonels and high command? In a meeting of the Council of Generals and the joint high command on Friday, 21 January, at midday, high command maintained that it never received any speciﬁc and appropriate information regarding the magnitude of the colonels’ movement, nor did it know how the colonels had managed to get so intensely involved with the indigenous people. However, Minister Gallardo claimed that he had spoken to the generals about the movement that was emerging among the lower-ranking ofﬁcers. The colonels also maintained that they had had meetings with high command. It is clear that there were strong differences between the colonels and the generals in their ideas, tactics, and motivations for rapprochement with the indigenous movement. According to Gutiérrez and the other colonels, they themselves were part of a new military generation that, due to its experience in the war against Peru and its participation in development projects in the indigenous communities, was able to relate more directly to national reality, to poverty, and to the real needs of the majority. Without directly going against their superiors, they wanted to apply pressure to bring about the changes that would allow the construction of an alternative state model, changes that, in a way, coincided with the indigenous proposals. According to press reports, the ofﬁcers under Gutiérrez’s mandate met with high command on 19 January and asked Minister of Defense Carlos Mendoza to take control of the government through a coup d’état, warning that if this did not take place, they would rebel. Although Mendoza himself has not mentioned this meeting, many sources have shown that both Mendoza and Sandoval played important roles in the colonels’ proposals. According to former Minister of Defense
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Gallardo, it was “Sandoval who gave the order for the military men who were defending the Congress to withdraw and allow the indigenous people to enter the Parliament.”
The Military-Indigenous Alliance
In the months preceding the uprising, the military held a number of meetings with indigenous groups primarily related to concerns of community development. However, it seems that this was not the only topic of conversation. Reports suggest that in these meetings, members of high command, including Mendoza and Sandoval, spoke out against the government, blaming it for the economic and political crisis, citing the entrenched corruption, including that between the government and the banking system. Allegedly, they argued for the need to overthrow the president. These meetings were not, however, the ﬁrst example of contact between the military and the indigenous people. A historical relationship has existed for some time between the armed forces and the indigenous sector in the rural areas, particularly within the Amazonian region. There, the military gave its support to the 1992 march of the OPIP (Organization of Indigenous Peoples of Pastaza),9 fought alongside Shuar and Quichua warriors in the war against Peru, and, during the border conﬂict, developed a daily relationship with indigenous communities. But while both indigenous and military leaders admit contact, particularly in the area of community development, precise information about the relationship remains vague, “classiﬁed” according to the Ministry of Defense. What is clear, however, is that in the months preceding the coup, this relationship began to take on a different character. For example, in the November 1999 Congress of CONAIE, held in a community of the Tsachila nationality, the military provided overall logistic support, including the entire sound system. Some indigenous leaders maintain that there were no political meetings with the military during the Congress. Others say that, despite the fact that many protested the military’s presence, it was during the Congress that serious discussions with high command began regarding the ways to promote a change of government. This relationship took shape during the crucial week in January. According to Salvador Quishpe, then president of Ecuarunari (the indigenous organization representing the highland region), a meeting took place between military and indigenous leaders on 19 January, speciﬁcally with the generals Mendoza and Sandoval. The indigenous leaders demanded in this meeting that the generals concretize and conﬁrm their support in the
planned overthrow of Mahuad. However, the generals reportedly played their cards close to their chests, not engaging themselves completely. It was on this very same day that the colonels and other midlevel ofﬁcers began to appear in the public mobilizations. There are many different versions as to the nature of the contact established between CONAIE and the young ofﬁcers, and as to when it took place. Some say that it was during the CONAIE Congress that the indigenous leaders came into direct contact with Colonel Lucio Gutiérrez and other young ofﬁcers critical of the political class, corruption, and the management of the nation. Others say that the support was granted at the last minute. What we can be sure of is that the military and the indigenous people had been discussing Mahuad’s overthrow for a while and that high command was also involved. The strategy, it appears, was for the indigenous movement to mobilize forces—a strategy only it could accomplish in the current political climate—and build a process of progressive revolt. The military, in turn, agreed to lend its support once the mobilization was successful. And this is in fact what happened. The problem is determining up to what point this alliance between the indigenous movement and the armed forces existed before the events, and to what point they shared a ﬁxed plan. At the end of December in the assemblies of Ecuarunari, indigenous leaders announced that they had been in discussions with “a progressive nationalist group” of the armed forces about withdrawing their support from the three powers of the state. However, the indigenous leaders say that there was never a deﬁnite adherence among the military. But it seems the events took a turn when Mendoza replaced José Gallardo as minister of defense. For the indigenous peoples, as for the military, mutual support was necessary in order to succeed objectively and ensure nonviolence. Without the military’s support, the occupation of the legislative palace or of any other state installation would have been impossible. Conversely, without the mobilizing capacity of the indigenous people, it would have been impossible for the military to oust Mahuad and take power. It would seem that there was for both parties a relationship of temporary convenience, even if, as we have seen, the terms of this relationship are still unclear, as is the attitude behind Mendoza’s “betrayal” near the end. In the days that followed the events, the indigenous movement defended the independent character of its struggle, and the military tried to reconstruct its institutional image. Meanwhile, the “new government”
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changed its staff completely, including many representatives of the business sector, the coastal elite, and the right-wing Social Christian Party. The only thing that seems to have changed is that the neoliberal agenda has been strengthened. What reﬂections can be offered, then, to the outside world regarding these events?
Of Coups and Rebellions: Ways to Read What Happened
One way of critically reading and analyzing the events and the facts discussed here is to start from the perspective of the interests of the different actors who were deeply involved, and from their imagined constructions of what happened. In the section that follows, the military and political “coup” and the “rebellion of the people” are presented as juxtaposed constructions that provide two different ways of explaining and analyzing the events of the evening of 21 January and the early morning hours of the twenty-second.
Coup, Betrayal, and Constitutionality: The Military and the Politicians’ Constructs, Acts, and Slogans
Coup and betrayal are the words most often used by politicians and by the press to describe the events of 21 January. The symbolic referent of constitutionality is invoked as a justiﬁcation for the betrayal and for the coup’s failure. But in addition to being mere words, coup, betrayal, democracy, and constitutionality (the latter two often used interchangeably) are also discursive, symbolic, and strategic constructions that allow and even privilege speciﬁc readings and interests. In the use that the military and the politicians made of them, these constructions served to propel and justify the actions perpetrated. What is of interest here is to offer different ways of reading the coup, the betrayal, and the use of constitutionality in two possible interpretations of what happened: the military’s rise to power and the “constitutional” succession as a right-wing autogolpe or self-coup. As previously mentioned, in Ecuadorian political life, the military has traditionally had a presence and power different from the rest of Latin America. Unlike other countries, in which the armed forces are associated with repression, in Ecuador they have more of a civic and nationalistic image. The presence of two progressive former generals, allied with social movements, as legislators in Congress breaks the mold of what is usual
in politics in the region, and within the institution of the armed forces.10 Perhaps the most unusual aspect of the Ecuadorian armed forces with respect to its continental counterparts is their degree of intervention in the downfall of two presidents in less than ﬁve years; that is to say, their role in “constitutionally” helping to carry out two coup d’états. In the case of Bucaram, it was the people and the social movements rather than the armed forces that created the possibility and conditions for a coup. Nonetheless, the military played an important role in the negotiations that allowed then president of Congress Fabián Alarcón to come to power. In Mahuad’s case, the military intervention was much more direct. Other countries in the region also provide evidence of modiﬁcations in military participation—for example, the “fujimorazo” in Peru and “chavismo” in Venezuela, both of which afford very different strategies from the more traditional kind of intervention carried out in Argentina in 1978. Still, there are elements that make the Ecuadorian case distinct. One is the very limited use of violence in both coups.11 Others include the alliance between the indigenous movement and the military, the insurrection within the armed forces themselves, and the presence of members of the armed forces in an indigenous uprising and in the Popular Parliaments. Without overlooking the fact that the Ecuadorian armed forces are still a powerful, closed, and conservative organization, the military, specifically the high command, has shown in these two interventions an ability to use civil sectors of society to create the impression of popular power, and to allow this power to be strengthened in order to reach certain common goals. This doesn’t mean that the indigenous people were simply used and manipulated. Rather, it means that the military is able to employ a multifaceted tactical strategy that operates by means of popular mobilization and power. The military facilitated access to the legislative palace for the indigenous leaders and the leaders of social movements, it publicly demanded Mahuad’s resignation, and it did not initially act against the junta formed by Vargas, Gutiérrez, and Solórzano. In this way, it clearly contributed to the creation of an image of popular power—a televised image of which it, too, was part. However, due to the presence of an indio in the junta, and the complete lack of support for Solórzano, the military knew that that power was not going to have sufﬁcient backing to be successful. What took place subsequently can be read in two ways. One is based on the aforementioned document issued by the Council of Generals in which they explain the need to assume power. The reading, then, is that
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there was a strategic plan in which the armed forces would end up taking over the government in order to reestablish peace and order, to confront corruption, to rebuild a nationalism weakened by the peace accords with Peru,12 and to ensure the transition to a more convenient mode of power. In this scenario, Mendoza became a central player within the junta, along with Vargas and Solórzano, reestablishing the hierarchy that placed generals above colonels. But the plan was not for this junta to actually assume the governance of the nation but rather for the military to step in and take control as a more stable and publicly acceptable option. In this reading, the coup starts when Mendoza and the high command enter the triumvirate. Mendoza did not act alone but rather on behalf of decisions of the joint high command. Embedded is the joint high command’s interest in power and in taking a more active role in the country’s political life. The obvious referent is the Venezuelan military man and president, Hugo Chávez. However, various problems arose in this scenario that ﬁnally led to a more direct and decisive form of action—the transfer of power within a few hours to Noboa, without looking like a dictatorship. These problems included the image of a divided armed forces with a ﬁssured chain of command and rejection by the international community, embodied speciﬁcally in the United States’s threat to cut all external aid and to freeze investments, a threat supposedly presented to Mendoza in person in the hours leading up to the betrayal by ofﬁcials of the U.S. embassy. The reading thus suggests a premeditated military coup. In the discourse of high command, however, the coup was the work of “others”— idealistic colonels, the indigenous people, and the social movements. The betrayal, in this discourse, serves as a construction as well; on the one hand, it is portrayed as a personal sacriﬁce to save the patria (homeland), and, on the other, as an act justiﬁed by the need to maintain “democracy” and “constitutionality.” This latter use is nothing more than an appropriation of the discourse pronounced by the right-wing politicians condemning the military coup, turned around to suit the military’s immediate purposes. A second possible reading points to an autogolpe, orchestrated by politicians, powerful businessmen, and the military, in which Vice President Noboa replaces Mahuad, establishing a new president with more social support and thus better able to implement current policies. This second scenario, which in fact describes the present situation of the country, not only strengthens the policies and political tenets of the neoliberal government but also better situates the business and elite sectors within the government institution. The coup’s authors are not the armed forces themselves.
Rather, they are the powerful elite politicians and businessmen of the country who negotiated an alliance with the military power. Using the defense of democracy and constitutionality as their slogan, they constructed an imaginary of the coup as the hijacking of the country by rebellious indigenous people—a politicized minority, inﬂuenced by revolutionaries and by dogmatic members of the Left. A CONAIE leader appropriately described this imaginary as a manifestation of “the hacienda mentality.” But within this reading there is also a military factor in the construction of the coup. In contrast to the ﬁrst reading, in which the military institution is behind Mahuad’s overthrow, here the construction absolves the high command. Blame is instead placed on the insurrectionist colonels, portrayed, much like the indigenous people, as a minority inﬂuenced by the Left and with little support. The betrayal in this case is perceived within the coup itself. That is to say, the perpetrators of the coup and their collaborators have betrayed the patria and therefore must be jailed.13 The irony is not only that Mendoza remained free but that a month later, on 25 February, he was decorated by President Noboa for his “professional excellence” and his “military contributions.” The fact that Noboa was brought to Quito on the evening of 21 January in a military plane, “kept safe” by the military, and sworn in as president in the ministry of defense, along with Noboa’s recent decoration of General Mendoza, seem to support the hypothesis of the autogolpe, although Noboa himself has referred to this theory as “crazy.” Other recent events corroborate the possibility. For example, one of Noboa’s ﬁrst acts was the elimination of the Ministry of Environment and the appointment of Roberto Peña Durini, a wealthy leader in the deforestation of Ecuador—the most extensive in all of South America—and the former president of the Association of Industrial Timber Workers, as minister of external trade.14 Similarly, he appointed Eduardo Terán, a man with huge stakes in the mining industry, as minister of energy and mines, and Pedro Pinto, president of the Chamber of Industries, as vice president. All of these appointments helped strengthen and consolidate the neoliberal project—a project intended to cater to the interests of big business, which include the exploitation of natural resources and agricultural exportation, along with the capitalization of currency necessary to implement dollarization. In May and June, other cabinet posts were changed, and each time the new appointments included conservative politicians allied with business and the coastal oligarchy.15 This consolidatation of power has included changes in the military as well. In May, Noboa accepted the resignation of the military
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high command, including Sandoval, appointing a group of markedly more conservative ofﬁcers in an effort to restore the unity of the armed forces and strengthen his control of them. Given all of these actions, the theory of an autogolpe certainly does not seem “crazy.”
The Popular Rebellion
A different way of analyzing these events is from the perspective of rebellion. This is the word and construction used by the indigenous movement to describe and give meaning to the events. Unlike coup, rebellion doesn’t necessarily imply the desire to take power. Rather, it presupposes speciﬁc collective actions against an unjust authority. The indigenous people’s goal was not to seize power, but to confront the reality of hunger, misery, unemployment, and exclusion, all propelled by rampant corruption in the government, in Congress, in the judicial sector, and by economic and social policies that beneﬁt the business class and its elite, right-wing political allies. As Ricardo Ulcuango, vice president of CONAIE, explains, the people revolted against this reality and sought alternatives by way of the Peoples’ Parliaments: “In no way were we the perpetrators of the coup. The real protagonists were the president, the government, Congress, and the judicial sector, all of whom permanently violated the constitution and the Ecuadorian people, stealing the people’s money and putting it in the hands of the bankers, letting some of the most corrupt people operate unfettered, and putting the country’s sovereignty in the hands of the United States. Always supported and protected throughout by the words democracy and constitution.” The possibility of forming a junta as a space of alternative power that would allow for the construction of a different state model, guaranteeing real participation and greater control for the people, was ﬁrst heard in the Peoples’ Parliament—one of the sites of the rebellion. The goal was to ﬁnd a model that would channel more funds to social areas, reactivate productivity in communities, along with agricultural businesses, and set a new policy to lower the rate of exchange, giving control to the Central Bank. In addition, it was to modernize public institutions and capitalize publicsector companies, seek private funding for new projects, design a policy for employment through a productive reactivation, and establish transparent bi- and multilateral agreements. The problem with this, as Carlos Viteri Gualinga pointed out in the 6 February 2000 edition of El hoy, was that a Junta for Salvation composed of only three names was contrary to the
criteria for the composition of participatory and representative power understood by indigenous people and implied by the thesis of plurinationality. The other problem is that the implications of “being a state” had never been thought through very deeply within the indigenous movement. This is the case even for the proposals for a “plurinational state,” ﬁrst presented in the 1990 uprising and argued out during the Constituent Assembly in 1998.16 Rather, these proposals were oriented toward the possibility of building new decentralized, local political structures. Since 1993, the main focus of CONAIE’s political project has been local restructuring, that is, the development of indigenous-run governments at the community level as well as sectional and municipal governments that include indigenous mayors. This is why there was no plan or preparation for the rise to power that the circumstances required. The consequences for Vargas’s and CONAIE’s being part of a government junta are ones that, according to Ulcuango, were also not thoroughly thought through at the moment. As he notes, there was an immediate need to ﬁll the position abandoned by Mahuad and to assume the responsibility that the people, through the Popular Parliament, had bestowed on Vargas. This responsibility involved the opportunity to build something that does not exist in Ecuador: a real and participatory democracy and a new and different vision of power conceived of from the point of view of social movements. The problems resulted from the quick improvisation of a junta and from the insufﬁcient creation and consolidation of an alternative and viable popular government. Viteri Gualinga clearly expressed this in El hoy on 30 January 2000: “The construction of alternative power is something more than a mobilization. It requires a clear and forceful stating of the goals, as well as social agreements without exclusions. These aspects must be tackled with the seriousness and the vision of the sacred rituals of our people.” Various sources maintain that there was no clear strategy for assuming power before 21 January but that rather the strategy was built and improvised in the course of events that followed the taking over of Congress, ﬁrst in terms of the junta’s formation, and then in terms of the movement toward the presidential palace. The main protagonists were the indigenous people, along with some of the representatives of the social movements and, to a lesser extent, the young military men unsatisﬁed with high command, state policies, and corruption. In no way did the generals of high command join the rebellion. From the start, they had different interests.
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Also, unlike the uprising of July 1999, the Quito rebellion did not reach a high degree of social articulation. As discussed previously, the reasons for this are many; among them the hope generated by dollarization, the manipulation by the press, the decision to exclude party organizations such as the Patriotic Front and the MPD (which unites many labor unions and social movements), and the (apparently intentional) exclusion of many nonindigenous sectors by CONAIE. Enrique Ayala Mora referred to this ﬁnal factor, in a 28 January 2000 editorial column in El comercio, as “a kind of vanguard isolationist attitude, and an attempt to monopolize the representation of the country, without seeking wider social alliances that would strengthen a popular opposition.” In its organization, planning, and execution, this rebellion was not that of a collective group of citizens; it was that of the indigenous people.17 The clearly differentiated space between the rebellion and the coup begins to break down upon arrival at the presidential palace and with the initiation of negotiations. Here the revolt loses its rebellious and insurrectional character, along with its legitimacy and its credibility in the eyes of Ecuadorian society. From that point on, the military and the politicians become manipulative. According to the indigenous reading, the replacement of Gutiérrez by Mendoza and his resignation three hours later were central moments in the Right’s game, one in which the principal players were the same corrupt politicians and big businessmen, guided by the plans of transnational companies, the neoliberal project, and, in Ulcuango’s words, “the U.S. Empire.” Ultimately, this is the same reading that I presented above. But the rebellion remains distinct, symbolically and in practice, from the coup—the coup’s goal was to manipulate and crush the rebellion. But while the coup has ended, the rebellion is only just beginning. CONAIE maintains a clear stance regarding the ongoing nature of the rebellion, not only nationally but also when it comes to the shared reality of the marginalized sectors of Latin America:
The indigenous problem is not just a matter for ministries, ofﬁces, or government policies, it is a problem for the state, and this is why the indigenous people of Ecuador rebelled, and this is why they will keep rebelling. Other indigenous people, peasants, and poor people of Latin America are faced with the same circumstances we confront in Ecuador—racism, marginalization, exclusion, corruption, and neoliberal economic policies.
This is why we have to globalize struggles and actions, be witnesses, watching over the processes and supporting each other in the event of repression. (Ricardo Ulcuango, personal communication)
For the indigenous movement, the rebellion was an act of sovereignty that strengthened the pride and identity of the indigenous peoples. It also offered new strategies for political action.18 Nevertheless, the comments made by indigenous leaders in the months following the rebellion point to some of the lessons learned: the problem of assuming power, the importance of having concrete plans and strategies and of sharing these plans and strategies among the entire leadership, not just a few members, and the need for a wide-ranging base of support and of the participation of all social sectors. These lessons point to three central problems that up until now have constituted an obstacle to the consolidation of a wide-based and pluricultural opposition.
Racism, Democracy, and the Question of Interculturality: Final Thoughts
Despite recent constitutional reforms that deﬁne Ecuador as pluricultural and multiethnic, that commit the state to promoting interculturality, and that recognize the collective rights of indigenous and Afro-Ecuadorian peoples, Ecuador is, in practice, an extremely racist country. Many whitemestizos consider the indigenous people to be inferior, ignorant, and less than trustworthy. They are thought to be conﬁned to the rural sphere, limited to agricultural and manual work, and with a merely folkloric value. A growing participation by indigenous leaders in politics, including elected ofﬁce, has helped change perceptions, open up a space for the recognition of speciﬁc rights, and build a realization that many of the indigenous demands reﬂect the needs of much of society. Still, the majority of mestizos continue to speak with disdain about the “indigenous element” and to reject their own roots, identifying with white northern countries rather than with the the cultural hybridity and ethnic diversity of the nation. Moreover, racism is bred and ingrained in public and social institutions of society and in the press. Though not everyone articulates it consciously, it permeates daily life. In moments of social crisis, intercultural conﬂicts intensify, and racism practiced against dominated groups takes on a form of concrete and/or symbolic violence. Fear of the Other is an important element in these conﬂicts and in racism itself. This fear increases when this Other
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is part of an organized collectivity. Pablo Dávalos (2000) makes reference to this fear in a recent article about the indigenous movement: “Society expresses fear when faced with the emergence of a social and political actor that had been looked down upon and toward whom power had always been indifferent.” The clear emergence of this actor and the fear it provoked are obvious in the most recent events. By exhibiting a kind of collective power and control as they did in the rebellion, the indigenous peoples confronted the exclusion, marginalization, and racism that they face daily, as well as the realization of these attitudes in social and economic policies. And the fear brought about by the emergence of this power has become increasingly evident, especially in the discourse and pronouncements of members of the oligarchy and the Right, in which they try to marginalize, isolate, and exclude the indigenous peoples from “national questions” and blame them for the country’s lack of stability. The attempt on the lives of Vargas, Ulcuango, and Quispe in February shows the depth of ethnic and political terror. In response to the events of 21 January, the Right made a series of statements on TV and in the press that contributed to an image of the indigenous peoples as unruly and deceitful. “Thieves of democracy,” they were called; disrespectful toward their “bosses” and toward the political institutions and the constitution. “How could an indio possibly govern us?” asked one of the politicians. They must be inﬂuenced by foreigners and by members of the radical Left, said another politician, because they would not be able to plan these kinds of strategies or to assume power on their own. Very few people, however, complained that way about General Mendoza and Colonel Gutiérrez. Patent and obvious racism is here a weapon, disdain intended to awaken latent attitudes and feelings, provoke ethnic separation, and legitimize existing power relations. Despite the fact that more than 70 percent of Ecuadorians were in favor of the indigenous peoples’ occupation of the Congress, very few were at ease with Antonio Vargas’s presence in the triumvirate. Even if the arguments against Vargas did not have a racist tone, the main referent projected by the media was that of a politicized indio; they insisted on the ethnic, radical, and fearful referent associated with CONAIE and the indigenous movement. It is these kinds of attitudes, combined with institutionalized racism, that have “fenced in” the indigenous movement, giving it little option but to practice, at times, an exclusionary ethnocentrism.
Ever since the introduction of proposals for a plurinational state in the 1990s and since the enshrining of collective rights in the 1998 constitution, a process of recuperation of ancestral identities has been initiated within the framework of pueblos and nacionalidades, “peoples and nationalities.” The goal is to make clear the plurinational, and not just pluricultural, character of Ecuadorian society. In this process, CODENPE (the Council of Development of the Nationalities and Peoples of Ecuador, a state institution formed in 1998, associated with the president’s ofﬁce and governed by the indigenous nationalities themselves) and some factions within CONAIE have taken separatist and exclusionary positions with regard to nonindigenous sectors and organizations that group indigenous people, peasants, and Afro-Ecuadorians. These ethnic-identity and political processes have also contributed to a distancing from Pachakutik, a mainly indigenous political movement with a wide-ranging and diverse cultural base. While there was hope in the months immediately preceding the rebellion that the bonds between CONAIE and other mainly indigenous organizations, including the Ecuadorian Federation of Evangelical Indigenous People (FEINE)19 and the National Federation of Campesinos, Indigenous People, and Blacks (FENOCIN), could be recuperated and strengthened, the divisions have recently deepened, in part because CONAIE’s leadership continues to act without consultating other national, regional, and local organizations.20 Ethnocentrism did play a decisive role in the rebellion. CONAIE’s decision not to join other sectors’ strikes and to organize its own strategies, resulting in “the occupation of Quito,” incited and marked a division from the start. While some social movements’ representatives did participate in the mobilizations, the movements themselves, the labor unions, and other sectors affected by government policies and corruption did not participate. In great part, this was because CONAIE created a “vanguard isolationist attitude,” which in the long run weakened the possibilities of really building spaces and sites for alternative power—possibilities that did exist because of the depth of the crisis and the mobilizing strength of the indigenous people. By not contributing to the formation of a wide-ranging, popular opposition, strategically and concretely representative, CONAIE and the indigenous movement missed their opportunity to accomplish more than just the replacement of the old president by a new, politically similar one. But it is also important to analyze how the media took advantage of the mainly indigenous character of the uprising to feed speciﬁc antiindigenous attitudes. For example, even if the level of violence was very low, the media focused repeatedly on isolated incidents of “indigenous violence”
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perpetrated on white-mestizos—for example, an indigenous person pulling on a white-mestizo man’s tie and making him dance—as if this were “typical behavior.” Ethnic, social, and political divisions in Ecuadorian society, together with the institutional and personal racism of dominant sectors of society, still limit the possibility of alliances and changes leading to the construction of a real, representative, participative, just, and plural democracy, not the democracy of partisan hegemony. As Alain Touraine (1998, 90) notes,
Democracy is no longer the goal for those who want to free themselves, but it also cannot be reduced to respecting the rules of the political game. It is a live force of construction of a world as vast and as differentiated as can be, a world that is able to conjugate past and present times, afﬁnities and differences, above all, a world that is able to re-create the space and the political mediations that can allow us to stop the breaking up of a world shaken by the whirl of capital and images, which makes those who feel like losers in the global market become entrenched within obsessive and aggressive identities.
In Ecuador, the problem of interculturality is one of the greatest challenges to building this kind of democracy. If something has been learned from the recent political irruption, it is precisely this: the need for dialogue, communication, and understanding among all the sectors of opposition to the neoliberal project, to the concentrationist model, to ingrained corruption, to injustice and inequality; a dialogue that helps strengthen popular opposition and the formation of feasible, sustainable alternatives representative of the social and cultural diversity that is Ecuador.21 Only then can we lay the foundations for a true democracy.
Translated by Isis Sadek
This essay is based on newspaper articles, editorial columns, and investigative reports that appeared from mid-January to June 2000 in Ecuador’s El hoy and El comercio. It is also based on interviews and informal discussions with some of
the indigenous leaders and individuals involved in the events. I am thankful to Enrique Ayala Mora, Roque Espinosa, Robert Andolina, Eulalia Flor, and Juan Aulestia for their comments on earlier drafts of this article. 1. The election of Monsignor Alberto Luna Tobar as president of the Popular Parliament of Quito and the participation and leadership of progressive priests in the provincial and local parliaments are signiﬁcant elements in that they reﬂect the resurgence of divisions between religious sectors that identify with the popular struggles and those that identify with the conservative ecclesiastical hierarchy. 2. The parliaments are part of a recent tradition of struggle that includes the Assemblies of the People in February 1997, the Peoples’ Constituent Assembly in October 1997 (an alternative space to the Constituent Assembly for constitutional reform), as well as the failed experiment of the People’s Congress in 1999 (Unda and Barrera 2000). 3. The two most extreme cases in terms of participation were those of Cuenca, where there was a considerable presence of social and popular sectors, and Guayaquil, where participation was limited by the exclusion of major unions, such as the UNE (National Union of Educators) and the FUT (Uniﬁed Federation of Workers), as well as the exclusion of political organizations such as the MPD. 4. Despite promises that dollarization would virtually end inﬂation, in June 2000 inﬂation on the dollar was reported to be at over 100 percent. The social impact of this ﬁgure is made clear when considered in relation to salaries and basic food needs. The minimum monthly wage in May for a family of 5 with 1.6 persons employed was $116. (For individuals working in the informal economy, this amount is calculated to be signiﬁcantly lower.) The minimum monthly food cost for this same family was calculated in May to be $260; for families in extreme poverty the minimum monthly food cost was $112. 5. Francisco Huerta, an ally of the social movements, was also a candidate for Solórzano’s position. The fact that Huerta was named minister of government by Gustavo Noboa after he assumed the presidency raises interesting questions about Huerta himself and about the interests and strategies of the new government. Due to a dispute over the dialogues between the indigenous movement and the Noboa government, Huerta resigned his post in late April. 6. There is no question that there was manipulation by the media in airing only the telephone calls of those who spoke against the uprising. However, it is important to know why many of the commanders who started out supporting the colonels’ actions ended up speaking against them. In an agreement established by Gutiérrez, Colonel Fausto Cobo was to assume the head of the joint high command. This placed him in a position superior to that of all the
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brigade chiefs, ignoring the traditional hierarchy based on rank and seniority. For the brigade commanders, the idea that a lower ranking ofﬁcer would be over them was enough to prompt immediate opposition. 7. The majority of Ecuadorians, unlike Congress, did not wish for the perpetrators of the “coup” to be punished. 8. An autogolpe is a coup organized by the government itself to allow it to take extra powers. Trans. 9. The OPIP march managed to bring about the legal recognition and the collective titling of twelve million hectares of land. 10. The election in May of one of these former generals, Paco Moncayo, as mayor of Quito breaks this mold even further. 11. Unlike in other countries, violence and repression have been minimal in Ecuador. There are, however, reasons to believe that this situation may change, given the empowerment of the Right following the recent coup. Evidence of this is the attempt on the lives of three indigenous leaders—Antonio Vargas, Ricardo Ulcuango, and Salvador Quishpe—on 9 February by individuals in two unmarked cars. 12. The border wars between Ecuador and Peru since 1941 have served an important role in helping to organize and strengthen an Ecuadorian national identity, uniting Ecuadorians against Peruvian expansionism and the Peruvian “other.” For the military, these wars have been a source not only of subsistence but also of civil support of the armed forces, patriotism, and nationalism. President Mahuad’s signing of peace accords with Peru broke this legacy of nationalistic uniﬁcation and struggle and, according to many military leaders and politicians, made evident to the world a weakened nation. 13. In the two months following the so-called coup, seventeen colonels were jailed, more than two hundred younger ofﬁcers put under investigation, and a large part of Quito’s military school shipped to the Amazonia. Arrest warrants were also issued for many leaders and collaborators although none was taken in. In public opinion polls, 70 percent of society was against trying the colonels; CONAIE, the Coordinator of Social Movements, and many other social organizations called for amnesty. The government’s position was initially ﬁrm in opposing amnesty. For example, in a February march on behalf of the colonels’ wives, children, and other supporters, police forces carried out a strong repression, throwing tear gas bombs and asphyxiating many children. However, with increasing evidence that the holding of the colonels was causing further division within the military and serving as a point of contention with social movements and civil society, the government changed its position, also calling for amnesty. This was ﬁnally granted by Congress on 31 May.
Since then, all of the colonels directly involved have resigned their posts and left the military. Yet the tension within the military still continues: in June the armed forces arrested 76 ofﬁcials from the War Academy and sanctioned another 204 soldiers for their participation in the events of 21 January. 14. As president of AIMA, Peña Durini spoke against protective legislation to save the nation’s forests, arguing that lumbering must instead be seen from an economic perspective. With the power he now has as a minister, this position will most likely become ofﬁcial. 15. The regional distinctions in Ecuador between the coastal city of Guayaquil and the highland city of Quito have historically functioned as points of tension and conﬂict within the political process and governance structure. Demands for autonomy by the oligarchy of the coast reached a peak in January, the same weekend as the so-called coup, when a referendum election showed the great majority of residents of the province of Guayas calling for autonomy from Quito. The fact that a majority of the nation’s economic interest is based on the coast, that Noboa is from Guayaquil, and that a majority of his appointments represent the coastal elite is no coincidence. 16. The indigenous movement’s proposal for a “plurinational state” argues for a democratic, decentralized, pragmatic, and redistributive model that recognizes and respects the cultural pluralism of the country, including the presence and rights of diverse nacionalidades and pueblos, promotes solidarity and human development in harmony with the environment, and affords a structure of governance based on autonomy, participation, sustainability, equity, and diversity. 17. Following the occupation of Congress, a number of communiqués were reportedly received from neighborhood groups, organizations, and labor unions, including the transportation union, in which they all joined the rebellion. However, these communiqués were later proven to be false. From this we can suppose that some individual or group wanted to create an impression of sufﬁcient wide-ranging support for the overthrow of Mahuad and for the occupation of the presidency. 18. In a recent article, Charles Hale (1997) similarly refers to an emergent tendency in Latin America, particularly exempliﬁed in Chiapas, of a “new model for doing politics.” 19. FEINE maintains that it now represents 60 percent of the indigenous population in the country. In contrast to its primarily religious stance of the past, FEINE has recently assumed a more visible role in the political arena, arguing for a greater political participation of evangelical indigenous people, demanding dialogues with the Noboa government, and entering into actions against
Walsh . The Ecuadorian Political Irruption
government policy, including the government’s reratiﬁcation of the executive secretary of CODENPE. 20. While there are a number of examples that point to this division, two are particularly clear. One was the taking over by FEINE and FENOCIN in April 2000 of CODENPE, the state institution for indigenous development controlled principally by elements allied with CONAIE. FEINE and FENOCIN called for a restructuring of the institution and the replacement of its executive secretary. The second example was the national strike on 15 and 16 June 2000 in opposition to economic policies and the continuously worsening crisis. While FEINE and FENOCIN joined forces in the strike with other social and labor movement sectors, CONAIE decided not to participate. This decision not only had a great effect on the force of the strike, which because of CONAIE’s lack of adherence was barely felt, but more importantly, made evident CONAIE’s desire to appear as the central actor of the opposition and the only actor with negotiating power in relation to the government. In this latter regard, according to FENOCIN, CONAIE made an agreement with the government in the days preceding the strike to not participate if the government agreed to give CONAIE total control of CODENPE and PRODEPINE, its technical arm ﬁnanced by the World Bank and FIDA and with a more than $50 million budget. Recent actions to oust the director of PRODEPINE and restructure the organization suggest that this agreement did occur. 21. The rebellion not only opened a new space to think about proposals regarding the creation of truly democratic structures but also helped stimulate the vote for change in the May local elections, transforming the political scene and conﬁrming the strategic importance of the indigenous and social movements. With the election of over thirty indigenous mayors, ﬁve indigenous provincial prefectures (22 percent of the national total), 60 percent of the seats on parochial juntas, and a large number of indigenous town councillors, the Pachacutik political movement demonstrated its support and force and the widespread desire among civil society for political and social change.
Dávalos, Pablo. 2000. “Las transformaciones políticas del movimiento indígena ecuatoriana.” Boletín ICCI-RIMAI, 11 February. Hale, Charles. 1997. “Cultural Politics of Identity in Latin America.” Annual Review of Anthropology 26: 567–90.
Touraine, Alain. 1998. Igualdad y diversidad: Las nuevas tareas de la democracia. Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura Económica. Unda, Mario, and Augusto Barrera. 2000. “Elementos inicials para un balance del levantamiento del 21 de enero.” Boletín ICCI-RIMAI, 11 February.