Ecuador’s social movements push back against Correa’s neoliberalism

Workers seek to put pressure on Correa's government to ensure labor rights are protected in the face of neoliberal austerity measures. (WNV/Elizabeth Farinango)

Workers march to put pressure on Correa’s government to ensure labor rights are protected in the face of neoliberal austerity measures. (WNV/Elizabeth Farinango)

“Out Correa, out!” was the resounding chant of indignation that flared up the streets across Ecuador on March 17 to demand an end to what many have come to see as a deceptive authoritarian government personified by President Rafael Correa.

The protest, called for by the Workers Unitary Front and the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador, or CONAIE, united feminists, students, workers, environmentalists and indigenous groups in the first nationwide coordinated demonstration against Correa since last summer.

But unlike last year, the crowds were smaller and the protest short and peaceful. It had failed to capture the kind of momentum from last June when the upper echelons of Ecuadorian society galvanized the streets to protest against a tax inheritance law that threatened to redistribute their wealth. The reform was a strategic opportunity for the wealthy to tap into the pent up anger and frustration of the people at large, who have been hit hardest by Ecuador’s current economic crisis.

Following a summer of protest, the tax reform was halted and Correa was forced to announce he wouldn’t run in the 2017 general election, one of the main demands from the coalition formed between the business class, workers and indigenous groups.

A much more tame protest last week was proof Ecuador’s rich and powerful had no interest in showing up for the popular classes when it’s not to their benefit.

After all, labor unions and indigenous groups coordinated the national march to push back against a set of neoliberal reforms that in fact benefit the country’s elites.

One major reform at the heart of protest is flexibility of labor, a newly passed law set to empower employers to tailor contracts according to their needs, including reducing and increasing working hours and pay as they see fit.

Marching through Quito’s colonial city center with a cohort of his union that energized the crowds with age-old chants like “Hasta la victoria siempre,” Luis Mera, a union worker, said that the new labor reforms will embolden businesses to do as they please and make it harder for workers like himself, who are paid minimum wage, to subsist.

“We cannot deny that there have been improvements under the government, but now it’s abusing power,” Mera said. “This [economic crisis] is not affecting the upper classes but the lower ones; those who are paying for all this are us, the workers. What we want to tell [the government] here is that those that should pay for the crisis are the multinationals, those with better positions [in society].”

For the union worker, the marches and protests are an important way to put pressure on the government to listen to the people and defend their hard-earned rights, but not necessarily to get rid of President Correa himself.

Divisions over Correa’s ouster shouldn’t be too surprising since the president largely earned his political popularity, which stands at 58 percent according to the latest opinion polls, through expansive social programs. Since Correa took power in 2007, he raised the minimum wage from $170 to $240 a month, created cash bonus transfers for those living in extreme poverty, and opened up subsidies for electricity, gasoline and natural gas. Thanks in large part to these social benefits and the oil boom, the poverty rate in the country dropped from 38 percent in 2006 to 25 percent in 2014.

These are major accomplishments for the country’s social movements who put the left-wing academic-turned-politician in power. But according to critics these economic gains were strictly dependent on the country’s oil boom and forced people to trade off their civil and political freedoms.

Correa’s lavish social expenditure, which increased to 9.4 percent of GDP in 2014 from 5.3 percent in 2006, was directly fueled by pumping oil and extracting minerals from one of the world’s most bio-diverse regions and selling them on the global market to the highest bidder.

A broad coalition marched against President Rafael Correa in Quito's colonial city center on March 17. (WNV/Elizabeth Farinango)

A broad coalition marched against President Rafael Correa in Quito’s colonial city center on March 17. (WNV/Elizabeth Farinango)

With the huge drop in oil prices since late 2014, which accounts for 53 percent of the country’s exports, Ecuador has now entered into an economic crisis that threatens these very social programs. The political turmoil and the protests on the streets then are only the beginning of boiling discontent among the people.

Labor reforms, the Ecuador-EU free trade agreement, and the recently passed Water and Land Law — which indigenous groups say denies access to communal water and violates the rights of small farmers to the benefit of agribusiness — are some of the ways Correa is embracing neoliberalism to handle the crisis.

Social movements — including indigenous, environmental, workers, student and feminist groups — have been taking to the streets to push back against this neoliberal tide, but their power has been severely curtailed under Correa.

In the name of “development” and nation-state building, differences across race, ethnicity and gender were erased and, as such, the spheres of political influence and autonomy that feminists, indigenous and Afro-Ecuadorians had won over the years before Correa were eradicated.

The National Council of Women, the Development Council of Nations and Peoples of Ecuador and the Council for Afro-Ecuadorian Development — considered major gains for social movements at the time — were all abolished under Correa to allegedly promote national interests, rather than those of specific groups.

This makes Rafael Correa distinct from his fellow Bolivarian leaders Evo Morales in Bolivia and the late Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, according to Ecuadorian academic and critic Carlos de la Torre.

“Unlike the Morales government that is based on a network of social organizations,” de la Torre writes, “the Correa regime has followed the pattern of populist mobilization from a position of power and has sought to co-opt and deradicalize social movements.” And unlike Venezuela, which “has experimented with a number of institutions of participatory democracy,” the Correa government has not created a single space for direct democracy, he added.

It’s through this logic of state expansion, mass control and the erasure of difference that one can understand the systemic assault taking place, most harshly, on indigenous communities and their lands.

“These guys with a political agenda, they are not thinking about development or about fighting against poverty,” Ecuador’s secretary of hydrocarbons, Andrés Donoso Fabara, told the Guardian in 2013, when indigenous leaders protested the government’s decision to sell one-third of the Amazon rainforest to Chinese oil and mining companies. “We are entitled by law, if we wanted, to go in by force and do some activities even if they are against them. But that’s not our policy.”

Donoso’s words reveal much about the disregard and utter contempt Correa’s “citizen revolution” has for those who do not kneel down to its state capitalist model, which is increasingly stripping people of their autonomy in the name of development and national unity.

In 2014, José Isidro Tendetza Antún, a leader of the Shuar people in the Amazon province of Zamora Chinchipe, became one of the numerous activists that have been either forcibly disappeared or outright assassinated for standing up against the Correista logic of “fighting poverty.” Tendetza was a prominent activist against the Mirador mine, an opencast pit for gold and copper operated by Chinese firms that would destroy 450,000 acres of forest.

“We now have over 700 people that are being politically persecuted, prosecuted, incarcerated, beaten — including mothers and children,” CONAIE’s president Jorge Herrera said. “This is a repressive, prepotent government with whom it has been impossible to reach consensus. This is a serious problem, not only for the indigenous people.”

In response to the intense criminalization of dissent, in which Correa uses the law as a weapon of war, CONAIE recently initiated an online campaign called #ResistirEsMiDerecho, or “to resist is my right.”

The campaign sheds light on the ongoing state repression against people for protesting or resisting the government, which led to well over a 100 people being incarcerated during last summer’s demonstrations alone.

While the power that social movements once had before Correa might have indeed diminished, and state repression is on the rise, community leaders and social activists appear confident that they can reclaim their power.

“Unlike other Latin American countries, social movements in Ecuador have always been calling and organizing for change,” said Carlos, a protester on March 17. “It’s not the right as you see in other Latin American countries, it’s organized social movements that generate mobilization. This is why it will be very hard for the right to take advantage of this situation. We know why we are fighting, where we are going, and we have no electoral expectations. This is a social, popular struggle for a change in the system.”

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